Watching The Hours is inevitably an enthralling and destabilizing experience for me. If you haven’t seen this movie (or read the luminous book it was based on), you should do so now because I’m about to spoil the story.
Laura Brown is a 1950’s housewife with a doting husband, a suburban home in southern California, a beautiful (if intense) little son, and a daughter on the way. But it is evident from the very beginning of her story that Laura is burdened by some malaise, one that becomes so onerous, she comes very close to killing herself. But at the end of the movie, we find out that a few months after giving birth, Laura got on a bus and went to Canada, never seeing her family again.
Laura Brown’s abandonment of her family is unthinkable to me. Monstrous, as one character puts it. Her actions are so far out of my experience and thoughts that I cannot imagine what would motivate her to do such a thing. And the story gives me little help. I’ve watched the movie at least half a dozen times and have found only one hint as to what might have motivated Laura Brown. At the end of the movie, a much older Laura tells another character, “I had a choice between life and death. I chose life.” No particulars, no details, no backstory. We just have to take her word for it. For a long time, I felt that this was a weakness in the story.
But recently, I realized that the story of Abraham and Isaac has a structure very similar to Laura Brown’s. Abraham has a doting wife, a tent in the sunny desert, and a beautiful son. But he is weighed down by a burden so onerous that he comes very close to voluntarily killing his son. Why does he try to perform such a monstrous act? The story gives us only one hint: because God had commanded it (without giving a reason why). Abraham had to choose between obeying and disobeying the life force of the universe. And he chose to obey it. But he gives us no particulars, no details, no backstory. We just have to take Abraham’s word for it.
My reaction to Abraham’s story is the same as my reaction to Laura Brown’s. I cannot conceive of what would make anyone decide it would be acceptable to kill one of their children. I cannot imagine Abraham’s state of mind or his motivation. I would have told God that he needed to go dunk his head in a bucket of cold water and start thinking straight.
Then I noticed other unthinkables sprinkled throughout the scriptures—Jesus advising his followers that they would do well to leave their families to follow him, telling them that they needed to let the dead bury their dead—and I began to understand what Laura Brown’s story was doing.
Is it worth sacrificing money to save your soul? Is it worth sacrificing a job, a boat, a car, social status? These two stories bypass those banal questions without even a glance. They take us right to the edge of the cliff and push us off. How great is the worth of one’s soul? So great that Laura Brown left her young family to preserve hers. So great that Abraham made his only son into a sacrifice in order to preserve his.
She who has ears, let her hear past the monstrous metaphors and into their meaning.
Mormonism’s unique teaching that Jesus was married during his mortal life (and possibly even a family man) adds an extra twist to this interpretation. Did Jesus play the role of Laura Brown? Did he abandon his family and die on the cross to save his soul? Mormonism seems to teach it. Your soul is worth anything.
These stories range far beyond the normal advice to preserve one’s soul by being nice, helpful, and obedient. They seem to teach that we must be on such intimate terms with the workings of our own souls that like Laura Brown, Abraham, or Jesus, we can apprehend what utterly mysterious and uniquely personal acts (interior or exterior) we must perform in order to save it.
Andre Gregory put it well, “Have a real relationship [with your soul]—well, that’s completely unpredictable. Then, you’ve cut off all you ties to the land, and you’re sailing into the unknown, into uncharted seas.”