Disgusting Yet Emotional

Written By: Timothy Fish Published: 12/16/2007

The following is a scene that you might find in a movie or book for children:

The cupcakes were done. All they needed was some chocolate icing to go on top. Billy looked at the icing that his mother had bought and realized that she had not gotten chocolate icing, but she had gotten white instead. That would not work. His teacher had insisted that they had to have dark icing on them so that the ones brought be all of the kids would look the same. White would not do at all, they needed to be covered with dark and gooey chocolate icing. Icing that kind of like—kind of like the stuff that had been in the diaper that Billy had changed for his baby brother only a few minutes earlier. Billy ran got the diaper. It looked like it had just enough to cover the cupcakes. It didn’t smell good and it wouldn’t taste good, but it would look like it was supposed to. Once he got them to school no one would know who had made them anyway.

”How is the baking coming?” Billy’s mother asked when she came back into the kitchen.

”I’m almost done,” Billy said.

”I didn’t think we had any chocolate icing left.” His mother ran her finger along the knife that Billy had been using to coat the cupcakes then stuck it in her mouth.

It is a very emotional piece of writing, don’t you think? Perhaps you don’t, but you probably think it is gross. You might even say that it is disgusting. Disgust is an emotion, so the scene above is truly emotionally moving, but it isn’t what we normally think about when we talk about something being emotional.

Disgust is the emotion that causes us to want to get rid of something. It makes us feel a little sick about something. It protects us from diseases and things that might harm us, but how can we use it in writing? In the Bible, we see it used in reference to the church as Laodicea, which was referred to as being neither hot nor cold but lukewarm. God was disgusted with them and would spew them out (Revelation 3). We also see it see it in Isaiah 64:6 where our righteousness is referred to filthy rags. It is a clear reference to the disgust that God has for our actions.

In children’s literature, disgust may be used to entertain. Many children, especially boys, love disgusting things. For other people, disgust may be used to make a point about how bad things have gotten for a character or for retaliation against a villain. Even Jesus, the master teacher, used disgust to get his points across to those listening. You remember the parable of the prodigal son. This son took half of his father’s wealth and wasted it. He did not come to himself until he was sitting, watching the hogs eat and wishing that he could eat as well as they were eating. Hogs can be disgusting animals to begin with. They swallow around in their own feces and they don’t smell very good. If we add to this that the law of Moses declared these animals to be unclean, we can see the disgust that many of the people listening to Jesus would have felt.

When disgust is used in writing, the reader will have the desire to get rid of the thing that causes disgust. Many of the things that cause disgust are things that someone places in his mouth, but shouldn’t. Perhaps that is where we get the phrase “in poor taste,” but disgust may be directed toward other things as well. Sometimes a reader feels disgust toward one of the characters. This can be a bad thing if it is a character that the reader is supposed to cheering for, but having an obsessively obnoxious character that the reader becomes disgusted with can be useful if the writer needs a character that he can kill off without upsetting the reader.

Using disgust in writing does have its problems as well. In John 6, Jesus told his disciples that to have eternal life they would have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Many of the disciples became disgusted and no longer followed him after he said that. When we write in such a way that it causes disgust, we may chase some people away. When faced with disgust, we have two choices. Either we can find a way to accept the disgusting thing or we can find a way to get rid of it. When a book is involved, sometimes the way a reader chooses to handle her disgust is to stop reading the book. Just as it is not always easy to know what things will disgust a reader, it is not always easy to know where the breaking point will be where the reader chooses not to go on reading.

Disgust is a very effective teaching tool. It is a tool that Jesus used, but when using it to get a point across it is best to consider the ramifications carefully.