Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Pact: A Love Story

Jodi Picoult's The Pact, like her other novels, takes an interesting and often heart wrenching look at a controversial issue--in the case of this particular novel, the topic: teen suicide. Picoult developed the idea for this book after working as a teacher with a suicidal student, and later having a frank discussion with a teenage babysitter about what it was like to be an adolescent. (An interesting segment about this can be read here.)

As the novel begins, the parents of Chris Harte and Emily Gold are awakened in the middle of the night and called to the hospital. Upon their arrival, Emily is dead from a gunshot wound. Chris suffered injuries from hitting his head after fainting, but was still alive. The parents of each child at first assumed that they must have been in a bad neighborhood; tragedy could be visible from the outside, but the idea of it being self-inflicted was impossible for them to confront.

Chris initially suggested that the teens had a suicide pact. Emily took her life, but Chris fainted before he was able. Unfortunately, as the story reveals, things were not that simple. Emily had been suicidal for sometime. Beneath her perfectly normal facade was a great deal of pain and confusion. Chris and Emily had known each other from the time they were born. It was only natural that they would end up together, and so they did. But their relationship was complicated by Emily's sexual abuse in a McDonald's, leaving her scarred and unable to deal with Chris's touch. She had a great deal of trouble facing sex, let alone with somebody who was like a brother to her. Sure, they loved each other, but in a way that at times felt incestuous even if they were not related by blood. When Emily became pregnant with Chris's child, she was pushed over the edge, abandoning all hope for the future.

Suicide for Emily, like for so many other teens, was a way to escape from what appeared to be an insurmountable problem. People often debate whether suicide is selfish or selfless, cowardly or brave. I think that the circumstances have a lot to do with it, but Chris certainly comes to see Emily's suicide as a selfish act. She couldn't bring herself to pull the trigger of a gun. Chris couldn't allow her to live when she feared life more than death. She convinced him to pull the trigger, her hands on top of his, her words guiding him to end her life if he really loved her. Yet, with Emily dead and unable to answer for herself, Chris was left behind as a murder suspect.

Emily's suicide demonstrates for most involved that one does not always show all the signs of depression. Certainly Chris knew and could have done something, but everyone else was very much in the dark. Her fairly rapid demise following the results of her pregnancy test also point out another important element of suicide: tunnel vision. When somebody is suicidal and forced to sit down and look at all of their options and really carefully weigh them out, death is usually not at the top of the list. But Emily did not do that. She saw a huge problem. She was pregnant, she knew Chris would marry her if he found out, and she wasn't sure she could face the rest of her life feeling dirty while married to somebody who felt like a brother to her. Even as Chris and Emily stood at the site of her death, discussing what Chris should do afterwards, Emily admitted that she had only considered her problems and the act of killing herself, not what death would be like, or what life would be like for others after she was gone. I firmly believe that this is something that could have been worked out in therapy; but Emily did not consider any alternatives to death.

No matter how Chris's trial worked out, I don't think one could say this story is anything but a tragedy. (Chris got very lucky, though, and was given a verdict of not guilty as there was some reasonable doubt. I don't believe, though, that in a real trial he would have gotten off that easily.) These teens were enmeshed for their entire lives, in love in a way that most adults cannot even comprehend. And in the end, one is undeniably dead, and the other forced to go on without her, and without ever understanding the reasons behind her despair.

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