The Lives of Others

Yes, I know it is a movie, and a very good one, and relevant to this conversation. Before I get to that, however, let me go back a bit. When I was a Senior in high school, I took all of the available AP classes. Liz and I were the only two people, however, who elected to pursue AP Chemistry. The coursework was grueling, and we turned it into an independent study midway through the semester. Before that, however, we spent about six weeks learning the complex calculations of chemical reactions…and doing four hours of Chemistry homework on Saturdays, at Starbucks.

One such Saturday, we were each quietly performing our own calculations, when Liz raised her eyes to me and said, “Are you listening to those women?”  In fact, I was.  At the next table, a woman was discussing the particulars of her divorce with what seemed to be her lawyer, or another such dispassionate compatriot. We listened to their entire conversation.

It was a small incident, of no more than passing note at the time. But I have hearkened back to it as I have gotten older, as I have accumulated other such incidents and pieced together a trend in myself. I watch other people. And I listen to them. I have called it “compulsive eavesdropping”, this tendency I have to find words in the whispers and low conversations of other people. I do not generally hear well, so often these conversations present themselves as merely a puzzle. By the time I assign a picture to the pieces, I am interested to see how the image will turn out.

Beyond that, however, I do find other people fascinating. When I worked at JavaVino, I would make up backstories for my customers. Even the outfit a person is wearing can pique my curiosity. I want to hear their thoughts, their histories, their opinions. I want to write them down, the substances of these strangers. So I listen. Given the opportunity, I ask. I watch other people and long to know their lives.

Fairly soon, you will see Emily Blunt headlining the forthcoming adaptation of The Girl on the Train, based on the novel, one which we read in book club a few months back. It is about a woman whose life is in shambles, who develops a peculiar fascination with a couple she sees every day while on a commuter train in England–a couple that inhabits the house in which she used to live. She also develops a story for this couple, assigns to them personalities, feelings, and decisions, based solely on routine glimpses of them.

When you see the film (which I hope you will, as it is an excellent cast and sound source material), I hope you will not so easily arrive at the same conclusion as my book club. Everyone reading the book considered it manifest that I was the main character, Rachel, an unemployed, alcoholic slob of a woman primarily controlled by her feelings. Although some points were disputed, I found that I did identify strongly with Rachel, especially with her attachment to the strangers she witnessed and to whom she ascribed whole lives.

When I was younger, I always used to stare at people I passed on the street. I was, of course, told that it was rude to do so. I have decided that this is a reasonable policy, as a stranger can never know why you are staring, and can too easily derive judgement where none is intended. But I would caution against judging those who are doing the staring. Some people just want to watch others as they go by.

Thankfully, I have an outlet for this tendency in my role as storyteller. I like listening to the stories of others, telling them, and writing them down (with permission). All of these people I have observed become ideas and characters and stories in my head, parts of the human experience from which I draw to create. And I can invest in those stories in a way I never could with all of the strangers who interest me.

I promised I would come back to The Lives of Others. For those who have not seen it, it is a movie about the Stasi, specifically, about an agent assigned to spy on a man in East Germany, 1984. Through a routine of near-continuous observation, he becomes invested in the life of the man he is watching and develops an emotional connection to his subject. This is what happens to the watchers. Given time and access, we grow to be personally affected by those who pass under our gazes. Although circumstance does not always afford that time and access, I use my creativity to populate my interior life with rich characters derived from passersby, from casual acquaintances, from chance encounters. And thus I am able to connect more deeply with the casual world which I have the constant privilege to observe.