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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Books: Imperfect Love in "My Name is Lucy Barton"

The novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout, is primarily about a mother-daughter relationship that is an "imperfect love" where so many emotions, including love, are unspoken.  Although her mother is unable to express her love directly in words, when Lucy most needs her as an adult, the mother demonstrates her love by her actions (see my articles: Mother-Daughter Relationships Over the Course of a LifetimeMother-Daughter Relationships: Letting Go of Resentments, and Getting Help in Mother-Daughter Therapy).

Imperfect Love in "My Name is Lucy Barton"

Lucy's Traumatic Childhood History
As young children, Lucy and her two siblings are raised in dire poverty in the rural town of Amgash, IL where the five of them live in her granduncle's garage with no heat or hot water, no TV and no other modern conveniences.

One of Lucy's earliest memories is of being cold in bed and her mother bringing her a hot water bottle so she can try to get warm.  She also remembers going hungry, and having only bread and molasses to eat as a child.

Aside from the financial poverty, there's also an emotional estrangement between members of this dysfunctional family--despite their close proximity living together in a small space in the garage (or maybe because of their physical proximity).  Even among Lucy and her siblings, there's no affection or closeness, as if they are suspicious of one another (see my article: Dynamics of Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families).

There is so much that is unspoken.  For instance, her father, who served in the military during World War II, suffers from what we now know is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But neither the father nor the mother name it--possibly they didn't know what it was.  They also don't talk about his traumatic experiences.  Lucy thinks of her father's odd behavior as "the thing" because it remains unnamed and undefined.

It is only later, when Lucy brings her soon-to-be husband of German descent to meet that family that Lucy learns that her father is uncomfortable around Germans.  Her father is awkward and unable to look Lucy's fiance in the eye, but he never explains his discomfort.  During that same visit, when Lucy and her mother are alone, her mother scolds her for bringing a young man of German descent to their home because this upsets the father. But, of course, Lucy had no way of knowing that this would upset her father because her parents never discussed his discomfort with Germans.

Later in life, Lucy finds out that her father murdered two young, innocent, unarmed German civilians because they startled him.  She learns that not one day went by in her father's life when he wasn't haunted by this memory. So, in retrospect, Lucy realizes that when she brought her soon-to-be-husband to meet her parents, her father experienced it as if one of those young dead German men came back to haunt him.

As a child, Lucy also experiences her own trauma, including both parents' sudden impulses to hit Lucy and her siblings for no apparent reason.

One of the other ongoing traumas in her life is that, as a desperate form of "childcare," her parents regularly locked Lucy up in her father's truck while they were both out working, and she is trapped in the truck with a snake.  This results in a lifelong phobia of snakes or even hearing the word "snake."  The reader gets a visceral sense of how desperate and frightened Lucy felt trapped in the truck with no one within earshot to rescue her.

Due to their poverty and what others perceived as their oddness, Lucy and her siblings are ostracized and made fun of by the children at school.  Her classmates make fun of her for her clothing.  They also despise Lucy and her cousin for being hungry and dumpster diving for food.  And, since they have no TV and have never gone to the movies as children, they are also culturally ostracized from their classmates (see my article: Feeling Like an Outsider).

When Lucy and her siblings are children, the father humiliates Lucy's brother after the father discovers that the brother is secretly cross dressing in the mother's clothing.  The father forces his son to wear his mother's clothing and high heels in public to shame him while the father drives alongside him loudly demeaning him.

Later on in life, Lucy finds out from her mother that her brother, as an adult who remains home with the parents, sleeps with a neighbor's pigs the night before they are about to be slaughtered, and he reads children's books about a family who lives on the prairie.  No one knows why and no one asks the brother about his unspoken suffering (see my articles: The Role of the Family Scapegoat and Being the "Different One" in Your Family).

In her childhood, there are a couple of people in Lucy's life who are sympathetic.  One of them is the school janitor, Tommy, who allows Lucy to stay in an empty classroom to do her homework and to sleep in the warmth of the classroom.

Although Lucy is too shy to speak with Tommy, she recognizes that he is being kind to her by allowing her to stay in the classroom.  She remains there everyday, until she has to go home, because there is heat in the classroom, unlike where she lives in the garage.

Tommy's own poignant story is told in Ms. Strout's next book, Anything is Possible, and the reader develops a better understanding from that books about why he is as empathetic as he is towards Lucy.  He has his own tragic history, but he is also a resilient survivor.

Lucy and Her Mother Reconnect: An Imperfect Love
After she moves to New York City and she is married with two young daughters, Lucy is hospitalized for nine weeks with a mysterious infection.  While she is hospitalized, Lucy's husband arranges for her mother to come stay with her in the hospital.

After not seeing each other for years, there is an awkwardness and tension between Lucy and her mother, especially since the mother is unable to express her love for Lucy in words.  Also, from the mother's standpoint, there is no possibility of discussing all that is unresolved between them.  But, for Lucy, having her mother there--even just hearing her voice--is soothing.  Lucy knows that, in her own way, her mother loves her, and she becomes aware of how important her mother is to her.

Even though the mother is unable to tell Lucy in words that she loves her, just the fact that she got on a plane for the first time in her life, as frightened as she was by the experience, and stayed by Lucy's side for five days with little to no sleep, demonstrates how much she loves Lucy.

They spend most of their time talking about the people they know from their small town.  Her mother gossips about their neighbors, focusing on their unhappy marriages.  But she doesn't talk about Lucy's father and what must have been a difficult marriage for mother given the father's PTSD symptoms and their crushing poverty.

The reader gets the sense that, even though the mother is talking about other people's unhappy marriages, on an unconscious level, she is actually talking indirectly about her own unhappy marriage.

The mother also alludes cryptically to her own experience of feeling unsafe as a reason why she doesn't sleep well and prefers catnaps.  She alludes to a history of having to be vigilant.  But when Lucy asks her mother why she didn't feel safe, her mother doesn't respond, so it remains another unspoken mystery.

When Lucy is taken for a CT scan, her mother searches for Lucy in the hospital basement so that Lucy won't be alone.  Lucy knows that this was a big challenge for her mother.  Once again, there is an unspoken understanding between them that even if they're not telling each other "I love you," there is a lot of love between them.

Despite Lucy's mother's emotional support, she leaves very abruptly when Lucy's doctor tells them that Lucy might need an operation.  The mother never communicates why she feels the need to leave so quickly, but the reader senses that she is running from some unnamed fear that even she might not understand.  This saddens Lucy because she wants her mother to stay, especially if she will need surgery, but she understands that her mother is too frightened to stay.

Despite the unspoken love conveyed while Lucy is in the hospital, after her mother leaves, they go back to their usual emotional estrangement and speak only on holidays and birthdays. The reader senses that Lucy's mother cannot sustain the level of closeness they had when Lucy was in the hospital.

Throughout her stay in the hospital, Lucy likes to look out her window at the Chrysler building lit up at night as if she sees it is as a strong and sturdy beacon of hope that assures her.

Lucy and the Kindness of Strangers
As a result of her traumatic childhood experiences, Lucy develops a strong sense of empathy for other people's loneliness and trauma.  She intuits that she and they are kindred spirits.

Throughout her life, Lucy is drawn to lonely, traumatized people that she barely knows who are kind to her.  Most of these people are just passing through her life, but she recognizes and appreciates their kindness.  She relates to the quote by Blanche Dubois from A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" and all that this implies about isolation and loneliness (see my article: Overcoming Loneliness and Social Isolation).

Of the people who are kind to her, there's the attending physician in the hospital who visits her every day including weekends.  Lucy finds out indirectly that the doctor lost his family during the Holocaust and that he carries this sadness with him.  Without words, he seems to intuitively understand Lucy.  And Lucy senses his sadness and loneliness.  She senses how much he cares about her.

There's also the kind neighbor in her building, who is a psychoanalyst, originally from France, who sees Lucy's artistic side.  When he learns that Lucy is writing, he tells her to be "ruthless" in her writing, which she doesn't understand at first.  They have an unspoken affection for each other, but Lucy doesn't know much about him.  After he dies from complications related to AIDS (this is the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s), she finds out that he was gay.  At that point, she understands the cause of his loneliness and isolation.

Lucy Discovers Her Voice in Her Writing
Lucy finds her voice in her writing.  Although she lacks confidence and tends to minimize her accomplishments, other people see the value of her work.  There's a writing teacher, who is a well-known New York City writer, who, just like Lucy, also suffers from PTSD.  She praises Lucy's writing and encourages her to continue writing.

Lucy seems to sense that she and these lonely, traumatized people are kindred souls.

Lucy's Sense of Hope and Resiliency
One of the amazing things about this character is that, despite her traumatic experiences, Lucy remains hopeful and resilient, in spite of her trauma.  She finds strength where she can, and she doesn't seem to feel victimized by her experiences.  She is also able to see the positive qualities in others, and she remains open to making connections with them (see my articles: Resilience: Bouncing Back From Life's ChallengesOvercoming Trauma and Developing Resilience, and Posttraumatic Growth: Developing a Greater Sense of Hope and Meaning in the Aftermath of Trauma).

I highly recommend this book.  Elizabeth Strout's characters are people you can relate to, and she is able to convey their mysterious inner worlds in a poetic way without sentimentality.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples, and I specialize in working with psychological trauma.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

See My Other Articles About Books:
Love and Longing in "Enigma Variations" by Andre Aciman
"Call Me By Your Name" - by Andre Aciman: Part 1: "Is It Better to Speak or to Die?"
"Call Me By Your Name" by Andre Aciman: The Concept of Living Parallel Lives
Denial and Illusions in "The Iceman Cometh" - by Eugene O'Neill
"Three Tall Women" - by Edward Albee
Reading Literature and the Positive Effect on the Brain
Books: "Tea With Winnicott" by Brett Khar