Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Tobias Wolff's "A Mature Student": Man becomes monster

I stumbled upon this outstanding non-genre story when going through stories in this year's issues of Playboy.

The story concerns the psychological & environmental factors that make the governmental torturers - both in authoritarian regimes, as well as in unchecked military torture camps of US - of the kind that were in news a while back in Iraq & Afghanistan.

Story summary.

In a discussion between a 41-year old student & her female teacher (in her 50s) at some US university, the teacher talks about her shame when she, aged 17, betrayed her friend in Prague to government torturers. And the student is musing about her young son, a newly hired US soldier, in Iraq:

"Not what might happen to him, but what he might become. Soon enough he would be among strange people who would hate him on sight. Any of them might be meaning to kill him. In the face of so much hatred & danger, how could he escape feeling hatred himself? For all of them. Theresa had seen how the young men looked after a few months in that place...

Her son was already learning the pleasure of being strong, & the special pleasure of being stronger than others... from six grade to seventh, the bullying had gotten so nasty that she'd had to go to the principle of his school... tonight she remembered the look on his face after one of the bad days - ... of his bitterness & shame. When he came into power now over those who hated him & frightened him, how would he resist putting them on their knees, making them squirm... What would happen in some little room where hatred & power & fear came together, & there was nobody to say no?"

Fact sheet.

"A Mature Student", short story, review
First published: Playboy, September 2007.
Rating: Time well spent A