Slivers of Speculation:
Barry Lopez and Trauma Theory
By Joe Amato & Kass Fleisher
A conjecture and spoiler alert all at once: there are cognitive reasons why artifice intrudes so sparingly upon trauma writing.
First though: when we say “less is more,” what exactly are we talking about? Never mind Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto,” where the “less” would seem to denote less technique and the “more” – well, never mind that. Whence writers’ and artists’ perennial preoccupation with this phrase? – which seems to stem from a (modernist) desire to favor stylistic minimalism over lyrical gush. Is this simply a cultural preference – because it is a cultural preference, in certain quarters at certain times (Hemingway over Faulkner, as Mark McGurl might observe) – or do the subterranean roots of this expression say something perhaps about the flesh, about the kind of beings that we are?
Writing teachers might demur, at any rate. They might observe, as Richard Lanham did so long ago (Style: An Anti-Textbook) that writing moves from the “clear” to the “opaque” in accordance with its institutional confines (with academic discourse presumably tilted toward transparency and away from self-conscious opacity).
But what of writing in the age of trauma theory?
The interest in trauma theory and literature that has surfaced over the past two or three decades has as much to do with a desire to understand personal tribulation and historical catastrophe and their effects – the wounds inflicted on individual and collective psyches, as it were – as it does with a desire to unpack how our symbolic systems traffic in such social and mortal lesions. The turn more recently has been away from the psychoanalytical and toward the neurological. Nothing here is laid in stone, all is a matter of heady speculation – at least for now. And this is appropriate in that we ought to tread gently where even treading gently is such a fraught, deterministic affair. And where treading gently is linked, mysteriously, to doing justice to pain. Let us explain.
Trauma 101: it would seem impossible to say, with certainty, what causes trauma of the post-traumatic stress variety. For some sufferers it’s one thing, for others it’s another thing. For some cultures it’s one thing, for others it’s another thing. In one historical time period it’s one thing, in another it’s called something else. George Carlin knew this and had fun with it. We might be able to posit what appear at first glance to be universally traumatic conditions, if simply of the blunt-force variety. But look at a little more closely, and things get complicated.
Given the vagaries of individual makeup, culture, and history, then, with what certainty can we claim that a traumatic experience, whether caused by physical trauma or no, invariably “wounds” the brain – does actual damage to brain tissue?
That’s not an explanation.
Nonetheless we must ask: in relating a traumatic episode, is less necessarily more? Does less rhetorical flourish somehow communicate more pain? Does this dictum imply a tacit contract between writer and reader, a moment for more readerly participation – a moment of silence, as it were, among the bereaved parties – or is this – how to say it? – a mutual impulse among expressive cerebral matters to, again, tread gently? Absurd on the face of it, you say. We are in control of our words. And so we are. We can resist impulses, we can revise ourselves. We have agency.
But whence the impulse? And whence the rhetorical inclination to use a term like “impulse”?
Wouldn’t we expect trauma to disrupt not simply the reguating mechanisms of the self’s body-brain machine but the very possibility for a unitary self, for the self’s articulation of traumatized self? Whether we see the self as such as a necessary or unnecessary illusion, wouldn’t a narrative sensitive to trauma reveal moments of cognitive rupture and discontinuity? Is this merely a matter of avant-garde tinkering then, inserting a few fragments and lacunae and torquing syntax in order to properly render in writing the effects of a traumatized speaker, say? But is there a difference between a writer self-consciously attempting to represent a character’s trauma in a fictional narrative – Toni Morrison in Beloved, say – and a traumatized writer trying to represent her own trauma under the sign of nonfiction? How self-conscious can a traumatized writer be about her own writing? How self-consciously can she demonstrate her trauma courtesy of the alphabet?
Damn. That’s not an explanation either
You’ll need this for later: trauma workers say that the only way to “recover” (note scare quotes) from trauma is to meet two conditions: first, the survivor’s surrounding community must agree that the trauma took place; and second, steps must be taken to remedy the situation – the abuser must be removed from the community, and, if the survivor wishes, the abuser must be punished.
But for now: the next major advance in autobiography theory might well come courtesy of the neuro-something-or-others (no disrespect implied or intended). No, we don’t wish to align ourselves with what Steven Poole has dismissed as “popular neurobollocks” (we feel his pain), but yes, it’s likely we’re all going to have to learn the lexicon of grey matter, which today is understood, technically, as grey and white matter. Researchers have already confirmed something that, thanks to our storytelling habits, we already knew, which is that memory is unreliable. Eventually they’ll be positing things and we’ll be looking to fiction for confirmation. Eventually they’ll be positing things and we’ll be looking to fiction for, what, consolation?
We’re both fiction writers, you understand, so we offer this with some trepidation.
The neuro-something-or-others want to map the brain onto mind, they want to teach us about what happens in little black & white – that would be grey – corners, and some want to venture how that ultimately affects our writing, our art. Too often it feels, to some of us touchy-feely humanities types, as if the subsequent mappings thus produced map mind onto a too-static, structural understanding of brain, one that gives short shrift to the brain’s socially-situated, albeit biological, trappings. The language of connectomes strikes us as one instance of this too-static mapping. When we first ventured upon these notions, in any case, perhaps by reading some Steven Pinker, we felt we wouldn’t want Pinker investigating literary art with his neuro-evolutionary slant (which, for the record, he has done, if not to our satisfaction), just as we wouldn’t want a literary artist to do brain surgery, or even to supervise MRIs, whence a lot of this research. But after having a look at neuro-psychiatrist Eric Kandel’s The Age of Insight, well…OK, we wish he would take a crack at postmodern literature.
When you listen to trauma theorists, and to neurophysiologists, you rarely hear the word art. Certainly neither affect nor aesthetics is generally at stake in their discussions, outside of that relatively rare branch of neuro-something-or-other called neuroaesthetics, the Wiki page for which spends a lot of time with the likes of Semir Zeki and Vilayanur S. Ramachandran. If these names are unfamiliar to you, that’s precisely the point.
So when one of our best scribes, the nature (and more) writer Barry Lopez – a name familiar to most who spend time with literature – tells us in an essay in the January 2013 Harper’s (“Sliver of Sky: Confronting the trauma of sexual abuse”) that he was serially raped as a child, by a family friend, for four or five years, and discusses it in nearly artless, utterly distanced, journalistic terms, the lofty issues raised by the trauma theorists and the neuro-something-or-others twist their wings and fall into your lap like a single dead crow. More on crows in a moment.
And apologies for any perceived levity – this is serious business, and in trying to lighten the theoretical load, we might appear to be other than dead serious. But we are, rest assured, dead serious.
Since trauma theorists will have – have had – no choice but to tune in to what neuroscientists are turning up, it might become difficult eventually to designate where one ends and the other begins. But to start with the former, here’s what you read in trauma theory (and of course neuroscience) about the brain (and we are indebted to myriad sources for the science that follows):
The frontal cortex is the locus of thinking and voluntary movement. Toward the back of the back of the brain is the hippocampus, and here particularly is where autobiography and trauma theorists are forced now to dig in and listen to the neuroscientists. The elongated ridges of the hippocampus are not only responsible for preserving our memories, but for deciding – if that’s not too strong a word – which of those memories are worth preserving.
What comes next is a mouthful, but vital: it seems that it is possible for the hippocampus to send its information forward to the frontal cortex, via a perforant path launched by the entorhinal cortex. The EC axons perforate the subiculum, cutting unpronounceable paths to the cortex, making it the primary information highway for the hippocampus. The street runs only one way, it seems; the cortex does not talk back. The axons merely carry information forward.
It’s worth noting that next door to the hippocampus is the parahippocampal gyrus, which stores images. This system of the brain, hippo- and parahippo-, located in the rear (far away from the frontal cortex) is part of what is known as the limbic system – the vast and complex system of nerves and networks that make up white matter.
Now – and this is surely a bit fanciful – imagine that the distance between the frontal cortex and the limbic system contributes to the distance between a trauma and its articulation. Can we imagine that this distance contributes to dissociation, a common response to trauma? Many of us are familiar with “dissociative identity order” thanks to films such as The Three Faces of Eve, Sybil, (the real Sybil, Shirley Mason, evidently faked her malady), and more recently, Fight Club.
Nearby is the amygdala, also part of the limbic brain. Along with the hippocampus, the amygdala helps to choose which memories to keep, but perhaps with a bias: by regulating survival impulses, the amygdala tends to focus on the “important” memories; that is, the amygdala triggers arousal, fear, emotional responses, and anger. Fight or flight lives here.
People in dissociation tend to have two switches: calm and fine; and angry. A passing question: why does the limbic system tend to tolerate anger but no other negative emotions?
One might say that autobiography, excepting the words the cortex finds to arrange its memories, is in some sense a product of the limbic brain. And that the limbic brain is therefore the chief culprit behind what so many seem to think is the current glut of memoirs.
When you’re talking about trauma memoir, then, the cortex will have to struggle to find words to, as we often say, do justice to said trauma – to rationalize trauma through language. The limbic, in contrast, retains the identical experiences not as language, but as images. Further complicating things is the emotion of the memory, its visceral manifestation. The process of finding that language will be yet another emotional, difficult experience, likely well remembered.
Interesting too that the limbic system can alert the frontal cortex to some bad stuff going on in the rear action, but it can’t send a footman back to tell them all to shape up and get in line. There is a functional incommensurability here. The cortex can tell tales to others, and when it tells tales of trauma, it can be retraumatizing.
(There is something here too of Elaine Scarry’s fascinating discussion [The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World] of the incommunicability of pain and the urge to create that stems therefrom. But this would take us in a somewhat different direction.)
Please do note how our own language necessarily slips and slides here. If, given our modest literary talents, we’re finding it difficult to write zippingly about neural functions, as evidenced by stale metaphors such as “footman,” imagine how difficult it is for traumatized individuals to find the words to write feelingly, affectively, about their trauma, never mind whether such writing will have the effect of coaxing readers into its disquieting eddies of irrationality.
Is this because we’re working against a cognitive threshold? Or is this merely more evidence that our culture, literary and otherwise, prefers a – shall we say – masculine, Puritan, clinical response to suffering?
We believe we promised you something of crows.
“I am going to have to start at the other end by telling you this: there are no crows in the desert.”
This is the first sentence of Barry Lopez’s much-celebrated short essay, “The Raven” (1976), in which Lopez anthropomorphizes raven and crow by way of both “comparing” the two and mounting something of an allegory of two different approaches to (variously civilized and indigenous) life. In the volume in which we locate Lopez’s piece, The Next American Essay, editor John D’Agata prefaces the essay with the following assertion by Lopez: “I know I can derive something useful from this world if I can get a reader to say, ‘I am an adult, I have a family, I pay bills, I live in a world of chicanery and subterfuge and atomic weaponry and inhumanity and round-heeled politicians and garrulous, insipid television personalities, but I still have wonder.’”
Wonder. OK then.
We wrote “allegory” above not simply because the varying interpretations offered over the years would trade in same – with the crow emerging as a gregarious but destructive trickster figure, while the raven becomes the tight-lipped loner and rightful heir of these vast silent spaces who “kills only what he needs” – but because Lopez’s little fable, which harks back to a mythical time when “there were many crows in the desert,” is caught up unmistakably in distinctions that serve to underscore the anthropomorphism at work throughout. That is, it’s much as if Lopez wants us to see his anthropomorphizing as such, wants to us to reckon with his contrasting (and inescapably human) judgments about these recognizably nonhuman life forms. Ornithology in Lopez’s hands becomes ontology – with being inextricably linked to inhabiting (the desert, in this case) – and these two birds of a feather that don’t flock together are made to point to markedly different ways of, let’s say, flying about.
The first person narrator appears only twice: at the very beginning, in that initial sentence, and later, in a construction that gives the telling a second layer, “I am told….” Second person narration appears in the first sentence and reappears regularly throughout, alongside third person. Third sentence: “You must examine the crow, however, before you can understand the raven.” We might want to ask whether this second person is little more than the standard presumption upon a readerly “you” that we readers so often encounter. In fact Lopez is using the second person to more strenuous effect here. For instance, the narrator imagines this “you” in dialogue with the raven about the crow’s bad behavior:
“He will open his mouth to say something. Then he will look the other way and say nothing. Later, when you have forgotten, he will tell you he admires the crow.”
(Yes, both crow and raven are gendered male throughout. This may simply be a function of the year of publication of this piece – 1976 – somewhat before our present-day concerns regarding pronominal gendering.)
All of this is at any rate so…instructional. This isn’t simply a telling – the narration is instructing us in how to “understand” the titular entity – and so we might posit a not-so-veiled pedagogy as the operative mode. If this is a moral tale, it’s one that explicitly guides us not only in what to learn, but in how to learn it. To get to the raven we must go through the crow. And it is crows who “watch for frightened children listening in their beds,” a line that might, if we let it, point rather directly to Lopez’s account, decades later, of his abuse as a child at the hands of a man passing himself off as a medical doctor.
But let’s not go there. After all, crows do what they do – they “defecate on scarecrows,” “tear out a whole row of planted corn,” “slam into the head of a dozing rabbit,” or kill a great horned owl simply for “roosting too close too their nests” – all as part of a “game.” About the only thing that is not a game to a crow turns on the fact that he is “very accommodating and…admires compulsiveness,” ergo will sometimes “take two or three wives.” We learn eventually that it’s this very compulsiveness on the part of crows that leads to their demise. Despite having been indirectly cautioned against doing so by the ravens, the crows stubbornly persist in drinking out of an alkaline water hole, are blinded by the water, and break their necks flying into canyon walls and the like. In any case crows do such destructive things because they are crows, which “should not be taken to mean that they are evil.” They can’t seem to help themselves, which – if we assume that by “evil” Lopez means to denote the capacity for morally conscious action – suggests perhaps that his abuser could. But let’s not go there – not yet anyway.
Instead, let’s stick with this question of style. Let’s speculate a bit as to the extent to which Lopez the author could help himself as author. Aside from the fact that authorial agency (and other sorts of agencies – editorial, book production, etc) have brought this piece as such into material fruition, what can we say about the writing that speaks to what appear to be deliberate, conscious choices on the part of its author?
Is the allegory mode as such a deliberate, conscious choice? Yes, at least upon revision. Is the pedagogical, second person stance, as we’ve described it, a deliberate, conscious choice? Yes, at least upon revision. Is the simile in “The wheeling birds strew them across the desert like sprung traps” a deliberate, conscious choice? Yes, at least upon revision. How about “The crow flies like a pigeon. The Raven flies like a hawk”? Yes, we aver. How about the many poetic devices on display in the following paragraph?
“The wind came off the snow-capped peaks to the north and ruffled their breath feathers. Their talons arched in the white earth and they smoothed their wings with sleek, dark bills. At first light their bodies swelled and their eyes flashed purple. When the dew dried on their wings they lifted off from the desert floor and flew away in four directions. Crows would never have had the patience for this.”
Surely this paragraph is an exemplary instance of nature-lyric writing, wherein nature presumably requires for our solicitude, if not gratification, recourse to the language of affect. What makes such writing so (in our view) potent? The observational details, for one: the “ruffled…breath feathers,” the “talons arched,” the “smoothed…wings, the “bodies swelled,” the “dew dried.” The adjectives here, while numerous, are precise, measured. The sense conveyed is that we are now in align with the raven, and “four directions” box the compass, as it were, assigning to the raven something of a universal flight pattern. We could work through this paragraph to show how the rhythm here – largely monosyllabic, interspersed with trochees (“snow-capped,” “ruffled,” “feathers,” “talons,” “bodies,” “purple,” “desert”) – combine with alliteration and assonance and a judicious use of color (black ravens on “white earth,” with “eyes flashed purple”) to sweep us as if in mid-flight to the paragraph’s key observation: all this requires a patience that crows simply do not possess.
On the heels of which we are instructed, moreover, that “to know more about the raven” (assuming we want to) will demand our patience: either we “[w]ait until a generation of ravens has passed away” or we “scour the weathered desert shacks for some sign of the raven’s body.”
To wit: Are we crows or ravens? It might be difficult to identify, let alone empathize, with the crow, given its disgusting “games,” but the raven’s life is an aloof, even austere one, marked by the passing of time in solitude, silence, and finally – that “severed foot” with which Lopez very (yes) deliberately closes his piece – death. Yet in the talon of that dead “instrument,” the careful observer – that would be us, again, as we are instructed to “[t]ake it out in the sunlight and examine it closely” – will note a “…subtle difference that serves the raven well in the desert. He can weather a storm on a barren juniper limb; he can pick up and examine the crow’s eye without breaking it.”
In this quasi-inverse of the origin narrative, where we learn not how things came to be, but how crows came to be absent, this final assertion of the raven’s potential for savagery and gentleness – indeed, as described, an oxymoronic trait – serves to underscore why the raven is such a fine specimen for survival in such a harsh environment.
And in light of what we now know – time to go there, yes – we might want to ask whether this desert in which there are no crows to “watch for frightened children listening in their beds” is a refuge of sorts, a haven in which the raven “alone, perhaps eating a scorpion,” is no less for that a calming presence.
Which would make of the piece a different kind of allegory, indeed.
Granted, this early piece by Lopez is composed with intentions far different, one feels confident in observing, than his later piece detailing his abuse. But it’s fair and necessary to draw these two articulations into alignment if only to understand how a writer esteemed for his powerfully resonant lyrical voice is no less for that at the mercy of traumatic experience when it comes to marshaling his metaphors to cope with such psychic devastation. As Kali Tal has written, (Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma), “[l]iterature of trauma holds at its center the reconstruction and recuperation of the traumatic experience, but it is also actively engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the writings and representations of nontraumatized authors.” We would argue that Lopez’s work, given its highly discrepant registers, can be put into productive dialogue with itself.
So, again: in the January 2013 Harper’s, Lopez publishes an essay about having been serially raped by Harry Shier in the mid-1950s, beginning when Lopez was seven. It’s not the first time he has written about this – the first time was in the short piece, “Madre de Dios,” published in 2008 in Portland magazine – but we have not had this level of detail before. Here’s how he opens this essay (the “prepubescent boy” referred to is not Lopez):
One day in the fall of 1938, a man named Harry Shier entered the operating room of a Toronto hospital and began an appendectomy procedure on a prepubescent boy. He was not a trained surgeon; he botched the operation and the boy’s parents reacted angrily.
Notice the expository, almost journalistic quality of this prose, all but void of poetic device. Is this a deliberate, conscious choice, at least upon revision?
Shier ingratiates himself into the good will of Lopez’s mother, and there are no indications of how the narrator feels about Shier other than a side note that he was a “short, abrasive, self-confident, balding man of fifty-six.” While accompanying Shier to get ice cream, Shier pulled the car over.
He turned me to the side, put me face down on the seat, pulled down my pajama bottoms, and pushed his erect penis into my anus. As he built toward his climax he told me, calmly but emphatically, that he was a doctor, that I needed treatment, and that we were not going to worry about adding to Mother’s worries by telling her about my problem.
Given the gruesome circumstances explicitly detailed here, a more disinterested piece of prose we think we’ve never read.
He speaks of other activities:
We would say goodbye and he would walk me to his car and we would drive off. If it was dark, he’d pull over soon in a secluded spot and rape me in the front seat; or we’d go to the movie and he’d force my head into his lap, pushing at me through his trousers; or it would be dinner at the restaurant, where we’d hook our trout in a small pool for the chef to cook, and then he’d drive on the sanitarium [Shier ran an alcohol rehab clinic], where he’d park behind the single-story building.
Shier’s apartment is on the roof; the narrator climbs to an outside door and Shier lets him in. And then, perhaps a bit of a metaphor:
In bed with him I would try to maneuver myself so I could focus on the horizontal sliver of sky visible between the lower edge of the drawn blinds and the white sill of the partially opened window. Passing clouds, a bird, the stars.
Yes. Stars have a predictable path. Clouds form under predictable conditions. And we all want to be free as a bird, particularly an aloof, tough but gentle raven. These are calming means of dissociating from rape.
At any rate: voilà. Career in nature writing. In fact, one might hazard – we want to tread as gingerly as possible here – that Lopez’s entire lifestyle, living in a remote Oregon forest, was predetermined to some extent by this horrible Shier, the blinds, and the sill.
“Sliver of Sky: Confronting the trauma of sexual abuse” is a riveting essay by an artist whose work we first encountered in the ‘80s with Arctic Dreams. The many accolades our literary culture has bestowed upon Lopez’s work over the years are, in our view, well deserved. And this latest essay will, in our view, stand the test of time.
But not for its artifice. By which we mean to say, not for its lyricism, but for the relative, not to say strategic, not to say inexorable, absence of same.
A minimalist affect pervades the piece; indeed the only thing that makes it affective is the simple, and dreadful, horror it describes. One of us had to put it down three times. But not the way we sometimes have to put down Shakespeare, or the way we sometimes have to put down contemporary writers like…we can’t even begin to list them all. That is, neither one of us put it down and said, Wow, I must absorb the incredible beauty of this work.
One of us put it down because one of us just couldn’t take it anymore. Neither could the narrator.
Neither should anyone ever have to.
Neither should anyone ever have to.
The essay goes on to become a textbook case of trauma and its awful consequences. The narrator’s family members do not deny that this happened – it turns out that Shier had, we are dismayed if not surprised to learn, been molesting his Lopez’s younger brother too – but they refuse to act on a remedy. In fact Lopez’s stepfather reports the case to the LAPD but presents them with a tale that will serve to keep the family out of any criminal proceedings:
He could not appreciate that the opportunity to stand up in a public forum and describe, with Shier present, what he had done, and what he had forced me to do, was as important to me as any form of legal justice. Not to be allowed to speak or, worse, having someone else relate my story and write its ending was to extend the original, infuriating experience of helplessness, to underscore the humiliation of being powerless.
Of course we hope this essay marks, if not closure, an ending. (Shier died in 2012.) But let’s not forget those earlier scare quotes around “recovery.”
Lopez’s mother was devastated by the news but refused ever to discuss it with him. In general, the narrator’s family has a poor showing in the area of providing a remedy; this absence of remedy will, it’s fair to say, slow what recovery he will be able to manage – and he has managed a great deal, given these horrors.
Again, and with some rare exceptions, such as when he begins to use battle imagery to describe what it felt like to live for so many years with this (let’s call it) unfinished business, Lopez employs markedly little of the lyricism we’ve grown accustomed to in his writing and for which he’s become justly famous.
We want to speculate – you know this by now, surely – that perhaps trauma mutes art.
More specifically, that maybe – just maybe – the limbic mutes our aesthetic proclivities.
Direct address, such as Lopez exploits in “The Raven,” is notoriously difficult in writing about one’s trauma. We know who the first person is, but who would be the second person? Can the author assume that we share his experience? Statistically speaking, he might be justified in such an assumption, since – a conservative estimate – anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five percent of North American girls and five to fifteen percent of North American boys are subject to sexual abuse. So even assuming the lowest percentages, a not insignificant percentage of his readership may see themselves as the subject of Lopez’s writing – may “put themselves in his position,” as we’re wont to say. One of us certainly did. But Lopez forgoes the lyrical right up until that “sliver of sky,” which offers a sliver of figurative escape.
Of course the piece is not barren of the occasional alliteration, assonance, and so forth. And since beauty is in the eye of the alternately traumatized or untraumatized beholder, mightn’t Lopez’s incredibly stringent approach to the lyrical in the face of his own trauma be justifiably described as, well, beautiful? But again we have to account for the approach itself.
What if lyrical impulses – quite literally in this case impulses – come out of the amygdala, and when they hit the cortex, they don’t translate? But let’s not, either, reduce art to the strictly lyrical. What if a postmodern ludic impulse – quite literally impulse – to play with said traumatic experience has the same difficulty translating?
Please understand: we have any number of examples of literary artists writing about traumatic events in zestfully insouciant, if no less for that disturbing, ways. One need only think of the violent fictions of (the late) Kathy Acker and Harold Jaffe, or Sharon Olds’s by turns brutally graphic and lyrical poem, “The Girl.” But we’re not discussing simply a writer’s imaginative rendering of trauma generally as lyrical, experimental, conceptual, what have you. What we’re after here is the attempt by the writer to relate his or her own traumatic experience, and whether a kind of generatively-constrained writing degree zero holds sway. (And some might observe, correctly, that this sort of neurological determinism tends to downplay ideological realities.)
Let’s have a look, again, at what the neuro-something-or-others are saying.
Let’s try this on for size: the amygdala chooses Lopez’s images. Yes, Lopez has agency, but so much of what we think of as agency is a matter of consciousness (let’s say) operating unconsciously. The hippocampus stores the amygdala’s images and channels forward all the gunk to the frontal cortex, which tries to turn it into language, but – and indeed what happens next has a social aspect, but it is no less for that hard-wired – is internally censored by the limbic brain, which – in this culture anyway – says in effect please do not humiliate me! I do not need any more grief in my life.
It’s conceivable that in another culture the limbic brain might say, please humiliate me! I need more grief in my life. But whatever the cultural constraints, the point is that the limbic brain will have its say. If we posit that the limbic brain has developed in part as a response to social-environmental conditions – if, that is, phenotype is at stake here too – it will in any case respond in such a way so as to factor into the cortex response.
So: under such nature-to-culture conditions, here in Western capitalist culture – which, as we’re all aware, is too rapidly becoming in too many ways global culture – it’s generally the case that in trying to relate trauma, very little of our artistic leanings sneak through. Even when we know the statistics, when we know we’re not alone in being raped, abused, savaged, we respond as if it happened only to us. This way. This is what happened to me.
Instead of aesthetics, then, the limbic resorts to anger, which is our offensive (meant two ways) emotion. It protects us from emotions like shame, humiliation – these are emotions that leave us, or at least our Western selves, vulnerable.
Ergo expository reportage. Isn’t this how you would write a letter home if you were kidnapped and had six guns pointed at your head? Anger, too, isn’t terribly acceptable in the less melodramatic quarters of our culture, especially literary culture, especially autobiographical literary culture, where memoir is all too often regarded as “whining.” On Facebook we might vent our outrage, hoping to share it with others so outraged – a phenomenon that itself warrants more study – but when we sit down to compose our thoughts about something horrific, something that might (in this culture) bring shame upon us – because, yes, there are always enough assholes to go around to blame the victims – we are expected to be composed. Our culture reinforces the neuro-circuit within us – or so we would surmise – not to adorn such experiences, perhaps because our culture is the macro-symptom, and then some, of who we are anthropologically. And who we are has at least something to do with our biological natures.
We are saying, then, that to compose ourselves in such terms, whatever other influences might be at work, is in part an ineluctable function of our brain matter. Hence expository exposition.
That’s what trauma yields in everyday life in fact – a filtering of affect. The silence – the active periods when we feel too helpless to ask for help, and just distance ourselves to whatever degree we’re able – is redoubled by our brain. Crafty thing, that devil. By sealing off the limbic system, and with no back-and-forth communication, we’re left to beg the cortex to come up with some words somehow, the right ones, words that get to the heart of the matter. Because metaphorically speaking, there’s limited capacity for asking of ourselves, as it were, “Is this what you want to hear?”
Which is the heart of the matter: the heavy lifting entailed in getting front brain to generate a language that the back brain “wants.” (More scare quotes. Sorry.)
An awareness of some underlying cognitive threshold, then – reading an essay such as this one, say – might prompt Lopez to attempt another iteration, and another, in an attempt to recuperate his experiences via a more visceral, if not lyrical, account in which his emotional reactions, from hurt to fear to sadness to anger, are more clearly on display. But given that his language is now charged with experiences that fall outside of the social norm, as was the case the moment the abusive episodes commenced, it seems unlikely – and surely this is sheer speculation on our part – that he’ll ever achieve closure in such terms. Thus does the traumatized writer face constraints both within and without: the cultural privileging of a “strong silent” (masculine) response to pain, and the fraught reception of writing that diverges from this predilection; the stubborn unwillingness in certain quarters of society to reckon, therapeutically and institutionally and politically, with widespread sexual abuse; and a built-in impediment to expressing internal wounds.
A final, perhaps less labored but no less tentative thought. At the time of publication of his Harper’s piece, we went in search of Barry Lopez’s Facebook site. A goodly number of people had posted in – no avalanche really, in FB terms – and some thanked him for telling their stories, which is interesting because he fought to tell his. Theirs can’t be identical, but close is close, as those of us who do this work know.
Interestingly, we saw many people congratulate Lopez for being “courageous” and “brave.” In our ever-shifting life-writing world, we tend to feel that finding words to apply to the amygdala – when our courage emerges, we assume, along with our terror? – is brave enough work, as you (you, rara avis?) retraumatize yourself. To release such a piece for a few hundred thousand subscribers and newsstand patrons is less scary for a National Book Award winner, perhaps, than it is for a girl coming home to dinner and fighting off her uncle’s advances. But it still takes courage to give voice to such experiences, let alone to speak truth to the power differential that precipitates them.
“He can weather a storm on a barren juniper limb; he can pick up and examine the crow’s eye without breaking it.”
Would that we could as handily as the raven examines the crow’s eye examine our own back-brain. “The trouble has been,” Charles Olson observed long ago, “that a man stays so astonished he can triumph over his own incoherence, he settles for that, crows over it, and goes at a day again happy he at least makes a little sense.” Lopez surely does not “crow” over his own suffering, but we readers want to make noise, understandably, on his behalf. When it comes right down to it, we are all odd birds, afflicted in our various ways.
But this must be said: some of us suffer more, some of us are victims to a harrowing degree, and perhaps some of us suffer all over, and over, again for having within us a biological impediment to articulating our suffering. But it’s true – the mind is not the brain, and the mind might under traumatic conditions surprise the brain, as it were, with its findings, beckoning into consciousness a grasp of realities that surpasses the brain’s alleged limits (and thus perhaps altering our grey matter in the process).
Olson alleged that the “difficulty of discovery” of our human predicament arises from the simple but profound fact that “we are ourselves both the instrument of discovery and the instrument of definition.” But are we ourselves alone and aloof like the raven, persevering with supreme patience amid the harsh realities of our respective habitats, or are we more like the crow, destructive but frail social creatures blinded by our collective hubris? Where will we seek refuge? Where can we find it?
We wish to thank Stephen Spotte for reviewing our essay and suggesting a number of important changes. We take full responsibility for all lapses that remain.