In Search of the Murdered Soul

Child abuse, and in particular child sexual abuse, has often been referred to (I think originally by Alice Miller, but I encountered it in bell hooks’s works as well as others’) as ‘soul murder.’ But what is a soul?

I think that, like other intangibles like ‘love’ and ‘forgiveness’ and ‘generosity’ and ‘caring,’ there may be as many different and sometimes contradictory definitions as there are people. And definitions are just an imperfect way of putting words on things. I can understand a thing without having a deep knowing of it, as well. It’s a very different feel when I finally Get something, and I am changed by that knowing—now I can no longer really act as if it’s not true without knowing I am lying to myself and feeling that betrayal of my own values and beliefs as an itching under my mental skin to keep me awake.

I felt touched in a shivery deep way by bell hooks’s descriptions of soul in ‘Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem.’ She referred often to Thomas Moore’s ‘Care of the Soul,’ which I borrowed from the library after taking the former back and am read now. And truly beginning to understand what soul means to me, and feeling more and more that I’ve been in search of it, in awe of it, and in fear of its power and pain all my life.

It is impossible to define precisely what the soul is. Definition is an intellectual enterprise anyway; the soul prefers to imagine. We know intuitively that soul has to do with genuineness and depth, as when we say certain music has soul or a remarkable person is soulful.

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Tradition teaches that soul lies midway between understanding and unconsciousness, and that its instrument is neither the mind nor the body, but imagination.

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We have come to know soul only in its complaints: when it stirs, disturbed by neglect and abuse, and causes us to feel its pain.

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…without soul, whatever we find will be unsatisfying, for what we truly long for is the soul in each of these areas. Lacking that soulfulness, we attempt to gather these alluring satisfactions to us in great masses, thinking apparently that quantity will make up for lack of quality.

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Soul is the font of who we are, and yet it is far beyond our capacity to devise and to control. We can cultivate, tend, enjoy, and participate in the things of the soul, but we can’t outwit it or manage it or shape it to the designs of a willful ego.

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Storytelling is an excellent way of caring for the soul. It helps us see the themes that circle in our lives, the deep themes that tell the myths we live. It would take only a slight shift in emphasis in therapy to focus on the storytelling itself rather than its interpretation. —Thomas Moore, ‘Care of the Soul’

Broken String

There were people, some people
Who broke the string for me
And so
This place is now a sad place for me,
Because the string is broken. —Tad Williams, ‘Otherland: City of Golden Shadow

I’ve said all my life that it’s easier to tell the truth in fiction. I’m coming to understand that it's also easier for me to hear and find and face and deeply know the truth through fiction and story—from Zen koans and Sufi teaching tales to fairy tales to video games with intricate storylines like ‘Final Fantasy VII.’ When I was a child stories were my escape from horrendous abuse and a nightmare world I could not leave. I read them and as soon as I could I started writing them for myself.

Looking back on stories I wrote when I was unaware, brainwashed and in denial about realities about myself and my world, very much not awake, I am astonished how my dreaming mind was telling myself on the page the story of my imprisonment and abuse.

bell hooks tells a heartbreaking story in ‘Rock My Soul’ about talking to an adolescent girl who had grown up in a poor black neighborhood with a life of violence and abuse and urging her to imagine something, and the girl insisting that she was unable to imagine. It dawned on bell hooks that the loss of the ability to imagine was one of the most deeply troubling and sorrowful symptoms of soul murder.

When my husband died, the grief destroyed me like a firestorm. Reality invaded my innocence and stripped it from me, burning everything away. My ability to tell myself stories to take myself out of the pain was nearly completely destroyed through the invasive pain that burned into every corner of me, that grief that became impacted through the interference and grief-vulturing of the people around me, aided by my desperate desire to get away from the all-encompassing pain by any means possible. Drugs and abusive relationships moved in with superficial attraction that became like swallowing bombs that went off inside me, shattering me in even deeper places.

For a long time now I have remembered how much better I felt when I could reliably write stories. And some people, many people, have broken the string for me, even while I struggled to tie it back together. I needed to come to some fundamental understandings about reality and about how people aren’t always as they seem, and understand where I come from and all I don’t know. I needed to wake up.

In the years since I pushed out all those toxic influences it’s been a frantic and painful search for truth. I kept hoping that stories would come back with it, and imagination. I would get glimmers and fragments, but like will o’ the wisps and fairy gold, when I’d grab for them, they’d vanish in my hands. (It didn’t help that when I was pleased enough to finish a story, people around me would want to read it, and then make it all about them and their opinions, effectively killing my sense of joy and accomplishment, not to mention trust and the relationship. But that’s another story and shall be told at another time.)

I’ve always been drawn to stories. I know they have the power to comfort and heal me. They have the capacity to help me face what I can’t face head-on, and feel feelings that I’m too terrified to feel directly for myself. I can identify with the main characters going through what I went through, and then feel for them and for me, and see a resolution in their stories that life has not really afforded me.

These are powerful things stories have done for us throughout history. Bessel van der Kolk, in ‘The Body Keeps the Score,’ talks about an American military unit putting on the ancient Greek play ‘Ajax’ by Sophocles and finding it a relevant psychodrama for themselves. It was written in a time when Greece was fighting everyone, and soldiers were constantly going off to war, killing, witnessing death, and being killed, with all the attendant pains, horrors, and PTSD. That the play speaks across thousands of years to today’s soldiers, with very different theologies and theories of the world they inhabit, with brains and wars complexified by the evolution of technology, says something about the power of that particular story to tap into its deep emotional themes. Its soul's refrain echoes as long as war's wounds are continually dealt and sustained.

Too, there is the problem of being a writer in that it tends to bring out the critic in a lot of normal people. There are a lot of unconscious and buried reasons for this, but also the kind of consumerist culture we live in assumes that writers write to make money, to please others. And I have had my own desires to write what I want, my own voice and soul and deep longings usurped by the overbearing opinions of people around me, including or maybe especially writing teachers. I learn much more from the stories of people who write what I want to write when they talk about how they wrote than when writers try to tell other writers how to write, as if they’re not really sure how they do the magic and so they parrot everything they’ve heard. No writer I love talks about their critique group when they tell of their writing process, but almost everyone insists you have to have one. (If you subscribe to this unquestioned belief, please go read ‘Why Critique Groups MUST DIE’ and at the very least ponder on the reality that story-by-committee only works in the context of television and movie studios where the writers are vetted, paid, and experts at this. And even then, a lot of the stories are meh.)

I write because I need it to survive. I write because it makes life worth living. I write to try to give my soul back to myself, including all its attendant darkness, in the form that is most satisfying and natural for me. There is no room in this for other people’s needs to take precedence and dictate, no matter how much the money. This is my lifeline. I write because it is who I am. And yet no one I talk to really gets that. Many people assume the point is money and fame and all their questions reveal their values and motivations, and misunderstandings: “Have you been published?” “How much does that pay?”

And if I do try clumsily to explain what it means to me, then they dismiss it as if it’s some kind of psychological masturbation, which deeply, deeply offends me. Because to me, writing because I’m passionate about it is a more robust motivation than writing in order to get external rewards. Thinking about the writers I love best, I would never want them (or have wanted them in the case of the dead ones) to write in order to please me. I want them to write what pleases them. If they do that, they’ll write a hell of a lot more (and do/did), and more easily, and take me places I might never have gone had I been at the helm.

Whither Anything?

Reality still intrudes so terrifyingly. Living homeless is traumatizing. Living in fear for my survival is traumatizing. It doesn’t help that I feel this deep inadequacy that I can’t write anyway, because of how many artists created brilliant works while living in poverty. And though I put so much stress on how my situation needs to improve in order for my life to improve in any way—and I do believe this is valid—I do worry that it’s been this way for so long that my imagination and soul won’t just suddenly show up on my doorstep along with the first theoretical disability check.

And in any case, while I’m in limbo, my soul is in so much pain I can hardly bear it. I know this has been what has driven me to all kinds of addiction and self-destruction and lashing out and withdrawing like an emotional sniper, the helplessness and impacted grief and anger of it. So many things I’ve read and learned and done through this process haven’t yet done more than reveal for brief moments the depth of damage within me, which I then flee from.

The longer this goes on the harder it seems sometimes to tolerate even those flashes, and I retreat more and more, terrified of the triggers that seem to be everywhere. I’m running from the bill that my soul is presenting me for a lifetime of this pain, and hiding like a fugitive from the law. It is hunting me down in every book I read, every song I hear, every hollow moment I play some idiotic game that has no life-enriching story to it, only an ever-hungry time devourer.

I feel this fakeness and emptiness often, in conversations with others, lacking any sort of trust and knowing how fragile I am right now, trying to keep things as light as possible. I feel it when I write on my blog, and express anger, and feel a little of the silence peel away, but hurt in my heart because I wish so much I could have written that as a story. I would have felt so much healing and joy, and joy in reading it over as I still read over and over my old stories.

I feel it when I can’t manage to imagine anything better, or imagine ever feeling joy or freedom again.

Just Keep Swimming

The good news is, this pain, honored properly and worked through, may help bring me back in to my soul.

…entering into [melancholy’s] mood and thoughts can be deeply satisfying. …feelings of emptiness, the loss of familiar understandings and structures in life, and the vanishing of enthusiasm, even though they seem negative, are elements that can be appropriated and used to give life fresh imagination.

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…the soul is made: it is the product of work and inventive effort.

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…during bouts of melancholy the outer life may look empty, but at the same time inner work may be taking place at full speed.

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…the need for isolation, the coagulation of fantasy, the distilling of memory, and accommodation with death…

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…provide emotional space for such feelings, without trying to change them or interpret them.

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…power pours in when we sustain the feeling of emptiness and withstand temptations to fill it prematurely. We have to contain the void. Too often we lose this pregnant emptiness by reaching for substitutes for power. A tolerance of weakness, you might say, is a prerequisite for the discovery of power, for any exercise of strength motivated by avoidance of weakness is not genuine power. The soul has no room in which to present itself if we continually fill all the gaps with bogus activities.

I knew a young man who wanted to be a writer. Something in him urged him to travel and to live the Bohemian life, but he looked around and saw all his peers going to school. So he decided to overrule his desire for travel and take some college courses. Not surprisingly, he flunked out, and then went on a long trip. It is easy to overlook the obvious, persistent indications of soul, in this case the fantasies and longings for travel, and instead try to manufacture power with demanding and expensive efforts. —Thomas Moore, ‘Care of the Soul’

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