“Trust children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children, we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.”
These are the words of educational pioneer John Holt. They came to my mind when I sat down to write a review of Christine Stark’s
ambitious first novel, Nickels
is the story, told in a first-person narrative, of a survivor of paternal incest and maternal abandonment. The chapters are named for the age of the protagonist, and they advance in five year increments, beginning when “Little Miss So and So” is five and ending when she is twenty-five. Although Stark makes clear in her introduction that the story is not autobiographical, the authenticity of the heroine’s voices at these various ages and stages of development indicates—at least to this reader—that Stark has remarkable recall for the voices of childhood.
This is no small feat. Early childhood is a landscape of disconnected perceptions, whose causal links and contexts are not yet understood by the developing brain. It is a world of limited language and limited concepts… or perhaps the better word would be “restricted,” because the child must make sense of her world using templates handed to her and imposed upon her by the adult world. Childhood is a paradox. For all the confusion and intentional obfuscation, children manifest astounding clarity about the beauties of the natural world as well as the hypocrisies of the adult one. Sadly, most of us lose both the sense of wonder and of horror as we mature. It goes without saying—literally—that the child’s perspective is a challenge for most writers. When the child is a survivor, it becomes nearly impossible to retrieve that voice, because of the dissociation, amnesia, and denial associated with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is the legacy of child sexual abuse.
Orpheus Leading Eurydice out of the Underworld
Stark has done something in Nickels that deserves our attention. She has not only remembered, but she has resisted the impulse to editorialize. Instead, she has given us the pure voice of the survivor, and in doing that, she compels her readers to experience the world—fragmented, distorted, with fragile islands of comfort and familiarity—through the eyes and limited context of the child. And then she enables us to grow up along with that survivor, collecting and integrating the fragments of self along with her protagonist.
Thank you, Ms. Stark, for what must have been a descent into some kind of personal hell to recover this fictional Eurydice , this survivor with no name, whom you have led back up into the light of publication—an indictment and a torchbearer.
Forgetting childhood sometimes appears to be the primary goal of socialization, even as civilization promulgates evermore clever incentives for amnesia and evermore diabolical penalties for remembering.
Nickels is a tough read, like other novels about incest (Push by Sapphire, which was made into the film Precious, or The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.) Historically, the culture has preferred perpetrator-identfied or apologist books like Lolita, depicting the survivor of child sexual abuse as a sexually precocious predator, or a shadowy figure around which the rest of the plot revolves. The trope of the survivor of incest in a father-knows-best world, like the 19th century trope of the “tragic octaroon” in a world of racial apartheid, is that of a lamentable anomaly in a system that otherwise works just fine for everybody. The incest survivor is a reminder of inconvenient truths, and writers and artists historically either pretend she does not exist or they—regretfully—kill her off (suicide, of course, being a form of death by remote control).
Stark does neither. Her protagonist survives. She comes to an understanding of what has been done to her, and as importantly, by whom it has been done. She has been victimized by her father and her mother, by a criminal justice system that fails her, by misguided social workers and foster parents, by mental health professionals and institutions. But she finds a community. She finds feminism. She recognizes her own lesbianism, a lesbianism that enabled her to form a powerful and passionate alliance with another girl at the age of ten. She begins to write and she finds her voice.
I want to give an example of Stark’s brilliant stream-of-consciousness, literary and spot-on accurate portrayal of PTSD. This is an excerpt from the chapter titled “Age Twenty-five.” A little backstory: When the heroine was ten her father made her wear a purse, where he would put the nickels he gave her after sexually abusing her. Now, she is in a women’s bookstore attempting to purchase a feminist novel: "Sarah rings me up That’ll be 1.95 with tax I give her two dollars five cents is your change she drops a nickel so shiny and bright into my hand I freeze the nickel rolls off my hand onto the counter I stare at it I want to tell someone something the nickel circles itself on the counter looking for a place to settle I don’t move What’s going on Tara says somewhere over my shoulder I stare at the nickel spinning in a spot next to the pile of bright pink A Room of One’s Own bookmarks I shake my head I don’t want them to think I’m crazy don’t want them to know a nickel dropped out of the sky into my hand made me want to die Keep the change I grab the book walk under the shimmering crystal into the street
This is how it happens, integration of trauma: moment-by-moment, association-by-association, synaptic-connection-by-synaptic-connection, by constant negotiation between past and present, telling and not-telling, depairing and hoping, heaven and hell.
Thank you, Christine, for the gift. (Nickels (ISBN: 978-1615990856) is available at bookstores, online booksellers, and can also be purchased as a Kindle download. For information about Stark and her other work, visit her website.