Trauma, Once Upon a Time
Some describe their pain literally. Others transform it.
Posted January 8, 2009
Memoirs recounting horrific traumas have become one of the most popular literary genres of the past decade. These tales of war, abuse, addiction, depression, and other agonies have included many major bestsellers, such as Augusten Burroughs' "Running With Scissors", Marya Hornbacher's "Wasted", and Ismael Beah's "Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier". The genre has promised such profits to authors and publishers, in fact, that it has even been exploited by hoaxsters such as James Frey, whose mostly made-up megabestseller A Million Little Pieces, allegedly about addiction and recovery, fooled many reviewers and media members, including Oprah Winfrey and ... well, me. Hoax though it was, Frey's book paved the way for many (presumably authentic) more drug memoirs such as Nic Sheff's Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines and James Salant's Leaving Dirty Jersey: A Crystal Meth Memoir, both published last year. Such books, many of them written by very young authors, are graphic blow-by-blows recounting every gush of blood, vomit, feces or other effluent, every unwanted or semi-conscious sexual encounter, every other humiliation in explicit detail. It's shocking and often very moving. This is the genre. Readers know what they'll find there.
When we've experienced trauma and want to process these experiences into some form of creative expression, what choices have we? Authors such as those cited above chose the literal, explicit route, describing their experiences almost as if filming them, striving for a "you are there" sensation.
But others filter and refract their traumas, using symbol and metaphor and fantasy to transform their specific sufferings into something else entirely. Those sufferings still burn at the core of these new creations, still fuel them—but they are not literal. These stories do not say, "My babysitter raped me, then I threw up."
Hans Christian Andersen was the Ugly Duckling. With his bony frame, beaky nose and big jack-o'-lantern mouth, little Hans was chased down the streets of his Danish hometown by jeering boys who reviled his refusal to join their raucous games. He far preferred the dreamy solitude of his homemade puppet theater. To help support his mother after the death of his father, eleven-year-old Hans began working in a factory. Bored at work one day, he broke into song. Hearing his high-pitched voice, adult male coworkers ran over, laughing that he sounded like a girl, and —as Andersen recounted in his autobiography many years later—they yanked down his pants. Andersen screamed and sobbed in fear and shame. Soon afterward, after contemplating suicide, he went alone to Copenhagen, where he fell into devastating poverty. Later he would make a living as a writer of plays, poems, novels, travelogues and finally fairy tales. When he issued his first fairy-tale book, in 1830, critics lambasted him.
It's hard for us to imagine now that Andersen's fairy tales could ever have been considered radical. Yet at the time, critics trashed Andersen—not for writing badly, but for "wasting" his skills on stories meant for kids. It was an era in which children were not yet taken seriously, and were still almost universally considered "best seen and not heard." Andersen challenged these conceits, insisting that children were fully human and deserved their own literature, lush with memorable characters, dialogue, sound effects and scenery. "I've written them exactly as I would tell them to a child," Andersen explained at the time. Immortal even when they were about mortality, his tales were his own traumas, transformed: the hungry, the lonely, the heartsick, the fish-out-of-water, the unwelcome stranger, the hypersensitive, announcing an emperor's nudity, bruised through a mattress by a pea. He "was" the Ugly Duckling, mocked by his peers for his looks. He "was" the Little Match Girl, cold and lonely.
But once upon a time, when he was a child, men pulled down his pants in a factory and made him wild with fear. Once upon a time, he was alone and starving in a big snowy city.
What if that was the only story that Hans Christian Andersen ever told?