Interviewed by John Haggerty

Read Sarah Starr Murphy’s fiction piece, The Worm Eater


John: It seems that the world is increasingly full of worm-eaters. Is this my imagination?

Sarah: It’s hard to tell if there’s an increase or if the current political climate has just emboldened the public display of once shameful behaviors. Still, there are more sensitive and lovely people than there are worm-eaters. If a stranger surprises me by being thoughtful or kind, I write it down. The bad things are easy to remember; we must also remember the good.

It seems as though politeness and the sense that we need to be nice is an enabling factor in worm eating. Should Essie have confronted the grandfather?

I think that politeness is often problematic, perhaps especially for women, who are socialized to be caregivers. It can trap you; Essie is at the party because going, and staying, is the polite thing to do. Not calling out behavior you find offensive can, in a sense, be enabling. However, I don’t feel that it is the duty of the person being harassed to educate or confront the harasser. As they do not invite the harassment, neither do they carry the burden of solving the problem. People who are harassed must weigh many factors, including physical safety, when deciding how to react. Although Essie doesn’t confront the grandfather with words, her laughter is its own form of censure. People who coerce and control fear nothing more than mockery. Essie is able to free herself and her daughter when she understands that the bonds of propriety are an illusion.

Can worm-eaters be avoided entirely? And if not, what is the best way to engage with them?

Wouldn’t that be great? I doubt anyone can go through life without encountering at least a few. I’m a big believer in education and the power of humor when it comes to verbal affronts and minor obnoxious behaviors. For physical assault, legal intervention is often the best choice. I certainly don’t judge Essie for choosing to walk away instead. It’s his behavior that’s repulsive, not hers. It’s his job to change, not hers to fix him.

This story does a really great job of examining the strange, superficial relationships that children force their parents into. This seems to be one of the aspects of Essie’s dilemma—that she has no allies at the party. Has the strange structure of the modern nuclear family increased the power of the worm-eaters?

I think there is a lot of loneliness involved in modern American parenting, across all socio-economic strata. If you are working three jobs and always on the run, it’s hard to build parental allies. Upper middle class working parents like Essie often spend their time chauffeuring children from one activity or party to another. They have many acquaintances. Stay-at-home parents may befriend other stay-at-home parents, but they are often cut off from work colleagues and other adult relationships. Raising kids is hard work, no matter how you do it, and feeling alone makes it much harder. Women are often torn between childcare, eldercare, work, housework, and other responsibilities. Lack of opportunity for developing female friendships can make us vulnerable because it makes us more likely to write off a worm-eater as just an isolated incident. Something we misunderstood, miscalculated, or worse, caused. We often blame ourselves rather than see the larger patterns, the deeper structural and societal challenges. When we have the opportunity to share these stories with allies, the worm-eaters are the only ones to suffer.