And it’s a query that animates a number of significant works of art this year, including Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life” and the movie adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s “Room.” At a moment of intense discussions about trauma and resilience, it’s fascinating to see the way three different media explore a fundamentally similar plot. In “A Little Life,” Jude, the main character, struggles to live a normal life after years of horrific sexual abuse. And in “Room,” Jack, a child born in the shed where is mother is being held hostage, must help her escape and then re-acclimate herself to the world that she was taken from and that he has never known. None of these stories offer definitive answers to how to manage horrific experiences, and how could they? But taken together “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “A Little Life” and “Room” and the reactions to them suggest just how vexed the conversation around trauma and recovery have become.
Both “Room” and “A Little Life” have recently prompted fierce critiques from writers who suggest that these stories marinate in their characters’ suffering and that they encourage regressive views of what it means to be a healthy adult.
“The novel uses the limited perspective of a child to enact, basically, a striptease: the novel knows that we are fascinated with women’s sexual abuse, but uses the child’s apparent innocence to allow us plausible cover for our staring.” Sarah Blackwood wrote of the way “Room” presents the abuse Ma experiences through Jack’s eyes. “What is going on with the child’s literal counting of the thrusts during sex? This is prurience of the first order, disguised as a kind of psychological realism.”
And writing in the New York Review of Books, in a piece that I find persuasive even if it doesn’t match my experience of reading the novel, Daniel Mendelsohn accuses the novelist Hanya Yanagihara of producing a similar pornography of misery in her novel “A Little Life.”
“The wounds inflicted on Jude by the pedophile priests in the orphanage where he grew up, by the truckers and drifters to whom he is pimped out by the priest he runs away with, by the counselors and the young inmates at the youth facility where he ends up after the wicked priest is apprehended, by the evil doctor in whose torture chamber he ends up after escaping from the unhappy youth facility, are nothing compared to those inflicted by Yanagihara herself,” he writes.
I don’t disagree with this specific element of Mendelsohn’s critique. Yanagihara could have left the details of Jude’s suffering in the realm of implication, rather than spelling them out at such length for us. The sexual and physical violence Jude survives are less distinctive than the ways in which he struggles to accustom himself to the ordinary kindnesses of the world once he’s been released back into it. This is true of “A Little Life,” “Room,” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” While we might think we’re drawn into these stories because they offer us psychological insight into highly unusual experiences, these books, show and film are at their strongest when they explore how their protagonists learn — or fail to learn — how to live in more normal circumstances.
Mendelsohn suggests that “A Little Life” has been rapturously received because of the way it fits into an existing cultural script.
“Many readers today have reached adulthood in educational institutions where a generalized sense of helplessness and acute anxiety have become the norm; places where, indeed, young people are increasingly encouraged to see themselves not as agents in life but as potential victims: of their dates, their roommates, their professors, of institutions and history in general,” he writes of a Psychology Today article about the supposed decline in the resilience of college undergraduates. “In a culture where victimhood has become a claim to status, how could Yanagihara’s book — with its unending parade of aesthetically gratuitous scenes of punitive and humiliating violence — not provide a kind of comfort? To such readers, the ugliness of this author’s subject must bring a kind of pleasure, confirming their preexisting view of the world as a site of victimization and little else.”
But I’d argue that “A Little Life” actually does something very different.
Yanagihara’s characters repeatedly and explicitly reject the identity politics that can be the source of the sort of victimization Mendelsohn outlines. In one passage, a character notes ” race seemed less and less a defining characteristic when one was six years out of college, and those people who still nursed it as the core of their identity came across as somehow childish and faintly pathetic, as if clinging to a youthful fascination with Amnesty International or the tuba.” In another, Jude’s friend Malcolm muses that gayness “like race, seemed the province of college, an identity to inhabit for a period before maturing to more proper and practical realms.”
And part of what’s striking about Jude is that he has so little expectation of the fairness and ease that Mendelsohn and other critics of young people find so naive. “Fairness is a concept taught to nice children: it is the governing principle of kindergartens and summer camps and playgrounds and soccer fields,” Yanagihara writes. “Fairness is for happy people, for people who have been lucky enough to have lived a life defined more by certainties than by ambiguities.”
Jude believes, to the end of his life, that his immiseration was his fault, rather than someone else’s. He expects that Harold, the law professor who adopts Jude as an adult, will eventually either abuse him or reject him for something Jude himself has done or is. One of the most touching moments in “A Little Life” comes after Jude attempts suicide and Harold and his wife Julia force him to eat dinner, and embrace him despite a spiteful and childish display of temper and meanness.
“He cries and cries, cries for everything he has been, for everything he might have been, for every old hurt, for every old happiness, cries for the shame and joy of finally getting to be a child,” Yanagihara writes, “With all of a child’s whims and wants and insecurities, for the privilege of behaving badly and being forgiven, for the luxury of tendernesses, of fondnesses, of being served a meal and being made to eat it, for the ability, at last, at last, of believing a parent’s reassurances, of believing that to someone he is special despite all his mistakes and hatefulness, because of all his mistakes and hatefulness.”
Jude’s tragedy is not that he expects too much from the world, or that he lacks resilience. Rather, it’s that he asks for very little help and support even though he acquires friends and family who would love to give it to him. This is a fascinating and uncomfortable inversion of the popular narrative of the coddled millennial who demands accommodation for even the slightest setbacks. “A Little Life” doesn’t blame Jude for his choices as an adult. But it is a harrowing chronicle of the costs of silence and the expectation that individuals transcend real trauma without outside assistance.
The politics of “Room,” both in Emma Donoghue’s novel and Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of it for the screen, operate in a similarly twisty political way. Blackwood sees the novel and movie as deeply complicit in an old narrative that requires Ma (Brie Larson in the movie) to go to extraordinary lengths to protect her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), but that also pathologizes her for things she does to protect him, including breastfeeding Jack until he is five.
Once they escape their captivity, Blackwood writes “it’s this loss of connection that enables Jack’s thriving, as he wonderingly encounters the broader world. Ma, for her part, shrivels: partly because the world is overwhelming and her trauma so great, but partly, also, because she is no longer the sole nourisher of her son. No matter the setting, her son’s thriving depends on her suffering.”
I find that a puzzling reading, because to me, both the book and movie versions of “Room” seem to explore Jack’s journey from complicity in his mother’s suffering to solidarity with her.
When “Room” begins, Jack’s affection and enthusiasm for Room, the only world he’s ever known, are palpable. The fiction Ma sustains for him protects Jack from feeling fear and anger at their captivity, but it’s an exhausting story for her to sustain. Room itself is a powerful metaphor for how sexism works: Jack can live comfortably within it because he doesn’t know there are other possibilities, and their captor Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) directs his rage and sexual violence at Ma rather than at Jack.
When Ma begins to tell Jack the truth, that she didn’t always live in Room, that there is a world outside of it, and that their lives in Room are not sustainable, Jack begs for “a different story.” “No,” Ma tells him firmly, refusing to let him dwell in comforting fantasy any longer. “This is the story that you get.” That’s what coming to understand sexism is like; it’s a profound upheaval that turns fairness into injustice and comfort into ugliness.
It’s true that Ma and Jack’s fates are intertwined with each other, but I think Blackwood is mistaken to read the relationship as an inverse one. Jack’s courage to carry out Ma’s daring plan for escape is what frees them both. When Ma is strong, she picks for both of them. But after she attempts suicide, Jack insists that it’s his turn to chose “for both of us.” He asks his grandmother to cut his hair, which he thinks is the source of his strength, to give to Ma because “She needs my strong more than me…Can my strong be her strong, too?” Jack may be speaking in childish terms, but what he’s asking is whether solidarity is possible. After five years of Ma making extraordinary sacrifices for Jack, Jack wants to sacrifice her.
At the end of “Room,” Jack insists that he and Ma return to the site of their captivity one final time. It’s a difficult thing for Ma to do, but it also completes the work of bringing her and Jack back into a more stable accord about how the world works. Jack is surprised that the place that he remembered as so full and comfortable looks small and dingy.“Has it got shrunk?” Jack asks Ma of their old home. “No,” Ma tells him, “It was always like this.”
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” differs from “A Little Life” and “Room” in that it’s a comedy that it elides the worst details of Kimmy’s suffering and gives us a fundamentally optimistic protagonist who, despite her lingering trauma, functions fairly well in the world that she’s reentering. As a result, the series does somewhat different work than “A Little Life” or “Room.” By treating Kimmy’s perspective as fundamentally healthy, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is able to tell a story about how strange the world is.
In Manhattan, that strangeness is most manifest in the character of Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski), a Native American woman who has disguised herself as white, married a wealthy, absent man and immersed herself in a routine of odd beauty procedures and high-end services like a masseuse for her dog. And back in Indiana, when Richard Wayne Gary Wayne goes on trial, we witness a very different kind of obscenity as he convinces the jurors that Kimmy’s desire to start her life over in Manhattan is proof that she’s not one of them, and that disloyalty like hers is killing her town’s economy. Kimmy may have held onto her desire to return to the world while she was captive in the bunker. But “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” suggests that the free world and the bunker both operate on their own insane terms.
So what’s a newly-freed captive to do? Kimmy insists in the first episode that she can’t give in to despair.
“Life, beats you up Titus. It doesn’t matter if you get tooken by a cult or you’ve been rejected over and over again at auditions,” she declares to her roommate (Tituss Burgess). “You can either curl up in a ball and die like we thought Cindy did that one time or you can stand up and say we’re different. We’re the strong ones. And you can’t break us.”
While Kimmy’s philosophy may be a statement of personal optimism, it’s a rather pessimistic perspective on whether the world can be made more just or fair. Jude’s resilience and self-reliance may be admirable, but they also turn out to be a form of slow-motion suicide. It’s Ma’s desperate bid for freedom and decision to ask her five-year-old son for help that changes their circumstances. But for all their differing circumstances, once they’re free, Kimmy, Jude and Ma find just how hard it can be to live in the wider world. Neither their creators — nor anyone else in the larger debate over trauma and recovery — has particularly satisfactory ideas for how to make the world less cruel, or to make the people who have to navigate it stronger. All they’re certain about is that something needs to change, and that when the doors on the locked rooms their characters have occupied finally open, the hard work is just beginning.