Sometimes being good to people doesn’t mean being nice.Terese Marie Mailhot, Author Voices, King County Library System
PTSD has given me a messy mouth.
I mean that literally – between partnering PTSD for the last six years and weathering pandemic for almost two, some of my preventative-healthcare-neglecting chickens have come home to roost. I spent much of the last month dealing with a badly abscessed molar: an egg-sized swollen lump in my soft palate, pain so bad that tears continually leaked out of my left eye, a root canal the endodontist told me would probably turn into an extraction.
But I mean it figuratively as well. PTSD forces us the confront the “just world fallacy,” the idea that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. What I’m just beginning to realize is that it also forces us to confront what could be called the “good self fallacy” as well: the idea that you are, at least mostly, good, not bad. I’m not sure it’s possible to heal trauma without acknowledging that we are all a deeply complicated mix of both.
Despite the assurances of the post-traumatic growth crowd, I can say confidently that PTSD has not made me a better person. I am less attuned, less accommodating. I’m harder, less patient.
Jason and I have developed an at-home brand of humor so dark that we categorize it as “not for normals.” Sometimes, though, I forget the distinction and share what I think is a perfectly harmless joke with non-traums. I only know I’ve blurted out a too-inky irony when I see other people trying to suppress looks of horror, their lips pressed together, their eyes shifting away from me.
Recently, I was trying to get a friend in the middle of a mental health crisis into our house. She had asked to come over because she didn’t feel safe at her own place. But her violent and troubling self-talk was activating me. “I’m going to get you inside, and you can stay until you feel safe again,” I said. “But right now, I’m going to have to ask you to shut your schizophrenic mouth.”
Messy mouth. I don’t always have the wherewithal to stop and consider the best or kindest way to communicate. I default to uttering the truth as directly as I can. Sometimes this results in hurt feelings and strained relationships. Sometimes, though, my messy mouth produces moments of clarity, even grace.
The friend looking for shelter stopped in her tracks. Her eyes cleared a bit, and she said to me, “Oh shit. Were they talking? I’m sorry, That’s not fair to you.” And we both went inside.
For me, this is the most challenging, and exhilarating, insight of Heart Berries: The brutality you need to survive can be a gift.
In 2018, in an essay called “Surviving Racism” for Pacific Standard, Terese Marie Mailhot wrote:
As an Indian woman, I feel a responsibility to be hard on the world, but love it as familial. I feel a responsibility to be hard on myself as well. I am both fallible and a gift.
I love these two ideas. That familial love is love that doesn’t confuse “good” with “nice.” That each of us is both fallible and a gift.
Tough truths are complicated, so Mailhot starts the book by explaining how vexing telling a story can be, especially when the narrator is caught up in persistent webs of racism, sexism, classism, and settler colonialism. Mailhot tells us that past listeners “maltreated” her story — “too wrong and ugly to speak” — by thinking it was a hustle. She warns her readers that since that moment, her story has always been part hustle. She confronts us then, asking: “Do you have a hard-on for my oratory?”
She then turns her voice toward affirming the immovability, beauty, and hideous acts of her community — the Seabird Island Band — while also unsettling settlers. It makes for a very messy mouth.
She writes, for example:
I wanted to know what I looked like to you. A sin committed and a prayer answered, you said.
You looked like a hamburger fried in a donut (p 10).
I think self-esteem is a white invention to further separate one person from another. It asks people to assess their values and implies people have worth. It seems like identity capitalism (p 29).
[T]he men who said they were down for the cause and then abandoned it, like they abandoned their children–those men killed my mother. Even the sweet lovers who gave her hope are the culprits of her pain (p 32).
I was polite enough, and considerate enough, to hurt myself like a secret (p 64).
Of her writing, Mailhot has said,
In many ways I am a broken woman who serves as a reminder that the world can be brutal to Indian children, and women. I often feel as if that is my role in my communities. My history feels brutal, unspeakable even, and sometimes carrying the weight of it makes me feel like a monster who refuses the cave.Terese Marie Mailhot, Surviving Racism, Pacific Standard, 2018
But she is only a monster in the original sense of the Latin word monstrum, meaning “a supernatural being… that is an omen or warning of the will of the gods.” She’s a divine adviser, if we can bring ourselves to listen.
Mailhot offers what Barbara Smith calls “truths that never hurt.” They may sting, but they produce the unblinding confrontation that fosters growth. Mailhot writes about Casey’s white lovers, who are over-identified with their dogs and leave the toilet seat up for their boyfriends. She writes of Casey’s horror when she kills a ladybug — but her house was infested with them when she was a child, and those fuckers bite. About calling CPS on her mom, about having her own son taken away.
A couple of these left me writing “Ouch” in the margins of the book. But in the end, Heart Berries, this generous, troublesome gift of a story, made me realize how much I cherish those who express care by offering hard truths. We readers are so lucky to be invited into Mailhot’s version of familial love, in all its difficulty and depth.
What did you think of the first half of Heart Berries? Has trauma ever given you a messy mouth? Comment below!