The Wicked Truth: When Good People Do Bad Things by Suzanne Ross
Suzanne Ross’ book, The Wicked Truth:When Good People Do Bad Things, is the thinking person’s guide to the wildly successful Broadway musical Wicked. Using political, social, and historical examples, it explores the ways in which modern society is not so different than the mythical Land of Oz. The Wicked Truth challenges the very framework of our culture, our understandings of Good and Evil, as well as our sense of right and wrong. Whether you’ve seen the show or not, discovering The Wicked Truth’s broad application, to everything from personal relationships, to how our society is governed, will leave you spellbound.
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It is a rare privilege as an artist to have one’s work explored in such a profound way. The Wicked Truth is a fascinating and valuable study of the ways we all wrestle with the wickedness within and without us and how we can combat it.
The Wicked Truth is a brave book- it takes courage to look at ourselves with honesty. The book addresses questions that are fascinating and important, questions every person should consider. From the first few pages it is clear the author is driven by a sincere desire to learn and understand all aspects of the truth, and she does this by drawing from a rich variety of sources. – Nancy Hua of Chicago, Illinois
This book was a fun way to go through the entire musical Wicked from a sociological point of view. The book was fun and was a quick read. Really love Wicked the Musical, and this accompanied it well. It did remind me how mean people are in high school and how easily people are drawn to the popular ones and swayed into being less than nice to people who may be different than you. I would recommend this book to any sociologist ( like me) who also saw Wicked the Musical. – Julie M. Brandt, Sociologist
Your use of The Wizard of Oz and Wicked to illustrate looking at a situation from the “other’s” perspective was easy to understand and very effective. – Margie P, CWU member
Hi! I was in Barnes & Noble the other day and saw your book in the Performing Arts/Theatre section. I couldn’t resist buying it then and there (I had planned to buy it online but couldn’t wait). Anyway, I spent two days reading it cover to cover. I must say, THANK YOU for bringing to light so many complex social, political, theological, and other issues. What a great book! – Chris K., Doctoral student in theology
By guiding the reader through the deeper messages of the hit Broadway play, Wicked, Suzanne Ross is able to reveal how it is that good people may sometimes commit treacherous acts and justify them as acts of righteousness. She shows how easy it is to scapegoat innocent victims so that we may feel better about ourselves. In the process, she offers an antidote for all potential scapegoat victims: Your being is not subject to the approval of your victimizers; rather, it is a gracious gift given to all of us at birth. Being secure in our own sense of being can thus free us to live compassionately. The Wicked Truth offers a cogent layman’s introduction to the social insights of Rene Girard and hence opens a door for a fresh look at the core messages of Christianity and other religions. Read the book and watch the play. You’re sure to be enriched in the process. – Bill Koures, scientist & professional trader
Up here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts where the Salem Witch Trials took place, the word “wicked” has acquired unique status and use. Instead of being the equivalent of evil, “wicked” has become an intensifier, a word that could more literally be translated as “extremely” when used as an adjective. When my eldest left for college in Pennsylvania, she was quickly identified as being from Massachusetts due to this habit of speech. It’s the sort of thing that isn’t noted so much in its absence, but for those unfamiliar with it, its presence stands out, startling the ear with its extremity. I share this linguistic quirk as prelude to the new book The Wicked Truth: When Good People Do Bad Things by Suzanne Ross.
More Get Wicked
Not only is the truth she presents in the book wicked good; it is also wicked evil. It is wicked in both the traditional and the colloquial use of the word. She tells the extreme truth and she tells the truth of wickedness (never the same as “wicked anything”!) as she exposes the anthropological truth about human violence. Using the insights of Mimetic Theory, quoting Girard, Alison, the Bible, and a host of others, she illustrates the wicked truth of human culture through the Broadway musical Wicked. Referencing Frank L. Baum’s novel The Wizard of Oz and the 1939 movie by the same title, she encourages us to examine what we thought we knew by heart. In fact, we do know this story by heart; for several generations much of America has had its childhood shaped by this tale of good and evil. We’re pretty clear on what the moral of the story is; we all feel Dorothy’s angst in her desire to return home safely, and we flinch at her scary adventures along the way. We rejoice when the wicked witch is dead and good has triumphed over evil through the plucky action of the otherwise innocent victim. In the end, good does triumph over evil, even when good is a young girl up against the evil of the witch and her flying monkeys. Phrases such as “You’re not in Kansas anymore” and “Follow the yellow brick road” have become part of our national speech. It’s a simple story with a simple moral we can all get.
Except, to get the truth of The Wizard of Oz, we really need both Wicked and The Wicked Truth. The lyrics and text of the musical are magnificent from a Girardian perspective, and Ross guides us through them and the process of cultural exposé and personal growth with aplomb. Moving smoothly from the text to explanation and illustration of the dynamics within it, she helps us link our personal experiences of daily living with the new picture of truth that lies exposed on the stage. Sharing her own life experiences and observations, she keeps us engaged with the process; it is hard to reduce it to merely another academic or intellectual exercise. The book is structured in short chapters and interspersed with Emerald Notes – bits of information and discussion that supplement and illustrate the text, but are set outside it in bright green ink. Encompassing everything from personal anecdote to the Bible and a little psychology, they are valuable in and of themselves. While drawing on the Bible and on Girard in ways that will likely be familiar to readers of PreachingPeace, Ross’s greatest strength from my perspective was her reliance on commonly lived experience and cultural phenomena to illustrate her points.
What is for some a peculiar academic perspective -Mimetic Theory- becomes a logical explanation of their own lives spelled out on stage and in print- and even in the Bible. For those of us in churches who need to be able to teach this truth without appearing to assault or violate the traditions that have given meaning to people’s lives, The Wicked Truth may be a good way to do that. For those of us looking for a way to do evangelism without requiring a course in Biblical Studies as a primer, this could also be helpful. For people unfamiliar with Bible stories, The Wizard of Oz provides a non-threatening entry into a perspective on humanity for which the solution is Jesus. While Ross doesn’t do an altar call at the end of her book, she does set us up for it, citing Jesus in an Emerald Note. Lastly, and perhaps best of all, the book is simply good fun. It flows, it reads easily, and it’s wicked interesting. The Wicked Truth is wicked truth indeed! Get wicked, and have a great time with it! Posted on the Preaching Peace Blog
http://preachingpeace.blogs.com/preaching_peace/2008/06/get-wicked.html – Nancy Hitt, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Natick, MA
Review by Professor Andrew McKenna
Among the many hundreds the books and articles devoted to the exploration of mimetic theory, there exists a class of “How to” or User manuals whose interest is to bring René GIRARD’s ideas outside the classroom and back down to street and living room level, to where humans interact with one another in utterly commonplace circumstances that mostly comprise our daily lives. This remains the theory’s richest terrain, being, after all, where the novelists and playwrights who have informed GIRARD’s thinking from the outset forged their genial intuitions. One of the reasons that these ideas have survived the culture wars of the 80s and 90s is that they provide concrete answers to questions about how theory plays out on the streets.
More of Professor McKenna’s Review
In no particular order of preference, I would name Gil BAILIE’s prize winning Violence Unveiled, Jim GROTE’s and John MCGEENEY’s Clever as Serpents: Business Ethics and Office Politics, Roel KAPTEIN’s On the Way of Freedom, and James ALISON’s more recent books. Suzanne ROSS’s The Wicked Truth is a fertile addition to this stock for the way it elucidates and embellishes the insights to be drawn from the immensely popular musical Wicked. This is the first publication to come from the Raven Foundation, which counts me, by way of disclosure, on its board of directors, and whose aim of “addressing conflict by advancing the awareness of René Girard’s mimetic theory among the general public” (ravenfoundation.org) is handsomely served here.
Based on the still best-selling novel by Gregory MAGUIRE, Stephen SCHWARTZ’s musical stages a prequel to MGM’s well-beloved Wizard of Oz of 1939, where the wicked witch is a burlesque foil to Dorothy’s beguiling innocence. We flash back to an imaginary reconstruction of family and social conflicts that could issue in this resounding triumph of good over evil, which even the film caricatures brilliantly enough.
I do not wish to go into plot details because the musical’s unfolding is so much fun, and it is not necessary, since the vivacity and acuity of ROSS’s argument is not dependent on any one plot line in particular; it extends to all our psychodramatic dysfunctions. Her purport is that Wicked is host to truths we all know—and deny— about ourselves. This book is not an intrusive interpretation of a pop culture artifact, but a highlighting, underlining, and further explicitation of the logic of mimetic reciprocity, good and bad, benign and malignant, that the musical makes fully available. It is a harmonizing of voices, GIRARD’s and SCHWARTZ’s, that, unbeknownst to each other, are attuned to the same understanding of the intertwining pathologies of identity and belonging whose yield is scapegoating practices that we all know and love to hate.
So, frequent readers of the Bulletin might ask, what’s new? How does this book enhance our grasp of mimetic theory? Many of us are attracted to this theory by a sense of its manifold implications for ordinary behavior, for everyday interactions that result in unwonted resentments, rivalries, and misprisions. The Wicked Truth excels here, showing how a seemingly outlandish witch-hunting lynch mob that can polarize an entire community is heir to prosaic dramas of the classroom and the dance floor, where commonplace manipulations and cruelties propagate inclusions and exclusions by which we fashion our very fragile and altogether residual identity.
Mimesis is the parent, socially as well as etymologically, of self-image, whose construction is too often adversarial, in litigious dependence on its outcasts and pariahs. This generates the Sacrificial System, as ROSS identifies it, which “corrupts all human relationships through blindness and confusion” (85). In short, it “destroys our ability to love” (143), contaminating the moral imagination of persecutors and victims alike, as she goes on to analyze the trap of victimary identity that “mirrors the very thing it is opposing” (104). Genuine difference and diversity fall prey to complementary and reinforcing symmetries of good and evil; opponents identified as either “not the Wicked Witch” or “other than the Wizard” replicate each other’s recriminations. As if recalling Oedipus and Teresias and many another tragic duo, ROSS observes how “they sing almost the same words and the anger in their voices is indistinguishable”(120).
This is a case, among others, where art functions as theory, highlighting the pattern over the personal. Good and evil line up against each other in this structure like the utterly vacuous signifiers of Saussurean linguistics: oppositive, relative, negative. Far too often, ROSS remarks, it “is not really about identifying evil—it is about feeling good about ourselves. … It only matters that we believe we have located evil somewhere out there, outside of ourselves” (52). As she shows us in a telling metaphorical riff, we grasp at snapshots, photographic stills dispensing moral security, but reality is more like a motion picture, with all the variety, complexity, and “ever present possibility of change” (162) that film can envision. We know the lethal consequences that the enforcement of stereotyping can lead to, and ROSS cogently remarks about the covert and overt violence we exercise and seek to moralize: “There is not Good Violence or Bad Violence; there is only violence” (167).
Readers in mimetic theory are familiar with these dynamics, but probably not on the intimate, interpersonal scale that ROSS brings home to us. Yet when she states that “the search for evil begins inside us” (160), I want to quibble, though only in favor of her overall line of argument. Evil is, as she often reminds us, what we do (18, 156), not what we are; it is not in us but, like violence itself, a relationship, and most often a misconstrued, mystified one, in which we are blind to our own role in its proliferation. It radiates from the Sacrificial System to which we do not subscribe overtly but that we underwrite in fact by myriad antagonisms, from slights, intended or not, to onslaughts, verbal or other, by which we are indictable, in E. M. FOSTER’s phrasing, as “criminally muddled.” Whence the universal, anthropologically grounded need for forgiveness that, citing ALISON adroitly, ROSS argues for at the end of her book (197-98). And the need is no less great when we cast stones at the system, at the mob, the persecuting crowd in which we rarely see ourselves, and in which GIRARD’s notorious reading of Peter’s denial confirms our membership.
ROSS crowns her analysis of our “creed of selfworship,” which reduces others to means to our ends, with a “creed of compassion” that argues for caution and uncertainty, for openness to risk and “accepting limits to our behavior,” “limits to our desires” (195)— and why not, since they are not, stricte sensu, ours to begin with? But, since she references ALISON again on this topic, I would enjoin yet another quibble, or perhaps just a coda: in ALISON’s view, the “joy of being wrong” about our Manichaean certainties, about being blameless, non-complicit in scapegoating violence, is a cognitive experience that opens up limitless horizons for human flourishing. Otherwise stated, by KAPTEIN this time, “We always know only the six wrong solutions of our problem. There are certainly thousands of right solutions, but we don’t see any of them because … we are closed off from the world with its endless possibilities.” Just as, conversely, the possibilities of destruction afforded by the stifling embrace of mythical thinking are in turn limitless, world-consuming. This is GIRARD’s alarming reasoning in Achever Clausewitz, where he writes “mimetic history” on a grand scale. His latest book makes a hefty pendant to ROSS’s close-ups on our self-inflicted miseries, and we read them with equal profit, so much do they mutually substantiate PROUST’s contention that interpersonal and international dysorders mirror each other.
Published in The Bulletin of the Colloquium on Violence & Religion, No. 32 (April 2008) – Dr. Andrew McKenna, Professor of French language and literature at Loyola University of Chicago
Author finds Wicked inspiration
The story of the two witches of Oz has been passed along for more than a century. Glinda and the Wicked Witch of the West now have two stories, one where good and evil are clearly defined while the other blurs those boundaries.
Suzanne Ross, a Glenview author and director of Christian education at the First Congregational Church of Wilmette, has written a book that addresses the concepts of good and evil as presented in the musical “Wicked.”
Ross, who recently published her book, said that she resisted attending a performance of Wicked until her parents came for a visit and she needed an activity to do with them. She didn’t think there was any way that The Wizard of Oz could be improved upon. Little did she know that “Wicked’ would be her inspiration for her book.
More Wicked Inspiration
Ross is a follower of contemporary critic and philosopher René Girard, whose works focus on the way people use the terms of good and evil for their own purposes. The idea of using scapegoats and violence are themes in Girard’s works. These themes are also prevalent in Wicked and in finding the connection she was inspired to take the same basic concepts and break them down to make them accessible for the general public.
“Being the educator I am, I’m always looking for a good tool to teach these ideas. When I saw Wicked for the first time, I said this is it,” she said.
“This is how to teach Girardian theory for those who don¹t want to go to graduate school.”
She credits Girard for changing her life. She said that his ideas have revolutionized the way she looks at the world and herself and she sees the concepts at work in political decisions and international relations.
“I went to see (Wicked) and from the opening song my jaw was just dropping to my knees,” she said. “I thought this is unbelievable. It was as if (composers) Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman had taken on an assignment to put Girard to music.”
Ross saw her first performance of Wicked two years ago. Now, she’s seen the show four times, and is planning a fifth excursion. And, since her first exposure to the musical, she has written her book and is ready to promote it.
The book, available at Amazon.com, thewickedtruth.com, and a bookseller near you is an analysis of the musical Wicked. Ross said, “It looks at the ways that the musical reveals good people getting caught up doing bad things and looks at the ways we define ourselves as good and use the labels of wickedness for our own benefit. The musical itself is full of all of these ideas and I kind of track them.”
She has poured over the musical and, she’s gotten the approval of Wicked composer Stephen Schwartz as shown by a glowing review on Ross’ Web site. Ross, through a family friend, was actually able to connect with Schwartz about the book.
“Stephen liked the idea for the book and was very generous,” she said. “He read two drafts and gave me comments and feedback, he’s just a really nice guy and I had a chance to meet him in the spring in Connecticut. So he’s been very supportive and helpful.”
She said that she’s glad that he appreciated her interpretation of his work.
“I didn’t want to do something that he didn’t agree with where he would say ‘that’s not what I was thinking,'” Ross said. “What I wrote seemed to mesh with what he did. He has profound things to say at a deeper level and I think he’s happy that someone noticed.”
Along with The Wicked Truth, Ross co-founded the Raven Foundation which uses pop culture to educate people.
“My book is kind of a test case of the use of pop culture to teach these ideas being discussed in philosophy that don’t often make it out of academic texts,” Ross said.
She said that the Raven Foundation is committed to starting a conversation and a dialogue about the dynamics of conflict and creative solutions, as she addresses in “The Wicked Truth.” She plans on bringing this discussion to her personal appearances; this won’t be a typical book event. Ross said she doesn’t want to simply read from her book.
“I try and give a little interactive look at the show,” she said. “We will look at some songs together, analyze the lyrics, see what ideas are present there and get peoples’ interest peaked in the book. I hope people have fun.” – Heather Leszczewicz, Staff Writer, Pioneer Press, Glenview online
Pope Francis and the musical Wicked teach us about defying gravity
BY C.S. MORRISSEY
Published in The B.C. Catholic on Saturday, 05 July 2014 07:12
Kara Lindsay as Glinda and Laurel Harris as Elphaba in the musical Wicked. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
In the Broadway musical Wicked, which recently played for a month in Vancouver at the QE Theatre, we learn the truth about myth. In the film and book, The Wizard of Oz, we met the Wicked Witch of the West. But on stage, in the musical Wicked, we learn how that same “witch” really was an unpopular girl, Elphaba, who was reviled at school because of her green skin.
Pope Francis is famous for reminding us of the core concern of the Gospel about love and mercy. “Who am I to judge?” has been one of his most electrifying phrases.
“Judging others leads us to hypocrisy,” said Francis on Monday morning, June 23, in his homily at Mass in Casa Santa Marta. The inevitable outcome, as sure as the force of gravity, is that “a person who judges gets it wrong, becomes confused, and is defeated.”
The stories hypocritical humans like to tell are invariably very confused myths about who is good and who is bad. The Catholic thinker René Girard has analyzed mythology and literature and discovered, like the Pope, a common structural hypocrisy. Humanity’s myths are deluded and self-serving because they tend to scapegoat someone like Elphaba in order to construct social peace. Girard argues that only Jesus exposes these mythical lies and tells the truth about our mythology’s hidden victims.
Perhaps the best introduction to and summary of Girard’s ideas is an article he wrote for First Things magazine in April 1996, “Are the Gospels Mythical?” Unique in world history, the Gospels advocate for mercy instead of the hypocritical mythology of scapegoating. In his essay, Girard explains how only the Gospels are unambiguously on the side of victims.
But perhaps the best artistic illustration of Girard’s point about the Gospel truth is the deconstruction in the musical Wicked of the famous myth about Elphaba, the so-called “Wicked Witch of the West.” In her book The Wicked Truth, the writer Suzanne Ross relates the musical’s illustrations of the Gospel message to Girard’s ideas about scapegoating.
More of Pope Francis and the musical Wicked
Teenagers know that in high school there are cliques and various “in” crowds made up of popular people, observes Ross. Hairstyles, clothing, speech, behavior, and friendships define your identity and self-worth to such a degree that high school is frequently a painful experience. The pain comes as we experience firsthand the power of the socially constructed myths by which humans define the members of the “in” crowd.
The “energizing force” of these cliques, writes Ross, is that they show you how to define your identity by contrasting yourself with someone like Elphaba, “someone who you definitely are not.” Further, “young people whose sense of self is weak will gravitate to someone from whom they can acquire it. The leader of a clique often seems like a King or Queen who can bestow a feeling of worth with a glance,” much like Galinda’s social status at the school in Wicked.
The outcasts like Elphaba feel inferior and worthless whenever “they believe the lies of the clique,” which tell them “that they are evil” and that “the clique has the monopoly on goodness,” notes Ross. But in the musical Elphaba and Galinda become friends through a shared knowledge of the truth they learn.
Wicked likewise shares this truth with the audience: “Scapegoats can wear tiaras and designer gowns as easily as ugly black hats. Those at the pinnacle of success and popularity are often aware that they are at risk of being scapegoated. They realize that they are being carefully watched for the slightest misstep that can be turned quickly into the spectacle we thrive on. There is nothing so satisfying as witnessing the fall of the high and mighty,” writes Ross. Galinda’s transformation into “Glinda the Good,” accomplished by Oz at the expense of Elphaba, is thus the musical’s supreme irony, which the audience comes to understand.
Such an artwork can also help us understand better the Gospel message warning us not to judge. What is the alternative to the wicked power of human cliques and, on a larger scale, unjust governments? “Rather than judging and condemning, Jesus advocates forgiveness and generosity. Judging and condemning are the tools of scapegoating,” explains Ross in her book. “Forgiveness and generosity are the tools of lasting peace.”
As Pope Francis reminds us, this is the only way to escape from the confusion and defeat that judgment and condemnation inevitably brings down upon ourselves. The Gospel of mercy gently awaits those still dreaming of one day defying gravity.
C.S. Morrissey is an associate professor of philosophy at Redeemer Pacific College.
For more information about The Wicked Truth or to invite Suzanne to speak, please email us.