Fictional Characters Go To Therapy: Everyone In Children’s Books Had Horrible Childhoods Edition

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Harry Potter: Now that the final battle is over, it’s not Voldemort he dreams about: it’s the cupboard under the stairs, his gangly seventeen-year-old limbs crammed into a space that wasn’t big enough even when he was eleven. It’s Hermione who notices that something’s wrong, after the tenth or eleventh time he shows up at breakfast looking like he hasn’t slept much. A lot of people look like that these days, but she can tell that this is something else. It takes a long campaign of pestering before he gives in and starts looking for a therapist. It takes even longer for him to find one who can see him, Harry and not The Boy Who Lived, and who actually listens when he talks rather than assuming that they already know what’s bothering him. He also has to get special permission to leave Hogwarts once a week to go to sessions, because he’s still in school and rules are rules, but according to Hermione he’s not the only one of the eighth years who does this. After she says that, he finds himself glancing at faces in the hallways, trying to decide who’s swallowing their nightmares alone and who isn’t. Hermione also tells him that there’s no shame in asking for help, but it still feels wrong, like admitting a weakness that he couldn’t afford before, when the fate of the wizarding world rested on his shoulders. He’s still not used to the dizzying absence of that weight. He spends his first few sessions talking about Voldemort, because it’s easier, because it makes more sense, because he’s still playing a part even though he knows that he doesn’t have to anymore. Finally, his therapist says that she wonders if there’s something else bothering him. Finally, he describes the nightmare that he’s been having more and more often, about the cupboard. He explains, haltingly, the part of the story that most people in the wizarding world don’t know, about how he grew up believing that he was worse than insignificant, that he didn’t deserve even the tiny space he occupied. When she asks him why he thinks he’s dreaming of the cupboard now, his answer surprises even him. “When Hagrid came to get me,” he says, “when I found out that I was a wizard and that I had somewhere else to go, it felt too good to be true. For months, I was terrified that I’d wake up and it would all be gone and I’d be back with the Dursleys. And then, when I found out that it was up to me to defeat Voldemort and that I might not make it, it seemed…right, somehow. Like it finally made sense why I got to have all of this, because the wizarding world needed me, because I had a job to do. And now that it’s all over, sometimes it feels like it was a dream. Like now that I’ve done what I was supposed to do, it’s only a matter of time before someone sends me back.”

 

Rapunzel, Rapunzel: Even before she’s old enough to ask, she knows that the woman who raised her isn’t her only mother: she knows that there’s another story outside the tower, in the world she’s allowed to see but not touch. When she finally does ask, the woman who raised her, the only mother she knows, hesitates for the fraction of a second before telling her: almost if she doesn’t want to hurt her, almost as if she loves her enough to spare her this knowledge. “The woman who gave birth to you didn’t deserve you,” she says. “She gave you up for some lettuce.” Rapunzel spends too many hours thinking about that story, puzzling over it, turning it over and over in her hands like an hourglass, as if by shaking the grains of sand into the correct pattern she might be able to understand. Sometimes, after that, she feels as though she isn’t real at all, as though she only exists in the space between those two women, the mother who raised her and the mother who gave her up. They are the hall of mirrors and she is the reflection. They don’t have therapists in her world, but when the prince climbs to her tower window, a blurred shape in the twilight, it’s the first time she’s spoken to anyone who only knows her as herself and not as a reflection of anything. She talks until she’s hoarse, and he listens, and she thinks that magic might be real after all.

 

Mary Lennox, The Secret Garden: Years later, when the story about the magic garden that brought them all back together has become an old story, its edges worn with use, she starts to think about all of the ways that it isn’t quite true. In one way, the garden saved them, but it also allowed them to keep hiding the reasons they needed to be saved in the first place. She sees it in Colin’s face when he doesn’t think anyone’s looking: he’s happy to have his father back, of course he is, but on the inside he’s still that sickly boy in a dark room, wondering why no one ever came for him. She sees it in her own face, when she looks in the mirror and notices the flush in her cheeks, how she smiles more easily now. Smiling feels good, sometimes, but at other times she misses the contrary little girl she was, that spark of anger that burned so bright inside her. Sometimes she thinks that that little girl never really went anywhere, she just learned to hide her away in the dark in the same way that his father used to hide Colin. There’s no one to say this to; even Dickon doesn’t understand. One winter day, though, she finds Colin on the other side of the garden wall, sitting on a bench and looking at the sleeping roses, his face tight in that way she remembers too well. Really, she thinks, the story they tell should be about how they found each other first, two abandoned children in house full of ghosts. She sits down next to her cousin, and for a long time she doesn’t say anything, and the silence feels like its own truth. “Do you ever think about the way it was, before?” She doesn’t know if he’ll answer or not, but asking the question is something.

 

Lucy Pevensie, The Chronicles of Narnia: After everything that’s happened, after she and her siblings have been through a war and the long, slow process of putting Narnia—and themselves—back together, she doesn’t feel like she has the right to still be upset about how they got there. Peter and Susan and Edmund have all apologized, after all. Sometimes, though, when she wakes up in her bed in Cair Paravel and can’t go back to sleep, while she’s staring at the molding on the ceiling and watching the shadows move, she still thinks about the moment when she told them about Narnia and they didn’t believe her. It’s a thing that lives in her gut and in her throat, the memory of telling them something so real and true that she couldn’t get through the story without her breath catching, her heart pounding in a new rhythm, and having them look at her like she was nothing, a delusional little girl. She doesn’t want to still care about this, but she can’t help it. It’s a wound that won’t seem to heal no matter what she does, no matter how much she loves them or wants to be better. When Edmund tells her about this strange idea he’s had, that maybe he could train some people to help Narnians who are struggling with their own thoughts or feelings, she’s the first to encourage him and to offer to help however she can. The history books will credit King Edmund with starting the mental health profession in Narnia, but Queen Lucy with encouraging Narnians to see therapists by going to see one herself. Facing one’s own demons is the better part of valor, after all.

 

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I didn’t mean to talk about this. I didn’t mean to be this kind of writer. Every time I start one of these essays I think, this will be the last one; I’ve said enough about this. Every time, I wait and I think that maybe the impulse will pass, maybe I don’t need to do it this time. It feels too soon; it feels crass, to open myself up like this again, again. But it isn’t enough; not yet, maybe not ever.

***

I have three “Breaking Up With Jesus” playlists; I made the first one over two years ago, the spring I was living in London, while I was writing my first and (only, I thought then) essay about my increasingly difficult relationship with Christianity. It was just a couple of tracks at first, and I would play them on a loop during the twenty-minute walk to the tube. I added songs as they occurred to me, and they’re still on the playlist in that order, a kind of map of my state of mind over the course of those months. My second one was much more deliberately constructed. I though a lot about the overall arc, the order of the songs, the note I wanted to end on. The final product begins with Adele’s “Hello” and ends with the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready To Make Nice.” The second song is Neko Case’s rendition of “Wayfaring Stranger,” a juxtaposition of which I’m particularly proud.

The third playlist is still new, still in flux. I thought I was more or less done when it occurred to me that I needed a Taylor Swift song in between the last two tracks, something with a little more of an edge to balance out the earnestness. I spent a couple of days trying to decide between “We Are Never Getting Back Together” and “Blank Space” (I already used “Bad Blood” on my second playlist). The former seemed like the obvious choice, but the latter felt more subtle and therefore more cutting, so it’s what I picked. It feels transgressive and yet deeply right and satisfying to express this particular type of pain and betrayal through the work of young female pop stars, who represent everything that is wrong with American culture according to the Christianity I grew up with. It’s yet another of many small rebellions, performed only for myself, a way of planting a flag in the soil of the culture I was supposed to reject. Maybe I have become everything my church warned me about, but there is life on the other side.

***

It started on Wednesday. I was taking a twitter break when I saw an interview with Eugene Peterson, the Presbyterian pastor best known (by me, at least) as author of the Bible paraphrase The Message, in which he expressed vaguely affirming views about same-sex relationships, and, most significantly, said that he would officiate a same-sex wedding if someone asked him to. I tweeted some thoughts about how I wanted to see this as a good thing, but have a hard time feeling hopeful about a permanent shift within conservative Christianity because the backlash to any positive movement on LGBTQ acceptance is always so severe. I talked about the emotional labor that queer people have to perform in order to stay in churches where debates about sexuality are still ongoing. And then I went back to work, surprised by how OK I was.

Later that afternoon, I was scrolling through twitter on a BART train when I saw some discussion about the Peterson news, and that’s when my tentative OK-ness broke down. There’s something that happens in my body when I see Christians debating sexuality: I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s familiar enough by now that I recognized it right away. I took some deep breaths, in through my nose, out through my mouth. I let myself think words like trigger and trauma. Some days I don’t say those words even to myself; I still feel, often, like I’m appropriating something that isn’t mine, like I don’t have the right to describe myself in those terms. But if one manifestation of trauma is that your body holds onto things that your mind might not consciously remember, then yes, I have that. On Wednesday, on that train, I asked myself, If someone who wasn’t you told you that they were feeling like this, that they’d been through what you’ve been through, and they used the word trauma, would you believe them? It’s still easier to exercise compassion towards myself by imagining that I’m someone else, just as it’s easier to write these words because someone else might need them.

***

The negative responses to Peterson’s interview were predictable. Whatever the incident which sparks the latest iteration of this particular debate, the players are usually the same: The Gospel Coalition, Denny Burke, First Things. Perhaps most significantly, LifeWay Christian Stores threatened to stop selling Peterson’s books, pending confirmation of his new position. My twitter feed was full of progressive Christians defending Peterson, but for me, at least, that rarely makes it better. I understand and appreciate what LGBTQ-affirming Christians are trying to do in these discussions, but it just reminds me that my humanity is still not a settled thing within many Christian institutions. By the end of the day, a few of the progressives on my feed were talking about how these debates dehumanize queer people, asking what they could do to make it better. Don’t have this discussion anywhere near me, I thought, aware that my anger was unreasonable, aware that even the most well meaning straight people can never, ever understand what this feels like. In my calmer moments, I know that these debates do change minds, over time. I know that a lot of people are doing a lot of work to make things better for the queer people who are still in the church. I know this. I know this. I sometimes wonder, though, what would happen if progressive Christians just refused to engage, refused to discuss, refused to acknowledge the validity of the debate at all. It probably wouldn’t work, as a strategy, but I wonder if it would hurt fewer people.

On Thursday afternoon, I had just finished tweeting some more thoughts about the cost of the debate, about how I worry that conservative Christian communities are becoming more isolated and thus limiting possible outlets for queer kids within them, when the news broke that Peterson had retracted his original statement and affirmed that he holds “a biblical view of marriage.” I couldn’t decide whether I felt more like laughing or crying. I had to take a walk, “Losing My Religion” blaring over my headphones, as if I could ever move far enough away from this feeling.

***

By Saturday, the discussion had come full circle: some of the people on my feed who’d been talking on Wednesday about the harm done to queer people were now saying that it was unfair to malign Peterson as a coward when we didn’t know what was in his heart or why he’d changed his mind. I watched people argue about this and make up, talk about empathy and compassion and Christian charity. I thought, not for the first time or the last, about the things that keep me from identifying as a Christian anymore, which for many Christians are the same things that keep them invested in that identity. “Love your enemies” might make sense in a world where that imperative hasn’t been used as a weapon against marginalized people, again and again and again. If, in one version of Christianity at least, I have a moral obligation to exercise compassion towards the Eugene Petersons of the world, then I can’t choose that identity. I can’t exercise compassion towards Eugene Peterson because I am still spending every drop of my mental and emotional energy trying to learn how to exercise compassion towards myself.

That wasn’t even the thing that got me, though. Also on Saturday, scrolling through the last remnants of a discussion that I thought was already over, I came across a couple of progressive Christians nerding out over one of Paul’s letters, talking about breaking down barriers and building a table open to all. This is the type of progressive Christian language that often leaves me tired and cynical, but in my more generous moments I can see what they’re trying to do, can believe that there are people out there dismantling ideological walls and making their churches safer places for queer people. And in the immediate aftermath of the week I’d just had, that made me saddest of all, because all I could think was, not for me.

***

I’m still not sure if “Blank Space” is the right song for that spot on my playlist. I’ll have to listen to it a few more times to be sure. In some ways, it feels like an odd fit. The more I listen to the lyrics, though, the more I can see the parallels, though perhaps that’s only because I’m looking for them. So it’s gonna be forever/ Or it’s gonna go down in flames/ You can tell me when it’s over/ If the high was worth the pain…

Christians, at least the ones I grew up around, talk a lot about grace: the love that’s undeserved, unearned and unearnable, existing apart from any kind of exchange. In the world, though, where power matters, there are always exchanges, always something to trade. I hope that whatever tradeoff Eugene Peterson feels that he’s made, for whatever reason, is worth it to him.

 

Fictional Characters Go To Therapy: Part 6

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Thomas Barrow, Downton Abbey: He doesn’t ever find what he needs in that house. Or maybe he does, but maybe the thing he needs is a door that goes somewhere else. Thomas is used to making his own openings; he doesn’t need the universe to give him one, but he deserves it, and maybe he decides that he wants it. Maybe he opens a door, the type of door that only opens for certain people, and on the other side someone takes his hands and tells him that there was never anything wrong with him, and he knows that, he knows that, but it’s still a relief to hear it in someone else’s voice. Maybe he never looks back, and there’s love and magic and over time he stops bracing himself, over time he gets used to the feeling of not having to fight anymore. Or maybe he stays in the world that he knows, and he keeps fighting, and there’s only ever his own voice but it’s enough, it’s everything.

Snow White, Snow White: She’s afraid of a lot of things, at first: of apples and mirrors, for obvious reasons, but also of the silence in her room at night, and her fiancé’s steps in the hallway, and the pause after someone asks her a question and before she can find the words to answer. Not that many people ask her questions, these days: everyone is kind enough, but she’s a set piece, and they don’t seem to care much what she thinks or wants. Eventually, she goes to the court herbalist for a sleeping potion, and the woman raises an eyebrow and remarks that she’d think that someone who’d come back from the dead wouldn’t have any trouble sleeping at night. Snow thinks about that on the way back to her room, and later, when she’s sitting by her open window breathing in the night air, she realizes that the herbalist was right, that the worst has already happened and she’s still here. She knows that the fear will probably come back, but for now she takes a few deep breaths and reminds herself of how good the world is, and then she starts to pack.

Julian Bashir, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: It takes a few sessions, but eventually Ezri gets him to see that he’s been in love with Garak for years. Hiding his genetically engineered status for so long made him far too good at hiding from himself; it’s a bit of a shock when he realizes that he’s still in the habit, and that he doesn’t have to be anymore. The next day, Ezri sees him making out with Garak in the Replimat, and congratulates herself on a job well done.

Eowyn, The Lord of the Rings: She tries to explain it to Faramir, and he tries to understand, but he doesn’t, not really. It’s not his fault, but he can’t know what it was like all of those years, always waiting, always the one left behind. How she rode out thinking that she wasn’t coming back, and she’d made her peace with that, and now that she’s on the other side she’s still bewildered, sometimes, by the weight of having to go on. She gets tired of talking, of trying to explain, so she takes to going for long walks through Minas Tirith. Maybe no one’s sadness is the same as hers, but they’ve all been through a war: she can see it on people’s faces, in the way they hold themselves. It helps her feel a little less alone, to see that everyone else is trying to figure out how to go on too, how to carry their own burdens.

Edmund Pevensie, The Chronicles of Narnia: It takes him a long time to come back to himself, to feel like a person again instead of a bundle of raw nerves, a jumble of mismatched pieces held together by sheer willpower. No one expects much of him that first year, but he still notices things, and one of the things he notices is that he’s not the only one. Tumnus won’t sit with his back to a door, and the Beavers still flinch at unexpected sounds, and sometimes even Lucy shows up for breakfast with that haunted look on her face that he knows means she’s having nightmares. They’re all moving on, putting themselves back together and doing what needs to be done, but it’s difficult, and sometimes it seems impossible. He spends a lot of time walking the corridors of Cair Paravel when he can’t sleep, and one night it occurs to him that he’s a king now, however ridiculous that still feels, and that maybe he could do something. He doesn’t know what yet: he still can’t imagine a future where he’s King Edmund the Just and people travel to Narnia because it’s known as the place to get help when the inside of your own mind is too much to bear. But on that first night, looking out of a dark window while everyone else is asleep, it’s enough for him feel like there might be a way forward, like he might not always feel as lost as he does now.

 

Fictional Characters Go To Therapy: Part 5

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This one’s for you: for anyone who’s reading this, for anyone who needs these words. I hope you know that you deserve compassion and care, and to have your voice heard.

Caspian, The Chronicles of Narnia: Sometime during the three years in between the Pevensies leaving and the beginning of the Dawn Treader voyage, sometime in between rebuilding a Narnia he’s never really known and learning how to listen to the silence when a roomful of people are waiting for him to say something, because he’s the king now, because he’s supposed to know how to fix it, he thinks, the man who raised me also killed my father. He’s thought this before, but this time he feels it in his gut, a punch that knocks the breath right out of him. He has to go for a walk by himself, has to sneak out of his own castle the way he once snuck out of his uncle’s, because he can’t even look anxious in front of these people, his people, the people he’s responsible for now. He’d known that his aunt and uncle didn’t love him, even as a small child, before he had the words to describe the way their eyes went cold when they looked at him. As he’d grown up he’d learned to fill the empty space inside of him with other things, but now that they’re dead and he’s alone he can feel that it’s still there, a crack in a wall with the wind whistling through, and it terrifies him. Once he would have done anything to earn his uncle’s love, and that terrifies him even more, because he didn’t know but maybe it wouldn’t have mattered if he had. When he can’t think anymore, he closes his eyes and feels the sunlight on his face, and reminds himself that it could have turned out differently but it didn’t and he’s still here, he’s alive, and he has Narnia and he loves it more than he’s ever loved anything. By the time he gets back to the castle he’s so tired that his feet feel like weights dragging him down, but he finds Dr. Cornelius anyway, and asks him about something he’d once said about how Narnia had used to have people who were trained to help with feelings. Dr. Cornelius isn’t sure if that skill has survived, passed down in secret along with so much else from Old Narnia, but he promises to find out.

Belle, Once Upon A Time: It takes her a long time to find the right words to describe what’s wrong with her and Rumple’s relationship, long after she’s started feeling that wrongness like a stone in her throat. She’s stopped counting the number of times he’s lied to her, manipulated her, all in the name of love. And for a long time, she’d believed him: not because she hadn’t been smart enough to know better, but because she’d thought it was her job to believe him, to keep faith in the man she knew he could be. Her faith is wearing thin now, and she’s tired, and she doesn’t know how much longer she can do it. Finally, finally, she goes to see Archie. Finally, finally, she tells him that she doesn’t always believe in Rumple’s goodness anymore. “It feels like a betrayal to even say it,” she says. “I was supposed to be the one to bring him back.” “Let’s put Rumple aside for a moment,” Archie says, “And just talk about you. Your compassion is one of your great gifts, Belle. Sometimes, though, you have to have compassion for yourself first. You deserve that, just as much as Rumple does.”

General Leia Organa, Star Wars: Sometimes, when she can’t sleep at night, she still thinks about the moment Alderaan exploded. There have been other losses since then, too many to count, but Alderaan was the first, the one that still haunts her when she’s alone in the dark. Her planet died, and she’s still here, and some days she still doesn’t know what to do with that, how to live in the universe knowing that that empty space will never be full again. But she gets up in the morning, and she fights another battle, and she says the words she needs to say to give people hope, and she believes that it has to be worth it, what they’re doing, even if it’s too late to give her back everything she’s lost. And because she knows her own strength too well to think that it’s limitless, she finds people to talk to when she can. It’s not regular, and it’s not always the same person, but there’s always someone with some relevant skill who’s willing to sit with the general for an hour and let her say things she can’t say to anyone else. Sometimes there’s only Luke, and they find an hour to sit together somewhere and they don’t talk but it’s all right, because she lost him too but at least they found each other again.

The Little Mermaid, The Little Mermaid: When her sisters hand her a knife and a choice—kill the prince or turn into sea foam—she hesitates. She imagines what it would feel like, to stab him and then to go home at last, to be herself again and to not to have to fight so hard to be seen. But she’s not that person anymore, the mermaid who dreamed of walking on land, and if she stabbed him it would tie her to him forever, and for once in her life she wants to be free. So she makes a third option. She drops the knife, and she walks away, and she doesn’t die, and when she opens her mouth a scream comes out and then a laugh, and she knows that her voice was never anyone’s to take.

Fictional Characters Go To Therapy, Star Trek: Voyager Edition

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After Voyager gets back, after the parades and speeches and tearful reunions, the debriefings start. Someone at Starfleet Command reads enough of their logs to decide that the crew needs mandatory counseling. At Reg Barclay’s recommendation, they summon Counselor Troi from the Enterprise for a special assignment. They tell her that she can recruit whomever she wants, put together a whole team if she feels it’s necessary. She does put together a team, but she decides to handle the senior staff herself. After all, she thinks, she’s been on the Enterprise for a long time and everyone’s pretty well adjusted by now, barring the odd crisis, so it’s been a while since she’s had a real challenge.

Captain Janeway spends the first three-quarters of her first session talking about everyone but herself. She’s worried about how Chakotay feels about coming back to the Federation when all of his Maquis friends are dead, about how Seven’s first meeting with her aunt will go. She talks about Harry Kim’s feelings and Tom Paris’s restlessness and the Maquis crew members who don’t have anyone to come home to, how she feels responsible for them. She doesn’t say this, but she feels incomplete without her ship, this thing that has been a part of her for so long, that had almost started to feel like an extension of her body. When she falls silent for the first time, Troi says, “You don’t have to be the captain all of the time anymore. Your crew is safe; it’s your turn to take care of yourself.” Janeway doesn’t answer for a long time, and then finally she says, “I don’t know who I am without Voyager.” Troi smiles. “Well, that’s what I’m here for. To help you figure it out.”

Chakotay thought he’d prepared himself for coming back to a world in which all of his friends are dead, in which the cause for which he’d given up everything hasn’t existed in years, but the reality still knocks him flat. No one at Starfleet Command is anything but courteous and respectful, but he doesn’t like the way they look at him. He finds himself missing the Delta Quadrant, the simplicity of trying to get home, of pushing aside all of the difficult questions in the interest of surviving the next moment. When he admits this to Troi, a little embarrassed, she says, “You’re not the only one who’s said that. In fact, almost everyone has, in one way or another.” He’s not sure why, but hearing that makes him feel better, like he can finally breathe again, like there might be a path forward after all.

During their tenth session, Troi finally gets Tuvok to admit that he’s glad to be back in the Alpha Quadrant, and then she goes home and eats an entire pint of chocolate ice cream. She’d never admit it to anyone, but Vulcans give her a headache.

B’elanna is pretty well in touch with her feelings already—she’s had to be, since her feelings tend to explode in inconvenient ways if she doesn’t deal with them properly. She mostly spends her sessions with Troi telling stories about all of the times that the men on the ship were wrong and wouldn’t listen to her. I wanted to throw him out of the nearest airlock, but Starfleet frowns on that, especially when you’re in the Delta Quadrant and don’t have any crew members to spare. Troi doesn’t object, and even tells some of her own stories. God knows, every woman in Starfleet has them.

Tom Paris treats the whole thing like a joke at first, another hoop that Starfleet is making him jump through, and Troi lets him. She doesn’t prompt or push, just listens while he talks about nothing until he runs out of nothing to talk about. Finally, a few sessions in, he admits that it makes him uncomfortable when people treat him like a hero. “I’m used to thinking of myself as a screwup,” he says, “and at least in the Delta Quadrant, I felt like I could be a screwup without anyone watching, especially my dad. Even when I knew that I wasn’t that person anymore, it was easier to think of myself that way. But now…” He doesn’t finish his sentence for a long time, so Troi finishes it for him. “People expect things of you,” she says. He nods. “I don’t want to screw it up this time.”

“I feel like I was the one who was most eager to get home,” Harry Kim says, partway through his first session, “but now that we’re here, it’s…strange.” He talks about how lonely he felt, those last few years on Voyager in particular, when it seemed like everyone was pairing up except for him. He talks about how lonely he feels now, sometimes, when everyone else from Voyager is off making up for lost time and he’s surrounded by people who have no idea what it was like. At the time, while it was happening and they had to get through it, they held themselves together with all of the resources that they could muster, and they were a family, and on good days that was almost enough. Now, though, now that it’s over and he can breathe again, he’s realizing how bad some of it was. His body is remembering things that his mind hid from him, all of the pain and terror that he locked away in order to survive. “I don’t want to remember some of this stuff,” he says to Troi. “I’d rather just forget.” “You probably won’t ever forget, not completely,” she answers, “but I can help you handle it better. And I hope I can help you feel that you don’t have to handle it alone.”

Troi expects Seven of Nine to be her biggest challenge, but it’s not exactly true. Seven talks as much as she needs to to fill each hour they spend together, as if she’s calculating the number of words she has to say per minute. Probably she is. Troi just listens for a while, and every session they circle closer to the thing that she knows Seven wants to say and can’t bring herself to. Finally, a few months in, Seven admits that sometimes she still feels angry with Captain Janeway for forcing her to become human again, even though she wouldn’t go back to the Borg if she could. “These feelings make no sense,” she says. “I don’t think that’s true,” Troi answers. “You can be happy to have your humanity back without accepting the way the Captain went about it. You’re allowed to feel angry that she didn’t give you a choice. That doesn’t make you ungrateful, or change the way you feel about the result.” “I suppose.” Seven frowns, still troubled, and Troi says, “Look, Seven, you need to understand that this is a safe place to express your feelings, whatever they are.” Seven nods, slowly. “I still think about her when I can’t sleep,” she says, “that little girl the Borg assimilated. I wonder what her life would have been like. Sometimes, though, I wish she had stayed dead.”

Troi’s sessions with the Doctor mostly involve her explaining to him what therapy is and isn’t, and trying to convince him that, though he has many invaluable skills to offer, he’s not a Ship’s Counselor and should stop trying to be. She softens the blow by telling him that she’s amazed he got so much of the crew home in one piece, which is true.

On (Not) Going Home

 

Major Christian holidays have been hard for me this spring, which is something that I didn’t predict even though I probably should have. The truth is, I never know when it’s going to hit me again, the fish-out-of-water feeling, the grief, the wanting something that I know isn’t good for me anymore just because it’s familiar. It started on Ash Wednesday, which I didn’t even know the date of until someone reminded me, and then it was everywhere. It came up during lunch in the grad student lounge, and I told stories about working at churches during Lent, all of those insider minutiae that I once reveled in. You’d think there would be a ritual for burning the palms to make ashes, I said, but at every church where I’ve worked the pastor just sets them on fire in the parking lot. I say these things in the same way I said them when I was a real church nerd, but now it’s a performance, now I’m pretending to be a person I was in another life. For years I was the one who answered my friends’ obscure questions about Christianity, and it’s not like that knowledge disappeared when I stopped going to church.

Later on that Wednesday, I thought about how easily I’d fallen into the church nerd role again, how I’d wanted to because it felt so familiar. I thought, maybe this is what it feels like to remember how to speak the language of a country you can never go back to. Of course I wanted those words in my mouth, wanted to remember what home felt like. Wanted to pretend, just for a little while, that I had gone to church that day too, that I was settling into the rhythm of the liturgical cycle that had been the organizing principle of my life for so long. The truth is, the last time I set foot in a church the smell was enough to send me spiraling, my mind cycling through the impossible balance sheet of everything Christianity had taken from me and everything it had given, the irreducible fact that no one had kicked me out and yet I still couldn’t stay. And yet, and yet. It’s still hard to explain all of this even to myself: how much I want to go back, how free I feel knowing that I won’t. How terrifying that freedom is.

I expected Easter to be the next problem, but of course it was Palm Sunday. I should have known that it wouldn’t be the big flashy holiday that would get me, but the more obscure but liturgically important prelude to it, the drama of Holy Week, once my most beloved series of services. In another year, in another life, I would have been preparing for it, trying to get myself into the right frame of mind. On Sunday afternoon I was sitting in a movie theater, scrolling through Facebook while I waited for the lights to go down, and I happened to see an article someone had posted about why it’s important to take your kids to church. And then I thought, I’m in a movie theater on Palm Sunday, which wouldn’t have necessarily been remarkable even in my churchgoing days, but it felt painfully significant.

***

There’s a story that I’ve been trying to tell for a long time, a fix-it for Susan Pevensie from The Chronicles of Narnia (and really, which of us who grew up with Narnia hasn’t thought about this?). In my version Susan is a lesbian and there’s a backstory about her kissing girls at boarding school, and then coming to feel that she must not belong in Narnia because of her sexuality (this isn’t autobiographical at all, of course). I’ve been writing bits of it off and on for years, most often in December, which for some reason is when my Susan Pevensie feelings tend to surface. I had a lot of Susan feelings this past December, and I wrote a few more fragments of her story, but I couldn’t seem to get a handle on what I was doing. I didn’t realize until recently that I don’t know how to write this story because I don’t know if Susan gets back to Narnia or not.

Of course my first impulse was to have her return, because isn’t that what we all want, the magic portal open again, the land of our childhood fantasies restored? I’ve been asking myself, though, if my Susan would want to go back to that Narnia, the Narnia that kicked her out. How do you go home if your home isn’t the place you thought it was? I don’t have an answer, but I do know that the Narnia that welcomed Susan back would have to be a different Narnia from the one she left. And at the end of the day, sometimes going back isn’t what you want anymore, or it is but you know better, you know that it wouldn’t be good for you, that you’re no longer that person. That as much as it hurts sometimes, the only way forward is to step into empty space and embrace your terrifying freedom.

Fictional Characters Go To Therapy: Part 4

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The Little Match Girl, The Little Match Girl: There will be a moment, years from now, when it will occur to her to tell someone about this night. She will admit that she still hoards food even though she doesn’t need to anymore, that sometimes when she’s walking somewhere in the winter dusk she’ll feel a bone-deep shiver even through her wool coat, that when she gets home she’ll need to sit by the fire for hours before she feels warm again. But that moment is not this one: this is the moment when she holds the matches in her hands, the matches that she’s supposed to sell for cold coins that her father will take from her. This is the moment when she looks into the indifferent faces of the people around her and something in her chest hardens with fury, and she strikes one match, and then another, on and on until she’s made a little bonfire between her palms. She doesn’t freeze to death, and it doesn’t occur to her until years later to wonder how close she came.

 

Sam Gamgee, The Lord of the Rings: He and Frodo do talk about it, once. Not right after, when everything’s still too raw, but later, after they’ve fought one more battle to get their home back, after they’ve set Bag End to rights. They sit in the same room where it all started, with the winter dusk just beginning to fall outside. Sam does his best to maintain his composure, because they’re both still fragile, because the habit of looking after Frodo has settled into his bones and he can’t break it now. He cracks a little when Frodo mentions their final ascent up Mount Doom, when Sam had carried him on his back. Sam didn’t think that Frodo could possibly remember that, but he does. “I thought you would be heavy,” Sam says, blinking back tears, “but you were so light.” Later, he has to go outside and breathe the cold air even though it hurts his lungs, and look up at the stars and remind himself that he’s home now, even if everything isn’t exactly all right. Later, he starts to tell his stories to the flowers he tends and to the empty air in his bedroom, because it’s too hard to explain to anyone who wasn’t there what it was like. They’ve all been through a war, but this war was only his and Frodo’s, as intimate as anything that can happen between two people. Later, he starts to write down the parts he remembers, not for the Red Book or posterity, but just for himself, because once they’re on paper it’s easier to put them away.

 

Jake Sisko, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: It’s not easy being the Emissary: he knows that. He tells it to himself so often that it becomes a kind of background noise in his head. It’s not easy being the Emissary’s son either, and eventually he lets himself admit, in one private little corner of his mind, that sometimes he wishes his dad could just be his dad again. Jake’s also a storyteller, and that makes it even less easy, because he knows how these kinds of stories usually end. He’s not surprised when his father disappears: he’s almost relieved, because he’s been afraid of something like this for years, because at least now there’s a reason for the rock in the pit of his stomach. He does his best to be there for Kasidy, and he goes on with his life, and he’s not angry with his father or with the Prophets, but he’s tired. He spends hours, when he can spare them, standing in his and Nog’s old spot on the promenade, wishing that Odo would come and chase him away so that something would feel normal again. Sometimes Kira comes and stands next to him; they don’t talk much, but it helps. Eventually he makes an appointment with Ezri, if only because he knows that’s what his dad would want him to do. For the first few sessions he talks about everything else: his novel, Kasidy’s pregnancy, sharing quarters with Nog. At the end of the fifth session, he stops himself right in the middle of a story about Nog’s sleeping habits, and finally looks her in the eye. “Do you think he’s coming back?” he asks. Ezri hesitates. “I don’t know,” she finally says. “But I hope so.”

 

Prince Rilian, The Silver Chair: Years later, when things are better and he finally has a second to breathe, he wonders how he made it through that first year. He wouldn’t let himself sleep for days after the spell was broken, because he didn’t want to lose any more time, because he couldn’t bear the thought of his mind slipping out of his control again. He still remembers every single hour that he was himself in those ten years, the ones when he clawed and fought and held onto his identity with his fingernails, the ones when he was too tired to fight and he hated himself for his weakness, the ones when he just sat in the hateful chair and breathed in the world and said his name to himself over and over again. Those memories have started to fade at last, but during those first months they were still bright and sharp and they cut into him every time he moved or took a deep breath. They do have therapists in Narnia (legend has it that King Edmund trained the first ones himself during the Golden Age, but Rilian doesn’t know if that’s true. He wishes he’d thought to ask Eustace), but he couldn’t find a spare hour to see one until months after his coronation. When he finally did carve out the time, when he first sat down on her velvet couch in her airy room in one of Cair Paravel’s towers, the quiet was so startling that his own breath sounded unnaturally loud. “Can we just—sit here for a minute?” he asked, and his voice wobbled, but he was too exhausted to feel embarrassed. She nodded, and a minute turned into the whole hour. It took months before he felt like talking much, but it was all right.

Fictional Characters Deal With Their Shit: Part 3

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Note: I wrote most of these words before the election. I haven’t written much since, because my words and my stories feel inadequate and trivial right now. But I decided to post this anyway, because if there’s anything that this series is about it’s about people surviving. I have to believe that we can survive, and that we will. I’m prepared to fight like hell.

Mr. Tumnus, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: It isn’t Lucy who notices; it isn’t even Susan, though she’s the one he would have put money on. He’s always had rotten luck, anyway. It’s Edmund who keeps looking at him for a little too long during council meetings and court functions, his gaze seeking out whatever corner Tumnus has wedged himself into (always with his back to the wall; he makes sure), though he never says anything. That instinct will serve the young king well, Tumnus thinks, as he cradles a goblet of wine and pretends not to notice: Edmund knows without being told when to ask the question and when to hold his tongue. It’s winter by the time he finally does, the first winter since the one that none of them speak of, especially not King Edmund, especially not Tumnus. The nights are too still under the white hush of snow, so still that Tumnus can’t sleep half the time for fear of what he’ll dream. He takes to wandering the castle halls in the quiet hours, and one night he and Edmund pass each other in a corridor. They both stop, Tumnus with a start of surprise and Edmund frozen, waiting for the blow to fall. King Edmund—he’s not “the just” yet, but he already knows something about giving people what they deserve—recovers first, offers Tumnus a slight smile. “Let’s talk,” he says. He doesn’t say, one traitor to another, but he doesn’t have to.

Zelena, Once Upon A Time: In her better moments, she understands where Regina’s coming from. In her better moments, she understands that Cora hurt them both, that there’s no comparing, especially since she hurt them the most by robbing them of each other. Her better moments are still fewer and further between than she would like, though, and in her worse ones all she can taste is bitterness. It fills her mouth and her throat and her lungs, splashes over into her heart. It’s a stamp on her forehead, one that says ‘rejected’, ‘the other daughter’, the one without even enough promise to try to control. She knows that Cora abused Regina and that abuse isn’t love, but neither is neglect, and Regina will never be an orphan, not in the way that she is. Once, she catches a fleeting glimpse of a look on Emma Swan’s face, and for a second it’s like she’s seeing herself for the first time. She doesn’t know if it makes her feel better or worse to know that this woman who seems like her opposite in every other way, this woman whose parents gave her up out of love rather than fear, is no less lost than she is. An orphan is an orphan, she thinks, not knowing that she’s echoing words that Hook said to Emma once on top of a beanstalk, not knowing that Emma herself hears those words in the dark when she can’t sleep. It takes her months to actually approach her, but when she does there’s a second when they look into each other’s faces, one lost girl to another, and she knows that it’s going to be all right. She asks Emma for the name of her therapist, and Emma gives it to her without asking any questions.

Gwendolen Harleth, Daniel Deronda: She still has a hard time saying certain words, even though she feels their truth to her core. It’s been a few years now since the fatal boat trip, since her moment of hesitation, which she regrets less with every passing season. It’s been a few years of living a quiet life with her mother and sisters, breathing the country air, feeling her lungs expand again. No matter what it might look like, it’s not about self-effacement and it’s not about becoming invisible: it’s about leaving enough space that she can see herself again, it’s about hearing her own voice without letting the echoes of other voices swallow it. Sometimes it’s about screaming, because she had to swallow her screams for so long. She doesn’t even mind that she has no one to talk to, though sometimes she hears Daniel’s voice in her head. The first time a boy comes to call on her oldest sister, the first time Gwendolen sees the girl catch his eyes with her own and feel her own power, she has to leave the house before the call is over. She takes a walk under the fiery banners of the autumn leaves, gulps the crisp air until she feels lightheaded. She tells herself that her sister is not her, but also that she will teach her how to protect herself, how to grow claws and teeth in case she needs them. She tells herself that she’s safe now, that she survived, and this time it’s her own voice that she hears.

Luke Skywalker, Star Wars: When he disappears, everyone assumes it’s about Ben, who in some ways is as much his child as Han and Leia’s. They’re right, but only partly. It’s about Ben, but it’s also about how tired he is, how he feels like he hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in years. It’s about the way he still wakes up in the small hours with his wrist aching, a pulsing throb surrounding him in the dark. It’s about how sometimes when he looks at Leia he can feel all of the years they didn’t have together like a hole in his flesh, and he thinks he might hate their father for that more than for anything else. It’s about how much he blames himself for that feeling, because he’s a Jedi now and he should be better, stronger, but he just feels small and petty and scared. It’s about how he can’t tell anyone about any of this, because who is he to be tired or afraid, because everyone he loves has lost just as much and he can’t look into their faces and act as though his pain is worthy of notice. Perhaps more than anything else, it’s about the farm boy who once watched the sky on Tatooine and longed for something he couldn’t name, who got much more than he bargained for, who died sometime without anyone noticing. He doesn’t want to go backwards, but he needs a little bit of space to grieve, for Ben and for himself. Eventually, eventually, he convinces himself that he’s allowed to have it.

Fictional Characters Who Would Benefit From Therapy: Part 2

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Rom, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: He doesn’t tell Quark. He doesn’t tell anyone, but he especially doesn’t tell Quark. There are a few therapists on the station, and he does his research and finds the one who has the best reputation for being discreet, because secrets don’t tend to stay secrets long in this particular small village in space. The first time he’s actually sitting across from her, the door closed, the noise of the Promenade fading outside, he has to take a few deep breaths before he can actually say anything.

Sara Crewe, A Little Princess: Some nights, she still dreams about that empty, freezing attic room. She wakes up there, the sky grayer than ever and her muscles so sore that she can hardly move, and then starts awake again in the unfamiliar darkness of her new bedroom, in a bed that suddenly feels far too soft. Sometimes she gets up and stirs the dying embers of the fire back to flickering life, because she still remembers how, because she refuses to let anyone else light her fires for her ever again, not even Becky. Especially not Becky. Becky is the only person she ever talks to about any of this, especially on the days when she almost misses the attic, because in some ways she saw herself more clearly there. On those days, Becky reminds her that it’s worth feeling a little muddled and unsure of herself in exchange for a fire every day and a full stomach. On other days they only have to look at each other’s faces to know that some memories never fade, that some long gray days never disappear, no matter how many fires you’ve sat beside since then. They sit beside their fire anyway, together, and while it doesn’t mend everything that’s broken inside of either of them, it helps.

Sydney Carton, A Tale of Two Cities: He feels ridiculous, the first time he does it, but someone told him that it would help, so he finds a scrap of paper and writes “you are not worthless.” There’s a huge inkblot because his hand is shaking, and it’s painful to look at the words in a way that he can’t describe even to himself. He throws the paper into the fire, watches it curl and turn to ashes. He does it again, though, as soon as he can bear to, and again, and after he’s done it more times than he can count he starts to believe it just a little, enough to consider the possibility that loving a woman who doesn’t love him back might not be the only thing he’s good for.

Hansel and Gretel, Hansel and Gretel: Hansel still feels sick if he even smells sugar, and Gretel can’t be in the same room with an oven without breaking out in a cold sweat, but they manage. They buy a plot of land with the jewels they took from the witch’s hoard and build their own house. They don’t have an oven, just a hearth big enough for cooking, and wide glass windows that cost a fortune, but it’s worth it to be able to stay inside without feeling trapped. Hansel learns to cook, because even standing near the fire is sometimes too much for Gretel on bad days. Most evenings, it’s enough to be able to sit at their own table, with full stomachs and the forest on the other side of a locked door. Sometimes they think about their father, but it’s easier not to go down that path, at least for now.

Cassandra Mortmain, I Capture the Castle: She has a lot of time to think, after Rose and Simon have both gone. One morning, she wakes up in the four-poster and looks at the other bed, now empty, and realizes that she’s still bone-tired, and she hadn’t even noticed. For years, she was the one who held everything together while Rose despaired and Topaz communed with nature and their father hid in the gatehouse, and now that her hands are empty she doesn’t want to do anything but sleep. So she spends a few days in bed, and when she’s tired of that she gets up and walks into the village to see the Vicar. It’s winter by now, damp and chilly and miserable, and he’s surprised to see her. She still doesn’t believe in God, but he seems like someone she can talk to without worrying about judgment. He makes tea, and they sit for a few minutes in silence, her hands cradled around her cup, before she opens her mouth and starts to explain.

Gerda, The Snow Queen: She’s not sorry that she went after Kai; she’ll never be sorry. But what do you do when you’ve walked to the ends of the earth to rescue the person you love, only to come home and find that the world you left is exactly the same as before? Her neighbors in the cramped building where she and Kai grew up give her knowing glances when she passes them on the stairs, and some of them ask when they should expect wedding bells. She doesn’t know how to explain to them that it was never that kind of love, that sometimes Kai still looks at her with eyes as blank as the icy plains she struggled across to the Snow Queen’s palace, that her tears may have melted his heart but they couldn’t mend it. If there’s one thing Gerda’s learned on her travels, though, it’s how to spot a witch: she finds one easily, behind an unmarked doorway tucked at the end of a winding alley. She knows that the woman who answers the door is the real thing when she doesn’t ask any questions, when she takes one look at Gerda’s face and knows, and then holds the door open. That night, Gerda dreams of the Robber Girl. You were right, she tells her. You were right.

Charles Ryder, Brideshead Revisited: He goes to a priest to talk about his and Julia’s religious differences, how he worries it won’t work out between them. He’s listened to himself talk for about two minutes when he thinks, I’m lying. It’s Sebastian; it always has been. He hurries away from the puzzled priest, books his passage to Tunisia before he has time to talk himself out of it. He doesn’t know if it’s too late, if Sebastian will take him back, but he doesn’t care.

previously

Fictional Characters Who Would Benefit From Therapy: An Incomplete List

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Inspired by a conversation with my roommate, and by a couple of similar pieces from The Late Lamented Toast (here and here)

  1. Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Star Trek: The Next Generation: Counselor Troi does her best after the Borg incident, and then again after the Cardassian incident, but when he snaps at her and orders her out of his ready room for about the twentieth time, she decides he needs a counselor who’s not under his command. She and Beverly tag-team him, and eventually he agrees. It takes a few tries, but he finds a therapist who’s a good fit and willing to conduct sessions via subspace transmission. At first he’s embarrassed when Riker notices that he leaves the bridge at the same time every week, but when he tells him and Riker doesn’t look at him any differently he realizes that there’s no shame in asking for help.
  1. Cinderella, Cinderella: For about six months after the wedding, she’s fine. She wakes up every morning and listens to the birds and watches the sunlight slant across the room, and breathes, and her lungs fill with the relief of having escaped. Then she starts waking up in the middle of the night. At first she just lies there in the dark and stares at the ceiling, but after a while she can’t stand it anymore. She gets up and cleans the fireplace, because it’s familiar, because her hands know how to do this better than anything else. She sweeps the floor and polishes the sconces. They don’t exactly have therapists in her world, but the court physician gives her a sleeping draught and lets her sit on the stool in the corner and talk while she works. The physician, who is shrewd enough to know what’s going on even if the prince isn’t, doesn’t say much, but Cinderella doesn’t mind. No one has really listened to her in years.
  1. Emma Swan, Once Upon a Time: She finds a therapist who specializes in Chosen Ones, and also runs a support group. It’s nice to hear other people talk about how they have no idea how to live their lives when they’re not saving the world, for a change. And she finally, finally gives herself permission to be angry with her parents.
  1. Maggie and Tom Tulliver, The Mill on the Floss: They have sessions both separately and together. Tom learns to see Maggie’s point of view. Maggie learns that her feelings and desires are valid, and after a while she relaxes a little, stops trying so hard to be what everyone wants her to be.
  1. Sansa Stark, Game of Thrones: She’s spent years feeling like she doesn’t have a voice at all, so when she’s finally sitting in a room with someone whose job it is to listen, she can’t stop herself. She talks until she’s hoarse, and sometimes she cries, and sometimes she has to go home and lock her door and hit things afterwards. Everything hurts, but she doesn’t feel like a ghost anymore.
  1. Susan Pevensie, The Chronicles of Narnia: It takes years, but eventually she stops blaming herself for not having been on that train.
  1. Frodo Baggins and Faramir, The Lord of the Rings: Remember when Faramir said that someday, when everything was over, he wanted Frodo to tell him the story of how Gollum got the ring in the first place? Well, they do have that conversation. It’s not exactly therapy, but they both end up saying a lot of things that neither of them feels comfortable saying to anyone else. When they’re finished talking, they watch the sun set over Minas Tirith, and for a few seconds they both remember that they made it.