On childhood abuse

It’s ‘impossible to explain to the healthy the logic of the sick.’ Hanya Yanagihara

So we understand from Jude St Francis, a man in his mid-thirties crippled with a disabled spine following a serious car accident in which he nearly lost his life. But that’s not the half of it in his Little Life, along with that of his three close friends, JB, Malcolm and Willem. All of them dogged by life’s troubles, mid twentieth century, but none more so than Jude. 

To read this book is to venture into the world of trauma and child abuse full on. 

We are privy not only to what Jude experiences at the hands of the cruel monks who raised him, presumably in a Franciscan monastery, and gave him his name, as an abandoned baby left beside a dumpster to freeze to death. 

The story continues in sequential flashbacks that pile one on top of the other, of abuse upon abuse inflicted on this young man throughout his early years. We get glimpses of his initial attempts to cope through tantrums and rage, which are only met with more punishment into an adult hood of self-cutting and other deprivations all hopelessly designed to rid him of the burden of his childhood experience. 

His constant insistence he has done bad, unspeakable things when we know that he was subjected to appalling cruelties on his young person. We can see the way they get confused even in his so-called happy times. 

This is not a book for people who can’t tolerate the imagined feel of a knife through the skin, the blade edging deeper, and the blood. There are times when I find myself groaning out loud at the horror of it all. But persevere I must. As persevere we all must in our own little lives, hopefully none as horrific as Jude’s. Though I know that’s unlikely.

Jude is a man who values friendship but is unable to use it fully as he can’t trust that anyone else will not be corrupted by him or even that someone good will not turn bad in his presence. It’s classic trauma, not just the theory but the full impact. 

Yanagihara’s imagination suggests to me she’s been close to these dark places. To know the depths of self-loathing a person can reach. Despite the efforts of Jude’s many friends to reach and help, he cannot get beyond the fundamental belief he is unworthy of love.

This story reminds me of Franz Kafka in his short story Metamorphosis. A boy reduced to a beetle, flat on his back and non-comprehending with disinterested parents, and a dispassionate sister. But I digress. 

St Jude is the patron Saint of lost causes. And Francis was both my mother’s and father’s favourite saint. He is the patron saint of animals. It’s said my father uttered these words before he died, that St Francis was a wonderful saint. Or some such words, but that might have been my mother’s wishful thinking. She was with my father soon before he died. My father was a master at self-loathing, despite his last-minute re-conversion to religion. 

St Jude, Patron saint of lost causes, of hope when all hope is gone.

Self-loathing. I suspect we all know something about it. The voice in your head telling you you’re useless, a blight on the landscape, a disgrace to humankind. Overdoses of shame then swamp you in a fog of self-criticism and the weird relief that comes from writing yourself off, before your conviction that others would instead.

When I was a child I loved Emily Dickinson’s poem:

 I’m nobody. Who are you? Are you Nobody too? 

She makes a virtue of this state: 

Then there’s a pair of us.

Don’t tell. They’d advertise, you know

How dreary to be somebody. 

How public like a frog 

To tell one’s name the livelong June

To an admiring Bog.

And a children’s verse comes to mind. I like to quote it out loud in sing song fashion to highlight the sensation. 

Nobody likes me
Everybody hates me
Guess I’ll go eat worms
Big, fat, juicy ones
Long, thin, slimy ones
Itsy bitsy, fuzzy wuzzy worms
Down goes the first one
Down goes the second one
Oh, how they wiggle and squirm!
Big, fat, juicy ones
Long, thin, slimy ones
Itsy bitsy, fuzzy wuzzy worms
Up comes the first one
Up comes the second one
Oh, how they wiggle and squirm!
Big, fat, juicy ones
Long, thin, slimy ones
Itsy bitsy, fuzzy wuzzy worms
Nobody likes me
Everybody hates me
Guess I’ll go eat worms!

The strange comfort we get from chastising ourselves, not in the modest way of recognising our mistakes and limitations, but in an all-encompassing and massive way that reckons we’re despicable. Despicable Me. Like one of the minions, only worse.

Yanagihara’s words about the logic of the sick appear after Jude in a wheelchair because walking causes him too much pain in his legs, arrives at his apartment after a long day at the office. He’s a whizz bang lawyer in New York.

He lives on the fifth floor but the lift has stopped working. He rings the few friends he’s prepared to call upon but none of them are available. His closest friend Willem, at a party, doesn’t hear his phone ring.

After moments of despair, Jude starts to lug himself up the one hundred plus steps. Dragging his folded wheelchair behind. He collapses midway and tries his friends again.

Half an hour later he drags himself up the final stretch, finally reaches his apartment, gets inside, then loses consciousness. 

When Willem reaches him, Jude’s out cold and drooling. Willem calls Andy, Jude’s doctor and a friend. When Jude wakes up hours later, both independently ask him: ‘What were you thinking?’

Why didn’t he call so or so and so. Why didn’t he wait for Willem to come. Then Yanagihara offers the simple words: ‘impossible to explain to the healthy the logic of the sick.’

So many layers of meaning here. This book is an attempt to explain to all of us who can bear to read, the ways in which the unmitigated abuse of a child can turn the life of even the most gifted into a never ending cycle of self hatred and cruelty. The book makes sense of self destruction in ways I can see more clearly than ever before.

We need books like these, despite the pain they evoke. We need to understand the lives of those so wounded they can never overcome their pain. We need to accompany them on their journeys so we can better understand and try to stop the cruelties that give rise to such lives in the first place.

One thought on “On childhood abuse”

  1. I don’t use the word “abuse” often when talking about my past. Was my father abusive? Absolutely, and in many ways. But I never felt abused. It was just the way things were. I’ve often wondered if Winston Smith realised he was living in a dystopia. I think not. We may well be living in one now. Just because things could get worse doesn’t mean they’re not bad enough to qualify. So, yes, technically I was abused. But I don’t feel like one of the Abused. There are plenty of things I do identify as but not that. And it’s not denial. It really isn’t.

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