The tense atmosphere in my house arose from my dad’s frequent bursts of anger, and they gave me insomnia from the time I entered grade school. Although I lay awake almost every night, silence still hung in the air after dark. Tonight, after resting in silence for around half an hour, I hear indistinct shouting from the basement. The sudden chaos shreds the relative peace of a ceasefire between my parents, sparking another episode of fighting and resentment. In a moment of curiosity and, in retrospect, naïveté, I walk in the direction of the noise and hang over the bannister, offering me a clear view of the basement hallway.
I quickly register what’s occurring: my dad is holding a gun to his head, threatening to kill himself. My mom calmly, yet desperately, attempts to persuade him to think rationally, so I stand unnoticed on the landing. I feel too afraid to breathe, let alone to go back upstairs to avoid seeing what could possibly happen. I sit in silence, hunched over to avoid being seen. I alternate paying attention to my parents while looking at the stillness of the living room. Everything there is calm and still, in contrast to the tense fear filling the air. Since the situation could become violent, my mom insists that my dad leave, while calling the police to ask for guidance. As he leaves, the anxiety in the room alleviates. I’m uncertain of his whereabouts, but simply having him gone lessens my anxiety.
I ask my mom why he put her and me in danger. She says, “I found a bottle of vodka in his car after he told me again that he would be sober, so I told him that he needed to leave for the safety and stability of you and your sister. Sometimes, broken families are what people need.”
After that night, my dad continued to avoid any sense of accountability. Although he eventually lost everything in life he valued, my mom, sister, and I never received any form of apology. While my mom and I have discussed our experiences with my dad many times, there is some part of both of us that can’t fully expel all of our residual anger. Though we try to find peace and look at the positive side of his life, it’s difficult to find an island of optimism in what feels like a sea of hurt and betrayal. Could it even be possible for us to forgive someone who never claimed accountability and ownership for his actions?
Writing about trauma is exceptionally difficult, but providing structure to otherwise disorganized, chaotic feelings and thoughts can reduce the psychological weight of the traumatic event. Without that approach to structure that opens up more than it closes down, however, an event lacks a focal point about which to discuss emotions, or to chronicle events, so the nuances feel overshadowed by anger, by hurt. This was the case when I first began to write about the situation with my dad: I couldn’t see past these predominant emotions, and I felt that they impeded my ability to accurately describe and assess the event. As I began drafting, I realized that those emotions are crucial details to my perspective, that eliminating them would erase an essential component of my experience. As I incorporated more of my feelings into my writing, it began to feel more organic and structurally defined. While taking a different approach didn’t eliminate all difficulty in my writing, it enabled me to find a focal point about which to structure my otherwise amorphous thoughts.
After fully developing my account of my dad’s threat of suicide, I faced another obstacle in my writing: I was gripped by an intense fear of the vulnerability that would arise when I shared my story with others. Though I had shared this experience with friends, family, and therapists, I felt insecure about publicizing it. I felt as if I were oversharing with some unknown audience by simply putting it on paper. That I shouldn’t share something so deeply personal when I don’t know who may read it. And because people would likely empathize with my story, I felt that in some way I was unintentionally capitalizing on my trauma.
These feelings may be exclusively explained by my own personal insecurities, but they led me to wonder whether other essayists and creative minds have had similar reservations about sharing their own histories, their own stories, about trauma. Surely, I couldn’t be the only one fearing to inadvertently capitalize on my trauma, rather than allowing it to be seen as a story for my own personal well-being, or for its objective value, for others.
In her visual album Lemonade, Beyoncé creates an extraordinarily nuanced work in which she discusses her personal experience of her partner’s cheating—and also the experience of generational trauma in the black community as a whole. The work chronicles her journey from denial to her eventual reconciliation with her husband, while visually exploring various locales of immense hardship for black people, such as slave encampments, Garden District mansions, and urban neighborhoods in New Orleans. Her work, both greater in length and complexity than an essay due to its use of more than one medium of expression, encompasses a greater scope of human experience than my own narrative. Her story, for example, was based around her search for some rounding off point, some place of almost-rest, rather than its lack. Despite this, there are a number of connections between my story and Beyoncé’s, since both have a basis in the area of trauma, of what refuses to be shoved away, out of sight.
The facets of Lemonade that resonate most with me involve her struggle to forgive and to search for accountability, although her situation involved a cheating partner, rather than an abusive father. In the section she calls “Apathy,” which takes place in a Garden District mansion, Beyoncé’s struggle for forgiveness begins with the diminishing of her anger. She rightfully declares, “I ain’t sorry” to mentally reassert the fact that she is not in the wrong in her situation. Although this could be interpreted as a justification of her anger toward Jay-Z, it is most likely a realization that her situation isn’t of her own making. She may have done nothing to trigger the situation, but she feels that his cheating was brought on by her shortcomings. This is confirmed earlier in “Denial,” when she asserts, “I tried to change. Closed my mouth more. Tried to be softer, prettier.” Beyoncé’s being underwater during this scene reflects her feeling stifled, as if she were drowning due to the guilt of causing her husband’s cheating. I also had a difficult time realizing that my father’s behavior wasn’t brought on by something wrong with me, but rather by his own insecurities, his shortcomings, his incapacity to acknowledge, in some life-giving way, those shortcomings. All this is difficult to realize and an often forgotten first step in the forgiveness process.
Beyoncé’s effort continues with her desire to seek something else, something that affirms, rather than simply denies. In “Accountability,” she discusses her resilience and strength in relation to her desire for her husband to admit fault for cheating. This section of the album accompanies the song “Daddy Lessons,” which tells of how Beyoncé’s father raised her to be strong and resilient. The song is accompanied by footage of Beyoncé in Fort Macomb, which held enslaved African people on their journey to Louisiana plantations, and footage of young Beyoncé and of her childhood community. With lyrics such as, “Daddy made a soldier out of me,” and “Tough girl is what I had to be,” the song tells of the resiliency of the black community as a whole, the desire for accountability for trauma inflicted on black communities in the form of slavery, segregation, disenfranchisement, and police brutality, along with many other state-supported, enforced forms of racism. Her bravery in protesting the very nation that has attempted to silence people of color for its entire history reinforces her desire for the admittance of responsibility. This desire resonates with me, and likely with anyone who has experienced trauma in some form, because of its unified message, both visually and auditorily. My desire for accountability from my father, while not as clearly unified or as far-reaching, also stems from a desire for him to accept what requires accepting and from realizing that my situation is not due to any of my personal faults or shortcomings. While this desire will never be fulfilled, its existence indicates a rightful allocation of blame, which brings some structural relief, in itself.
But I remain concerned about the unintentional, emotional capitalizing on my own trauma, as I try to tell my story. While, ideally, my personal narrative would be evaluated and acknowledged purely for its objective and personal values, there will always be an emotional element to both writing and reading that cannot be expunged for the sake of neutral interpretation and analysis. Yet these point to some of the risks in striving to bring the inside out, into a public world. As I have come to realize that, my concern diminishes. What has grown, however, is my reassurance that I am not alone in worrying about the error of confusing me, as a person, with my past. While Beyoncé, who has been producing work for over two decades, likely has reservations about her own work’s being misinterpreted or capitalizing on her trauma, they are presumably overshadowed by her desire to create change through that work. Beyoncé’s capitalizing on her own and others’ trauma is not intentional: it’s an effect of her being a creative mind and of her marketing a creative product, whose primary intent is to incite thought and active change. Although the intent is identical to a personal account, her approach creates a distinction that distinguishes it as more-than-personal. And that fact makes room for the many others who will listen to her.
Whether I, or anyone else, can completely reconcile with past traumatic events is inconsequential. What matters is that each of us understands what drives our fears, what holds us back, or what can drive us forward in a positive direction. Reality is much more complex than any one person can perceive, but expressing individual reality is an essential part of a creative work. Beyoncé’s reality and attitude towards the past shifts throughout the course of Lemonade, indicating her increased understanding of life’s complexity and depth. Her approach enabled her to explore the feelings she experienced rather than only the events themselves. Likewise, my reality has changed and progressed by exploring my memory in a creative way that enabled me to have a broader perspective on my past. Instead of attempting to reduce my experience with my dad to an objective account, I realized that my emotions are an integral component of my story. And I must tell it completely, to the extent that words allow for a completeness that is always changing, as we who use them do.
Andrew Larkin was born and raised in Utah. He currently attends NYU, planning to earn a B.S. in Chemistry with a minor in French. He hopes his passion for chemistry will lead him to a research position to help develop better medical treatments for those living with mental illnesses.