Character-Building: On Past Traumas and a Future for the Stage

Dan O'Brien Knows That Every Family is Unhappy in Its Own Way

I have a theory, surely not original, or true, that most writers suffer a serious trauma around the age of 12, just when our adolescent psychologies are swirling into configuration. My trauma at 12 was witnessing my 17-year-old brother’s suicide attempt, or its immediate aftermath, when I happened to notice him staggering around the side of our house, moments after he’d thrown himself from a window in our attic. In that instant, and in its countless repercussive waves that have rocked my life since, my sense of the world changed—not just how things worked, or didn’t work, but how I was supposed to conceive of myself in the context of the world’s chaos. Maybe my brother was himself a kind of chaos. Maybe I was.

Much later in my life, and for almost a decade, I wrote my plays and poems about the war reporter Paul Watson. The most extreme moral shock in Paul’s career came when he witnessed the desecration of an American soldier in the streets of Mogadishu in 1993. He has described vividly his sense of disembodiment, as if he were standing outside himself, watching himself take the horrifying photograph that would win him a Pulitzer Prize and haunt him, quite literally, into the present day. As he focused his lens on the soldier’s body he remembers thinking: You poor man, who are you? In my interpretation of Paul’s story the question was meant equally for himself: Who am I, to do something like this? To have something like this done to me? Who will I become when it’s all over?

Live long enough and you will fail, fall ill, lose, be harmed, so hopefully you will agree that trauma at the very least disrupts identity, and recovery involves a fumbling toward the fashioning of a post-traumatic identity. A new character, if you will. This new identity may be defined at first by victimhood: one becomes a refugee, or a survivor of assault. These identities are often shameful (and concealed) because they have been imposed by the cruelty of others and imply the victim’s weakness. My wife and I underwent this apocalyptic bewilderment when we were both diagnosed with cancer within six months of each other. We were no longer who we had known ourselves to be, youngish artists and new parents, but now instantly infirm, the unwitting protagonists in the sudden drama of our mortality.

But to return to my beginning: my brother’s suicide attempt was, in actuality, a symptom and not the disease; what he had done was pointedly a response to the abuse we were suffering as the children of mentally ill parents. Our father was thoroughly neglectful, his silence interrupted only by his unforeseeable rages. He was a static character in that he never changed; or if he changed then we, the audience of his children, never noticed, and never learned what made him tick: his fears and desires, his cherished memories and secrets. He remained locked to us like a stone.

My mother, on the other hand, was a dynamic character, capable of perplexing moments of approximate affection. But she’d survived childhood abuse herself—an alcoholic mother who beat her, among other atrocities (her cherished memories and secrets, if you will). She couldn’t help but pass her pain along to us, we children rationalized, via her many manipulations and jealousies, delusions and lies.

My mother’s undiagnosed borderline personality disorder is a condition often characterized by, among other traits, a disturbance of identity. She never really seemed to know who she was. She needed her children to constantly affirm and reaffirm her life’s ambition to be a good mother, which she evidently and tragically was not.

We were no longer who we had known ourselves to be, youngish artists and new parents, but now instantly infirm, the unwitting protagonists in the sudden drama of our mortality.

When anybody is abused they are being used to fulfill the objective of the abuser. In my case my mother’s needs were almost entirely emotional and practically impossible for a child to comprehend. Nevertheless it was my role, as far back as I can remember, to comfort and console her, to buttress, when I could, her crumbling mentality. I was her favorite: her only friend, her confidant, her junior therapist, her emotionally incestuous lover. Any wish or request of my own was ignored or vehemently punished.

A mother’s love cannot be surpassed, or so the saying goes; but of course it is the child, lacking power and freedom and knowledge of the world, that clings to the mother (and father) with the more desperate passion. My mother didn’t love me, or she was incapable of it, so in response, and by necessity, my love for her was total and very nearly selfless—“nearly” because I possessed enough sanity, and willpower, to intuit that inevitably I would one day have to leave her.

But freedom was far in the future. To outlast I would have to outwit. I grew adept at surmising the obscurest subtexts in her speech and actions, her subtlest cues, the choices she did or did not make in a crisis (and our family was one unrelenting crisis). I made myself permeable to her moods; I tried to become her, empathy my survival strategy. And she praised me for it: “Danny, what a good listener you are . . . ” especially in comparison with my taciturn brothers and father (I was unlike most males of the species, was her implication). And of course this solicitous self-negation became my preferred method of interacting with a society that often responded, like my mother, with admiration for my supposed politeness and consideration, my wisdom “beyond my years.” When I wrote my first short stories my teachers were amazed by how wholeheartedly I was able to lose myself in my characters.

And all the while I was biding my time, planning my escape; or I was escaping already—step by step, semi-furtively—to school, to friends; and my mother took it badly. She often liked to claim that she was just a little bit psychic, certainly when it came to reading the minds of her children, and with this supernaturally acquired kompromat she would question and confound my adolescent subtexts at every turn. It didn’t take long for me to realize that she wasn’t reading my mind but my journal, in which I had been scribbling, as one does, my most private thoughts, often in the form of bad poetry. She denied what she was doing, of course. I didn’t stop writing, but shrank myself down, made my handwriting small and smaller until my words were almost illegible; my poems became postmodern inscrutabilities.

Such enforced attention to another’s inner life, not to mention an infestation of one’s own, will hollow out a child. Like the emptiness I would envision at the core of my characters many years later, I feared as a boy the void inside me. I was incapable of identifying, much less exorcising, my grief and rage and shame. And if these emotions did not exist, I was learning, then in some sense I did not exist. I was unreal, invisible. I was a ghost.

*

And if not a ghost then a conduit, a channel, a medium for ghosts. I was used to being used, after all, echoing my mother’s voice but also absorbing her torturous character into my psyche where, commingled with my own inhibited desires, my distress manifested as handwashing (hypochondria) and praying (scrupulosity), among other neurotic outcries.

And most powerful in this panoply of maladjustment was my urge to write. I had no choice; it was a release, and a relief. I discovered that I could switch some part of myself off, some awareness, and allow my characters to, as it were, transmit themselves through me. I wasn’t always good at it, but when it happened I felt talented, and mildly crazy. Call it the muse, or the unconscious: whatever it was it was real to me.

Long ago I read somewhere that abused children will often grow up to become adults who are uniquely susceptible (suggestible?) to magical thinking. These are the true believers, zealots, conspiracy theorists, and very likely they’ve seen ghosts, or heard them, or sensed them. As a child I was repelled by anything remotely supernatural because the supernatural seemed too plausible (even the New Testament, with its crucifixions and resurrections, could give me the heebie-jeebies). Perhaps this predisposition toward belief in the unseen is keenest in those whose injuries from childhood are psychological, that is, invisible. Probably I was afraid of the so-called occult because I feared what was hidden inside me.

Some years into my playwriting vocation I felt courageous enough to confront the occult by writing a play about the Fox Sisters of Hydesville, a desolate hamlet in western New York. I first read about them as a boy in my family’s mold-speckled Encyclopedia Britannica, and their story of a haunting had haunted me ever since:

Maggie and Cathie Fox were 14 and 11, respectively, the winter of 1848 when they struck up a conversation with the spirit of a murdered peddler, a traveling perfume-and-button salesman they called “Mr. Splitfoot.” Supposedly buried in their dirt cellar, Splitfoot communicated via knocking or “rapping” sounds along the walls and floorboards of their dilapidated cabin. Within months the Fox girls, joined now by their stage-managing older sister, Leah, a single mother in nearby Rochester, had become fast-rising celebrities, holding séances in a hotel room in the financial district of Manhattan (just around the corner from PT Barnum’s American Museum), then touring up and down the eastern seaboard, raking in the cash. The Fox Sisters are widely credited with inspiring the founding of the Modern Spiritualist Church, a loose affiliation of brick-and-mortar houses of worship still in existence today, and contributing charismatically to the rise of the long-lived culture and commerce of psychic phenomena, replete with table-tilting and “Ouija” planchettes, ectoplasmic ejaculations, and levitating, incandescent tin trumpets through which the dead might breathe, and clear their throat, then speak for themselves.

My mother didn’t love me, or she was incapable of it, so in response, and by necessity, my love for her was total and very nearly selfless.

In her older age Maggie Fox, penniless and ravaged by alcoholism, confessed it was all a runaway hoax: they had been surreptitiously bouncing apples tied to strings, popping the joints in the toes of their feet hidden beneath voluminous skirts, and other theatrical subterfuges to produce Mr. Splitfoot’s discarnate dialogue. But her confession went unheeded, as the movement moved and grew. The American Civil War, then the Great War in Europe, swelled the shores of the Summerland, as spiritualists refer to the afterlife, boosting demand among the living for this therapy of modern necromancy. At the start of it all, however, the historical record suggests an impoverished household with an alcoholic father, among other family dysfunctions, so my play about the Fox Sisters was really about the flowering of art in the rocky soil of abuse. It was at the time my most autobiographical play.

Spiritualism was undeniably a women’s movement at a time when American women were disallowed almost every egress of self-expression. Suffragettes and abolitionists were often spiritualists too—Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth can be counted among the believers—and, not coincidentally, all three movements lay claim to western New York as their birthplace. The female medium of the spiritualist movement—and almost every medium was a woman—was creating, consciously or not, alternative selves, dramatis personae who could speak through her and for her, while she sat as if passively in dim drawing rooms, or upright onstage in the otherworldly footlights, telling stories that the writer, if you will, could no longer repress.

*

Did I identify intimately with the characters of the Fox Sisters because my childhood abuse, my parents’ suppression of my voice and agency, had made me feel in some way feminine? Absolutely. And I was unnerved, as a boy, then as a young man, by this affinity; but with it my facility for empathy, my negative capability, was beginning to bloom.

Many writers have famously embraced the occult as the source of their creativity: poets WB Yeats and James Merrill spring to mind; I remember distinctly, at the age of 14, feeling like the envelope of my body was dissolving as I read Alice Walker’s postscript to The Color Purple: “I thank everyone in this book for coming. A.W., author and medium.” Maybe, I thought, every writer is a medium.

One of the prime joys of writing, of course, is the temporary dissolution of the writer’s sense of self. But I was also afraid: these characters, storm-thrashed and wind-driven to my door with grief and rage and ravenous need—where did they come from? From me? And writing plays frightened me uniquely. Maybe both the occult and the theatre are capable of eliciting shame and fear because a denial of one’s true self is integral to the success of both illusions. Probably, in my case, I simply feared what my writing was liable to reveal about myself—to myself and to others.

The theatre has always been a clique of misfits. A safe harbor for outcasts. A circus for more bookish types. I could go on, but instead let me—perhaps recklessly—speculate that theatre artists are people who don’t quite know who we are. We are permeable, porous, our boundaries unfixed. We are mimics and chameleons. And foremost in our cohort we must recognize the presence and contribution of the sexually conflicted, indeterminate, and alienated.

And I certainly fit the bill. I did not feel typically masculine (though others seemed to be persuaded, more or less, by my performance of the role). The truth is that I had always believed myself to be somehow other, a hybrid third sex—a soothsaying Tiresias, or such was my ambition—who, all the more bafflingly, preferred the opposite sex. Maybe my sexual insecurity was just another consequence of my learned lack of boundaries, or the result of my brother’s suicide attempt destabilizing me on the threshold of puberty. A Freudian would say that my father was too foreign, my mother too familiar. Or it’s all down to genetics and hormones in the womb so who cares. I have often wondered if my proclivity to write in many genres, to blur or disregard genre when I can, when to do so feels genuine, might be a related trait—similar to my distrust of received styles and forms like naturalism and the well-made play, or sonnets and villanelles, for that matter; but these are questions for another day, perhaps. In any case my uncertainty was consistently alarming to me, and always a secret.

I do not think one can write a diversity of character without knowing who one truly is, where one comes from, how one’s own identity and character have been shaped.

Inwardly in my teens and twenties I believed that all writers—probably all artists—were in some essential sense members of a third sex (in this day and age I should probably use words like fluid or nonbinary or queer). As a generalization it is surely mistaken. What I mean to reveal is my magical thinking in assuming that any writer worth their salt possesses the ability to identify emphatically with all characters of all genders and sexualities, ages and races and creeds. I believed fervently that theatre artists in particular, we exiles of our blighted and blasted upbringings, who in our private lives so often paid the price of our ambivalences, nonetheless excelled in the arena of our craft. Our wound was our gift—the mythical consolation. We were nobody so that we could become everyone.

*

But I was wrong. We all know this now: we can’t be everyone; in fact, when we try we may well cause harm. Naturally, I have written my fair share of characters who were, at best, only metaphorically me: a gay fashion designer manqué dying of AIDS in 1990s Manhattan (my first full-length play); a middle-aged survivor of breast cancer haunted by her divorce, and by an ambiguous angel, in the backwoods of Tennessee; a Black American drama student visiting a comically (-intended) xenophobic pub-theatre in Cork City, Ireland; a vaudeville sister act famous for the terribleness—and the racism, and the internalized misogyny—of their revue. I list these examples not to flagellate or expiate myself, but to acknowledge that in overreaching I no doubt exposed my limitations and biases.

So when writers ask me, and I ask myself, “Should we stop creating characters who are very different from ourselves?”—my answer is: Yes. Let others write these characters, and tell these stories. And don’t fool yourself with the old excuse that you are “giving a voice to the voiceless”; take a seat in the audience instead, and let the heretofore voiceless speak for themselves.

And when writers ask me, and I ask myself, “Should we stop creating characters who are very different from ourselves?”—my answer is also: No. Just write these characters well. Take responsibility and take care. Let doubt be your spur in making sure you are depicting your characters with fairness and respect, accuracy, and the love of your most empathetic perception. Now, with our culture in the grips of seemingly intractable discord and wrath—this is precisely the time when we cannot afford to give up on the dream of being one another.

My internal conflicts aside, I do not think one can write a diversity of character without knowing who one truly is, where one comes from, how one’s own identity and character have been shaped. Perhaps one should write one’s own story first, and enlarge oneself from there. So let me return for the last time to my childhood story and the day and the hour—the very few moments—in which the delusion of my negative capability was dispelled. Like most climactic episodes, on stage as in life, it happened as if accidentally and inevitably.

I was 32, heading into my Jesus year. I was getting married. I should have seen it coming. My parents were unhappy: my older brother was back in the hospital after another suicide attempt. My younger brother was graduating from college and I was visiting for that, reclining in a lawn chair in their backyard when my father sat down beside me:

“What’s wrong with you?”

I couldn’t respond. “There must be something terribly wrong,” he went on, “the way you look.”

“How do I look?”

“Like you’re homeless. Like you’re insane.” Like my brother the chronically suicidal, he meant; and—just like that—I had become the family scapegoat.

He disapproved of my blue jeans, to begin with. My untucked shirt. And that unkempt hair! that beard! It was disgusting and shameful—he was shouting—the way I looked.

“This is how I dress—who I am—” I was fumbling to defend myself. My character. My tongue felt swollen, my limbs shrunken, vision tunneling . . .

“We’re taking a walk,” he said, and he stood up.

“No.”

“We’re taking a walk—you and me.” It was a threat.

I’d been to therapy, but only recently; so I stood up too: “I won’t speak to you unless you speak to me with fairness and respect.”

Fairness and respect . . . Fairness and respect . . . How many times did I stammer my pathetic request?

We toppled the statues of historical characters we barely remembered because we could not forget. We were reminded that every story happens before it can be told.

He stepped closer. He was shorter than me. He stabbed the air with his finger in my face: “You have a problem with anger!”

I do?”

“There are things you do not know!”

“About what?”

He repeated: “There are things you do not know!”

“Then tell me.”

But he wouldn’t. Or couldn’t. I fled into the house and he followed. My mother swept down the stairs and clung to his side. “We’re just being frank!” she cried; she seemed delighted, almost titillated. I’d never seen them so in love before. And in a flash I knew who they were. What they were. I had always known, but here they were, unmasked.

Then again, bellowing: “There are things you do not know!”

Fairness . . . respect . . . my voice quavering, my fists and shoulders coiling; I could’ve knocked him flat, could’ve broken a chair or the table with his bulk.

Instead I saved myself. By containing myself. By choosing to be fairer, more respectful to him—than him—I might martyr myself; but there was no refusing this gift. I escaped trembling by the back door, and in my rental car driving home—to my home, to my future—I realized I would never see my parents again. It had happened, finally. It was all over. I was me.

*

To recap: crisis explodes, confounds, remakes who we are. The drama leads us through one crisis, then on toward another.

Every character, certainly our protagonist—who is me, who is you—is altered by the odyssey. The ho-hum hero’s journey is, of course, an ancient, Aristotelean artifact, individualistic which is to say capitalistic and paternalistic, yet the marketplace in New York and London and beyond has demanded this sort of play for as long as the marketplace has existed.

But is the model accurate? Does it have to be? Is anything we think we know about the theatre—and writing plays for it—meaningful now that there is no theatre? Or more optimistically: How can we re-forge the character of the American theatre in the crucible of our current crisis?

Speaking as a survivor, I have stood at this crossroads before. After cancer, after the astonishment of being told that I no longer possessed “evidence of disease,” in the noncommittal but thankfully scientific words of my oncologist, the last thing I wanted to do was “get back to normal”—the mythical normal of “how it was before.” My normal life had spawned my near-demise, and my wife’s too, so I recoiled from regression of any kind. I wanted to repent, and live differently. Some difference was easy: I renounced red meat, refined sugar and alcohol, ingested daily supplements of turmeric, megadoses of Vitamin D and tree nuts by the handful. I felt, at times, purer, clarified by the trials of my treatment and isolation, and I wished to carry this wisdom with me into my new life.

In my rental car driving home—to my home, to my future—I realized I would never see my parents again.

Some days I wished to never write again. I wondered what I had been doing it for in the first place, whether it had ever actually been a choice. I wanted to burn much of my old life to the ground and start over as somebody else, somebody new, having cast aside forever every superstition, every fairy tale I’d ever told myself about myself, now that I had finally learned the lesson of chaos. I was seeking a post-traumatic revolution.

What will a post-pandemic theatre look like? Will the theatre still exist?—revivified? reborn? What are your ideas: Drive-in live theatre? Re-inhabited, half-ruinous amphitheaters? Theatre for lonesome drabs of intrepid souls dispersed inside cavernous auditoriums (cheered by ferns)? Will the withering of our theatrical ecosystem clear the way for the sprouting of a grassroots, more demotic theatre, declaimed from the flatbeds of trucks in Walmart parking lots? Will COVID-19 become the subject and setting of every play, so that designers can costume actors in the latest PPE? Will audiences have to have their nasal cavities swabbed at will-call windows, provided that reliable rapid testing is ever achieved? Will there be an effective vaccine? Will audiences feel comfortable ever taking their seats again? Will they trust? Will they even be the same audience they were before?

And will the theaters themselves change? Will only the wealthiest organizations and institutions outlast the Great Pause, hibernating off the fat of their endowments and bailouts and the patronage of the usual wealthy suspects? Will the protestations of our collapse succeed in forcing a reconfiguring or demolishing of the theatre’s overwhelmingly white and male hierarchies? Will artistic directors and other well-compensated staff voluntarily relinquish their fiefdoms every few years (five? ten?) for the sake of new blood, if not for the sake of justice? Will playwrights finally receive anything approaching a living wage for their mostly thankless labor?

Without something like a reconstituted Federal Theatre Project, will our dramatists turn their hands to other genres like TV and film (presuming TV and film resume production anytime soon) or to writing poetry (not likely), novels and journalism (see poetry); or to more “essential” livelihoods like grocery cashiering, facemask stitching, nursing?

Nobody knows now. What a fearsome, exhilarating lacuna in our lives: inside the whirlwind of unknowing, the eye of the cyclone, the lull after the quake before the tsunami hits, where and when we may find ourselves prone to oracular utterances in the first-person plural. Such as:

When the disaster came—of my brother’s leap, of my parents’ disowning, of my wife’s and my cancers, of this our too-novel coronavirus—it was accidental and inevitable. Some saw it coming. It was at times comical. None of this was necessarily survivable. When the plague came it had been self-foretold and self-begotten. It was an act of God, it was “nature healing,” it was wildfires racing downhill into hurricanes. It was the comet. We grew bored. We grew our beards; our roots were showing. We got fat and skinny. Underemployed and uninsured, we felt always pressed for time. Our children befriended loneliness and cried at our windows looking out. Time was a slog requiring patience, cocktails, THC . . .

With the fevered wind we dreamed of decamping in rented Airstreams for the mountains; we DMed old friends to see if they were still alive, and had they forgotten us or had we forgiven them (not yet). We conceived of as many projects as we abandoned. We came to terms with what we could not live without; while eating up our nest egg . . . We mail-ordered wedding rings. Our marital spats continued apace. We filed in our minds for divorce. We found ourselves pregnant again, miraculously. We expected. We expired. We baked more bread.

When the cataclysm, when the calamity, when the catastrophe—we couldn’t breathe. We said their names. We glimpsed, reckoned, demanded recompense. We were evicted. We took to the streets, Pentecostal, with our tongues of fire. We toppled the statues of historical characters we barely remembered because we could not forget. We were reminded that every story happens before it can be told. We were perplexed, to say the least.

When the extinctions and the humiliations and the punishments and the police, when the jackboots and the flashbangs and the tear gas and the unmarked vans: we defied, prophesying in the summer sunlight and late at night into the faces of our bone-cold screens.

And when it is all over . . . after the war, after the disease, after revolution and its medicines . . . we may find that we lost our minds, for a while. We may have forgotten who we are. We will have to find out. And the theatre as always will find a way to show us.

Featured image from a 2019 Citizens Women production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

Dan O'Brien
Dan O'Brien
Dan O’Brien is an internationally produced and published playwright and poet whose recognition includes a Guggenheim Fellowship in Drama, the Horton Foote Prize, the Edward M. Kennedy Prize, two PEN America Awards, and the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize. His fourth poetry collection, Our Cancers, will be published by Acre Books (University of Cincinnati Press), and a collection of his essays on playwriting, A Story That Happens,will be published by CB Editions in London—both in 2021.





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