I have serious thoughts this time of year even though I didn’t grow up in a tradition that celebrated Lent. I also have this bad habit of watching disturbing historical films and getting emotionally overwhelmed.
A couple of years ago, I watched The Stoning of Soraya M. over winter break.
My roommates had just left a cult, and they were introducing me to horror movies like Scream and The Nightmare on Elm Street. I showed them the 2009 Valkyrie film with Tom Cruise, about one of the plots to kill Hitler.
Racquel couldn’t follow the plot well and was falling asleep since her homeschool education had some serious gaps, but Ashley kept saying, “I know how this story is going to end, they are all going to die, because I know history!”
When we finished the film, they wanted to watch something less depressing. But I still wanted to feel things. I didn’t want to watch comedy or be entertained.
I went back to my bedroom and shut the door, opened my laptop, and started buffering The Stoning of Soraya M.
I was not prepared for the 20 minute stoning scene at the end. I knew it would be violent, since the film was made by a producer of The Passion of the Christ, but I did not expect her own sons to throw stones at her. They were only like 10 and 12 ish years old. And their father told them to do it for God. The mullah told the villagers that stoning Soraya is the only way to cleanse the whole town of her sin.
It was horrible. The whole village was chanting, “God is great! Kill the whore!” Her blood ran down over her beautiful white dress.
And she was innocent. Her husband falsely accused her of adultery because he wanted to marry a 14 year old girl and he couldn’t divorce her.
I hadn’t realized I was ugly crying until Racquel tapped on the door to ask if I was okay. The way Ashley tells the story (usually with the descriptor “that one time Eleanor wanted to watch the stoning movie”) well, they were in the living room chilling and playing a Batman game on her Playstation, and Ashley had just asked Racquel if she wanted to watch another horror movie. Then they heard these horrible, gut-wrenching sobs and were like, who is that? Then they realized the noise was coming from me in the back bedroom.
They said if I need to talk and process to let them know. I didn’t say much at first.
The next day, we all went to the hospital because Racquel had kidney stones. I waited in the ER with them, curled up and still teary off and on. Ashley asked me why I would do this to myself, why I would watch these things. I said I just needed to know what really happens in other places in the world.
I feel things deeply. Stories like these stay with me.
Human suffering is troubling, particularly when a god or religion is used to perpetuate it. I care about my friends who were trapped in cults. I helped friends move out of abusive homes and pointed them toward adulthood. I want to understand why we hurt each other, how we all together can work towards healing.
Last year I learned that I don’t have to look, that I don’t have to bear witness to demonstrate empathy. Sometimes I need to rest so that I can continue my mission. But sometimes I do still watch.
A few days after I watched The Stoning of Soraya M, I drove up north to the World Prayer Center at New Life Church. The building is open every day from 6 am to 11 pm, and it’s been one of my safe spaces since I became a spiritual hobo. The walls inside are covered in prayers written in chalk and on paper.
I wrote this and left it pinned on the wall.