Kayla Marsh’s blog post “Trauma and Formation of the Self,” hones in on an incredibly important aspect of Butler’s work—the impact of experience on one’s self-perception. As Kayla puts it, “the mind protects itself from extreme stressors by physically changing the way that the brain functions.” In other words, negative experience can affect the way a person perceives and understands external stimulus; Kayla cites a student’s difficulty learning new material in an abusive home as evidence of how the brain can reroute its functions in a stressful situation. I would like to expand on Kayla’s post in order to illuminate Butler’s portrayal of trauma as a mechanism for self re-conception, and clarify the real life manifestation of trauma and self-conception. It’s important to note that Butler’s fiction expresses the idea that any variety of experience can affect the way a person perceives himself/herself: from the improvement in Shori’s ability and confidence as she learns more about the circumstances of her life pre-amnesia, to less physical and more mental examples like Blake’s familiarity with being questioned about his relation to his daughters, Butler never lets readers forget the question of how experience—especially negative and traumatic experience—impacts one’s conscious. With this said, Butler’s commentary on the impact of trauma on the self is perhaps no more prevalent than in the process of transition, and furthermore, comparisons between childbirth and transition illuminate the ability of the traumatic event of transition to completely reformat how people perceive themselves. Ultimately, this illumination reflects the impact of traumatic experiences in real life, and creates a connection between Butler’s fiction and reality that exposes how vulnerable people are to negative criticism.
I first noticed similarities between transition and childbirth—and thus the (re)birth of characters post-transition— in Mind of My Mind when Ada tells Page about her powers; Ada informs Page that her parents are telepaths, and the narrator comments that Page’s parents were the oldest Latents to make it through transition successfully. Similar to the complications and increased chance of miscarriage and stillbirth after the age of 35, the narrator notes that Latents above the age of 35 are unlikely to survive transition. After researching other similarities between childbirth and transition, I discovered many correspondences between the stages of labor, and the “stages” of transition. First, women in the later stages of pregnancy often experience more “symptoms,” such as morning sickness, cravings, and mood swings—similar to Latents’ symptomatic experience of increased connectivity to the outside world as they near transition. Latents then go into the early stages of “transition,” when they go into an altered state of consciousness, alternating between their own consciousness and the conscious of other people, which compares to the early labor stage of childbirth, involving the breaking of water which signals the beginning of labor. In active labor, women go through intense physical and emotional stress, and this stage of labor generally last 8-12 hours, comparable to the 10-12 hours that transition normally lasts. Furthermore, the Patternist society employs an Active to care for the transitioning latent—very similar to the midwife in childbirth. Another similarity includes the “puberty factor:” neither can women in real life become pregnant nor can Patternist Latents go through transition until they have become physically mature; puberty starts around age 11 or 12, and transition normally occurs around age 15. Finally, the most intriguing similarity between transition and pregnancy is the correspondence between induced transition (when Mary forces a Latent into transition, like she does to Clay), and medically induced pregnancy. Medically induced pregnancy began in the 1960’s, and by the mid-1970’s—around the same time Mind of My Mind was published—between 60% and 90% of all childbirths were medically induced.
The significance of the correspondence between childbirth and transition, and its relation to trauma and self-perception is found in the actions that come immediately after the end of each event: the measurement of appearance and ability. After childbirth, medical professionals administer the Apgar test, which measures appearance (parents also check the newborn for apparent medical issues), pulse, grimace (reflexes), activity, and respiration. Juxtaposing the Apgar test with Clay’s immediate thoughts after transition—he first looks over his body to check for issues with his physical appearance, and then realizes that he is floating, marking the realization and measurement of a new ability—a commonality precipitates between the measurement of appearance and ability that accompanies both birth, and, in Latents’ cases, rebirth.
This crucial juncture between childbirth and transition illuminates the potentially life-changing effects of the way one perceives their own body in relation to the world. To be clear, because of the way one’s embodied reality is defined by one’s environment and the people in the environment, trauma can influence a person’s embodied reality to the extent that a person perceives their body differently than before the traumatic event. In Mind of My Mind, self-(re)conception after trauma (transition) is most evident in Mary, who before transition, submits herself entirely to Doro, and at the same time feels nothing but lust for him; however, after transition, she not only perceives herself as more powerful, more in control, and more autonomous, but she also loses her sexual desire for Doro and ultimately decides to kill him. Similar re-conception appears after Clay becomes an active. Immediately after realizing his psychokinetic power, he realizes that his embodied reality has been altered by transition, and confidently decides that he is now in control of his life enough to hit the road on his own; Clay changed from a person whose self-perception could be defined by his statement: “No woman in her right mind would want to come out her and share this place with me,” to a person whose re-conceptualization after transition enabled him to tell claim, “I think I’ll go back to Arizona—raise myself a few cows, maybe a few kids.” Unfortunately, real life trauma often does not provide the same positive effects that Mary and Clay received.
The importance that Butler places on the ability of a single event to drastically alter one’s self-perception has importance far beyond the end of her novels, and although trauma is typically considered in terms of physical pain, it can often come from language; in a blog post on “The Feminist Wire,” “Personal is Political: Unhandsome: Race & Gender, a Chocolate Man’s POV,” Curtis W. Rawls, Jr. explains the impact of peer’s negative comments about his black skin and how those comments affected both his body image, and his own perception of his abilities. Rawls starts off his blog stating, “All my life I have been black”—a comment that seems obvious enough, but is significant because it clarifies that his blackness did not inherently cause issues with his perception of his appearance and abilities, but instead these issues were caused by the event of peers making fun of him—and later states, “the teasing drove me to tears, or a suburb damn close.” Furthermore, he writes, “In addition to my dark skin, I had the unfortunate luck of being lanky, unathletic, and uncoordinated. One of my legs was slightly shorter than the other and, as a result, folks often made fun of the way I walked.” Rawls underscores the conflation of appearance and ability, while at the same time maintaining that his negative self-conception was not a result of his congenital black skin, but because of an event: teasing.
I think Butler wants readers to understand how much an event, or multiple events–involving physical or emotional trauma–can influence the way a person lives their life; in fact, Butler even admits to her own struggle as a child with imparting judgment on people for doing work she considered lowly. In a 1990 interview with Randall Kenan, Butler admits she “spent a lot of [her] childhood being ashamed of what” her mother did for a living, but it wasn’t until after Butler recognized that “her mother spent her early childhood on a sugar plantation,” that “wasn’t that far removed from slavery” when Butler realized that her mother didn’t have much of a choice, and that Butler “ate because of what she did.” To return to my previous point, by uniting childbirth and transition, Butler’s creates a union between trauma and rebirth, suggesting that trauma can lead to a reformation of one’s self-perception. I think Butler wants readers to consider how often we judge a person for their characteristics without being informed about how the events of their lives shaped the way that person acts, views him/herself, and views the world around him/her. It’s easy for readers to sympathize with Doro and Anyanwu because we can blame their wrongdoings on traumatic experience, but in real life, we don’t have pages on pages of text telling us what circumstances a person has lived through.