A LITTLE LIFE:
A CHANCE TO LEARN
BY MADELINE MITCHELL
Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life 2015 has faced continued backlash from the book community in relation to its portrayal of trauma. A Little Life details the ‘little’ life of Jude St Francis and his three friends, Willem, Malcolm, and JB, and explores their friendships from college-age until late adulthood. As a result of his horrific childhood, Jude struggles immensely with his mental health and finds it difficult to divulge any details regarding his pain to his friends. But, as the book goes on, Jude’s many secrets unravel, and the reader becomes more aware of the context of his deeply rooted pain. Most importantly, A Little Life stunningly illustrates several relationships between men, all of which have something important to say about masculinity.
A Little Life consists of the absolute worst of masculinity, but also its very best qualities. Each male character is significantly more complex than meets the eye, illustrating the intricacies of manhood. In particular, Yanagihara exemplifies the beautiful, healing nature of friendship, and how men can show gentleness towards their friends without sacrificing their masculinity. In fact, it is perhaps that very gentleness that substantiates masculinity, and this is flawlessly demonstrated through the depictions in A Little Life. Despite the controversy, A Little Life was adapted for the International Theatre Amsterdam theatre by Ivo van Hove in Dutch and that adaptation has been translated into English for London’s West End. Screenings of the filmed West End production have been rolled out to cinemas across the world. The genius of van Hove’s particular adaptation lies in the fact that the same actor plays each of the abusive men, a poignant demonstration of the cyclical nature of trauma.
Trigger warnings should be carefully examined before diving into a book as heavy as A Little Life, especially by those with lived experiences of mental illness or trauma, and the novel should be tackled at an appropriate interval in one’s life. However, I would venture that, for those without lived experience of mental illness, this book gives a truthful and insightful window into the internal world of those struggling with mental health. Yanagihara clearly illustrates the juxtaposition between the inside life and the external projection of someone struggling, and how difficult it can be for loved ones to understand what is truly happening for someone, especially when that someone is doing their utmost to hide it. There are, nevertheless, several moments of tenderness between Jude and his loved ones, and they illustrate the importance of kindness, even in cases that we may consider to be hopeless.
When searching for A Little Life, Goodreads reviewers barrage readers with DO-NOT-READS, but should we really shy away from suffering? Doesn’t turning away from portrayals of hardship further stigmatise the experience for those undergoing troubling circumstances? Jaycee Lee Dugard, who was kidnapped and held captive for 18 terrifying years, wrote a memoir about her experience and A Stolen Life 2011 broke Simon & Schuster’s company record for one-day eBook sales. No one would venture to call A Stolen Life ‘trauma-porn’, because it would be invalidating and cruel to suggest that Jaycee should not have agency over her story. Additionally, memoirs detailing abuse, such as Stephanie Foo’s What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma 2022, Chanel Miller’s Know My Name 2019 and Jennette McCurdy’s I’m Glad My Mom Died 2022, have become increasingly popular on the account of the
ever-growing #metoo movement and increasing efforts to create agency for survivors over their stories.
So, why is it different for fiction? There are stories of pain everywhere, fiction and nonfiction, and that is precisely the point of literature—to read and engage with stories that are not our own. As humans, we can find solace in the fact that someone unlike ourselves may still feel the same way that we do, in some capacity. All of what Jude experiences are things that have happened in real life to people. In Australia alone, 11.8% of the population had experienced violence from a partner in 2016. It would be foolish to pretend that Jude’s experience is an isolated one.
The great thing about fictional portrayals of trauma is that no one actually has to experience the trauma for the rest of us to learn from it. In A Little Life, Jude is unable to break out of the cycle of abuse, and those around him (including the reader) are begging for him to accept help. Regardless, his past experiences, and the lack of his loved ones’ knowledge about them, trap him and his loved ones actually end up perpetuating Jude’s pain. Luckily, Jude is fictional, and his story provides the reader with the opportunity to understand how truly difficult it can be to escape the cycle of trauma.
One of the main issues that people take up with the book is that Jude struggles to engage with therapy, and it doesn’t immediately help him. However, anyone who has undertaken work in therapy can attest that it is not a quick fix. Actively partaking in therapy can be exhausting. And, if you aren’t actively participating? Therapy cannot help you. You cannot force someone who doesn’t want to do the work to engage in therapy, and Yanagihara is simply demonstrating this fact.
Books invite the general population to engage with a perspective other than their own, broadening their horizons and informing readers of the internal worlds of others. Fiction and nonfiction need to go hand in hand in order to expose the difficult truths of trauma and mental illness, but also to teach us to be kind. And, we can all stand to learn from A Little Life, to offer friendship, to embody the best parts of masculinity, and to love.