The Uncomfortable Place Between Vulnerability and Voyeurism

By Carolee Bennett

June 14, 2016

The Uncomfortable Place Between Vulnerability and Voyeurism

 This Is Only a Test by B. J. Hollars

B.J. Hollars means it when he says, “This is a test.”

He tests us from the opening essay when he puts us in the middle of a tornado in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. More specifically, he puts us in a bathtub in the middle of a tornado in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. We huddle there with Hollars, his pregnant wife and his dog. All: vulnerable.

The tornado spares them (us). All around, however, is evidence of “the second most deadly weather outbreak in recorded history.” But that’s not the test.

The test manifests in the aftermath when Hollars writes, “I’ll spare you the destruction. You can imagine, I’m sure, what a tree looks like horizontal, or a house turned inside out. … Stories of legs in the front yard, of victims wrapped in trees like tangled kites. … Do not read this too closely. I am trying to spare you the broken glass and the blood.”

Test result: positive for voyeurism. We don’t want to be spared the destruction. “Stories of the front yard wrapped in trees” doesn’t satisfy us. We zoom in on the body parts. We seek out broken glass and blood. 

Confession: After Hurricane Irene hit the Northeast, I drove north into Vermont to see houses that had slid off their foundations. Entire bridges washed away. I came home with some debris—a metal shard in the tire—sat in the air-conditioned auto shop lobby waiting for the fix, drinking complimentary coffee. Inconvenienced. 

Implicating us as voyeurs in the opening essay is a wicked trick. When Hollars writes about a “carnival atmosphere” after the Tuscaloosa tornado, we want to stake our claim to righteous indignation. But, as he watches “people clogging the streets in SUVs, the passengers half-hanging out the windows,” we see ourselves. “Everybody clutched iPhones and video cameras,” he says, “They ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhed,’ took selfies amid the storm-ravaged topography.” We are forced to see ourselves.

If an essay is like a photo, Hollars has captured us chatting up disaster near the punch bowl. In another, from the same party, we look straight at his lens, pose with tragedy arm-and-arm. 

Like when we learn “there is a river beyond the window, and in that river, a boy, a boy who—we will learn the next day—has the river inside of him, too.” We don’t stay away from the water. As many lives as it takes, we’re drawn to it. We ask it to be beautiful in all the pictures. We ask it to hold us. 

I don’t mean that figuratively. One day, Hollars takes his toddler, running a fever, to the river: “What this boy needs is cool waters. We continue our afternoon swims as if nothing has changed.” 

And maybe nothing has. 

For us. 

Which is another test: What does knowing ask of us? We hear about. We learn about. We understand. (Or fail to.) So then we . . . what?

Consider this: Hollars tells us about a couple that escapes earthquake and fallout in Fukushima. They spend the night in a small city 150 miles away. And, just 150 miles away, they find themselves “staring at a world seemingly unchanged. Everywhere, people are shopping, clutching their bags with one hand while holding their phones with the other. People smile, people laugh, people snap selfies on the street.” 

They are unphased, and in them we see ourselves. 

Hollars keeps pushing us up against this. In the essay “Hirofukushima,” we are sitting in his living room listening to a friend tell about the couple in Fukushima. When he pauses, someone else tells about Hiroshima: “In the three weeks he had left to live, Eiko gave her son what comfort she could, offering him her breast and allowing him to suckle everything she had inside her. The radiation, too.” 

If an essay is like a photo, this one is a group shot. Look at us lined up, shoulder to shoulder, with all the ways we’re aware of our part in that whole mess. A second image exists, too: a wide shot in which we carry on, essentially unburdened. Both photos were taken at the same party. 

Confession: I have my own photos from that party. 

Here’s one: me hiding under my desk like rows of others. We believe our small town in Maine may be a target for bombs from the Soviet Union. After all, we are the Americans farthest east. After all, that means we are the closest—the easiest—to strike. We are disappointed to grow up and realize we aren’t such high value targets after all. 

Here’s another shot in which I pose as an almost-target: September 11, 2001. One hundred and twenty miles north of Manhattan, I am expecting my second child. I cry for weeks believing we are under attack. And bringing a baby into a world like this. Like Hollars, I wonder, “What universe would allow for such a thing? We’d interpreted the plus sign [on the pregnancy test] as a promise, and we expected the universe to make good.” 

Hollars, whose wife was pregnant when they (we) were in that bathtub, describes the precarious early days of that pregnancy like this: “just imagine holding tight to a poppy seed while on a rollercoaster.”  

A poppy seed on a rollercoaster.

“Please take a moment to remember the way your foot crunched the cockroach on your walk to the bathroom.” Remember the bathroom? It is where Hollars (et al) rides out the storm—as people are said to do. Another test: What is your idea of shelter: A shower stall? A womb? How certain are you that you are protected? How certain are you that you can protect your loved ones? 

Hint: You aren’t certain at all. 

Confession: I was desperate to protect us after 9/11. I bought bottled water. I stowed away jars of peanut butter and cans of tuna fish. Imagine the photo in which I am preparing to seal rooms with plastic sheeting and duct tape. 

And to what end? We can’t prepare for everything. Like this: a woman’s nap is interrupted and her hip bruised when a meteorite crashes into her living room. Hollars tells the true story of Ann Elizabeth Hodges from Sylacauga, Alabama: “Who can say how long it took for that meteorite to find her? To travel millions of miles—unbuckling itself from its asteroid belt—before hurtling through her roof . . . granting that poor woman the honor of being the first documented case of a human struck by meteor.” 

All: vulnerable. 

Even when we think we’re in charge: vulnerable. In the essay “Buckethead,” Hollars recounts a story from summer camp in which he and his pals decide to take the cocky kid in their cabin down a few notches. They sneak up on him in the showers impersonating the ghost of the camp legend—a boy who drowned in the lake. Instead of terrorizing the cabin blowhard, however, their shenanigans frighten a blind bunkmate who was in the bathrooms with them. How about this: That boy does not seem to recover from the prank, lies awake all night, eyelids open. Hollars, thinking about what he’d done, is equally spooked.

It sticks with us as well. “Buckethead” is a push from behind. We skin our knees and bleed on the pavement.

But I have exaggerated the circumstances. Confession: Hollars doesn’t say, “This is a test.” He says, “This is only a test.” We will survive. And worry still what may happen next. And not know how to behave.


This Is Only a Test
by B.J. Hollars

Indiana University Press
$17 Paperback | 16.99 E-book | Buy Now!


About the Reviewer:

Carolee Bennett is a poet living in Upstate New York, where she likes to say she is the “almost” poet laureate of Smitty’s Tavern (she placed as first runner-up in an annual contest held there by a group of local poets). She has been published in print and online journals, and in 2015 her poem “On not shielding young minds from the dark” placed as a semi-finalist for the Tupelo Quarterly Poetry Prize. She has an MFA in creative writing (poetry) from Ashland University in Ohio and works full-time as a writer in social media marketing.

Keywords: book review
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