trauma is a ghost, who knew
trauma, bad vibes, screenplays, etc.
Photo by Kenrick Mills on Unsplash
For the last half of October, I have been adapting my novel Real Life into a screenplay. After I graduated from my MFA program, I stayed an extra year to adjunct. It was in that third year that there was an outbreak of people writing pilots and features. It seemed that overnight, everyone had gone from trying to write small, delicate novels and stories to wanting to write large, but perhaps indistinct tv shows and movies. And it wasn’t just among my classmates. Even my writer friends had turned so swiftly, as with the discovery of some new, easily exploitable resource, to wanting to write for screen. It was all anyone talked about. The money is so good. You should be writing for TV. You should be writing for movies. Even novels underwent some curious transformation into content. Into IP. Novels and stories and essays were no longer works of art or expression but calling cards to get one admitted into meetings with producers and executives.
I think I agreed to write the movie because I thought I was supposed to want to. I thought it was the thing that a young writer did in the 2020s. Say yes to film. Say yes to television. Everything else is dead and does not matter. So I said yes. And it was really unpleasant, this work! It was not easy at all. I don’t think that I have the brain for it, honestly. I don’t think in the near mechanical way one needs to think to turn a story into a movie or show. I just do not possess that degree of executive function. I don’t have a scowling script manager sitting over my shoulder when I write. But anyway, I did it. And I turned it in.
I felt relieved and also pleased with myself because I’d learned a new skill. A new way of expressing myself. I’m still not sure that it is a thing I want to do again, but it is nice to be able to say that I have done it. That I possess the capacity to do it. I think I’d rather write books. That is what I am good at.
But the process did make me realize something else.
There’s this one part of the screenplay that was particularly hard. And I knew it would be hard because that part of the novel was really hard to write. It’s a scene in which the main character, Wallace, has to talk about all the things he doesn’t talk about, relating to his past and his family and sexual violence he experienced as a child. What it did to him, is still doing to him. When I wrote that part of the novel, I found myself destroyed for several days. It was difficult to recover from writing about it because it is the part of the novel that comes directly from my own life.
When I was a child and a teenager, I was sexually abused by my aunt’s husband. And later, for a period of several years, by a family friend. I told the grown ups about it, but of course, they did nothing and said nothing except that I had a vivid imagination. Or, sometimes, they’d bring it up when they got drunk and told it like a funny anecdote. As in, Remember that time, when he got drunk and felt on Brandon in his sleep and Brandon ran and screamed like a little girl. There were other things about it, worse things, but that would be very boring to go over here.
I’m thinking about this because I had to write about it for the screenplay. And I did. Then, I called a friend on the phone to talk about it. I just thought, I finished a part of this project, let me procrastinate and talk to him and then get back to work. But the more we talked on the phone, the worse I felt. I kept thinking, why was I so upset about this. I had surely mastered these feelings in having written several essays and short stories and a novel or three about this kind of material. I knew that I was safe. I’m the safest I’ve ever been. They can’t hurt me.
But here is the thing: I still have nightmares about what was done to me.
It’s kind of embarrassing to admit. It’s embarrassing to admit that I feel embarrassed. But it’s true. I still have nightmares about what happened to me. I sometimes dream that I am in Alabama and cannot leave and have to spend the night in my aunt’s house. I have dreams that I am not me, but someone else who must live in that house. I have dreams that I am a younger version of myself, going through it all over again. I have dreams of being chased through the woods in the dark, barefoot. I have dreams that I have to say yes’sir, and no’sir to him. That I have to be good and obedient. That I have to love him. And then, I dream of the other man, who raped me quite often and for a long time. That I am in my room playing with my toys and my mom is getting drunk with her friends and he comes into my room and plays with me and then touches me. Or, when I was a teenager and had ulcers from anxiety and fear, and he’d creep into my room in the winter, always the winter because he had no home and it got cold in Alabama, and he’d creep in and get on top of me and then leave. I sometimes dream of that time. Those long, dark winters. Those nights I laid awake hoping he would stay put for once and wouldn’t come into my room. I dream about the cold floors. The dust in the floorboards. The crack of the heater. The wind around the aluminum siding from the trailer we moved to. About my irresolute faith in God. About the Devil catching me.
In dreams, I return to that trailer and that house. It’s always Alabama. I know those trees. That clay dirt. That strip of asphalt gone gray with wear. In some ways, I’ve escaped. Externally, I’ve escaped. First to the Midwest and now the Northeast. I haven’t lived in Alabama in eight years. But when I close my eyes, it is always Alabama I see. My dreams take me there. It struck me the other day on the phone with my friend that I would never be able to escape Alabama and what was done to me there. I’ll never be right, as they say in my family. There’s no get right for what was done to me. There’s no means of escape. I am circumscribed. No matter what I do or where I go or who I love or who loves me or what I see or what I make or take or consume or am consumed by, when I close my eyes, it is all Alabama.
It occurred to me with a jolt. Oh, I remember saying on the phone. Oh. I’m always going to be like this. That’s all there is for me. When I was younger, my grandpa had these goats. For the kudzu and the fields, clearing away for the start of planting season. We kept them in an electric ring. And sometimes, for fun, we’d take turns running at the wire and stopping. And we’d see who could get the closest without touching it. And I remember this one time, I ran up so close to the wire, I swore I could hear it fizzing. And the goats were right there, gazing back at me. That’s what it felt like. When you recognize the totality of a boundary line right in front of you. On the phone that day, I could hear the boundary line fizzing. I could hear it saying, This is where you stop.
Sometimes my dad calls me. I don’t answer. But I listen to the voicemails he leaves. He is always drunk, of course. He is always hard to understand. Naturally. But the last couple have been very pitiful to hear. He says that he loves me and he doesn’t understand why I don’t talk to him. And sometimes, often, when I hear him like that, I do wonder if I’m being an asshole. I think, why am I being so hard. The other week, my brother sent me a DM asking for money, saying he needed it. And thought, why can’t I help him. I help other people. I don’t hate my brother.
But then I remember what was done to me. And I think about how hard it would be to let any of them back into my life. The impossibility of such a thing. I still think I’m an asshole, but I also think that what was done and what they did and what they said and the way they treated me, all of that shit was totally unacceptable. And not just unacceptable, but monstrous. I was a child. I was a human person, so small and unknowing and so afraid and so on fire to be loved and cared for. I would have done anything in the world if they had just loved me. But they couldn’t because that would have been showing their bellies, and in they chose to teach me with the back of their hands, the hard slap of their humiliation. They were handing down to me what had been handed to them, all those bitter, awful lessons about how to live. And as an adult, from far away, I can understand how they might think that. But I was a child. I was a child. I was innocent. I didn’t deserve it, I guess I’m saying. I did not deserve what was done to me. I didn’t deserve to be abandoned that way. I don’t understand it. They are incomprehensible to me.
I guess I should be clear. I told my dad that his sister’s husband molested me. And he came back from her house and told me that if I felt that way, I shouldn’t go over there and I should be careful what I said about people. And later, he shook me and slapped me and called me disrespectful for not speaking to that man. For a long time, I thought my father was a kind person. I thought he was gentle and smart and generous and sweet. And it’s true. He is those things. But it is also true that he picked, time and again, other people’s peace over me. I think what he tried to teach me was that there was no way forward in life that was not self-effacement. But I’m sure he loved me and loves me. But I’m sure that it isn’t enough to forgive him.
I don’t speak to my family. I am alone in the world. I have some friends. But. I am alone in the world. And that’s okay. But sometimes, I wonder. Am I being too hard. Too enamored of my grudges. Then I remember that I still have nightmares. I remember that years ago, they carved something from me. Such that whatever love or peace or happiness or prosperity or tiny sliver of the world I might come into for myself is forever alloyed with not just a sense of loss, but a sense of cataclysmic alteration.
I’m never going to be okay. I’m never going to be over it. I’m never going to have processed my trauma. It hangs over me like a part of the starred firmament. That shit is the fucking moon. The permanent, irrevocable nature of what was done to me. That’s why it’s always Alabama when I dream.
Here’s a funny thing. The other day, I was walking to Central Park. And I got a little dizzy and closed my eyes, and I thought I heard his voice from over my shoulder. And I spun around and opened my eyes and thought for just a moment that I was back there. That I was dreaming but awake, there, under the pine trees in my aunt’s front yard. Do you know how scared I was? It was impossible. Obviously. But. There I was. Afraid.
So anyway, I wrote the screenplay. It’s my first time. It’s hard. The story changed in ways I found interesting. The characters changed first. And then the story moved to meet them. The characters changed because visual storytelling and novel writing are different. I kept thinking about how to externalize certain interior beats and moments. How to move that weather to the outside. And I studied Ibsen and Chekhov. I reawatched the opening scenes of Phantom Thread. Those great moments of tactile beauty. Where you watch the morning begin, all the people flooding into the House of Woodcock and Reynolds getting ready. The brush, the socks. The snipping of nostril hairs. The putting on the workcoats. The pinning. I kept wondering how they had achieved it. The feeling you get of something. That these are people with their own lives, their worlds.
I had to try to do that, and it’s hard to do. Little tweaks added up to changes in the ways the characters moved and spoke, and I found the story taking on new shapes and contours that were interesting. Scenes shifted around. Stuff like that. It was an opportunity view the story from a different angle. A different vantage point.
Script writing and novel writing are so different. I didn’t expect one to translate to the other, honestly, and for the most part, it didn’t. But I love dialogue. I love moments of misunderstanding and revelation. I thought a lot about First Reformed and Phantom Thread and Love after Love. Those movies of quiet, gestural power. I feel that I am a very chatty writer, though. I love banter. I love quick, sudden turns. But I also think that the movies I love most are patient and slow and have great faith in their characters and in the audience.
I watched miniseries Scenes from a Marriage, and I found it very beautifully shot. I liked that it was mostly conversations. People who couldn’t escape each other even though they had every reason and right to leave a room. They pursued each other. They tore at each other verbally. The dialogue grew tenser and more confrontational as each episode went on, this married couple talking their marriage and their relationship to death. And then finding something akin to grace. Also, Oscar Isaac in cardigans and wool and with that hair of his. Jessica Chastain’s severe but then sanguine expressiveness. The pleasure she seemed to take in a messy character of volcanic desire.
I like movies where people talk a lot. Where the primary action is the talking or failing to talk. And then, the unfolding drama around confrontation and consequences. I love it when you can’t bear to look at the thing unfolding on the screen because it’s too much. Too uncomfortable, too visceral. I don’t know that it feels honest. I think we’d like to say that such a thing feels honest, but in truth, most of us look away all the time from difficult moments. We shut down hard conversations and bail out. We skirt and avoid. So I don’t think it’s honest storytelling about the kinds of conversations we have. But I do think it’s honest about the kinds of conflicts we have. Those conflicts in which there are no easy resolutions. And no one really escapes. Those moments when you lay awake long after everyone has gone to bed, still fuming. Still burning up to make your point. I think I love movies like that because it feels like a reality I’d want to live in. Where you had to just keep talking until you both died.
I wonder what my dad would say if we could get into one of those conversations. About everything. The last time I tried, he kept saying, “I didn’t know.” And I thought, how could you not. When I told you. But I couldn’t say that because he was professing not to know. And I thought, here is someone who desperately wants to stop this conversation. Who wants to live in a reality in which he did not know about what was happening to me. And that is fine. He can live in that reality. But he cannot live in that reality and have me live in it too.
This all really fucking sucks.
But there are good things. There are good people. There are friends. There is the sky. There is autumn, finally, in the air. There are sweaters and good coffee and the virtues of staying busy. I’m going to clean my apartment today. I’m going to drink water and go to the park and read more Zola. And then I might watch a movie, who knows.
For The New Yorker online, I reviewed the new Knausgaard novel! Very good.
I was on the CBC’s excellent program Writers’ and Company with the brilliant Eleanor Wachtel. Dream come true!
Some other stuff too, but stay tuned.
This was beautifully written. But I swear you're not at the boundary yet. You haven't been safe for long enough to know how much better you're capable of feeling. Eight years isn't long enough but there will come a point. I have similar nightmares, right down to red clay stains on my knees and humidity that chokes me and family who want to live in a different reality and don't understand why they can't have me and their delusions both. I'm happy now, though. Secure in my innermost being or whatever. I spent my entire life feeling like I'd been split open and all my guts were hanging out and I just had to go through life holding my guts in my hands, trying to write and work and have a life while my innards were spilling everywhere. Like I was somehow continuously bleeding out but never dying. I thought that was going to be me until I died.
I turned out to be wrong. I thought the damage was permanent because nothing seemed to help, not therapy or sedatives or writing it out. But it turned out, I just had to be truly safe long enough. It took a long time. I won't pretend that it was a totally passive process, I was always thinking about how bad I felt and dissecting the abuse and reading books about trauma psychology and writing stories that would never see the light of day, and that was all part of how I processed the shit in my system. I can't say, do what I did, because who knows what was helping and what was just passing the time. I don't know what the path is for you but I know there is one. The sickness rests in the belief systems that developed under abuse, and people don't change much but beliefs do, and I think that's the key. You just have to keep on keeping your distance from the people who take you right back to that place just by looking at you.
Sorry to be oversharing. I literally can't contain myself around other survivors.
Oh sweet person, I have so much love in my heart for you. This path you walk is one we all have to walk alone, but I like to think we are walking them together, in parallel, criss-crossing. Maybe in our dreamscapes we escape together. Maybe your Alabama connects to my Indiana and we sometimes get out of the woods. We find bodyworkers and therapists and loving friends and we voice that it was monstrous, never funny, and together we grieve the people we could have been and try to love the people we have become instead and can never not be. We hold the lines we can hold and live. I'm sorry you're going through this now and bottomlessly filled with rage that you went through it then. ❤️