How Trauma Fiction can Empower an Adult Survivor

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In the first third of Sapphire’s novel Push (2009), Precious is propelled into action and set up to experience subsequent obstacles and lessons in the middle which function to significantly change her by the end. For example in the middle, Precious experiences a coming-to-awareness that trauma does not have to effect her adult life, even if it presently does. For this to be her reality, she must come to speak or write her truth instead of hiding it symbolically within her morbidly obese body and out of fear and shame.

In this way, fiction demonstrates or ‘pictures out’ that while complex childhood trauma can, and often does, predispose an adult survivor’s life to unconscious ‘repetition-compulsion’, this need not remain the case. That it is indeed possible for an adult survivor to choose and be differently in the world and so take hold of the driver’s seat of his/her life. However for this to be an option there needs to be an active willingness and persistence towards the necessary internal and external work required to surpass the limiting effects of complex childhood trauma. Commitment, desire to learn, openness to change and a tolerance for uncertainty are necessary to develop the resources and understanding required to manage the adverse effects of trauma as they arise throughout life so that they no longer negatively impact upon functioning and growth in daily life.

To shrink the past’s domination over the survivor’s present state of consciousness is to free him/her into a life that can authentically proceed as his/her own. Without trauma trapped in the body, the survivor of physical or sexual abuse is potentially able to go on to remain present and even enjoy being touched and engage intimately during sex, without the mediation of drugs, alcohol or dissociation. Or the compulsion to use sex as a means to self-harm.

From Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s In Perfect Light (2006):

“Do you ever let anyone touch you?” She asked him that. She knew the answer before she asked. “Define touch.” And there it was again, that rage that owned him. There it was, knocking down his door.

Just as he was about to leave, she’d taken out a dictionary. “Let’s see,” she said. “Touch. Yes, here it is. I like the first definition. ‘To cause or permit the body to come in contact with so as to feel.’”

Touch. “Here,” he said, “I like this definition better. ‘To disturb or move by handling.’”

…‘To affect the emotions of; move to tender response.’”

…He didn’t like thinking about touch. He didn’t know anything about that word. Dictionaries didn’t know crap.

He showered, shaved, looked at himself in the mirror. Well, he looked fine. He’d always looked fine. The way he looked, that had never been the problem. Or maybe it had been the problem. You’re a beautiful boy, and why where the voices there, but he knew why and he knew they would always be there, the voices, knocking at the door, taking over his house.

…God, was he screwed up or what? Twenty-six years old, and never been on a date, and all his shirts were white? …And who cared? They covered his body. That’s what mattered. He lit a cigarette, his hands trembling. He ran a finger up his arm. Touch.

Sáenz 2005, 271

When trauma ceases to interfere with or disconnect the survivor from his/her emotional, and mental life, it creates space within the survivor to give and receive love. The process of translating complex childhood traumatic experience into words moves a survivor from a passive position to an active one. This enables the survivor to take control and gain a level of mastery and understanding over an early developmental period in which they had no agency or cognitive means through which to make sense of their experience.

Speaking and writing are a powerful means through which to actively engage with, know, order and shrink into proportion traumatic experience by assembling information in a time sequence, according to past tense. Also, to establish a sense of one’s story assists in deactivating the negatively charged dominance traumatic experience sickens the adult survivor with. By the adult survivor coming to know their complex traumatic experiences in childhood through ‘picturing out’ with words either spoken or written, it assists in cultivating the survivor’s ability to think beyond their childhood perspective and engage with the ways their past negatively informs and prohibits present life. Consequently, this shift in perception forges a way out of being hostage to irrational assumptions, fears, impulsive behaviour and polarised thought processes holding the adult survivor in a child’s simplistic ways of looking, experiencing and reacting to the world.

An adult survivor stuck in arrested development due to childhood trauma typically exhibits the incapacity for certain complexities; abstract thought; self-regulation as well as emotional regulation and ambivalence. Furthermore it is often not recognised that a person who behaved badly, cruel and deceitfully could also be, in other instances generous, kind and with good behaviour. In other words, the adult survivor in most cases continues to experience their abuser as either the terrifying all-powerful monster or god their child self originally experienced rather than recongnise the abuser to be human, flawed and complex.

An adult survivor’s struggle with understanding the over-all complexity of their traumatic experience, abuser and context it occurred in as well as the ensuing oblique emotions is cognitively consistent with their tendency for a polarized view of and approach to the world and others. For example, encounters or relationships with others are typically reduced to and rapidly oscillate between good/bad, all/nothing, love/hate, friend/enemy, life/death, broken/whole, rich/poor, fantastic/disastrous. It makes sense that this is generally the case because it mirrors the emotional and cognitive developmental stage that childhood trauma occurred and froze further growth. This creates a lot of pain for the adult survivor because it adversely impacts on social and intimate interactions with others. It is difficult to maintain adult relationships when parts of the self are still developmentally a child, due to no fault of the adult survivor who is nevertheless the recipient of the consequences complex childhood trauma.

What is perceived as threatening, distressing or a reason to mistrust another, often resonates at some level with something of the hateful behaviour repeatedly inflicted by their abuser(s) during childhood. The reason for this is that the encounters with their abuser(s) were part of their formative experiences, which provided a template for how they see and relate to themselves as unworthy, evil, bad, and/or as nothing and others and the world as untrustworthy and dangerous.

These false generalised beliefs about others and themselves influence their thoughts in any situation that they are in, which in turn creates a perceived reality that mirrors their beliefs and therefore results in self-fulfilling prophecies. In this way survivors inevitably unconsciously recycle their inciting trauma/s (‘repetition-compulsion’), perpetuating what remains unresolved about their former distressing experiences. With this continual addition to the suffering of their in many ways limited and fear-based lives, they become further starved of genuine pleasure, love, security, solid foundation, and understanding, which in effect strengthen a survivor’s false core beliefs about life. By adulthood, the effects of complex childhood trauma are ingrained at a core level and structurally distort an adult survivor’s cognitive and emotional experiences in life, adversely effecting their body and relationship to it. For example, Precious in Push regards her body as an abject object:

Who I see? I stand in tub sometime, look my body, it stretch marks, ripples. I try to hide myself, then I try to show myself…Sometimes I wish I was not alive. But I don’t know how to die. Ain’ no plug to pull out. ‘N no matter how bad I feel my heart don’t stop beating and my eyes open in the morning.

Sapphire 2009, 32-22

Bone in Bastard Out of Carolina:

I was ashamed of myself for the things I thought about (113) when I put my hands between my legs, more ashamed for masturbating to the fantasy of being beaten than for being beaten in the first place. I lived in a world of shame. I hid my bruises as if they were evidence of crimes I had committed. I knew I was a sick disgusting person.

Allison 1992, 113-114

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Each novel depicts differently the similar ways the survivor’s body is effected. Trauma not only impacts the body at the site or location of the past abuse, but it is also expressed somatically via paralysis; hyperventilation; pain, sweat; mechanical movement; reactions to stimulus; hypervigilance; dissociation; migraine; night terrors; appetite; flight or fight; acute fear, and paranoia.

The body is a location, a landscape through which emotions come, abide, resurface and exit. In the novels discussed, the protagonists, when alone, are in a state of stasis, relying on maladaptive behaviours, such as withdrawal, hostility, bad attitude and acute mistrust, in order to protect themselves against further hurt. They are overwhelmed and all-consumed by the past, which remains a drama circling their mind, emotions and separating them from others, unless they choose to risk sharing how life really is for them and open themselves up to different, positive experiences with others. This is often extremely difficult because not only do adult survivors find it difficult to trust but they also find it hard to recognize safe people.

Nonetheless it is others who help the survivors in the novels discussed here, as well as in previous posts, through a process out of the incarcerating past and into the light of the present. For example, in therapy, Andrés’s rage has somewhere constructive to go in talking it through until it is no longer evokes in him a rage expressed uncontrollably or as negative energy turned back on himself. By the end of In Perfect Light, Andrés becomes accountable for his rage and actions and takes responsibility for his adult life. He has learned different ways to manage his fear and pain through his relationship with his counselor, Grace, and lawyer, Dave. It is these friendships formed and connection with others experienced that saves him from losing his adult life to prison which would have resulted had he continued being unable to control his rage or constructively address his anger before it turned into rage. By sharing the truth of who he is with others he is able to remain conscious through what angers him, actively choose differently and to see, feel and respond differently:

He was sorry, sorry that Dave had carried this thing in him for years, sorry because no one should carry such things, and certainly not carry them for so many years…And he was glad he was carrying Grace’s voice inside him, because the voice he usually carried around with him was burning and filled with self-hatred and he was tired of hating himself, tired of hating Dave, tired of hating everything in the world…To know a good man, that was enough.

Sáenz 2005, 315

Andrés experiences a sense of belonging and connection that had remained unattainable throughout his determination to be alone. For each of the survivor-protagonsits discussed in the three novels featured, what is possible becomes so much more once they open themselves up to good company. Andrés of In Perfect Light:

He’d been a soft little boy. But that boy had been killed, and this hard boy was the only thing that was left—a boy so hard that he didn’t even cry when he heard his older sister was dead. He didn’t even ask where she was going to be buried. He didn’t care about anything.

Sáenz 2005, 285

 

Andrés didn’t go to his sister Yolie’s funeral:

 

“I do hate her.”

“And so you’re a bad man—because when you were fifteen, you were so angry and so numb that you refused to go to her funeral?”

“I don’t forgive myself.”

“One of these days you’re going to stop beating the crap out of yourself.”

“You don’t know the things I’ve done.”

“And if I knew, I’d hate you, is that it?”

“Yes, you might.” (285)

There was a softness in his voice that she had never heard before. “I don’t think so.” She smiled and nodded at him. You wouldn’t mind, would you, if I had one of your cigarettes?”

“I thought you quit.”

“I’ve picked it up again. You see, Andrés, the thing about life is that we’re always backtracking. We think we’ll never pass a certain street again—not ever. We think we’re done with it and years later, we’re on that street again. Retracing our steps. Looking for something we left behind.” (286)

And she wondered if maybe that’s what she saw in this young man—a stunted beauty of a man who might still grow. Even in his damaged state, he could light up a room. He could fill it with a presence that was large and rare.

Sáenz 2005, 285-7

Through the therapy sessions that Andrés is required to take in order to avoid prison after murdering his childhood abuser, he remembers and recounts the multiple traumas he experienced since his parents died in a car accident when he was ten. Memories become speech acts enunciated through collaborative dialogue during therapy sessions. From midway through the novel, memories also take up entire chapters in which the reader experiences through the present tense of Andy as a child. Furthermore, memory is represented as a physical and bodily experience when Andrés runs, cycles, and in certain places and settings.

Save yourself. Run. But there is no running. Laugh at yourself for thinking of escape.

Sáenz 1992, 17

The problem with running was that it made him remember. So did walks. But everything made him remember. Why was it that memory was supposed to be something to be valued? Memory had been beating the crap out of him most of his life. He had the bruises to prove it.

Sáenz 2005, 178

Andrés comes to accept that until he confronts his memories, looks at them from different angles with the help of Grace and feels his feelings, traumatic memories will be all he has and all he is. Without working through them he cannot live his present life; he will remain the vacant shell living out the motions like an automaton. The past is out of proportion, all-encompassing and superimposed onto the present until he understands and accepts his life for what it has been and the repercussions. By understanding, accepting and forgiving himself as well as letting others in, the impact of his traumatic experiences shrink into proportion which is past tense.

Through the counseling sessions with Grace, Andrés’s limiting beliefs about himself and the false sense of responsibility of what happened to him as a child are addressed and challenged. Andrés, as a child, had no control over himself or his sister but as an adult he comes to realize he now makes all the choices about himself.

“Twelve year olds aren’t prostitutes.” (Repeats Grace) “A boy. A boy who was sexually abused.”

“And got paid for it. For three years. I worked for three years. I think that qualifies as prostitution.”

Sáenz 2005, 253

His counselor’s constant questioning of his false self-perception results in Andrés’s coming to see himself as something other than hateful, finished, guilty and evil. Most importantly he comes to understand that he was never a whore who allowed his body to be exchanged for money and recognizes himself for the twelve-year-old sexually abused child that he always was.

By speaking of his past with Grace, remembering as he runs, and going back to school, Andrés is able to push forward in the light of his truth. He is able to practice acceptance in the presence of overwhelming memories of what was his horrific reality. A distinction between the past and present is made. He has developed the capacity emotionally and cognitively contain the pain and murderous rage without acting out and sabotaging himself. Even though he is afraid that his little sister might be dead he no longer avoids searching for her in case she is alive. The post-traumatic growth in Andrés is manifest in his being able to use that same energy constructively instead of destructively and reconcile with the Andy he had been as a child.

This is the way the story ends: with Andrés Segovia riding a bike, a man becoming a boy again.

Sáenz 2005, 325.

Saenz’s use of language makes everything that is dark and painful arrive at a beautifully expressed moment that brings trauma bearably into the light. Allison too uses poetic prose, but in Bastard Out of Carolina, where an adult version of the protagonist relates her abusive past, the prose is kept under vigilant control and ordered in an impeccably structured way. For Bone, growing up, there was much to fear and unpredictability under Daddy Glen’s reign that it seems in order to return to the past to tell the story she made the task safe and possible with structure. That is by executing a precise unfolding of narrative events in seamless chronological order which couldn’t be more contrary to the chaotic and timeless experience of trauma. Sapphire’s Push is as poetic and experimental as it is devastating. It begins with Precious at sixteen, with a limited vocabulary and poor spelling, and proceeds to tell just how far into the darkness this incest story goes.

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Sapphire writes Push in the way the illiterate Precious thinks words are supposed to be spelt (e.g. ax = ask), as well as utilizing her tendency to dissociate from a sense of linear time. Not all of it is written this way or it would be as incoherent as Precious experiences it to be. Sapphire gives just enough altered spelling and shifts in time to create a sense of Precious’s subjective experience while leaving it coherent enough for the reader to engage and empathise. Precious’s illiteracy and informal and often crass, English comprising the text mirrors the layers of silence and social, racial, economic and demographic limitations through which Precious is disadvantaged.

In the first third of Push Precious does not enunciate the things she would like to say back to her mother. Once she enters Ms. Rain’s pre-G.E.D. class at the alternative school, Each One Teach One, her world changes. Precious meets this opportunity halfway by being committed to learning to read and write. She also takes the risk of trusting Ms. Rain with things about herself that she is ashamed of and has always avoided disclosing. From this turning point onwards, Precious’s spelling and syntax improve and she actually speaks instead of refraining from saying the thoughts that have never gone beyond the silent circling of her mind. From this small step forward she begins to defend herself and increasingly  share the truth about herself, who she is, what she feels and wants.

Through the pathways and connections opened by self-expression in speach acts and writing, Precious forms nurturing friendships. Her fantasies about being a thin white woman in the movies and having a real boyfriend stop and she comes to value, love, take pride in and assert who she is: a large African American woman with a magnificent heart, fortitude, and capacity. In this way Push demonstrates how post-traumatic growth becomes possible when a survivor is exposed to acts of kindness and a world outside of their typically abusive interactions and environment. This positive engagement and exposure with others in her community also functions to facilitate the breaking of her prejudices against drug addicts, homosexuals and other races, as people who are also these things prove safe, loving and benevolent.

In learning to read and write, Precious also receives a means through which to creatively express herself: poetry. She finds comfort in books, as do Bone and Andrés. In Push, as in Bastard Out of Carolina and In Perfect Light, the protagonists have a great appetite for reading stories and this exposure to other heroes’ journeys through adversity appears to catalyse their post-traumatic growth. It also lets readers in on the stories that have influenced them. Reading functions to make the protagonists feel less alone and inspired by the possibility of positive change. It also demonstrates ways for them to articulate their own experience. Each protagonist allows into their world others who are safe to bear witness to their pain, shame, guilt, anger, and body of abuse and consequently experience the unconditional acceptance and support through which they are able to grow, instead of just survive. For Andrés, it is Grace and Dave; for Bone it is her aunties and the reader, and for Precious it is Ms. Rain, her peers in Pre-G.E.D., and those in her incest survivor support group.

Like Precious narrates her life, Bone does too until the age of thirteen. The reader bears witness to how her past and key figures in it make sense. It shows how, as a child, Bone’s uncles and aunts were able to provide her with the love and protection she needed from her mother and stepfather and that now as an adult she must give herself. Precious becoming able to write and speak about the sexual and domestic abuse, her body, desires, shame and confusion is what facilitates her awareness that she is not the ‘nothing’ gratifying others’ needs that she has been treated as since infancy. Once she stops seeing herself that way she can no longer be treated as such, for, as a young woman, she is able to stand up to her mother, speak, and leave. Enunciating what she wants to say and knowing how to write is fundamental to empowering her and connecting her with others, which is essential for her to move forward, have new experiences, and realise her desires. Once she has connected with the outside world, her self-worth, life and world expand beyond what life with her parents has previously shown her.

These stories represent abused children who survive into adulthood, as figures not irreversibly broken, damaged or shattered, unless they believe and behave as though they are. These are examples in which fiction acts as a catalyst for post-traumatic growth and source of hope and inspiration, as well as offering insight to what is possible following complex childhood trauma, despite the road towards post-traumatic growth being so harrowing.

If this article has been useful to you please like it, feel free to comment and/or share it with those to whom it would be of interest and benefit.

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