Pouring Trauma Into Art

My wife watches a lot of TV. Not bad TV – proper shows like The Sinner, and Prodigal Son (a lot of crime dramas, actually). I don’t; and not because I don’t like TV. I watch a lot of bad TV – mostly reruns of Family Guy and South Park. But it’s just a huge commitment for me to start watching a show that asks me to get invested in the characters. I was also burned badly by Lost and Heroes, so I tend to just avoid TV altogether unless it’s something I can mindlessly zone out to.

But my wife loves getting invested in shows and characters, and particularly loves British TV dramas; I think they tend to be more realistic and showcase the human nature side of things more than most US television. One show she’s been particularly into recently is No Offence, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek police procedural set in Manchester. At one point whilst Googling the show during its playback (I was in the room and partially paying attention), I mentioned that the show’s creator and screenwriter had also worked on another renowned British show, Cracker, known for its realistic and often dark portrayal of police work and criminal psychology, and for its deeply flawed and broken characters.

What struck me, though, was that in researching this writer, Paul Abbott, I discovered that he himself suffered from an abusive and broken past. Amongst other things his mother and father both left them, leaving his pregnant seventeen-year-old sister to raise the family; he was raped when he was thirteen, ended up trying to kill himself, and was ultimately admitted to a mental hospital.

They say write what you know, and in Abbott’s case this certainly seems to hold true. Not necessarily the police part, although I’m sure he had plenty of exposure to the legal system growing up, but the repeated traumas of his youth.

I think many authors look for ways to express their pain through their work, and the same holds true of artists, and generally creators of all kinds. It can be a kind of catharsis, a way of exorcising demons that would otherwise take hold and control our lives. When I listen to Korn’s Jonathan Davis’ solo album Black Labyrinth, I’m struck by how personal the album is; whether he’s hinting at things or outright stating “I deal with things inside that would make anyone else go insane”, it’s an album full of pain.

All of us are molded and defined by the events of our lives, but often there are one or two key aspects that carry forward throughout our days. For me, it’s depression; even though I don’t always feel depressed these days, and my bipolar is largely kept at bay with medication, depression will always be a defining characteristic for me – something deeply integrated into my psyche and personality, and something that defines who I am.

When it comes to my creativity, this naturally comes out. In The Redemption of Erâth, the entire story is largely an analogy for depression, from the darkness of the world to the inescapability of fate that brings people together only to tear them apart again. It remains to be seen if depression can be conquered, or if it will win over the world of Erâth.

There are so many different traumas that we suffer through, and of course different people will react to the same type of trauma differently; what inconveniences some can destroy others, and where some will blank it from their minds to cope and survive, others can never escape the pain. Creativity – art – can be for those people a powerful way of dealing with that pain, a way of externalizing it so that it hurts – hopefully – just a little bit less.

Of a Great Person

About a month ago, the world lost a soul. Not a celebrity; no one famous. One of thousands who die daily for no reason other than it was their time to go. It was no global catastrophe, no tragic demise; simply the passing of someone who lived their life simply, selflessly, and straight to the very end.

Death is oddly easy to come by, yet so far from easy for the people who knew the deceased. Funerals, wakes, memorials and services and wreaths and tombstones … all these efforts are done not for the person no longer with us, but for the people left behind. And it kind of sucks, because the last thing you want to do when you lose someone is worry about funeral arrangements and burial costs. Mounting bills and gathering family last-minute hardly fills the void left by the departed in your heart, but these processes perhaps hold some value, because they’re a painful reminder that in the dead’s absence, life goes on. The world doesn’t stop turning. Work gives you a few days off, and then it’s back to the grind.

So before I discuss what I think was important about the departed, I need to recognize my wife’s strength, resilience, competence and willfulness as she laid her father to rest. She mourned and wept, and amidst it all simply made shit happen. No one asked her to, and she didn’t need to be asked; there was little doubt as to who would bear the heaviest burden of actually giving her father the rest he deserved in the best way possible. Her family attended what she arranged.

This strength didn’t grow in a vacuum. My wife has led a difficult, troubled and at times traumatic life, but her strength grew from the person who raised her: her father. For whatever suffering she’s dealt with, her father almost certainly dealt with just as much. From a lonely childhood to war service and the mental breakdown of his wife early in their marriage, he suffered and fought for fairness and justice like no one I’ve ever known, and he did it entirely for his children – his legacy.

You see, whenever someone dies, you can’t help contemplate their importance; you can’t help but wonder what impact they left on the world, and if their life really mattered much – or at all. These are – on the surface – easy questions to answer when said deceased was known to the world at large; the world is immeasurably worse off for the loss of Robin Williams, or Chester Bennington, or [insert celebrity here], because of course these people made an impact on our psyches and left indelible impressions in our emotions. We miss what these people could have brought to the world, and reminisce about what they left behind. We feel like we know these people, and their deaths definitely leave a void behind.

But what about the residual importance of those deaths that are a little closer to home? What about when our father, or our brother – uncle, or grandparent – dies? What if they spent their life toiling in a factory making communications circuitry? What if they sacrificed any possibility of renown for the happiness of their own children? What if they were, ultimately, forgettable to all but their closest family?

I say this makes them not less important, but all the more so.

This argument, of course, comes down to how one chooses to measure the importance of a person’s life, but I think it’s fair to say that an individual’s significance can be told by the impact they made on others – the influence they had on the people who knew them. And in this argument, I believe that the true measure of influence is in its quality, not its quantity. It doesn’t matter that Robin Williams made millions of people passingly happy, whilst my father-in-law might have done so for fewer than a dozen folk in his life, because the depth of influence is immeasurably greater on the latter.

My wife’s father was quiet, humble and generally inconspicuous, and if you never had the chance to talk to him and get to know him, you would never guess the tragedy and trauma hidden behind his soft brown eyes. Many other men, I believe, would have walked away from similar circumstances given half a chance, and yet he spent years balancing a tenuous living and desperately fighting through courts to win his children back after their mother suffered a nervous breakdown early in their life. He abandoned career ambitions and sacrificed his personal life entirely to ensure that his children had the best life he could provide for them.

And that life he gave them formed the person who is now my wife. For as long as I’ve known her she’s idolized her father; looked up to him as an example of virtue and strength of character. She’s modeled her own life on many of his characteristics, and the upbringing of our son is a testament to his own work in raising her. He was her mentor, her confidant, her advisor and friend.

So in looking back on his life, does it matter that he was wounded in the Korean War saving others’ lives? Or that he build the communications systems that sent men to the moon? Does it matter that he was disowned by his Jewish family for marrying a Catholic woman? Or does it matter that, when the odds were stacked against him and the chips were down, he soldiered through to protect his children, because their own happiness was the only thing that mattered to him?

I like to think that the measure of a person’s importance is not in whether they influenced a million people or only one; it isn’t in whether a person goes down in history or is forgotten to the annals of time. It’s in the subtle influence they leave on those closest to them, and whether that influence was to their benefit or detriment. And in considering my father-in-law, the influence and legacy he left behind is in the person my wife became, and her siblings, and his grandchildren, and – perhaps one day – theirs.

And so I suggest that he was as great a person as any out there. He didn’t write books that changed the world; he didn’t leave behind a canon of film or music or scientific achievements. He left behind, quite simply, a strong, virtuous woman, who will remember him with love for the remainder of her own life. He changed her world, and I think that’s at least as important as any other.

He used to say that he just wanted to be remembered and thought of. I don’t know how he wanted to be remembered, or by whom, but I remember one thing clearly. A few years ago I had the opportunity to talk to him one-on-one, and I asked him simply what he wanted. What, I said, would make him happy?

His answer was to see his children happy. Nothing more, and nothing less. The same driving motivation to keep his children happy never wavered from the moment they were born until the moment he died.

If that isn’t a worthwhile legacy, I don’t know what is.