“So you’re saying I’ll get used to it?”
“No, you’ll never get used to it. We’re primates, social creatures. It’s coded into our DNA to protect our young, even from each other.”
“So I’m always going to feel terrible?”
“What helps me is to pull back emotionally. Just put your heart in a box.”
Brennan and Zack, The Boy in a Bush.
A year and a half ago, I went to see Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th Century Chesapeake, a museum exhibit from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. I went to the exhibit expecting to Bones nerd (which I did), and history nerd even more (I’m a history major with a focus on the 17th and 18th century Americas), but what I didn’t expect was the emotional toll it took on me.
The exhibit, a collection of “forensic files” of skeletons (including many real skeletons) talks about how the people lived and died in the Chesapeake region during the 17th century with the first English colonies, like Jamestown and St. Mary’s City. Two stories stood out in particular for me – those of two unknown (and as of yet unnamed) boys. One was one of the first casualties of Jamestown, with a raging tooth infection and arrow in his leg; the other, whose story brought me to the exhibit, an indentured servant who was buried in a cellar and was possibly murdered. The reconstructions were stunning, and when I looked at the second boy’s reconstruction, I was mesmerized. I’m not someone that connects easily with people, so this was surprising. I went to that exhibit, though, and I felt like I was being smothered with emotion, like there was a weight filling the air. I felt it most of all when I looked at that boy, only two years my junior when he died, and I made that connection between the amber-colored bones, the reconstruction staring back at me, and what was once a real life person.
This is the biggest issue that Bones will have, as a procedural television show. Unlike CSI, or House, what we’re looking at is usually a pile of bones, a “people puddle,” or something completely foreign. There is no name, no face, nothing that says “human being” initially. How do they get viewers to make an emotional connection, to empathize with that victim and to sympathize for them, if they are seeing something that is so difficult to connect to?
I was thinking about this as I watched Shallow in the Deep. Cam struggled with the emotional weight of the case before her. Usually, to show that a character is empathizing with the victim, they usually have a personal connection. Brennan was a foster child, as was Sweets, so they have connected with multiple victims. Cam’s ex-fiancé was the victim once (and something similar happened with Hodgins). Booth was a soldier, and there was a case about a soldier. Cam’s connection in tSitD was her heritage.
Cases where children are involved will always pull at our heartstrings. Like Brennan said, we feel the need to protect our children from harm. While I am not a mother, I have worked with children for years, and have felt that need to protect them. Brennan is not a mother yet. Angela and Hodgins talked about kids in Baby in the Bough. Cam adopted Michelle late in the fourth season. Zack, nor any of the interns, except for the old guy from Finger in the Nest, ever had children. Goodman was a father. Booth is a father. Before the middle of the third season (Baby in the Bough), the characters working in the lab had limited exposure to children. The cases pull at our heartstrings, and they pull on the characters’.
What about the other cases, though? It is different when the cases are historic, or about someone who wasn’t a “good” person, or someone who is from a different culture. Sometimes there are connections with the audience that aren’t as common. For me it was the Perfect Pieces in the Purple Pond, because they mentioned that the victim, Jared, had Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (however briefly). They didn’t mention the pain, the annoyance of dislocations, or the lack of doctors actually experienced with EDS, but I still empathized with the victim because I have EDS. What about the Goop on the Girl? We see Brennan empathize with the victim’s mother, and the whole story is just “heartcrushing” because the victim was a patsy – he had no control over his fate. It could happen to any one of us. Did you ever think about that happening to you? I did. It’s sobering.
Sometimes if the victim is someone that is difficult to empathize with, they give the audience another source of empathy – the culprit, or a victim’s family member. The three culprits that stand out to me at the moment are the younger brother, Alex, in The Boy in the Shroud (jealousy), the brother in the Devil in the Details (anger at God), and the father in The Gamer in the Grease (love for his child), but I am positive that there are more. The Plain in the Prodigy is one that I think empathy for Levi Yoder’s parents is definitely played upon, as with many of the mothers, fathers, siblings, and children of the victims in many of the cases (Boy in the Tree, Woman in the Car, Graft in the Girl, Man on the Fairway, Soccer Mom in the Mini Van, Baby in the Bough, He in the She, Doctor in the Den, Harbingers in the Fountain, Goop on the Girl, and Devil in the Details).
Then there are the “history” cases – Man in the Fallout Shelter, and the Shallow in the Deep. History is very difficult to embrace and empathize with if you don’t have a name to a face. I can tell you from personal experience that people embrace history the most when they’re not passive – they need to see it come to life. I worked in two museums that had a “living history” element to them, and I’m a big fan of Plimoth Plantation and Colonial Williamsburg. There, you can talk to people “from the past” (historical interpreters) and connect to the past first hand. Man in the Fallout Shelter and the Shallow in the Deep struck me deeply as episodes where I connected with someone from the past, although one case is only 50 years old, and the other was 150 years old. In the former, the story is timeless, a Romeo and Juliet type story. We feel empathy because we have loved and lost; it is the human experience. With the latter, it is much more difficult to connect at first. Daisy said it best – it’s easier to think about them as just bones (isn’t this true for all the cases?), but Angela was right, they’re not just bones, they’re humans (well, in this case, a fictional representation of humans, but still… humans). This is why Angela draws the faces of the people – and we see them. Did you feel a greater connection when you saw the faces of the people as Angela drew them? As Cam did her presentation about them? Do you feel a greater connection when you can see the victim’s face versus when you are unable to (George Clooney case)?
This brings me to the final way that Bones helps us empathize – they use facial reconstruction. Suddenly, they’re not just bones anymore – you’re seeing a face stare back. This is where Angela comes in, because her job is to do just that. As Dr. Goodman said in Boy in a Bush (in a deep African-American tone), “[y]ou are the best of us, Ms. Montenegro. You discern humanity in the wreck of a ruined human body. You give victims back their faces, their identities. You remind us all why we are here in the first place, because we treasure human life.” Booth, Brennan, and the squint squad all share the common goal of bringing justice to those that lost their identities due to death and decomposition. Angela is their cornerstone. In nearly every episode, she says something to remind us of the victim’s humanity. Empathy reminds us that we are not individuals alone in the world – we are human beings.
Wondering about my quote above? It represents the struggle between allowing ourselves to feel (or the writers allowing us to feel) empathy for the victims, and not preventing ourselves from empathizing. Sometimes, we see the characters struggle with empathy when it becomes too much to handle. Angela in particular has dealt with it in a few cases, but recently Cam has as well. In the opening quote, Zack, when feeling sympathy (not just empathy, but sympathy) for Charlie, the child victim, is struggling, Brennan talks with him about it. It is in this moment we learn how Brennan deals with these feelings – she shuts away her heart in a box because empathy and sympathy affect her work, but we can now say that she does it as well with any emotional stress. She does not want her empathy to affect her work (or her relationships), so she distances herself off. I’ve always found Brennan’s season one and early season two acceptances of love and the heart (she used to believe in love a little bit, guys, and didn’t think the heart was just a muscle) very different from the rest of the seasons, because Booth and Angela told her not to empathize, to be objective, in Blonde in the Game. I think overall, there is less empathy shown on the show, thanks to its lighter tone. Through the show’s more humorous approach now, cases where you feel a lot of empathy for the victim are not as often. This is understandable – these episodes really can get you down. I also believe, though, that they are imperative to the integrity of the show. Without empathy for the victims, the culprits, and most importantly, the main characters, how can we suspend disbelief and for an hour each week, believe that they are real? How do we remember that Bones isn’t just about a group of characters, but a real profession dealing with real remains?
So, some final wrap-up questions: has your feeling of empathy for the victims changed over the past few seasons? Have you had a strong feeling of empathy for a victim, culprit, or family member of the victim? Have you had to look at them as bones or “put your heart in a box” while watching certain episodes of the show? Is empathy important for the show? Has Brennan’s shielding of her emotions affected how you view or empathize with her or with the show?
On a small final note: go see Written in Bone! I also recommend the companion (“children’s”) book. You can check it out on the NMAH website as well. It lacks the visuals, but almost all of the exhibit text is there (but it lacks the empathy).