It’s been suggested by some social scientists that mirror neurons, which fire in response to watching someone perform an action or experience a sensation, make up the foundation for human empathy. Mirror neurons makes immediate sense to us, as in the visual culture–laden 21st century we are extraordinarily used to understanding through seeing. The most obvious way of demonstrating how trauma feels, whether in art, entertainment, or journalism, is to make someone witness it for himself, whether it’s racism, or sexism, or sexual violence. After all, what better path to empathy could be created than one generated by mimesis? Why else would we willingly bear witness to terrible events? And why else would we continue to read and write about them?
In A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara’s 700-page novel, published last March, harrowing depictions of child abuse share real estate with lavish descriptions of wealthy New York City excess. The protagonist of Yanagihara’s opus, Jude, is a character entirely defined by the abuse he has experienced. After he was run over in a car by a sadistic, pedophilic psychiatrist, Jude’s legs are riddled with scars and nerve damage; his psyche, we learn, has been equally wrecked by years of sexual and physical abuse. Though Jude’s life seemingly redeems itself—he finds a successful career as a litigator, and an attentive lover in his best friend—neither he nor the reader can escape the trauma that shapes his character. A string of flashbacks to Jude’s childhood, prolonged and served over the course of the novel like a series of particularly horrific amuse-bouches, repeatedly bring the reader back to the source of Jude’s pain, which in the novel acts as a kind of crucible, forging him into being the hero of the only story he knows.
Referring to the flashbacks of Jude’s childhood trauma, which Yanagihara carefully withholds to narrative effect, Carol Anshaw wrote in The New York Times, “This mechanism sparks the reader’s voyeuristic interest but comes with a sullying sensation. After a while, I understood I was being enticed to watch someone’s terrible suffering from a comfortable distance.” Janet Maslin, also at Times, echoed the novel’s uneasy voyeurism: “For a double dose of the vicarious, you are invited to press your nose to that glass and wait for Jude’s awful history to destroy him.” For Jude’s trauma, though its events are squarely in his past, does indeed rise up to ruin him. He self-harms, often—“The reader spends a lot of time in Jude’s bathroom,” Anshaw remarks—and has trouble trusting even those who profess to love him dearly. Jude’s serial abuse “is the dark secret that explains his tormented present: self-cutting and masochistic relationships and, eventually, suicide,” wrote Daniel Mendelsohn in The New York Review of Books. “The latter plot point isn’t anything the intelligent reader won’t have guessed after fifty pages,” Mendelsohn added. Meanwhile, at The New Yorker, Jon Michaud wrote, “Yanagihara’s rendering of Jude’s abuse never feels excessive or sensationalist. It is not included for shock value or titillation, as is sometimes the case in works of horror or crime fiction. Jude’s suffering is so extensively documented because it is the foundation of his character.”