Here’s a true fact:
- On November 6, 1963, when she was 18, Laura Bush ran a stop sign in Midland, Texas and crashed into a Chevy, killing the 17-year-old driver, Mike Douglas, who happened to be a friend of hers from school. She lost her faith in God and was, for years afterward, racked with guilt.
- Ashton Kutcher has a twin brother, Michael, who was born with cerebral palsy and who as a child needed a heart transplant. When Ashton was 13, he told his parents that he was considering jumping off the balcony of the hospital, so that Michael could have his heart.
I don’t know how it is for you, but learning things like this does something to me — something biochemical, almost. Whatever it is that ordinarily sits in my mind’s broadcast booth, forming assumptions, passing along judgments, providing a stream of mostly self-protective and uninformed chatter, is momentarily struck dumb.
My view of the world — and of the billions of sentient, suffering humans in it — is, just by the introduction of a sympathetic fact about a stranger, ever-so-slightly altered.
So I’ve started deliberately collecting facts like these, and I’ve found myself happily overwhelmed. People I’ve villainized; people whose inner lives I’ve never given a thought; politicians; athletes; historical figures — they all, it turns out, have at least one thing in their lives that makes me see them as if for the first time.
“If we could read the secret history of our enemies,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “we should see sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
I’ve spent these past few weeks bathing in secret histories — of enemies, allies, and everybody in between.
So, in that spirit, I’m launching a new endeavor. A couple of times each week I’m going to post one sympathetic fact about one public figure.
My goal isn’t to earn these people a public reprieve, or a place in your heart; I’ve included in my trawl people far beyond the redemptive reach of a single story.
My hope is just that whatever the quieting/complicating thing that happens in me when I learn one of these facts, some version of it will happen in you too.
Fact by fact, drop by drop, the public water supply of our minds might get the tiniest bit more clear.
Ben Dolnick is the author of three novels: Zoology, You Know Who You Are, and At the Bottom of Everything. His writing has appeared in the New York Times and on NPR. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
Visit Ben Dolnick’s Website.