Room, by Emma Donoghue
Taken at face value, Room is about a boy and his mother held captive in a tiny room by a very bad man. The literal story is enough to keep you reading and anxiously wondering what will happen to the mother and child. You care very much about them and hope that they will escape and find freedom and happiness. You also feel for their existence. You admire the mother for making the best of it for her son and encouraging his development to the best of her ability. You also love the little boy for being so charming and interesting despite his never knowing the beauty of the external world. You also worry over them more than you can put into words. And so I won’t.
I have not been able to stop thinking about this book since I finished reading it for several reasons. Some of the reasons regard my life at present, but the majority of these reasons regard my past.
Now: I have a five-year-old son. I spend all day with him or at least most of the day with him. He is often scared at night and has nightmares and so I spend nights with him, too. Even though he is growing more and more independent each day, we are still very much of one mind and body. Slowly, each year, our bodies and minds push away from each other. Like an elastic band, they twang back together when everything is stretched too tight, the growing too quick. In that, Donoghue very much understands the relationship between child and caregiver, the give and take, the sometimes overwhelming closeness of it all. The fear. The pleasure. The joy. The sorrow. Taken on a superficial level, she gets it and depicts it extremely well. I loved the way this mother raised her child in the horrible circumstances. She gave him things to look forward to. She gave him a sense of purpose. She taught him without ever knowing whether he would see the world. She did not give up, even though she sometimes fell into despair. And then when they are reborn–he bursting from the rolled up carpet and she being released from room–they have an opportunity at life, which is at once beautiful and terrifying.
Digging deeper, I found much to mine within this novel. What Donoghue has done is brilliant in depicting this abusive relationship in a way that is potentially instructive to the victim(s). Especially, she showed me exactly (again, not in a literal way) the way I grew up as a child and how things might have been different had my mother known love and had a place to escape to.
For me, what Donoghue has done with this mother and child is show what it is like when you are a child of trauma, always fearing that your mother/caretaker will die. You fear it more than you fear your own death. You fear it every single day of your life until that person actually does die and even then you never, ever sleep a whole night through because now you are the caretaker and now you might die. Donoghue shows how the child clings to the mother, not simply for protection, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to protect. She shows how even when there is freedom and safety, the child and caretaker will not be divided. It is them against the world, even when the world means no harm. And they will not let go of each other until one of them either gives up or dies. But she has also shown the perspective of the caretaker and how that person accepts the abuse out of fear and a sense of hopelessness, out of a sense of feeling trapped.
All of it made me think of my own upbringing. While I was not, literally, locked away in a room with my mother, in a sense I was. My earliest memories are of being roused in the night to the sounds of abuse. Things I could hear and not see. Of hating the perpetrator and loving and needing him at the same time. This kept on from the time I was an infant until I was 16. We were locked in that room which was fear. Really, I didn’t know that there was another way to live and didn’t want to leave my mother to find out. In my mind, she needed protecting, even though my protecting was never about physically intervening, it was about using my mind to try to control situations. To wish or pray for other outcomes. To imagine all the worst and envision how I might save the day. But always, always, there was fear.
And there still is.
My mother, a child of trauma herself, let go of me when I was ten and my father died. I let go of her when I was sixteen and my stepfather died and I believed that she was safe. But she was never really safe and that is the hardest bit to swallow. We cannot box people up and keep them away from life. Even doing so does not keep them safe. We can’t do this to our children. We can’t do it to ourselves. The world is out there. The world wants us to live and die as we will. And we will die. And we will die and leave those who love us behind us. In the meantime, we can choose to live.
In letting go of my mother when I was sixteen, I saved myself. And this is what literature does, expose a nerve that we did not know needed exposing. Literature releases a root that is buried so that it might bloom anew with fresh growth, a new life.