Most of what I have been writing about over the last several months has focused on trauma and various authors’ ways of making sense of whatever event they experienced, whether that be assault, abuse, or examples of historical violence. This focus may seem like a surprise for some of you but, as I have mentioned a few times on Instagram, trauma has been a close companion of mine throughout the years and I read quite a bit on the topic as a way of learning how to talk about my own experiences. For a while I kept this companionship quiet, as I always felt that this was a personal matter as opposed to something that anyone online would want to read. But I have had a number of people express interest in, and even gratitude for, my discussions on trauma. Because of this, I think it is important to be more forthcoming about how what I read helps inform my understanding of myself now and how I can reconcile things in the past so they aren’t horrific monsters chasing me into the future. It took a long time to get to where I am now and I am happy to share about that path for anyone who may be walking it now.
Trauma, by its nature, is often an indescribable thing — literally. Many survivors find it difficult to articulate their experiences because what they experienced goes beyond words. However, there has to be a way of expressing these experiences and all the affective baggage attached to it. When you don’t let this stuff come out, your body and your mind will suffer for it. After I experienced my own PTSD-induced mental breakdown at the end of my freshman year of university, I realized that I needed to talk about what I went through. I needed to learn how to talk about these experiences for my own wellbeing. In order to do so, I decided to start by listening or, more often, by reading. As children, we learn language by listening to those around us and picking it up over time; incomprehensible nonsense eventually coalesces into language that we can understand and then deploy for ourselves.
Similarly, I hoped to learn how to talk about trauma by seeing how others spoke and wrote about it first.
I came across Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel a little over a month ago and wrote about how his depiction of carrying traumatic experience with you resonated with me in ways I hadn’t felt previously. I knew from reading his essays that I wanted to read his fiction work, too, and see what changes between depictions in fiction and creative non-fiction. Are there things that resonate more for me in Edinburgh than in his essays, for instance?
I should note here that trauma is a huge category and even experiences that fall under slightly smaller umbrellas (sexual abuse, childhood abuse, combat PTSD, etc.) that arguably share similar attributes are all going to be inherently different. Moreover, the way that each of us responds to that trauma will also differ depending on personality, what support we had or didn’t have throughout the course of the trauma, and so on. Anything I say here will therefore be based solely on how I understand trauma based on what I went through. However, I think that we can find a kinship network between multiple types of trauma and, even if we don’t share the same type of experience, we can still find a way to better understand ourselves through sharing our experiences. We can see how others carried their burdens and learn how they managed to continue existing in spite of it all.
There is so much that we can unpack with Edinburgh but, for the sake of brevity, I will focus on a few things that I thought were done particularly well.
Edinburgh is a harrowing read as it focuses on the sexual abuse of young boys and the impact that has on them as they grow up, particularly the main character, Fee. One thing that stood out to me in Edinburgh was Chee’s ability to depict how survivors carry their experiences with them throughout their lives and how these events hang over survivors, even when they are utterly invisible to those around us. Chee is also fantastic at showing the way that the event pierces the present at unexpected moments; oftentimes the Thing that happened isn’t directly mentioned, but is gestured towards by its absence. This approach highlights how embedded trauma can be into who a person is — it becomes a part of you and can even morph over time, impacting how you understand yourself and the world in ways that don’t initially seem directly related to What Happened. You also learn to negotiate with trauma through hiding, through developing another part of you — a mask or a body-double– that you present to the world. Creating this You-that-is-mask-or-double is not a conscious thing usually, but rather naturally springs from a need to survive and to develop some way of making existence feasible.
There are two passages fairly early in the book that illustrate what I mean:
“Back at home, after dinner, my quiet parents are now watching television comedies with my grandparents and my siblings are in bed. From where I sit on the floor, I can see, they think I am still here. They can’t see that I have a secret as big as me. A secret that replaces me.” — Edinburgh, 38 [emphasis mine].
“The other boys arrive in groups of four and five, piled into a few cars. Hey, says Peter. Loser. Who say’s you’re special?
I laugh. I want to say, Get out of here. But I don’t. All the shouting in me hides in my smile.” — Edinburgh, 40 [emphasis mine].
Through a few words the dual nature of living with trauma becomes clear. There is always the person who presents themselves to the world as, essentially, fine. But there is always the other part of you who exists as a secret. However, in each of these cases the weight of what goes on in the inner world of the victim momentarily cuts into the outside world. There is no spectacle here, just the moments where readers get a peek into what is truly happening within Fee.
Chee’s handling of this is subtle and, I think, one of the most accurate depictions I have come across.
Another element of the book that speaks to Chee’s masterful ability to work with the painful messiness of trauma is the way he depicts the abuser. When we speak of trauma in the sense of abuse (whether that be sexual, mental, emotional, or otherwise) we not only have to reckon with the acts that were perpetrated but also the person who did these acts. When it comes to situations of abuse there is the old adage that those who abuse others are themselves often victims of abuse. This can be a tricky thing to navigate because this idea, though true, can be a slippery slope. As someone whose trauma stems from someone who was also horrifically abused, it is still unacceptable to me to say that their abuse is “forgiven” because of their own past, particularly since they were a grown adult and a parent, while I was a child. The wrongs done to them in the past does not mean that my own trauma becomes a minor footnote in their story. There has to be a balance between understanding and reckoning here.
And wouldn’t you know it, Chee was able to work through this topic, too.
In Edinburgh, Chee presents a possible “reasoning” behind the way the abuser acted while also being clear about how that does not excuse the abuse:
“Somewhere deep in him was a memory of light that pierced him from end to end like a spit. He couldn’t see that he was large and we were not. His body to him felt out-sized, a bear costume borrowed for a party, and then it vanished. In the moment he touched us, he was a boy again. And in the moment he touched us we were run through also.” — Edinburgh, 216.
This is really the only moment where we get this type of reflection on the abuser and even here it is firmly couched in how their actions impacted their victims; there is no pity here that would allow the abuser to take our attention away from the victims. The focus remains on the survivors, rather than on the abuser, and there is understanding without allowing the abuse to be written off as a something we should “forgive”. Thus, the novel does not present the abuse as something that can be explained away by past trauma, but still acknowledges that this is an element of trauma that can’t be ignored. Again, this is something that is important for me, personally; for the majority of my life, the narrative I was forced under was that of the abuser’s. I was told I had to give every ounce of everything I had inside of myself in order to help him. As such, I tend to have a much harsher view of texts that try to make me feel for the abuser at the expense of the victims. Edinburgh does a fantastic job of navigating this space and I thought Chee handled this tension so well.
In some ways, it may feel odd for me to describe this book as stunning, given the topic at hand. But, here is the thing: to be able to describe this type of situation and to depict the internal world of someone who experienced this in such formally beautiful way, while simultaneously not diminishing the weight and horror of the experience itself, is something that is not easily done. I think that these types of harrowing experiences are, more often then not, poorly done. Part of this is due to the focus being on the event itself, which can often sensationalize something that should not be about spectacle. Thus, traumatic instances become plot points in a novel, rather than a true exploration of what it means to continue living after experiencing trauma. Trauma-as-plot-point also opens the door for a linear understanding of trauma where Event A happens and precipitates other situations in a story. However, trauma is rarely so linearly traceable or chronological.
Edinburgh, as difficult as it could be for many people to read, is a very important book and one that I am genuinely happy exists. Though I am someone whose trauma differs from what is depicted in the text, I was able to see so much that reflected something of myself back to me. As I mentioned in my post on How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, reading Chee’s work made me feel that I wasn’t alone and that the way I felt about myself was not an aberration. Many of us, regardless of what specific thing we went through, tend to feel a certain way about ourselves. Without books like Edinburgh bringing a lot of this affective stuff to light, many of us would continue living as if we were singular, broken, inhuman entities moving through life. Edinburgh also offers readers an understanding of trauma that differs from other types of writing. A lot of what I have read in the past could be considered testimony or witnessing. Although there is an important space for that type of writing, too, I had been looking for a novel that does similar work but in a different form.
However, Alexander Chee’s work is not solely for people who have experienced pain and I don’t want to make it seem as if you would only appreciate it if you have also experienced trauma. Far from that. From my own personal experience, I found his writing to be a compelling and real depiction of what trauma did to me and how I constructed something of a self around that trauma in order to survive. I think it’s important for many different people to read his work, including Edinburgh, for a multitude of reasons. It is, at the base of it, a very well-written book. At the same time, it also does a phenomenal job of articulating an experience that many have lived through.
*All quoted passages are from: Alexander Chee, Edinburgh (New York: Mariner Books, 2016).*