A bad thing happens, and we want justice for it. How far would we go for that justice? And what happens if in the pursuit of justice, we are tempted to act injudiciously? It’s the question that confronts author Chelsea Pitcher in her novel The S-Word.
I’m a pretty pacifistic person. I don’t shoot guns or get turned on by knives. I’ve never even been in a physical fight (outside of sibling roughhousing). But once in a while, I dream of being a vigilante.
Vigilante-me sits atop a darkened high-rise and looks down at the city below. She scours the alleys for murderers and rapists, fingers twitching at the thought of revenge. She doesn’t wear skin-tight leather or a cape, but she does have a penchant for black, and there are probably boots involved. She makes the world a better place, picking up the justice system’s slack.
She’s a heroine.
It’s a nice thought, isn’t it? Deep down, I think we all have vigilante versions of ourselves hovering just beneath the surface of our skin. We see injustice in the world, we feel horrified, and we don’t know what to do to make things right. But the hero-inside knows, and she is ever vigilant, waiting for the right moment to break free and save the day.
I started writing “The S-Word” with this real-world vigilante in mind. Seventeen-year-old Angie is strong, determined, and wicked smart, but she isn’t a masked avenger bringing villains to justice in the dark. She’s a high school student living in a world where bullying is commonplace and suicide is seen as a viable escape. When her best friend, Lizzie, is bullied by the entire school and takes her own life, Angie stops playing the bystander and starts taking action.
That inner vigilante comes out.
After that, everything should be simple, right? The villains are caught, and the hero lives, if not happily, at least contentedly ever after. But trying to pinpoint villains in a society where everyone contributed, through action and passivity, to a teenage girl’s undoing, was harder than I anticipated. Where, even, to begin?
What followed were a series of interrogations, where both Angie and I attempted to uncover the events leading up to Lizzie’s demise. Who participated in the bullying, and why? Who tried to intervene? Who did nothing? Slowly a tapestry revealed itself, made up of dozens of interwoven threads. Angie was able to see, through careful sleuthing, not only who contributed directly to Lizzie’s torment, but also whose silence allowed the bullying to flourish. Now, all she had to do was take that information to the school administrators, and justice could be served…
Except, she didn’t.
Angie, in fact, had very different plans. That’s the problem with vigilantism: you can only work around the law for so long before you feel like you’re above the law. And Angie had done such a good job interrogating her suspects…Why shouldn’t she be the one to punish them? Why shouldn’t she take an eye for an eye, and make them sorry for Lizzie’s suffering—
Wait. What was happening to Angie?
Suddenly, my big idea shifted to something much darker than I’d expected. I was no longer dealing with a heroine’s noble attempt to bring justice to a broken world. I was dealing with the very real possibility of Angie losing her humanity and becoming a villain. After all, how many times can we exact vengeance before our sense of right and wrong becomes blurred? How many times can we be cruel, even to cruel people, before we forget how it feels to be kind?
So my big idea morphed, and mutated, and had little idea babies of its own. “The S-Word” stopped being a story about vigilantes, and became a study in that oh-so-flimsy line between good and evil in us all. And, by the end of it, I couldn’t help envisioning a vigilante and a villain crouching inside of me, each holding the other’s hand, two sides to the same coin, whispering: Let us out, just for a moment…
What could go wrong?