Author’s Note: For the past few days I’ve been in Tennessee at a workshop hosted by Madcap Retreats about writing cross culturally. It was an incredible, eye-opening experience, and I’m only sharing a snippet of what I learned there, so I highly recommend you participate in one of their workshops if you ever get the chance to.
There are ways to create narratives of hope that don’t feel like a lie.
~ Leigh Bardugo
To fully understand this post, you’ll need to watch this video (there’s also a transcript, but if you can watch I recommend doing that).
The idea of a single story is (obviously), not mine, but over the weekend, it was one of the concepts that hit nearest my heart. There are single stories for every marginalized group of people. In the video, you’ll hear some of them. During my workshop, I heard others. I’m not going to talk about the stories of others, because you should listen to their voices for that. What I am going to talk about is what the single story for me has been, why it’s hurtful, and why that matters to your writing (and mine).
For those who might not follow this blog regularly, I’ll start by telling you that I’m a twenty-nine year old, cisgender, female. I was raised outside of Philadelphia. I’m privileged. Most people would not think of me as part of a marginalized group. Mostly, I don’t think of myself that way.
I do, however, suffer from complex post traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, OCD, touch aversion, and agoraphobia. I have an invisible marginalization which I can usually hide, but it affects every aspect of my life.
Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is defined as a condition that results from chronic or long-term exposure to emotional or physical trauma over which a victim has little or no control and from which there is little or no hope of escape. (Source). PTSD and CPTSD are slightly different in that PTSD can result from single events, or short-term exposure to extreme stress or trauma whereas CPTSD is generally associated with long-term trauma. That said, most people don’t know what CPTSD is, so I typically tell people I have PTSD.
When I do “out” myself, the most typical question that follows is, “What war?”
This is the single story in action. (If you haven’t watched the Chimamanda Adichie video or read the transcript yet, go ahead and do it now. Here’s another link. Seriously, it’s that important.)
PTSD is most often associated with veterans. That’s the single story literature, television, and film have created for us. And because of that single story, my experience somehow seems less valid. When I don’t play into people’s perceptions or expectations, my experience is diminished. Surely, I must be faking it. Surely, I must be overly sensitive. Surely, nothing can be as traumatizing as war. Surely, my experience doesn’t matter.
For years, I resisted fighting against this narrative because it felt like fighting against veterans who have PTSD. The single story of PTSD made me feel like I had no right to voice my own experience because by telling my story I was challenging their story. This is not, however, the case. I’m not challenging the narrative at all. There are veterans who have PTSD. But there are people who are not veterans who have PTSD as well, and their stories deserve to be told too. We can tell multiple stories without threatening others. We, as people, deserve more than a single story. We deserve more than two or three or ten stories. Every story gives us a fuller life experience.
The above example is contemporary, but the single story concept extends beyond as well. It permeates every facet of literature. In fantasy, especially young adult fantasy, there is another single story narrative pertinent to PTSD that’s repeated over and over, and it is this: Broken Girl meets The One and is fixed through the curative power of Love.
This narrative hurts me. It is a dangerous lie.
Growing up, I often escaped to fantasy worlds to help me cope with what was unraveling around me. I still do. But especially as a young reader, I internalized much of what I read. And this narrative, the “Broken Girl Cured by Love” narrative, buried itself deep. So deep I didn’t realize how much it had shaped my behavior until this weekend, and to be honest, I’m still trying to untangle a lot of it.
What I have realized, however, is that I truly believed I could be cured by love. In fact, up until recently, one of my primary criterion for a partner was that I could spend a night with them and not suffer nightmares. I was sure that somewhere out there someone existed who would save me from my nightmares. This internalized narrative that I picked up from fantasy books is harmful to me in real, tangible ways.
One of the ways my PTSD manifests itself is through touch aversion. When I’m touched (especially by a stranger), I experience physical symptoms. My heart rate rises, my breathing shallows, I become dizzy, I grind my teeth, I sweat, my pulse hammers in my ears so I can’t hear properly. Often, I freeze, completely debilitated by terror. Sometimes, I lash out, verbally or physically. This is not a comfortable feeling.
Yet, because of the Broken Girl Cured by Love narrative, I’ve put myself in this position time and time again. I’ve retraumatized myself while I search for The One To Defeat The Nightmares. I’ve spent nights with people I was revolted by hoping this time I’ll find The One. This time, the Magical Cure Love will save me from my PTSD. I’ve numbed myself with drugs and alcohol while I try to find The One Who Wields the Cure Love, hoping that when I do I’ll be able to be touched without the need for chemical alteration.
It has not and will not ever happen. Love is not a cure for PTSD. That doesn’t mean there isn’t hope; it simply means this narrative is not the “hope” people like me need. The lie of this single story has damaged me, and I don’t think it takes much extrapolation to understand it could damage other people, or to see the damage done could be more extreme than it has been in my case.
One of the main takeaways from my weekend workshop is that words are powerful, more powerful than we might realize. As writers, we have a responsibility to our readers and that is to tell the Truth as best we can. It’s not easy, and it’s not always pretty, but it is our duty to try, to put in the work, and to hopefully do no harm.
There is no such thing as a single story of the human experience, and it’s far past time we stopped trying to tell one. As Daniel José Older told me over the weekend, “It doesn’t have to be sexy.” I suppose the Truth hardly ever is.