Blunt Trauma Theory

9 May 2010

It began like any other September day: warm and sunny, hinting at both the passing of luxurious summer and the promise of winter’s quickening chill. The students, young and eager to learn, were turning in their first paper, the time-honored Narrative Essay, in which they described, in loving detail, a defining moment in their lives, a second of experience that would define, for my mind and theirs, a scintilla of truth about existence. But then, before anyone saw it coming, something happened, something so startling, so strange, that…

Oh, who am I kidding. What happened was that, once all the essays were put on my desk, I had the same grisly pile of compound fractures, patellar dislocations, meniscal tears, internal bleeding, concussions, black eyes, and points of entry that I’ve received year after year. I call these essays “Smash Narratives,” and my collection currently runs into the hundreds. It’s so large, in fact, that, if the Humanities ever dry up (as they are always threatening to do), I might sell it to the Mütter Museum.

It’s also grown large enough to show some interesting patterns and mutations in the narrative. All of the students, it seems, learn that a) their bodies are fragile, b) any amount of parental anger can be postponed until one is done bleeding out, and c) everybody, as my brother says, “dies with half a tube of toothpaste in his medicine cabinet.”

This makes the Smash Narrative a kind of sub-species within the popular genus of literary criticism called Trauma Theory. According to Dr. Michelle Balaev, of NMU, in her article, Trends in Literary Trauma Theory, “The trauma novel demonstrates how a traumatic event disrupts attachments between self and others by challenging fundamental assumptions about moral laws and social relationships that are themselves connected to specific environments.” Plus, the painstaking sensory detail that writing instructors like myself are always calling for, “anchors the individual experience within a larger cultural context, and, in fact, organizes the memory and meaning of trauma.” Furthermore—and here’s the important part—trauma narratives

represent this disruption between the self and others by carefully describing the place of trauma because the physical environment offers the opportunity to examine both the personal and cultural histories imbedded in landscapes that define the character’s identity and the meaning of the traumatic experience.

For my students in the Western New York farmlands, “imbedded in the landscape” can take on a whole new meaning. Their preferred Smash Narrative is the vehicle crash, and they are remarkably adept at crushing, flipping, spinning, burning, drowning, and otherwise mangling whatever it is they happen to be riding on. One woman, for instance, wrote about running her mother’s truck straight through a stop sign at the bottom of an icy hill, and running head-on into another car going 50 mph on a county road. Another described fishing around for her cell phone, which had fallen down by the break pedal, and she swore everything would have been OK if her girlfriend, who was riding shotgun, hadn’t panicked and grabbed the wheel, causing the car to flip several times and land upside down in a corn field.

The men tend to ride different types of vehicles. One was racing side by side with his brother on twin ATVs, and they both went into a ditch at the back of their property. He went over the handle bars and lacerated his spleen. Another wrote about racing his dirt bike in a desert, going off the track into a cavernous pit called a “witch hole,” and shattering his spine. He now gets around campus by using a cane. Still another described a graduation party that rivaled the epic blow-out in Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan, only instead of the piano being at the bottom of the pool the next morning, it was his father’s tractor. He was summarily kicked out of the house for 3 months.

One remarkable twist on the same narrative was written by a student from Tanzania, where the huge expanses of open land and the miles of dirt roads have led to a popularity in street racing (which tends to madden the elephants). In this case, the fact that he flipped his father’s car while out joyriding was not even the real issue. As it turned out, he was supposed to be praying at the mosque and, to make matters worse, he had his girlfriend with him. The resulting fracture between, and within, the families, was more traumatic than any broken rib.

There are other variants. One student was blown up while driving a Humvee in Iraq. He said the bomb looked like “a beach ball,” of all things, and the first thing he did after climbing out of the back seat was wipe battery acid off his face. Guys also write about sports injuries, especially when they lead to the end of a promising athletic future. One of my current students had a hockey career ruined by a crippling side blow to the knee. He went to work at UPS while his best friend went off to play for The New York Rangers. Others have been smashed up while playing football.

About half of my students, though, live in Rochester and Buffalo, and come from environments that are close enough to the corn fields that I can drive between them in about 15 minutes, but also far enough away that sometimes it seems like all the students are Darwinian finches, evolving on neighborly yet isolated islands in a cultural archipelago. While the rural students soar through the open expanses of their environment, injuring themselves through a mix of adrenaline and momentum, the world of the urban students is more enclosed, more forested, in a way, and the injuries become wounds, received when the students bump up, not only against the several other bodies in the city, but against the tight spaces in which they live—the apartments, the street corners, the dance clubs.

Or, to put it another way, the rural students shoot, while the city students are shot. This happened to one man who was hit several times in the arm and in the back during a curbside dice game. He was fully aware that he was shot for his jewelry, and his essay was somewhat self-mocking, as the student found himself wondering why in hell all the cops, who usually make his life miserable, weren’t there to tell everyone to go home. (Many Smash Narratives reference an explicit moral of some kind, but this level of perceived cosmic irony was a pleasant surprise.) And a young woman wrote a long, intimate passage about braiding her nephew’s hair, followed by a quick phone call saying that another young relative had just been shot in the head.

Drugs have knocked a few students around. One fell out of a window after a failed attempt (her third) to get off crack, and another wrote about viciously beating someone during a drug deal behind a 7-11 for no other reason than it seemed like a good idea at the time. He was so traumatized by his own actions that he quit drugs that same day.

Finally, just this past January, I received an essay from a woman who snuck out of the house to go dancing with her friends, got in a fight with another group of women, and, in a remarkable case of reverse metaphor, was stabbed in the eye with a stilleto heel. Despite the screams and the blood, she was summarily tossed into the street by the bouncer, while her eye swelled up like a tennis ball, and she kept crying, “Why?”

That’s a good question. Why does a day that “starts like any other” suddenly turn dark? Why, when it comes to accidents and violence, is there always a distinct before and after, like some kind of line has been crossed? Why does an Edenic oneness with the world tear faster than a meniscus, and heal more slowly? If these issues are not as profound or massive as those normally uncovered by Trauma Theory, the fact that so many young people feel compelled to show me their gunshot wounds and lacerated spleens suggests that they’re still feeling a slight throb somewhere, and that the curled up tube of Crest in their medicine cabinets has suddenly become awfully important.

*****

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