Monday, May 19, 2014


Brace yourselves; I'm about to get all mid-2000's on you.

It's for a good reason, though. Off and on throughout my adolescent and adult life, I've visited and revisited the brilliant works written by Alice Sebold. For those of you who don't recognize the name, she is the author of the best selling novel The Lovely Bones. I read the book for the first time about ten years ago, and honestly haven't really had the courage to give it a thorough re-read; but I refer back to that and to her memoir, Lucky, whenever I need some careful encouragement. 

I say careful because she has a brilliant gift for addressing the layers and the seasons of traumatic stress in wonderfully delicate yet brutally honest ways. She wants to walk with you through every single beautiful terrible step of this healing process. She understands the ins and outs, the dynamics, the pieces, the scope of trauma. In The Lovely Bones, we meet fourteen year old Susie Salmon just before she is raped and dismembered by her neighbor, George Harvey. She remains alive for the reader in her heaven, though, watching her bereaved family attempt to realign their lives as best as each of them can...and learning how to let go herself. 

Peter Jackson's adaptation of the book for the cinema was...just so extremely well done. Although the gruesome details of Susie's rape aren't quite as in-your-face as in the novel, and there is really no mention of sexual violence until Susie encounters Mr. Harvey's other victims in her heaven, Jackson's interpretation doesn't negate or minimize the trauma that she suffered. Each frame seamlessly weaves together the ways by which people deal with tragedy; the ways by which we learn how to survive. It is as delicate and honest as Sebold's novel. It is so much more than just a story; it is a masterpiece that respectfully exploits the emotions for which we don't particularly have the language.

I'm not writing this simply as a review; I don't really care about that. The reason I felt like writing about this film is because every time I watch it, it does something to me. The first time was in the cinema with friends, and I left feeling so happy to gently hold the life that I have, and the people in it. The next few times were in my home, by myself, sometimes feeling the need to distract myself from really watching the screen because I don't want all of the feelings all of the time. Because miraculously enough, this movie feels exactly the way that trauma feels. Exactly. It doesn't miss a single step. Everything. Anxiety, fear, grief, loss, paranoia, nightmares, self-hatred, flashbacks, anger...all the way to community, healing, closure, some nuance of justice. 

This is why the film is so important to me. I encounter lots of people who have survived sexual violence, but I also encounter lots of people who are co-survivors; people who are vicariously impacted by someone else's experience with sexual trauma. For co-survivors who haven't directly experienced this kind of trauma first hand, it's often difficult to empathize because the burden can be enormous. 

There are so many things that can cloud a person's perception of somebody working through this healing process; sometimes, survivors don't particularly want to talk about the way they're feeling, or can't quite put it into words. We can be confusing, because we're confused ourselves. We can be flighty, forgetful, irrational, emotional, frightened by the smallest, triggered by the slightest. We can get very, very angry. We can lash out at people who are only trying to help us. We can also lash inwardly at ourselves. We can cry for hours, we can shake for days, we can be hazy for weeks, we can lose entire months. We can go numb sometimes, and other times, we feel as intensely as a person can feel. 

But with this depth of emotion comes the ability to see the contrasting beauty in the world. Because we have felt so deeply, we have developed a better idea of how to feel deeply. We know how to recognize community. We care excessively, obsessively for one another. We try to learn how to care as well for ourselves.

So if you are a survivor looking for validation of your journey, one small step towards self-care might be simply taking an evening off to watch this film. If you are a co-survivor searching for ways to understand the complexity of the traumatic stress being experienced by somebody you love, I encourage you to watch this film. It is a tiny glimpse into a healing process that takes many, many years. It is, not at all intending to be reductive, a PTSD sampler. You will feel such a rich variety of things, and you may become so tense that you need a massage by the end (I actually have one scheduled for next Tuesday, and can hardly wait!) but if the intent is to begin understanding the journey of a friend or even to find solidarity during your own journey, then by all means, you will find these things in The Lovely Bones.

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