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May 14, 2017

Reading : A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara



Earlier I wrote about how much a person's self-worth affects their self-care, and that week I flew through this book that might be the best, most heartbreaking articulation of that sentiment I've ever come across.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is about four friends: JB, Malcolm, Willem, and the main character Jude.  Except for Jude who is a lawyer, they all pursue creative careers: JB is an artist, Malcolm an architect, and Willem an actor.  The book delves into each person's background and their respective struggles in finding what they want in their work.  Even though it's a common narrative, I love this common thread of working through selves by making art.  Especially because I can't imagine anything other than a novel doing justice to Jude's story.

The book centers on Jude and how his traumatic past shapes his self-identity.  We're first introduced to him as someone whose legs don't quite work, whose body causes him extreme pain; we're not told how this came about, and amidst the silence surrounding the circumstances is a crushing knowledge that the source of his pain might be worse than the consequence.

Yanagihara reveals the circumstances slowly over the course of the novel, mirroring some of the ways Jude processes his past in his own life.  It's not a secret to say that there's a horrifying amount of abuse.  While I think this is a book everyone should read and have already told everyone I see about it, I definitely would warn that it is so, so hard to read the depths of trauma that Jude experiences.

Harder than reading about Jude's past is reading how it affects his present, and I think this is deliberate, and important.  Despite speaking with patients on a daily basis who have suffered past trauma, I can't remember the last time that I really felt the searingly deep effects of trauma on a person the way I did while reading this book.  You don't generally have the time to read 720 pages of a person's life, and after knowing Jude in this intimate way, I feel like I know a little more about everyone.  Not that everyone's experiences are the same, but that so much trauma can be lasting in ways that can be hard to visualize.

What hurts most is how Jude continues to sustain abuse, from others and from himself, long after his past is physically gone.  Because he feels there must have been a reason these things happened to him--he's lesser, less deserving, damaged, diseased.  The more you learn about how Jude sees himself and the tiny slip of his self-worth, the more you also learn about Jude and the weight of his kind, intelligent, giving character.  This is the hardest thing, and it tears at the people who love him, who in so many ways tell and show Jude he's deserving.  Jude forms extremely deep relationships--I think if we all had just one of the several he develops in the book, we'd all feel complete for life--but withholds from them his past and who he feels this past has made him.

Some of this comes from the inherent inability to separate Jude's past from who he is now.  He wonders if his friends would feel differently about him without his disabilities and his dependence on others: "Who would he have been, who would he be, without the scars, the cuts, the hurts, the sores, the fractures, the infections, the splints, and the discharges?"  And I think everyone, especially care providers, can relate to how we are drawn to people who need us most.

One difficult thing I loved about the book is its sincere attempt to understand Jude on his terms.  One of his friends comes to realize: "The person he loved was sick, and would always be sick, and his responsibility was not to make him better, but to make him less sick."  As care providers with the goal to heal, we can become frustrated with the many inabilities to achieve that goal.  And we have set ideas about what it means to be sick and well, which can get in the way of bearing witness to what people actually experience.

And I think that's the one most important reason to read this book: to see.  No matter how hard it is, to really see what a person goes through.  There were parts of the book that literally made me sick and nauseated, and I had to stop reading.  I can count on one hand the number of books that made me cry, and each of those were limited to one moment--this one made me cry maybe half a dozen times.  I grew to love and feel for Jude so much that it'd be hard to sleep at night, thinking about his life (I got in the habit of watching a few minutes of the Gilmore Girls to recover from reading).  He becomes so real, and this fiction makes the lives of the patients I know, and those I don't, so much more palpable.

While saying this book induces nausea and insomnia might sound like a horrible advertisement, don't let that stop you from reading it.  Yes, it's very depressing.  Yes, it's very long.  It requires being in the right space that can accommodate these difficulties, but really, none of us are built (or should be built) to hold everything this book exposes.  So it made me imagine the many people out there who don't have any choice but to hold it all.  We owe it to them to see a small sliver of it, to carry some weight.

That's not to suggest that my love for this book comes from a sense of responsibility.  It is above everything else, really beautiful.  As hard as it is to read some parts of it, I couldn't put it down and read the 720 pages in less than a week.  There are, steadily throughout, incredible moments of beauty.  Besides the fact that the book is beautifully and lovingly written, it pays homage to beauty in so many forms: art, physicality, and most of all, the connections people make to one another: "And this reminded him that he, too, had to keep trying. Both them were uncertain; both of them were trying as much as they could; both of them would doubt themselves, would progress and recede. But they would both keep trying, because they trusted the other, and because the other person was the only other person who would ever be worth such hardships, such difficulties, such insecurities, and exposure."

One of my favorite passages is where one of his friends tells Jude:  "Being with you is like being in this fantastic landscape. You think it's one thing, a forest, and then suddenly it changes, and it's a meadow, or a jungle, or cliffs of ice. And they're all beautiful, but they're strange as well, but you don't have a map, and you don't understand how you got from one terrain to the next so abruptly, and you don't know when the next transition will arrive, and you don't have any of the equipment you need.  And so you keep walking through, and trying to adjust as you go, but you don't really know what you're doing, and often you make mistakes, bad mistakes.  That's sometimes what it feels like."

"They're silent. 'So basically,' Jude says at last, 'so basically, you're saying I'm New Zealand.'"

Having been to New Zealand (next to America, it's my favorite country so far), I agree that Jude, and this book, are New Zealand and more than worth the investment of travelling that far.

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