Clarity of violence | Daily News

Clarity of violence

The tights were torn across the crotch: not a ladder, but a gaping, deliberate tear that went across both thighs and between my legs. At the tops of my legs, on the skin exposed by the tear, were bruises. I took the tights off and threw them away, along with the underwear I had been wearing that night. I was due to start my first year of college in a week, and my mind was pushing down the memories of what had happened the night before. Even then, I was already rationalizing the tears and the bruises as something consensual, something I had either invited or agreed to.

The mind has ways of burying what has happened to the body, during and after trauma. If this has not happened to you, it can be difficult to comprehend. Dissociative amnesia is a survival mechanism which represses memories and experiences of trauma so deeply that the conscious mind has no access to it.

Throughout my time at university, I dissociated myself from the memory of what had happened just before I moved away from home. I experienced anxiety and depression, developed disordered eating habits and addictive behavior. I had nightmares, dreams of a man standing over me, from which I would wake up screaming so loudly that I would wake my neighbors, but all of this I somehow managed to put down to exam stress, work stress—anything that would allow me to continue denying the fact that I had been raped.

Forcible reminders

It was not until a year after graduating, more than four years after the assault, that I first acknowledged what had happened to me. Whether it was emotional stability, maturity, or forcible reminders, my mind was ready to present me with those buried memories. And when they came, they came with force.

I was suffering daily panic attacks, flashbacks, intense anxiety, and depression. I began treatment, medication courses, therapy, and the soul-destroying work of telling the people I loved most what I had spent all these years hiding. Of the various coping mechanisms I developed, functional and dysfunctional, the one I held on to, the one that gave me the most hope, was writing. It gave me the possibility of a future that wasn’t shaped by trauma, but that I might shape.

When I first started showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress, it was November 2015. By the end of the year, I had written the short story—a rape, its consequences—on which my first novel would be based.

Childhood bedroom

In 2017, a few days before Christmas, I found myself on a train journey to my parent’s house, back to that same childhood bedroom, with something resembling my novel in my backpack. All this time, I had been working to process my traumatic memories, trying to reduce their charge and assign them to a less dominant, less reactive part of my brain, and the novel was a central part of this journey. But it was not quite finished; there were still some things missing—most significantly, its title.

I worked on the draft over the entire Christmas break. Even on Christmas Day, I sat on the floor of the living room pulling books off of my parents’ shelves, trying to get some distance from the manuscript, trying to gain perspective from the many writers whose work I admired, whose ideas had influenced my own work. One of those writers was Don DeLillo. I found my old, battered college copy of White Noise, and flicked through the pages, marked with annotations and underlinings. I was reminded of the reasons I had chosen DeLillo as the subject of my final-year dissertation. The sense of encroaching dystopia, the stark and sudden violence, and the beauty of the language that flourished in the moments of deepest nihilism, his writing resonated with more force than ever.

What struck me more than any of this, on returning to DeLillo, was how many of his characters existed in prolonged states of either flight or exile. The protagonist of DeLillo’s first novel, Americana, abruptly abandons his advertising job in Manhattan for life on the road. In Mao II, the protagonist completely disappears less than halfway through the novel. In White Noise, an entire town is evacuated following a chemical spill that sends plumes of smoke into the air. These were characters who were lost, exiled, looking to find meaning in the world—through medication, cult-membership, consumerism—and failing.

Religious reverence

In one of my favorite DeLillo scenes, Jack Gladney, the protagonist of White Noise, browses his supermarket with an almost religious reverence: “all the letters and numbers are here, all the colors of the spectrum, all the voices and sounds, all the code words and ceremonial phrases … not that we would want to, not that any useful purpose would be served.”

Later, Gladney experiences a moment of “splendid transcendence,” hearing his sleeping daughter mutter, over and over, the brand name of an automobile. In the world of DeLillo’s novels, what lies beneath or beyond, is too terrifying to contemplate, and so his characters are trapped in a surface world, dense with color and sound and signifiers that, if unravelled, point to nowhere more profound than a supermarket aisle, or the make of a car.

- Paris Review


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