What I Learned from Erica Kane

I think it’s time you knew: I watch a soap opera. Not every day, not even every week, and never, ever in real time. (Not only is it a depressing thing to do at noon, I simply can’t stomach all those commercials for floor cleaning products and maxi-pads with wings.) What I do is record it on an old-fashioned VCR and watch at odd times, when I need it.

Here’s my theory about soaps — though keep in mind, I’m basing this entirely upon the viewing of a single one: they’re modern-day morality plays. Nowhere in our culture is the battle between good and evil so clearly played out. And like allegories, these stories always resolve with a message. Valor is rewarded. There is no sin so egregious it cannot be atoned for. True love conquers all.

It’s really quite that simple. Forget all the ill-advised love affairs and murder plots and abortions. These programs are about good, old-fashioned values. The elderly are wise. The pious, the disabled, and young children are protected. And there is nothing (this is very important, it seems to me): no act so stupid or evil or careless it cannot be undone. Throw your sister down a well in a fit of jealousy? Kill a pedestrian while driving drunk? Seduce your daughter’s husband? All this is forgivable because people are fallible but decent and God loves the lot of us, each and every one.

It is precisely because I don’t believe these things, because I’m agnostic and a cynic at heart, that I watch this utterly unbelievable show. I pull out my clunky old videotape — it doesn’t matter which episode because I haven’t been keeping up — pour a glass of wine and sit to watch two or three hours of serialized redemption at a time.

Don’t even bother getting haughty. You can lecture me about the cheap camera shots and melodramatic organ music; I have a degree in film theory. Do you really think I haven’t noticed? The thing is, this isn’t about media or entertainment, really. It’s about believing in something more elemental — something other people, those lucky Appalachians and preacher’s children and Republicans — get from chuch or country. There is a right way to do things, a basic code of human goodness, if you will. When the town megalomaniac softens and makes a heartfelt speech on behalf of the gay schoolteacher. . . .you get it. This is unequivocal decency. A Mafia-like rule for family unity. Watch and you, too, will learn.

I needed this sort of help when my children were babies. We were poor and the planet we lived on seemed so scary. Who, in their right mind, would launch a small infant into such a random, wild world? Nights, I would stay up nursing them and watching, fast-forwarding through the commercials, comforting myself with the fact that there is order to be found in even the most chaotic, crisis-strewn existence.

There have been years I skipped the soap and others when I leaned on it heavily. Lately, I’ve caught maybe four or five episodes a month — which is more than enough to keep up with the plot.

Early last week, however, I found myself deeply in need of a bath in Pine Valley’s particular brand of logic. It was the day news broke, on Google and NPR and CNN, that doctors had discovered a "link" between fever and a potential cure for autism. It was a huge story: parents actually reported that their children’s autistic symptoms lessened or even disappeared when their fevers topped 101 degrees.

I retreated to my basement, videotape in one hand, a bottle of Castello del Poggio Barbera D’Asti in the other. Why? Because 14 years ago, when my son was five, he ran a fever of 103 and EMERGED from autism, completely, for an entire day. I charged into his pediatrician’s office howling about this miracle cure, begging him to figure out how it could be permanent, and was told I was insane. Again, two years later, I saw the same thing happen: a nasty flu felled everyone in our household, but rather than making my older son glassy-eyed, it sharpened him and brought him out.

This time, I was determined to be heard. I went not only to my son’s doctor but to others. I made phone calls, including to the National Autism Society, insisting we’d stumbled upon an enormous clue. I was turned away and treated like I was deranged.

So I gave up.

It was not, of course, the only thing I focused on in those years. There were vitamins, chiropractic treatments, and a strange, self-administered "poetry" regimen that I convinced myself would work. Yet, last week — reading about physicians nationwide heralding the so-called "fever effect" as groundbreaking news — I grew temporarily so disillusioned with the world and my paltry contributions to it, there was nothing to do but retreat.

I drank the Barbera D’Asti with unquestioning ardor, even though it is, frankly, weird: a puckery sour cherry with undertones of raw carrot and chalk. This is not a traditional wine, but I don’t exactly live a "traditional" life.

And I watched a few episodes of the soap that’s been feeding my desire for moral clarity for nigh on 20 years. Two people were trapped in an old bomb shelter (there’s always someone underground, it seems: symbolizing either hell or the pit of despair); several marriages were unraveling; there was a man dying of leukemia, a toddler undergoing surgery to have cochlear implants, a little girl separated from her father but living — unbeknownst to anyone — only three doors down. And through it all, no matter how bleak the circumstances, there was some measure of hope. This was especially true in the case of the show’s heroine: Erica Kane.

This character is daytime TV’s Scarlet O’Hara. She’s faced rape, addiction, and kidnap by an evil Hungarian count. Yet, she’s plucky, that one. (Also gorgeous, a size 0, immensely wealthy, and always either naked or completely accessorized and beautifully dressed.) No matter what the problem — whether her tenth divorce, her grandson’s deafness, or her son-in-law’s sudden disappearance — she arises ready to fight. Realistic, no. But dammit, after I’ve drunk a couple glasses of wine, she can seem an inspiration.

So what, exactly, should I take from this, I wondered? That the answer is to have sex with a series of brothers? Become addicted to painkillers and get admitted to a high-priced rehab? Ride a stallion over the grounds of nearby palace while wearing a $3,000 evening gown and high-heeled shoes?

Probably not. The lesson I chose to take from it, after I’d hidden out for a couple hours pouting and hating every single person in the known universe, was to try again. So I corked the wine, went to bed, had a strange set of nightmares, and got up the next morning to call a doctor and find out if — after all this time — the research they’re doing might help my nearly 20-year-old son.

The appointment is tomorrow. If the guy refuses to help us, I think I’ll dump him down a well.






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