Of Moths & Butterflies, a portrayal of trauma

I’ve resisted talking about this in the past. I’m not sure why. I think I thought it best to keep a little distance between the true subject of my work and those who read it and interpret it for themselves in some sort of meaningful way. I don’t want to interfere with that process. But, as I contemplate how I want to move forward in my career, and as a realization that I can, actually, tie all my passions together, I thought maybe now was the time to give a little insight into what brought me to write Of Moths & Butterflies.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that Moths was not my first book. Cry of the Peacock, actually, was the first book I wrote. It was really just an amalgamation of all the things I loved most in literature, with an attempt to write something truly reminiscent of that era. I really was just writing something I thought I would like to read.

In Moths, my purpose was entirely different. I wrote this book to heal.

It wasn’t until I had children and had been married awhile that I began to recognize the ways in which my history of childhood molestation was hampering my ability to find happiness. I resisted intimacy, I closed off at every opportunity, I had sudden fits of unexplained and irrational anger, I couldn’t sleep because I was afraid of not being alert to my surroundings. I married for safety more than love–certainly not for desire or attraction or passion. Mostly I just really hated myself and played small in order to not be seen. You can’t be hurt if you aren’t seen. And I found myself repeatedly making choices according to my lack of self-worth.

I want to talk about this more in upcoming posts, as it is an enormous subject. But let me just say here that unresolved trauma is the gateway to nearly all of our social ills; from domestic violence to addiction, from divorce and emotional and psychological issues to physical ailments, obesity, lung and auto-immune diseases, depression, anxiety, and suicide. (If you’re interested in more about these links between ind and body, here’s an amazing TED Talk by the Surgeon General of California, Nadine Burke Harris. It’s 20 minutes and simply chock-full of mind-blowing and potentially life-changing information.)

Already immersed in classical British literature, it was really important to me that my books were accurate. I read etiquette guides, books by the amazing Judith Flanders and others, books on law, books on fashion, and websites dedicated to chronicling the social details of the era. Sites like VictorianWeb.org and Lee Jackson’s VictorianLondon.org. And lots and lots of newspapers and original texts of the time. I had my books read by friends and editors in the UK who were more experienced and knowledgeable in the genre, and I took all of their criticism seriously. Mostly they were impressed that an American could pull off what I was attempting to do. At no point was there any question that my premise was unbelievable. For the most part, my reviews have been good, and Moths has easily sold a million copies. I’ve made a lot of money off this book, but sales in recent years (mostly owing to my own neglect) have tapered off, while, at the same time, the reviews showing up on my product page have been less than stellar. I began to wonder if, perhaps, the story isn’t aging well.

Mostly what I’ve noticed in reading the reviews, is that there is a sharp line drawn between those who understand trauma and those who do not. Really, this is reflective of my own day-to-day life. Not everyone is capable of empathy, and while it is a necessary virtue in society, it isn’t at all necessary when it comes to reading. I think most people choose to read historical novels up hoping as an escape (and it really is valuable for that–I’ve rediscovered this for myself in recent months) and they don’t necessarily want something so heavily didactic.

The other complaint I sometimes receive is that the plot is implausible or unbelievable. I can only imagine the part they are struggling with is the idea that someone would refuse a fortune and then go to work as a servant, when they could have lived alone and independent and quite comfortable. While it is a highly unlikely scenario, it is not an impossible one. The money Imogen’s uncle left her was acquired by him by questionable means. He was a money lender, and these men were not highly regarded in society. Apart from that there is the issue of how he used her to help him in enticing his customers. Whether it is literally the case or not, in her mind, she would see herself as little more than a prostitute. And THAT is the point. If nothing else, her lowering herself to servant status is a metaphor for how she regards herself. In her own home, with her horrid uncle, that was the only way she escaped his more lurid demands. She played small. She played unworthy. And it wasn’t just play; she believed herself to be this way, to be worthy of little better.

In the 1890’s Sigmund Freud was doing some research on the origins of hysteria. After awhile, he began to see a patter. The women who confided in him had all been victims of sexual abuse. He wrote a paper about it called The Aetiology of Hysteria. In it he made the revolutionary (and what ought to have been groundbreaking) claim that, “at the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience, occurrences which belong to the earliest years of childhood, but which can be reproduced through the work of psycho-analysis in spite of the intervening decades.” Having made such an important discovery, he carried on with his research. After interviewing more than 200 women, however, he came to a breaking point. Hysteria was so prevalent in the women who came to him–wives and daughters of prominent families in society–that he realized that one of two things was happening. Either sexual abuse was endemic in society–even in polite society–or…the women who were coming to him were lying.

He chose the latter. He retracted his thesis (to the joy and relief of his peers), and thus ended the serious study of sexual trauma for the next 100 years.

Dickens did not shy away from these subjects, and even in his books there are instances of women working jobs and living in situations far, far beneath them. Perhaps not by choice, but the social ladder was a mighty rickety and precarious scaffold.

Inheritance law and the rights of women was also a huge factor in making this story plausible. Before the 1880’s women were not much more than property. If a father were particularly determined to set his daughter up as an independent heiress, he could, but as Wilkie Collins showed us in The Woman in White, a coersive husband could still draw up the paperwork to undo it all and claim her fortune for himself. The only women safe from such fates were widows who inherited their husbands’ fortunes and who were determined never to marry again. In 1888, the Married Women’s Property Act was passed. It was actually passed by Parliament in November of 1887 and was not due to take effect until the following February. A woman who inherited during this short window of time would undoubtedly find herself the focus of every member of her family who might conceivably benefit and every eligible gentleman eager to get their hands on a fortune. Arranged marriages had ended, formally, some decades ago, but marriage in the Victorian era was largely a matter of business. Money was traded for social status, fortune was married to fortune, or at least to the appearance thereof.

Last week I took a rather closer look at my reviews than I’m used to doing. I have nearly 1,100 of them, 75% of which are four and five stars. Turns out, if you’ve sold a lot of books, particularly if, like me, you like to give them away periodically, you become a target for “bots”. It’s a rather dastardly way of gaming the system so that new authors can take a center stage. With all the trauma rampant in our society right now, both in the displaying of it and the experiencing of it, I think my books have rather served their purpose and will continue to do. But, considering how heavy-hearted we all are right now, perhaps I will do better to write stories that are a little simpler and a little more light-hearted.

I’ll save my discussions about trauma for my classes and my blog posts.

The sad thing is, I’ve been so immersed in the world of Absinthe Moon, I’ve forgotten a lot of what I used to know. It’s possible I won’t hold myself to quite so rigid a standard as I did before. Clearly, it doesn’t matter. A reader will believe what they want to believe, whether I can support it by proof of evidence or not.

As I move forward, I hope we can engage in some discussions about trauma and the stress of living through the times we are in. I have not, in the past, opened my posts up to comments, but I think I’ll start doing that. Let’s have some conversations. If you write, what comfort does it bring you? If you read, what do you turn to for escape? What exercises and self-care practices bring you grounding and peace? And what can we do together to share what peace we find, both with each other and with the world at large?

2 thoughts on “Of Moths & Butterflies, a portrayal of trauma

    1. Thank you. It’s not something I love talking about, but it seems the effects of trauma are something we need to really look at right now, and perhaps it’s something, after all, that can bring people together as we find ways to overcome.

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