This is the third of a series of posts using an autobiographical incident to explore some connections between trauma, memory, human community, and social-political institutions in the broadest sense. The incident at issue is my breaking of one of my legs when I was still a young child, then reliving the experience as an adult, years later, triggered by the chance coalescence of various circumstances at that time.
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When I was still a young child, but older than I was when I first broke my leg in 1949, I used to have a recurrent nightmare. At least that is how I have always remembered things.
In the nightmare, an axe-murderer was loose in our family home. When I was a child having that nightmare, our family’s living arrangements had my older brother, still older sister, and me all sleeping in a single room together. My brother and I were in a bunk-bed against one wall, with me in the lower bunk and my brother above me. Our sister was in her own bed against the opposite wall. A short hallway outside our bedroom door, which was always left at least partially open when the family was sleeping, gave us quick access both to the family bathroom on the left and our parents’ bedroom on the right. The axe-murderer in my child’s nightmare was lumbering around noisily in that little hallway, after having already dispatched my parents, and was on his way to finish the job by dispatching the three of us siblings.
When, thirty-eight years after the first, breaking blow had been struck in 1949, I broke my leg a second time in the summer of 1987, I entered a period of a few months during which memory of that old nightmare from my childhood kept coming back to me. Not that the nightmare itself returned. It didn’t, and never has since the days of my early childhood. But the memory of that nightmare—of its contents and its recurrence in those days of my early childhood: the memory that I had dreamed that particular nightmare recurrently—kept recurring to me, after I broke my leg that second time.
A few months after that second break, I happened to be driving my wife to the airport for a business trip she had to make, and I happened to bring up the recent recurrence of my memory of my old childhood nightmare. In that context, I happened to recount to her how, in my original nightmare (as I remembered it, at least), despite all the noise the axe-murderer was making, I was the only one of us three kids in our shared childrens’ bedroom who had been wakened by the tumult. In my dream, I trembled with fear as I tried to hide under the covers of my bedding—so that the axe-murderer would not see, and therefore might not axe, me. For me as the dreaming child, my child’s fear for myself clearly trumped any concern I may have felt at that time for my brother and sister, since I was ready enough to let them take the blows of the axe without any peep from me on their behalf, any such peep risking betraying my own available-to-be-murdered presence to my would-be murderer. I kept silence lest I be heard, just as I kept hidden under my bedclothes lest I be seen.
When I was recounting those very points to my wife as I drove her to the airport one fall morning a few months after I broke my leg a second time, and got to the point of saying how, in my dream, I was doing what children so often do, acting as though if one cannot see—as I could not in my dream, when the covers were over my head—then one cannot be seen, I suddenly had a flash of insight. What came to me in a flash was that the truth those words articulated in my own case as a child was not what I had always theretofore taken them to be, but a sort of inside-out version of that—or at least a radically different version. What struck me suddenly, in the flash of an instant (though it takes much longer than an instant to articulate, as I am trying to do here), was this: The one from whom I was trying to hide myself in (and by!) my nightmare was indeed “the axe-murderer,” but that dreaded axe-murderer was none other than—myself. I was the axe-murderer, and what it was I did not want to see, what it was I tried to stop from being seen by blocking my own seeing, was that very identification.
That is, what suddenly struck me was that the axe-murderer in my nightmare was himself no more and no less than what in psychoanalysis is called a projection of something in myself that, until the very moment of my insight on the way to the airport, I had not be able and/or ready even to be aware of. The axe-murderer was the casting of an image that simultaneously revealed and concealed what I could now, after that moment of insight, identify as an abyssal rage that had somehow been evoked in me in my early childhood. The rage at issue was directed, as rage always is, at those persons and that I experienced at the time as somehow being responsible for my unmanageable pain, the pain of breaking my leg—those who had somehow brought that pain down on my head.
Who were those I experience as responsible for my pain? My instant’s flash of insight in 1987 also gave me the answer to that question. First and foremost, the authors of my pain were the very authors of my being: my parents. Not only had they betrayed my trust by abandoning me to break my leg in the first place. They had then gone on to compound the injury by betraying me yet again, and even more deeply, right after that, by consigning me to ten days in traction alone in a hospital bed attended by what the child I was then could only experience as terrifyingly threatening harpies–the Catholic nuns who were my nurse-keepers there. Thus, it was no accident at all that the axe-murderer I became in my own nightmare slaughtered my parents first, before heading his way toward the children’s bedroom wherein I lay, along with my brother above my head and my sister across the room from me.
Nor was it accidental that in my nightmare I would also be unmoved by the horror which awaited them both, just so long as by their suffering I might be left untouched. That my rage would spill over from my parents upon by two siblings too made perfect sense as well. After all, they were right there when my parents abandoned me to the painful fate of breaking my leg, and then abandoned again even more painfully when they left me alone for ten days in a strange place beset by harpies. Yet my brother and my sister did nothing to protect me, or even to protest my fate. And one of them even became the active agent of my doom (after all, it was my brother who pushed me, so that I fell and broke my leg in the first place). The only beloved family member present when I was struck down into my pain who was genuinely without fault in the whole affair was our poor dog Duke, over whom I tripped when my brother pushed me. So it even made sense that Duke was never among my axe-murderer’s intended victims in my nightmare. He was always out of the whole picture.
The insight that suddenly flashed upon me when I was taking my wife to the airport a few months after I broke my leg a second time in 1987 disclosed the order hidden in what had into theretofore appeared only as chaos. Or, rather, the order at last suddenly revealed for the very first time also for the first time revealed the chaotic face as which it had projected itself and behind which it had masked itself until that moment. Put slightly differently, in the light of the insight that flashed upon me at forty-one the whole of my life took form before me as a single, continuous narrative—a story that at last made sense of that life as a whole, at least in one sense of sense.
It is important to note that the sort of sense my life-story began to make at that point is the sense that emerges for one hearing or reading a narrative, a story, precisely only once one gives up the insistence that the narrative, the story, make clear, linear sense of the events it narrates–and then be still, stop telling its tale, rather than going on telling it some more. The sense my life-story began to make at that moment in the fall of 1987 was the sense that emerged from it for me after I finally stopped trying to make sense of it, and simply heard the story my life had always been trying to tell me.
That way of putting things is deeply indebted to the tale that the gifted American philosopher Susan Brison tells, in her book Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), of her own trauma in being raped, beaten, and left for dead in a ditch in the French countryside years before. Brison recounts her persistent efforts to heal from her ordeal by struggling long and hard to construct a narrative of her rape that would allow her to integrate that traumatic experience neatly into the longer, ongoing story of her own life as a whole, thereby making that rape manageable as just one more episode of the longer, still ongoing story of that life. It was a sustained effort to de-traumatize her trauma, in effect—a constantly recurrent effort, as she herself puts it, to survive her trauma, to live through it, precisely in order to tell what happened to her, to bear witness to it, and to do so in such a way that, in and through the very bearing-witness, the telling would somehow magically erase the trauma itself, to close the wound, as it were.
It was only, she writes, when she at last gave up all such struggles to succeed in “living to tell” the story of her trauma, and instead, as she puts it, began “telling [that story] to live,” that she found the true sense that story itself carried, and that she had missed in all her trying to make it make sense. The sense that the story then made of itself turned out to be, to her own surprise and apart from all her own intentions to make sense of it, nothing other than her own ongoing life itself, in all its brokenness—all its recalcitrant refusal to let itself be made sense of as a nice, obedient linear narrative.
Indeed, the truth that Brison’s ongoing telling of her story keeps speaking is nothing other than that, her ongoing broken life itself, the very same life she’s been living all along, that the truth in question at last freed her to live fully. When she at last hears that story tell its own truth, what she hears from her own mouth as it tells the story at last sets her free to spend herself freely in her own life moment by moment yet once more again anew, living just as she has in fact been doing all along, only now doing it with full deliberation, we might say, to borrow a bon mot from Thoreau’s account of his own life at Walden Pond. The truth thundered at her in her brutalization at the hands of a clumsy country rapist, once she finally manages to recover from the thunderous din of that delivery enough to hear the message that so loudly delivers itself, sets her free at last from trying to manage her own life, to give it meaning—and free just to live it instead.
Just so was the truth that finally fully broke upon me when I broke my leg a second time, like the thunderstorm breaking over its eponymous protagonist at the end of the book of Job, a truth that set me free. The freedom it gave me was the same freedom that the traumatic break in Susan Brison’s life when she was raped—so much more horrendous by any normal scale than any trauma I have ever undergone, I am grateful to acknowledge—gave her. My trauma freed me to live, as hers did her, me to live my life and she to live hers, as vastly different as those diverse lives have so far been and will no doubt continue hereafter to be. All we have in common is life, each one that one’s own—that, and permission to live our diverse lives, a permission granted each of us by traumas as disparate as our vastly disparate lives.
The truth of our traumas sets us free, as truth has been said to do. It sets us free to live our lives. In our recovery from trauma we pass through the gate that Franz Rosenzweig describes at the very close of his great work The Star of Redemption, the very gate that at long last leads us “from death,” as he writes in the opening two words at the very start of the work, “into life,” the final two words at the very end of the same work.
The lives into which we are thus set free are not different lives than those we lived before we were freed. Rather, they are the very same lives we have been living all along, which we are now at last freed just to go on living. If we were married before we were freed, then we are married still, after our freedom finally comes. If we were filthy rich before liberation, then we are still filthy rich after it. None of that—none of what doesn’t really matter anyway, as the truth of our trauma reveals to us—changes at all.
And that at least in part explains what I meant when, way back at the end of my first post in this current series on how I spent my 1987 summer vacation, I said that I limped no less after I finally healed from my broken leg once I broke it the second time, than I had limped during all the thirty-eight years intervening between the two times. I limp still, and will till the day that I die.
I also wrote back then, at the end of the start of the story of my 1987 summer vacation, that it might take me a while to explain what I meant. That while is not yet over, since what I have said so far explains what I meant only “in part,” as I just wrote above. There are more parts to come.
What else would one expect of a life’s story?
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To be continued yet again in my next post.