Safety Man? More Like Save Me, Fam!

  • A write up by Celeste Schmidt, Lauren Sternenberg, and Eva Trakhtman

Summary:

“Safety Man” by Dan Chaon begins in describing an inflatable doll in the shape of a man, one which Sandi carries around in her bag and inflates on the go for protection. Safety Man is used as a substitute for her dead husband, Allen, and Sandi reveals that she and her two daughters are very fond of him.

Sandi goes on to tell about her family’s history of mental illness, but assures the reader that she feels fully functional—even holds a job—and is completely normal except for Safety Man. She tells about when she’d realized Allen had died, their family stopped thinking of Safety Man as a joke. They take comfort in his presence, but Sandi wishes that she could still feel a bit of Allen in her life.

Sandi positions Safety Man like a human, with a book, and in the time after Allen’s death feels detached from the pain of loss. She says that when her mother calls, since she’s super philosophical, that is the hardest part. When her mother asks if there is an afterlife, she goes off on a tangent until Sandi stops her at the religious part and begins to think about her job at the IRS instead.

There, she tells how one of her co-workers is often threatened, but she thinks nothing of it, which is odd to Sandi who becomes paranoid. Upon leaving the office that day, she sees a tooth on the ground and wishes to tell the story to Allen, but he isn’t here, so she substitutes him with Safety Man, even going as far as to place him in bed next to her.

Sandi says that she is still normal, although the grief strikes every now and then. She’s there for her daughters and mother.  She thinks she sees Safety Man glow in the corner of the room.

Sandi’s coworker asks about the guy Sandi is with, Safety Man, and tells her that she looks up to Sandi. Sandi doesn’t know how to respond, so she thanks her.

Sandi then meets another slightly crooked person in the park, and she tells about the tooth she saw, but the other woman eyes her suspiciously and walks away. At this, Sandi feels odd.

She begins to spiral out of control—in her own mind—in being paranoid and more and more negative in thought. Safety Man tells her she is doing fine, and then Sandi says that she is insane.

When Sandi picks up the girls, and has to deflate Safety Man, she feels upset and when one of her daughters says something about it, she goes to comfort him. Finally, she begins to stroke Safety Man like a real person, saying everything will be fine, but recognizing the fact that that is a lie.

Chronic tension:

The chronic tension for this story is Allen’s death. Allen’s death and the mention of Allen’s death is a constant in this short story because of the impact it had on Sandi. Sandi is in grief, and is spiraling out of control because there is no one there to keep her steady.

Acute tension:

The acute tension is Sandi seeing Safety Man as more than an inflatable doll. Specifically the more recent events where she starts replacing Allen with Safety Man. 

What interested Lauren:

This story was interesting to read due to the way Chaon navigates between normalcy and outlandish—or in this case, moderately insane. Safety Man as a character was interesting to read because, by himself, he isn’t even a character at all. He gets his power through Sandi, whose view of him allows him—as an inanimate object—to hold an abnormal type of sway inside of their family’s lives. This inter-character relationship was so strong, and its oddity was mind-catching since it was basically all carried on by Sandi and her family.

What interested Eva:

I personally, just enjoy any stories about people with insanity issues. It seems weird, but it’s actually really interesting seeing how an author develops their character and brings out their insanity factor. I think that Chaon did a great job in creating a very realistic example of everyday insanity, the main character was really easy to sympathize towards, and was so relatable, that you’d even forget that she is insane after a while. Safety Man, that was an unexpected and bizarre part of the story, but nonetheless anytime he was mentioned, I instantly became more interested.

What interested Celeste:

“Safety Man” ­by Dan Chaon was interesting to me because it told the story of Sandi’s descent into insanity through how she thinks and interacts with the people around her (especially Safety Man). These relationships outwardly change very little—instead they hold their weight in how Sandi interprets them.

What Lauren would imitate:

There was a lot about this story that I want to try and imitate. The main element is how the narrator, in Sandi’s point of view, gave an inanimate object so much power. Safety Man never actually spoke, but somehow it was as if he was manipulating Sandi in a way that is unseen unless you’re in Sandi’s mind. The power dynamic between them is incredibly unique.

Lastly, I’d like to imitate the process of having an insane character be fully conscious while falling into insanity. The concept in itself is very interesting and hard to pull off—especially in a short story versus a two-hundred-page novel.

What Eva would imitate:

I personally, am extremely impressed by Dan Choan’s ultra-realistic world building, so I’d like to imitate that. I like his creepy, “you’d see this type of thing in real life” narrative, I think it’s very unique and could be fun to work with. I like how although Allen has been dead for a  while, he is still a crucial part of the story even after his death. It’s interesting working with the impact one person might have on another.

What Celeste would imitate:

In my own writing, I’d like to try out some of the strange/slightly random observations that Sandi has. They fit in perfectly with the story, while still being just unexpected enough to stand out. I’d also like to possibly try out the use of an object (like Safety Man) to sort of reflect and explain the main character’s emotions—or just something about them—subconsciously, or at least without straight up offering more information.

Techniques Lauren tracked:

The two techniques I tracked were the narrator slipping into Sandi’s perspective and the slight ques certain sentences give to a darker atmosphere. I chose these two elements because they can better showcase the unique way Chaon grew this story, and better highlights the odd feelings this story carries when I looked deeper.

When the narrator switches into Sandi’s thoughts, it provides insight to how she is actually perceiving everything that is happening. These moments also reveal much about her psyche, and the line about her knowing that she is insane really caught my attention because do insane people really know that they are insane?

This quote:

I am an insane person, Sandi thinks. They will all recognize it, eventually. She can’t go on like this much longer. Sooner or later, they’ll begin to realize that she is not really one of them; that she is in a different place entirely…

I chose this quote to properly highlight what was so interesting about Sandi as a character. My being attracted to this quote was mainly due to the knowledge I already have about people with insanity. The phrase I’ve heard so much about is, ‘An insane person doesn’t realize that they are, in fact, insane,’ and, the literal definition of insanity: someone repeating the same actions over and over again, expecting a different result.

Sandi conforms to only one of these, being the second. She clings onto Safety Man, telling herself that even though he isn’t Allen, he is Allen’s ‘replacement.’ She inflates him repeatedly, telling herself she will not become weird like her family, yet she does anyway upon becoming close to Safety Man.

My second technique is the light showing of the darker tones in this story.

She maneuvers through her day, despite the cannibal letter-writers, despite teeth in ashtrays, despite Safety Man janitors steering their wheeled mop buckets past her workstation…

I picked this quote to really showcase the more morbid route this story seemed to be taking. The fact that Sandi doesn’t pay attention anymore to things such as cannibal letter-writers is really unnerving to me. It can also show how Sandi is slowly blocking out how weird everything that is going on is, she is ignoring her own descent into insanity, while somehow being fully aware of the changes simultaneously.

Once, as she leaned over Molly’s bed, the child stirred.

This line just creeped me out. I chose it because this is when—while I was reading the story for the first time—this is where the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. AT first it was just because, ‘Why is she leaning over her kid’s bed?’ but as I began thinking, there just wasn’t any way this could’ve made sense in a normal household. It reflected the disjointed grip Sandi has surrounding Allen’s death, and her children are helpless to think otherwise. It was just super freaky…standing over someone while they’re sleeping is creepy. 

Techniques Eva tracked:

The first technique that I tracked was Sandi referring to/mentioning her insanity. I wanted to track this technique in order to show her gradual character progression, or in this case regression to insanity.

Throughout the whole story, Sandi talks about how she is “functional” or how she knows that she is insane. There are in betweens where she mentions her family members’ insanity and then refers to herself, stating that there is a chance she might end up like them. This story is written in the third-person-omniscient P.O.V., meaning that it focuses on Sandi but isn’t told from her exact perspective. It does give us the insight to what Sandi is thinking, though. And most of the time Sandi’s thoughts are wrapped up by conclusions, whether she concludes that she is in fact insane, or that she isn’t and will be alright.

My favorite quote from this technique that I tracked was the last line:

“It’s all right,” Sandi says again. As if she means it.

I thought this quote perfectly showed the technique I was trying to track. It summed up the whole story with Sandi’s contradictory look on herself and her insanity.

The second technique that I tracked were Sandi’s flashbacks. Most of the flashbacks in this story were about Allen or about Sandi’s mother. All of the flashbacks showed Sandi but through the eyes of the people that are close to her. The flashbacks were randomly put in after or before confusing parts of the story to help make sense of the situation and to give more personal background on Sandi.

Sandi used to have a normal life. Didn’t she? She remembers thinking so, when they first moved to Chicago. She’d loved the big north suburban house they’d bought—so old, so much history! She loved that there was a little park right around the corner, and not far beyond was a row of small quaint shops, and beyond that was the girls’ school, everything comfortably arranged. She was away from her crazy family at last, away from the small-town restrictions of her former life.

I think this flashback perfectly showed Sandi’s life progressing into a kind of uncertainty, neutral chaos. The first sentence “used to have a normal life” already informs us that something is now wrong, and the rest shows the “normal life” that Sandi used to have.

Techniques Celeste tracked:

The two techniques I tracked throughout the story were Safety Man as a symbol and Sandi’s observations/coincidences, because both reoccur throughout the story and contribute to Sandi’s collapse into insanity through how she thinks about them.

First Technique: Safety Man as a symbol

Safety Man starts out as something to fill the void that Allen left behind with his death, as a sort of safety blanket for Sandi (but in the shape of an inflatable, posable man). As we move on, since Sandi has been relying on Safety Man for some time, he quickly begins to symbolize, or embody, Sandi’s stability. Two quotes:

Besides Safety Man, there is nothing abnormal about her life.

and

She is no different from them, despite the inflatable man in her totebag.

show how Safety Man allows her to be like everyone else, keeping her ‘sane’ for the time being…. They also showcase the impression she has of herself—an undercover insane person living as an imposter in the ‘normal world’— (much earlier than she actually admits this to herself) in reassuring terms, like she’s letting herself know that she’s pretty much normal, and that Safety Man is the one, tiny, difference between her and everyone else.

Later, the loneliness sets in from not having been with Allen for a long time. Sandi finds herself wishing that he was still with her somehow, as a ghost, a smudge in a photo, an orb, anything she could possibly imagine. Yet again, Safety man comes to symbolize that loneliness Sandi feels in herself, without her even knowing it.

Alone beside the standing lamp, Safety Man considers the passage as Sandi sleeps…He reads and reads, a lonely figure.

At the very end of the story, Sandi lets the air out of Safety Man with a sort of finality, assuring herself that ‘it’s okay,’ and in that moment, Safety Man becomes a symbol of Sandi moving on, accepting the fact that Allen’s gone and that she has to keep going, keep living her life and taking care of her kids. Safety Man is used as a symbol to reflect Sandi’s emotions as she deals with Allen’s death and comes to terms with it as well.

Second Technique: Sandi’s observations/coincidences

The second technique I tracked were Sandi’s observations/some coincidences she noticed. She begins with two people’s behaviors: the old religious lady praying where she eats her lunch, and the man who follows her down the street, mistaking her for ‘Kelly.’ These two serve as a premonition for Sandi’s future, even though she doesn’t notice at first.

The old woman is nicely dressed, about Sandi’s mother’s age, speaking calmly, good posture, her gloved hands clasped in front of her chef’s salad.

This quote in particular shows how similar to these ‘desperate’ people Sandi becomes, because the old woman has so many aspects of a perfectly functional person—she speaks calmly, has good posture, ordered a chef’s salad—but Sandi still recognizes her as a crazy person, much like her later on, when she’s living a pretty normal, functional life, but still thinks that someone’s going to call her out for being insane.

Sandi later finds a human tooth at the ashtray at work.

There, among the slender, lipstick-stained cigarette butts, which stood up in the gravel like dead trees, she saw a tooth—a human tooth, lying there. She stood staring at it. What’s happening to the world? she thought.

This experience sticks with her, and Sandi later mentions this to the mom at the park pestering her about hormones in food, but what really sticks out about this line is how strange it is. Just…a tooth hanging out with some cigarettes in an ashtray. Her final thought of ‘What’s happening to the world?’ mirrors the ‘Something is happening to her’ she had said much earlier. Like with Safety Man, it’s almost as if Sandi projects her feelings and how she’s thinking to the world around her.

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why did the author keep the POV as third person? Why not shift it completely to Sandi in first person?
  2. How/what do the other characters’ perspectives add to the story?
  3. Why did the author choose to have Allen be dead before the story even began? What if the story was told while Allen was still alive?
  4. How does the author use coincidences to foreshadow Sandi’s own mental decline?
  5. How does the author create the elements of insanity throughout the story?
  6. How does the rising action show throughout the story?

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