Voices from PEN/Faulkner Interns: Demory Hobbs

This fall, PEN/Faulkner had the privilege of being joined by three amazing interns. Before they left us, they each wrote essays inspired by their time in the organization. It’s our honor to share them with you. We started with a piece by Anique Jones, and we’re delighted to continue with this essay by Demory Hobbs:

UNRELIABLE NARRATORS

This year, I’ve been thinking a lot about storytelling: the stories we tell others and the stories we tell ourselves. I’ve been thinking about how these stories differ. I’ve been thinking about how we usually aren’t perfectly honest, how sometimes this is intentional and other times we don’t even realize what we are missing. And other times, we are telling the truth the best we can handle it.

In fiction, I love an unreliable narrator. An unreliable narrator is one whose credibility is compromised, so the reader must read between the lines to uncover the truth. Just like in life, narrators are unreliable for many reasons. 

There are two broad categories for unreliable narrators: There are intentionally unreliable narrators, misleading and persuading the reader to side with their usually villainous view. (Think Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.) Then there are unintentionally unreliable narrators, whose naivety prevents them from giving the whole picture. (Think the child-narrator Jack in Room by Emma Donoghue.)

Unreliable narrators do more than entertain. This point of view can be an important literary device in illustrating the complex consequences of trauma. This is a category that lies somewhere between intentional and unintentional untrustworthiness, because the narrator is most notably hiding the truth from themselves. 

When a person experiences a traumatic event, the brain goes into defense mode. Sometimes, this means doing its best to block out the event. This is called dissociative amnesia, in which the memories of the traumatic event or details surrounding it are buried deep within the mind. This can involve small details, like not remembering how you got home after an accident. It can also be much more substantial; with childhood trauma, some survivors will have no idea something significant happened until years later. As trauma survivors look back on their lives, they have no choice but to fill in the gaps, trying to make sense to themselves and to others.

With some important life events, we recall every detail. Maybe you remember the exact tie you were wearing when you got a big promotion or exactly what you ordered at the coffee shop when you first met your significant other. So some might wonder: how can something affect your life so much if you barely remember it? The phenomenon can be hard to understand and hard for survivors to explain.

Unreliable narrators can be employed to illustrate the missing pieces between trauma and memory. With this type of unreliable narrator, readers can sense there is something untrue in the tale, but they do not feel lied to. They follow along as protagonists hide from some truths and uncover others. Every instance of trauma is nuanced, and everyone responds differently. Even so, I have broken up the use of the post-trauma narrator into three categories.

Aware Narrator, Unaware Exterior: Sometimes, the narrator remembers the trauma they have endured but is unable to retell it or accept it. This narrator depicts his trauma in a seemingly unrealistic, even fantastic, way (example: Life of Pi by Yann Martel). He may be struggling to explain within the context of the story, meaning the other characters don’t believe or understand, or he may be directly addressing the reader. The reader discerns that something terrible happened and that the narrator is struggling to cope with it. There may be a gap between the narrator’s knowledge and the reader’s, but the reader understands that the narrator is not intentionally lying but rather is working hard to relive and fully convey a painful memory. This type of narrator is useful in allowing the reader to understand how unspeakable trauma is dismissed or accepted by those outside it.

Unaware Narrator, Aware Exterior: Other times, the narrator does not remember the traumatic event or its consequences, but the characters they interact with know what has happened. This narrator will have her credibility undermined at every turn in the story, but neither the reader nor narrator know why (example: The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn). This dissociative amnesia is paired with other, more obvious mental struggles. In Finn’s novel, it is diagnosed as agoraphobia, but any type of anxiety or perceived paranoia fits. What’s important for the success of works like these is that the reader knows everything the narrator knows, yet understands that this knowledge is not the whole truth. The narrator has no obvious motivation for lying but seems to be doing so compulsively. Either along with the narrator or through the other characters’ dialogue and actions, the reader is eventually able to see the trauma the narrator has blocked out, which explains the paranoia and strange behavior she has exhibited. By having the perspective of the seemingly crazy character, the reader can realize how disorienting and scary it is to think you are telling the truth and not be taken seriously.

Unaware Narrator, Unaware Exterior: A third use of the unreliable narrator to illustrate trauma is in cases when neither the protagonist nor the people around them are aware of the trauma they have experienced (example: Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower). This is an extreme case of dissociative amnesia, usually related to child abuse. In this case, the reader knows everything the narrator knows, and may pick up clues leading to the truth before the narrator realizes. The reader is on the same journey as the narrator who is struggling to understand his own mental and emotional weaknesses without a full picture of what has influenced him. The reader witnesses the pivotal moment in the narrator’s life when something causes him to remember the trauma he has closed off. In these cases, the reader is able to see how the knowledge of this trauma can shape his understanding of himself and the world even years after it has occurred.