What Have We Done to Each Other?

One of my favorite movies, Gone Girl, begins (sort of) and ends with the following series of questions:

What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other? What will we do?

I thought about stacking them like individual Jenga pieces, one and then one, line after line, but it seemed better to have them stumble after each other in an aimless sequence, which is what a lot of our relationships (especially marriages) turn out to be.  One thing, then another, then another, and another, and who knows what after that? 

Gone Girl is a film about a wonderful sociopathic woman named Amazing Amy, who conceives a brilliant plan to frame her dopey, privileged, extremely mediocre husband, Nick, for her own murder.  It’s a movie about media culture, white privilege, gender and sexism, revenge, self-preservation, solidarity with family, the abject banality of everyday life, and the – again – extreme mediocrity of rich white people who have nothing to do but fuck with each other and mope while the world burns down around them.

But the questions above are not just addressed to marriage.  “What have we done to each other?” the narrator asks. “What will we do?”  Whatever country you live in is, for most people, kind of like a marriage you can’t get out of.  We’re stuck with these people.  We can’t afford a divorce or even a separation. 

What have we done to each other? What will we do?

In 2020, these are the fundamental questions of politics, as well as the smallest and biggest choices we make every day.  Do I wear a mask when going for a brisk walk?  Who do I vote for?  Which lives matter?  How am I going to keep a roof over our heads after the landlord has unscrewed the front door off its hinges?  There’s technically an eviction moratorium, but there’s also a chilly draft coming in where the front door used to be.

In one of the most stirring passages of the Christian Bible, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says something to the effect of “As you did it to one of the least of these, you have done it to me.” He condemns his listeners, saying:

For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. 

Many people are dying of COVID in violent, cruel prisons in America, trapped in cages and literally fastened to the virus itself – without the wonderful “choice” we all get to make about how seriously to take all of this.  Our fellow people are sick and in prison.  What they now call “food insecurity” has gone through the roof as people lose jobs, homes, and savings.  Our fellow people are hungry.  We have divided the strangers from their children and put them all in tiny, tightly packed boxes. 

This is what we have done to each other, but the question still remains: what we will do? 

The whole system of the economy, politics, laws and so forth is “what we do to each other,” but we can’t all be personally responsible for what evil things are done to the least fortunate among us.  We really can’t bear that burden along with everything else we’re shouldering and creaking under the weight of.  But we can, in our own ways, care for the sick, welcome the stranger, and consider the prisoner as a human worth just as much or more than us.

It starts with the easy stuff: wearing a mask.  It goes on to the somewhat harder stuff: donating, volunteering, helping, even if it’s just a few dollars to a person on the street.  And it gets to the much harder stuff: how those of us with jobs where we have to be “in person” navigate a great host of challenges every minute of every work day, with both our own (economic) survival and the (health) survival of ourselves and everyone else at stake. 

This is what we do to each other.  The biblical passage means that what we do to each other is what we do to ourselves, and it has never been truer in a more literal sense than in the midst of COVID.

In the end, though, I still love Amazing Amy.  She’s a sociopath, but she’s also a survivor.  She will doggedly get through everything, whether it was the negligent and exploitative parenting she experienced as a child, her marriage to the moron, or the media hullaballoo caused by her attempt to frame Nick.  In the final scene of the film, Amy asks:

You think you could ever be happy with a nice, normal woman? No, baby. I’m it. I complete you. I’m the only one who can… Stay with me and I will make you happy. You know I can. I’ve killed for you.

The writer John Green recently observed that the word “dogged” seems strange – the relentless persistence of doggedly pursuing something, despite all setbacks and woes, doesn’t seem exactly like something we’d associate with dogs, per se.  But he recognized that humans are dogged.  No matter how stupid or vile or irresponsible we are, we do have an extraordinary will to endure.

We are what we’ve done to each other.  We have to live with that fact, but the question of what we will do is all that matters now.  Let’s choose to survive.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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