"Be quiet! Don't cry! Shhh."
I cried my way through Hanya Yanagihara's novel A Little Life. Critics have called it "exquisite," "a masterwork," and "a tour de force"; Garth Greenwell describes it as "the most ambitious chronicle of the social and emotional lives of gay men to have emerged for many years." The novel — Yanagihara's second, after The People in the Trees —chronicles the relationships of four college buddies over three decades: JB, an artist; Malcolm, an architect; Willem, an actor; and Jude, a lawyer. Yanagihara records their peaks — all four achieve professional success — but dwells longer in their emotional and psychological valleys.
I'd give A Little Life all of the awards. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (it lost to Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings) and has been longlisted for the National Book Award for fiction. Yanagihara's prose is occasionally so stunning that it would stop me, pushing me back to the beginning of a paragraph for a second read. It's particularly dazzling when she visits the complicated mind and spirit of Jude, who becomes the axis on which the book's world turns. Indeed, A Little Life may be the most beautiful, profoundly moving novel I've ever read. But I would never recommend it to anyone.
Jude suffers childhood abuse, the details of which Yanagihara slowly reveals via flashback. It seems at first extensive, then almost endless. Some reviewers have questioned how realistic Yanagihara's depictions of the abuse and its aftereffects could be. But no book I've read has captured as perfectly the inner life of someone hoarding the unwanted souvenirs of early trauma — the silence, the self-loathing, the chronic and aching pain.
"For many years," Yanagihara writes, Jude "had envisioned (unimaginatively) a vault, and at the end of the day, he would gather the images and sequences and words that he didn't want to think about again and open the heavy steel door only enough to hurry them inside, closing it quickly and tightly."
When I read that passage, I thought: I know that feeling.
"Be quiet! Don't cry! Shhh."
My grandmother, whom I loved more than anyone in the world, would whisper-shout this to me in Cantonese when I was a kid. This was the only thing that she, a retired Bible teacher, ever said to me in her corrective, classroom voice. When I was 4, 5, 6, I was a crier, so she repeated this lesson over and over and over.
"Be quiet! Don't cry! Shhh."
Who was I to argue? I was reared on stories of her suffering. As the Japanese army swept through China in the early 1940s, she, my seminary professor grandfather, and their two young kids sprinted ahead of the soldiers. She also had to care for about 20 of my grandfather's students, who accompanied them. During those refugee years, my grandmother gave birth to three more children. Two lived.
More than 10 million Chinese civilians were killed during the war. My grandparents survived, but not without cost.
Mostly I saw it in Grandma's behavioral quirks — the milk jugs of pennies banked under the bathroom sink, just in case; $20 bills at the bottom of her yarn box, just in case; the molding food in the fridge that she couldn't throw away, just in case. But I also felt it in her tense silence whenever arguments erupted in our family. And I heard it in her admonitions whenever she sensed my oncoming tears.
"Be quiet! Don't cry! Shhh."
I learned well. So: I was quiet and didn't cry when Mac, my fifth-grade bully, repeatedly mocked my slitty eyes and my coarse hair and told others that if they spent time with me, they'd get eyes and hair like that too. I was quiet and didn't cry when an HR guy outed me to colleagues while recruiting donors for an office blood drive. "Well," he said, "obviously Jeff can't do it." I am quiet and don't cry when the brothers of one of my dearest friends joke that I eat dog, as they have every time they've seen me for more than 15 years.
I most regret being quiet and not crying the summer I turned 15. We were living in Miami then, for my dad's job, but when school let out I'd return to my native California to stay with my grandparents in Berkeley. Some afternoons, I'd spend hours nesting amid the stacks of its used bookstores. Others, I'd sneak a movie, hoping Grandma wouldn't ask where I'd been, because she'd remind me films were "of the devil." (Why couldn't I be quiet when she asked that? Why didn't I just invoke my teenager status and not answer? I don't know.)
Occasionally, when I was feeling especially rebellious, I'd bum cigarettes from strangers.
One day I saw a guy smoking in the courtyard of a small shopping center. He worked at the photo store. We made awkward small talk while we smoked.
I needed to pee, so I asked if he could unlock the shopping center's bathroom. He did. Then he followed me in and began to touch—
Then he walked me to his store and into the back room, where he—
I remember shivering — Fuck. I'm shivering now.
And then he pushed me down on my—
The only thing I remember him saying was, "Doesn't it feel good?"
Why didn't I say no? Why did I bum that cigarette? It was only five blocks away — why didn't I just go home to pee? Why didn't I shout? Why didn't I run?
"Be quiet. Don't cry. Shhh."
I didn't tell anyone what had happened, not for 12 years. When, finally, I began to tell the tiniest bit of the story, I called it molestation —an ugly word, but not the ugliest. Is it strange to say that Jude's story gave me new vocabulary — or permission? After A Little Life, I named it honestly for the first time: rape.
The best novels point us back to something real — sometimes physical, but more often intellectual or emotional or even visceral. As I've read reviews of A Little Life, I've been puzzled by the clinical way in which some critics address the trauma Jude suffers as a child and its echoes in his adulthood. Don't they have their own memory vaults? Or are they just more secure?
Sarah Churchwell, in an exasperated, empathy-deficient review in the Guardian, questions Yanagihara's decision to write about Jude in the third, not first, person: "This is not thought: it is voiceover," Churchwell writes, "Such narration is distancing: it leaves us watching what Jude feels, rather than actively sharing in his confusion, pain, suffering." But first person or third, narration is still narration. It isn't "actively sharing" in trauma or its consequences. I wouldn't wish that on anyone.
Watching Jude, not being Jude, reflects wise editing, because Jude is a spectator too. He cannot control his memories — they control him. His vault is porous. His strategy for containing the past "wasn't effective," Yanagihara writes. No matter his efforts, "the memories seeped out."
I know that memories do more than just seep out. They morph, and they turn, and sometimes they turn on you. Absent the original perpetrator (Jude's dies, mine disappears), you assume that role. You play both parts — attacker and attacked, punisher and punished — in a twisted drama of substitutionary atonement. You seek but never find absolution for something you didn't do, for something that was done to you. Sin is sin. Someone has to pay, right?
Jude bleeds all over A Little Life — he's a cutter. It makes for difficult reading, but I bristled when Stephanie Hayes, writing in the Atlantic, describes Jude as "an alien other, haunting readers with his ordeals." Yanagihara illustrates the internal processes that inspire Jude's self-harm by creating a menagerie: His self-loathing is an uncaged "beast," his memories prowling "hyenas." Hayes dismisses this as "surreal and relentless imagery, almost as if to deflect humanizing sympathy for his struggles."
Alien? Surreal? No. Yanagihara's descriptions embodied my feelings — and reactions like Hayes's eye-rolling and her "don't be so dramatic" condescension are what I fear. Because this is my daily litany: I pierce myself with self-criticism until I reach numbness. I surgically examine my friendships to see what others could possibly want of me, and then drain them of their lifeblood: love. If my friends knew what's been done to me, and what I've done since, these relationships would never last anyway. If I shared my story, you'd walk away. If you knew the truth, you'd disappear —or worse, you'd stay to mock me.
So I've sought extra locks for my vaults. Yet the memories still seep out, especially when other people are around. At parties, I escape repeatedly to the bathroom to splash water on my face. I preemptively try to run away from reincarnations of Mac, my fifth-grade bully, who returns to comment on my eyes, still slitty, or my hair, still coarse. I imagine men chewing over the best joke about what pets I may or may not eat. Summer can be the worst. I almost never wear shorts in public because the photo shop guy did that day, and when I see a particular stocky build and muscular calf—
"Be quiet. Don't cry. Shhh."
The relationship that matters most in A Little Life isn't between Jude and Willem, or Jude and Malcolm, or Jude and JB — it's between Jude and Jude. This book is about internal warfare: Does he live alone with his festering hurt, or does he risk trusting others with his secrets? This book is about love: If perfect love casts out fear, perfect fear must block both the giving and receiving of love, and Jude's inability to love himself prevents him from feeling the embrace of the patient, kind love of those around him.
"At night," Yanagihara writes, "he prayed to a god he didn't believe in — and hadn't for years: Help me, help me, help me, he pleaded. He was losing himself; this had to stop."
I've prayed that same prayer many times, more vigorously in recent months than ever. I'm not quite Jude; I guess I do believe in God. I want to believe that my prayer is being answered. Last winter, inexplicably, I started to cry again with some regularity. And though I rarely read fiction, along came A Little Life, which I picked up though I had no idea what it was about.
At its best, storytelling is communion. Human experiences converge, and isolation withers at the intersection. I read A Little Life when I wasn't ready to talk about trauma or even to hear about it. But Jude's inability to address his wounds compelled me to begin to address mine. His struggle to find his peace emboldened me to try to find mine.
I don't know what healing might look like. But admitting to my husband that I believe I'm damaged goods — that's something. To let my closest friends see some of my deepest wounds — that's something. Acknowledging and apologizing for the ways in which I have, in my silence and fear, rejected others' kindness and dishonored their friendship — that's something. I've still never told anyone the whole story — not my husband, nor my therapist — and maybe I never will. But being able to say that I'm not a lost cause, and to believe it (mostly) — that's something too.
My grandmother has been dead 20 years, but sometimes she still whisper-shouts in my head. At last, I am ready to whisper-shout something back: "Be quiet, Grandma. Shhh."
Jeff Chu is a contributing writer at Fast Company and the author of Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America. He lives in Brooklyn.