Like most writers, I am fascinated by what makes people tick. If you have read my novel, Leap the Wild Water, you will know Morgan is one of its central characters. He is trying and failing to do what is right, and living with the consequences of having acted against his own conscience. He knows he has done his sister a great wrong and the consequences of that wrong are on-going. Yet, it is only following the death of his mother that he comes to fully realise the enormity of what he has done. Before his mother’s death he did not have to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions; he could tell himself that he was powerless against his mother’s authority. When she dies, he can no longer shift blame and responsibility onto her and is robbed of a means by which he can absolve himself. Only then, too late, does he decide he must make amends.
There have been many studies investigating the reasons why people act against their consciences and do terrible things. Most of these studies took place in the 1960’s in an attempt to try to understand how the atrocities of the holocaust of WW2 could have happened. One of the best known studies is the experiment done by Stanley Milgram, who set out to prove that anyone is capable of obeying orders to harm others under certain circumstances. He found people were most likely to obey orders if the person issuing the order had legitimate authority, and if the person obeying the order would not be held responsible for the consequences. A person wishing to disobey was more likely to do so if there were others supporting him.
Those who obey orders to inflict harm on others, as Morgan did to his sister Megan, will seek to justify their actions. Lerner(1980) claimed that people need to believe the world is just and fair and everyone gets what they deserve. Lerner called this the ‘just world hypothesis’. This is what Morgan does; after doing what his mother asks of him, he shifts blame onto his sister Megan, tells her and himself that it is Megan’s own fault that he has done what he has; that she has brought it all on herself by going against convention.
Prior to doing his Mam’s bidding, Morgan saw himself as a good, kind and decent man. Afterwards, he finds it hard to live with himself. Festinger (1957) called this internal conflict ‘cognitive dissonance’; this happens when a person’s actions contradict their personal beliefs about themselves and their feelings about what is right and wrong. In Milgram’s experiment, many of the participants experienced cognitive dissonance and dealt with this internal conflict by derogating their victims, just as Morgan did in order to preserve his self-esteem.
From the moment Morgan’s mother attempts to draw him into her plans, all the odds are against Morgan acting according to his own conscience. His mother exploits her authority over him; when asking him to do what he cannot bear to, she calls him ‘boy’. She fuels his anger at his sister’s betrayal, uses this to her advantage, and encourages him to believe it is his sister who is to blame for what they are ‘forced’ to do; thus giving Morgan a ‘hook on which he gladly hangs his own guilt’.
By the time Morgan realises his moral failings it is too late, and any attempts to right the wrong will only further harm his sister. Knowing this, he procrastinates until an escalation in events forces his hand, with catastrophic results.
It would be far too simplistic to think of Morgan as a weak man unable to stand up to his own mother. The shocking truth which Stanley Milgram offered the world was that it is not only the weak or the morally corrupt who can be led to commit cruel acts against others, but people like you and me, and Morgan, otherwise kind and decent human beings.
Few of us are forced to choose between two people we love. Morgan chooses his mother over the sister who has lied to him and betrayed his trust. His decision was greatly influenced by his anger at his sister.What do you think you would have done in Morgan’s shoes? Do you feel compassion or contempt for him and his dilemma? Many who have read Leap the Wild Water tell me they begin by feeling contempt for him but end with feeling compassion, which is what I hoped.
Jenny Lloyd is the Welsh author of The Megan Jones trilogy; historical suspense novels set in early, 19th century, rural Wales.
You can read about the books or purchase them by clicking on the links below.
Leap the Wild Water: http://ow.ly/jEoi302jXkd
The Calling of the Raven: http://ow.ly/4uRO302jXmd
Anywhere the Wind Blows: http://ow.ly/73tq302Ov71
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