A recently popular TED talk focused on how the biggest risk to our physical well being is exposure to one thing: childhood trauma. The speaker explains how trauma actually affects how the brain develops. As one who has experienced childhood trauma, I found this TED talk extremely depressing. It often feels like the imprint of brokenness permeates every aspect of who I am. I am not the only one who feels this way either.
Two novels I recently read seem to grapple with the issue of childhood trauma: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.
A Controlled Life
In the first novel, we meet Eleanor Oliphant as an adult who lives her life in a very strange manner. She is ridiculously routine and logical with every step of her day scheduled in such a way to minimize human interaction. She seems pleased with her routine until she describes her Friday habit of picking up two bottles of vodka in order to stay drunk the entire weekend. The novel unfolds as Eleanor develops a friendship with one of her co-workers (Raymond), and we begin to learn that the reason for her odd behavior is a horrific childhood trauma at the hands of her mother. Her coping mechanism for her abuse is control and rigidity though she cannot maintain it. In reality, she is extremely lonely; Eleanor explains “I took one of my hands in the other, tried to imagine what it would feel like if it was another person’s hand holding mine. There have been times where I felt that I might die of loneliness.”
Though she guards this lifestyle, she knows inwardly that it is not healthy. Her unlikely relationship with Raymond that begins as a result of them helping a man named Sammy introduces her to a world of give-and-take, forgiveness and trust, and two-way communication. When, despite her standoffish ways, Raymond continues to reach out to her in friendship, her heart is softened. This prepares her to take the big step of getting counseling which leads her through the stages of grief, allowing her to finally deal with the trauma of her childhood. A trauma that was so significant that it made the papers, and she intentionally blocked out.
A Reckless Life
In Goldfinch, we meet our protagonist Theo as a child. He has a close relationship with his mother, though his drunkard father has left them both. Theo has gotten in trouble at school and a meeting is scheduled. On their way to the meeting, they get caught in the rain, and stop in his mother’s favorite art museum. It is there that Theo first sees the famous Goldfinch painting. This is a painting of a chained Goldfinch bird by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius. Despite being small, it is a commanding painting, beautifully rendered and one that has a huge impact on Theo.
His mom decides to go one last time to see another painting and shortly after she leaves, a bomb goes off killing several people, including her. This tragedy shapes his entire life. From this point on, he no longer has a true home. Though he lives with a friend’s family for a time, and even his estranged father, he spends a large portion of the rest of his childhood fearing child protection services and being sent to away. While staying with his father, he is introduced to the world of alcoholism, drugs, and gambling. When his father dies, Theo is once again cut loose from any moorings and makes a dash to New York to find his friend Hobie. For the rest of the book, the reader watches Theo sabotaging his own life through risky choices and excessive drug use. We hope for him to find a way out, but it mostly seems he’s on his way to a catastrophe of his own making.
A Powerful Hope
Where Eleanor relies on control and logic, Theo loses himself in relationships and drugs. They have opposite responses to their grief, yet they are so very defined by the ways they try to find peace in their brokenness.
At the end of Goldfinch, Theo discusses with himself in a journaling type remonstrance, what is it that motivates us to keep moving forward, especially when we can’t trust ourselves.
Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me: What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted? What is the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility, and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?
Theo sees clearly that the happy turn of events he experiences in the novel are not a result of him being wise or careful. He recognizes his ridiculous bent towards destruction and is afraid of it. Instead, his salvation lay in luck and in friends who are loyal to him. For Eleanor, her turnaround requires hard internal work but also the support of good friends. While these scenarios seem extreme, they, unfortunately, seem to depict how many of us respond to the trauma of life. We have our coping mechanisms—some are destructive and some are just restrictive. We too can often feel the helpless pawns of our own fears and brokenness.
Our Personal Journeys
These honest struggles with the difficulties of life and the hope they find are not unusual to me as a believer. Hope is the one thing we can offer the world that is unsullied from religion. The hope we have doesn’t mean we always break free of the coping mechanisms–the hope is that one day we won’t need them.
Eleanor bravely walks the path of healing and experiences great changes in her life. Theo is left in a place of transition without a clear path forward. He may continue forth on his destructive path or he may not. Despite this, we know his value is not dependent on how successful he is. Too often we equate our spiritual growth with our mental health.
Mental health, like our physical health, is important and something we should actively work on in order to experience a good standard of living. It does not, however, have any real bearing on our relationship with God. We have hope, not because we have our act together, but because we can trust God. And our hope gives us the strength to do the hard work of uncovering our coping mechanism and taking the risky steps towards wholeness.
Whether we experienced childhood trauma or adult trauma, we are all struggling to deal with the results of living in a broken world that is not safe. Let us be hopeful enough to have mercy on ourselves and on others, as we deal with our own and others’ brokenness.