Intent and Consequence in the Big Short and The Turner House

In my first reading of The Big Short, to say that I was confused was a bit of an understatement. I couldn’t wrap my head around the lack of responsibility that Wall Street displayed in response to the 2008 Housing Crisis. While Micheal Lewis’s book functioned more so as a literary textbook, throwing random bits of information that framed a series of events, whereas in Angela Flournoy’s novel, The Turner House, character development and her usage of flashbacks played a central role in humanising the ways in which I was able to make sense of the 2008 Housing Crisis and the importance of deciphering intent and facing the consequences of our actions.

In the final chapter of The Big Short, Michael Lewis posits that the problem with money was that “what people did with it had consequences, but they were so remote from the original action that the mind never connected the one with the other.” I will admit that when I first read this sentiment, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. But when I read The Turner House and returned to the comfort of narrative prose, I found myself questioning how characters like Lelah, for example, deal with their shortcomings and cope with the resulting consequences of their actions. Early on in my reading, I was able to focus specifically on Lelah and the relationship she had with her daughter and position within the Turner family with the help of the novel’s usage of the third person omniscient point of view. Having all of the thoughts and feelings of the Turner family, specifically when it came to Lelah, made it all the more accessible when attempting in deciphering how she confronts the consequences of her gambling addiction. Unlike The Big Short, The Turner House sets the scene, so to speak, and we see how characters develop through their actions by first establishing their intent or Mens rea.

 For example, when Lelah is forced to leave her apartment, she chooses to ignore the calls from her daughter Brianne and refuses to seek help from her siblings. Instead, she opts to take up residence in her vacant family house.  In her reasoning behind her decision, Lelah makes the point that, “A house with electricity couldn’t be classified as abandoned, and an individual with a key to that house didn’t fit the definition of a trespasser.” I was particularly interested in this line of reasoning primarily because it highlights exactly what the legal Latin term Mens Rea refers to: guilty mind. According to Cornell Law School, Mens Rea refers to criminal intent or a guilty state of mind that is required in order to convict someone of a particular crime. According to Lelah, she does not consider herself a trespasser because she holds a key to the house, yet, the very definition of trespass, as defined by Cornell Law School, is “the act of knowingly entering another person’s property without permission.” Just because Lelah had a key for the house does not necessarily mean she had permission to enter her family house. The question of whether or not Lelah was trespassing however, is not a question of her integrity but rather the consequent actions that follow.

Lelah, unlike those in The Big Short, was well aware of the fact that she was an addict. In the description of her gambling addiction, there are instances in the novel where she recounts that she should have walked away from the gambling but couldn’t. There was something irresistible in the act of gambling that Lelah simply could not resist. Lelah’s addition, highlighted the very problem that those in The Big Short may have confronted. In Chapter 6 of The Big Short, it is evident that the casinos were most successful in helping gamblers delude themselves, offered them a sense of “false confidence” as Lewis puts it. This seems to be demonstrated particularly well with Lelah, who also benefits from the false confidence that Lelah herself acknowledges at the end of Motor City, when she recalls:

It wasn’t Vernon’s fault she’d ended up a gambler; she would never say it was… When she felt like she was flailing, back on Yarrow not doing anything worth anything with her life and tired of being alone, she could sit right here, put her hand on the chalky surface of the chips, and be still for a moment in the middle of all the commotion of the casino floor (50).

I found this particular exploration of Lelah’s connection to gambling indicative of the lack of depth that was evident in The Big Short. As I’ve pointed out in numerous discussions, Lewis’s novel rightfully condemns the gamblers of The Big Short, and we as readers, are eager to categorise them as villains. Yet, in The Turner House, one can’t help feel sorry for Lelah because she isn’t depicted as a villain. Her state of mind isn’t one of self-destruction, she’s just trying to cope. But one of the questions I have been asking myself through all of this is, can the same be said for people like Michael Burry, who knew exactly what he was doing when he placed bets against the crappy loans. If there’s anything The Turner House explores in relation to The Big Short, I think it has more to do with examining character intent and positing how they are able to move forward. When I consider Lelah and her desire to be her own woman, free from the shackles of the patriarchy, I consider the fraught relationship she has with Brianne, whom she urges to be independent and not rely entirely on Robbie. If I were to consider Brianne’s perspective of Lelah, I might argue that she believed her mother to be harsh and overly critical, but when given the background of Lelah that we have and considering her own previous relationships, it’s evident that Lelah’s intent is not push her daughter away, but to protect from dwindling down a path that she herself can’t seem to escape from.

While Lelah’s intent is not to cause harm, the consequences of her overprotectiveness result in Brianne pushing her away. That being said, it’s a shame that those responsible for the housing crisis were not confronted with the consequences of their own actions, but rather received quite large bailouts instead.

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