Monsters are not scary because they are unfamiliar; they are often frightening because they are too familiar.Eric R. Severson and David M. Goodman, Memories and Monsters: Psychology, Trauma, and Narrative (2017)
Content warnings for the second half of Heart Berries: Mailhot discusses (but does not describe in detail) eating disorders, child neglect, family separation, sexual abuse, self-harm, partner violence, and suicidal thoughts. Also, spoilers for the second half of the book follow.
After six years of watching me struggle to partner PTSD, people I love sometimes ask, Why don’t you just leave? This is too hard, they say. You’re giving up too much of yourself.
If I don’t feel like really getting into it — discussing all the times I’ve considered ending my relationship and all the reasons I stay — I simply say, “At heart, I’m a loyalist.”
I cherish loyalty. I believe loyalty to people, place, and my own structuring values cultivates depth of commitment, connection, and respect for difference. I know this puts me at odds with those who celebrate freedom and self-realization above all else. But too-easy dismissals of loyalty as conservative or outdated or totalitarian strike me as reductive, reflecting the “always choose yourself first” ethic common to the white professional and owning classes.
In cultures that subscribe to performance-oriented definitions of success — the primacy of professional advancement; cosmopolitanism; or the collecting of awards, accolades, and clicks — it’s easy to see loyalty as nothing but a cumbersome barrier to personal success.
To be sure, loyalty has a downside. It can become toxic and dangerous. As psychologist Peter Shabad argues in his 2017 essay “Is Loyalty Really a Virtue?,”
The very same steadfastness of honoring a commitment to spouse, family, nation, or religion that we consider to be so admirable and adhere to so diligently is also intrinsic to the robot-like loyalty driving the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute to the Führer. … The virtue of honoring unconditional loyalties through ‘thick and thin’ can lead very quickly to acts of evil!
So when is loyalty a virtue and when is it a vice? And can we reconcile loyalties that are explosively divided by trauma?
Mailhot deftly engages these questions in the second half of Heart Berries.
She’s loyal to the land and the people of her birthplace. But not so loyal that won’t leave when she is driven to question if her life, and the life of her son, matter. “I answered that question by saving my checks and taking night classes,” she writes. “I answered the question by leaving the reservation for any other place” (97).
She’s loyal to her relationship with her partner, Casey. But not so loyal that she won’t reveal that it is riven with flaws. Casey causes her pain, misunderstands her, averts his gaze from her struggle, detaches. While pregnant, she punches him in the eye.
Mailhot is loyal to her parents. But not so loyal that she won’t write honestly about the extraordinary harm she suffered while under their care. In less skilled hands, her refusal to remain the “third generation of the things we didn’t talk about,” could produce an all-too common narrative — a woman of color bleeding on the page for others’ edification or entertainment. But Mailhot refuses “story as hustle.” She refuses to be an object lesson.
Her refusal is expressed in a clear-eyed courage to tell all the truth her story can bear, in all its complexity. “We must learn from our monsters. They reflect and reinforce our fantasies and histories,” Severson and Goodman write. “What might it mean for us to turn to our monsters and ask them to teach us?”
Mailhot turns to all her monsters — even the one that resides inside her — and asks them to teach us. She shows the monstrous sides of her father, for example, without ever letting readers think that he was himself a monster. She writes,
It was dangerous to be alone with him, as it was dangerous to forgive, as it was dangerous to say he was a monster. If he were a monster, that would make me part monster, part Indian. It is my politic to write the humanity in my characters, and subvert the stereotypes. Isn’t that my duty as an Indian writer? But what part of him was subversion? …
My father was not a monster, although it was in his monstrous nature to leave my brother and I alone in his van while he drank at The Kent. … His smell was not monstrous, nor the crooks of his body. The invasive thought that he died alone in a hotel room is too much. It is dangerous to think about him, as it was dangerous to have him as my father, as it is dangerous to mourn someone I fear becoming. (82-86)
Mailhot honors all sides of her traumatically ruptured loyalties, even her division against herself. She writes of the early, difficult months raising her new son, Isaiah, after losing custody of her first child, Isadore. “My therapist guided me and showed me how to hold Isaiah,” she writes. “She made me look him in the eyes and explained he wasn’t bonded to me. He averted his gaze when I was close, as if I were a monster.”
This world, its racism and genocidal violence, its exploitation and cruel waste of human potential, produced her father’s monstrousness — which, in part, produced her. But Mailhot never lets us forget that it could have been different (here I’m reminded of Micaiah Johnson’s The Space Between Worlds). Or that we can confront and transform our monsters still.
In the end, she chooses realness for herself and Isaiah, and for all those she loves. She writes,
I made the active choice that my son and I were real. I held him while I cooked, and I didn’t clean very often so I could keep him in my arms. He fit well on my hip and learned to keep his small hands inside the neck of my shirt for comfort. He became expressive. He laughed at everything. We saw each other more than the world would see (97-8).
She also offers the gift of realness to her father, “I don’t write this to put him to rest,” she says. “but to resurrect him as a man, when public record portrays him as a drunk, a monster, and a transient.”
Mailhot refuses to be anything less than fully herself. “Making Indian women inhuman is a problem for me,” she writes. “We’ve become too symbolic and never real enough.”
But she also refuses to sever her connection to things and people that have hurt her, or wish them simply overcome and forgotten. To Casey, she writes, “Pain expanded my heart. Pain brought me to you, and our children have blood memories of sorrow and of your joy, too. … Our boys, their compassion to will away inherited sorrow, it’s what makes them good and mine and Indian.”