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Personality changes in the victims of trauma
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- Chirag Mehta
- Trauma and Literature
- Prof. Martin J. Gliserman
- 12 Mar. 2003
- Grade: B+
Personality changes in the victims of trauma
Be it Mrs. Helen Brindle in Original Bliss, Sethe in Beloved, or the boy in The Painted Bird, trauma permanently disturbs its victim's identity. It is not difficult to visualize how trauma affects its victims. Picture a peaceful village on the banks of a life-giving river, swept away one indifferent night by feeling-less floods that carve out a slightly wider eroded valley from a land that was once called home. Like the sweeping force of a mighty river, trauma erodes the victims of their inner lives, leaving behind a barren yet fertile floodplain. It seems to challenge them to till the plains again and harvest yet another generation of perishable emotions, or forever remain desolate. Poetic as it may sound, dramatic as it may seem, and over-exaggerated as it may appear, a formidable river is a mere metaphoric euphemism for the force we refer to as trauma. The changes that trauma brings about, run deep into the victims' psyches, affecting everything, from the way they smile to the way they intimate with other beings. Across three very different books, each of which tells a unique traumatic story, the victims of trauma seem to develop some parallel, though unique, personality traits. Call them coping mechanisms, rebuilding strategies, or simply reaction to traumatic stimuli, some key personality attributes seem to transcend the race-color barrier, the space-time continuum, and the age-maturity strata, and unfailingly create within the victim's eroded self, a new unfamiliar character.
The inability to recognize and acknowledge trauma is probably the first sign of victimization. Mrs. Brindle felt the pain as her husband shut the drawer on her hand and "a burst of nausea and a white, high sound happened when she pulled on her arm and then she looked at her fingers, the four fingers of her right hand that were already a slightly unfamiliar shape and bleeding and a little hidden by four flaps of sheared-away skin" (103). But she did not realize right then that the drawer had done more damage to her emotional footing than her four fingers. She failed to recognize how spousal abuse was the real culprit behind her failing marriage and yet consistently tried to find out the "true" cause of her despair. In her mind, she absolved her perpetrator by simply telling herself that "my husband doesn't understand me" and blamed herself for losing faith in God (76). Sethe had her "milk stolen" and even complained about it to Mrs. Garner, yet she attributed her pains to the fact that Halle did not return to her. "When the four horsemen came" (148) Sethe did her job to "keep (her) children away from what (she knew was) terrible" (165), without knowing how the sacrifice would haunt her for the rest of her life. The trauma of being forced into a situation where the best solution was to take the life of her "Beloved", was so intense that as "the hot sun dried Sethe's dress, stiff, like rigor mortis" (153), she too was paralyzed, from within, and her "eyes with no whites were gazing straight ahead" (151). The boy in The Painted Bird "hopped around like a squirrel while (the peasant) continued whipping (him)" (16), and his "body burned from the slashes of the whip" so much that he could not fall asleep (17). Yet, what is undeniably child abuse of horrendous nature, seemed like a temporary punishment to the boy, for he knew he would soon find a way to run away to safety. Village after village, the boy saw and felt insufferable pains yet as is evident from his refreshing playfulness, his morale seemed to be unaffected by any of the physical tortures. Rather, what developed in him was a vast emotional void and a disregard for love, kindness, and humanity. Distinctly, all the characters went through the trauma of being subjected to one disturbing episode after another, but essentially developed resilience to future abuse, by constantly trying to place the blame on herself like Mrs. Brindle, by trying to get on with her life as if everything was normal, like Sethe, or simply by running away to another place like the boy. When the trauma began, they all felt it, but did not realize that magnitude of the tremors that would shake their lives and by the time they were fully victimized, they became indifferent to it, almost accepting it as a part of their lives.
Victims of trauma also develop response mechanisms to the stimuli of traumatic atmosphere, episodes, events, and reminders. When the atmosphere of abuse, guilty, or fear is recreated, the victims subconsciously respond to it, often acting out exactly what happened originally or how they wish they had reacted before. When Sethe sees that "he is coming into her yard and he is coming for her best thing," she flies with the ice-pick in her band, this time avenging the invader rather than sacrificing one of her own extensions (262). On the other hand, every time she found herself in a situation that made her feel guilty, "Helen did not expect to sleep, but down into unconsciousness she went, tiny cuts and strokes of horror mumbling at her as she fell" (175). She did not react vehemently to any physical mistreatments, however whenever she felt lonely and unhappy, she sank into a whirlpool of guilt-laden thoughts that deprived her of sleep. Moreover, after each episode of abuse by her husband that she silently suffered, she seemed to fall into a state of stupor - of disbelief and disassociation - "She was here and almost watching, almost listening, because she could not be asleep" (4). While victims of petty crime often tell their stories to bring the perpetrators to justice, victims of traumatic abuse like Mrs. Brindle feel their pain is their own and theirs alone, and so "she couldn't tell (the doctor) anything, even though both of them knew she wanted to" (104). While Sethe responded subconsciously to the second intruder by becoming offensive and Mrs. Brindle lost her sleep every time guilt, unhappiness, and loneliness pervaded her mind, the boy seemed to be affected the most by fear. In times of fear, he would resort to any viable solution, from praying to a God he later stopped believing in, to pushing the Carpenter down a bunker full of rats, lacking any remorse, guilt, or emotions. Prayer, which is supposed to be a spiritual experience, was merely a currency for him to buy as many points in heaven as he could. Fear drove him from village to village, from destruction to cruelty, and eventually from late night outings to criminal activities. Even when he seemed to retract defensively, he kept trying to find a way to attack and run away.
Trauma affects the victims in innumerable ways. It could make them weaker or stronger. It could make them recoil or release. It could turn them into saints or criminals. But it will never leave them the way it found them. Just like the mighty river that floods the harmonious plains, it changes the voices of the valleys forever.