Nothing changed for me immediately. I’d still vote for George W. Bush later that fall; still accuse democrats of being secret communists. But the subtlety of Orwell’s perception, his ability to recognize contradiction, irony, absurdity, had dug in somewhere deep and given me an intellectual inferiority complex. The writing was incisive, devastating without being pretentious or alienating. I trusted his telling of it, his voice. He says in the essay he knew the proper thing to do would be to approach the elephant and gauge its behavior. “But I also knew I would do no such thing,” he writes. “I was a poor shot with a rifle and the ground was soft mud into which one would stick at every step.” I was a hunter and familiar with being a poor shot. I could see the elephant in the distance, feel the crowd behind me, watch myself load the shell in the chamber, my hands shaking. I understood Orwell was a man who did not want to act rashly, who considered each party involved, knew there was no real urgency in killing the elephant, but killed it anyway because the inherent inadequacy of the individual in a world of larger, wealthier, more powerful forces.
The fall that year was chilly and the winter was bitter. Come December, I got an A- in the composition class. In April, the first images from Abu Ghraib were broadcast, but now I said nothing. I smoked quietly off by myself. I kept reading and thinking, the fragments I collected connected themselves into larger and more cohesive systems. Eventually I moved to a different city and got another degree. Other essays had more immediate effect on me but none have had one more profound. What happened while I read Orwell’s essay eight years ago was small. I wouldn’t understand it for years, but I was humbled. In the span of a few thousand words over a half-century old, the world got bigger for me in a quiet way. I couldn’t have been prepared for the nature of the truth once it arrived. I thought if I were to ever be indoctrinated, I’d sense it, be able to stop myself from growing diseased. It would be a sudden battle I would know how to fight. I was ready for war. But then, in the quiet, came a small thing. Truth In Nonfiction: A Testimonial