As a child, I spent a lot of time in the library of my family’s Catholic church, reading stories about the lives of the saints. Though ostensibly written for children, the books nonetheless attended to each saints’ tribulations in gruesome, grizzly detail: Saint Lucy, typically depicted carrying her own eyes on a plate; Saint Agatha, who did the same with her own breasts; Saint Rita of Cascia, whose head was marked with stigmata in the shape of the Crown of Thorns. The books terrified and fascinated me. From them, I learned much—not necessarily about the moral fortitude necessary to reach sainthood, but about one prevailing subject: suffering.
Perhaps this is why the subject of suffering remains an ever-present preoccupation in my work as a writer. It is not necessarily an easy subject to address in language. It’s impossible to exactly and verbally convey the experience of suffering, which is necessarily personal, as intimate as our own bodies. When writing about suffering, one therefore always risks running into cliché, in the tropes—religious or otherwise—we tell ourselves to make sense of our pain. Not that one can, ultimately, make sense of pain—another reason why writing about it is difficult enough to be a form of suffering in and of itself.
As I grew older, I sought out and studied depictions of suffering in other art forms, particularly visual art and music. While stuck in traffic on my evening commute (that particularly acute modern experience of agony), I found myself riveted by an NPR story about Michelangelo, whose Pietà is itself an awe-inspiring portrayal of grief, loss, and sanctification. The story centered around a hidden room in the Medici Chapels, where scholars think Michelangelo hid in the months after he betrayed the Medicis, his patrons. After cleaning the walls, a museum director found a series of sketches on the walls, now believed to have been drawn by Michelangelo while in hiding.
One sketch depicted Laocoön and His Sons, or the Laocoön Group, a sculpture excavated in 1506. Like many artists of his day, Michelangelo studied Laocoön and His Sons with an obsessive fascination. The sculpture depicts the last moments of Laocoön, a priest of Poseidon, and his sons, poisoned by sea snakes. Versions of the story vary. In some, Poseidon sends the snakes to kill Laocoön, who warned the Trojans that the horse the Greeks gave them wasn’t a gift but a weapon (in Virgil’s Aeneid, Laocoön is the source of the lines that became the English proverb “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”). In this version of events, Laocoön is killed for telling the truth; it seems fitting that Michelangelo would sketch this sculpture on the walls of his hiding place after speaking out against the powerful and poisonous Medici family.
This story fascinated me as much as the stories about saints; I knew, instantly, that I had to write about it. When I (finally) got home, I looked up Laocoön and His Sons so I could study it myself. What struck me most about this masterpiece is that it portrayed suffering in a way I’d never seen in hagiography, with its insistence that suffering led to salvation, that there was a meaning—redemption—at the end of the most treacherous road. In the Laocoön Group, there is no redemption. The figures writhe; even in photographs, the marble appears to be in motion. Though they die together, they find no comfort in family. In fact, they seem separated from each other, each existing in and aware of only their pain. It’s a searing portrayal of what human suffering, at its center, truly is: a force that separates us from the world, even from those in the world we love the most; a force that consumes us entirely; an experience during which, no matter how saintly the sufferer may be, the light of redemption cannot be seen.
When I sat down to write “Laocoön and His Sons,” the story that preceded it similarly darkened into disappearance. I found myself focused on the father in the moment of a death brought by the god he’d served for so long, on the wild terror of the human moment behind the stories of divine faith and redemption that we sculpt and share.