This Is All My Fault

I can't stop thinking about a sci-fi novel where a woman has to choose between personal and global ruin

Photo by Karen Axelrad

On a morning shortly after my office closed for the coronavirus pandemic, I woke up convinced that the reason for the crisis was that I had fully scheduled out my editorial calendar three weeks in advance. This was, at my small organization, almost unprecedented—a level of accomplishment and preparation for which I surely needed to be taken down a peg. Clearly the cosmos had obliged.

Other explanations for the pandemic that my brain auditioned: I had hoped that Boomers wouldn’t vote Joe Biden into the nomination (okay, bitch, what if they die then??). I had started planning for a belated honeymoon in May (joke’s on you!!!). I was too proud of finally regularly getting 10,000 steps a day (try doing it now!). I was, arguably, smug about enjoying my husband’s company even when we lived together in a small space; I had in fact just given him a Valentine’s Day card that said “I like being home with you.” (Oh you like being home? How about being home forever?) Friends admitted to similar magical thinking, ranging from “I dreaded the tax deadline too hard and a demon granted my wish” to “I promised my boss I wouldn’t let things go to hell while she was on maternity leave” to “I broke the universe by mistake four years ago when I accidentally stuck my hand in a sand mandala at a Buddhist ceremony.” 

We can’t avoid being the central characters of our own lives, and the protagonist usually has some kind of power.

This kind of self-blame in a crisis is both absolutely demented and the most natural thing in the world. We can’t avoid being the central characters of our own lives, after all, and the protagonist usually has some kind of power. Especially if you have always been mostly comfortable, mostly safe, the urge is strong to explain anomalies in some way; otherwise, you have to cope with the fact that the world is cruelly stochastic, and society, even crueler, is deliberately stacked against the most oppressed. There are a few proven ways to avoid this truth, all of them hinged on self-delusion. If you don’t have the upbringing or temperament to blame The Other, as many mostly-comfortable-mostly-safe people do, then of course you often pivot to blaming yourself. You’ve been in control of your life thus far, so why not now? (This instinct is not unique to the privileged. People who have been victimized or traumatized also use self-blame, paradoxically, to feel more in control.)

For me, the guilt is sometimes weirdly specific—I made the wrong joke, I chose the wrong priority, I had the wrong uncharitable thought—but more often general, a baseline conviction that if I were good the world would be good too. More than anything, the current crisis and every previous crisis is a referendum on my weakness and cowardice and selfishness, my habit of prioritizing my own happiness and ease, of letting myself off the hook. Because I have not tried hard enough to make things better, it must therefore be my fault when things are bad.

There are a few noticeable problems with this line of thinking. One, it’s wildly narcissistic, even solipsistic—a viewpoint I’ve heard shorthanded as “I’m the piece of shit the world revolves around.” Why should I be the main character in this morality play? Two, it’s simplified to the point of absurdity, a transparent attempt to manage anxiety by weaponizing it and turning it inward. This is not how disasters work, it’s not how causality works, it’s not how anything works.

But far and away the worst problem is this: it’s a little bit true. 

My husband and I met in what I now recognize as the waning days of an acceptable world. I say “acceptable” because it’s not like it wasn’t bad—it was just bad in a way that I and people like me could accept, and that we therefore largely ignored. It was 2014, and we had a president we liked, although nobody’s perfect and democracy is fundamentally flawed but what are you going to do, right? The president we liked had not managed to pass or even really try for universal health care, but had made it universal enough that I was able to quit my job and start freelancing, which let me become a better and more successful writer. I had upended my life in a number of ways just a few years before—getting divorced, moving cities—and now it felt like my personal winter was starting to warm up. Not everything was right, but at the same time, nothing was really wrong.

We moved in together in the spring of 2016. We expected to irritate each other, braced for it, but found that being together was the only thing we enjoyed more than being alone. In our tiny, windowless bedroom, with a door that was perpetually open because the bed blocked us from closing it, I read Jo Walton’s book My Real Children. It’s a book I haven’t been able to forget since, especially now.

The novel opens with a woman named Patricia sitting in a nursing home, sifting through what remains of her memories. Patricia has dementia—or anyway, she’s not always sure what’s real, which in this case isn’t the same. On some days, she thinks she spent her life happily married to a woman; on others, she was unhappily married to a man. She remembers seeing worldwide peace and seeing major cities lost to nuclear war, being poor in England and wealthy in Italy, living as a misused housewife and as a flourishing writer. She knows she gave birth to four children; she knows she gave birth to only two, and had a stepchild she cherished. 

It can’t be true, and yet it is. She has lived a fulfilling life, loved and loving and true to herself, as the world crumbles around her. She has lived a harried, fraught life in a stable and calm society. From her nursing home, 89 years old, she remembers both these lives in parallel, with equal fidelity, spinning off from a point of diversion where her ex-husband (or not?) proposed and she either said yes or no. The waveform has not yet collapsed, the particles are streaming through both slits, the cat is alive and dead. And now, it becomes clear, she has to choose.

You don’t realize right away, reading the book, what the tradeoff will be. You see Patricia’s life split in two—Pat who follows her heart and runs off to Italy with a woman, and Trish who follows her sense of duty and marries a man—but it takes longer to see how that crack runs through their respective worlds. In the time stream where Trish accepts a proposal from frustrated, closeted academic Mark, the U.S. and a more liberal U.S.S.R. cooperate on space exploration and global disarmament. In the one where Pat rejects Mark and goes on to have a fulfilling career and fall deeply in love with Bee, terrorist attacks and eventually nuclear attacks are common (even the moon is a nuclear base), and the couple lives in fear because their gay relationship is illegal. Which one will she make real? Which idyll—the personal, or the global—can she bear to lose? 

I loved My Real Children when I read it; I cried and cried. But it only truly carved itself into my brain in retrospect, when I could look back and see what felt like a similar juncture in my own life: a point where I made a selfish decision, went against my sense of duty, and was repaid with love and a measure of success and a disintegrating world. The selfish decision—leaving my marriage and city—was in the past when I read the book, but all of the fallout was in the future. I didn’t know how bad things would get; I didn’t even know how bad they were. 

In the meantime, we loved each other and worried from afar about school shootings and police brutality and talked about the psychology of Trump supporters in a way that still felt theoretical. We went canvassing together, but only once. We watched the news, but not all the time, and complained on Twitter. And then in November I cocooned myself up in the bedroom, shoving the bed aside to close the door, and sat on the bed sorting the contents of my change jar and watching Red Dwarf, ignoring frantic texts from my family about the election outcomes. I wasn’t surprised. I’d known for weeks what would happen—but I hadn’t done anything to stop it.

I did donate the value of the change, once counted and rolled, to the ACLU. It was $312. It was much too little too late.

I think about My Real Children so often, especially now, because the years on either side of 2014 feel like some kind of crisis point—in my personal life, making the ultimately selfish choice to leave my marriage and city and job, and also in the world, the beginning of an inexorable plummet from pan to fire. What if I, like Patricia, was at some point unwittingly asked to choose between my own contentment and global peace? If that happened, it’s clear which one I went for, and it’s ultimately no surprise; personal comfort over the greater good is a calculation I make again and again. If the question were posed again explicitly, I don’t even trust myself to choose a different way. I want all this to be over, to be better, for everyone; I want wrongs righted that I didn’t even realize were wrong six years ago, or that I understood were wrong but didn’t really think about because I didn’t have to. But would I give up everything good in my own life? Would I give up my partner, our home together, whatever I’ve made of my career? I want to say yes, but no.

What if I was at some point unwittingly asked to choose between my own contentment and global peace?

In reality, of course, that question is purely academic. I couldn’t fix everything with one grand sacrifice, even if I wanted to. I couldn’t even fix it with a lifetime of smaller ones. Most of the world’s ills are created from the top down, and can only be truly addressed from the top down. We tend to overestimate the role that individual choices can play, partly because that overestimation gives us an opportunity to be self-important or scoldy, but mostly because people like to feel as if it matters what they do. Tip well, call your senators, eat less meat, buy reusable replacements for your single-use papers and plastics: these efforts make us feel helpful, and they are helpful, to a point. At the same time, though, they will always be eclipsed by the inaction of the people who could really make a difference: the policymakers protecting the corporations and the corporations protecting themselves. You can’t flatten that curve on your own. 

But the system that props up this selfishness and greed didn’t spring fully-formed from some evil god’s skull. It’s an epiphenomenon of selfishness and greed on a smaller scale—the people who vote against debt relief because they worked hard and paid it off, for instance, but also the people who wanted to march but are tired and don’t do well in crowds, who would call but are scared of the phone. This is where I am. I’m not cruel, but I’m privileged and weak, and that’s enough to add up. And so when I think “this is all my fault,” I am wrong in every reasonable way except the one that matters. 

It would be such a comfort to fully dismiss this self-blame as self-delusion. I obviously did not directly and single-handedly cause a pandemic, or global warming, or Fox News. Trump didn’t get elected because I didn’t knock on enough doors. But he might have gotten elected because everybody didn’t knock on enough doors, and one of those people was me. I stayed home when I should have been canvassing, emailed when I should have been calling, donated $25 when I could have afforded $50, said I would look for a volunteer gig and did not. And I’ve been given chance after chance to reconsider, disaster after disaster that could have shocked me from complacency into sacrifice, and every time I have chosen the easy way, and every time it gets worse. 

It’s only magical thinking that makes me think these things are directly causal. I was never given the explicit, literal choice to trade a calm world where I was miserable for a timeline where I’m fulfilled and the world is on fire. But I’ve certainly sold out the public good for my personal comfort. I do that every day.

This week I turned 40 in pandemic seclusion. Though my husband and I still like being together more than being alone, having said so out loud now feels like yet another way I’ve cursed myself and the world. (Another curse: I said I was happy doing something or nothing for my birthday, as long as I didn’t have to be the one to plan it. Well, mission accomplished.) We are doing okay, we are as always doing better than most, but we have semi-permanently wedged the bed so the bedroom door can close, and I have spent a lot of time in there hysterically crying. Our jobs are still paying us, so far, but I am too afraid to leave the house even to do good for the community, so I’m just trying to disburse money to local service workers and businesses and friends who have lost their jobs. It feels deeply inadequate. It is deeply inadequate. Again as always: it is hard to know what to do. Again as always: there is so much more to be done than I can even process. 

Forty is a suspiciously-timed milestone—another piece of evidence, according to my subconscious, that all of this is just retribution for my lack of personal growth. I am running out of time to become a better person; I don’t really think I ever could have. Every year I care more, because every year I know more, and I don’t understand how you can know this world and not be wounded by it daily—but every year I am also more tired and overwhelmed. I still don’t think I have the strength to give up my comfort to save the world, but more and more, I wish someone would ask. If not that, then what?

The fantasy of being wholly to blame for everything is also a fantasy about being able to make it stop.

My Real Children sticks with me because it reflects my guilt—not only the ways that it’s rooted in truth, but also the ways that it’s rooted in self-aggrandizing fiction. When I blame myself for the ills of humanity, it’s because I am disappointed in my priorities and my complacency, the small but measurable ways in which I have contributed and continue to contribute to authoritarianism, white supremacy, colonialism, generational poverty. But it’s also because I want to believe in definable crisis points, in timelines you can swap like game cartridges, in ways that the world can be saved by one person’s choice. It sounds so much better than trying and trying and watching things crumble anyway. I guess I’m still looking for an easy way out.

But this is not a novel. Patricia is the protagonist of My Real Children—that’s why she has the responsibility, and the power, to collapse its waveform. I am not the protagonist of reality, nor is anyone. No single one of us gets to choose between a world where we’re happy and one where everyone else is, slamming the other pathway closed like a book. No one will ask me the question I ask myself every day—who or what in your life would you sacrifice to fix this? We are stuck making tiny, anemic versions of that choice, all day every day, like someone trying to tear down a wall with a pin.

The fantasy of being wholly to blame for everything is also a fantasy about being able to make it stop. Most of us will never get that chance—to choose the peaceful timeline or the content one, to make the brave sacrifice that saves the world, to warn the public in time or make a million bucks on insider trading. This is the purview of protagonists and villains. My purview is sitting inside, being more scared than I have a right to be, sending Venmos that will never be enough, watching people die anyway and not ever knowing whether it might otherwise have been just a tiny bit worse.

What if someone did offer me that choice—to give up everything safe and good and comfortable in my life to save the world? I would probably fail. But what a relief, what a gift, to be able to fail just once. 

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