My Cousin Is Not a Hero

Halfway through the worst year of my life, my cousin Ben asks me if he should write a book.

This happens a lot, when you’re a writer. People want to tell you about the books they’d write, if they could. Or, more often, they want you to write something for them. “HERE’S your book!” they say, as if they’re doing you a favor. As if the hard part of writing a book is coming up with a story.

“I really think I should write a book,” my cousin says, and I brace myself.

“Okay. Let’s hear it.”

“Let me ask you something,” my cousin says. He’s a little drunk. “Let me ask you. Do you know the Hero’s Journey?”

“Like, Joseph Campbell?” I ask. “Sure.”

“Here’s the thing,” my cousin tells me. “Here’s the thing. I think I’m on a Hero’s Journey. You know? I think I’m the hero.”

We are standing in his living room. It’s a big old house, an American four-square, full of our cousins and their kids. Most of us are drinking.

It’s the night of my uncle’s funeral.

This was his house originally, my uncle Ed. He and my aunt bought it in the seventies, and raised a bunch of kids in it, and a few years ago my cousin Ben bought it from them and now he’s raising a bunch of kids of his own.

Uncle Ed was a writer too. He loved big stories, big ideas, grand gestures. Ben comes by it honestly.

“I really think I’m on a hero’s journey,” Ben tells me. “Listen. Listen to all the things that have happened to me. I raced across Africa on a motorcycle! I almost got attacked by a troop of wild baboons! I took an old car and cut the top off and turned it into a boat! My ex-wife went crazy! Who else has this happened to?” he asks me, and answers himself. “No one, that’s who.”

Here is what the hero’s journey looks like. It begins with this guy, just an average guy. Maybe he’s a little unhappy, but you know, he’s fine. And then one day someone shows up and tells him that he’s different, that he’s the chosen one. That he carries with him the weight of everyone’s futures. That he will be the one to save them.

But he refuses, because he’s just a normal dude, and change is scary. Until he meets his mentor and realizes that he’s going to have to take this journey, like it or not. So he sets off, encounters a bunch of tests, learns some lessons, and eventually has to descend into a cave that may or may not be metaphorical, that may or may not actually be the underworld, where he must fight some definitive battle. Usually his mentor dies, because he has to face his final trials alone. Sometimes he dies too. But ultimately he is reborn, and he vanquishes the great evil and earns some great reward or lesson that he can take back to his home — the home that has been saved by his trials, by his suffering and his bravery — because now he has become the hero.

You know this story. It’s Star Wars, it’s Harry Potter.

My cousin Ben’s story is less Star Wars and more All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. He hasn’t had to go to the underworld. He hasn’t had to grapple with his own worthiness. He just has a lot of weird and hilarious anecdotes, because he’s the kind of person who attracts weirdness and adventure, and he almost always comes out unscathed.

But look, I get it. I can empathize with his desire to pin these adventures to a plot line, because I do it too. Fiction has a structure, a pattern, where moments build toward a final revelation, an epiphany that suggests some transformation of character. In fiction, everything happens for a reason.

The night of the funeral is a few months after my doctor told me that what WebMD said was cancer might actually be cancer, and my wife told me that getting married was a mistake. I already don’t remember which happened first. I’ve been through months of tests and phone calls with my insurance and doctor visits and surgery and fights with my wife and crying in the Bad Dog tavern while the worried waitress offers to come back later.

Already, I’ve looked for structure in these events, signs that I’m following some familiar narrative path. I want to believe that all this pain has some greater purpose. I get it, Ben, I do.

I’ve lost my marriage and part of my body and eleven pounds and twelve hundred dollars and two uncles in quick succession and if everything happens for a reason, things should be looking up by now. But ten minutes after the doctor tells me I’m cancer-free, I get rear-ended by a 19-year-old on a cell phone. And a month from now I’ll learn that my landlord has sold my house and it will be bulldozed, and one day this summer I’ll drive past the place where my home was and there will just be a gap full of dirt and sky. And a month after that I’ll lose a job that I love and it will feel like losing my marriage all over again, and then I’ll spend a week in the ICU with my dad while doctors reroute the path of blood through his heart and then one day I’ll be driving down I-90 and a piece of rebar will fly off the semi-truck in front of me and punch a hole in the side of my car and there’s no reason for any of this to happen and I won’t learn a single lesson from any of it.

People keep telling me that everything happens for a reason. They say that in a year or two, I’ll look back at this disaster of a year and see how it all fits into the greater pattern of my life. Everyone needs to believe this, because to believe otherwise — that things aren’t happening for a reason, that the universe is just chucking random shit at us because it’s a wild and chaotic place — well frankly, that’s terrifying.

I keep waiting for familiar plot points to happen, so I can find my place in my own story. But all my plot points are weird ones. I should have a moment of truth, a reversal of fortune, a break into act three, but instead I have a moment where I go to the grocery store and somehow come home with rootbeer popsicles, a bag full of peppers, and nothing else. A part where my estranged wife comes to visit our dog and we get drunk together and climb the lifeguard’s platform on the beach and watch the stars over Lake Michigan. A part where I walk the dog and I can’t stop crying but I still appreciate how pretty my neighbor’s flowers are this year.

Ten years ago, my favorite cousin Jimmy was killed in a car accident, days before his 22nd birthday. At his funeral, a woman came up to me and put her hand on my shoulder. “God must have needed him more in heaven than we needed him here on Earth,” she told me.

I laughed in her face. “God created the heavens and the earth in under a week. I think he could go a few more years without the help of my baby cousin.”

What I meant was, we needed him here. What I meant was, there’s no story to tell about his death that makes it okay.

In life, sometimes bad things happen and it just sucks. Sometimes what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, okay, but sometimes what doesn’t kill you leaves you diminished, depressed, binge-watching The West Wing and eating Lucky Charms out of the box. Sometimes a bunch of terrible things happen right in a row, and it doesn’t push you toward some amazing self-revelation, it just makes you embarrassed to tell your cousins how you are when they ask, because the answer keeps being, “um, kind of awful” every time you see them, and it’s shaking everyone’s faith that things get better.

Sometimes, a bunch of terrible things happen right in a row, and it’s just terrible. It doesn’t make for a good story. It doesn’t make you a better person. It just sucks.

It’s the night of his father’s funeral, and my cousin Ben is listing all the ordeals he has gone through that makes him the mythical hero. There’s a story where he gets electrocuted. There’s a story where he meets his wife when she’s a little girl, and again as a grownup. There’s a story where he crashes his hot rod.

“All of these crazy stories have to add up to something greater,” he tells me. “Some epic journey. I really think I should write a book.”

“Ben,” I finally say. “Ben. You’re not on a hero’s journey.”

“But what about all my stories? That doesn’t just happen to anyone else.”

“You’re not on a hero’s journey because you’re not changing,” I tell him.

“You live a charmed life. You’ve always been the golden boy. You didn’t walk through fire and come away a changed man. You have wacky adventures and interesting coincidences and ultimately you’re the same goofy, friendly guy.”

He frowns, thinking about this.

“If it helps, I’m not on a hero’s journey either,” I say. “A bunch of bad things have happened to me and I haven’t learned any lessons, other than that sometimes the only thing you can do is keep moving forward. I don’t think it’s made me a better person. I don’t think it’s changed me, not really.”

If this were fiction, this would be the moment when I’d have some major epiphany, drinking beer with my cousins and aunts and uncles in this beautiful old house that’s raised two generations of my family. I would suddenly see the big picture, the pattern that unites us all. I would discover something that my uncle Ed wrote that pulls it all together, that lends shape and meaning and a profound truth about… you know, whatever.

But it’s not fiction, it’s real life. It’s the night of his dad’s funeral and we’re standing there together, and neither of us is a hero. Neither of us is on an epic journey. Neither of us carries the hopes and dreams of the community on our shoulders. We’re not Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter. There is no happy ending to our story. There is no end. There’s just getting up every morning and facing whatever it is the world has to offer. There’s just doing our best, one day at a time, to survive all the weird moments the universe has to throw at us, the chaos and uncertainty and sadness and beauty of it all.

We’re not heroes. Our plot points are weird ones, and our stories don’t add up to some amazing narrative of personal growth and enlightenment — but they do matter, because they’re ours.

“Ben,” I finally say. “You’re not on a hero’s journey. But I do think you should write that book.”

M. Molly Backes is the author of the young adult novel The Princesses of Iowa(Candlewick Press, 2012). An accomplished teacher, she runs creative writing workshops for adults and teens in Chicago and across the Midwest. Follow her on Twitter at @mollybackes.

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