Two nights ago I wrote a review of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, an epic book about four friends growing up together in New York City. One of the four, Jude St. Francis, suffered extreme sexual, physical, and emotional abuse throughout his childhood. As an adult, Jude works as an ambitious and renowned litigator. In addition to his handsomeness and his intellect, he forges several deep and tender friendships. However, Jude’s trauma continues to haunt him. He cuts himself in egregious ways to numb his psychological pain. He views himself as someone who only inspires disgust. He refuses to open up about his past. I write this post because Jude’s struggle reminded me a lot of the emotional abuse I suffered as a child and my personal battle with the scars it has left behind. I write this post to prove that hope exists for people like us, for people who experienced what no child should have to.
A lot of the conflict in A Little Life stems from Jude’s inability to accept care from those around him. In addition to burning him and forcing him to eat his own vomit, the monks at the monastery he grew up in called him worthless, unlovable, and disgusting. Jude internalizes these labels and hates himself as a result. His struggle to believe in the love of his friends, even years after the abuse occurred, reminded me of my own difficulty when it comes to viewing myself as someone who deserves affection. As a child I promised myself that I would not turn out like my mom, so I grew up with a passion for empathy, compassion, and caring for others in addition to myself. And yet, as I begin to unravel the abuse I experienced in the past, I often wonder: am I really as awful as my mother always said I was? Will people hate me or think of me as a fraud if they knew about what my mom did? Like Jude, I work hard and have confidence in my potential as a psychologist, a researcher, and a mentor – still, I question my place in other people’s lives, or if I deserve that place at all, even when I have people who care about me.
At one point in the book, Jude engages in an abusive relationship with a man named Caleb, who denounces Jude and hurts him in ways both physical and emotional. Jude and Caleb’s awful romance reminded me of an unhealthful friendship I took part in earlier in my college career. This person often made me question his care, and in the end told me that I relied too much on other people, that the good deeds I do only act as a mask for the awful person I am. My abusive friendship mirrors that of Jude’s because we both sought people who confirmed how we view ourselves: as needy, burdensome, and grotesque. When you grow up hearing such awful things about yourself, reliving that kind of emotional maltreatment provides a masochistic safety net. It is all too easy to despise yourself; it takes immense strength to break free from those formative years and treat yourself with the kindness and compassion you give to others.
Jude has an on-and-off relationship with therapy. Throughout the book, we yearn for him to open up about his past, to confide in someone about his awful upbringing. The most affective moments of the book center on when Jude accepts the care of his friends; we as readers receive hope only during the rare scenes in which he believes in the love of those surrounding him. Jude experiences both overwhelming tragedy and unconditional affection in his life, the latter of which he must learn to welcome, despite the scars that mark his arms and his heart.
At a pivotal scene in the novel, Jude reflects that “all the most terrifying Ifs involve people… all the good ones do as well.” This statement resonates with me: how would my life have turned out without my abusive mother, my absent father, and my unavailable ex-friend? At the same time, how would I have fared without the care of my kind grandmother, my precocious cousin, my friends who have stuck with me, my intelligent therapist? The people in my life have hurt me and healed me, and now, as I have always done, I must work on healing myself, while accepting the concern of those around me.
I can write these messages with ease, these statements I would want all of my friends to internalize: “I deserve love.” “My mistakes do not define me.” “I am an inspiration to so many people.” “I am not my abuse.” “I am so cared for.” Now, I just have to believe them myself. It will be hard. It will be worth it.
Sorry for the almost two-month blogging hiatus! I have been managing a full course load, two jobs, multiple volunteering positions, etc. so my schedule has been tight. However, I appreciate everyone’s comments so so much, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Any tips on accepting other people’s affection – or believing yourself to be worthy of such affection – would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for sticking with me and my melodrama, as always.