1. The most straightforward case
I tried out for a teaching gig at a riding school near where I grew up. The place was rundown and their safety standards were not up to mine: I had to insist on the students wearing helmets, and I had to double-check that everyones’ girths were correctly buckled, and there were complaints when I didn’t let the rank beginners gallop their horses around. Despite my best efforts, the horses flared their nostrils and pranced and boasted to one another. It’s what horses do.
All through our lesson, helicopters hovered over the bush nearby; and the trail ride that had gone out failed and failed and failed to come back.
It transpired that they had taken out a woman who had no English and no helmet, and her horse had bolted with her and she had fallen on her head, and the helicopter was her airlift out.
I thanked them and told them that I was no longer interested in the job. I heard, later, that she had lived, albeit with traumatic brain injury.
Straightforward cases are rhinoceroses. They’re not quite unicorns, in that they do exist. They are just very rare.
The Sydney Anglican Church has a generous helping of Omelas. At its summer camps, bright-towered by the sea, the sunlight sparkles in the rigging of boats. Sandstone churches nestle in moss-grown gardens. At least when I was growing up, there was altogether too much shimmering tambourine. Glebe – an inner-city suburb that belongs to the church, an old word meaning the clergyman’s benefice and income – is nothing if not great parks and houses with red roofs and painted walls.
The parish to which I belonged had more Omelas in it than most. There was a room with a locked door, and in that room was a child. It was not defective and it was not dirty, but it was abused.
It would be satisfying to say that I walked away from the church because of the child. Satisfying, but untrue. I walked away – stumbled away, rather – because I was lied to, and it broke me. It wasn’t until a few years later that I found out about the child, and understood what had happened to it as of a piece with the rest of the lies.
What is true is that I can no longer remember my childhood’s sparkling boats or the old people in their robes or the music without thinking, with fury and anguish, of that child in the locked room.
Intermission: A song for Le Guin
You were the tattered paperback on my sister’s bookshelf; you were my endlessly overdue library books; you did a reading at a bookstore in the Haight the week of the September 11 attacks. Do you remember? I was the young woman in the back quietly weeping. Well, I was one of them. You taught me the true name of the shadow, and what dragons are. You taught me how to revisit my old stories and rewrite them. You showed me what I wanted to be: a mind always reaching out, reaching out to be whole. You are my Great Bear and my Master Doorkeeper. I love you.
3. A disorderly retreat
Not surprisingly, then, one of my abortive PhD proposals was on feminist scifi, and perhaps in one of my alternate-universe lives I hold the Ursula K. Le Guin Chair in Postcolonialist Speculative Fiction (is this a real thing? Because it bloody well ought to be.) In this life I have a master’s degree and am a professor of nothing, because even in 1994 when I graduated, no matter how many times I ran the numbers, I could not find a way to stay in the academy and indulge an expensive passion for equestrian sport.
More frighteningly, very few of the scenarios I ran included the ability to keep much of a roof over my own head. When I looked around at my peers and the cohort ahead of me in graduate school, their lives and prospects could best be described with words like “monastic” and “austere.” Twenty years later, when I look at the academic careers of young people with qualifications like mine, I come up with words like “predicament,” “soul-destroying” and “ongoing scandal.”
Once again, I wish I had left the academy because I was taking a principled stand against the exploitation of grad student labour. In fact, I grabbed whatever I could carry and fled.
Epilogue: Living and working in Omelas
Whether you walk, stumble or flee from Omelas, it turns out the worlds beyond the city have something in common: locked rooms in which children are being held prisoner. I live in San Francisco now, and on our good days my friends and I might qualify as mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives are not wretched. (On our bad days all bets are off.) With one voice, the authorities in our lives insist that the price of our happiness includes torture, drones, and the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. I don’t know whether this is true, but I know that I am complicit in these atrocities.
And then there’s White feminism and its history of racism (and its histories of ableism and classism and transphobia and and and.) I’m a feminist to my bone marrow, but I’ll be damned if I’ll obtain my own liberation at the expense of anyone else.
I used to think the answer to the challenge of “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” would be for the walkers to join forces, fly back to the city with helicopter gunships and free the child by any means necessary. Now I think the best we can do is practise vigilance. To watch out for people who might be locking children in rooms. And to refrain from locking children in rooms ourselves.
Have you walked away? What’s it like where you are?