[I wrote this a bit ago, and thankfully the circumstances in it no longer apply. I put up an earlier version of it on Tumblr and I've also rambled on about A Little Life anonymously elsewhere.]
I’ve been in a mild depression lately and most of the writing I’ve done over the last two weeks has been disorganized and incomplete: snippets rather than stories. None of it is for anyone else and none of it even could be for anyone else, because it’s all disgustingly well-tailored to my own sloppy emotional needs and, even beyond that, thoroughly rooted in intensely designed AUs of canon that are vivid to me and undoubtedly ridiculous and unrecognizable to anyone else. Even my wife thinks they’re self-indulgent. But what they all are, when you come right down to it, is a very particular brand of hurt/comfort.
I’m especially brutal to my favorite characters when I’m depressed, because, dammit, I just want to read about well-deserved comfort, and I don’t have the time or even the emotional complexity in these periods to work out how to do this in any kind of subtle, plausible way that would actually be consistent with good, emotionally nuanced writing. This isn’t the time for that. This is the time for “the characters have inexplicably been kidnapped by torturers with some random and likely unmentioned motivation.” It’s the time for impractical kidnappings, for (at least feigned) betrayal, for public humiliation, for strange magical harms done to people in decidedly non-magical canons. I find this soothing.
[More real-life depression talk under the cut, as well as discussion of fictional/literary CSA, domestic violence, death, bereavement, suicide, self-harm, car accidents, sexual trauma, and medical trauma.]
And I used, I think, to be able to write about a kind of fictionalized depression that way, in a manner that I can’t do now that I have an unfortunately close personal relationship with the fucking thing. For the record, I, at least, have no problem with fictionalized, simplified, and even sentimentalized depression: different stories fill different emotional needs for different people. (And it would, in any case, be massively hypocritical of me to rail against it even if I wanted to, because nobody is fonder of fictional, soap opera-style amnesia than I am.) But I can’t write it myself now, because it feels like I’m breaking some kind of inner logic.
What breaks it isn’t the portrayal of the depression as it’s being suffered but rather the way in which the depression is exited, which usually happens when some other character notices how deeply, horribly sad Character A is and provides comfort and support. And Character A then starts to make their way out of the murky, muddy emotional place they’re mired in. Something at last feels sort of good. Something doesn’t hurt. And then, thankfully, beautifully, they’re pushed down a greased slide to a place of greater emotional stability.
Whereas in my experience, someone notices I’m depressed and extends sympathy and support, and I... I don’t know. Say it helps? They are good people for trying to help and I am, when depressed, fundamentally aware of my utter lack of good personhood, so I don’t want to be a trial, which will only make me feel worse anyway. So I end up in this weird pattern of opening up to someone and then panicking because I realize that there is nothing they can say that will actually help me, that I will in fact move the emotional goalposts on what I want to hear anytime they say what previously seemed like all I needed, and why would I put them in that position? Why am I so awful? The solution is to pretend like they have, in fact, totally fixed me, or at least pushed me up onto dry land where I will gradually fix myself, and in the meantime, I make a mental note to try extra-hard to seem normal and happy around them, because I don’t want it to be weird. I don’t want them to have to keep expending effort and worry that will do nothing.
At the same time, of course, I desperately want them to expend effort and worry, because I’m an asshole with no currently functioning barometer of self-worth, so the only way I know how to feel even marginally better for even a minute is to provoke someone else into telling me I matter. Provided I can convince myself for at least five minutes or so that they really think that and that they aren’t just saying it to be nice. They’re probably saying it to be nice.
So I say the thing, I express the self-loathing, I get comforted, and then I tell myself to never, under pain of death, ever mention to that person ever again that I hate myself.
People don’t make me feel better. Love hasn’t fixed me. So if I tried to write that story now, Character B would bring Character A a blanket and then nothing would change. In the morning Character A would be the same. And Character B would try again. And try again. And then start to get a little impatient: I mean, fuck, I gave you the fucking blanket, didn’t I? I hugged you. I told you that you mattered, that I loved you, that there are so many people who love you. Why do you not feel better. How long am I supposed to do this.
...And then one day Character A would either get a prescription that worked or for some other reason come out the other end of the tunnel blinking at the light, and Character B would be like, “What changed?” and Character A would just shrug, especially if it’s the second kind of situation. I literally once had a terrible, suicidal bout of depression and right at the end of it I watched The Hateful Eight, and it was the first thing I was conscious of enjoying in a really, really long time. It is probably not true that The Hateful Eight, which I genuinely (and, in addition, a little superstitiously) love, cured my depression, but it did kind of feel like that. This is not a satisfying resolution to a story unless your story is ad copy for The Hateful Eight and you are marketing it exclusively to the mentally ill.
A satisfying resolution to the story is that pain that is felt by someone else--love that bridges the fundamental loneliness of suffering--cures things. I like that. It’s the kind of thing that should be true even if it’s not, and it’s the kind of thing that I consider myself lucky to still be able to enjoy in other formats. Keep writing those stories, if you’re doing that, because they matter. (And some of them are probably written by people who are depressed, or who have been depressed, the world eerily enough not being endlessly composed of carbon copies of my experiences.)
But where I was going with all this is the kind of ridiculous depression story currently living in bits and pieces on my hard drive, and also the ridiculous, professionally published, over-the-top depression story that I find oddly convincing as a fantasy of suffering by the suffering.
Me first, because it’s simpler. In addition to the blatant, implausible hurt/comfort I talked about way up at the top of the post, I also keep writing this incredibly weird thing where I can write the traditional depression story by making it a magical depression story. It makes no sense. It’s a character who trades a year of happiness for four years of his little brother’s tuition, that’s the level of WTFery we’re talking about here. But. It’s about the idea that the sadness has some kind of profundity to it, that it’s been incurred for a reason, and even a noble, self-sacrificing reason. It’s about how eventually his brother will find this out and figure out a way to fix things, so love will cure the sadness after all. It’s about there being a comprehensible, emotionally valid reason for why the sadness just won’t leave: buddy, your contract’s not up yet. This is gloppy, sentimental wish-fulfillment wrapped all around characters I love and want to be okay.
The over-the-top, professionally published fantasy of suffering story is Hanya Yanagihara A Little Life, aka, the Story of How Literally Every Awful Thing in the World Happened to the Beautifully Sad Jude St. Francis. (Spoilers follow.) A Little Life gestures vaguely in the direction of being an ensemble story where the narratives of its three other primary characters--Willem, an actor and part-time Norse god of handsomeness; JB, a talented avant-garde artist and eventual acclaimed photographer and part-time drug addict who suffers way less beautifully than Jude and so consequently gets shit on by everyone; and Malcolm, a successful architect and the group’s resident normal--will actually matter, but it gives up on this after not very long. Which it kind of has to do, because you almost literally cannot tell an in-depth story of even a ridiculously glamorous and successful life alongside Jude’s life, which will dwarf it to the point of making it seem ant-like in its insignificance.
Oh, boy. Jude.
I was going to summarize it, but the Wikipedia summary is hilarious in its Perils of Pauline approach to it all and is recommended reading, so I’ll just do bullet-points.
* Jude is an abandoned child with no knowledge of his parents (the novel dwells at slightly discomfiting length on how no one can even tell what race he is, which... gets a little weird after a while).
* He is raised in a monastery, because apparently that’s a thing that can happen, where he is treated mostly cruelly and routinely physically abused and neglected, until he reaches an age where the abuse becomes sexual and widespread. If not every monk participates, no one actually does anything to prevent it.
* The closest thing to kindly intervention he gets is from Brother Luke, young Jude’s only source of comfort, and, naturally enough for this kind of novel, also interested in raping him, just with the illusion in place that they really love each other.
* Brother Luke abducts Jude and takes him on the road and then--oh-so-tearfully--explains how they’re going to have to start paying their way by renting out time with Jude to a series of strange men.
* Mentally disintegrating under the weight of all this, Jude begins to brutally harm himself by slamming his head into the wall; Brother Luke decides to teach him to cut himself instead, as that process is more controlled. This habit will last the rest of Jude’s life.
* When Jude finally gets away from Brother Luke, he’s put into a group home where the sexual abuse continues. After a chance at living in a more stable and less horrifically traumatic environment (of course) falls through, Jude succeeds in running away.
* He is picked up by a doctor who promptly imprisons him in his basement and rapes him for months.
* Then the doctor runs him over with his car and leaves Jude for dead. In fact, Jude is not dead, but he has acquired a lifelong limp and significant nerve damage, conditions that will a) worsen over the course of his life and b) keep him in nearly constant pain.
* Then handwave-handwave, Jude finally finds where the non-rapists live and receives just enough therapy that the novel can vaguely indicate how he’s still functional after all of this. He gets into a prestigious college and makes a group of lifelong friends, named above, but is especially close to Willem, because Willem is a Perfect Human and Endlessly Patient Best Friend. They move in together while Willem looks for acting jobs and Jude attends law school.
* Now, not all of this backstory is revealed at once, which is good, because even when spread out over seven hundred pages, there’s still an “oh, you have got to be fucking kidding me” feeling when you get to the part about the doctor. The novel actually begins with Jude and Willem moving into their first post-grad apartment, and for a while, it seems like this will be a novel primarily about living on and trying to make a life in the aftermath of a horrific past. Jude’s life is good for a while, though understandably enough continuously shadowed. He still cuts himself, and he still has mental breakdowns that lead to him making gourmet catering and desserts for everyone (the BEST kind of mental breakdown, bar none), but... he’s doing okay. He becomes a lawyer. He acquires A Perfect Father Figure Who At Last Does Not Want to Sexually Abuse Him, a wonderfully kind law professor accompanied by his wonderfully kind wife, who are always ecstatically happy to invite him into their home and in fact even adopt him, formally, when he’s thirty, and start calling him their son.
* If you’re thinking it sounds like the other shoe is about to drop, you are correct.
* JB becomes addicted to crystal meth, but this is not Innocent Suffering Like Jude’s but instead Something He Brought Upon Himself, so when Jude tries to help him and JB lashes out by imitating Jude’s limp and occasionally slurred speech, both Jude and Willem find it unforgivable and sever relationships with him, though they’ll drift back into contact later on.
* After years of everyone talking about Jude’s possible sexual orientation behind his back instead of just fucking asking him like any normal person would do (especially since no one has any real idea of his past), Jude finally ends up in a relationship with a high-powered fashion executive named Caleb whom he meets at a party.
* Caleb promptly begins showing creepy danger signs--he’s especially critical of Jude’s increasing need for a wheelchair and thinks it’s a sign of weakness and Jude “giving in” to his deformity--and before you can say “many survivors of childhood abuse find themselves in abusive relationships later in life,” Caleb has become the abusive husband in every Lifetime movie ever made. When Jude--with kindly law professor and surrogate dad’s help--sort of succeeds in severing things with him, Caleb breaks into Jude’s apartment and rapes him and throws him down a flight of stairs. (Actually, Wikipedia tells me this is the second rape in their relationship. That’s how often Jude gets raped in this novel. I have forgotten entire instances of it.)
* Jude then tries to kill himself, which prompts Hollywood star Willem to move back in with him. Jude cherry-picks a few of the less cataclysmically awful stories from his childhood to finally tell and Willem is horrified by them while the reader leans back and smokes a cigarette and says, “Will, you wouldn’t believe the shit I’ve seen.”
* Willem, despite having been straight to this point, then begins to fall in love with Jude, and you know, I’m all for flexible models of sexuality and sexual desire that proceeds from romantic connection that proceeds from the realization that this person is closer to you than anyone else in the world, but also: come the fuck on. This could not get any ficcier if it tried.
* Anyway, Jude of course loves Willem back, Willem being a Perfect Human and all, so they begin an honestly very touching relationship, marred only by Jude’s continued self-harm (which he can’t bring himself to stop for good, though Willem does provide him with enough stability that he’s able to minimize it) and their problems in bed. Willem is highly satisfied with having sex with Jude, but Jude’s life has left him entirely sex-repulsed, and his continued assent to their encounters and his continued concealment of the pain and distress they cause him leads to escalated self-harm.
* Willem finally finds out and Jude at last reveals to him at least 90% of his childhood as an explanation for his hatred of sex. They cut it out of their relationship entirely and have a honeymoon phase--Willem goes back to sleeping with women in no-strings-attached arrangements that don’t bother Jude in the slightest, and their life together is exceedingly happy and romantic.
* AND THEN WILLEM, MALCOLM, AND MALCOLM’S WIFE ALL DIE TOGETHER IN A CAR CRASH.
* Also at some point in here, Jude lost one of his legs. I don’t even remember when. There was a medical reason for it, related to maybe the initial damage or the subsequent damage from Caleb throwing him down the stairs or him burning himself severely on his leg, it didn’t just fall off like the legs of the cows in Cold Comfort Farm, but really, in the wash of all this trauma, who can keep track of the odd leg or two?
* Well, Jude practically starves himself to death, gets help temporarily, and then finally succeeds in killing himself and leaving his devastated adoptive father behind to close out the novel.
It’s actually a good novel if you like this sort of thing. There’s no real character depth to anyone, because all you need to know about Jude is that he suffers beautifully and nobly and all you need to know about anyone else is that they either love and admire Jude or have raped/are currently raping him. (The one exception to this is JB, who seems to have escaped from a more complex novel, as he is allowed the occasional spot of selfishness and realistic misreadings of situations, and I seriously considered requesting post-Willem Jude/JB for Yuletide just to see this story travel towards a more nuanced, textured view of life going on and people reconciling themselves with imperfections.) But Yanagihara writes well and there is a melodramatic but genuine emotional intensity to it all. I was involved throughout. But just as Oscar Wilde said it would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell, I have to admit that my reaction to Willem’s death was a combination of raw sobbing and horrified laughter. But again, if you like over-the-top hurt/comfort, this is your kind of thing. It’s my kind of thing. I mean, I did finish. I do actually own this book. It’s sloppy and hyperbolic, but I like crying and can cry around my criticisms of the text.
I laid all that out, though, not to defend or condemn A Little Life but to contextualize why I think it has an odd power as a fantasy of suffering by the sufferers themselves... in the time that they're actually suffering. That it’s a voyeuristic fantasy of suffering is pretty obvious. But it works inwardly, too, or at least it works inwardly for me.
No one in A Little Life ever loses patience with Jude. His pain never exhausts them; his refusal to explain the cause of his pain never genuinely frustrates them. They wish he would tell them, but his not telling them doesn’t get on their nerves, doesn’t strike them as unfair emotional withholding. In fact, everyone loves Jude. His professor adopts him. His friends stay loyal over decades. His doctor continues to treat him even after giving up the rest of his practice. His straight best friend considers him the exception to the romantic rule and has no problem at all at adjusting to a romance without sex. Anyone who is cruel to him is judged harshly by the other characters, even if it’s the cruelty of a moment. No one ever tells him to get over it.
It’s not that none of these things never happen, or could never happen, but the unalloyed kindness with which Jude’s suffering is largely received is the melodramatic counterpoint to unalloyed evil and pain that slowly destroy him.
And I’ll go on: there are proximate and instantly comprehensible causes for Jude’s pain. There are even physical and undeniable signs of his pain. His trauma is so profound as to justify, for any listener, a lifetime of suffering expressed however he likes. His depression and self-loathing does not descend randomly, leaving him poleaxed by feeling awful and feeling worse because he has seemingly no reason to feel awful. He doesn’t talk to people about it, generally--he has nearly perfect self-control around his friends, his pain makes him ungenerous and unfair and snappish on really only one occasion--but if he did, they would concede, automatically, the righteousness of his pain. They would be amazed at how well he’s doing.
A Little Life provides, for its readers who are hurting, a story where suffering doesn’t come from nowhere, where their emotions are an understandable response to a history of terrible trauma, where loved ones are never tired of dealing with them, where debilitating emotional and physical pain is never enough of an inconvenience to interfere in providing the markers of success and even glamour, where you don’t have to cry your eyes out in a shitty apartment, where you will never lose your job because you don’t show up for three days, where everyone would understand how you feel if only they knew, and where they really do want to know.
And, for that matter, where you don’t have to strain yourself into saying that yes, all of this has helped, yes, you feel better now. Jude never separates himself from this hypothetical reader by recovering, which would seem, in this light, not like a victory but a hateful cheat. That bastard--what does it say that he can get better and you can’t seem to? How, after this steamy bath of melodrama, are you supposed to wrap your brain around normalcy? His interlude with Willem is an interlude, its happiness so complete as to signal its coming downfall, its happiness so complete as to signal that we have not left this fervently emotional Expressionism. The car crash is devastating, but it’s also, come on, total confirmation. Yeah. That’s how it goes. It’s okay not to recover--you don’t have to worry that there’s something wrong with you, or weak in you, for not recovering--if you’re Jude, whose every escape is another fall off the cliff. It lets you indulge in the fantasy of not having to do the exhausting and difficult work of trying, because each effort, on its failure or collapse, only further justifies the preexisting pain. It’s okay to stay down if every time you stand up, someone punches you in the face. Just lie there a while. Just breathe. People will admire you for it. People will love you. No one will say that this has gone on long enough and they just don’t know if they can do it anymore. They know what’s happened to you. If they don’t, man, won’t they have egg on their face when you tell them.
If my snippets of self-indulgent fic are about the fantasy of suffering that says that the suffering is somehow profound, that there is concrete proof that the person suffering is good and kind and undeserving of this, that everyone will worry and love you, and that the love will fix things because magic, A Little Life is the fantasy of complete and utter validation of seemingly endless agony. What I’m writing right now is what I can write because, though I’m not doing great, I’m on medication and I’m doing okay. The book, on the other hand, is a fantasy for the times when it does not seem like there is any possibility of okayness anywhere on the horizon, when you could not believe in recovery or even treatment and all that will comfort you is a story where it is 100% fine to feel like that because it’s true.
It’s not hard to see ways in which that fantasy could potentially hurt someone--that there could be someone who sees, in that story, not comfort but an awesome rationale for making the same eventual decision as Jude himself does--but life and literature are complicated. Umberto Eco said that “a novel is a machine for generating interpretations,” and that’s something I find true as well as heartening. No story runs only in one direction. People interact with narratives in messy, challenging, lopsided ways; we respect stories, we fall in love with stories, we curl up with them, and we also hit them over the head and leave them to wake up in a bathtub of ice with their kidneys missing because we’re just going to take what we need from them and go, thanks. I say this because this has been, for me, an oddly utilitarian look at literature--it’s not my normal approach to textual analysis--and I want to pull back from that at least a little. To draw attention to the complexity and weirdness of people’s relationships to art: that things can work on us in unpredictable and uncanny ways. And that also, for that matter, you can probably read A Little Life purely for the bits about cooking.
Utility is all you can see, and all you can properly care about, when you need the fantasy.
And then you get better. And your relationship to those stories changes. Maybe you come back and say, “Okay, in the clear light of day, I cannot stand this, glad it was there for me earlier, but yikes.” But maybe, and beautifully, you get Erich Fromm’s mature love, in a literary sense: not “I love you because I need you” but “I need you because I love you.”
So this was, in any case, the view in the tunnel between those two places, looking back and looking forward.