Living with Death: Storytelling, Trauma, and Renewal
Author: Alan Lessik
September 27, 2016
Orlando, the daily assaults and the murders of members of the trans community and others around the world remind us that queer people are never far from death. Even with significant gains, our very right to exist remains under continuous attack. The massacre in Orlando continues to have reverberations for those that have suffered violence themselves as well as those who watched a whole generation die in the 80s and 90s. One-time outpourings of grief and anger in memorials, blog posts, and pride parades in the immediacy of the moment do not mitigate trauma that seeps into our bodies. Despite our desire to move on quickly and let go, the mind and body keep their own memories of these events. Hopelessness, anger, sadness, fear and grief often re-emerge at key anniversaries, change points in our life and can be retriggered by external events.
Trauma creates unfinished stories that reach deep into every part of our being. As writers (and readers), we know the unrelenting power of lingering stories, stories unwritten or unread, stories without conclusions. Stories that have a visceral urgency to be finished.
Zen teaching says that each of us creates a story of an entity called “me.” The story is an attempt by the brain that controls the “me” to make sense out of the world and the experiences it encounters. However, the created story of our own self has little to do with reality; the story is instead an internal prism that breaks down feelings and experiences and sorts them as fitting or not fitting with who we think we are.
Over time, our story becomes an amalgam of events, permeated with hurts, losses and mistakes that tend to shape our narrative. We believe that we “learn” from events and often hold those truths as self-evident. Most of us believe our invented story of who we are and how our personality was formed as our brains declare authoritatively that what we see or hear or feel is substantial and true in its reality.
After the death of my partner René, I continued to reflect on his life story by remembering a series of pivotal events that led step-by-step to the conclusion that he was a survivor and always would be. His was a hero narrative and was uplifting to everyone who heard it.
There was a significant problem with his story, in addition to the question of truthfulness of our perceived reality raised above. The real conclusion was that he died and to make things slightly more complicated, he took his own life, which might be the ultimate anti-narrative of the survivor.
Six months after his death, I was in the throes of grieving. As the number one believer in his story, I felt in a bind. I wanted to honor René and make sure his stories were not forgotten. As his last partner, I knew more of his “story” than anyone else. On the other hand, I knew the story of his life was ultimately more complicated. Why had I not known that before? My willingness to believe his well-honed survivor’s tale meant I was ultimately blindsided by his death. Despite my understanding of his fatal mental illness, I was left confused and wanted to understand why he died.
One evening in Berlin, after visiting the Neues Museum where the bust of Nefertiti resides, I broke down in wails of grief on the street. He had a special place in his heart for that statue, as well as a story about it. His mother taught Ancient History in a high school in Havana, Cuba and Nefertiti reminded him of his mother and all she taught him. My friend, Michael, who I was visiting, insisted later that evening, that I had to write René’s story, as I was the only one who knew it all. He too believed that it was a story that needed to be told.
While I vehemently refused to take accept that responsibility, another three weeks later while back home in San Francisco, I ventured to write a 50,000 word novel in one month as part of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month.) I was unsure about writing a novel, as René was a real person and therefore his story was “real.” However, before my first words were on the page, I remembered a discussion when he spoke of writing his own story. “It can’t be a memoir,” he stated, “because I don’t remember all the details.” While at the time, I argued against this point of view, now that I was faced with writing the “same” (as if they could be the same) stories, I realized that I would have to make everything up, since I was not there for most of the events. So the novel writing began.
While I was writing, well intentioned friends would tell me writing was good for me to process my grief. I never thought about processing my grief–I just wanted an answer to the question of why did he die? I was not writing for me; I was writing to tell his story and to do so I needed to go outside of his story. Early on the idea of using the Odyssey as a guide came to me, another influence of this mother who died many years before I met René. This point is key as well as beautiful…someone I never met and only knew about through the memories of her son was helping me guide my thoughts and creativity. We humans are like that. Our influences come not just from our own experiences but the collective experience we share with others long gone.
I had an outline in my mind of the chronology of René’s life story as he told it as well as from the last 12 years that I experienced with him. But the moment I put fingers to keyboard, other characters appeared. First a small Greek chorus sprang up in the first lines. Simultaneously I thought: where did they come from and what are they going to do next? Soon enough they led me on and answered my other question, would he live or die in this version of his story.
When I finished that chapter a few hours later, I wept. Wept in surprise of what I was writing, wept for the deepness of where my heart was touching; wept for remembering him; and wept in knowing that I would never see him again.
As I continued to tell René’s story and filled in the blind spots of his life, I realized a truth about the storyteller, the story is always on their terms. What is revealed is only what they want to reveal. What is not, is kept a secret from us all and perhaps even from themselves. Even in our own lives, we can discover gaps as if that were someone else’s life. This was when I took my next leap as a writer and invented an answer. I tested it, did it make sense? Would I believe this is if someone revealed this secret to me? Did it fit with what I believed I knew about René or an imaginary character somewhat like René or even a character emerging from my own psyche portraying René?
I began inhabiting René but not as the lover and partner that I thought I knew so well. I inhabited a René that I was creating with a story, yet to be completed, that would make sense.
I was now writing with grief. Story upon story became a human life. I would infuse this new life with my questions, my despair, my sorrow and my longing. While I understand that I was the writer and all of these elements were coming out of me, at the same time, I could see that grief was the wave that carried me. Memories flooded into me, pictures were starting points and in the background, my feelings were coming to the forefront. Joy, happiness, uncertainty, fear, anger, grief, hate and sadness all of the building blocks of one’s emotional life found a place in the words.
In the process, I re-discovered that words themselves had stories. The word shame can be traced to the Proto-Indian European language spoken 5000 years ago indicating its power and importance in human life. Nausea as a word remained unchanged in meaning over two thousand years from the original Greek. Maricon, an epithet in Spanish for a gay man was linguistically remodeled and completely switched meanings and intent from the invocation of the name Maria, the mother of Jesus. Gaydar on the other hand was coined in the 1970’s.
One word in particular changed the direction of the story, itself. When I googled Cuban beliefs regarding the birth of twins, the first entry was jimaguas, which I recognized as the Cuban word for twins. However, when I clicked on the entry, it took me to Nigeria’s Yorubaland, not to Cuba. Its origin brought in the Santeria orishas or gods who came with their own back story. They shared a common one, their own travels from Yorubaland, forced down the river to the ocean as they followed their people kidnapped by slave traders until they reached new worlds. Here, the gods themselves changed, adapted and their stories grew. They merged the lives of the Catholic saints with their own. And these gods soon were quickly re-purposed once more in my story, their roles providing detail and additional clarity.
As the gods appeared, I began asking them questions and they would respond. They did more than a bit of arguing among themselves on certain issues, demonstrating once again that on “the great matter of life and death” there are only a few answers and much interpretation. They became not only commentators on the story but integrated themselves into the story. They offered me a time to reflect on words that were pouring out of me.
At 86,000 words. I was spent and exhausted, exhilarated, proud and completed. Three years went by with numerous edits, which honed the story word-by-word, paragraph-by paragraph. Along the way, it changed again, perhaps as the nature of my grieving changed. I still cannot read the first or last chapters without tearing up.
In the end, I answered the question behind the story. Ironically, it took me making up a story based on some real life occurrences that I heard about, adding in all sorts of fantastical characters, creating new plot lines, imagining feelings, events and people that I did not know, adding in my own experiences of life in Cuba and in the US, to get this answer. Is it the truth? It can never be. But in taking his life, René did not take his story. He left it for us to make sense of and ponder.
Now I believe in a version of the story where he dies. I believe in the inevitability of his death and the conclusion of his life. I still see the coherence of his life but on different terms. I sometimes cannot remember which parts I made up and which parts were based on “real” events. But that is the power of the writer and storyteller. That is power of grief as it brings us back to living. Grief has its own set of experiences that are individualized and different. While grief has no singular purpose, the cycle of grieving transforms us. Grief can fortify a heart with new awareness and an understanding that death does not end life for those that remain.
This is how we transform trauma. We honor the feelings, the hurts, the fears and the horrors that lie within our bodies and minds. We acknowledge them, feel the power and let them wash over us. With each wave, we can feel its power lessening, the ebbing of pain and fear and the distancing of the horror of the event. We don’t forget, we don’t hide and we don’t ignore. We eventually come out on the other side, living with our knowledge of death and knowing all we can do is live. Live and celebrate the stories of the ones that are gone. Live, knowing that our memories, our bodies and our mind will reintegrate this new outlook and way of living to create our next story, the story of how we survived, we overcame and we were born anew.