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Confessions of an American Television Watcher

Inspired by Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater
by Eliza Fox

As an introduction to the narrative of my adventures in the realm of television, I judge it wise to begin with an account of the foundation of my habit. I have found this proper for three several reasons:

  1. As precluding that question, and eventually delivering its answer, which otherwise might impede my confessions—How could a well-educated, reasonable girl enmesh herself in such fetters of miserable dependency, delve into such absolute captivity, knowingly slip herself into an abyss with no escape?—a question which, if unresolved, might undermine my narrative, even make listeners unsympathetic to my plight.
  2. As furnishing the scenery for my life of imprisonment, so that the reader may be aware of my surroundings even when I myself was not.
  3. As creating within the reader a personal interest in the affairs of such an otherwise unremarkable personage as myself, which must make such confessions, if indeed the reader should undertake to discover them, more palatable.

To begin these confessions, I must own that I have often been asked how I first came to be a television watcher, and indeed, have frequently found myself the subject of unjust opinions from acquaintances who claim my mind has always been far more devoted to the television than to themselves. This, however, is a flagrant deceit and a horrible misunderstanding of my state. To tell the truth, until the twentieth year of my age I was not a television watcher, and only occasionally indulged in that delightful vice when I happened to be passing through a room in which the mechanical marvel of broadcasting and circuitry was already colorfully alive. My childhood was remarkably free of it, thanks to parents who believed in the wholesome virtues of books and reading; that news should come in printed on inexpensive paper; and that stories were to be gleaned from friends around the dinner table, rather than absorbed without discretion from the slick television screen. They put home-grown vegetables on my plate to remove the pesticides from my diet and bundled me up in sweaters to keep me from wasting electricity in the quest for heat; who, then, can wonder that they roundly discouraged the use of the television to prevent me from wasting my time and energy on an outlet so destructively numbing to the mind? They restricted its presence in our home to a small, dusty screen, tucked away into a corner of the living room, allowing that it might be pulled out when wanted for a family movie (which might be slipped into the equally-dusty VCR) or for viewing, in grainy color and at a distorted angle, some historical mini-series of my mother’s choosing. Even these moments, however, were few and far between, as we often found it difficult to agree upon a suitable family film, and my mother generally preferred her historical treatises to televised programming.

In this way my childhood came to its conclusion, happily and healthily, providing me with ample knowledge of people and books, if not of contemporary televised reference points. In due course and with minimal suffering, I graduated from the lower ranks of elementary school to the upper echelons of high school classes, and from there, I matriculated with what grace I could master into collegiate life.

But upon my arrival at campus—the palm-treed estate of one Stanford University—I found myself surrounded by springtime weather, mission buildings, and, to my appalled surprise, a backbreaking share of work. What delights were I to find amidst mountains of textbooks and ever-present exams? What joy could I descry from my small, littered workspace, pressed in amongst the forgotten books at the heart of the library?

So, then, I came to understand College, stony-hearted step-mother! thou that drawst children to thy breast with one hand and force their noses to the grindstone with the other; thou that listenest to the sighs of freshman and drinkest the tears of thesis-writing seniors. No more should I enjoy the idleness of a free moment or the luxury of boredom—my time was now spent a solitary and contemplative woman. A noxious shade o’er-spread my life, oppressing my spirit with a wearying ennui and diminishing my immune system until my life became a succession of colds and bouts of the flu.

From these dolorous complaints there seemed no escape nor hope for future comfort—a riddle solved only with the arrival of that serpent temptress, television.

It is now so long since I fully immersed myself in its world that, had it been only a trifling incident in my life, I should soon have forgotten its date. But events of such a defining and life-altering nature are not to be forgotten and from the circumstances connected to it, I can trace its inception to September of 2007. During that season I had already passed one collegiate year and was proceeding to begin my second, and for the first time I could recall, I found myself placed with easy access to and within agreeable distance of a television set. It was, as I recall, white, and quite small, and, thanks in no small part to my parents’ excellent training. I duly regarded it as nothing more than another questionable piece of furnishing (such as a chipped vase or a stodgy painting), a work of no natural beauty and even less taste. My roommates, in turn, showed no desire to familiarize themselves with it, taking the time instead to purchase their books, organize their bags, and enjoy the festive atmosphere of the inaugural days of the school year. Upon the commencement of classes, however, they and I began to return each night exhausted and irritable, little inclined to speak and even less to work, our somnolent souls exhausted beyond even the hopes of caffeinated stimulants. It was upon one such occasion that a certain roommate, desirous of an occupation that would entertain us without forcing any undue excitement of the mind, recommended the television. Television! dread agent of intoxicating delight and destruction! I knew of it from my younger days, was familiar with its shows and commercials, but how little I understood its siren call! I had spoken of it as delightful and enjoyed myself in its presence, but how little I knew of either delight or enjoyment until I immersed myself in its broadcast signals. How little, too, I knew what pain it held for me, what worlds of forgetfulness that might remove me from the daily tedium of classes and socializing. With the mystical importance that attaches itself to such events, I can remember with minutest clarity the day that world was opened to me. A Tuesday afternoon, bright and cheerful: an ordinary spectacle of California life. My roommate, collapsed on the sofa, and myself, adjacent to her on an overstuffed chair, our weary legs stretched out before us to rest on a much-scuffed coffee table. I saw the languorous lift of her arm, remote in hand, much like the reaper’s scythe poised to swing. With a curious gaze, I turned towards the little white box, prepared to absorb such animals and cartoons as had made up the televised moments of my childhood in years past. But lo! what was this upon the screen? A family portrait, only unlike any family I had ever seen. A boy threw his fist into the face of another, a girl, weeping, looked on in the background, father and mother both screamed, and the onlookers, dressed for a solemn occasion, gaped, simpered, and threw meaningful glances at one another. I took it, at first with merely a distracted smile, but in an hour, oh! Heavens! what upheaval! what wonder! what a reversal of all known values within me! The cares of my day, previously so weighty and unmanageable, were forgotten, magicked away into the immensity of the world now opened up before me. Here was the secret to happiness, a transportation to a land of forgetfulness that, for the price of monthly cable alone, might spirit me away to another world, far from homework and exams and dorm room squabbles. I found myself returned to the yet unspoiled Garden of Eden, where with a flick of my remote I might savor the fruit of any channel, all on offer to sate any taste, and all replete with the uncorrupted pleasure of imagination, where the quiet and weak might save the day and the heroine would, undoubtedly, discover her hero before the series finale. I had discovered a new world, a secret world, and one that I might access at any time and in any home across America. It was, above all else, freedom!

But if I continue to go on in this way, the reader will think I am laughing, and I can assure him that no one laughs long when under the sway of the television: even now, I must jest in the company of my own misery. The reader must indulge me on these points of fancy, for I endeavor only to make him understand the power the television held over me, the way it drew me in almost without my understanding, so that, when I attempted to liberate myself, my attempts would be in vain. Indeed, the reader will find me taking on a grave and solemn complexion when I discover to him the power of the television set, the way it trapped me and held me fixed to my chair. I found myself absorbed into its miniaturized world even when I would fain be free to pursue other avenues. Work was forgotten amidst soap opera turmoil; relationships were sacrificed to springtime sweeps; even classes, I must admit, occasionally fell prey to inescapable programming. I had opened the world within that magic box, and, like Pandora, I soon found that box would no longer be secured.

I should hasten to add that I was hardly the only one within the television’s iron grasp. Akin to flies in amber, several of my roommates found themselves similarly enmeshed, too caught up in the fictional lives of Chuck and Blair to recall any concern for their own real ones. Several friends, too, I knew to value their relationships with televised Meredith and Christina over any with me or others around them. In one instance, when I found myself injured and unable to vehicularly convey myself to a physician, a good friend was happy to oblige me, on the condition that we return in under an hour, so that she might not miss a moment in the lives of her favorite televised superheroes.

The life, I admit, was an oppressive one, and perhaps you may envision me, even now, a figure swathed in solitude, prone before the altar of the television’s lights. You may picture me (if you choose) as one doomed to follow the siren call of the small screen, to embrace its plotlines, subtle and mighty alike, and lose myself in them until my psyche is no longer my own. This seems reasonable, but why should I confess to it? If the public (to whom I have whispered these confessions in some belief of confidence and semblance of trust) has framed some picture of the Television Watcher’s visage, who am I to contradict it? No, my friendly reader, ascribe to me what you will; merely take from me the knowledge of the television’s awesome rhetoric, its potent images, the false keys it offers to Paradise. Remember, dear Reader, we are all Persephones within the television’s world, and we must not eat of its fruit, lest we be forced to remain within it forever.

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