Jude, Alone: A Case Study of Pain in Fiction
“I wished her story was over. I didn’t want to hear it anymore. All of a sudden I was scared, scared of the feelings she’d had, and I’d never had, and scared of what would happen next.” — Hard Love
*First and foremost, because it would be incredibly hypocritical of me not to, I would like to issue a content warning. There will be mentions of heavy subject matter such as: sexual assault, self-harm, suicide, abuse, and death, amongst other issues. The driving force behind this piece is to explore just how much is too much when including these topics in the media we consume, using A Little Life as a case study. There will also be potential spoilers for: A Little Life, Radio Silence, and Grey’s Anatomy.*
I don’t think I’ll ever forget a moment during my ethics class at university where the class dynamic organically gave way to a real-life application of said ethics. Part of our grade was to participate in the class Facebook group by posting ethically dubious news articles as well as commenting on other classmates’ posts. It was a simple way to make us engage with the class and to critically think about real scenarios rather than made-up conflicts for the sake of a grade.
A couple of weeks into the class, however, I found myself reporting a handful of posts, all of them showing very graphic images of chopped-up animals and dead bodies sandwiched in between breakfast photos and relationship status updates in a very jarring way and with no warning beforehand.
Soon after, one sunny morning, our professor walked into class and stated that, as admin of the group, she was aware of several reports made about these posts. She then calmly asked: is it ethically moral to force someone to see these images?
A debate sprung up, with several classmates arguing that it wasn’t about morality but rather that people needed to see the image to actually understand the crux of said news. My professor argued back that, if words aren’t enough to convince someone of your argument, then it wasn’t valid to scare them into agreeing with you through use of a graphic image that may remain fixed in their heads.
“Then those people aren’t ready for the real world,” one classamte shouted as I shrunk in my seat.
“The real world has enough going on to upset someone as they scroll through social media.” She then concluded, “I don’t believe it’s moral to a) show these images, and b) force people to see them. I will ask that you refrain from adding any graphic imagery to your posts for the rest of the semester.”
I think it’s unrealistic to expect only happy things in the stories we consume. Sad tales, bittersweet or enraging fancies, are part of the human experience and, therefore, a part of storytelling.
It’s perhaps a sense of catharsis, something fundamental in Greek tragedy, that guides us human beings into absorbing these kinds of stories. It’s also, perhaps, a touch of adrenaline and thrill; much like a rollercoaster, it’s safe to engage in what people call “dark” fiction because, no matter the outcome, the story takes place in a controllable environment, and we can always choose when to stop.
However, if creators and artists keep pushing the boundaries of what remains acceptable to print or to publish, when is too much pain too much?
A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel, deals with the lives of four friends throughout their college years and the following decades as they grow older. Mixing past and present, we follow mainly the life of Jude St. Francis, the traumatic incidents that make up his childhood and adolescence, and how the unalterable memories of these events pervade every aspect of his life.
When I first read A Little Life, I went into it without knowing the severe warnings that tend to accompany this book. From off the top of my head, the story dives into sensitive topics such as: sexual assault, sexual violence, pedophilia, abuse, domestic violence, eating disorders, self-harm, suicidal tendencies, and suicide attempts, to name a few. These issues are not just built into the major plot of the book, but are a constant presence throughout nearly each of the 700 pages.
So why are we talking about A Little Life?
If we dive into the BookTube portion of the internet, A Little Life has a reputation of being a wonderful yet heartbreaking book. Youtubers will often vlog themselves throughout the reading process, eventually reaching the much-dreaded final part of the book, “Dear Comrade,” stating that they’re “scared of what’s to come.” Excepting a few cases, most of these vlogs end with violent sobbing and a complete moodkill, with some people censoring their faces or even their audio as the emotion becomes too great to keep on recording.
Booktuber Noelle Gallagher shares her own experience reading A Little Life, and it was her vlog that caught my attention the most. Near the end of her video, Noelle states that she feels a problem with how sensationalized the reading of this book has become, and how it isn’t a book to be recommended by anyone to anyone. One of her top comments adds that it’s “irresponsible” to recommend this book so lightly, due to its subject matter.
And quite frankly, I agree. Yanagihara writes with beautiful prose, her characters, as well as her depiction of life in New York, feel alive from the get-go, and truly, I haven’t felt such a cathartic release of emotions in a very long time. However, I wonder how cathartic it actually was when my initial feelings after closing the book were relief, heartache, burnout, and a bit of a loss of faith in humanity. Whenever I’ve spoken about this book, my description of it tends to be: when you think it can’t get worse, it does, then it does some more, and then it gets even worse after that.
A Little Life is a workout for the reader; it’s an exercise simply in the willpower to carry on past the graphic descriptions of sexual assault, of abuse, of contstant brutalization without knowing if it will get better at any point. [Reader, it doesn’t.]
And after 700 pages of watching a character repeatedly abused and beaten before finally taking his own life, I have to wonder: just what was Hanya Yanagihara’s intent?
In a Q&A for her book, Radio Silence, author Alice Oseman answers the much requested query of why she killed Brian the dog, expressing her regret at not coming up with a better plot device to keep the story moving forward.
She states that it was a cheap, tropey move, done during the final stages of editing when she needed Carol, Aled’s mother, “to do something that was extremely bad that made it completely impossible for Aled to ever associate himself with her ever again.”
As wonderful a book as Radio Silence is, no one, in Oseman’s own words, “wants to see a dog die.” However, she needed an act that would be more than enough to show the reader just how heinous this person could be. As storytelling devices go, killing an animal is a pretty easy solution to bring about extreme feelings towards a character.
In a similar vein, fans of the medical show, Grey’s Anatomy, expressed their discontent when the character of Andrew DeLuca was unceremoniously killed off in the latest season. Many people have complained that, despite the hospital setting, there comes a point where too many doctors and personnel have died for the sake of drama; despite the risks involved in this line of work, so many deaths and tragic events such as homemade bomb explosions, shootings, and plane crashes become ridiculous when presented one after another as a season finale or worse, as cliffhangers.
So when Yanagihara states, in multiple interviews, that she wanted to write a book that was “too much,” that would skirt the line between drama and melodrama, all the while arguing with her editor about how much a reader could take, it begs the question of: how much was intended as a faithful portrayal of trauma, and how much was emotional manipulation?
“…I think the book starts to feel very cheap and manipulative if you think ‘I’m going to try and get this reaction here, and this reaction here, and this reaction here.’ ”
British psychologist, Graham Davey, argues that constant exposure to negative news can affect your mental health, especially when the sources sharing the news also “emotionalize” the information, regardless of its positivity, in order to garner more attention.
With globalization and social media, we are in an age where the threat of terrorism, political unrest, famine, and environmental disaster all seem to occur on our front doorstep rather than halfway across the world. And while we may not personally experience any of these disasters, to constantly absorb bad news will likely “exacerbate your own personal worries and anxieties.”
And this is especially true when consuming media made for entertainment purposes. We have the example of Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time where, halfway through filmmaking, they showed their work to a group of psychologists who deemed the Mother’s death “too traumatic” and helped change the film in order to censure an already distressing moment that lingers throughout the entire story. To this day, I cannot watch or even speak of The Land Before Time with a dry eye.
As mentioned above, Yanagihara herself states that she constantly fought with her editor on how much a reader could take, stating that she “ wanted there to be something too much about the violence in the book, but I also wanted there to be an exaggeration of everything, an exaggeration of love, of empathy, of pity, of horror. I wanted everything turned up a little too high. I wanted it to feel a little bit vulgar in places.”
Ironically, however, after a scathing review by The New York Review’s Daniel Mendelsohn, editor Gerald Howard found himself leaping to the defense of what he originally had issues with.
Despite bringing up the excessive trauma in the book with its author, editor Howard refutes the notion that readers were “duped” by Yanagihara into feeling emotions such as pity, terror, sadness, and compassion.
“Man up, young readers of America! This suggests that we should perhaps sticker the copies of A Little Life that we are shipping to college bookstores with the newly fashionable trigger warnings.”
Later on in his letter, he states that he’s received numerous emails from more “mature” readers with “hardened souls,” playing very much into today’s criticism of young generations (from millennials to Gen Z) about how fragile we tend to be and the demands we make to feel safe.
The editor’s defense seems to stem from a place of “if you don’t like it, you just don’t get it,” as though recoiling from very unpleasant imagery boiled down to not “understanding” it; as though there’s anything in this world that people either 100% adore or hate.
Yet for something he himself was unsure about, is it really fair to look down on readers who felt so distraught upon reading this book?
From YouTube vlogs to reviews found in Goodreads to my own experience reading A Little Life, the response has been misery and desolation. It’s interesting that Howard brings up the concept of trigger warnings when many readers have stated that they felt triggered by their own past, found new ideas from Yanagihara’s graphic descriptions with which to self-harm, and one commenter in particular claims to have attempted suicide.
I believe the problem with many content creators is that they views trigger warnings/content warnings as potential spoilers, or else a system that coddles young readers rather than prepare them for the real world. Much like the terms “toxic” or “gaslight,” “trigger” is often thrown around without taking into account its proper definition (amongst others):
To initiate or precipitate a chain of events, scientific reaction, psychological process, etc.
A trigger is a catalyst for an involuntary response. To incorporate trigger warnings into media isn’t simply because the content is “unpleasant” or “sad”; rather, it’s a mechanism that can help protect people from their own involuntary responses to past trauma. It’s a form of consent within media that remains within our control unlike, you know, real life.
One example of criticism against content warnings comes in the form of the forward to Follow the River by C.C. Ricci:
This book is a work of fiction, but that does not mean that there aren’t very realistic incidents that could be triggering to some readers. Now, I hate trigger warnings. I believe that they can absolutely ruin a book and as such, I will not be listing the specific triggers within this book. This is a blanket trigger warning. This book is meant to go in blind. I’ve purposefully written the blurb to reveal absolutely nothing about the overall plot of this book. Do not read spoilers, if only for you to receive the full impact of the book in both a plot and emotional aspect.
Just trust me, okay?
For many readers, you will experience a variety of emotional reactions and that is a good thing. This book is meant to make you feel. I have no desire to lessen that for you by telling you all the things that happen within the pages that might make someone uncomfortable. This being said, if you have any triggers, any at all, I would suggest reaching out to me to ask if you will be okay reading this book or maybe giving this book a pass all together.
What I don’t suggest? Ignoring this all together and then going and ruining the book for others in any way, shape, or form. Because, let’s be real, I tried to warn you.
Don’t be a Karen, y’all.
It’s very hard to trust an author who so blatently prioritizes the shock value in her work over the comfort of potential readers. Much like Marvel Studios and their extreme measures to prevent spoilers from leaking, Ricci’s entitlement tries to stretch beyond the book itself and into readers’ reactions.
Meanwhile, compare this to the introduction for Orpheus Girl by Brynne Rebele-Henry:
in Orpheus Girl conversion therapy is depicted as the serious, human rights violation it is. The book addresses the real and devastating effects that conversion therapy has on those who go through it. There are scenes in this book that depict self-harm, homophobia, transphobia, and violence against LGBTQ characters. I felt it was necessary to portray the struggles that many members of our community endure in order to raise awareness of the continuing battles we face.
At its core, Orpheus Girl is about hope. This is the story of a heroine whose belief in a better future for herself, for the girl she loves, and for the other characters is never shaken. This book is about our community’s strength in the face of ignorance, our resilience, and our ability to advocate for a better future for ourselves and for those who come after us. I hope that Raya’s journey inspired you to fight for what you believe in.
When I first read Orpheus Girl, the first few chapters left me rapt with suspense, not only due to Rebele-Henry’s ability to make the reader feel Raya’s tension and desperate fear to not get caught, but also from knowing that Raya would, indeed, be caught. The author’s mention of conversion therapy in the introduction automatically lets the reader connect the dots and realize that Raya’s fears will come true.
Yet I never felt that the story was spoiled for me, perhaps because it’s not meant to be a spoiler. A warning is not a spoiler; it’s there from the get-go because its purpose is to warn readers of sensitive content that would make them uncomfortable to the point of triggering a panic attack or breakdown.
And it begs the question: why are content warnings so controversial when it comes to books? One could argue that ratings for film and tv series are a potential spoiler, despite the fact that fanfiction and even news bulletins carry a “viewer discretion is advised” due to the sensitive nature of the content they are sharing.
In a recent thread on Twitter, author Lauren Hough faced backlash after posting her resentment against 4-star reviews on Goodreads, criticizing readers for not being “brave enough” to give her collection of essays, Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, a 5-star rating.
Putting aside most of her comments, I’d like to focus on the following tweet:
Not only does she trivialize sexual assault by comparing it to her facing backlash on Twitter, but she also mocks the usage of trigger warnings, commenting in a different tweet that “life doesn’t give you warnings.”
Similarly, though with less vitriol, in an interview with Electric Literature Yanagihara states that the use of trigger warnings — preemptively shielding yourself from something bad — is “limiting,” because you would then be shielding yourself from experiences you would never come across.
Yet when the content pertains to sexual assault, to abuse, and even death, is it fair to ask a reader to sit there and take it? Precisely because we never know what other people have experienced, we can’t judge other’s reactions to certain events simply because we believe our reaction would be different.
Personally, I already have an existential fear of never being able to read all that I want to read before I die (even if I lived to be 100); there are so many stories, in so many languages, and in so many formats that avoiding a single book or film due to its content warnings seems like a decent enough sacrifice in favor of something that is potentially more interesting to me and less devastating in its execution, especially when such a book is usually accompanied by the colorful description of “torture porn.”
Perhaps Yanagihara’s own attitude towards sensitive subject matter is quite telling when it comes to the content of her story. She states throughout several interviews that she had in mind the idea to write about a character who never gets better.
As a writer, I sympathize. There’s a sort of curiosity and thrill about diving into heavy, even taboo issues; there’s also perhaps a catharsis in being to share your own story, to be able to contribute towards a dark subject that people refuse to acknowledge. As a creative exercise, I don’t fault Yanagihara for having this intent behind her writing.
However, when asked about her research into pedophilia or sexual abuse, she claims to have never done any because, in her words, “you sort of don’t have to. The truth is there’s a real depressing and devastating sameness to the way that survivors of abuse talk about that abuse.”
It’s unfortunate the sort of callousness with which she groups trauma into a single experience. In much the same way two pregnancies aren’t alike, abuse and trauma, while unfortunately commonplace, are never experienced in the same manner. Victims react differently according to their own personality, their character when facing adverse circumstances, and even the presence or lack of a support network.
The irony, however, is that in order to accurately write her characters’ professions, Yanagihara explains she sought the input of friends and colleagues who specialized in law, architecture, mathematics, etc. Why was it necessary to properly understand and portray an expert mathematician but not his mental illnesses?
Returning to that Electric Literature interview, when asked about the limits of talk therapy, Yanagihara states that she doesn’t believe in pyschology.
“One of the things that makes me most suspicious about the field is its insistence that life is always the answer […] almost every doctor of the critically sick understands the patient’s right to refuse treatment, to choose death over life. But psychology, and psychiatry, insists that life is the meaning of life, so to speak; that if one can’t be repaired, one can at least find a way to stay alive, to keep growing older.”
I think this is a very dangerous mindset to be putting forth as an author, especially with regards to the content matter in both of her books. Yanagihara equates psychology to belief systems, completely disregarding the field of study that is the mind and the process that involves diagnosing and treating a patient with issues as severe as Jude’s. Her words are reminiscent of the term “psycho babble,” as if a therapist were a glorified secret-keeper, only there to say what you want to hear.
She seems to overlook that fact that therapists, by law, cannot let their patients simply die, and that there’s a distinct difference between accepting that your body is shutting down due to age or illness, and letting a person inflict self-harm to the point of suicide.
Therapy is a tiring, uncomfortable process. We’re supposed to be open with our fears and trauma with a person who should remain absolutely neutral, bouncing off your own ideas like throwing a tennis ball at a wall.
Despite the fact that characters like Andy, Jude’s lifetime doctor, or Ana, Jude’s social worker, keep telling him to speak about his trauma with someone, Yanagihara’s stance on therapy seems to have bled into Jude, who refuses help and, like a ticking time-bomb, is constantly on the edge of suicide. (Sidenote: I do understand that often, the urge to commit suicide doesn’t just go away. What I’m criticizing here is that stubborness Jude shows against opening up that, in part, plays into his eventual suicide.)
“This is a psychological book that is very much against psychology. And I didn’t want readers to diagnose Jude, I didn’t want everyone to use clinical terms when talking about him. I wanted them to accept him as a complex person with a number of very grave problems that couldn’t be bundled up with one term, borderline, and just tossed aside.”
In this interview with Passa Porta, Yanagihara constantly brings up the phrase “the tyranny of memory.” Memories, especially as someone with a clear mind as Jude, remain fixed in your head. She mentions how, as Jude gets older, he’s able to better contextualize his life since he’s better able to understand the severity of what happened to him, much to his detriment. She mentions that, without proper equipment, one can truly struggle with the tyranny of memory.
And yet, Yanagihara states she wants the reader to “be Jude’s company. If the reader stays with him, she is, in some sense, his witness and his protector throughout his life.” Yet how can we be expected to carry Jude’s trauma without the author’s blessing to spare ourselves his life story in favor of our own sanity? It’s a difficult task to be responsible for a character’s wellbeing when there’s nothing to be done from the outside.
I think, perhaps, it’s not about reining in melodrama when it comes to criticisms of her book. Rather, I think it’s more to do with the expectation that the reader simply has to go along with it, despite being made uncomfortable or even triggered by the contents of her book. Never once does Yanagihara state “if it doesn’t vibe with you, don’t read it.” Instead, she seems to hinge on the notion that if you close yourself off to certain stories, you’re closing yourself off to rich experiences and even life itself.
And it’s a bit daunting when the same author makes a joke about readers who cried at the end of A Little Life being “pussies.”
At my first therapy session, after explaining why I was there and what I wanted to deal with, my therapist told me, “Let’s get one thing clear: we’re not here to change the situation. We’re here to change your standpoint on the situation.”
While this was something I always knew about therapy from my mother, it really dawned on me, now with firsthand experience, that therapy isn’t about getting advice, it isn’t there to tell you what to do, it isn’t there to make you happy. Therapy, whether you have a mental illness or not, is there to help you find your inner resources to deal with the world that surrounds you.
In an interview, Yanagihara mentions a saying from a friend of hers, that “some people have to make an accommodation with life.” And on a certain level, I believe every one of us makes do with what we’re given. It’s a lovely way of phrasing that constant happiness, just as perpetual sadness, is impossible to sustain. And while for many there’s a line they’re not able to come back from, I believe there should always be an attempt to get better. It’s harder work than simmering in your pain, pain that often becomes comfortable, but it’s a process that can help life easier to manage without making any extreme promises because, at the end of the day, it’s just you and your mind.
While she doesn’t come off as an entitled writer and genuinely considers her book an emotional, creative exercise, it seems Yanagihara doesn’t realize that she can’t have it both ways. She doesn’t want the reader to diagnose or label Jude, she doesn’t want people to “close themselves off” to human experiences, including her book, despite how painful it is, and she doesn’t mind crossing the line from drama to melodrama.
And yet, three things remain true:
- Despite not wanting to label Jude and Willem’s relationship as queer, the truth is Jude is a man in a relationship with another man, and is subjected to extreme brutalization at the hands of other men until his death. In this universe, gay men seem to be either victims or abusers, and this in turn plays into dubious tropes concerning the portrayal of queer characters.
- Jude, according to some psychologists, is a narcissist with PTSD. He undergoes trauma that manifests in extreme paranoia, self-harm, eating disorders, etc. Even if the author wants him to be seen as just a complex person, the truth is that he has several psychological issues. And if she truly believes that psychology should be like other medical fields, then shouldn’t Jude recieve a proper diagnosis and treatment than being left to his own devices simply for the sake of being perceived as a “complex person?”
- And finally, while she hopes that the reader understands her book as a creative exercise, the truth is that A Little Life is now a sensationalized phenomenon constantly described as “torture porn.” The truth is that the book is too much, and if Yanagihara really believes that there’s a line where life becomes too much for some people, then she should understand when readers simply don’t want to engage with her book or with any other media that can have devastating consequences for their mental health.
We cry at the end of Jude’s journey, not due to sadness or a weak disposition, but relief and heartache that it’s over in the worst possible manner.
And I believe we deserve the right to consent to be a part of Jude’s little life.
Mika is a Mexican writer and translator, pretender, pet-lover, and a mess at 1 in the morning.