The psychological knowledge of disorders has always been somewhat of a mystery to me. The mind is such an incredibly complex and confusing machine, and little is absolutely certain about the way it functions. When reading Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I was given valuable insight involving psychological abnormalities. Although the novel never directly stated having connections to post-traumatic stress disorder, the storyline and style of the novel were, in my opinion, somewhat representative of PTSD. Having the information of Eggers’s parents’ deaths and his following actions, my claims for this relationship between the novel and PTSD had sufficient evidence.
With further research of the symptoms and effects of PTSD on patients, my thoughts were confirmed. I asked myself: How does The Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius portray the course of PTSD on an individual?
This essay utilizes information concerning Eggers’s own personal motives for writing his novel as well as works created specifically to determine how the novel is a representation of PTSD.
It also employs facts about PTSD such as the symptoms, classification, and treatment in relation to the novel. When examining this relationship, the reasons for the plot of the novel are discussed, but also the examination goes deeper and discusses the underlying stylistic elements that also suggest symptoms of PTSD. This essay also discusses the implications surrounding the novel, and how Eggers is attempting, through A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, to depict what one has to suffer through after the loss of one’s loved ones, and how this writing perhaps serves as a catharsis.
It does not involve the actions of any other characters in the novel besides Eggers himself; instead, the essay focuses on the effects of PTSD solely on one character in this memoir. Read why change is constant and inevitable
As Henry David Thoreau once said, “Every man casts a shadow; not his body only, but his imperfectly mingled spirit. This is his grief. Let him turn which way he will, it falls opposite to the sun; short at noon, long at eve. Did you never see it?” Grieving is a natural part of life; it is an experience that one is bound to face, and for many, this experience does not ease over time. Trauma is a significant factor in the psychological state of the mind, and once one has been subject to trauma, the effects can be irreversible. Following the death of his parents, Dave Eggers sardonically recounts his experience and how he managed to function after losing the two most important people in his life to cancer. He moves to California and finds a job, takes full responsibility in caring for his younger brother, and attempts to live life normally amidst the surrounding chaos. By narrating his life after the death of his parents, Eggers exposes his innermost thoughts to the world. Through his journey of learning and growing, Eggers is able to express universal thoughts of one suffering from pain and loss. By exposing his inner conflict after the death of his parents, Eggers also stands as a postmodern voice to the countless others suffering from the loss of loved ones. In his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers espouses the life-altering magnitude of post-traumatic stress disorder and the inevitable torment one must endure when faced with death as a means to enlighten the public on the hardships of PTSD and also as a means to release his personal trauma.
After experiencing the death of his parents, Eggers suffers from conflicting feelings of attachment and detachment; a prevalent symptom of PTSD. One poignant moment when Eggers experiences this symptom occurs early in the novel when dealing with the possessions from his old house after his parents’ death. In a debate with himself, he states, “I want to save everything and preserve all this but also want it all gone-can’t decide what’s more romantic, preservation or decay.” His indecisiveness is a prime example of how the trauma of losing a loved one creates a standstill in which nothing can be done. Eggers wants to completely erase the past; to delete the pain that comes without fail. On the other hand, his material possessions are the only reminders of the ones he loves. By destroying any evidence of what had once happened, he ends up erasing his dearest memories. The contrasting feelings of attachment and detachment that Eggers has exemplify the difficult transition between restoration and release. His impulses to leave everything, yet forget nothing, demonstrate the restless negotiation of “post-traumatic stuckness.” Eggers is trapped in a relentless circle between cherishing what had once been and suffering through the constant reminders of past happiness, or obliterating the past and therefore eliminating anything to remind him of the love that had been so violently taken from him. By wanting at one moment to lose everything, and at the next moment, to treasure all that is left, creates a chaotic cycle that haunts Eggers throughout the novel.
Another indication of PTSD is the guilt that Eggers faces after the sudden and tragic death of his parents. The constant battle that Eggers faces is with his self-deprecating outlook, a product of the guilt from his parents’ death. After discussing the location of his parents’ remains, he realizes, “Oh we are monsters.” This negative view is one that, for Eggers, is an acquired habit that slowly consumes his entire being. Witnessing the death of both parents, yet being unable to make any difference in their outcome, constantly haunts Eggers. What amplifies this guilt even further is the fact that Eggers was there for everything, and yet his being present made no difference in outcome. When he thinks of his mother, he says, “we are waiting for everything to finally stop working-the organs and systems, one by one, throwing up their hands.” Eggers was present during the death of both of his parents; he watched his father in the hospital and his mother lying on the couch. His parents still died. Living with the knowledge that he was not able to stop his parents’ death creates this self-hatred inside Eggers.
This symptom of survivor guilt is centered on self-blame. When a person shows aspects of behavioral self-blame, he/she blames the trauma on his/her own specific behaviors, and therefore, believes that the trauma can be prevented by changing his/her behavior. In Eggers’s view, the death of his parents is his fault. He takes responsibility for taking care of his parents, recalling with his mother, “Wait. I can stop the nosebleed. I will stop the nosebleed. Yes. I will find a way.” When his mother dies though and his determination falls flat, Eggers has nothing to make himself feel worthy. With constantly blaming himself, Eggers creates a barrier between himself and his feelings. However, this barrier is crossed with the creation of the novel. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is an emotive novel; the narrator is fully aware of his emotion after his parents’ untimely death. Before the novel though, continuous self-blame was the key to keeping Eggers from failure. If he is the fault to begin with, the worst that can happen is having met his expectations. Eggers fully employs self-blame in an effort to protect himself from anything that can cause any further pain.
To prevent himself from suffering through any more tragedy, Eggers utilizes numbing techniques to alleviate the invariable sting of his loneliness. Likewise, to avoid bringing up painful memories, a PTSD patient gradually grows numb to emotional material. By doing this, the patient will attempt to avoid thoughts, images, and feelings directly associated with the trauma. By avoiding the thoughts of the death of his parents, Eggers can live as everybody else: free of pain. Eggers lives a life in which the individual reigns supreme, and with the death of his parents, he was often classified with the pitiful. To combat the judgment and rid his mind of the relentless thoughts of his loss, Eggers ignores his loss, seeking normalcy. He states after the death of his parents, “a few years ago has a comfortable distance. The blood is dry, the scabs hardened, peeled.” Eggers lives his life as though nothing has happened, attending parent-teacher conferences, going out with friends, refusing to go back home. With his anachronistic style that jumps from one topic to another constantly, Eggers creates a text that depicts the process of numbing. His “stylistic extravagance foregrounds the text’s ambiguous relation to structures of healing and the centrality of ambiguity in trying to heal.” Eggers’s text is often extremely ambiguous and indefinite-just as are Eggers’s thoughts. By leaving the confusion, Eggers can forget about the past. Through his writing, Eggers realistically conveys that when faced with difficult memories, suppressing them is sometimes the easiest way to survive.
Also common among PTSD symptoms are flashbacks, the sudden memories of events that occurred in the past. One of the most prevalent symptoms, a flashback, is oftentimes the barrier between the patient and recovery. When experiencing a flashback, “the person goes back in his or her mind to the traumatic event and lives it over again.” Eggers not only experiences flashbacks, but is also left with the lingering memory of his parents’ death. When recalling his father in a flashback, Eggers remembers, “He had lost so much weight. A car went by, a grey blur. She waited for him to get up.” In the next moment, though, his thoughts switch back to his mother. He goes on then to continue his monologue, continuing with how her stomach had “grown like a pumpkin.” These haphazard shifts display Eggers’s complete submission to these flashbacks. Thinking about his parents becomes a habit for Eggers, and trying to forget is no longer even an option. The vivid memories that are unexpectedly propelled into Eggers’s consciousness create a painful chaos in which Eggers attempts to detangle. By writing, Eggers is able to face his flashbacks directly. In his writing, “literary gamesmanship and self-consciousness are trained on life’s most unendurable experience, used to examine memory too scorching to stare at, as one views an eclipse by projecting sunlight onto paper through a pinhole.” By analyzing his past, Eggers is able to confront his flashbacks directly, without being caught vulnerable by his emotions. His writing is a form of catharsis. By displaying his flashbacks in the public, dealing with the pain of what happened is now less of a surprise, and Eggers can make sense of what has happened.
As another example of PTSD in his writing, Eggers’s sardonic humor plays a chief role in his dealing with trauma. Throughout his novel, Eggers uses humor to lighten the mood of his otherwise stress-filled writing. By using comedy, the intense experiences and absolute heartbreak Eggers experiences are morphed into casual incidents. An explanation for “one of the reasons humor comes into play in tragic circumstance is that the two modes are related: The tragic is suffering contradiction, the comic the painless one. Eggers is not laughing about death. He describes it straight-forwardly and lyrically.” Humor is a mode of healing, although unconventional, and the ability to make light of the situation allows healing to occur. By contemplating past events, Eggers portrays humor as a coping mechanism for the hardships he endures.
For example, when talking about his mother, he exclaims, “She is a vase, a doll. A giant vase. A giant fruit. A prize winning vegetable.” Or when dealing with his mother’s nosebleed, he contemplates, “we could call the emergency room, ask hypothetically: ‘Hi, I’m doing a report for school about slow blood leakage and….” Once something is humorous, the pain lessens. Although his humor can be seen as a symptom of PTSD, it can just as easily be seen as just another stylistic element. For Eggers, his witty remarks are simply a part of his personality. Eggers’s humor defines him; it has been so for his entire life. In his inner monologues, “Eggers rushes on from defiant rage to self-deprecating humor to utopian exclamation.” As scholars suggest, Eggers’s volatile shifts between absolute desperation and complete humor possibly serve as nothing other than the natural part of Eggers’s character. The humorous qualities of the novel may simply be no more than a part of Eggers’s writing style and personality. However, even though humor in his novel can be seen as completely irrelevant to PTSD, the way Eggers uses humor depicts that of a patient of PTSD. He uses humor specifically to ease the pain and make the unbearable moments bearable. By taking the humorous perspective and applying it to the most painful aspects his life, Eggers has the ability to cope with the death of his parents.
One of the central characteristics of Egger’s personal PTSD healing is his approach to referentiality. Through writing, Eggers represents the effects of trauma on referentiality. The “enjambed sentences, absent punctuation, and fluid swapping of referentiality…reveal Eggers’s desperate attempt to transfer trauma’s overflow into another’s.” By being able to switch his position in his novel so seamlessly, Eggers demonstrates how his vacillation helps distract himself from the reality of trauma. Thinking about the pain in his life is quickly eased with new distractions, and with more pain, the more distractions needed. Lacking consistency and decisiveness towards any decision is a way for Eggers to release the tension that has been building internally. On the other hand, Eggers writes about himself in the novel, knowing well that what he writes is a representation of himself and his thoughts. While some authors will write about themselves without being obvious, Eggers is “clearly, obviously aware of his knowingness about his self-consciousness of self-referentiality.” By writing a memoir, Eggers commits to knowingly displaying his being for other grievers to observe. What he writes is undoubtedly going to be analyzed, and every word has a purpose and intention. His consciousness of this is no accident; by being so self-aware, Eggers is able to present what he experienced as the truth. His constant vacillation is no accident; the straightforwardness of everything allows the trauma to eventually heal.
After the death of his parents, Eggers, as a PTSD example, resorts to his desires in order to fill the void. A symptom of PTSD is the desperate need to find satisfaction, yet nothing seems to fill that yearning. Physical arousal is often seen as an escape from reality, a way to evade one’s thoughts. Throughout his work, Eggers’s constant sexual obsession functions as a craving for dangerous gratitude during the post-traumatic chaos. By wanting to find love and attempt normality, Eggers goes after his desires, yet even after finding physical satisfaction, he is to be left feeling even more alone. Nothing has meaning anymore, and this meaningless void is directly applied to love. After reconnecting with a high school sweetheart whom he had not spoken to in years, Eggers finds himself to be searching for the value of his connection. He says, “everything was tied together and now this. I do not understand this. Are we bound or unbound? I have closed the loop, only to have it come undone again.” Though Eggers is so desperately attempting to create love, it seems fleeting and impossible. He recalls his night with his high school friend and asks, “Gotten what I wanted? Sure, I had, I thought I had, that we had been reconnected, all this time collapsed…I don’t even know what I wanted.” By needing the sense of resolve, he is constantly in a state of searching for the one who will make sense of his thoughts. PTSD created in Eggers a need for satisfaction. He goes through girlfriends, such as Kirsten, unable to commit to them. Then he tries to have casual relationships, but the void is still present. For Eggers, love is meaningless; in attempts to reach some sort of resolution, all he can find is fault.
One of the determining aspects of healing from PTSD is the attribution of healing, an aspect that Eggers never quite develops. Eggers’s novel is a tale of growing, but by the conclusion, Eggers still has not recovered from the death of his parents. Years after the death of his parents, Eggers is still living life as an observer. He wants to become his own individual and accept his loss, but he is unable to stop the immense pain. An important qualifier of a healed person is “to know the extent to which the trauma has altered the person.” However, for Eggers, although the death of his parents was monumental, the trauma left him still unsure about his place in the world. After his parents’ deaths, Eggers attempts to maintain his life and party with his friends, yet he tries also to be a full-time parent for Toph.
When neither of these options gives him a feeling of success, Eggers is still left with the feeling of estrangement from society. Eggers’s lack of commitment to anyone other than Toph proves that he is still incapable of being confident in his actions. Eggers is constantly haunted by the question of what is right-unable to make the choice due to the constant reminder of his parents’ deaths. When thinking of his mother, he says, “I am there. I was there. Don’t you know that I am connected to you? Don’t you know that I’m trying to pump blood to you, that this is for you, that I hate you people, so many of you.” For Eggers, the anger of his loss is his motivation. Living with his loss is unavoidable, and has created a sense of hopelessness. His uncertainty in every action is so great that happiness is unachievable. The PTSD has still not subsided. He is lost and alone. His lack of knowing is killing him; the pain of losing is far too great to ever ease.
The pain that came with the death of his parents was the driving force for Eggers; it propelled him to think, to act, to write in his way, to tell his story of suffering. As he stated himself, “the author…wishes to acknowledge that yes, there are perhaps too many memoir-sorts of books being written at this juncture, and that such books, about real things and real people…are inherently vile and corrupt…but would like to remind everyone that we could all do worse, as readers and as writers.” Eggers is confident in his story; he believes that it should be read. Externally, Eggers resembles nothing new, but internally, the death of his parents destroys much of what he once was. Eggers remains true to reality in his memoir, depicting the lack of positives that come with death. Writing his novel in direct correlation to PTSD, Eggers illustrates how death in society is often underestimated. Those who have been impacted are never again the same, and can never forget what happened. Repressing memories is an easy task; it’s the erasing that is impossible.
With death comes grief, and with grief comes pain. And even with the pain, “I am willing and I’ll stand before you and I’ll raise my arms and give you my chest and throat and wait.” That’s exactly what Eggers’s life culminates to: waiting. He passionately desires to be the change in the world, to make his life and Toph’s life infinitely better. His attempt does not fail, but the life he lives is still a constant struggle. Eggers cannot move past the death of his parents; he is still trapped in the world of what could have been. With the present passing by him, Eggers is still suffering from PTSD. His inability to completely heal from his losses leaves the reader with an immense sense of dissatisfaction. This unresolved conflict is the point that Eggers is trying to prove in his memoir. By recounting his past, Eggers is displaying the long-lasting effects of death, and the mental position of those who suffer from losses. By publishing the private thoughts of one who has lost, outsiders are transformed into the involved. Readers are given a closer glimpse at what it is to lose. Eggers brings to the forefront the issues that plague one after loss and the incalculable pain that comes with death. For Eggers, the goal is not to narrate a story of sadness which will receive pity, but instead, to enlighten those who have not dealt with loss in their lives, and in the process, discover his own path to healing as well.