February 16th, 2007

lion in winter broken because you're bri

her brown hair in the howling wind blowing wild and free

'Not even to see fair Lothlórien?' said Haldir. 'The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though it all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.

'Some there are among us who sing that the Shadow will draw back, and peace shall come again. Yet I do not believe that the world about us will ever again be as it was of old, or the light of the Sun as it was aforetime.'

--J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring


Of course one of the things that influences Tolkien's writing here is the shadow of the Great War. What he's describing is the universal reaction to trauma. The human reaction to trauma.

But the great Lie of American literature is the epiphantic healing, the moment of crisis and catharsis that leaves us shaken but again whole. And of course that never happens in real life--a broken sword, perhaps, can be forged anew (and given a new name) but a broken life cannot.

Those scars are with you always, and it is a cruelty and a lie to pretend otherwise. Amputated limbs do not spontaneously regrow themselves, and learned trauma responses do not vanish in the morning light or the light of a new love. No one can save you but yourself.

Once you have been broken that severely--by war, by fire, by abuse, by loss--you will never be whole again.

This is not a message of hopelessness.

This is a message of hope.

Because the idea that you can be healed by the touch of an angel, by the passing moment of grace, and then you will be all better like Mommy stuck a Batman bandaid on the cut after giving it a spritz of neosporin--that is the real message of despair. If you can't bounce back from your trauma, then you must be weak. If you can't be healed by a healthy serving of The Love Of A Good Woman or The Love Of A Good Man (or just Manly But Emo Bonding, if you happen to be living in a hurt/comfort fic) then you are a failure.

You should be able to get up after a crushing experience like a TV character who spent last episode submerged in a leaky coffin with nothing but a cell phone*, and carry on. If you can't, you should be ashamed, because you are weak.

There's a scene in one of my books, The Sea thy Mistress (if it's still there when I revise and the thing sees print in 2010 or thereabouts) that I found revealing in the reactions it got. The short form is that the protagonist has just hit bottom. And he says to an old enemy--who has come to help him--"I don't break."

Some of my first readers said, "What do you mean? He's broken; he's in pieces all over the floor!" And others said, "Wooo! You gonna make it, son!"

The ones in the first category saw the pit he was in, and saw that he'd given up in despair, and didn't see how he could climb out of it. The ones in the second category knew a harder truth: that survival begins when you start to fight, and dropping the load once doesn't mean you will drop it twice.

The only broken that matters is when you lie down and don't get get back up again.

Everything else is just a bend.

But there's that expectation, as cpolk says, of the butt-chinned hero enduring everything with a quip and scarce a wrinkling of his manly brow. And that's so unfair. People who have been traumatized are different, afterwards. They have learned something horrible, and often they have learned something horrible about themselves--that they cannot live up to that fictional ideal.

Because nobody can.

They have suffered the emotional equivalent of an amputated limb. It is unfair to expect them to soldier on as if nothing had happened, to have an epiphantic flash of healing and be over their grief like that.

Post-traumatic stress is compounded by grief. In a very real way, it is grief. We grieve for the person we were. We grieve for what we have lost. We grieve for the ways we will never quite be whole.

And of course you can't live there. You can't dwell in your grief. (Well, of course you can, and this is the great Lie of Victorian literature--that dwelling in your grief is somehow noble and shows trueness of purpose and heart.) If you try to live in your grief, then all your life shall be as ashes. And that, while poetical, is a sucky way to get through the day.

But here's the thing, and the way these two poisonous Lies collide. Because the first Lie tells us that if we cannot bounce back into an epiphantic healing after a couple of therapy sessions, then we are Broken. And the second Lie tells us that if we are Broken, there's nothing to do but sit by the fire with Miss Havisham and her cake full of spiders, waiting for a poignant Auctor Ex Machina to set us alight and free us from our lingering.

And you know, that sucks.

Whereas the truth is this: life is about adapting to trauma. Life is about finding work-arounds. Life is also about using that trauma, because the thing about broken edges is they cut.

And knives are tools as much as weapons.

And I think it would be nice if more literature did not reflect one Lie or the other, because I find, personally, that people are not disposable.

And my best teapot is the one with the glued-together lid.



This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.

--Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas"




*What carrier is that, anyway? Because I want to switch.