How we write abuse

By Maiia Marina

A reading of the controversial novel A Little Life. CW: Rape, Paedophilia, Self-Harm

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara chronicles the life of Jude St. Francis — whose past is shrouded in mystery — and his college friends Malcolm, Willem and Jean-Baptiste (aka JB). The story begins with the four of them plunging into New York adult life: ambitions, cleaning, paying rent. At first, this seems like yet another story about failure and success in one’s twenties. Then the novel’s omniscient narrator focuses on Jude.

In the monastery where he spent his early childhood (which can hardly be called a childhood at all) Jude was frequently physically and sexually abused. At eight-years-old, he was kidnapped by a paedophile, forced into prostitution, rescued but put into state care — and that was only the beginning. One of the haunting damages of Jude’s traumatic past is self-harm, which he feels enables him to regain control over his body. These scenes of rape and Jude cutting himself, the episodes of extreme violence, are depicted in a famously detailed and graphic way. 

Should the gory details be so vivid as to make a reader feel faint? Isn’t this too much? Definitely not. The only way to write about abuse is to be unbearably inhumane, because abuse is unbearably inhumane. Writing about trauma and abuse is inherently problematic, especially when it is beautifully executed. Art has a treacherous power of romanticisation.

Probably the most infamous novel about child sexual abuse, Lolita, was considered by its first reviewers as pornographic literature. Magnetic depictions of abuse can be seen as romanticising paedophilia. The gory scenes of A Little Life are replaced in Lolita by poetic references and exquisite language. Of course, the whole idea was to write from Humber Humbert’s perspective, who has since become the epitome of the unreliable narrator. The alluring depictions of child abuse cause readers’ utter disgust because they are so beautiful. Nabokov’s narration made Lolita a literary masterpiece. Yet, writing so enchantingly on the subject of paedophilia is ambiguous. The reader is both repulsed by the content and yet fascinated by the novel’s language and artistic decisions.

In contrast, when one reads A Little Life, the reaction is unequivocally that of all-embracing horror. The desire to avoid any romanticisation of abuse justifies the vividness of Yanagihara’s writing. In the third decade of the 21st century it is just how a novel affects its desensitised readers. Having seen numerous thrillers by Tarantino, Lars von Trier or David Lynch — all filled with grotesque bloodshed and violence — a modern audience is, arguably, not so easily moved as a few decades ago. A Little Life’s abundance of bloodcurdling details is soul-wrenching, even for the most self-composed reader.

Reading Yanagihara’s writing, I found myself helpless and desperate, progressively horrified yet unable to put the book aside. Why is that? Not because of its brutality but rather in spite of it. A Little Life is saturated with contrasts. The most sorrowful moments follow the most joyful ones, each magnifying the other. Heart-warming friendship and unconditional love from the people around Jude become more effective amidst the darkness surrounding his character. A Little Life is about profound kindness as much as it is about abuse. Systems that are supposed to create the sense of justice and fairness in society, to help the most vulnerable, fail, multiple times. Jude’s friends are never-failing in their wish to make his life a little happier, a little less painful, and to show him that he will always be loved.
After the final pages, the only wish I had was to be unrelentingly kind. Simply because to be kind appeared as the only way to remain human after reading the novel. A Little Life makes one feel as much as it is possible for a thick-skinned, thriller-bred modern person to feel. Graphic writing about such profound abuse is not excessive; it is how the novel makes one realise that if life were to be reduced to a single purpose it would be to try as hard as you can to be kind.


Share this story

Follow us online

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments