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The Exception

Good will

On ‘The Exception’ – Interview by Klaus Wivel, October 2004, © Alt for Damerne. Translated by Tiina Nunally. www.weekendavisen.dk

“People with whom we work closely can turn into dead meat for us.” Next week Christian Jungersen’s second novel will be published – a story of murder and office harassment among women who work at the Danish Center for Genocide Information.

Christian Jungersen is a meticulous sort of man. Today he is a full-time author, having devoted the last fifteen years to his writing. This tall, slender man wearing wool socks, jeans, and a hooded sweatshirt writes six days a week, morning, noon, and night. He is so diligent that during the past three years he hasn’t allowed himself to read any books except those that he could use for his novel. He lives alone in a two-room apartment in the Nørrebro district of Copenhagen – it’s rather like a monk’s cell with Seinfeld videos on the bookshelf and a panoramic view over the low rooftops on Tagensvej. And he has no distractions such as children or a job. He is now in his early forties. You would think that a man like him would be sending out a flood of books. But no. Not until next week will he be able to add book number two to his list of published works. Jungersen takes his time to write good novels. The Exception is the title of this book, which is more than 600 pages long. It’s a psychological thriller with a rare focus: the work environment of a public institution, whose employees are progressive, idealistic young women who have studied at Denmark’s liberal Roskilde University and who cultivate journalists at the leftist newspaper Information, and fall in love with them. Not exactly the most typical setting for this type of book, but the result is a fast-paced philosophical drama with all the trimmings, including threats and murder and a plot so tightly woven that it’s not until the very last page that the penny drops – and an entire worldview shatters.   “I’ve always been fascinated to hear people talk about the conflicts they have at their jobs and the people they work closely with who seem to transform into horrible monsters – people who, under other circumstances, are perfectly nice,” says Jungersen. “I’ve had my own experiences of working with certain people who would be very likable if I met them at a party. But when I worked with them, something happened that changed them. What causes that? How can it be that the same person who makes great contributions on behalf of other people, under different circumstances can behave so terribly? “The interesting thing is that it’s not always one group that’s good and one group that’s evil. So what is it that provokes the good in us, and what provokes the evil? That’s something I’ve been fascinated with for over ten years.” Evil in all its forms is the subject of Jungersen’s book. And what could be a more fitting setting for such an examination than a fictitious Danish Center for Genocide Information? A place where evil is not just the professional focus of the four female protagonists – it’s also something that slowly gnaws away at their relationships in the workplace. It all starts when the two younger employees, Iben and Malene, each receive an email in English that contains a threat against her life. Did it come from one of the Yugoslav perpetrators of genocide that they’ve written about in their articles? Or did it come from Anne-Lise in the next office, who clearly despises them, and whom Iben and Malene very quickly begin to suspect has a secret drinking problem? “I’ve deliberately chosen to describe people who have a thorough intellectual understanding of evil, but who have no practical experience with it. As the story progresses, they’re confronted with their own evil and that of others in a way that they never could have imagined in the beginning. “Of course I don’t mean to make light of the enormity of genocide – freezing people out is not at all the same thing as killing people. But many of the psychological mechanisms of workplace harassment are similar. People with whom we work closely can turn into bait for us. A type of callousness can arise; we can even summon it up ourselves, if it’s to our advantage.”   During the past five years, since the publication of his first novel, Undergrowth, Jungersen has spent his time learning about the latest research on social psychology and genocide. “With Undergrowth I had to immerse myself in the early 20th century, reading old newspapers and becoming familiar with the time period. With The Exception I started going to lots of genocide conferences. I’ve become a member of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, and last year I participated in a weeklong genocide conference in Ireland. I did this, of course, so that the novel’s facts about genocide would be accurate, but also to plant in my subconscious the same concerns as those that might be found in the subconscious of the characters in my book.” And some very sinister aspects of the women emerge. Toward the end of the novel, Iben, who is the most prominent of the four female protagonists, says: “We ramble on, with our big words and idealism, but it’s all just rationalizing after the fact for our own egoism.” Could this be some sort of motto for the book? “If a book that’s over five hundred pages long has a motto, then it’s a bad book. But it does express Iben’s very depressed view of the world, and, in part, my own. Like me, the characters are faced with a world of evil, and they’re trying to get their bearings in that world, trying to find some light in a place that turns out to be very dark. I can relate to that struggle.”

Are these people affected by the fact that their work has to do with genocide?

“Absolutely. But they try to rise above the evil because, as they say, ‘If we can’t rise above it, then who can?’ There’s a woman in the office who thinks she’s being harassed, but the others don’t agree, and so they use experiences from their world, from the Council for Conflict Resolution and the UN, and apply them to their own situation. They struggle to be good people. At the same time, what they’re working with is also depressing, and it weighs them down.”

You might get the impression that the people who work there are doing it for career reasons….

“No, they’re idealists. I decided to focus the novel on four women who work for an idealistic organization because that presents a more exciting story. Their fall is much greater. They set greater demands, they have high goals, and at the same time there is something driving them to try to annihilate one of their own colleagues. They want her dead. That contradiction is what I’m trying to map out. From my meetings with genocide scholars, it’s my clear observation that they are not career people; on the contrary, they’re people who have been shaken by what they’ve seen in the world, and they’ve made an existential decision about how they want to use their lives.”

The book presents a sinister picture of idealism. Are you a cynic?

“If the main characters in the novel didn’t have their idealism, they would have nothing. But it’s hard to live up to idealism. In the book I draw on new psychological research on what today is called dissociative identity disorder. It turns out that the scientific perception is no longer that people are either ‘normal’ with a fully integrated personality, or they have a radically split personality that can, for instance, suddenly speak with a child’s voice or understand foreign languages – everything we’ve seen in Hollywood films. Instead there is a continuum between these two extremes. “The less extreme splits are interesting. They’re what make it possible for us, for example, to have several different worldviews at once. “In the novel, Iben and Malene think that of course they can treat Anne-Lise badly, because she’s so thick-skinned that she won’t even notice. At the same time, they hold another view that directly contradicts this: they can treat her badly because she does notice and it makes her unhappy, but she deserves it because she’s such a bitch. And then their third contradictory view is that they won’t tell their friends about what they’re doing at the office. In other words, they know deep down that it’s wrong. “We can jump back and forth between various identities. That’s where self-deception comes in. Iben and Malene choose not to listen to the voice that tells them occasionally that they’re heading in the wrong direction.”   Jungersen also describes Gunnar, a hot-blooded journalist specializing in Africa, who wears a black leather jacket and writes a regular column for Information. In the past he belonged to the inner circle of the Maoist Communist Workers Party, and he tells Malene how, back then, for about fifteen minutes each month he would realize what a terrible regime he was helping to support. “On a daily basis Gunnar was able to live with his Communist involvement and feel passionately about it, but each month there would be fifteen minutes when he would ask himself what the hell he was doing. As Gunnar says, ‘Evil is when you ignore those fifteen minutes.’ “Evil isn’t just the people we see in movies running around with big guns and trying to shoot everybody. Evil can also occur in people who do the right thing, who are members of Greenpeace and Amnesty International, who take their empty bottles down to the recycling containers, but who now and then realize that, in the long run, the idealism they’ve chosen to pursue is selfish.”

And why does Gunnar ignore those fifteen minutes?

“We all do. We all know that the money we spend having a good time in town could save the lives of several people in the Third World. And that thought does occur to us occasionally, but we shove it back into the shadow world where it leads its own life. If there are people in the Third World whose children die for lack of something from our world, it’s easy to understand why they would hate us and think to themselves: how can anyone be so callous? They would call that evil.”

Is that what it is?

“Yes, it is. A callousness that is voluntarily chosen – I would call that evil.”   Jungersen’s clever idea has been to allow the story to unfold among academic idealists, who also happen to be women. “I think that type of environment is not very well represented in literature. The dynamics of a workplace are even less represented. There are plenty of novels about love, about divorce, about how a harsh childhood can affect an individual in adulthood, and about the passage from one generation to another. But why are there so few books about life in the workplace, which can be just as filled with emotions, drama, and crucial experiences? “When you’re old and look back on your life and try to sum it up, a key factor is whether you had colleagues who made you feel that you were smart, respected, and well liked. Or who made you feel the opposite. Colleagues can totally change your own perception of yourself. And nobody writes about that.”

And what about the women? What gave you the courage to identify with four women at one time?

“That was actually terrifying. I never would have dared, except that in my last book I found that I actually succeeded in describing the world of an 82-year-old so well that I received many appreciative letters from retirees.”

You’ve written two books, yet you’re over forty. Why such meticulousness?

“Reluctantly, dragging my feet, I’ve been forced into writing books that were much harder to write than I thought I was capable of.”

And that’s what you want to do?

“Now I’m hooked. You put a lot of emotions into a novel. I think it was Norman Mailer who said that finishing a novel was like taking your child out into the back yard and shooting him. That’s not how it is for me. But you can compare finishing a novel to a child who moves away from home.”

He sees through women

On ‘The Exception’ –
Interview by Birgitte Bartholdy, October 2004, © Alt for Damerne.
Translated by Tiina Nunally.
www.altfordamerne.dk

Christian Jungersen has chosen not just one, but four female protagonists for his new psychological thriller, which is also a harrowing story about harassment in the workplace. We talked with him about his studies of what it’s like to be female – and about the evil that even the best of us are capable of committing.

Four women work in an office in Copenhagen. A secretary, a librarian, and two academics. From the outside, it looks like an utterly typical office scenario, with jokes, small talk, and brown-bag lunches in the kitchen. But if we look closer, it’s a nightmare of pretense, fear, and harassment – at least seen from one woman’s point of view.

How could things go this far? How can two of the women, Iben and Malene, who are perceived by others as sweet, charming, and intelligent, end up using little remarks, intrigue, and lack of eye contact to snipe at the librarian, Anne-Lise? Why does the secretary, Camilla, merely look on? And what’s behind the threatening emails that have suddenly appeared? Were they written by the persecuted Anne-Lise as a means of revenge against the others?

The scene shifts.

The answers are to be found in the mind of a man in a small apartment in the Nørrebro district of Copenhagen. His name is Christian Jungersen. For more than three years he has lived and breathed the story of his huge novel The Exception, which deals with these four women and how the threatening emails turn the office upside down to such a degree that the result is murder and hostage-taking.

The four women work at the Danish Center for Genocide Information. Each day they send out reports, write articles, and draw attention to books that have to do with the insane scenes of terror that occur around the world – in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and all sorts of other places. Yet they have a hard time recognizing the terror in their own office.

“I’ve long thought it enormously interesting that people you think of as congenial, charming, and nice can sometimes completely change character and turn into virtual demons if certain situations present themselves,” says Jungersen.

As part of the research for his novel he has read enough books to fill many bookshelves on the topics of genocide and war crimes; again and again he has come to the conclusion that evil is not just committed by blatant psychopaths whom we see in films leering horribly as they murder people right and left.

“In reality, evil is most often committed by people like you and me, who think we’re doing the right thing and that what we’re doing is perfectly reasonable. With this story about four women, I want to show the self-deception that makes it possible for all of us to be evil and yet convince ourselves that we’re not.

“In one way we’re like computers. Some of us run on the same program our whole life and never get forced into situations that will boot up other programs. But at some point or other, most of us have the experience of behaving more cruelly that we had ever imagined possible. We end up in some unfamiliar program because we’re in a war, or we’re about to get divorced, or we’ve been subjected to some type of injustice at our workplace.”

 

Unhappy at the advertising agency

Some of the scenes in the novel are taken directly from personal experience, Jungersen confirms, from the period when he worked as a copywriter after finishing his first novel, Undergrowth. But it was never as bad as what Anne-Lise experiences in the book.

“Though that was a period of my life when I was the unhappiest and the most creatively blocked,” he says.

“It was a hot, big-time ad agency in downtown Copenhagen, but you could just as well have made me bail out over New Guinea and parachute into a tribe where they walked around with huge penis extensions. It was that different. The eye contact, the body language, the things other people thought were fun and exciting, everything. The men talked about sports, cars, and money; the women didn’t really expect the men to talk about anything else. If I tried, they would think, ‘What’s he up to? He’s weird.’

“One of the managers told the others that he cringed every time I came into the room, and so it’s interesting to look at what happened between them and me. There was one woman I thought would have been a good friend if things hadn’t gone in that direction. Even though it was abominable, it was also deeply fascinating. I learned a lot.

“It’s possible to harass someone just through eye contact. No matter what Anne-Lise says in the book, the others look away and answer her in monosyllables. All week long, month after month – and at the same time they’re laughing and having fun with each other. That’s more destructive than you could ever imagine.”

 

It takes a long time before the others realize how much they hurt Anne-Lise….

“But they really do know all along. At the same time, they’re unaware of it. They both think, ‘We can do what we want because she’s so thick-skinned that she won’t even notice.’ And ‘We can do this because it’s justified.’ At the same time, they also think, ‘What we’re doing is very wrong; we’d better not tell anyone about it.’

“The same mechanism existed in the concentration camps of the Holocaust. The officers were told that they were making a great contribution to humanity by exterminating the Jews; people would thank them for the next thousand years – but they had to remember to eliminate all traces of what they did. We’re capable of living with many contradictory realities inside ourselves.”

 

Men don’t hear the undercurrents

Why did you choose to write about four women?

“If I had written about male career attorneys, journalists, or spies, people would say, ‘Oh, they’re all a bunch of scoundrels, we know that.’ But such sweet, idealistic young women, who work for an organization with a humanitarian purpose and who are members of Greenpeace and Amnesty International – we expect goodness from them. And then if it turns out that they also have an evil side, it must be something that holds true for all of us.

“I think women have a greater tendency than men to want everyone to be nice to each other at work. That’s why they were more interesting to write about. They have farther to fall.”

 

How did you manage to enter into the female psyche?

“I don’t really think that men and women are that much different inside. But the way we communicate is very different. Maybe because women have always had to adapt to the fact that they can’t get their way by using physical force, they learn to be more sensitive to nonverbal signals from others and to rely on the same sensitivity in others. Like so many men, when I was younger I was terrible at deciphering others’ hidden meanings. But my girlfriend has taught me a lot about what’s really going on between people below the surface.

“I’ve also benefited greatly from my writing group. We’re all published authors and meet for dinner once a month to talk about each other’s new chapters. The group includes two men – Rasmus Heiberg and I – and three women – Christina Englund, Sulaima Hind, and Charlotte Weitze, who regularly gave me their reactions to my descriptions of women.

“In one of the first chapters, for example, there’s a scene in which Malene, a beautiful woman with lots of drive, is invited to a get-together at a friend’s place. She makes several attempts to tone down what she wears. But when she arrives, the hostess still looks her up and down and says, ‘This isn’t a party, you know.’ The women in my writing group reacted strongly to that, so I knew that I had gotten it right.

“When women talk to each other, there are lots of undercurrents that men don’t hear. Taken to the extreme, you might say that if a man buys an ugly pair of pants, his male friends will say to him, ‘You look like an idiot in those pants,’ but he won’t care and he’ll keep on wearing them. If a woman buys an ugly pair of pants, her girlfriends will say to her, ‘Oh, how pretty,’ but the woman will hear from their tone of voice that they don’t really mean it, and she’ll stop wearing those pants.

“Books about writing screenplays always emphasize that the dialogue should be like one long argument that lasts the whole film. The characters should always have different opinions, otherwise there’s no tension. But that’s not how reality is! Especially not among Danish women. Women spend a lot of time saying how they agree with each other: ‘It’s the same way for me’ and ‘Isn’t it like that for you?’ and ‘I feel the same way.’ Sometimes they’re telling the truth, but of course it’s more exciting to write about when they aren’t. It’s important to me to present these undercurrents as accurately as possible, because facial expressions and changes in a coworker’s tone of voice mean a lot in terms of the tension in my book. These subtle signs are all the characters have to go by in order to pinpoint the murderer.”

 

At the age of seventeen he went to a consciousness-raising group

Back when Jungersen was growing up in Humlebæk, a suburb of Copenhagen, no one would have guessed that he would one day become a writer. On the other hand, from a young age he displayed a great thirst for knowledge.

“As a teenager I spent an enormous amount of time in the library, in the psychology and philosophy sections. And that was where, in a magazine called Sexual Politics, I found an invitation to a meeting of the men’s movement, which was formed in parallel to the women’s movement. And so I went. I was only seventeen. That was in 1979, so today I’m probably one of the youngest people who experienced being part of a consciousness-raising group in the ’70s. Once a week for almost five years I would meet with men who were between twenty-five and thirty-five to talk about relationships, feelings, and sex. It taught me a tremendous amount, especially about the problems that men have with women.”

After finishing high school Jungersen hitchhiked through Europe and then earned a university degree in communication.

One day he was sitting in a circle of singers at a summer festival for the performance of funk music, and he heard someone say, “I’m here because I discovered that I have a few years left before I have to throw myself into all that stuff with family and a career.” The singer paused for a moment and then went on, “Maybe in ten or fifteen years.”

At the time Jungersen laughed, but afterwards he thought to himself that it also applied to him.

“It was quite an eye-opener. I actually had greater freedom than I had imagined. And so I didn’t take a regular day job, and at the same time I started writing screenplays. I wrote two screenplays a year.”

None of them were bought, and when he was about to start on screenplay number seven, he just couldn’t do it.

“And then I thought to myself, I need to publish a novel first and make a name for myself. I thought it would take me six months to write, and after I’d been writing for six months, I thought, ‘Well, it’ll take me two years.’ And after I’d written for two years, I thought, ‘I guess it’ll take four.’ And fortunately that’s how long it took.”

The result was Undergrowth, which was published in 1999 to excellent reviews; the book was on the bestseller list in Denmark for three months.

 

How did it feel to have something published after writing for seven years?

“I thought, ‘Now people will think I’m a total freak.’”

     And you are, too!

“Well yes, but can’t you tone it down a bit? I’d been going around to one publisher after another for two years, so it was fantastic. Also because I could now say to people, ‘You know what, I can’t come to that dinner because I’m in the middle of writing something.’ I wanted my occupation as a writer to be taken as seriously as other jobs, and that made lots of things easier.”

     You’re forty-two, have a rather Spartan lifestyle and you still live alone….

“My girlfriend is a journalist and works at home, like I do. We enjoy having our own apartments and visiting each other on weekends or sometimes during the week. I try to spend as little time as possible on the practical day-to-day things so that I can devote the majority of my time to imagining, pondering, and writing. And I’m happy with my life; I don’t know anyone who’s as happy as I am. If I won five million kroner in the lottery and could do whatever I wanted, I’d still start writing another book. I feel that I have an abundantly full life.

“I guess that’s a writer thing. Most people would probably think my daily life sounds rather lonely and meager, but whenever I talk about it with other Danish authors, they all say, ‘It sounds perfect.’”