Lit for Survivors Lost in a Dark Wood

Gustave Doré, Dante in a dark wood


Commonweal recently published a heartfelt article by West Point visiting English professor Cassandra Nelson on how literature can help trauma survivors recover. Nelson begins with an angry comment about a University of Chicago dean’s facile dismissal of  trigger warnings, even though she herself opposes them. She, however, speaks from the vantage point of one who was triggered, and her reasoning is far more thoughtful.

Nelson was abused as a child and not believed. When she was in graduate school, Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao surfaced memories she had repressed and suddenly she found herself living in a version of Dante’s “dark wood”:

It is not giving away too much of the plot to say that Oscar’s sister is molested, and as I read about her experience I had a memory—no words, just an image, and a smell, and a feeling of absolute terror—of being abused. My first impulse was to refuse to believe that it was real, and I actually managed to wall it off again for a few months. But when the memory surfaced a second time, and wouldn’t go away, there I was: twenty-eight and scared out of my mind, confused about what had happened and what else might have happened, shut out by the same family systems that had allowed the abuse to happen in the first place…The physiological effects alone—panic attacks if I tried to exercise, an endless well of sorrow if I drank, nightmares when I slept—were overwhelming. I had entered, through no fault of my own and very much against my will, what readers of Dante might recognize as a dark wood. “In the middle of the journey of our life,” he begins the Inferno, “I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death.”

A lifetime of reading came to Nelson’s aid. “Dante had Virgil,” she writes, “and

I had Julian of Norwich, and Saul Bellow, and Thomas Pynchon, to guide me through the vagaries of life, to explain the pain I felt, and to teach me the primacy of love and the sacredness of children.

Musing on the impact of literature, Nelson writes,

Why is literature so helpful as a guide? For one thing, because words can make order out of chaos. Indeed, they might be the only things that ever have. In the beginning, Genesis tells us, when “the earth was without form, and void,” God used language to separate the light from the darkness, and the earth from the waters, thereby paving the way for creation and human life….In everyday life, too, language can help separate us from the sometimes overwhelming muddle of real-time existence….[N]aming can provide both power and balm. The sufferer from chronic pain who finally receives a diagnosis knows this; the child who understands, at last, that his mother’s coldness or fury was caused by alcoholism, or schizophrenia, or anything else that wasn’t his own worthlessness, knows this too.

Her discovery of literature’s healing powers led Nelson to read in a whole new way:

No longer do I read fiction to cultivate a sophisticated scholarly distance. I read it to find out how to live, which is the only reason why anyone ever reads anything in the first place. Children love fairy tales precisely because they provide a worst-case scenario and, usually, a way out. What if I should someday find myself, like Hansel and Gretel, left alone to starve in the woods? How can I keep my wits about me, to escape starvation and the evil witch?

By reading, then, we gather resources for the times we will need them:

As a teacher, I want my students to wrangle with the language of Shakespeare’s play, yes, but I also hope that they will gather up these pearls of wisdom as they do, like squirrels gathering nuts, against the day when they might find themselves alone and in the woods in a time of famine.

Nelson delves most deeply into Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye, a book that probably comes with trigger warnings in some classes since we see a father sexually assault his daughter Pecola. Nelson looks closely at the parents’ background and, while not excusing them, talks about the power of understanding why such things happen:

[T]hese moments serve to strip Cholly and Pauline of power and menace: they’re not exciting, diabolical villains or larger-than-life monsters or unstoppable forces of nature. They are fathomably and stoppably cruel. One could take concrete steps to counter them, to prevent them from developing a capacity for such cruelty in the first place.

The novel also helps relieve survivors of guilt they may be experiencing:

Such moments in Morrison’s fiction…reveal that the abuse falls on Pecola not because she deserves it, but because she happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time—small and vulnerable and dependent upon people who did not or could not face their own hurts and fears before having a child.

While Nelson finds Bluest Eye liberating, she doesn’t say the same about Lolita, writing that she can no longer stomach Humbert Humbert’s self-justification. She reports having seen a student burst into tears during a discussion of the novel, and I myself once had a student yell at a “Madness and literature Class” team-taught with a psychologist and stomp out.  Yet despite such incidents, Nelson opposes trigger warnings.

She gives a couple of reasons. First, facing the trauma is better than ignoring it:

Although the student with a trauma history has something to fear in the short term,—I’m sorry to say that it does get worse before it gets better—he or she has much, much, much more to gain in the long term, by not ignoring the wound.

Nelson goes even further. Labeling painful subject matter, she says, actually disempowers the survivor because the practice “encourages a kind of prurient reading”:

If you’re scanning every page waiting for a scene of rape or murder that you know is coming, you’ve given the material more power over you, in some sense, than if you had just stumbled onto it. In a way, the painful subject matter becomes the star of the show, when it isn’t, necessarily, in the context of the work as a whole or the life.

Stumbling onto a work without expectations can be immensely powerful. After all, could anyone have predicted that Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao would launch Nelson on her powerful journey while Lolita would initially leave her unmoved? Life doesn’t come with a pre-programmed warning so why should literature? The only way to brace for the unexpected, Nelson says,

is to develop the capacity to stay calm enough, alert enough, and secure enough in your own worth and the goodness of God to keep your eyes open and face reality.

While she observes that “the only way to develop this kind of equanimity is the hard way,” reading is also vital. After all, literature’s primary responsibility is to truth, and “it’s the truth—and not a running from the truth—that sets us free.”

Previous Posts on Trigger Warnings

Warning Labels for the Classics

Why It’s Good To Offend Students

“Leda and the Swan”–Warning Necessary?

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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