Baldwin, Sexual Assault and Sonny's Blues
"...I use Grammarly's plagiarism checker because I am entirely original."
Last year I was sexually assaulted. It isn't an easy thing to say, or to write, but the more I say it or write about it the easier it gets. When it happened I was in the middle of writing a story, and whenever I write a story it's always a different story, but it's always me writing it. Whenever I write I always talk to the same person, the difference is that I'm using the keys on my laptop instead of my breath vibrating against my vocal chords to talk. Everyone writes to someone. Some people write to everyone. Me, I write to the one person I know will understand what I'm trying to say. See, when you're writing about something as hard to talk about as violence-not general violence, but violence that you, personally, were the victim of-you can't start out by standing in the middle of an auditorium and telling it to a thousand people in your formal speaking voice. You have to start small, one breath, and then another one. One word, and then another one. And one person. After one person understands, you have a hope that the next person will understand, and then the next person after that.
Writing-good writing-is telling a story. Sometimes the story is told in a fictional format, sometimes it's nonfiction. All good stories tell personal truth, and personal truth is something that has to be experienced. It cannot come from the crowd; the vast numbers of potential readers out there can't take their own personal experiences and dictate them to you in the hope that a good, amalgamated story will emerge. Such a process may reveal truth, but it is not personal truth. The biggest problem with crowd-sourcing a truth is that it generalizes it, turning it into an impersonal thing that needs to be reshaped and reintroduced as real events experienced by real individuals. Politicians accomplish this reshaping by drawing from the personal experiences of real people in policy speeches. Nonfiction writers take aggregate statistics and highlight them with a series of anecdotes about Bob and Sally as a way of letting you see the importance of the charts and tables they're citing. Fiction writers write stories. It's an indirect proof because you start with character. You begin with motivations, and consistent motivations lead to understandable actions, and those understandable actions shape the narrative you eventually create.
Love is as vital as good food and air, whereas violence is inherently illogical. Violence is also explainable. For instance, you can use direct proof, i.e., poverty leads to lack of education and opportunity, which can lead to violent acts-and you will present a general truth. You will not, however, be able to explain why one specific human being chooses to inflict violence upon himself or upon others. The most you can do is present general trends, explain general conditions. General explanations are unimportant to me. I don't care about the underlying conditions and trend lines that led to the abuse I suffered. A part of me doesn't even care about why the man who assaulted me did what he did. I want to tell one person what happened to me because it's better if one person knows. It's also easier to explain all of it in a story.
Something else needs to be said about the personal experience of trauma when you're writing. Writing through trauma is writing through overwhelming fear. Every day after I was assaulted I would write, desperately, for hours on end. When I looked back at it later I saw the signs of trauma transcribed over what I was writing: long, run on sentences; punctuation out of place, mis-capitalized letters. You can still see some of the examples of the effect trauma had my writing in some my older blog posts. Some of this I've corrected. Some of it I've left there as a sign of what trauma did to me as a writer. Being a writer, I've heard all of the fanciful tales of writers "bleeding on the page," all of the take-a-stiff-drink-and-buck-up-this-is-what-Fitzgerald-would-have-done bravado in all of the genteel, storied literary magazines that specialize in distinguishing good writers from better ones. Speaking from experience, this is not needed to write. "Let it bleed" is not required. Glorious isolation is not necessary. In fact, quite the opposite. In order to heal as a writer recovering from trauma you need to do more than write through it. You need to be able to share what you've written with the one person you trust. You need to be able to talk-beyond the written text-directly to the one person you trust about what happened. And you need to know that you can do that more than once. Lack of personal security is almost indescribable if you haven't experienced it. In my case, it is fear. It is looking at every man over a certain age as a potential threat, simply because of his gender. It is looking at every offer to talk about what happened from anyone other than the one person you trust as something to be lived through as quickly as possible. It is rolling your eyes at every suggestion to go to therapy after the therapist herself tells you that therapy is something that you determine whether or not you need, and how often you need it (Kafka's never ending halls of bureaucracy leap into my mind every time I try to see a therapist). It is wincing at any touch except from the one person you trust enough to allow it. When you're recovering from sexual assault the amount of people you trust approaches the number three, if you're lucky.
Part of recovery is moving your mind. After I finished writing my story (and I was well enough to be able to correct the idiosyncrasies that trauma had inscribed upon it so it was good and readable), I eased up and rested. My entire existence-mental and physical-was on overdrive. My senses were vigilant and aware of everything and everyone: what the nature of their conversations were, the color of their clothes, the way they were sitting, their expressions when they glanced at me. You do this as a natural defense mechanism. Your body and your senses are naturally hard-wired to perceive threats, and when you're the victim of violence that natural response escalates. Very few things can slow it down. Meditation helps, as do memory and logic puzzles. Physical exercise is necessary. Reading, especially if you're a writer recovering from trauma, helps restore some of what was damaged. I found myself gravitating toward books that made me feel safe. Rainbow Six by Tom Clancy was really a godsend. Ernest Hemingway's large voice addressed the level of violence I had experienced in a way that wasn't threatening, simply because of its volume. Edith Wharton's strong, logical, feminine style and her stories that focused on male-female relationships helped me feel hope (even when I wanted to re-write her endings).
Out of all of the writers I read after I was assaulted, the one who really seemed to be able to speak as a writer about trauma itself was James Baldwin. Baldwin writes about trauma after experiencing jim-crow in Notes of a Native Son. He compares trauma to contracting "some dread, chronic disease, the unfailing symptom of which is a kind of blind fever, a pounding in the skull and a fire in the bowels." Baldwin states, "Once this disease is contracted, one can never really be carefree again, for the fever, without an instant's warning, can recur at any moment." This disease, the blind fever, the hopeless feeling that you can never really be carefree again, this was the trauma I experienced (and am still recovering from).
Notes of a Native Son was helpful to me as a diagnosis of my condition, but what really spoke to me as an artist were some of Baldwin's other short stories, specifically Sonny's Blues. Reading Sonny's Blues took me out of my own head and put me into someone else's. I was still feeling all of the trauma I was feeling. But I was feeling that personal trauma while hearing Baldwin's character describe what he saw in his brother, Sonny. In the story, Sonny is a jazz musician, an ex-convict and a recovering drug addict. Sonny's brother, the narrator, watches his own daughter succumb to polio. He writes to Sonny the next day, explaining, "My trouble made his real." Sonny's trouble is his addiction to drugs, and this starts when he says he wants to become a serious pianist. Sexual assault and a serious addiction to drugs are not the same thing, however, Baldwin's description of the effect Sonny's self-inflicted trauma had on his music, how he would isolate himself in his room and "play one record over and over again, all day long sometimes, and he'd improvise along" was something I had experienced writing after I was assaulted. Sonny's feeling that music was "life or death to him" was something I felt. Baldwin describes living with Sonny, saying that it "wasn't like living with a person at all, it was like living with sound." I believe it.
I slow myself down when I write. Purposefully. It's hard to explain to anyone who isn't an artist and who hasn't experienced this level of personal violence why that is. It was likely this difficulty that prompted Baldwin to write Sonny's Blues in the style he did, in a fictional format observing Sonny from a distance, containing the overwhelming presence of this character by writing in the voice of a man observing him. Baldwin's writing here is sparse; he uses little in terms of action or plot. It is a deep, long breath of character exhaled in a sustained note. Sometimes it wails. Sometimes it raises itself up to a question before quieting down again. As the story progresses it builds in volume, culminating at the moment when Sonny's brother watches him perform at a nightclub. It is there that he is able to see Sonny as a fully developed artist for the first time. "All I know about music," Baldwin's narrator tells us before Sonny starts to play, "is that not many people ever really hear it." He then focuses all of his attention on Sonny, watching his face, seeing him struggle with the rhythm and the cues and his band mates until, finally, the rest of the musicians step back and let Sonny make these blues his own. "It was very beautiful because it wasn't hurried and it was no longer a lament," Sonny's brother explains. "Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did." He watches Sonny take a sip of his drink before placing it back on the piano, the liquid glowing and shaking "above my brother's head like the very cup of trembling" as Sonny begins the next song. It is an ending that doesn't end, because songs like this don't. Memory is always there, it always builds upon itself with each encounter, violent, loving or compassionate. In that there is hope, and it is the one hope that a victim of trauma can hold onto: that any song, no matter how it starts, creates its own arc to happiness.
Recovery starts with personal trust. I am still recovering. I don't know that I have an arc of happiness, yet. Sometimes I feel the panic stalk me again and I try to conceal it. Sometimes I can't. Sometimes I scream. Most of my Sunday afternoons are spent with my daughter. We go to a cafe, we order dessert, and I tell her stories that last for hours. Seeing how excited she is to hear the next part of the story I'm telling her about April Christmases with fireworks and leaping cakes does make me happy. She loses herself in my stories, and I get to lose myself in her enthusiasm. It isn't a full health regime in-and-of itself, but it's happy. Right now, being happy is the best medicine.