What Should We Have Done?

What Should We Have Done?

Excerpts from my review of Alice Mattison’s new novel Conscience, just published in Consequence Magazine

Consider: A man sets his baby on the sidewalk, walks a short distance away, and sets himself on fire.

Does the fact that he’s brought his child to his self-immolation prove he is out of his mind? Or is he making a point: that an unattended baby on an American street in 1965 will be rescued to safety, while Vietnamese babies continue to die?

Consider: A radical new program is proposed at a social services agency. This program will provide something beautiful, something important, that no other agency provides—but it also carries undeniable risks. Do the dangers outweigh the beauty of the idea?

Consider: A fleeting moment between a mother and her child inspires a drawing, which is then preserved for centuries in a museum. What matters more: the drawing itself, which endures, or the humans in the drawing, who disappear in time?

Does art-making matter at all, when wars rage?

Do two human lives matter, in the long run?


When I tell you these are just a teacup’s worth of the moral questions in Alice Mattison’s new novel, Conscience, you might be tricked into thinking it’s only a novel about thinking. Even more so when you hear the premise: that it’s a novel about a woman writing an essay about a book. And it’s true that the characters in Conscience do a lot of deliberating—with themselves, with each other—about nuanced, thorny questions of conscience. If what you want is a dizzying carnival ride through the Vietnam-era antiwar movement, this is not your book.

On the other hand: If you like the sort of “novel of ideas” where the ideas aren’t superimposed treatises, but questions that spring naturally from fully formed human beings—human beings with bodies, who eat and drink and get injured and have sex and have babies and die and fall in love—human beings who try to make the world more just, and then discover how complicated that is—then this very well might be your book.

Olive Grossman and Helen Weinstein are high school friends in the mid-1960s, coming of age just as the Vietnam War intensifies. Both are serious and thoughtful. Both write poetry.  But until their senior year, “the war—and current events in general—were not our topics,” says Olive, narrating from the future. One November day, they begin to discuss the man who immolates himself in the presence of his baby, and one of the most important differences between Olive and Helen becomes clear. The Olive of the future reflects:

For me, private life—the inner life, the emotional life—was so compelling that I had little strength left for the questions of the day, and I loved Helen because she too cared about the inner life. But for Helen, the man who immolated himself was recognizable because he couldn’t subsume the questions of the day to the questions raised by his own life, even “Who’s watching the baby?”

In Helen’s worldview, Olive says, you can only proceed with life’s possibilities once you’ve “squeezed yourself through a narrow tube of self-scrutiny and considered everything up to and including burning yourself to death.”

Both Helen and Olive become embroiled in the antiwar movement, which is gaining momentum, but that fundamental difference will have consequences for the rest of their friendship and their lives.


This is a feeling I know well, and I wish I’d had a copy of Conscience when I was 21 years old, working in the peace movement in the early days of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. If I had been able to read Conscience back then, I would have felt so much less alone. I’d moved to Washington, DC for my first full-time job: student organizer for a grassroots peace organization. What I’d always wanted to do with my life was write novels. But like Olive, I felt guilty spending time on literature, reading or writing it, if I could help to stop an unjust war.

After several months in the movement, I was no longer convinced I could help. Now, more than a decade after leaving that job, reading Mattison’s Conscience prompted so many moments of recognition that I began to wonder if I was imagining the similarities.

I climbed up to the bookshelf where I keep my old journals, flipped to an entry from February 2003, and almost laughed—not because it was funny, but because I was barely old enough to drink when I wrote this, and the vagaries of activism were already making me disillusioned and cranky. The questions that torture Olive also plagued me: whether it was even possible to stop a war, what to make of movement infighting. In tired handwriting, my frustrated lament (names of organizations omitted for tact):

“[A] doesn’t want to work with [B], [C] is suspicious of working with anyone, [A] balks at working with [C] because of rumors about [D], and nobody wants to work with [E], and people are suspicious of [F] because of [G]; and because not everyone says who they really are, students become suspicious of affiliating with anyone and more time is spent on nonsense than the real work at hand.

“And half the time I’m not sure what that work is, anyway. Organizing protests? This one says they work, that one says no one important pays attention, Kurt Vonnegut says back in Vietnam the artists’ and writers’ communities opposed the war with the effect of a three-foot cream pie dropped from a stepladder…

“Whether [A] and [B] and [C] and [D] and [E] and [F] all have an orgy of goodwill, or wither away, or implode, George W. Bush will probably get his war. And what is my contribution? Assuming it is a moral responsibility to try to make peace, am I fulfilling that responsibility?”


I include this journal excerpt not because I think my experience is particularly special, but because it’s so very common. As Olive says,

Sometimes, as we shouted and waved banners, I thought of Helen’s friends saying “We tried that.”…At times I accused myself of doing what I did only to make myself feel better—and to be part of a group of friends.

These are perennial questions for activists. For that reason, Conscience is relevant to those of us who are now marching against racism and violence, for women’s rights, justice for immigrants, better gun laws. This novel might not seem a likely candidate for Millennial or Gen Z audiences: although much of the action takes place when the characters are 18-to-25-ish, the narrators are in their fifties, sixties, possibly seventies. But I suspect that Conscience is an important story for those who have recently joined some aspect of a Movement, and have any intention of staying with it for the long haul. Movements often flow in similar patterns. If you have the kind of conscience that won’t let you get a decent night’s sleep, you may be grateful for this novel along the way.


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