The first thing that came to me, with this story, was the singsong rhyme from the beginning, which led to a few questions: Who is Becky Guo, where is this taking place, and who is telling the story? I wrote most of “What A Terrible Thing It Was” in New Orleans in December 2016 right after Trump’s election – it was the beginning of a particular kind of anxiety for myself and most of my loved ones around the country and what was going to be coming next ….I consider it as much a story about trauma as anything else, and a narrative of how new traumas tend to revive old ones.~ ~ Esmé Weijun Wang, Contributor Note
In my lifetime, we Americans have had what I’d call generational events, often capsulized in “Where were you…” questions. For my age group, it was the assassination of President Kennedy; for my parents, it was Pearl Harbor. Gen X had the live viewing of the Challenger explosion; for millennials – for all of us, really – it’s 9/11. What these events have in common is that they’re unexpected tragedies, witnessed en masse, that seem to change the way the universe works.
For Wendy Chung – for a lot of us – it’s election night, November 8, 2016. But that isn’t all she’s dealing with on that day.
“Tell me what’s brought you here,” Dr. Richards says.
I’m prepared to tell Dr. Richards my medical history and about the first voice I heard when I was twenty and how the election has made my stress so much worse, which has in turn escalated psychotic symptoms that have proven to be medication-resistant. And yet Dr. Richards’s face, which warps and flattens and suddenly seems made of plaster, sucks out all the words I had carefully constructed and lined up delicately in impeccable rows, until I am vacant; the erasure of my likes and dislikes and the hopes I harbor, leaving nothing but agitation behind, is something that terrifies me about psychosis – I cannot survive another bout of catatonia.
“What do you hallucinate?”
It doesn’t matter, I try to say, but the words won’t come out.
I’m afraid, is what I want to say.
These two events – treatment for schizophrenia, and a Presidential election – wouldn’t typically make a lot of sense as a pair, but here, there’s enough connective tissue (I seem to be using that phrase a lot; too many anatomy moocs) between them to make it work. Most obviously is the total insanity of the election itself. Many of us had a sense of unreality that night, a sense of “You’ve got to be kidding me,” something we’d practiced on a dry run watching Great Britain’s Brexit vote a few months before: a sense of Before and After, a shift from the world making some kind of sense to a universe in which up is down because nothing matters any more.
The other element is in the nature of Wendy’s hallucinations. I thought it was slightly unusual for a psychiatrist to ask about the content of hallucinations; typically, they’re less concerned with who you hear or see and more concerned with which sense is involved and whether someone’s telling you to do bad things. But Wendy’s hallucinations are more from fear than hostility: they recall the lynching of the other Asian girl in town back when they were both in high school.
When I was 17, Rebecca Mei-Hua Guo was found hanging from a eucalyptus tree near the outskirts of Polk Valley, where I live. To be hanged from this tree was a feat, given its size; her gleaming shoes dangled far above the heads of the two huntsman who found her ….
As long as the murderer was free I would not know who had sedated and then hung Becky from that high-up branch. I would not know why or how the killer had done it, and because there seemed to be no reason for the act I would have to keep my head bowed. If she had not been killed in part because of her race I could, as the saying goes, breathe easier, but I could not assure myself of that….
Wendy hears, in her head, a sing-song chant about Becky, and sometimes sees, from the corner of her eye, her black shoes dangling in mid-air. We don’t know when Wendy’s illness started – she’s a young adult now, recently married, and schizophrenia typically starts in the late teens or early 20s – but that’s enough to make anyone paranoid, particularly when the country is in the process of electing someone who enjoys – and I use that word advisedly – the full support of every substantial white supremacy group in the country for his racist policies, statements, and history.
Fear is another character in this story; its omnipresence, texture, and layering into every aspect make it more than just something someone’s feeling, more than background.
I typically blog these stories, not as literary reviews or analysis, but as my own reader experience. Once in a while I’ll find craft issues that stand out to me, but it’s usually much more about how the elements affected me, and why. I had so many intersections with this story, so many intense emotions, it’s hard to pay attention to the craft at all. Fortunately, Jake Weber is around picking up the slack, and his post is excellent as always.