In jail recently, we read Bruce Weigl’s “A Romance.” I gave a brief introduction:
“A lot of Bruce Weigl’s poems are about trauma – we’ve read something about his childhood, and he wrote about serving in the Vietnam War. What is was like to return home, trying to deal with everything he’d seen. In this poem, he’s been drinking. Others are about trying to suppress the memories that keep coming back.”
Describing a hollow night out, Weigl writes:
I can’t sleep anyway so I go to bars …
A bearded dude near the back shook his head.
“I been there,” he said. “Can’t never fall asleep. Did two tours, in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they just kicked me out of veteran’s court. Said I was too violent. But all those other guys, the ones they’re letting stay, who’re getting helped because they served? None of them saw combat! I was the only one who’d fought! But they said veteran’s court’s not for me.”
“And it’s hard,” I said, “because people use drugs to try to deaden some of the horrible stuff that keeps whelming up, and the drug we say is okay to use, alcohol, is one of the worst. Researchers tried to rank drugs in terms of which are most dangerous, you know, for the people who use it and for everybody around them. I think alcohol was at the top of the list, then maybe heroin, and …”
“But what about pot?” Somebody always asks. In this case, it was somebody who says he’s in for marijuana, although he once let slip that it was domestic violence.
“I dunno … pretty far down. I mean, you can’t OD or anything, but you shouldn’t drive stoned.”
“I’d rather drive stoned than after eight days of meth!”
Well, sure. But that seems like a false dichotomy – shouldn’t the comparison be between driving stoned or sober?
“But what do you think,” the first guy said, “about them saying pot is, like, a gateway drug?”
“I believe that,” said an older guy. “I used pot for years before I ever had a drink.”
“Me too – my pops was an alcoholic, I didn’t want to touch that stuff.”
“I started smoking when I was thirteen … you had to know somebody to get a beer, but anybody could buy pot.”
“I mean, pot’s gotta be the first drug most people try.”
“No way. My kids, they’re one and four years old right now … and I can tell you for sure, the first drug anybody tries, it’s spinning. Around and around in circles till they’re staggering. Drunk, dizzy, falling down and giggling. Humans have always wanted to experiment with altered consciousness. Like, how would the world look if … every culture uses drugs. A lot of other animals will use them too. And we start young. Little duders love to spin.”
The guys thought this sounded reasonable enough, but I’ve reconsidered. Maybe marijuana is a gateway drug … but only because it’s illegal. I don’t think that smoking pot would compel someone to use other drugs, but our laws imply that heroin is no more dangerous than marijuana – both are Schedule I – and that Schedule II drugs like Vicodin are less dangerous.
Whereas most sensible people now know that alcohol is more dangerous than MDMA – it’s easier to overdose on alcohol, and easier to hurt other people while under the influence. But veterans with PTSD turn to drink because booze is legal. Not even licensed therapists are allowed to purchase the drug with a proven record for treating trauma.
(Note: pure MDMA is relatively safe, but a wide variety of chemicals are sold as “molly” or “ecstasy,” and some of those are dangerous.)
It doesn’t take kids long to realize how many well-respected, fully functional people have used drugs. Our previous two presidents both consumed many more illegal drugs than I did, and our current president probably did also – I assume cocaine seems less taboo to most people than paying young women for sex. Many cultures used psychedelic drugs as religious sacrament for centuries, if not millennia.
“When I was twelve years old,” one of the guys said, “my parents, first they burned all my records, then had our preacher take me to a mental hospital. But I didn’t know it was a hospital at the time. I just saw these people, you know, drooling, babbling, whatever. And they told me, ‘See these people? They’re like this because they used drugs.’ And it was years before I realized what they’d done.”
When my family plays sports, every game is vaguely reminiscent of Calvinball. The rules are amorphous. Peculiarities of the landscape are considered features of play. And, if you’re losing, tackling often seems as though it ought to be allowed.
Recently we were playing a soccer-esque game with a good friend who, unfortunately, lived through atrocious violence. She was winning, I thought, although it is often difficult to know. Less contentious was the fact that I was losing. Time for a tackle!
If you saw a tickertape of her thoughts during the game it might’ve read fun fun fun TERROR!
I apologized profusely. As someone who has not been exposed to horrible trauma, I am at times blithely unaware of the delicate tightrope walked by others. There is at times a fine line separating play from something that will trigger the fear.
In Hystopia, David Means tells the story of a Vietnam veteran who returned from combat, wrote a fantasy novel about a pharmacological cure for trauma, then killed himself. The novel — which transpires in a Man in the High Castle-esque alternate reality — is bleak. The novel within the novel is even bleaker.
The doomed writer is young, a sensitive kid named Eugene Allen. And one striking feature of the novel within the novel is the way Allen couches fantastical wizardry in scientific-sounding language. This gives readers a sense of how ardently he wants his imagined cure to be plausible. Writing that a spell could cause selective amnesia would make clear that his mind, the writer’s, would be forever filled with horror. But by writing that a pill could do it, it was possible for Allen to imagine his own salvation.
It’s true that Allen’s use of scientific terminology is often flawed. His education was interrupted by the war — at an age when I was in college, he was experiencing the peculiar blend of boredom and terror that characterizes modern war, watching his friends die, trying to murder strangers who were trying to murder him in turn. Allen knows that the world ought to be scientific, but he was never given an opportunity to learn the details of what that means. And so the text is peppered with words that he thinks will give his world the appropriate atmosphere, like in this passage where a government agent is daydreaming about the beach during a meeting with his supervisor:
It was the only memory he had, everything after that moment — leaving school — came up blank and here was Klein, he was still talking, pressing, asking him what he was thinking about, so Singleton said, “The Credo, sir, I was thinking about the Credo,” while in his mind he was running out of the Corps building and Wendy was waiting, arms wide, and then he was on the beach with her, applying lotion as an excuse to touch her back, two fingers pressed together tracing the lovely line of her spine to where the taut band of her bikini bottom stretched over a slight gap that absorbed sunlight like antimatter.
It’s a vivid piece of imagery, and, given what readers know about Allen’s education, it hardly matters that the combination of scientific-sounding words punctuating the passage make no sense together. His essential point is made. Unlike Tolkien, who returned from combat after World War I and composed a trilogy with dragons and elves and spells, veterans returning from the Vietnam War to the U.S., a country obsessed with science, technology, and progress, could not so easily slip into magical fantasy.
There are many passages that would fit either type of novel — magical or faux-scientific — like the following in which a character explains to his amnesiotic girlfriend that cold water will trigger her memory’s return:
What we want to do is get more of you back, to take you into the water and get you in the cold — not much, just a bit — and start to get some of your memories back.
It’s easy for me to imagine a mystical world in which wizardry could be counteracted by immersion in cold water. It was nothing but water, after all, that Dorothy used to defeat the Wicked Witch. And the type of memory loss Allen imagines is quite similar to that of ancient mythology. Shortly after using an old military hand signal, a soldier who’d been cured of his PTSD finds himself thinking that his faculties will come back to him when he needs them:
Back behind the wheel she drove quietly and carefully and continued thinking, he guessed, about her father’s chances. At least the old man could remember his combat training. Some said — and this might just be one more of the countless rumors, of course — that the mechanics, the fighting techniques, the useful stuff could never be lost, because it was somehow entwined into your sense of destiny (something like that). It was all tiresome. Rumors appeared around a context of need; they were nothing but a formation of an idea around a precise desire.
This resembles the legendary monkey Hanuman’s memory loss in the Ramayana. Back when the monkey knew how powerful he was, he took advantage of his abilities. He was a menace! He had to be stopped! But, like a returned-soldier-turned-government-agent, his powers might be needed in the future. He needed to forget that he’d been trained, without forgetting the training itself:
Having obtained boons Hanuman became highly and powerful and accelerated in himself. He became full like ocean, O’ Rama.
Having become powerful, the best of Mongoloids, started committing offences against Maharsis in their hermitages.
He broke the sacrificial ladles and vessels and also the heaps of banks belonging to the ascetics.
That powerful Hanuman did all this type of jobs. He was made invulnerable to all kinds of weapons by Siva.
Having known this all the Rsis tolerated him, the son of Kesari and Anjana.
Even though prohibited by his father, Hanuman crossed the limits which enraged the Rsis of the lines of Bhrgu and Angira and bestowed curse upon him. O best of the Raghus.
That you will be unconscious of the prowess endowed with which you torment us. You will be conscious of your power only after being reminded of it.
Thereupon, having devoid of prowess and glory, he used to wander in the hermitages silently and decently.
There is a long tradition of magical speculation about treating warriors with selective amnesia. But Allen couches his speculations in faux-scientific language in order to give himself hope. By writing that way — especially within the alternate reality Means created for him — he could more easily imagine an escape from his own pain.
Other features of his writing reveal Allen’s youth. His language is playful, but much of the play revolves around reversing clichés, in lines like “I was thinking how alive I am because I’m lucky” and “I believe that man’s drinking under the influence of driving, Rake was saying, pulling the car over to the shoulder.”
These untrained features of Allen’s writing further Means’s message: kids were yanked from their lives & sent overseas to murder and be murdered instead of developing into adulthood. Many never returned. Of those who did survive, many were sufficiently traumatized by the experience that their lives were never as successful as they would’ve been.
Even now, several wars later, our soldiers return to a world where few efforts are made to care for them. We make token expressions of gratitude on Memorial Day without structuring our world to actually accommodate those who have sacrificed on our behalf. The suicide rate among veterans is heartbreaking. The number of homeless veterans is heartbreaking. The number of veterans whose only institutional care comes from the criminal justice system… that’s heartbreaking, too.
The phrase “Thank you for your service” doesn’t mean much unless we’re willing to change our world such that returning veterans actually feel thanked. Hollow words aren’t helping much.
A lovely young woman from my home town died recently. Another suicide. Recent college graduate, Fulbright scholar, compassionate, and sufficiently clever that no one realized the pain she was in. My wife has the good fortune of working with many wonderful students, but it’s awful that some of the best & brightest pour their all into making sure that no one knows to offer help.
I try to be upfront with people — especially the young students I volunteer with — about the workings of my own mind. That my own mind is wired such that the world often looks bleak.
Part of the misery of growing up with depression, after all, is the mistaken assumption that you alone are broken. Most people you see from day to day are either not sick that way, or have found ways to accommodate their troubles. Otherwise you wouldn’t be seeing them out & about! This is the same reason perusing social media often makes us feel worse about our own lives. There is “positive selection bias.” People chose to post pictures and experiences that make themselves look good, and the algorithms choosing what lands at the top of somebody’s feed aggravate the problem. Other people are getting married, running marathons, cavorting on the beach, birthing beautiful babies! And nobody’s clicking “like” for your kid’s screaming tantrum video on a day you got sacked.
In my writing, I try to address the philosophical problem of suicide in a non-hokey yet life-affirming way. It’s true, there is a lot of pain inherent in being alive. Watching a toddler cry while teething triggers in me a panoramic vision of generations upon generations of teary-eyed kids who’ve suffered the same. And for secular, science-y types, there isn’t even an externally-imposed meaning to life that would make all that suffering seem necessary.
If things get bad enough, then, yes, the idea of nothing might sound like a step up. This is described in a darkly comic passage about optimism from Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man. And I think it’s important to remember, when reading this, that Levi pressed on until he was quite old. Knowing that he could end things gave him the strength he needed to persevere:
It is lucky that it is not windy today. Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live. It is raining, but it is not windy. Or else, it is raining and is also windy: but you know that this evening it is your turn for the supplement of soup, so that even today you find the strength to reach the evening. Or it is raining, windy, and you have the usual hunger, and then you think that if you really had to, if you really felt nothing in your heart but suffering and tedium — as sometimes happens, when you really seem to lie on the bottom — well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining.
Knowing Levi’s history — the fact that, despite all the horrors he’d seen during the Holocaust, he did choose to live, adds power to the final phrase. He didn’t need to stop the rain. He needed only hope, the knowledge that the rain could be stopped.
Knowing about David Foster Wallace’s life is also what adds so much power — the other way — to my favorite passage from The Pale King. I love the accountant’s description of heroism; if you’re interested, I’ve written about it here.
Given our world, I imagine I’d feel compelled to write about suicide even if I personally did not suffer from depression. The death rate in the United States is rising, largely driven by acts of self violence… and that’s even if you consider our epidemics of suicide and drug overdose as separate phenomena. There’s a compelling argument to be made that these stem from the same root causes, in which case the problem seems even more dire.
I found myself thinking about the problem of suicide — again — while reading Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus. Her poetry powerfully investigates racial and gendered violence, but I was struck by a strange allusion she chose for “On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari.” Lewis watches as a buffalo is forced to sniff her stillborn calf during a trip to India, then parallels this tragedy with her own venture into motherhood years later. Given that my own family is expecting another child, it was a scary poem to read.
The lines about suicide come early in the poem. Here Lewis is being driven around Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India. She will visit a temple celebrating one of the fallen fragments of Shiva’s wife — according to myth, pieces of her body were scattered during Shiva’s grieving, and the sites where they fell became sacred:
I sit behind the driver, admiring
his cinnamon fingers, his coiffed white beard,
his pale pink turban wrapped so handsomely.
Why did it take all that?
I mean, why did She have to jump
into the celestial fire
to prove her purity?
Shiva’s cool — poisonous, blue,
a shimmering galaxy —
but when it came to His Old Lady,
man, He fucked up!
Why couldn’t He just believe Her?
I joke with the driver. We laugh.
This is such a strange passage because Lewis, who has a master’s degree in Sanskrit and comparative religious literature, is substituting the suicide of Sita, Rama or Vishnu’s wife, with that of Sati, Shiva’s wife. In a book about racial violence, this is a striking reversal.
To a rough approximation, Shiva is most often venerated by darker-skinned Indians, people who have suffered racially-motivated injustice at the hands of lighter-skinned north Indians. Shiva is often depicted as an exceedingly grungy god — he chills in cemeteries, his hair is tangled in dreadlocks, he believes in austere living. In mythology, one of Shiva’s most famous worshipers is Ravana, the scholarly vegetarian south Indian king who is the villain of the Ramayana.
According to mythology, Shiva’s wife did commit suicide. Although Sati loved Shiva, her family thought he was beneath them. He lived like a dirty hippie! They didn’t want that grunge-ball to come visiting. And so, when Sati’s family threw a big party, they didn’t invite Sati or her husband. Sati, ashamed that her family would slight the man she loved, committed suicide.
This isn’t a story about which you’d write “Why couldn’t He just believe Her?”
But Sita’s suicide? She was married to Rama, a north Indian prince, but then Ravana, angry that Rama had assaulted Ravana’s sister, kidnapped Sita in retribution. Rama then gathered an army of monkeys and went with them to destroy the south Indian kingdom. If you think of The Iliad, you’ve got the basic gist.
Sita lept into the flames because her husband, after rescuing her, considered her tarnished by rape. Because she had lived away from him, she was no longer fit to be his wife.
Here’s Rama’s reunion with his wife:
As he gazed upon [Sita], who stood so meekly beside him, Rama began to speak, as rage simmered in his heart:
“So here you are, my good woman. I have won you back after conquering my enemy in battle. Whatever there was to be done through manly valor, I have now accomplished.
“I have wiped clean the affront, and so my wrath is appeased. For I have eliminated both the insult and my enemy at the same time.
“Today, my manly valor has been witnessed. Today my efforts have borne fruit. Today, having fulfilled my vow here, I am once more master of myself.
“You were carried off by that wanton [Ravana] when you were left alone, but now, through manly action, I have expunged that affront brought about by fate.
“What human purpose can man serve if his spirit is so feeble that he will not wipe clean through his own blazing energy an insult he has received?
“The leaping of the ocean and the razing of [the South Indian kingdom]–today those praiseworthy deeds of [Hanuman, the most powerful monkey,] have borne fruit.
“Today, through their valor in battle and their beneficial counsel to me, the efforts of [the monkey king] and his army have borne fruit as well.
“And the efforts of [a south Indian defector], who abandoned his evil brother and came to me of his own accord, have likewise borne fruit.”
As Rama was saying these words in that fashion, Sita, wide-eyed like a doe, was overcome with tears.
But as Rama gazed upon her, his anger flared up once more, like the raging flame of a blazing fire drenched with melted butter.
Knitting his brows on his forehead and glancing at her from the corner of his eye, he spoke harshly to Sita there in the midst of the monkeys and raksasas.
“In wiping away this affront, Sita, I have accomplished all that a man could do. In my wrath, I have won you back from the hands of my enemy, just as, through his austerities, the contemplative sage Agastya won back the southern lands that had been inaccessible to all living beings.
“Bless you, but let it be understood that it was not on your account that I undertook the effort of this war, now brought to completion through the valor of my allies.
“Instead, I did all this in order to protect my reputation and in every way to wipe clean the insult and disgrace to my illustrious lineage.
“Since, however, your virtue is now in doubt, your presence has become as profoundly disagreeable to me as is a bright lamp to a man afflicted with a disease of the eye.
“Go, therefore, as you please, [Sita]. You have my permission. Here are the ten directions. I have no further use for you, my good woman.
“For what powerful man born in a respectable family–his heart tinged with affection–would take back a woman who had lived in the house of another man?
“How could I who boast of my noble lineage possibly take you back–just risen from Ravana’s lap and gazed upon by his lustful eye?
“I have recovered my reputation, and that is the purpose for which I won you back. I do not love you anymore. Go hence wherever you like.”
(Note: I replaced the term “raksasa,” occasionally, with “south Indian.” This isn’t entirely accurate. The word “raksasa” is often translated into English as “ogre,” a race of fantastical shape-shifting creatures, and it would be foolhardy to believe that there is a literal correspondence between this myth and prehistorical events like the conquest of south India by invaders from the north. But I’m of the belief that it would be equally foolhardy to believe there is no connection between mythology and real-world events. If you’d like to see the original Sanskrit text of this scene, it’s available here, and my previous essay touching upon the racial implications of the canonical Ramayana is here.)
In traditional mythology, Shiva’s wife did not commit suicide after claiming to be pure and being disbelieved by her husband. That was Sita. The wife of the light-skinned oppressor, not, as Lewis alludes, the wife of the dark-skinned oppressed people’s god.
(Another note: according to the myth, Sita survived jumping into the fire — it refused to burn her because she was pure at heart. Rather than launch into an analogy comparing this to the tests used during the Salem witchcraft trials, I’ll just say that she was briefly accepted back by her husband, then kicked out again, and successfully committed suicide several years later by leaping into a temporary crevasse.)
I agree that the story of Sita’s suicide is more powerful. Even now, here in the United States, one reason so few sexual assaults are reported is because many victims feel ashamed. There is a fear that friends, family, and lovers will consider a victim of sexual assault to be damaged. Tarnished. Many victims fear that others’ reactions will only aggravate the initial trauma.
They’re often right. Look what happened to Sita.
It’s unlikely that this underreporting problem will go away until prevailing attitudes about sexuality change. And, yes, even now the victims of sexual assault are at much higher risk of suicide.
Which, if you’re thinking about it: please wait. Talk to somebody. The world’s not perfect. But it gets better.