On Life and Death and Pain Again

by dhaaruni

I deeply respect and appreciate A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara but I fundamentally can’t bring myself to enjoy or recommend it. It details the history of Jude St. James, complete with the extreme abuse he undergoes at an early age that cripples and expressly traumatizes him for his entire life. I cried so much reading the book, I would read a few pages and then scrunch up into a little tiny ball hiding my face in my knees because I couldn’t deal with the prospect of Jude being hurt even more than he already had been. The explicit descriptions of abuse that Jude undergoes and enacts on himself were side by side with depictions of extreme love and affection between Jude and his friends, his found family, and I felt a feeling of real whiplash reading it because I didn’t always know what I was supposed to feel at a particular time. But despite my love for the book, I couldn’t help but think, what if Jude had been Judy? It irks and frustrates me that the trauma of women, rape victims and sexual abuse victims and everything in between, is almost commonplace, as if it’s just what we should grow to expect being female. It’s as if the suffering of being a woman is a common coming of age narrative we all ought to come to terms with and it’s ultimately not worth writing about because somebody has probably done it before and probably done it better than we ever could.

There’s something very notable about being a woman who’s been in a lot of public pain- you start to realize that you can’t really escape the identity. I want people to take me seriously despite my experiences but at the same time, I want them to be valid portions of my past, things that I can bring up and discuss without fear of social retribution. I want people to stop asking me “Has your condition returned?” but I want them to be aware of its existence, not judge me but to understand me for what I’ve been through. The balance that has to be struck when writing about the wounded woman is between acknowledging the voyeurism associated with female pain but also realizing that no matter how reductive the image may seem, we must acknowledge the various needs and sufferings that yield pain and attack them at their cores instead of focusing on the unsavory ways they may be displayed. It’s almost as if my pain makes me all the more feminine, as if it’s a constraint for my womanhood to be in deep and unforgettable pain. I think about Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams and the continual trauma he witnesses and how it changes him, how he swears to God as a little boy that he will never die. I think about Hemingway himself and how much I can’t help but relate to him, his inability to escape from his own mind that eventually led to his sorry suicide. I deeply empathize with him and I love him in a way feminists on the Internet would scorn me for doing so but at the same time, I can’t help but think that men in pain are allowed to be more than their pain. Hemingway is still a great writer who committed suicide, Sylvia Plath is that woman who stuck her head in an oven and was probably a terrible mother to boot. Her writing is almost an afterthought despite its extensiveness and nuance. Men are allowed to be more than how they’ve been hurt, as women it feels like we’re scarred by what we’ve been through in a way that makes us anathemas. But the thing is, we’re never alone in our sorrow.

What I’m trying to say is that I can’t really deal with the lack of female characters in A Little Life despite its many merits. I have some questions about the book itself and the implications about literary fiction that it raises. Hanya Yanagihara is female but what does it say about literature that for a woman to be so lauded she must write about men? Are female issues and characters not enough? The Neapolitan novels are resolutely female but to what extent? They are about economics and social mobility as much as they are about the relationship between the two female protagonists. Moreover, I’m somewhat uncomfortable with the depiction of male versus female pain in the novel. We all know that I’m a huge proponent of “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” but I’m just fixated on the portrayal of Jude’s pain compared to that of women in other sources. It just feels so extreme and I didn’t even read the whole thing, I just felt this overwhelming dread and I couldn’t bring myself to read something that I knew I would hate. I read the reviews, and I completed about 400 pages of the book but I stopped right before the bulk of the detailing of Jude’s abuse.

There’s also something strange about how the love that Jude inspires feels almost as a reward for the pain that he’s been through which I really fundamentally dislike and disapprove of. It’s really not a no sum game, it’s real life and it doesn’t work like that. Pain doesn’t make one a better or worse person, it just is and it’s horrific obviously but I don’t need the unequivocal lauding of Jude to tell me that. He didn’t bother me as a character but rather what he represented. I felt as if his pain was more important than that of other people and I dislike that notion. I compared his experiences to that of Theon Greyjoy in ASOIAF because the both of them undergo horrific torture and are forced to live with their pain. But the difference is that Theon was forced to compartmentalize his torture in order to survive, to help Jeyne Poole, while Jude wasn’t required to do so. In other words, I felt that Theon’s narrative was more blatantly truly feminine while Jude’s was almost a male impression of a female narrative if that makes sense. I got the impression that Yanagihara was trying to inspire empathy in her readers but it didn’t feel as if they’d truly have to try to care for Jude simply because of how abjectly pitiable he is. It wasn’t like Theon who committed such heinous sins and had to be truly forgiven in order to understand his storyline.

As for me, I’m conflicted in my pain though because on one hand, I believe it makes me special that I can see and feel such profound things about the world I live in. I know things about people that they never told me, I know who they’re sleeping with and why they hate who they hate even though they never told me. I can see it in their eyes, the way they move around and play with their hair, and I can’t be rid of the pictures in my mind no matter how much I might want to be. I can relate to other people who I have no overt connection with because pain is universal, I can empathize in ways that aren’t taught in the schools even though they ideally ought to be, and I have so much to give in a world that clearly needs it. But at the same time, I feel spent; my emotional labor is going unpaid and I feel like I’m suffering more and being rendered more pain than any I might cause or heal. I feel the pain of other people and it doesn’t feel remotely fair because honestly, I’m burdened with enough of my own. Am I being punished for what I’ve done to others? Am I being punished for how I’ve hurt myself? Nowadays, unlike in my past, I sort of deal with my pain in the ways that I’m supposed to, I read and I smile and I sleep, I dance and I laugh and I cry, but only in secret where nobody can see me rather than on public buses like I used to, yet nothing really takes it all away.

Despite everything I have forced myself to endure, my pain belongs to me because I have claimed it like no other, because I have resolved to take ownership of it for all that it’s worth. And I don’t know if Jude has that same frame of mind. I know it’s wrong to impose my ideas on how to deal with trauma onto others but sometimes I can’t really help it because it doesn’t feel natural or real. I don’t think the book was tragedy porn per but at the same time, it was too much for me. Maybe some day I will be able to handle it but right now, I’m too hurt on my own self to be able to stomach the ways that somebody else has been viscerally destroyed.

I think about the ugly ways we deal with pain, cutting and inhaling and breaking hearts, allowing our hearts to be broken in return. The faces of the people I’ve hurt flit rapidly through my mind, and I physically feel the lingering consequences of long-standing pain that I caused myself. I think at the end of the day, pain and trauma are neither transitive nor sustainable, but are bitingly human in their very existence and we cannot live without them. Every relationship is bolstered by pain, the remnants of what we used to be and what we are today, and what remains to be understood. Kendrick Lamar raps “A fatal attraction is common/and what we have common is pain” and he’s right in his assertion. It brings us together, it tears us apart, and it ultimately defines us with regards to who we are to be.