Winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
The Road by Cormac McCarthy (also a major movie) tells of a father and his young son in a post-apocalyptic world, possibly caused by a nuclear war. It is a harrowing story of surviving without food, shelter and a living community. Nature is dying, nothing grows anymore; the sky is grey and towns and cities are deserted; no animals remain – the earth cannot even support micro-organisms – and most of the world’s people have died. Father and son stumble upon apples, left on the ground from a long time ago, that have not decomposed; everywhere trees are toppling over and the two must be careful not to be crushed as they fall.
Of the existing humans, most have become cannibals; they even eat babies. Fearing they will not survive another winter, father and son trek southwards along The Road in the hope of finding a warmer climate. They push their few belongings in a trolley and when it rains they seek cover under a tarpaulin. They survive on tins of food that they discover here and there, mostly in empty houses. They have constantly to be vigilant to avoid the threat from people who are out either to steal their few belongings or to kill them.
This tale had me wondering repeatedly how such a story could possibly continue for the next 60, 50, 40 or 30 pages, for the pair would surely be dead at the end of the current page. While it is a story about a man-made apocalypse, it is akin to the journey through the wastelands in Dante’s Inferno.
The Road relates to psychotherapeutic themes in many ways. It may be seen as a metaphor to describe the experiences of clients, particularly those going through severe depression, who live in a tunnel that shows no light at its end. Equally, it relates to the experiences of traumatised people whose lives have forever been thrown into chaos. When a client wanders through the wastelands, or is on The Road, a therapist can become stretched beyond his or her capacity, maybe even rendered useless, and remain part of the world the client has left behind.
The father’s paramount intention is to protect his young son, at whatever cost, because not protecting him means death. He shoots a marauding hooligan in the head, the hooligan’s blood splashing over the son’s face, but the son is freed. The young son’s main aim is to be with his father. Both want to be the ‘good guys’, to show compassion and be unlike those who eat and rape others. They frequently remind each other that they are still good people.
This theme links particularly with Victor Frankl’s (1905-1997) idea of a search for meaning, which forms the basis for logotherapy and existential analysis. Frankl believed that personal crisis could be the result of a lack of meaning. ‘Meaning’ in this context expresses something beyond mere personal gain; it signifies something that gives purpose and something that a depressed or traumatised client has lost touch with. With meaning, the client’s journey, like the journey of the father and son, continues even beyond death because, as the father repeats to his son,‘we are still the good guys’.
The Road is emotionally shattering. Its beauty and meaning are hidden from first sight. It is not a book I can easily recommend to fainthearted friends and colleagues and yet it was precisely its unpretentious rawness that captivated me. It is delivered in language that dispenses with elaborations, a language that makes no attempt to distract from the inevitable.
A second theme of the book is the unbroken bond between father and son. The father loves his son deeply and wants him to be protected. The father is already dying as they walk along The Road and knows he can’t protect his son forever. After shooting a cannibal-hooligan, he has one bullet left in his gun. With this one bullet, he forces his son to go through the motion of suicide in order to ensure that he does not fall into the hands of the merciless cannibals. This connects with the theme of emotional deprivation that I often hear in clients’ stories, from grown up men and women who suffer on account of childhood experiences of their fathers’ harsh treatment. The book transcends some of these stories by explaining the reasons why some fathers act as they do at times, that is, in order to prepare their children for the harshness of the world. Behind what seems a cruel lesson can be deep-felt love, but love that has experienced no freedom to reveal its depth. The Road does not sanction what fathers do, but, in its rawness, it affirms the love that the father carries. Since nowadays there is so much denigration of fatherhood, something that not only hurts fathers, but their children too, this topic is especially welcome.
As I type these words I connect to memories of my father and to his frequent violence and incessant tyranny, which contributed to my search for meaning through psychotherapy.
Dr. Werner Kierski, editor-in-chief of Contemporary Psychotherapy, is a psychotherapist, lecturer, research and academic supervisor.