The Book That Made Me is a series reflecting on the books that have changed our lives. In this latest installment, the winner of our graduate essay contest shares how, despite a lifelong love of words, it was a book of images that ultimately helped the most in her time of need.
The winner of our undergraduate essay contest was published yesterday.
2016 should’ve been a great year for me. In my second year living in New York, I was finally feeling settled in my apartment, social network, and PhD program. By summer, I felt confident in the path of my research and had regained my sense of adventure. I took a part-business, part-pleasure trip to Scotland, presenting at a conference that resulted in negligible damage to my self-esteem—a rarity in academia. Then I spent five days backpacking the Highlands, wild-camping in sheep fields and remembering what it’s like to be alone without being lonely. By the end of the trip, I knew I could thrive at the border of my physical and mental limits. I was ready to get home and get to work.
But whatever reserves of joy I built abroad would soon be depleted. Two weeks after my return to the States, I was raped and would spend the remaining months of 2016 wracked and wrecked by guilt and PTSD.
I still can’t tell the story. How do you describe something you’re trying so hard to un-imagine? And because I can’t talk about it, I am always carrying its weight inside me. My timeline split in half the moment my body tore open—the crack a chasm between past and present, between the outside world and me.
When I first read Becoming Unbecoming, a graphic memoir by a woman under the pseudonym of Una, I was hooked by the very first image. A girl carries a sack-like empty speech bubble up the side of a dark mountain, her torso bending beneath its burden. We cannot see her face, but her hunched position and the downward tilt of her head let us know she suffers under the weight of what’s unsaid. This is an image repeated throughout the narrative, which blends the author’s own experiences of sexual assault with the case of the Yorkshire Ripper, breaking down rape culture in a way that is both personal and political.
The book’s final image of a dark forested landscape upsets the trope of the recovery narrative—assuring me that it is okay to still be in the woods of trauma.
As a literature student, I’d wanted words to fix me. But it was images that pieced me back together. For months I’d been stumbling under the weight of my own silence. Sometimes it buried me. An alternating lack or intensity of emotion isolated me from everything but my own trauma.
Becoming Unbecoming offered me a model to live by, a way to feel less alone without speaking and without turning rape into spectacle. Una’s images of dark forests and of her own body—lying supine, sometimes literally rooted to the earth—captured my own feelings of being both trapped and vulnerable.
Throughout the narrative, she breaks down rape culture, the way trauma can wound the body and mind, and the danger of idealizing the “strong survivor.” Although written within the cultural context of the United Kingdom, this last bit appears equally dangerous in the context of the United States, where Americans are expected to bootstrap their way to the top regardless of circumstance. The term “resiliency” has become ubiquitous; but what about those who need help bouncing back? What about those who cannot? When everyone is expected to be resilient, trauma survivors who aren’t become viewed as the cause of their own unhappiness. But any trauma is an interruption in one’s life, and that rupture remains, even if patched over by therapy, medication, or sheer willpower.
In Becoming Unbecoming, Una describes the difficulty of telling her own story; how it often amounts to isolating one’s self further, as even the closest of friends and family become uncomfortable around the subject and unsure of how to respond. Struggling to find the “right” emotion that will make her acceptable to others, she draws herself with her head down, hugging her knees—much as I found myself just hours after my own assault—head down, hugging my knees in my apartment, back against the sliver of wall between the radiator and the open deck door. I remember this scene as if I were standing outside myself, bearing witness from across the room.
Becoming Unbecoming bore witness to me. Una’s discretion in regards to her own experiences—and even her identity—made me realize that my story is not for someone else’s entertainment, and that even in silence I can find solidarity. She dedicates her book “to all the others.” It’s the first book I ever read that was dedicated to me.
Yet, this is not to say the memoir is without hope. Una’s facsimile never collapses under the weight of silence, but continues to carry it with her and remain mindful of others who have also lost their voices. So maybe, if I wander long enough within my own landscape, I can make a map. Maybe I will pass another traveler.
The roots of Redwood trees interlock with those around them. With the strength of their combined root system, they grow to dwarf the rest of the forest. If the survivors of sexual assault could connect, maybe we could also find a way to thrive. To provide shelter for each other, or perhaps to cast a shadow so long and dark it could no longer be ignored.