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.”
These reviews, though differing in their polarity and praise, aptly summarize the experience of reading the book: we are enticed to watch Jude’s awful trauma, which is the entire foundation of his character, “destroy him.” What they miss, though, is the extent to which A Little Life is representative not just of one author’s artistic choices but also of our cultural moment, which increasingly relies on the depiction of human suffering for the purposes of art, entertainment, and journalism.
The Internet’s personal-essay economy largely operates on the labor of often young, often female writers willing to lay bare some topical personal trauma or condition in exchange for a break into the publishing and media industry. I have been one of them; I still am. Generally titled ‘What It’s Like to X’ or ‘How It Feels to X,’ these personal essays, and their reported kin, purport to answer for the reader how it feels, whatever it may be. Implicit in the writing and reading of these essays is a version of the same impulse that drives Yanagihara’s novel. Both A Little Life and the personal-essay boom raise a question that no one seems prepared to answer: What does it say about us that we must see not only how it felt but also how very bad it was?
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Last year gave us the Rolling Stone–University of Virginia fiasco, in which the magazine ended up retracting its feature “A Rape On Campus” after the reporting in it was determined to be seriously flawed. The instance of sexual assault depicted in Rolling Stone’s feature is shockingly violent, hyperbolic to the point of absurdity; it, like the abuse in A Little Life, strains belief. That’s not to diminish actual horrifying acts of abuse, but it is worth questioning why the reporter Sabrina Erdely, who, in search of a singular narrative that might be emblematic of the campus rape epidemic, selected Jackie—a pseudonymous young woman who offered an appalling account of fraternity-propelled gang rape—over the more banal, representative experiences of other survivors.
“Erdely also made a point to interview women who had survived sexual assault at the university, who then started to realize that their stories wouldn’t make the cut,” wrote Jezebel’s Jia Tolentino, who visited UVA in the aftermath of the retraction. Tolentino, who attended UVA, described the Rolling Stone feature as an “outsider account about a true problem, written by someone good at cherry-picking.” Though Erdely had a wealth of sources at her disposal, her choice to focus on one created “a narrative that pushed ‘normal’ assault and its attendant nuances completely off the margins.”
What is to be learned from the Rolling Stone debacle is not that the story’s source was unreliable but that Rolling Stone chose a story that was so incredibly terrible (one that ended up being false) over numerous true accounts that were less shocking and, evidently, more quotidian. In the words of Maya Hislop, a graduate student quoted in Tolentino’s piece: “Was that what rape had to look like to get everyone to care?”
Recalling the details of Jackie’s story, its nearly cinematic nature and its precision, I am reminded of the questions that Susan Sontag raised in her 2003 book Regarding the Pain of Others: “Are we the better for seeing these images? Do they actually teach us anything? Don’t they rather just confirm what we already know (or want to know?)” It is the last query of Sontag’s that I find particularly interesting. By now no one denies that horrible things happen to people all over the world. But, as Sontag argued, if we leave out the context of such events, if we ignore the narratives surrounding such events, and if we further ignore what is not being said, we lose a great deal. And if we are simply regurgitating preexisting narratives, stories of horror we already know, can we be said to have learned anything at all?
The reporting of and writing about sexual assault and the activism around the subject are intrinsically related. (Indeed, the reporting and the activism around any issue are intrinsically related.) In the words of Alexandra Brodsky, an activist and Yale Law student, “We have a generation of young feminist organizers for whom the price of admission has been exposing their own personal histories.” In the same way that the route to empathy seems to necessitate the display of trauma, the route to activism (or more accurately, the authorization to speak on such issues) also seems to require the same thing. This display seems to be linked again to magnitude—a how bad was it that is inescapable. The quickest way to get attention around a case of sexual violence is to describe the violence.
Can the exploitation of our emotions really be said to be the same thing as empathy? It seems that the mere display of mimesis all too often results in an open wound without cauterization. “Compassion is an unstable emotion,” wrote Sontag. “It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated.”
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It’s recently emerged that Bustle, a feminist news and lifestyle site, asks its new contributors to complete what can be called, without much hyperbole, a questionnaire of traumatic experiences. This is so that these contributors can be called upon to write about said traumatic experiences should a pertinent news peg arrive. All of this is extraordinarily callous, of course, but it’s a particularly efficient way of going about the whole enterprise if it must be done.
I didn’t write for Bustle, but I did write about being raped, in an essay at The Hairpin called “Showing My Hand” that remains one of the most difficult things I’ve ever written. The purpose of the essay was never political. I wrote it mainly to deal with my own conflicting feelings of culpability and complicity following the realization that I was raped. I’ve always written to help others feel less alone; “Showing My Hand” came out of that impulse above any other.
While working on the first of many drafts, I noticed an impulse to include certain details in the text—things like saying no, or crying, and generally emphasizing to the reader how much I didn’t want the sex to happen. It seemed that I needed to prove to the reader that I had suffered in some way, even though I myself wasn’t convinced of how much I had suffered. I’m certain this urge partly came out of the fear that I wouldn’t be believed if I didn’t elaborate on the details in writing. The question of how bad was it seemed, to me as a writer, to become: Was it bad enough to write about?
Narratives like A Little Life limit our imagination about how empathy—and a kinder, more inclusive world in turn—might be accessed through the unyielding depiction of trauma. I can easily imagine a book in which the reader didn’t have to be so brutalized; I can easily imagine a book in which the reader could empathize with Jude while witnessing half, or less than half, of what we are forced to bear. Similarly, I can imagine reporting and long-form journalism on sexual assault working just as effectively with half, or less than half, of what we are forced to bear.
The alternative presents more complete characters and narratives, in which pain is but a small part of the whole. What A Little Life, the churn of narrative nonfiction, and, thus, likely our real views of victims of trauma are missing is the recognition of agency. Every human who has ever suffered a horrible trauma was a complete, fully realized person before the trauma and remains a whole person after it. It is here that we ought to begin and end our narratives, firmly entrenched in the humanity of their subjects.