Last night I was teaching a residency on “The Mousetrap” to a group of teenagers. And, like, okay. “The Mousetrap.” Whatever. Ugh. In case you don’t know “The Mousetrap” — it’s the Agatha Christie murder mystery that has been running in London’s West End since forever, and it’s the grandfather of all of those tropes: bunch of people gathered at a house in a storm, someone is dead, whodunit.
It’s been awhile since I read it, and I had forgotten how much the classic ‘murder mystery’ relies on dated, tired stereotypes at its core. It was written in the late forties and early fifties, and a lot of the plot hinges on tired stereotypes: the “masculine woman with the firm handshake,” the “peculiar young man with an enthusiasm for cooking and furniture styles,” the “creepy foreigner with the funny accent.” It’s written before anyone was coming right out and using words like “gay” or “lesbian,” but it’s there, if you read closely.
I’m watching these kids start to clock the coded language. Some of my students have accents. Some might be questioning their own sexuality. And I’m watching them realize that the entire script hinges on this idea that those who are “other” are suspicious. The default assumption that if a quirk about your essential nature that falls outside the ‘straight white norm,’ it’s enough to count against you in a murder investigation.
And then one of my students pipes up, the smallest one of the bunch, who has a learning disability. She’s been staring at the section of the script where the (inferred gay) character is offering to help prepare dinner, to the derision of others.
She says, “I think Christopher is a really nice guy, and I don’t know why people think he’s so strange. I think he’s a lot like me. Our brains just work a little bit differently, and it takes us longer to get places sometimes. But mostly, everybody is really nice to me, and patient when my brain is doing different things. I wish they would be nice to Christopher.”
I wish they would be nice to Christopher, too. I wished that right as my heart began to melt.
The whodunit because a whodathunkit in that single moment: who’d have thunk that an old chestnut of a play that leans so heavily on stereotype could unlock something that looked so much like empathy. That could have caused the other kids to sit up and listen, to be just a little bit more patient.
The world is filled with a lot of fear these days. Fear of others. Fear of the unknown. Fear of what is not like us. Fear of what is different.
It was a little moment, and this is just a little story, a drop in the bucket. But. I needed that. I needed that reminder of why stories are important. I needed to remember how we learn to be less afraid.
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