Trigger Warning: This post may contain triggering and/or sensitive material regarding self harm, sexual violence, and abuse.
*This post contains spoilers*
It seemed as if everyone in 2015 had been talking about (not so little) A Little Life. The profound and whopping 734-page book asks questions about friendship, love, and what it means to live in a body that betrays you.
The story follows a group of four college friends: Jude, Willem, Malcolm, and JB. As they begin their adulthood in New York City, questions of success, addiction, and trauma come to shape their worldview and how they navigate life and its struggles.
The story narrows its focus on Jude, whose past trauma dictates his way of thinking about himself. Throughout the novel, Jude is exhausted by fighting day after day with his demons: both physical and mental. He suffers from chronic fatigue and is sometimes subdued to his wheelchair for long periods. His back is raised with scars from a car accident that took place during his childhood. He cuts himself almost daily, saying that it helps him feel nothing when he feels too much. His skin is no longer skin but instead, scar tissue.
Of course, reading this book with such heavy and triggering subject matter takes a long time to digest. However, it allows the readers, those struggling with mental health and those without, to think about Jude and how life has betrayed him.
There is an immense amount of readers who think A Little Life is too grotesque. The vivid scenes of brutal rapes, Jude’s attempted suicide, a car crash, and multiple depictions of Jude’s self-harm do intend to serve a purpose. When I first read it, I had to put the book down and walk away from it.
A character who endures so much pain and suffering is nauseating, and like all the other characters in the story, I wanted to know what the best route for Jude was. And like all the characters, I was unsure. I loved Jude too much to want him to keep suffering, but I knew that he no longer wanted a part in life.
In an interview with The Guardian, the novel’s author Hanya Yanagihara, when talking about Jude’s character, says, “what is my responsibility to save someone who doesn’t want to be saved? Or tell someone to keep living when they don’t want to live?”
Yanagihara’s exploration of a character who never wants to get better is trivializing. We are a society that believes in the “it’ll get better tomorrow,” saying, but what if it doesn’t? Do we have a moral responsibility to protect someone’s life, especially if they are our loved ones? As one of my colleagues pointed out, the difference lies in the word “responsibility.” We do not have jurisdiction over the bodies and choices of others. Our autonomy is what makes our humanity possible, and despite caring for someone, you cannot change a person’s choice.
We can interpret Jude’s choice of suicide as him choosing his freedom rather than being bound to a life that offered him no peace. The difficulties of his recovery became poignant in understanding that his journey of depression and self harm was not all that — instead, his life did include happy moments. But with such overwhelming trauma, his decision to end his life was the only control Jude could ever exercise.
There is no redemption for anyone in the novel. Especially Jude. Yanagihara puts the reader in a constrained viewpoint in which the feeling of pain and suffering becomes enigmatic, yet all-encompassing. We ride through the novel rooting for these characters, which can resemble a reality that most of us have experience with.
Globally, more than 264 million people of all ages suffer from depression. It is only safe to say that we all know someone who struggles with mental health. It is imperative to understand that we can never control the actions of an individual, and therefore we cannot blame ourselves for the possible outcomes of what mental illnesses impact people to do. The only thing we can do, quite plainly, is the simple act of being there for another in need. We can support individuals as much as we can during their fight with vicious mental illnesses, but at the end of the day, the decision is not ours.
“…things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”