“But you can’t escape from shadows or pain. You only find new ones. It’s better, I think, not to try to escape them at all but to accept that they will be there, and to remember that good things happen, too, even if you can’t always see them.”
― Christina Henry, Looking Glass
Victims can be quite ugly in real life. On television or at a first meeting a survivor of abuse can seem charming or “normal.” On the other hand, they can appear cold, angry for no reason and unlovable. Having raised a survivor of child abuse for a number of years now I’ve experienced her move from the charming into the unlovable, the ugly, and back again. The cycle continues, but healing happens like this. The circling, the unraveling, takes time.
“No matter what kind of trauma we experienced as a child, we replay that loop through our choices of friends, hobbies, careers, and relationships.”
I like revisiting my old novels. They no longer feel like I wrote them, so I enjoy them for the stories and the friendships I have with the characters. Imaginary friends, I guess. I started writing about an adult survivor of child abuse, Buck Crenshaw, before ever meeting my own little survivor, so it surprises me how much I got right about certain behaviors.
The mistake I made, I think, for the reader is that I opened my first book about Buck when he was already in the unlovable stage of survival. The walls he’d built to survive his mother’s abuse and father’s passivity were fully constructed. Only I understood how his heart was calloused and why he would follow his twin brother’s lead into obviously foolish and mean-spirited schemes. Was it God’s way of preparing me for the frustrations I’d experience with my little survivor in real life?
There is a certain blindness in Buck, a lack of boundaries, despite his badly constructed walls. Things happen to him. When he moves it is with little self-protection. He doesn’t listen to his gut. It can’t be trusted and sometimes can’t be accessed. If his brother’s schemes seem heartless or dangerous, Buck follows anyway.
Why would someone do this? A person with obvious intelligence must know the difference between wrong and right. Yet a person who has been so humiliated and hurt by the people most expected to protect him, often carries a weird sense of fatalism and impulsiveness that makes no sense to less traumatized people.
Sometimes it seems as if the traumatized person stands waiting in the wings, watching a play of their life unfolding on stage. A director ushers them into the action and they play a role, but it is all theater. The walls built keep out the insights and emotions that, at an earlier stage, were so thoroughly rejected by their caregivers. People like Buck learn to ignore them and defer to others.
Pain and failure are expected and might even be made worse if the victim set out on his own. A bad actor is given the floor and expected to save the scene.
It takes five novels to unpeel all the pain, to make small gains before retreating, to accept love as it comes from people he has a terrible time trusting. He does bad and stupid things that “normal” people don’t understand sometimes. But we have to go deeper, don’t we?
Why would Buck be cruel to a fellow West Point cadet? Why would he laugh at a friend’s alcoholism? Why would he despise the girl he has feelings for? When will he get over being so blind and stupid?
We know the answers, right? He hurts people first to get the pain over with. He laughs because he is secretly glad to find other people he deems even less worthy of love. He hates his girl because women can’t be trusted, and he really wants that not to be true.
Despite all of this I firmly believe that these prickly people are worthy of our love. We have to have clear heads though and thick skin because these types pack a good punch, and they will push our buttons like mad. They will sense our weaknesses and break through our own carefully constructed breastworks. We all have hurts and insecurities we’d rather not address.
Buck is on a hero’s journey. He’s a brittle, proud, wounded hero and the journey covers miles of interior battles. He’s confusing and frustrating, but to me, just like my own child, he is lovable still.
“To survive trauma, one must be able to tell a story about it.”
― Natasha Trethewey, Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir