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Some girls just love a good tragedy

From the time they could read, I tried to interest my three daughters in the sorts of cozy family stories I was devoted to as a child.

But instead of All-of-a-Kind Family or Betsy-Tacy, in which the biggest excitement was the simple act of growing up, my children always preferred tearjerkers featuring girls with fatal diseases, in which protagonists were forever going into and out of remission and meeting similarly doomed boys at summer camps for the terminally ill.

"Why do you like to read something called No Time to Cry, whose sole purpose is to make you cry?" I once asked Zoe, my eldest, after I found her sitting with a book, bloodshot and sniffling, on the window seat in the living room.

"Shh, I'm at the part where they visit Sandy's grave on Christmas," she said, adding, "and it's snowing on her headstone," as if that explained everything.

I still hoped it was a phase they'd outgrow, even after Zoe, who is now 20, passed along her extensive collection of Lurlene McDaniel weepers (including Mother, Help Me Live, Sixteen and Dying and Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep) to Ella, now 18, who in turn gave them to Clementine, 11.

But after my girls moved on to the harder stuff, the oeuvre of Jodi Picoult — full of battered wives, date rapes and exceedingly rare birth defects that portend a life of pain — I had to face the truth.

"We've raised trauma junkies," I said to my husband one day last week, after I walked into the kitchen and found my daughters checking the show times for My Sister's Keeper.

"Is that the one where a mother abandons a baby with AIDS?" my husband asked.

No, that was a Lurlene McDaniel," Zoe said.

"That was Baby Alicia Is Dying," I clarified. "In this one, the parents have a baby so they can harvest it for parts."

"Yes, the mother loves the other daughter more," said Ella, a middle child.

"We're going to see it at 6:45," Zoe said.

"Not me," my husband said. "I haven't been able to see a sad movie since Gladiator."

"Do you want to come, Mom?" Clementine asked.

No way! I'm too impressionable to see any movie where children, puppies or even the environment face peril. Start down that road, and before you know it, people will expect you to endure Love Story again. Or (shudder) Terms of Endearment.

"Come on, Mom," Zoe said. "Just once?"

I looked at my trauma junkies: the healthy, well-loved products of a stable family, girls to whom the worst thing that ever happened was the premature death of a pet crawfish named Walter. Suddenly I felt very confused.

Could someone please explain why my daughters — and many others — find these sad, improbably mawkish tales irresistible?

The answer, unfortunately, is no. Not really. There are a lot of theories, of course, many of which I heard after I started phoning around for advice. I talked to sociologists and specialists who study children's literature and even, amazingly, an English professor who recently wrote an entire scholarly paper analyzing the work of Lurlene McDaniel.

What I learned was that maybe these sorts of stories help young readers find a context for their own lives in what one researcher calls our modern "emergency culture."

"Everything feels urgent these days, from the threat of sexually transmitted diseases to climate change. It's all extreme and it all feels dangerous," said Nathalie op de Beeck, the McDaniel scholar who teaches English at Pacific Lutheran University.

Or maybe — and this is the theory I prefer, if only because the implications are less appalling — today's tear-jerkers are a new example of an age-old fascination with other people's problems, the modern equivalent of going to the opera to see a tortured Tosca leap to her death from the Castel Sant'Angelo.

Even the ancient Greeks liked to rubberneck at disaster. "It goes back to Aristotle, who said tragedy that inspires pity and fear is the great emetic," said Bruce Edward Fleming, an English professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. "So it's okay to cry over Tosca, then go home and be happy, because nothing bad happened to you."

With that in mind, I went to the movie.

"It's going to be very sad, so take these tissues," Clementine said as we entered the theater.

"I'll be fine," I said.

And I was. For about five minutes. But then the impossibly blond daughter got cancer, and the impossibly beautiful mother (Cameron Diaz, wearing really cute T-shirts) declared, "I'm not going to let her die," and the tears started rolling.

I sneaked a peek at my daughters.

They looked solemn, and brave, as a chorus of strangled sobs started to rise from the audience.

"Breathe through your mouth," Clem advised, and not a moment too soon, because by the time the sick daughter — now bald and wearing a wig — asked, "Daddy, do I look pretty?" I was completely choked up and had lost the use of my nasal passages.

I started wondering if I could suffocate in my sinus-impacted condition and whether my untimely end might inspire some future tearjerker titled Mommy Choked on Her Sorrow.

Luckily, this distracted me from the funeral scene. By the time I staggered out of the theater, my greatest concern was for my children's state of mind.

"Are you okay?" I gasped as I leaned against the wall outside. One daughter reached over and gently tucked a tangled hank of my hair behind my ear.

"When the sick girl's eyes turned to blood eyes at the end, I just lost it," Zoe said.

Ella, who'd seen the movie a week before, admitted to crying in all the same places (whenever the mother tried to take the second daughter's kidney).

"That was sooo sad," Clementine said, and everyone happily agreed.

Some girls just love a good tragedy 07/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 18, 2009 5:30am]

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