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2 Themes From Roxane Gay’s Memoir That Resonated With Me as a Trauma Survivor


Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

This summer, I read “Hunger” by Roxane Gay. It got me thinking about age, body image, trauma, privilege and so much more.

“Hunger” is a book that could be considered a memoir about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it is much more than that. It is not medical or clinical, but real, honest and raw. You feel as if you’re inside her head, hearing her every thought about her trauma. That’s where it becomes overwhelming. Yet, I am thankful that something with this level of honesty and intensity exists for us.

Here are the two major themes that emerged for me while reading this book: trauma and privilege.

Trauma. Like I said, this book could be an account of PTSD but she does not frame it that way. She does not use that label here, and I’m not sure if she claims that diagnosis for herself at all. Regardless, I can’t help but make connections between the experiences of other survivors like myself and the perspective of Gay, which was shaped by being sexually assaulted when she was 12 years old.

You know when you read something and you are so struck because it sounds exactly like you? As if you could have written it yourself? This quote did it for me: “I was twenty years old and I felt like I was twelve years old and I felt like I was twenty years old and I felt like I was a hundred years old. I knew nothing but thought I knew everything.” (Gay, 99)

This captures so much of what trauma survivors can experience. Innocence can be taken at such a young age that by the time we are 20 years old, we feel as if we are 100 years old. We know so many terrifying truths of the world. We see it clearly. And with that, there’s this duality of seeing beauty and purity clearly too, yet we feel we’ve lost those things and so we envy it in others. Sometimes we feel 12 years old, too. We feel suspended in that moments of life-changing trauma that shaped our self-perception, our trust of others and our hope. And again, we feel 20 years old (or our actual age). We know there has been growth, distance and reflection. All of these feelings (of age) are temporary. It is difficult to remember our true age.

My therapist taught me a grounding technique related to age. She asked me: “Where were you when you were 12 years old? What was happening? What was wonderful and what was terrible?” She continued on with several other milestones – 15, 18, 21 and so on. She then asked: “What age are you now? Where are you? Who cares about you? What is today’s date?” Our brains, when they have been traumatized, have trouble identifying our true age. The anxiety pulls us toward the past and the future. We have to work to be in the present.

Gay shares a symptom of her trauma when she says, “I barely slept because it was in sleep that I was forced to confront myself, my past. I was tormented by terrible dreams, memories really, of those boys, the woods, my body at their lack of mercy.” (Gay, 100)

There are so many examples of Gay’s response to trauma that resonated with me: lack of sleep due to nightmares, avoidance, short- and long-term memory gaps, change in eating habits, change in sexual desire and never feeling that we’re enough and on “thin ice.” There is a heavy burden of our trauma symptoms, our bodies that have been labeled as disgusting or as an object and our difficulty in communicating all of these thoughts inside our heads that are already too much for us to digest. We’re always apologizing for things that are not our fault, but mostly apologizing for existing as we are.

Privilege. I provide trainings to teachers, students and non-profits about diversity and inclusion. There’s a particular story that I tell in most trainings about how my parents would lock the car doors every time we drove into neighborhoods predominantly occupied by people of color and working class families. They made a point of telling me to be “safe” there. I tell this story to illustrate bias – race and class bias, but mostly racial bias because my family knew what it was to be poor.

People often challenge this story by asking,“Well, weren’t they legitimately worried about your safety in a statistically unsafe neighborhood?” I explain that there was so much violence happening in my own neighborhood (domestic violence, sexual violence, drug abuse, suicide). It was confusing to me, even at 12 years old, why my parents would point out violence there when I had already seen so much in my own neighborhood. This illustrates the disconnect between how we perceive safety in cities and the realities of violence everywhere. Privilege gives us the ability to believe mistruths and play devil’s advocate by turning people’s pain into hypotheticals and debate challenges. As trauma survivors, we know what it means to be “other” and to have our experiences challenged.

Roxane Gay writes, “The final nail in the coffin of my yearning was their worry that the city was too dangerous, a concern that frustrated me, immeasurably, because I knew where danger really lurked – in the woods behind well-manicured exclusive suburban neighborhoods, at the hands of good boys from good families.” (Gay, 86)

Here, Gay is talking about how danger and violence are silenced by privilege. She highlights that white boys, especially with wealth, are viewed as “good” and therefore not potential perpetrators. According to RAINN, perpetrators of sexual violence are more often white and know the survivor/victim personally. All of this leads me to understand that we need to question what “good” boys and families truly means. We need to evaluate accountability so that survivors can live their full lives with justice, if that is what they seek.

The book concludes with hope: “I finally recognized that I matter to the people in my life and that I have a responsibility to matter to myself and take care of myself so they don’t have to lose me before my time, so I can have more time.” (Gay, 283)

Growth, warmth and responsibility are not ends to suffering, but a welcoming of light. There is so much to learn from Gay’s honesty.

Photo via Amazon