How Reading Coming of Age Trauma Fiction Gives Insight to Adult Survivors’ Persisting Struggles

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Push, In Perfect Light and Bastard Out of Carolina

In the following adult survivor of childhood complex trauma coming of age novels Push (1996) by Sapphire (Ramona Lofton), In Perfect Light (2005) by Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Bastard Out of Carolina (1992) by Dorothy Allison, I observe each protagonist’s arc of post-traumatic emergence and growth. I will broadly delineate the narrative situation depicted in these three works and then examine aspects of the narrative strategies which vicariously offer the reader insight into an experience of post-traumatic emergence.

Push is a harrowing poetic and experimental novel set in the sixteen-year-old, African American, Clareece Precious Jones’s social welfare world of acute domestic abuse and negligence. She goes by Precious and is an illiterate teen mother who is again pregnant and wanting to get her GED, a job, her own place, a boyfriend and to rise to a position in which she can raise her children of incest. To do this she needs to leave her childhood home, learn to read and write, and begin speaking about her impossible and utterly devastating reality. Written by Ramona Lofton under the pen name Sapphire and published in 1996, Push was subsequently turned into a motion picture directed by Lee Daniels in 2009. In the same year a science fiction film entitled Push was released so that Precious became the name for the film. Following print runs of the novel have been published under the title Precious. I refer to this text under its original title, Push.

Unlike Push and Bastard Out of Carolina, which are written in first person and narrated by the survivor-protagonist, In Perfect Light by Benjamin Alire Sáenz employs the third person point of view and relies on external focalisation to present the narrative through multiple characters’ subjective perspectives. Predominantly, the narrative is focalised between the adult survivor of childhood trauma, Andrés Segovia and his counsellor, Grace Delgado. Andrés’s parents die in a car accident shortly after his tenth birthday. He and his three siblings cross the border from El Paso to Juarez in order to stay together. Despite his older brother’s and sister’s best intentions and efforts, this cannot be financially sustained and Andrés is sold for sex from the age of twelve to sixteen. In Perfect Light opens with Andrés, an adult in his late twenties who is struggling with anger management, haunted by his past of sexual abuse, loss, insecurity, poverty, betrayal, and fear and who often takes to writing what is on his mind and drinking. Grace is a highly respected counsellor challenged by the inability to accept her breast cancer, the death of her beloved husband and their effects on the relationship with her son. When Andrés recognises his childhood abuser, William Hart, in a bar one night he confronts and attacks him in a fit of rage. Days later, Hart dies. Andrés’ lawyer, Dave, has him see Grace to help him work through his anger in an attempt to avoid a jail sentence. Unlike the other novels mentioned in this article, In Perfect Light includes the therapeutic relationship in its depiction of post-traumatic growth.

My area of research and experience is specifically focussed on how sustained sexual abuse potentially disrupts childhood development and therefore adversely affects adulthood. As already mentioned in previous posts, common problems faced by a survivor are: perturbations in intimacy (in both friendships and relationships); inability to derive pleasure from sex; difficulty in trusting; emotional numbing as well as depression; maladaptive behaviour; suicidal ideation; learning difficulties; addiction; negative and limiting false beliefs about the self, world and others; and emotional dysregulation. Unlike trauma, complex trauma consists of more than one event, encounter or situation. Typically, it includes two or more types of abuse, psychological, emotional, financial, physical, and sexual. While my primary focus is on the aftereffects of prolonged sexual and physical abuse, it must be acknowledged that emotional and psychological abuse are generally integral to environments where sustained childhood abuse takes place. Perpetrators of complex childhood abuse are most commonly family members or known to the child while abuse at the hands of strangers is far less common. In fact, in Push and In Perfect Light, it is strangers who persist until they befriend the survivors and then assist in their post-traumatic growth.

For example, with the persistence, empathy and thoughtfulness of others, Precious, the protagonist in Push, comes to open herself up to the world outside her parents’ reality, where she is treated as a sex object, punching bag and servant. Andrés, of In Perfect Light also finally lets in the counsellor, Grace and lawyer, Dave, who then proceed to help him avoid prison and start living by going back to school to fulfill his passion for learning and potential. Furthermore, children of complex trauma often have more than one abuser, as research shows children who have been abused are more likely to be re-victimised. The perpetrators’ ability to abuse depends on their ability to identify vulnerable children. When trauma in childhood is not stopped, addressed and thoroughly dealt with at a professional level, the child who survives predominantly establishes a set of coping or survival mechanisms that commonly go on to stunt and severely compromise future mental, physical and emotional health and development. Whilst these coping mechanisms may be useful in getting the child through the horrible trauma being experienced, when these behaviours and thought processes are carried into adulthood they compromise the victim’s ability to function with efficacy and are clinically referred to as maladaptive behaviours. For example, in Push, Precious, a morbidly obese young woman, has been going to school every day yet remains illiterate. She wants to learn but her ability to take in new information is severely impaired. Mentally and emotionally she is acutely overwhelmed and all of her resources are exhausted by what it takes for her to survive, rather than being used to further her cognitive development. Precious is pregnant to her father, Carl Kentwood Jones, for the second time and the degree of physical, emotional, economical and mental abuse she endures is chronic. To survive, Precious dissociates. ‘Go sleep, go sleep, go to sleep, I tells myself. Mama’s hand creepy spider, up my legs, in my pussy. God please! Thank you god I say as I fall asleep’ (Sapphire 2009, 21). Precious also loses time to intrusive memories and fantasy as she gets out of bed each day, grooms herself and goes to school. She wants to learn, but the only experience available to her at school is a temporary reprieve from her home life.

…all the pages look alike to me. ‘N I really do want to learn. Everyday I tell myself something gonna happen, some shit like on TV. I’m gonna break through or somebody gonna break through to me—I’m gonna learn, catch up, be normal, change my seat to the front of the class. But again, it has not been that day.

Sapphire 1996, 5

 

While dissociation is a defence mechanism that keeps Precious able to get through each day, in her young adult life it is also a maladaptive behaviour that thwarts her ability to be present in her life, learn, grow and advance. So do the negative beliefs about herself. On the one hand, they serve to help her accept and make sense of the abuse as something she deserves, yet on the other hand, they become part of why she allows the abuse to continue by not leaving home. At home, as at school, Precious withdraws and never speaks as a means to protect herself and hide all that she feels ashamed of. However, on the few occasions she does speak to the teachers at school she comes across as hostile and with an attitude that repels rather than attracts the help she so desperately needs. Yet this hostility and attitude functions to protect Precious from the perceived threat she feels from teachers and peers, while at the same time gets in the way of an opportunity to communicate her plight and get help. If it were not for Ms Rain (from the alternative school Each One Teach One, Precious attends after having been expelled from her original one) persisting with Precious it is highly likely that Precious’s life would have remained as it was.

In addition to maladaptive behaviour getting in the way, Precious lacks adequate nutrition for her brain to function at its optimal learning capacity. Nor does she have the sense of safety, security and love needed in order to facilitate growth. Precious either goes hungry or her mother overfeeds her with the poor quality food that she is forced to cook. Precious has been exposed to sex since infancy; is without friends; is bullied by boys about her weight and remains passive and mute in the face of her mother’s verbal, physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Sometimes intrusive memories overwhelm the already overwhelming present. At other times, she retreats into fantasies of defending herself: ‘She bedda not hit me, I ain’ lyin’! If she hit me I will stab her ass to def, you hear me!’ (Sapphire 1996, 13). But her mother does not hear her. No one in Precious’s world, during the opening of Push, can hear or truly see her or recognise how precious Precious really is. Especially not Precious herself.

Her English is so underdeveloped and limited that it is not always immediately apparent what she is saying as Sapphire has manipulated the spelling according to how Precious would assume a word is spelt. This demonstrates further how disadvantaged, silenced and disempowered every African-American sixteen-year-old female in Precious’s illiterate, incestuous, and violent predicament would be. No one hears Precious because she never enunciates, but if she did, it is unlikely that the people in her world, during the period covered by novel’s opening, would hear her any more than they see her. Everything Precious has to say stays in her head, just as the pages in her school book remain blank. She cannot write, read or speak. All she can do is receive, like an unconscious object unable to react to its situation or treatment. By Sapphire writing this book from Precious’s point of view and in her distinct voice, Sapphire creates a means through which to hear, see and know something of this reality so perilously oppressive as is the case of many who similarly do not know a way out or how to find the support and guidance needed to become aware of what to do. Sapphire also shows that even a person in the most compromised position, like Precious, has what it takes to experience post-traumatic growth if they have the will to persist and risk trusting others.

A repeated fantasy that Precious has is to be a white, beautiful and thin TV celebrity; it helps her escape when either her mother or father is having sex with her. Sometimes she is overcome with paralysis and shortness of breath when she feels threatened outside the family home. Also, intrusive memories interrupt her trying to get ready for, and then commute, to her new alternative school.

How I git here? What I’m doing on one-two-five at this time of morning? I look down at my feet, my eyes catch on my leggings, NEON YELLOW, of course! Alternative! I’m on my way, was on my way, walking down Lenox when bad thoughts hit me ‘n I space out.

Sapphire 2009, 25

 

This loss of self-command and departure from the present stops both her young adult life and the narrative from progression, breached as they are from the present and suspended in no-time. The intrusive trauma memory or her fantasised experience, like the unconscious, is outside time and works according to association, not chronology. The results of this can be understood to create a psychodrama. The drama staged in the psyche is physically and emotionally experienced as real but it does not resonate with what is actually going on in the survivor’s external reality.

This is a significant reason why adult survivors of childhood trauma typically experience alienation. As depicted in the featured texts, the protagonists are so physically, emotionally and mentally consumed by their past that they cannot relate to others who experience the world as a safe, generous and friendly place. They are also too ashamed to explain the ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ they are wrongly convinced they have committed and that they essentially embody.

Traumatic memory is different from willingly recalling a past event, as the person remembering trauma relives the experience on a psychological, emotional and somatic level. Intrusive memory, as a form of dissociation, is common in trauma survivors (Caruth 1995, 158-183). Precious is able to psychologically survive trauma via fantasy and ‘spacing out’, as she terms it, but it also estranges her from herself, others and the external world. Furthermore, it is dangerous, as she has no recollection of what takes place when she is ‘spaced out’. Her body again becomes an unconscious object, subject to the will of others, resonating with Sigmund Freud’s theory on repetition-compulsion. Her fantasy that, if she were white, thin and famous, she would be happy and loved instead of raped is naïve and these false assumptions are challenged by the white and beautiful women at her incest survivor meetings towards the end of the novel when they speak of past abuse that mirror her own. This white fantasy also rejects and erases who she is, like she is erased and unseen by her parents and at the school she is suspended from.

In In Perfect Light, the twenty-seven-year-old protagonist, Andrés Sergovia, beats to death for the second time a man at a bar in a seemingly irrational fit of rage. His violent rage is out of his conscious control and through it he creates a situation where he will have to go to prison if his lawyer, Dave, loses the case. Prison will not only repeat the confined and disempowered experiences he has had in childhood but will also repeat the emotional and mental prison that trauma is.

Bastard out of California is a semi-autobiographical novel by Dorothy Allison, set in Greenville South Carolina during the early 1950s. The protagonist, whose father remains unknown, is Ruth Anne Boatwright, who goes by the name ‘Bone.’ She spends the novel recounting how she came to survive the abuse of her stepfather, Daddy Glen. As a mature adult looking back, Bone narrates her childhood with insight into, and acceptance of, those who profoundly influenced and affected her former reality and sense of self. Through the narrating, which is a putting of traumatic experience into order and conscious light, she makes sense of her story and of those in it with acute awareness of the impoverished class she and her family come from, at times even referring to herself as ‘white trash’. Through this, she acknowledges, and thus the reader understands, the way an intergenerational lack of financial means shapes her family’s way of life and behaviour and how this in turn enables and facilitates the sustained and multifaceted trauma she experiences throughout her childhood. It also shows how different members from the same family and class come to protect and save Bone, who lives in constant fear of Glen Waddell, the stepfather who physically, verbally, financially, emotionally and sexually abuses her.

Through a meticulously controlled and structured childhood narrative unfolded by Bone’s adult self, the reader is situated to vicariously experience the extent to which Bone’s wellbeing, safety and the security of her mother’s love and happiness were beyond her child self’s control. For Bone, to remember and reveal something of her former life, where so much was unpredictable, unsafe, and often terrifying, she, as an adult, ensures that the delivery of such content is acutely ordered and contained within the story structure, linear time and via economical and strategically poetic syntax and use of dialogue. This tight, almost surveillance-like narrative control might be a means through which Bone gives or creates what the former child Bone needed and lacked. Unlike Push and In Perfect Light, Bastard Out of Carolina moves chronologically through time. Each chapter has a turn of events thoroughly plotted from the story’s opening to the resigned conclusion. ‘I wasn’t old. I would be thirteen in a few weeks. I was already who I was going to be… I wrapped my fingers in [Aunt] Raylene’s and watched the night close in around us’ (Allison 1992, 309). Paradoxically, in telling her story, Bone has brought to light the darkness that closed in on her until the age of thirteen. Bone’s hypervigilant eye for all details concerning Daddy Glen immerses the reader firmly in a terrifying childhood world subject to the erratic moods of this man, who might be understood as a victim-turned-perpetrator.

Around his father, Glen became unsure of himself and too careful. He broke out in a sweat, and his eyes kept flickering back to his daddy’s face as if he had to keep watching or miss the thing he needed most to see. He would pull at his pants like a little boy and drop his head if anyone asked him a question. It was hard to put that image of him next to the way he was all the rest of the time—the swaggering bantam rooster man who called himself my daddy.

Allison 1992, 99

 

Glen’s successful and well-to-do father rejects him. He is unable to keep a job, has married ‘beneath him’ and Bone’s mother, Anney, after a stillbirth is unable to have children and thus give him a son to carry on the Waddell name. Glen is shamed by his family who treat him as no good when he loses yet another job. Instead of processing and constructively dealing with his feelings, he acts out and Bone becomes the scorned object of hate that it seems he has been treated as himself. Her world is made bearable through the presence of the influential and predominantly dysfunctional Boatwright family, who are represented as poor, endearing and rebellious social outcasts.

‘All the Boatwrights told stories, it was one of the things we were known for, and what one cousin swore was gospel, another swore just as fiercely was an unqualified lie.’

Allison 1992, 53.

It is the stories related as epic adventures by her uncles on the wrong side of the law and aunts who keep these men’s lives above water that impress her and both distract and save her from the reality of her disempowered and abusive position at home. Their stories are fictions told with conviction by the tellers who are relating a psychological or emotional truth with specific meaning and significance to them rather than facts. Like fiction they are communicating a sense of emotional and/or psychological experience and truth that can only ever be metaphorically alluded to. Allison is also doing this herself, in telling Bone’s story as a means through which to communicate something of her own childhood.

Bone internalises her perpetrator by repeating the abuse of Daddy Glen by fantasising about it while she masturbates. Just as she feels ashamed after Daddy Glen abuses her, she feels ashamed after masturbating. Andrés of In Perfect Light kills his two main childhood abusers. At face value his rage seems unprovoked, because no one knows who these men are or what they did to him. Through the narrative, however, it becomes known and so the logic given for Andrés’s seemingly impulsive rage invites us to pause and consider this young man’s situation. In Perfect Light does not condone his actions by unfolding a narrative that seeks to justify a child growing into a young man needing to avenge himself but instead shows a man struggling to overcome how his past has affected him and his coming to choose to live and engage differently with the world. Furthermore, Sáenz devotes chapters to the perpetrator’s point of view, which shows William Hart as a man alienated by society and his family due to his unacceptable sexual desire for children. Hart considers what he does to children to be an act of love that is something society does not understand rather than criminal behaviour. No one close to him, apart from a sister, who always kept her children from him, attends his funeral. What is also interesting to note is that after Andrés beats up William, William neither presses charges nor goes to hospital; instead he lets himself die alone in his apartment.

Central to In Perfect Light is the process of post-traumatic growth that Andrés undergoes, gaining insights as he steps out of the shame, self-hate and hiding and into ‘perfect light’ by making who he is known to others. The first man Andrés beats to death before he is old enough to go to jail is the boyfriend of his older sister, Yolanda, a man who ends up pimping her and Andrés; the second killing is of his first john, William Hart, at which point the novel opens. Andrés understands himself to have allowed his body to be exchanged for money as a child in order to protect his little sister, Ileana. As a boy he was afraid and powerless but as a young man, in the presence of these men, he is enraged and reacts with all the anger, protest and defence he was unable to muster at the time of the abuse.

And [Andrés had] remembered him, remembered how that man had lied to him years ago, and how the smell of him just came up through his nostrils and settled in his throat and how he’d wanted to take a bath because just smelling him made him feel dirty and—for the longest second—how he’d wanted to jump in an ocean, scrub himself raw until all of his skin was gone so he could grow a new outer shell, a shell that man hadn’t touched, and he hated how everything came back to him in an instant almost as if it wasn’t a memory at all but a moment in time he was condemned to live and relive, a scene in his life he’d have to step into over and over again until he got his lines right, but he would always get it wrong—and just then he was in the scene again, a boy again, young and inexperienced and stupid and inarticulate and how the man was making him do things he didn’t even have (74) a name for because he was twelve, twelve, and what did twelve-year-old boys know, and then he stepped out of the scene and looked at the man and he felt nothing but the purest kind of rage, an anger so distilled that it was as clear and sparkling as champagne and he knew that what the man had done to him, that man, that man who was sitting there, there, right there—what he’d done to him had started something inside him because something started to break then—and there he was—sitting right in front of him—and it wasn’t fucking fair that he was sitting there all nice and neat and put together like some gentleman out of a magazine, like some reproduction of a suave movie star, wasn’t fucking fair when he, he, Andrés Segovia, was all broken into pieces and he knew that he had this one chance to do something, to say something, to try, to try, to act, to not be passive because he wasn’t twelve anymore and for the longest time he hadn’t had a say in how he got to live his life, and it wasn’t even a conscious decision, no, it wasn’t like that, it wasn’t as if he had decided I will hurt this man, I will hurt him but God, it had felt good to say I hate your fucking guts for what you did to me, I hate, I hate, God, it was good to say that even if he was saying it with his fists, but even then, he knew that it was his fists that were in control and not him, not his mind, not his heart, and maybe it wasn’t possible for a guy like him to be led by his heart because something was broken, so goddamned broken that nothing could fix what was broken.

Sáenz 2005, 76

 

Andrés’s memory of being a boy is viscerally re-experienced as he is transported back to his twelve-year-old self, where his body lives through the experience again and reacts with murderous rage outside his cognitive control and choice. Furthermore, the memory involves the physical sense of filth he and Precious speak of wanting to wash away. They do not realise that the stench and dirtiness are in their heads and not their own but their abusers’. Typically, the survivor is overwhelmed with a misplaced sense of disgust and responsibility for the perpetrator’s behaviour. For instance, Precious in Push commingles self-disgust and the sensory impact of her mother’s body: ‘…I wash serious between my legs and underarms. I don’t smell like my muver. I don’t.’ (Sapphire 1996, 36). Traumatic memory is ever-present and, with regards to the dirtiness and stench invoked here and separates the adult survivor from what is real about her body and its scent. It is not uncommon for a survivor to want to protect others from this dirtiness, stench, badness and overall self-disgust, as Bone does in Bastard Out of Carolina: ‘Maybe I was a bad girl, evil, nasty, wilful, stupid, ugly—everything he said.’ (Allison 1992, 252). Andrés of In Perfect Light wants to protect others, especially women, from the evil he believes himself to embody and the violence he is capable of committing.

… the world was spinning, like he didn’t know how to fight. And somehow, he felt like the whole world knew what he had done. For twenty dollars. […] He stumbled toward the bathroom and vomited. He lay there on the floor for a while. Finally, he took a shower. He couldn’t keep himself from shaking, could barely dry himself, he was shaking so much.’

Sáenz 2005, 250-251

 

The pain in his fists, maybe that was the only thing that was real.

Sáenz 1992, 77

 

Andrés is a private man determined not to let anyone close enough to know about his past, Ashamed and filled with self-hate, the past remains so alive and unresolved in Andrés that it consumes his present. He does not recognise his external reality for what it is but remains alienated by the psychodrama that he experiences as real and alienates him from others. Disassociated from his emotional life, the physical pain in his fists is the only thing in his present that feels real and symbolizes the degree of internal pain that he is afraid to confront and feel from his past. However until he does this, pain is all there can be it is incapable of disappearing.

Andrés’s addiction to cigarettes and over-consuming alcohol is also symptomatic of his inability to access his feelings. No other aspect of his external life can get through the dissociative numbing he automatically protects himself with. All his energy is spent on survival and avoidance: of feeling the loss of deceased and lost loved ones, of fear, humiliation and the pain of having being reduced to a sex object in order to ensure his little sister, Ileana’s personal safety. By not feeling these feelings that originally threatened to (but did not) annihilate him, he cannot proceed to develop a capacity for the kinder aspects of life, such as love, joy and openness. He is defeated by self-hate and hardened as a maladaptive means to protect himself from being vulnerable enough to acknowledge how lost, wounded, unsure, insecure, broken and despairing he is. Rather than feel how powerless and terrified he was as a child, Andrés internalises the sense of responsibility that belongs to his abusers and punishes himself through self-sabotage and deprivation.

‘[Andrés] hated men. All of them. Every single fucking one of them. Himself included’ (Sáenz 2005, 261). ‘…They all told him he was beautiful. But he didn’t feel beautiful, and inside he knew he was nothing but dirt.’

Sáenz 2005, 264

He has never had a girlfriend or allowed another to physically or emotionally touch him. Andrés’s conviction that he is bad, his body loathsome and ‘nothing’, encrypts him in self-imposed isolation until Grace and Dave persist long enough to succeed in getting to know him and build up enough trust for him to let them in. Their conversation and empathy enable him to recognise that the past actually is no longer his external reality nor is the past necessarily the way in which he perceives it and himself to be. Without their efforts Andrés would have remained alone, hostage to the psychodrama that unprocessed trauma becomes.

The adult survivor of childhood trauma is typically in a state of petrification. Psychically, they utilise a combination of defense mechanisms to protect themselves against “perceived threats” in the present, so as to avoid feeling what happened to them in the past (Renn xx). “Perceived threats” are perceived as such due to past hurtful experience being unconsciously projected onto the present situation. Furthermore, the presence of others can be experienced as threatening for survivors because they have to forfeit the sense of complete control they only have when alone. Interactions with others involve taking a risk and having a degree of trust. Also, for a survivor of childhood trauma, where hateful behaviour towards them has been the norm, to be treated with kindness, love and benevolence is unfamiliar and therefore experienced as threatening. A gentle touch can even feel painful because it contrasts with, and therefore makes visible, all the violence and aggression previously experienced. How to respond to tenderness, and reciprocate it, is unknown and arouses feelings of confusion, uncertainty, anxiety, unworthiness and shame. For example, in Push Precious says:

I feel warm kindness from [nurse] I never feel from Mama and I start to cry. A little at first, then on and on, everything hurt—between my legs, the black-lump on the side of my head where Mama kick me…Daddy put his pee-pee smelling thing in my mouth, my pussy, but never hold me…Carl is the night and I disappear in it. And the daytimes don’t make no sense. Don’t make sense talking, bouncing balls, filling in between dotted lines. Shape? Color? Who care whether purple or blue? What difference it make whether gingerbread house on top or bottom of the page? I disappears from the day, I jus’ put it all down—book, doll, jump rope, my head, myself. I don’t think I look up again till EMS find me on floor, and now this little nurse telling me, “Look at me, sweetie, you gonna get through this. You really are gonna get through this.”

I look at her but see Mama’s shoe coming at the side of my head like a bullet, Carl’s dick dangle dangle in my face and now the flat-face baby with eyes like Koreans.

“How,” I ax her, “how?”

Sapphire 1996, 18

 

Kindness challenges the way survivors understand themselves, what they believe they deserve and how they make sense of the abuse they have become accustomed to. Again, Precious in Push says:

I’m drinking hot chocolate in the village wif girls—all kind who love me. How that is so I don’t know. How Mama and Daddy know me sixteen years and hate me, how a stranger meet me and love me. Must be what they already had in they pocket.

Sapphire 1996, 131

 

A way that children deal with ongoing abuse can be to justify the perpetrator’s actions. They can spend their whole lives trying to be good enough to be loved and confused by how effortlessly they receive it from others. This makes no sense to them. In Precious’s case her parents are so absorbed in their own psychodrama they are incapable of seeing Precious as a human being to be loved, kept safe and nurtured so she can grow. They are also adults with insufficiently developed emotional and psychological capacity that they are incapable of fulfilling their role of guardian.

Daddy Glenn of Bastard out of California is not capable of loving Bone nor does Bone’s mother demonstrate the capacity to love Bone the way she or any child in her predicament needs to be loved. This has nothing to do with the degree of Bone and Precious’s lovability; the obstacle is for them to come to understand that it has everything to do with their abusers’ inability to love, due to their own unresolved issues or childhood traumas. But to acknowledge that no matter what they would have done the outcome would have been the same proves more unbearable than the fiction that if they had done something different it never would have happened. It is difficult for a survivor to accept that they were not abandoned and abused due to any failing or shortcoming of their own for it requires acknowledging how much control they did not have as children and how distressing and dangerous this felt.

It was just me, the fact of my life, who I was in his eyes and mine. I was evil. Of course I was. I admitted it to myself, locked my fingers into fists, and shut my eyes to everything I did not understand.

Allison 1992, 111

 

All three protagonists regard themselves as hateful, bad, unworthy, undeserving, responsible and unlovable. Andrés is convinced: ‘If I would have just been brave enough. None of this would have happened. But I was afraid.’ (Sáenz 2005, 199). His counsellor, Grace is able to challenge and break down such false beliefs and assumptions Andrés has about himself. Precious and Andrés’s traumatic experiences have fractured their developing sense of self and resulted in incomplete stages of childhood development. Neurologically, abused children are potentially brought to a halt at the specific time of the traumatic incident/s. Andrés survives by acting as though the sensitive, loving and open eight-year-old Andy is dead and has nothing to do with the now twenty-seven-year-old Andrés. He might be understood as having an avoidant attachment style as he refuses to let anyone in. Bone is sexually interfered with and beaten from the age of seven when she begins masturbating to the fantasy of being beaten as a way of self-soothing and obtaining a sense of control

‘I couldn’t stop my stepfather from beating me, but I was the one who masturbated. I did that.’

Allison 1992, 113

At times Bone becomes so focused on observing and analysing the sayings and doings of Daddy Glen and other adults in her world that her narrative presence becomes opaque and almost entirely lost to the vivacity of other characters occupying the stage. Bone’s self, along with her needs and wellbeing, is overridden by her need to protect her mother. She does this by hiding what Daddy Glen does to her and doing all she can in order not to anger, and thus provoke him. In time this makes her angry and she begins to act out by stealing and getting into fights. She becomes increasingly hollowed and a shadow of her former self until she is sent to live with an aunt. Every time Bone is sent to live with a relative she comes back to life. The environment with her aunts is safe, nurturing and loving and without the constant dread of when and how Daddy Glen will next attack.

In Push, Precious never got to be a child and now she is a mother. She has not experienced a healthy developmental progression into adulthood, nor does she have a firm grasp on chronology and time. This is understandable for a young woman in Precious’s circumstances. For trauma exists in the timeless space of the unconscious where the partially adult mind does not fully develop in, and inhabit, the adult body, which also contains a compromised emotional capacity. At the opening of Push Precious exhibits traits of an ambivalent attachment style and by the close manifests a secure attachment style. The narrative achieves this by taking Precious on a journey out of her domestic life and into the community where she has positive experiences.

bastard

Traumatic memory is intrusive, ruptured, coded and can also be expressed in nightmares, automatic behaviour and in somatic symptoms. It is relived as if it is happening in the present rather than remembered as something that happened in the past. It arises from the unconscious, which does not—and cannot—register the passing of time. The child-adolescent-adult survivor is without adequate capacity to consciously know, contain, understand, chronologically organise and articulate past experience. Consequently, s/he is compelled to behave, react and experience the unconscious’s indirect symptomatic ways of releasing the negative energy that traumatic memory is.

In addition, the illegal and developmentally inappropriate experience an abuser inflicts is internalised by the child who sees and treats her/himself as s/he was seen and treated during the formative years. From this ensue negative beliefs about oneself, hateful treatment of the self or others, and lack of boundaries towards others and in relation to him/herself. An additional effect of this is the aforementioned adverse attachment styles. Like animals, humans must physically release the negative energy and tension of traumatic experience. Unconscious traumatic memory never fully expels itself because it is never fully known; like fiction it has its own logic, language, behaviour and image system that orbits without ever directly making known the trauma (wound) or essence but instead expresses the wound through story as metaphor by translating the internal drama into an external one.

The physical release that Precious, Andrés and Bone experience from crying, writing and coming to speech, and thus to narrate their story, is what makes their own post-traumatic growth possible. The body physically translates and transforms the trauma—as trapped toxic energy—into conscious content that can now be related to others and transcended. Andrés also runs, cycles and fights. All contemplate killing themselves, express exhaustion, are overwhelmed, feel as though nothing makes sense, and either despise or reject both their body and who they are. Part of each protagonist’s post-traumatic growth involves changing his or her negative relationship with the self into a positive one.

Please know the companion post to this is: Coming of Age Trauma Fiction Continued

Allison, Dorothy. 1992. Bastard Out of Carolina. Flamingo: Penguin.

Fletcher, John. 2013. Freud and the Scene of Trauma. New York: Fordham University Press.

Levine, Peter A. 1997. Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkley, California: North Atlantic Books.

____. 2005. Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body. Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True.

____. 2010. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkley, California: North Atlantic Books.

Renn, Paul. 2012. The Silent Past and the Invisible Present: Memory, Trauma, and Representation in Psychotherapy. New York: Routledge.

Sáenz, Benjamin Alire. 1992. Carry Me Like Water. New York: Harper Perennial.

____. 2005. In Perfect Light: A Novel. New York: Harper Perennial.

Sapphire (Ramona Lofton). 2010. Push. London: Vintage Books.

 

 

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Judy Bird says:

    I’d like to register appreciation of your posting this thorough analysis of fiction that attempts to convey the paralysis state and emotional problems of cPTSD survivors. Part of the problem for readers of this fiction is the re-traumatising that can occur when the material is read without the understanding that only comes after post traumatic growth occurs. Such re-traumatising can cause survivors to avoid reading this type of fiction. I’d also like to suggest that the focus on sexual abuse, whilst valid, distances survivors of abuse that did not include sexual abuse.
    I’d like to politely recommend, in case you’ve not already come across these works, the following:
    ‘Difficult Mothers’ by Dr Teri Apter
    ‘Trauma and the Avoidant Client’ by Robert T Muller
    ‘The Tao of Fully Feeling’ by Pete Walker
    I hope your work prospers and that cPTSD and its often hidden effects become more generally recognised within the first port-of-call medical community. Work like yours must surely help. Thank you for posting this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Judy,

      Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment and the books you recommend. I appreciate it very much. I have a companion post for this which does continue with the same texts but I will keep what you’ve said in mind for future posts on Trauma Fiction where I will include close readings of text that deal with trauma other than sexual abuse as it is not my wish to distance readers who have thankfully not had this experience themselves. Thanks for reading and again for your response.

      Kind Regards,
      Angelina

      Like

      1. Judy Bird says:

        I’ll look forward to your posts. Thank you for the kind reply.

        Like

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