As you may know, Mockingbird HQ is situated here in happy, wealthy, intellectual, pastoral Charlottesville, Virginia. When I moved to Charlottesville for college almost 15 years ago, it was considered “America’s Happiest City” and one of the best places in America to raise a family. It still is. For this reason, and others, there is a collective sense of self-congratulation in the air here, that we have created in this bucolic landscape something smarter, more progressive, and more cosmopolitan than the status quo small town. I am definitely a part of this proud effort. Even in the moments when I roll my eyes at yet another Mediterranean grain bowl chain opening, I would be a hypocrite not to admit that I have eaten at them all. I love Charlottesville, and all its noble trappings.

But over the past couple years, as the news has made plain, the hidden realities and unspoken, historic divisions of this place have come to the surface, and most-lovely-in-America Charlottesville has had to come to grips with (or justify against) the existence of a more hideous character defect. Signs have been dug into front yards, t-shirts printed, institutional statements made. It is plain to see: the degree of reactivity in this town is directly proportional to the degree of shock that we as a town have felt, learning that we live alongside this hideous Other. If Charlottesville was self-congratulatory before, it has reached a new stratum. Virtue signaling is everywhere. Everywhere people are saying, with their signs and their church banners and their social media activism, “This isn’t us. We aren’t that. Those people don’t live here.”

But they do live here.

Robert Penn Warren (author of All the King’s Men) wrote a two-act play in the early 1950s called Brother to Dragons. The play takes this difficult reality of human hideousness (and the collective fiction we concoct to deny it) and places it in the lap of Charlottesville’s father eternal, Thomas Jefferson. The play contains a fictional conversation between the author and Mr. Jefferson, in an afterlife of sorts, after Jefferson has come to terms with a rather troubling fact about his family: his niece and nephew brutally murdered a young slave after breaking a family vase. Jefferson, reflecting on this awful event, must reconsider everything he ever knew (or penned, for that matter, in our country’s founding documents) about human nature.

Jefferson, titan of Enlightenment progress, true believer in the capacities of sound reason, is confronted by a crime of passion in his own family. It is an inexplicable evil, and more than that, an evil in which he is complicit, both as an uncle and as a fellow slaveholder. His belief in the power of reasoning out liberty or justice is exposed to him as a farcical abstraction, a “bright apparition.” While humanity before this terrible experience had been an ideology, a “towering / Definition, angelic, arrogant, abstract,” he is now forced to reckon with  the truth: that he himself is both angel and demon, gentleman and monster. 

I, too, was unprepared for the nature of the world,

And, I confess, for my own nature.

Warren’s poem/play does something that few artists have done in the face of race issues today. It positions both sides of a national conflict within one human heart. One individual with innumerable accomplishments and a legendary institutional lineage— “The Pen of the Revolution,” “The Man of the People”—also had, in his very blood, the stain of institutional slavery and murder. Not until after death, according to Robert Penn Warren’s tale, is Jefferson willing to account for his true human nature. 

Fast forward to this month, the anniversary of Charlottesville’s terrible event last year, and taking in the scene from our office across the street, the same Jeffersonian idealism reigns supreme. While it has become clear that the town is divided, there is little-to-no evidence that each individual is. People, actual individuals, have become instead the faceless employees of an ideology—the right kind or the wrong kind. It makes you wonder if Robert Penn Warren had a hypothesis, that if you reversed the equation, and you saw each person as a person, with a long, long lineage of beauty and savagery, you might get somewhere.

Tony Hoagland seems to have a similar hypothesis. Hoagland is a favorite poet, known for having a courageous (and often hilarious) comprehension of his own inner-monsters. I didn’t know he had cancer, but he released an essay in this month’s Sun Magazine, which details his experiences in the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. The article bears the irresistible title, “The Cure for Racism Is Cancer.”

Hoagland describes how this place has, paradoxically, become something like the Kingdom of God in the most excruciating of ways.

This room…is full of people of different ages, body types, skin colors, religious preferences, mother tongues, and cultural backgrounds. Standing along one wall, in work boots, denim overalls, and a hunter’s camouflage hat, is a white rancher in his forties. Nervously, he shifts from foot to foot, a styrofoam cup of coffee in his hand. An elderly Chinese couple sit side by side, silently studying their phones. The husband is watching a video. The wife is the sick one, pale and gaunt. Her head droops as if she is fighting sleep. An African American family occupies a corner. They are wearing church clothes; the older kids are supervising the younger ones while two grown women lean into their conversation and a man — fiftyish, in a gray sports coat — stares into space.

America, that old problem of yours? Racism? I have a cure for it: Get cancer. Come into these waiting rooms and clinics, the cold radiology units and the ICU cubicles. Take a walk down Leukemia Lane with a strange pain in your lower back and an uneasy sense of foreboding. Make an appointment for your CAT scan. Wonder what you are doing here among all these sick people: the retired telephone lineman, the grandmother, the junior-high-school soccer coach, the mother of three.

…I wish there were other ways to cure your racism, America, but I don’t see one. Frankly your immune system seems to be the problem. Installed by history and maintained by privilege, it is too robust, too entrenched to be undone by anything less than disaster. That’s how it is for a lot of us. If you are white and doing well in America, a voice whispers to you incessantly, repeating that you deserve to be on top, that to profit is your just reward. And it’s not only white people who need the cancer cure; it’s any person who thinks that someone of another religion, color, or background is somehow not indisputably, equally human.

Hoagland describes how, beyond the cancer ward, life is easy to simplify into schemas of belonging and identity. It takes something like cancer to implode all the stories about ourselves (and our cultural Others) we spend so much time reinforcing.

In the country of cancer everyone is simultaneously a have and a have-not. In this land no citizens are protected by property, job description, prestige, and pretensions; they are not even protected by their prejudices. Neither money nor education, greed nor ambition, can alter the facts. You are all simply cancer citizens, bargaining for more life.

It is true that this is not a country you ever planned to visit, much less move to. It is true that you may not have previously considered these people your compatriots. But now you have more in common with them than with your oldest childhood friends. You live together in the community of cancer.

Then he gives a picture of this community.

In nothing but my hospital gown and cotton long johns, I have pushed my IV pole down the corridors at midnight, trying to keep my skinny legs from getting weaker. I’ve rolled my IV miles through the deserted hallways and empty waiting rooms, taken it over the sky bridge and back. Once, at 1 AM, I met a black guy doing the same thing. We paused and talked a bit, in our matching pale-green smocks, with our IV poles and drip bags. He explained to me, with a strange enthusiasm, that his doctors had cut out and then reversed his rectum, and now they would not discharge him until he could pass gas for himself. That’s why he was out walking so vigorously each night. As we stood there together on the wide, deserted walkway, it seemed as if cancer had erased our differences by bringing us into the intimacy of shared trouble. Then, with a nod, he strode swiftly away on his muscular legs, at least four times as fit as I was.

In the Republic of Cancer you might have your prejudices shattered. In the rooms of this great citadel, patients of one color are cared for by people of other colors. In elevators and operating theaters one accent meets another and — sometimes only after repetition — squeezes through the transom of comprehension. And when the nurse from the Philippines, or the aide from Houston’s Fifth Ward, or the tech named Dev says, “I’ll pray for you,” you are filled with gratitude for their compassion.

Bowel activity is a weird topic to begin the work of reconciliation and forgiveness, but it is actually perfect. The power of the cancer ward lies directly in the “laying low” of its parishioners. No one would prefer to be there; they would prefer their ideas, their “bright apparitions”; they would prefer their lives on their own terms. But when even your bowels aren’t cooperating to your terms–when you are distinctly aware of the dying animal you are–your idealizations must submit. Thankfully, Hoagland offers, submitting to this helplessness may surprise you—in the best of ways. Especially for the proud, the intellectual, the self-congratulatory among you (of whom I am chief), a resurrection first requires a death.

Unfortunately you must come here, America. You must lie on the gurney and be wheeled down miles of corridor under a sheet, staring up at the perforated-tile ceiling and the fluorescent lights, not knowing quite where you are. You have to ride a wheelchair to your date with the MRI machine, past women and men being wheeled to similar destinations. You will look into faces lined with fatigue and pain and anxiety. Often a glance will pass between you: a glance without the slightest veil of disguise or pretense; a look of recognition and solidarity. It is a strange communion, but that is what it is.

…So, America, I express this rather unconventional wish for you: I hope you get cancer. In order to change, you must cross this threshold, enter a condition of helplessness, and experience the mysterious intimacy between the sick and their caregivers, between yourself and every person who is equally laid low.