It’s 2005-ish. I’m a straight-A student and I’m on the varsity tennis team. I go to church even though I’m an atheist and I’ve known it since elementary school. My mom insists it’s important to be born-again. For some reason the stories they tell just sound like stories to me. They hold little weight, and in my mind, about as much credibility as fairy tales. I read a lot. Always fiction.
I live in a rural town in Kern County with a tiny population. Everyone does 4H and then graduates to Future Farmers of America. Not me. It never sparked my interest even though my friends enjoy raising animals. Those organizations were designed to teach kids about business, community, service, and leadership. I personally feel like it teaches kids how to trade an animal’s life for money. And how to separate emotions from the process. And probably those other things too.
I have black and red spiked hair; my Converse shoes are disgusting because I wear them to every punk rock show in every gross basement venue I’ve ever been to. The same pair. My dad takes my friends and I and stands in the back to keep watch. I listen to The Dead Kennedy’s a lot. My parents won’t let me go to Warped Tour because it’s too “violent.” I don’t blame them. If I was my dad I wouldn’t want to stand around in 100-degree weather all day either.
My parents have their flaws but one thing is clear to me now: They supported my insistent, stubborn need to question everything, and resist even the simplest claim just for the sake of rebelling. Later on, in college, my professors would call this act: “Asking the other question.” It’s basically a fancy way of explaining to your naive, sheltered, college-kid mind that not everything you’re told is true, and certainly not everything you know is true. So instead of just asking a simple “why,” you should ask why you’re even asking why to begin with. Hopefully that makes sense.
One day I start reading Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk. It was a standard fiction choice, I thought. Palahniuk wrote Fight Club which pretty much made him famous. Brad Pitt as a main character in the movie version will do that.
And that’s the back story.
It was hard for me to not just turn this blog post into a book report because the book is GOOD. I’ve read it many times over the years, and re-read it again this week just to make notes and do a perspective check. It’s still just as good.
The basic plot line is: A journalist finds a poem that when read or even thought has the power to kill. No crime scene, no evidence, nothing. Just recite it aloud, or in your head with the intent to murder, and the victim is dead without a fingerprint on them. It’s described as a “plague you catch through your ears.”
So obviously this story is a parable or a metaphor for the dangers inherent to the dissemination of information during the age of mass media. Constant news, advertisement- the power of ideas. This spoke to me. Not only did I want to grow up to be a journalist, but the idea of that kind of control fascinated me. And when I made the connection that we are exposed to that level of power and corruption daily, hundreds if not thousands of times, I was completely enthralled.
In the book Palahniuk writes:
“Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed… He’s making sure you’re attention is always filled.
And this being fed, it’s worse than being watched. With the world always filling you, no one has to worry about what’s in your mind. With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world.”
Keep in mind this is before social media and smartphones were popular.
In the book there’s a character named Oyster. He’s a vegan and an anarchist. He’s the villain and the hero. He spouts lines about using the poem to wipe out the human race as a means to save the earth. What we’re doing is unforgivable so we need to start from scratch. Population control isn’t good enough; we need a clean slate. We’ve made everything our enemy in order to justify destroying it. Other people, animals, the environment. It’s the only way. He’s meant to be a contradiction because he uses a cell phone and money, therefore he clearly operates within the constraints of modern society which he argues against. Turns out we’re all a little bit Oyster.
Which brings us to how I became vegetarian. Take my stubborn resistance of popular ideas, my new-found understanding of mass media (it being an intentional distraction from the truth) and a vehemently vegan fictional character. Now I’m doing 16-year-old research. A lot of it.
Oyster goes on rants about everything, but animal welfare mainly. He’s the personification of counter-culture while simultaneously being the very plague that destroys our illusion of the truth. He’s the “virus of information.”
He’d say philosophical things like:
“The only power of life and death you have is every time you order a hamburger from McDonald’s. You pay your filthy money, and somewhere else, the ax falls.”
And then he’d say more matter-of-fact things like:
“Did you know that most pigs don’t bleed to death in the few seconds before they’re drowned in scalding, hundred-and-forty-degree water?”
But then he says something I’ll never forget:
“I just love everything the same. Plants, animals, humans. I just don’t believe the big lie about how we can continue to be fruitful and multiply without destroying ourselves.”
Obviously this is just a fictional book. Palahniuk is just an author- a person with his own biases and ideas. But in those moments I felt like I had finally figured out a moral framework that made sense to me, and that still does. It ignited a passion in me for searching for the truth, which was always there buried underneath the noise.
Why am I eating the things I’m eating?
Who made the food pyramid that hangs in my Home Economics class?
How are animals treated in slaughterhouses?
Why is this information so hard to find?
Why do we consider certain animals companions, and others commodities?
Why do we teach children to commodify animal life at such an early age?
Who has a vested interest in the success of animal agriculture?
And the list grew. And I researched more. I took a secret trip to Warped Tour that summer and talked to the cool punk-rock-looking college kids tabling for PETA. And I spread the word, and put fliers in lockers, and stickers on everything. And I stopped eating meat.