If on a winter’s night a writer sits down in a darkened room with only the glow of a desk lamp to guide them, they may find themselves writing about the thing that is difficult to write about in the light. The thing that the writer is penning on the page is an event from childhood. The event itself may have happened in a single instance or many times throughout a specific period of time. The event is one that has created the foundation for the writer’s adult life and one that they are inevitably tethered to. At many points in the writer’s life they may have sat down and attempted to write about said event only to find themselves standing from their desk minutes after having just sat. In the dark, with only a small glow of light, the writer will sit and after a few minutes they will find that they are still sitting and this will be the first step.
When finally, after much standing and sitting and most likely some pacing, our writer finds that they are ready to bring the pen to the page and let the story of their childhood be born onto the page, they will have to determine the perspective from which to write this story. This may pose significant difficulty when writing about one’s own (unresolved) childhood trauma. We will now use the word trauma because that is the nature of the event which is the thing that will be explored by our writer. The task they are setting out to accomplish is one of forming the sensation of trauma into words. For this particular writer, the trauma they are propelled to form into words originally took shape in the form of abuse, the kind that is of a sexual nature though sexual nature and abuse, when used in such close proximity, always renders sexual nature as inherently violent. This is how language and the act create a life.
We might note here that the words trauma, abuse, etc. used to convey the events of this particular story the writer is setting out to write, like so many other stories written about such topics, are almost always vague and unclear contrary to the graphic images branded forever into the brains of those that eventually set out to write about them in dark spaces lit only by the small glow of their desk lamp. There is a tradition of interchanging vague words with their more concrete counterparts. This is like when the newspaper writes assault when the word they are looking for is rape.
It is true that most writers who choose to explore the inflictions of pain [trauma, abuse, rape, etc.] from childhood with their work will not truly have found resolution until after the writing is done. And done again. And again. How many times does it take to write the same story to erase the memory? How does one determine from which point of view to convey how trauma is irremediably carved into the flesh?
For many writers, it may feel natural to write from the first-person point of view. This often manifests itself in the form of lyric essays collected in thin paperbacks and “heart-wrenching” memoirs. Our traumatized character and our narrator become synonymous with one another and thus with the writer. The reader will feel they are bound to this holy trinity: writer, character, narrator. Lines between truth and fiction are blurred.
The reader will feel as though they are receiving an authentic account of the character’s [READ: narrator’s, writer’s, victim’s] past. The reader is invited to enter the psychological headspace of the character [READ: narrator, writer, victim]. Ultimately, the reader will feel as though they have access into character’s [READ: narrator’s, writer’s, victim’s] unmitigated emotional processing of the events that took place in their childhood. The reader will feel as though they know this character deeply — what they have been through, what they are going through now that the text has been printed, and what they should do to truly recover.
The finished product of these first-person accounts will likely find themselves referred to as “raw” and “provocative” in online reviews read by hip artist and academic types but by no one else.
A possible downside to this narrative perspective is that is has the potential to further strip the character [READ: narrator’s, writer’s, victim’s] of their agency instead of creating it. The first-person perspective inherently opens its author up to personal criticism. The readers of this work will make judgements about the writer and their life regardless of whether the narrator [READ: character, victim] of the book is synonymous with them or not. We must remember that said character is the victim of violence. Possibly of the unresolvable, deeply afflicting type which embeds itself forever into the DNA of its victim.
We must also note that one of two things may result from the first-person point of view narrative. One: the narrator may guard themselves from the reader, thus creating a barrier between character and reader that does not allow the reader access to the pain experienced by the character. They may feel that this account is shallow, trivial, unauthentic.
Two: the narrator may open themselves up too freely to the reader. The reader will thus have free reign of the channels within the narrator for their own exploring. The victimhood of the narrator is solidified in this act. The reader is the perp.
I have been thinking about how instances of adolescent pain affect us in adulthood. I wonder if the way we smell coffee in the morning and see the sun set in the evening is distorted by the inflictions of pain we have accumulated over the years. If my mother would have put me in ballet class, would I see the sky in a truer shade of blue? If Caleb Keene would have kissed me gently outside the homecoming dance instead of pressing into me in that place where no one could hear me, would I appreciate the scent of fresh-cut flowers the way small children do? If my stepfather’s weight hadn’t taken up residence in my body, would I be able to succumb to the comfort of freshly cleaned linens more deeply?
Our writer may feel, once propelled to tell this story, that they are wanting to experiment with the positions of power within violence. They may ask: Who is the victim? Who is the perpetrator? How does one ever truly know what it means to experience the experiences of another?
They will find the answer to this question through the use of second-person point of view. In writing the story through this perspective, they will blur the line between narrator and reader. The reader is the victim.
The reader will feel uneasy as they are cast into this role which they most likely did not knowingly sign up to play upon turning their eyes towards the text on the page in front of them. The reader may even refrain from looking at the text in front of them after only a few lines in. They will remember that their high school English teachers told them to never use the second-person to address the reader in their AP essays. They will think that the writer of this story must never have taken AP English in high school. This version of the story will be written as a short story. A novella at most. If we are to be realistic, the story will be published in an online literary journal and the writer will not receive compensation.
You are ten-years-old the first time it happens. This is before Caleb Keene. Later, when you are much older and maybe have a therapist or have filled journals with meditations on why your life has turned out the way it has, you will think this first time is in part responsible for Caleb Keene and all the men after him. It is July and the heat of your house is impenetrable. Even the small white fans your mother has propped in the windows of every room of your house can do nothing to cool it. When you walk outside after lunch the heat is so heavy that it drowns out the sound of squeals and laughter coming from the community pool you are walking to. As you near the front entrance, the scent of chlorine burns your nostrils. You forgot to apply sunblock and when you get home and look in the mirror you see that your shoulders are a deep burgundy and there are new freckles collecting in the divots beneath your eyes. At night, when your stepfather penetrates through the darkness of your bedroom for the first time, you think what hurts most is the way his rough hands press into the raw skin across your burnt chest. In the morning, it is the space between your legs that makes it hard to walk, but it is the ghost touch across burned flesh that makes you feel like you will never be able to leave your bed again even though it is the last place you ever want to be.
There is a tried and true perspective from which the market will insist that all [serious] stories can [should] be told. Third-person point of view. We give our character a name. Nanneth. We tell her past in the form of flashbacks as she works to overcome the grief that settles into the empty pockets of space left by first her stepfather and then the men that followed. She is not good at overcoming said grief. These flashbacks will work to contextualize the poor and self-destructive decisions she makes in her present life. We call this retrospective, but our character seems only to practice introspection in drunken fits of self-loathing. Her present, and foreseeable future, are ravaged ground. Recovery is a word. Destruction is an act.
Third-person point of view allows the narrator to analyze this character, Nanneth, as she forges a path that is surely to be unlikeable to future readers. They will say they can see where she is coming from. They can’t begin to imagine what they would do in her position.
The authorial hand will help guide self-righteous readers to a place of complacent sympathy for Nanneth. They will cringe as they read about her inability to outgrow the trauma, but they will turn the pages in bed with only the lamp on their nightstand lighting the room. Their partner will snore softly beside them as Nanneth’s story unfolds like any primetime drama before them.
Third person is a good bet. All of the Great American Novels take this form. The authorial hand tells the reader what to think. They do not have to worry about making sense of contradictions or developing sympathy for a character who sets her life on fire or managing their disdain for said character who is also the victim of this novel. How does one rightfully find disdain for a victim?
Nanneth looked at her drooping eyes in the mirror of the bathroom. She could hear her husband and daughter through the wall breathing into the vastness of their living room. Awaiting her return.
There had been a man at the restaurant where the three of them had dinner that reminded her of her stepfather. No. It had been something on the radio playing through the speakers of the car on the way home. A child molester. A victim on the air talking about finally getting justice.
One of these things had made her dizzy with pain [maybe it had been the wine at dinner or the drinks before]. She was feeling the weight of her whole life up to this moment in the bathroom of her home pressing down on her. It was all rendering her incapable of escape from the ghost touches she felt on every inch of her. Did other people feel their pasts like this?
She was a grown woman. More than two decades had passed since Caleb Keene. Even more had passed since her stepfather’s weight had pinned her down. Still, she could not escape the way their amorphous faces flitted into her memory at the most inopportune times. The scent of chlorine from the pool. The heat of that summer real in her body despite that it was winter and even the heater couldn’t warm the chill of her home. Nanneth’s body stung to the touch and she wanted to make it numb. A drink. Hadn’t she already had one? Two? What was one more?
Her family would forgive her, eventually, for her inability to make it through a meal, an evening, a life, together without having to excuse herself for a moment of recovery.
This is what the remnants of trauma look like. They couldn’t blame her for the unforeseen triggers lurking around corners invisible to their eyes.
Nanneth rubbed the thinning skin below her eyes. She was aging faster than anyone she knew. She opened her makeup bag and pulled out a travel-size bottle of wine. She bought them in four-packs from the corner store near her house and tucked the bottles away in hidden spaces like revival agents for swooning attacks.
None of these will do. The writer will read literary theory until their eyes grow heavy and the wineglass atop their desk grows dries. They will consider qualitative planes of reality and narrative distance. They will change the narrator’s name, and then her age, eventually her gender until the story begins to lose shape. With it, the writer hopes, the memory of what set them out to write it in the first place will also soften its form. When the writer is sure that this is true, that they have moved on from the need to tell this story and the place from which it was born, they will turn the page in their composition notebook and write the first words of something new. Without knowing it, though discovery will be inevitable, they will have begun the story again.