How Story is Destroying Us (and How to Write Back)

Sam Jaeger, currently starring in The Handmaid’s Tale, on how story has become our king, equally capable of devastating harm or salvation.

“Storytelling is humanity’s essential poison, as necessary for our survival as oxygen and similarly destructive.”
– Jonathan Gottschall, The Paradox of Story

“That is it, I’ve had it – I’m leaving,” she declared, snatching the keys to the station wagon and marching toward the door. I would learn over time this was what my mother did whenever the stress of raising four (oftentimes thankless) children became too much. A long drive out in the country was her way of catching a break, of claiming a few moments’ peace as her own.

But at age six, those words struck me bare-knuckled; this was the end of life with Mom in it. She was going to start the car, pull out from the gravel drive and never look back.

I remember hearing the station wagon rev. I remember pushing the screen door wide and bursting off the front porch into the bleak, frigid dark. I planted a foot on the front bumper, grabbed the hood and pulled myself onto it. I can still see my mother through the windshield looking back at me, her youngest, splayed helplessly across the front of our family car, pleading to her through tears. I remember her shoulders collapsing, her eyes shutting, and the engine coughing to a stop. My mother got out of the car, scooped me off the hood and shouldered me back into the house, her breakout thwarted.

A young Sam Jaeger with his mother and one of his sisters. (Photo courtesy Sam Jaeger.)

That was the first time I felt the weight of family, the responsibility I had, even at such a young age. I was the lynchpin, keeping mom from peeling off into every bleak night, holding this fragile family together.

At least, that’s the story as I remember it, which is most certainly not what happened. More likely, fragments of memory and my own moral leanings cobbled together a tale that my six-year-old mind could comprehend: Mom was leaving, I stopped her, I kept Mom from leaving us. It was not the truth, but something far more powerful.

Yours is a singular story, too. You arrived at this moment, reading this sentence on a screen, having absorbed countless stories filtered first through a unique life experience, then through a myriad of algorithms that have catered, ever more acutely, to your preferences. Some of these stories merely passed the time, others refined your view of human existence.

A young Sam Jaeger on photo day. (Photo courtesy Sam Jaeger.)

Storytelling is the method by which we make order from the chaos, from the insurmountable awe of living on a tiny blue planet in a yawning cosmos. There have never been more stories available, more ways to tell them, more ways to find them. And in a time when both science and news sources are shrugged off, story has become our mercenary king, equally capable of devastating harm or salvation.

So how can we build stories that deepen our connections, that stop the continental drift of humanity?

If you’re anything like my sister, who’s renowned for tearing up at TV commercials, you understand story’s visceral, manipulative power. The greatest stories satiate our yearning for connection, compassion and fairness, the highest of human aims.

But stories also tap into our fears. We are hardwired to look for danger, and quick to discern a clear evil. Sauron, Voldemort and Darth Vader all ignite our suspicion of “other.” In their three film franchises, each one is introduced without nuance: flatly cruel, unknowable, all-powerful. We understand viscerally that the hero must defeat them or lose everything. This conflict – us versus them – is central to the dramatic arts. But in the context of modern life, this separation does us little good.

“But stories also tap into our fears. We are hardwired to look for danger, and quick to discern a clear evil.” (Photo courtesy Sam Jaeger.)

While we readily identify with those who look and think like us, I believe the greatest value of story is its ability to transport us into lives that expand our understanding of the human struggle. The novel, for example, invites us in to hear the thoughts of a woman forced to live as a concubine under a fundamentalist regime (The Handmaid’s Tale) or the musings of a gentle knight as he travels Spain with his servant (Don Quixote). These are seminal works, known for their vividly painted worlds and the challenging themes underscoring them. And due to the nature of the medium, those themes could be absorbed and debated. It was a deliberate, logical procession: moral questions prompted authors to write books, their work opened readers to deep philosophical challenges, those challenges were shared throughout society, society lurched toward a more fully realized, empathic identity. Up until this century, that was how stories were absorbed.

But with social media’s ability to nudge us toward those warm and tidy feelings of righteousness, the path to a loving and just world seems more precarious. Every kernel of information gets put through the conservative and liberal woodchippers, their spray unavoidable. And though most of us know story is doing a number on us, we can’t resist its pull. The question becomes: If all knowledge is curated to each of us in a way that corroborates narrow beliefs, can “the arc of the moral universe” still bend towards justice, as Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned?

I believe the answer lies in our potential for introspection and in that confounding, grating, unending pursuit of common ground. If we want to improve the quality of life for all, a good place to start would be to listen to those whose opinions we fear. Try to understand their concerns without judgment. (This is a maddeningly difficult thing to do, like most things in life worth the doing.)

Sam Jaeger and Yvonne Strahovski in The Handmaid’s Tale. (Photo courtesy Hulu.)

Rather than feed people stories that show their awakening, the error of their ignorant ways, we could offer them stories that acknowledge where they are. When a person is seen, they feel less threatened and more able to accept a deeper, wider understanding of humanity. This is not weakness, this is not validating narrow viewpoints. It is having the courage to meet those whose values we fear. To lean in and listen to their story, the one they’ve been building since childhood, and to absorb it, even for a moment, as our own.

If we can listen in that way, it can’t help but influence the stories we share. Because we are, each of us, far too complex for simple categorization. We need stories that don’t stink of agenda, but piercingly honest ones that show us in the full spectrum of our nature: our heroes have faults, our enemies have virtues, we do good, we do harm, we feel united, we feel alone, we strive to do better. If we can bring these stories forward, as an offering to those we once feared, I have to believe it will be reciprocated.

I hear my two youngest sons at play in the backyard now, creating new adventures full of dire conflicts and narrow escapes. They often disagree on the way the action should unfold. But over the course of several hundred fights, where one has watched the other storm off in frustration, leaving him to play alone in the growing twilight, they have each learned to listen. From our breakfast table, I watch them navigate the newest grievance. The voices rise and sharpen, there’s a moment of silence, an imperceptible acknowledgment, and then the story hums back to life. And as it does, my two sons unconsciously turn from each other. No longer facing off, but out, embracing the call to adventure, imagining the collective story as it flickers and expands for them across the backyard.

Sam Jaeger is an actor, writer and director, best known for playing Mark Tuello in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Joel Graham on NBC’s Parenthood. Among Sam’s numerous film and television credits as an actor are American Sniper, Inherent Vice, Lucky Number Slevin, Catch and Release, Eli Stone and Girl’s Club. He made his feature debut as writer-director in 2011 with the acclaimed indie romantic comedy Take Me Home, in which he starred opposite his wife, Amber Jaeger.