December 30, 2008
If John Patrick Shanley considered several one-word titles for his play before eventually settling on Doubt, chances are one of the possibilities was "Candor"; almost never in my life have I heard people talk so openly to each other about such sensitive issues. The discussions between the characters in Doubt are so brutally honest, in fact, that I found myself scoffing at the screen in my head, thinking "Come on, people don't have conversations like this."
But to get caught up in questions about the reality of the language used is to miss the point of the story. Whether spoken with these words or not, the arguments between Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) and Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) certainly happen in real life. They might communicate non-verbally or through third parties, but judging by the number of shameful accusations made against Catholic priests in the last two generations, there is no "doubt" that men of the cloth have found themselves under obvious suspicion from those in their innermost circles.
Shanley's play, which was adapted by him for the film directed by him, is a rich study of the pain and suffering that comes not from knowing that a crime has been committed, but from not knowing for certain that a crime has been committed. The doubt itself is in some ways worse than the actual sin - not necessarily in God's eyes, but in the experience of the individual.
Take the wife of a cheating husband, for example, never sure how to interpret his sneaky behavior. Or the teacher of a dishonest student who turns in a plagiarized assignment. Or, more significantly, the police officer who draws his weapon on a shadowy figure or the president who sends his country to a war based on questionable intelligence.
For each person, the gnawing uncertainty about their gut feelings is torturous. Actually confirming that the husband is unfaithful, or that the student has lifted from a classmate, or that the risk of danger was unfounded, doesn't make the problem go away. But it does make coping easier, if only because the individual can acknowledge the truth and move on, for better or worse. Until this truth is known, however, the person will endlessly suffer through cycles of certainty and skepticism. I would even argue that regret, in one of its many forms, is simply doubt by another name. When I think back on my life, half of the decisions that haunt me are the ones for which I'll never truly know the "other" outcome.
I haven't experienced the horrors of sexual abuse, but I can only imagine that those who have, especially by a trusted individual like a priest or teacher or relative, may be forever filled with doubt and suspicion and distrust of people in such positions. It must be extremely difficult to regain faith in former beliefs, evidenced by Sister Aloysius in Doubt or, as another recent example, Juliette Fontaine's brother-in-law in I've Loved You So Long.
How do you quiet the questions in your head and heart? I don't know, and I also don't know if you should attempt to relieve yourself of all uncertainties - after all, you can't have faith without also having doubt. But somewhere you have to draw the line and make a decision, and I've found it's nearly impossible to do that with any level of comfort.
What did you take home?