FOR MOST OF her life, Virginia Woolf suffered from what she called “looking-glass shame,” an aversion to seeing herself in mirrors. She wrote about it late in her career, not long before her suicide, recalling that the trouble began with one particular mirror. It hung in the hall of her family home, and when she was about 6, her half brother Gerald Duckworth lifted her onto a nearby table and put his hands under her clothes.
Woolf’s other half brother, George Duckworth, also began molesting her a few years later, paying her almost nightly visits for a time. She would go on to speak and write publicly about the abuse, which continued into her 20s — even confronting George — but mirrors continued to distress her. “It is so difficult,” she wrote, with uncharacteristic and moving awkwardness, “to give any account of the person to whom things happen.”
The question of what posture to take toward our own pain is unexpectedly complicated. How do we understand our own suffering — with what words and to what ends? Does great suffering always diminish us? These are the kinds of currents swirling around the word “survivor,” the increasingly popular term for people who have experienced sexual violence. Commonly used to describe those who had endured the Holocaust, the word was picked up by feminist groups organizing against the sexual abuse of children in the 1980s and has since broadened in scope and gone mainstream.
The figure of the terrorist has long been irresistible to novelists — and dangerously so. Some of the attention is rivalrous; as Don DeLillo argued, the terrorist has in some ways supplanted the writer. “Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture,” the writer in “Mao II” says. “Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness.” After Sept. 11, Western writers flocked to the topic with touching and clumsy avidity in a bid, it seemed, for relevance. In the effort to understand just what creates a terrorist (then as now the dominant question when it comes to terrorism), couldn’t the novelist — that specialist in the dark, cobwebby corners of the soul, that diagnostician of how the private life intertwines with the public — prove himself useful?
Rushdie wrote that the migrant had to discover new ways to be human. These books recognize what a task that is; they recognize that migration can be, for some, an almost posthumous existence, that it awakens not only the desire to succeed but also, sometimes, the drive to extinguish what little remains of the self. One wants to praise these novels as immigrant fiction not in order to marginalize them but to pinpoint how deeply and clearly they see across borders and into character and history (“vision” and “visitor” share a Latin root; the visitor is she who has come to see, she who notices). This is the bitter paradox regarding the grousing about immigrant fiction: that a genre with such a wide sweep, with such a vantage point on the contingencies of human and cultural behavior, can be derided for, of all things, narrowness.
EFFORTS TO FORCE collective amnesia are as old as conquest. The Roman decree damnatio memoriae — ‘‘condemnation of memory’’ — punished individuals by destroying every trace of them from the city, down to chiseling faces off statues. It was considered a fate worse than execution. But there are subtler, everyday forms of banishing people from public life.
In December, Daniel Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma City police officer,stood trial for sexually assaulting 12 black women and one teenager. He preyed on the vulnerable — the poor or drug-addicted or those with outstanding warrants — threatening them with arrest if they wouldn’t comply. Few people were following the case, however, until black women on social media began calling out the press for ignoring the story. Many reached for one word — ‘‘erasure’’ — for what they felt was happening. ‘‘Not covering the #Holtzclaw verdict is erasing black women’s lives from notice,’’ one woman tweeted. ‘‘ERASURE IS VIOLENCE.’’ Deborah Douglas, writing for Ebony magazine, argued that not reporting on the case ‘‘continues the erasure of black women from the national conversation on race, police brutality and the right to safety.’’
BOHUMIL HRABAL DIED only once — in Prague, on Feb. 3, 1997 — but there are at least two versions of the story.
In the first, Hrabal — one of the great prose stylists of the 20th century; the scourge of state censors; the gregarious bar hound and lover of gossip, beer, cats and women (in roughly that order) — slipped from a window while feeding birds at the hospital where he was being treated for arthritis.
In the second, Hrabal, whose books had been periodically banned by the government and burned by dissidents, now tormented by loneliness, became consumed with jumping from the fifth floor of his apartment, “where every room hurts.” He wrote about others who had fantasized about jumping from the same floor: Kafka, Rilke’s character Malte Brigge. And on a winter’s day, a couple of months shy of his 83rd birthday, he threw himself from a fifth-floor hospital window.
Because this is Hrabal, in whose work beauty, pity, sorrow and high silliness come tightly braided, both versions have prevailed; there is no official narrative. He leapt and fell to his death. He died of an excess of despair and enthusiasm, both retreating from life and nourishing it.
It’s a death out of his own fiction, with the grave absurdity of his greatest novels — “I Served the King of England” (1971); “Too Loud a Solitude” (1976); “Closely Watched Trains” (1964), made into an Oscar-winning film in 1966 — that mournful laughter in the dark. He once said his comic sensibility was shaped by a warning on a dry cleaner’s receipt: “Some stains can be removed only by the destruction of the material itself.”
In 2015, the Department of Education reported 146 cases of racial harassment on campuses, although studies suggest that only 13 percent of racial incidents are reported. By playing down the racism that the students have faced, it’s easier to frame the protests as tantrums, products of brittle spirits, on a continuum with grade grubbing. Somehow, demands for resilience have become a cleverly coded way to shame those speaking out against injustices.
By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine, Nov. 2, 2015
WHEN THE WRITER Mary Gaitskill was a child in the 1950s, she was once taken to a roller-skating rink. She looked around and burst into tears. She didn’t understand why everybody was wearing the same thing, those poodle skirts and poodle hairdos.
‘‘It meant something, and I didn’t know what it was — it felt frightening to me,’’ she told me recently. ‘‘I thought, My God, this is too complicated.’’ It was a feeling that lasted until adulthood — a sense that people were speaking to one another in a code she couldn’t decipher. Out of this elemental confusion, Gaitskill has produced a body of work so acutely observant of human behavior that it’s frequently described in the language of violation: a vivisection, a dental drill, a flogging. There is very rough sex in her books, and characters who binge eat and rip out their hair. But the real danger is elsewhere: It’s in glances and gestures and sudden silences, in craving contact and being rebuffed. ‘‘I wanted to communicate and connect,’’ Gaitskill said when I asked why she became a writer. ‘‘I simply didn’t seem able to do it.’’