I’ve had my reasons for feeling somber lately, but that’s not why I’m reading The Book of Calamities: Five Questions about Suffering and Its Meaning, by Peter Trachtenberg. Someone I trust recommended the book to me for a very particular thing the author talks about. Still, I approached it with trepidation. I thought, I’m not reading a whole book about suffering, so let me just look up this thing in the index.
Then I discovered there is no index.
I flipped and flipped through the pages hoping that my eyes would settle on the thing I was looking for, the handful of words among thousands that would be all I needed to read, but that book refused to give up its nugget. It insisted that I start at the beginning. This book knew what I needed better than I did. Trachtenberg immerses himself in his subject, and where others might find only suffering, he finds people. These are individuals who have experienced genocide, unimaginable loss, and illness, and yet are still themselves, still something other than their pain. Their humanity rises from every page, meeting and informing my own.
The phrase I kept hearing in my head as I read the book? See me. Suffering, we know, is inevitable. Unavoidable. I fear it. You probably do, too. But what I learned about myself as I read this book is that what I fear most of all isn't suffering, it's suffering alone. Unseen. Misunderstood. When something terrible happens to us, we want that thing not to have happened, of course. But in lieu of that, we want our suffering to be recognized.
Among the many people he writes about, Trachtenberg offers especially beautiful, sensitive profiles of twins Kate and Kelly Daley, who were born with a horrendously painful, disfiguring illness. As a young adult, Kelly attempted suicide. In the hospital, she wrote in her journal, “Do you see me? Do you think this is easy, my life?”
Trachtenberg goes on to emphasize those words: “Do you see me?”
This striving to be seen and understood is so human. And in that experience we all have company.
Megan Ganz, a former writer on the television series Community, was sexually harassed by her boss, creator and executive producer Dan Harmon. When he recently publicly acknowledged the harassment, she wrote on Twitter, “I didn’t expect…the relief I’d feel just hearing him say these things actually happened. I didn’t dream it. I’m not crazy. Ironic that the only person who could give me that comfort is the one person I’d never ask.”
What, after all, is the worst thing that can happen to someone? It’s not to suffer, it’s to suffer invisibly. To be made, in effect, nothing. This was the experience of one survivor of the genocide in Rwanda whom Trachtenberg interviewed. The word she used to describe what she endured was roughly translated as “debasement.” She was made into nothing by those who tortured her. The way Trachtenberg describes her suggested to me something beyond dehumanization. It was death—a living death. I spoke to someone recently who said he feared death, and I didn’t have a chance to ask why, but my imagination can fill in that part. I imagine that for him death is the ultimate in disregard. It’s the universe saying: You don’t matter anymore. No one sees you.
My understanding of Buddhism is simplistic at best, but I think I’m correct in saying that at its heart is the belief that there is no self, not in any real sense. And therefore there is nothing to fear in death or suffering; there can be no loss of what doesn't exist. This is why I’m sadly not cut out for Buddhism. For me, as a writer and a human being, it is the self in all its striving that fascinates me at one moment, frustrates me the next, and regularly breaks my heart and puts it back together again. The self is what I’m interested in.
The self is why I write young adult novels. What I love so much about teenagers and young adults is their ardent selfhood. Their graceless yearning. Their inability to hide their most desperate desire: to be seen. And even more than that: to be seen accurately.
I read an article in The New York Times titled, “Want to Be Happy? Think Like an Old Person.” The gist of it is that happiness in old age is about not wanting or needing anything more than you have. And there is not a thing wrong with the article. But while I started it hoping for some wisdom, by the end I wanted to throw open my windows and shout demands at passersby. Not because I want more things. No, but I do want to want: that drive that exists inside of us, that keeps our eyes and ears alert for something more, something else, something we don’t know or haven’t yet experienced or done or produced. What is the exact opposite of thinking like an old person? Thinking like a teenager. Probably if I took one of those tests that tells you what your emotional age is it would land me somewhere in the vicinity of thirteen to twenty-one.
Thinking like an adolescent might not be as easy as thinking like an old person, or as conducive to happiness, but give me graceless yearning any day. Which brings me to Tonya Harding. I saw the movie I, Tonya and I read this interview with her, and I’ve spent a lot more time thinking about her in the last several days than I ever thought I would. I was surprised to read in the interview that some people see the scenes of Tonya being beaten by her mother and her husband as played for laughs. And I was taken aback that the interviewer felt the need to tell this to Tonya. It seemed cruel to point out to her that so many people were entertained by her blood and bruises. For Tonya, the movie has been a sort of vindication. Not because it proved her innocence—she says she's not interested in that. As the interviewer writes, “There are facts, and then there is the truth, and you can’t let one get in the way of the other or you’ll never understand what she’s trying to tell you.” And what Tonya is trying to tell you is that she suffered.
The article describes Tonya’s experience watching the film: “She watched it a few times, and the shock wore off, and there from the comfort of her living room, sitting beside the only romantic partner she has ever felt loved by and safe with, she watched what had happened in her life and realized that she never really stood a chance.” When the interviewer prodded Tonya to correct the record somehow, to argue that the movie got details wrong, she writes that Tonya “leaned back, frustrated, made her hands into fists and rubbed her eyes. It’s exhausting. Nobody ever gets it. She’s been waiting for a way to tell the world that the abuse she endured was so much worse than they thought, that she was so much poorer than people could imagine. And then all people want to know is whether or not there’s something she’s not admitting to.”
She did it or she didn’t do it. She did some of it or none of it or all of it. But to Tonya Harding (now Tonya Price), that’s not the important part. The important part is her, the person in there, the person gracelessly yearning to be seen.
Happy New Year. I wish you a 2018 full of the most beautiful sorts of wanting and desiring and seeing: a year of shamelessly thinking like a teenager.