In my new novel, The Wrong Side of Night, the main character’s brother returns from the dead. Hale Austin was listed as one of the thousands on 9/11 whose remains were never found. When he returns, he is recognized and the story is handed over to the media, specifically TMZ at first. As the press descends on him, he accepts every interview request, talking too much and too freely, ignoring the warnings not to until two detectives show up to bring him in for “questioning.” 

Any fiction writer will tell you that the characters in an unfolding novel plow ahead willfully, letting you the author know where they want to go and when. Quite often they surprise you. I was fascinated by Hale’s almost desperate desire to be understood, absolved in the bright glare of the media. As if it was his own confessional and every interviewer was a priest.

I had the same thought about Liam Neeson and his confession about deliberately cruising the streets of black neighborhoods, wanting to beat up a black man — any black man — because a friend of his had just been raped by a black man. This was forty years ago, but if you watch and listen to him, it might as well have been forty days ago. His emotions are still that raw. What I find interesting is that we would never have known about this if he hadn’t volunteered it in a press interview to promote his new film. Fortunately, he never did beat up a black man; fortunately, he sought counsel and help for his rage. So what was the point of publicizing something that we would never have known about and is probably none of our business, since nothing actually happened? All I can come up with is, like my character in The Wrong Side of Night, Liam Neeson was asking for understanding and absolution under the brightest spotlight around — the media. It’s as if only a public bloodletting will quiet the ghosts and quell the guilt. The problem is, it never works out like that.

We are all trailed by ghosts from our past — things we thought of doing, or maybe did do, actions we now regret and hopefully learned from. Unless a crime was committed, or some public reckoning is needed, guilt is usually a conversation we have with ourselves, often in the dead of night when memories return to haunt us. Playing out those guilts in public is a way of asking for forgiveness from people who aren’t particularly interested in forgiving you. You’re just a news story.

In Liam Neeson’s case, it is true that we need to have more conversations about racism, which is alive and well in our country and which has been emboldened by the Trump administration. But I don’t think that was what drove Liam Neeson’s confession. We live in a time when there is very little privacy. The public has become accustomed to ripping open the lives of famous people and foraging around for whatever seems newsworthy. A healthy reaction might be to say, You don’t get to see every truth about my life; I will open some doors and keep others closed.

No one has an obligation to lay themselves bare in front of the whole world. And if you feel tempted to, you might want to talk to someone about that desire because something in there needs to be dealt with. The only obligation we have is to learn from our mistakes and show up in the world as a wiser, more responsible person than we were decades ago. People don’t necessarily have to know the details of how you got there.



  1. Ken W. Brown says:

    Thank you.

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