Dispatches | March 06, 2012

The desire to write the traumatized character or the traumatizing scene is rather tempting, if only because it immediately and lazily charges our narratives with tension and conflict. How often, in beginning workshops, do we see stories of murder, of rape, of the dissolution of a relationship, of the breakdown of family functionality? These stories from these beginning writers often fail if only because of a lack of experience on the part of the writer; they know that those events are emotionally charged, but they do not know how to define or deal with those emotions. But rarely do I see the story of a man or a woman, even in submissions coming in for publication or already in print, about traumatized man or woman who is defined beyond their abuse.

In Charles Baxter’s “Dysfunctional Narratives: or: ‘Mistakes Were Made’” he briefly uses poor Rose from A Thousand Acres to explain the victimized character:  passive and existing in the “shadow of thought”, she is “unaccountable, even to herself, by virtue of having been molested by her father”. Not only is she unaccountable to herself and to her family, she is unaccountable to the reader. Rose need not ever make an attempt to be fully human because we do not expect it of her. After distress and pain she can gracefully bow out of becoming or remaining human and exist only in a place of quiet; we allow her this easy road because we feel sorry for her.

I wonder, as in our life outside of books and words as well as in, we make the mistake of handling the traumatized with kid gloves, allowing them inhuman passivity because we are consumed with pity and do not know how to heal them or even where to begin. Our narratives of these characters are stunted often as our memories of real people are cut into a binary, before and after suffering. I am deeply troubled that in the larger narrative of published work we seem incapable, as a whole, of moving our characters and ourselves past trauma and even past healing into a place of fully realized humanness.

Sometimes we cannot even get our characters past their moment of trauma and leave them asleep in it, like William Gay’s (rest his soul) female protagonist in The Paperhanger, left clutching her dead child, asleep, frozen in time, unable to awake into her pain. Or in Salman Rushdie’s Fury, the only Rushdie I have read, where the child and mother lay sleeping below their victimizer, poised over their bed with a knife, wondering if he should murder them.

This is the problem with the victimized character: they are defined by their traumas as if, when they are made black and blue, when they are penetrated, when they cry no, no or weep in the dark recess of their minds, they cease to be fully realized as human but are ugly stains upon the narrative. They halt action and make us self conscious of ourselves as victim and victimizer. This is not a bad thing, by any means, but it becomes repetitive, a constant bludgeon of agony and stillness.

Their traumas are relived and revisited by the reader, we too victimize them again and again each time our eyes tear them apart word by word. And if they refuse to be victimized they become equally inhuman. The best image I can think of that readily shows us this victim-made-monster is Meir Zarchi’s protagonist from the shock film, I Spit On Your Grave. Having been cruelly, viciously raped the heroine becomes the rapist and brutally revenges herself on the men who victimized her yet, even on the cover of the movie, she is beheaded, her clothes torn so that we see the beautiful curve of her ass, those white bloody cheeks, marked forever as a victim, the human made un-whole. For more examples, see anything by Tarantino, read anything by De Sade, listen to anything by The Insane Clown Posse.

I see this as a problem that is not limited to the page but a cultural reaction to our preservation of innocence. I will not speak for other cultures because I am not remotely capable of doing so, but in America our innocence is hyperbolically prized with a passion unlike any other. Again and again we lose it, after 9/11, after the World Wars, after JFK had his brains spilled across his 1961 Lincoln Continental, after Britney Spears grew up and shaved her blond mane off, and each time we are forever changed, left cold in the wilderness, until the next great tragedy when we lose all over again. I make this connection because it is an important one not only as writers but as readers to our ideas about trauma; it stunts us to a point that the only way to emerge from the trauma is to be stunted by it again. This is satisfying only in the individualized narrative but in the larger narrative of the canon it leaves me damned cold. That I cannot even imagine how a story could accomplish healing past trauma is equally unsettling, but here is one that tries:

In Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves, the modern Red Riding Hood is told the wolf’s teeth are “the better to eat you with” and instead of sitting passively frightened awaiting to enter that gaping maw, the girl laughs because she know “she [is] nobody’s meat”. Constantly in Carter’s narratives we see protagonists who refuse to be traumatized, who rise above, and yet, perhaps that too is inhuman, just a fairy story.

Our characters are sadly defined by their trauma, just as we define our friends, our mothers and fathers, our siblings, our spouses and our enemies by it as well. We see it radiated on our televisions, the constant coverage of murder and rape in poor neighborhoods, the reality shows of drugged out women and men snorting crack, poor Snooki getting punched in the face because someone tried to take her shot of alcohol, even the benign divorce special of Kim Kardashian and that nameless man she married is a type of trauma, a dissolution of the dreamy fairy tale wedding.  But we are writers, and I posit that we have a duty to destroy, certainly, but we have a duty to heal again as well, and to make these characters three-dimensional, breathing, full formed men and women again. That’s what art must be about, I hope, reforming the alien back into the human.