According to Richard Feynman, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” Never underestimate the power of the human brain to trick itself, to believe almost exactly what it wants to believe. But why do we do this? When does it become so dire to ignore reality? And when, if ever, does the curtain fall? The book Room by Emma Donoghue answers these questions and more in an effective narrative that will stay with you for days.
Room is centered on the life of Jack, a five-year-old boy whose entire world is the eponymous Room, a small living space with one skylight and one locked door. There’s no such thing as dogs, trees, or anything else he can’t touch or see for himself in real life. The reader becomes aware of the situation quickly: Jack and his Ma are held captive by the man- Old Nick- who comes in while Jack is supposed to be asleep. Until shortly after Jack’s fifth birthday, only Ma knows the truth. She gives Jack as much information as he needs and fills in the blanks with fantasy. But as troubling as it might sound, Jack was still happy. He spent his time playing and growing, and he didn’t need to know that there was a whole world he was missing out on beyond their walls. Even if she knew the horror of their situation, she spared him from it. And ultimately, this was Ma’s goal. Not to make him complacent, but to give him a life relatively untroubled by what they can’t have. His comfort and safety was always her first and foremost priority.
Well after their escape from Room, however, Jack longs to go back. Not because of his deprivation to the “real world,” but because it was easier to exist when the world was 11 feet by 11 feet, and the only things he needed to worry about were on the same scale as eating green beans and staying warm when the power was out. He understands as time goes on, as children are wont to do. But no matter who you are, anyone can relate to that base desire to return to simpler times.
Tricking ourselves is a luxury and a defense mechanism all at once. A luxury because it ensures we don’t grow; a defense mechanism because we would lose ourselves if we didn’t. The epigraph alludes to this:
Such trouble I have
And you sleep, your heart is placid;
you dream in the joyless wood;
in the night nailed in bronze,
in the blue dark you lie still and shine.
Simonides (c. 556-468 BCE),
“Danaë” (tr. Richmond Lattimore)
Neither entirely good nor bad, self-deception just is.