Thoughts on Trauma in Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale

From the outset of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Art Spiegelman humanizes his father, Vladek Spiegelman by emphasizing the minutiae of their everyday interactions. These interactions between father and son help to demonstrate the extent of Vladek’s trauma and the strain it has caused him and his family. They also bring Vladek to life as a full human being – he emerges as equal parts frustrating, amusing, and sympathetic. For instance, Vladek’s compulsive need to save every dollar is clearly rooted in his experience of the Holocaust; while Vladek acknowledges the source of his tightfistedness, he stubbornly refuses to change even when it threatens the stability of his marriage to Mala and his improved relationship with his son. With the use of dialogue and the comics medium, Spiegelman shifts from his parents’ trials in the Holocaust to his present-day confrontations with his father’s idiosyncrasies. These temporal shifts, which also encompass sharp changes in tone and atmosphere, make Maus a transformative text. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Spiegelman’s graphic novel is able to help “demythologize” the Holocaust. In her chapter, “Reading the Literature of Trauma” in Worlds of Hurt, Kalí Tal describes mythologization as a cultural coping strategy for trauma. It works by “reducing a traumatic event to a set of standardized narratives (twice – and thrice – told tales that come to represent ‘the story’ of the trauma), turning it from frightening and uncontrollable event into a contained and predictable narrative” (Tal 6). Far from contained and predictable, the temporal shifts of Maus make the narrative both emotionally engaging and emotionally dislocating. In each return to the present, Spiegelman shows the reverberations of trauma in everyday life. This is an approach that is remarkably different from what Kal refers to as the “archetypal Holocaust novel” (6).

Near the end of Spiegelman’s Maus II: And Here my Troubles Began, there is an interesting exchange that especially piqued my interest. Art and Françoise are driving Vladek back to his bungalow in the Catskills after a hilarious and cringe-inducing (yet unexpectedly successful) attempt by Vladek to procure a refund for Mala’s half-eaten groceries. On the way, Françoise stops the car to pick up a black hitch-hiker, who is illustrated as a dog, in keeping with the representations of Americans throughout the comic. Vladek becomes uneasy and cries, “A hitch-hiker? And – Oy – It’s a coloured guy, a shvartser! Push quick on the gas!” (emphasis in original). Francoise does not oblige Vladek and instead drives the affable stranger to his cousin’s abode. All the while Vladek mutters under his breath in Polish, in complete disbelief that a “shvartser” (Yiddish for a black male) is sitting in his car. After the hitch-hiker disembarks, Vladek comments that he had been watching the man carefully, to ensure he stole no groceries. Françoise quickly admonishes her father-in-law: “‘That’s outrageous! How can you, of all people, be such a racist! You talk about blacks the way the Nazis talked about the Jews!’” (259). To this Vladek replies, “‘Ach!…I thought you are more smart than this, Françoise…It’s not even to compare the shvartsers and the Jews!’” (259, emphasis in original).

I am sure that I am not the only reader to find this exchange jarring. After developing a strong familiarity, even an identification, with Vladek through Spiegelman’s attentive and consistent representation of his personality, habits, and mannerisms, this identification was dealt a serious blow by the revelation of his bigotry. Nevertheless, it is a credit to Spiegelman that he remained faithful in his attempt at an honest rendering of his father, with all of his faults and foibles. Curiously enough, Vladek’s racism becomes yet another humanizing element for his character; he is a victim and a survivor, as well as a flawed man capable of committing his own racist transgressions.

On closer attention, the passage brought to mind again Kali Tal’s introductory chapter in Worlds of Hurt. I wondered what could be lying beneath the surface of this racist episode. Of course, the pervasive racism and antipathy in American society towards black people is the simplest explanation for Vladek’s bigoted views. However, there appears to be more at work in this lack of solidarity between victims of oppression, between members of traumatized groups. Because while the hitch-hiker is not necessarily a victim of trauma, and almost certainly not in a similar way to Vladek, there is no doubt that African Americans as a group have suffered immense trauma throughout their history. Tal writes that

If survivors retain control of their trauma, they can sometimes force a shift in the social and political structure. If the dominant culture manages to appropriate the trauma and can codify it in its own terms, the status quo will remain unchanged. On a social as well as an individual psychological level, the penalty for repression is repetition. (7)

Drawing on Tal, I argue that in the United States, Jewish survivors of the Holocaust have been able to retain control of their trauma, largely influencing its eventual codification by the general public so that the Holocaust has become a symbol of both human evil and human suffering at their zenith. Black Americans have not controlled the codification of the traumas stemming from the transatlantic slave trade and Jim Crow to the same extent. Because of the unceasing and systematic economic, social, and political oppression of black Americans throughout the history of the United States, their trauma has a different cultural stature than that of Jewish Holocaust survivors. Another reason for the privileging of Jewish trauma is that that the dominant culture in the United States takes substantial credit for defeating Nazi Germany and hence bringing the Holocaust to an end, but it has a much more complicated, far less admirable relationship to the suffering of black Americans. Therefore, there are complicated reasons for the lack of solidarity or identification between black Americans and Jews. When Vladek insists that there is no comparison between the two groups, he is also denying a comparable experience of trauma, a denial that is rooted in the wider American culture.

Sources

Tal, Kalí. “Reading the Literature of Trauma.” Worlds Of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,   1996. 1-22. Print.

Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. New York: Pantheon, 1996. Print.

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Trauma, Race, and Gender in Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs tells the story of her life as a slave and her struggle to gain freedom for herself and for her children. Jacobs is the only black woman author to publish an autobiographical book-length fugitive slave narrative (Mullen 254). Her story is a significant departure from the conventional masculine slave narrative because she focuses on the experiences of the black female slave. Bringing the enslaved black woman to the centre enables Jacobs to explore the meanings and nuances of psychic trauma, one of the most devastating effects of rape and sexual abuse. The central aim of her narrative is to bolster the abolitionist movement and encourage antislavery sentiment. One of the main strategies she uses in her autobiography to engender sympathetic identification from her audience is to deconstruct the most pernicious myths about the institution of slavery, particularly as they relate to black female slaves. By deconstructing the damaging myth of the Jezebel, Jacobs reduces the social, moral, and emotional space between herself and her primarily northern female audience. As a result, she awakens their sympathies towards all slaves, especially enslaved black women.

Myth of the Jezebel

Much of the first half of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is dedicated to deconstructing the Jezebel myth. The Jezebel myth holds that enslaved black women are wanton and lascivious creatures with insatiable sexual appetites (Hopkins 6). Accordingly, black female slaves use sexual temptation to ensnare white men and precipitate their moral degradation. In Ain’t I a Woman, bell hooks writes that during slavery, the myth of black female promiscuity justified their rape by white men. So long as the white slave-owner could label enslaved black women prostitutes and whores, he could absolve himself of all responsibility for his sexual violence (hooks 25), while increasing his property and terrorizing his black female slaves into “allegiance and obedience to the white imperialistic order” (hooks 27). Jacobs is well aware of the Jezebel myth and the antipathy it creates in white men and women. With white Northern women being her primary audience, she works from many angles to deconstruct the myth. I am interested in the way Jacobs centers on trauma in order to humanize the black female slave and redeem her as a victim of sexual violence and persecution.

Trauma and Silence

The suffering Jacobs endures as a result of Dr. Flint’s overpowering sexual threats amounts to a repetitive and continuous trauma. She writes, “My master met me at every turn, reminding me that I belonged to him, and swearing by heaven and earth that he would compel me to submit to him. If I went out for a breath of fresh air after a day of unwearied toil, his footsteps dogged me. If I knelt by my mother’s grave, his dark shadow fell on me even there.” This passage indicates the manifestation of psychic trauma. Jacobs appears to experience “heightened physiological arousal” (Brown 100): she is hyper-vigilant and has a distracted mind, envisioning her sadistic master everywhere she goes. In other passages she refers to disturbed sleep and involuntary physical responses at the sound of his voice or his footsteps (Jacobs 48). The reader cannot help but sympathize with Jacobs, as she shows that both her body and mind are thoroughly vulnerable to Dr. Flint’s brutal impulses.

Trauma and silence have an important connection in the text. Patricia Hopkins ponders the role that silence and bearing witness play in Jacobs’ narrative. She writes that silence pervades Jacobs’ narrative and makes reference to three significant silences in the text: First, Jacobs waits until her daughter, Ellen’s adolescence to tell her about her sexual persecution by Dr. Flint. Second, Jacobs is evasive about the details of her relationship with Mr. Sands (a white Northern businessman and the father of her children), especially during the period between Benny’s and Ellen’s births. And third, the extent of Ellen’s sexual victimization is somewhat ambiguous, insofar as the reader is left unsure whether Mr. Thorne’s sexual depravity went even further than the “vile language” he poured in her ears (Hopkins 18).

After referring to these silences, Hopkins asks the following rhetorical questions: “‘What is Brent not saying? What does she not say about both Flint and Sands? Is it this silence which allows the cycle of generational sexual abuse to continue unchecked?’” (18). Similarly, in remarking on black female slave narratives, hooks writes that “Few slave parents warned their daughters about the possibility of rape or helped them to prepare for such situations. The slave parents’ unwillingness to openly concern themselves with the reality of sexual exploitation reflects the general colonial American attitude regarding sexuality” (25). Like, Hopkins, hooks shifts the responsibility for silence onto the victim without taking into account the peculiarities of trauma. To add to these analyses of silence, I argue that the silence pervading the topic of sexual violence and exploitation in the text reflects more than deep-rooted shame and nineteenth century American conventions of modesty. Drawing on articles by Cathy Caruth and Geoffrey H. Hartman, I assert that the silences in Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl are the most significant reflections of the complex inner workings of trauma within the entire text.

Because Jacobs has demonstrated great empowerment in her ability to take control of her trauma and integrate it into knowledge for the sake of testimony, it is easy for the reader to assume she has somehow transcended the unspeakability of trauma. Nonetheless, the reader should remember that Jacobs was completely powerless when Dr. Flint and Mr. Sands sexually exploited her. The immediacy of those traumatic events meant she did not experience them as they occurred; instead they “bypassed perception and consciousness and fell directly into her psyche” (Hartman 537). As Caruth writes, “Central to the very immediacy of [the traumatic] experience…is a gap that carries the force of the event and does so precisely at the expense of simple knowledge and memory” (7). As Jacobs transforms the trauma into a narrative that an audience can read and understand, there will inevitably be fractures, gaps, breaks, and silences because traumatic knowledge, by its very nature, cannot be made entirely conscious (Caruth 10). It follows, then, that Jacobs would have considerable difficulty in relaying both her abuse by Mr. Flint to her daughter, as well as her sexual manipulation by Mr. Sands to the readers. These are traumas she herself continues to work through, and they will likely always remain partly inaccessible. And so, Jacobs’ silence in the face of sexual persecution does not make her complicit in the cycle of generational sexual abuse. Quite the opposite, her verbal and textual silences only reinforce her position as a victim and deserving recipient of her readers’ compassion.

Sources

Brown, Laura S. “Not Outside the Range: One Feminist Perspective on Psychic Trauma.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. 100-112. Print.

Caruth, Cathy. “Trauma and Experience: Introduction.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.    3-12. Print.

Hartman, Geoffrey, H. “On Traumatic Knowledge and Literary Studies.” New Literary History 26.3 (1995): 537-563. JSTOR. Web. 6 Oct. 2016.

hooks, bell. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.

Hopkins, Patricia D. “Seduction or Rape: Deconstructing the Black Female body in Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” Making Connections 13.1 (2011): 4-20. ProQuest. Web. 22 Oct. 2016.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Eds. Nellie Y. McKay and Frances Smith Foster. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. 9-156. Print.

Mullen, Harryette. “Runaway Tongue: Resistant Orality in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Our Nig, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Beloved. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Eds. Nellie Y. McKay and Frances Smith Foster. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. 253-278. Print.

Trauma and Empowerment in Tina McElroy Ansa’s Ugly Ways

Ugly Ways by Tina McElroy Ansa is a 1993 novel that follows the three Lovejoy sisters, Betty, Emily, and Annie Ruth, as they reunite in their hometown of Mulberry, Georgia for their mother’s funeral. Set contemporaneously, most of the novel is narrated in third person omniscient, which allows us readers insight into the daughters’ complicated relationships with their late mother, Esther “Mudear” Lovejoy. Ansa also uses a rare and effective narrative technique in writing occasional chapters from the first-person perspective of Esther, who observes her family from her coffin and refuses to let them have the final word about her.

The witty, self-centred, and vulnerable spirit of Esther Lovejoy grounds the entire novel. Much of the narrative centres on her journey towards freedom and self-definition, or “the change,” as her family refers to it. Esther’s change occurred early in her daughters’ childhoods; she withdrew from family life and the Mulberry community and committed her life to fulfilling her desires and enjoying her leisure. Betty aptly summarizes Esther’s “trifling” behaviour when she reflects that her late mother was a woman

who spent most of her days lying in her throne of a bed or in a reclining chair or lounging on a chaise longue dressed in pretty nightclothes or a pastel housecoat. Doing nothing with her time but looking at television, directing the running of her household, making sure her girls did all the work to her specifications. Then, if she felt like it, some gardening at night. (Ansa 13)

Conversely, Esther views herself as “a woman in [her] own shoes” (Ansa 39). She has no regrets about the way she chose to live her life and firmly believes that her lack of nurturing and “cuddling,” along with her critical eye and exacting personality, are what made her daughters the accomplished, resilient, and independent women they turned out to be.

From Betty, Esther, and Esther’s husband Ernest we learn about the state of the Lovejoys’ marriage before the change. Ernest abused Esther physically, verbally, and emotionally throughout the first twelve years of their marriage, while Esther remained timid and subservient and acquiesced to his every demand. Esther hints at the particular event that precipitated her self-imposed physical and emotional isolation, referring at times to “that cold, no-heat-and-no-lights-in-that-freezing-assed-house day” (Ansa 39), but it is Ernest’s painful admission to Annie Ruth that reveals the details of the event. In the Lovejoys’ twelfth year of marriage, Ernest received his first promotion, which came with a bonus of $250. In a moment of pride and boastfulness, he agreed to lend the money to a member of Esther’s family, against her advice. When the winter came and Ernest still hadn’t been repaid, he realized his mistake. The family’s gas and electricity were cut off and Emily and Annie Ruth almost died from whooping cough and meningitis. Esther saved her family when she managed to pay the bill with the spare change she had been collecting over several years (Ansa 171-73).

I interpret Esther’s change as an act of empowerment. Paying the gas bill during the cold winter was an emancipatory move; in that moment Esther realized she had agency and needed no longer tolerate her husband’s abuse and disregard. When Ernest returns home drunk and belligerent one night after the incident, she tells him that “I didn’t give a damn what he did as long as I could live my life the way I wanted to and not have to clean up that house or cook dinner myself or stop taking care of my flowers” (Ansa 106). With these words, Esther frees herself from the roles of dutiful wife and nurturing mother, which she had never found rewarding. She ceases to leave her house, finally enjoying her space fully rather than waiting in trepidation for Ernest’s next outburst. She finds her passion and joy in gardening, where her efforts are always rewarded. For his part, Ernest shrinks at the sight of her empowerment and becomes a meek, silent shell of himself.

Psychic trauma is another explanation for Esther’s change. The cold winter is a traumatic event for her: her marriage breaks down, she is plunged into financial insecurity, and two of her children nearly die. She never fully recovers from these experiences. Her insistence on leisure and material comforts are a form of emotional avoidance, a symptom of trauma where a person acts to prevent an uncomfortable emotion from reoccurring (Brown 100). Esther does everything she can to avoid feeling the fear she associates with poverty and scarcity. Furthermore, Esther carries obvious marks of emotional numbing. Her perspective reveals that she is proud of her daughters and is concerned for their welfare, yet she remains emotionally detached from them and finds it almost impossible to express any emotion towards them, positive or negative.

There is a preponderance of evidence that Esther suffers from trauma due to the events in her marriage leading up to that cold day. And yet, it is this trauma that sets her free to live life exactly as she wishes. There appears, then, to be a compelling connection between the empowerment and trauma interpretations; far from being competing, they are actually complementary. It is trauma that enables Esther to live the life of her choosing, a life of ease, agency, and spiritual freedom. This freedom is typically denied African American female characters and African American women, who are conventionally depicted as strong in all circumstances.

Melissa Harris-Perry writes that black women created the image of the strong black woman to counter negative stereotypes of the Jezebel, Sapphire, and Mammy, and celebrate black women as “motivated, hardworking breadwinners who suppress their emotional needs while anticipating those of others” (184). Black women drew encouragement from an icon who persevered over the great obstacles of “oppression, poverty, and rejection” (184). The suprahuman (or superwoman) archetype in African American literature is based on this idealized strong black woman construction (Harris; Harris-Perry 184). In her book, Saints, Sinners, Saviors: Black Women in African American Literature, Trudier Harris writes,

These suprahuman women have been denied the ‘luxuries’ of failure, nervous breakdowns, leisured existences, or anything that would suggest that they are complex, multidimensional characters. They must swallow their pain, gird their loins against trouble (the masculine image coincides with the denial of traditional femininity to them), and persist in spite of adversity. (12)

In Esther Lovejoy, Ansa creates a character that contravenes almost every convention of the black superwoman: Esther basks unabashedly in her middle-class leisure. While at times she acknowledges her shortcomings as a mother, she takes them in stride, never haranguing herself over her failures. She experiences deep emotional pain and far from swallowing it, changes her entire life to relieve it. And a close look at her past and inner-life reveals a deeply complex character whose motivations are varied and sometimes even contradictory.

It is very important that Ansa acknowledges the the full humanity of her African American female characters, and that she explores how quotidian events can indeed be traumatizing in the lives of African American women. Demonstrating that black American women, too, have emotional and mental limits, challenges a society that burdens black women with unrealistic expectations of invulnerability (Harris-Perry 185). While Esther is an extreme example, her character is right to insist that black women have the right to practice self-care. And the practice of self-care on a population level requires economic and political resources to which black American women as a group do not have access (Harris-Perry 189). Inequality in both in the private and public spheres—and the immense suffering it causes—should not be accepted as a fact of life for African American women, but challenged at every turn.

Sources

Ansa, Tina McElroy. Ugly Ways. San Diego: Harcourt, 1993. Print.

Brown, Laura S. “Not Outside the Range: One Feminist Perspective on Psychic Trauma.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. 100-112. Print.

Harris, Trudier. Saints, Sinners, Saviors: Strong Black Women in African American Literature. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Print.

Harris-Perry, Melissa. Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. Print.

A New Chapter: Race, Gender, and Trauma

Recently, I decided to enter into a new phase of this blog. It was a decision that came partly out of necessity. I began a new graduate course and with it came a new blog assignment. This assignment presented me the opportunity to explore some of my primary intellectual interests with a more focused approach than in the past. I boiled these interests down to the broad topics of race, gender, politics, and literature. Looking at my past blog entries, these topics were most prominent. I also wanted to explore my interests in the context of contemporary theory, which is the subject of my course. Trauma theory stood out to me as having the most thought-provoking intersections with race and gender, so that is where I decided to start.

But I couldn’t start. Once I decided on the themes of my next blog posts, I began to experience some powerful writer’s block. How could I do these topics justice? What important contribution could I really make? On reading an essay by Toril Moi entitled “Meaning What We Say: The ‘Politics of Theory’ and the Responsibility of Intellectuals,” I decided to look more closely at my writing and the motivations behind it. Throughout her essay, Moi considers the relationship between politics and intellectual work. First, she writes about how leftist intellectuals justify their writing politically in order to defend the intrinsic value of intellectual work and assuage the guilt that derives from their privileged place in society (140). The danger in this tendency, according to Moi, is that it lends itself to absolutism—the fantasy that one particular theory or work can and must be omnipotent in its ethical and political import. The reality is that intellectual work never has absolute value and “we cannot predict the political effects of our writing” (Moi 159).

Like many writers, I strive to create politically effective work. I seek to bring about change with my writing, and more specifically cultural and socio-political change for the empowerment of disenfranchised people. Reading Moi made me realize that these goals, while respectable, are also paralyzing. If I were to wait to write something guaranteed to be politically significant, I would be waiting to write forever. While my work may never be politically effective, I will continue to be politically committed. My interests in politics and social change are rooted in my identity and history as a black Canadian woman of African descent.

According to Moi, the politically committed intellectual is ultimately appealing to the freedom of her audience; all she can do is mean what she says and take responsibility for her words (146). In a memorable passage Moi writes, “What matters is whether the text shows the reader some aspect of the world that she or he can respond to. To respond to a text the reader does not have to identify with it or recognize herself in it, or feel represented by it; she needs to feel stirred, moved, challenged by its appeal” (158). In this series of blog posts I want to investigate the meaning of trauma in the lives of black people, and especially black women. I am writing for people who, like me, are interested in cultural criticism and the study of social inequality. And I hope to inspire empathy, as I am a firm believer that empathy is the root of all progressive social and political change.

My first blog post in this chapter will focus on Tina McElroy Ansa’s novel, Ugly Ways and the intersections between trauma theory and black feminist theory. Following that will be an analysis of psychic trauma in Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The third post introduces the graphic novel, Maus by Art Spiegelman to discuss the codification of trauma in American society and its effects on different subjugated groups. Next comes a post on Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined and the sympathetic identification that can bond black women around the globe. Following that is a critique of Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother and a discussion of the power of nostalgia. Finally, I have a two-part post on trauma and anti-black police violence in the United States, with a piece on the potential for a hypertext Truth and Reconciliation document.

I rely on literature and theory to move from a micro-level investigation of race, gender, and trauma to a macro-level analysis, emphasizing the effects of psychic trauma on both individuals and communities. The literary works I engage with throughout this blog series have been fundamental to my learning process and I hope they provide an interesting way into some of my ideas.

Source

Moi, Toril. “Meaning What We Say: The ‘Politics of Theory’ and the Responsibility of Intellectuals.” The Legacy of Simone Beauvoir. Ed. Emily R. Grosholz. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004. Print.