ABy: Shanna King
While flipping through The Best American Short Stories, a collection of short stories put together by T. C. Boyle, I stumbled across “M & L” by Sarah Kokernot. Her story follows the point of view of two people: Miriam and Liam. They are at the wedding of a mutual friend & as each page passes, you learn more of their past both together and apart and this story really shows you how trauma can destroy everyone involved.
The book is divided into two parts, M which is Miriam’s point of view, and L which is Liam’s. Miriam’s is first, and you learn that they are currently at a wedding, and her history with Liam. They met in High School, they dated, and he left her. You also learn about Caleb, who sexually assaulted her: “She had been only thirteen. She woke up in her underwear in the woods […] He later admitted in the courtroom that he thought he had killed her by accident.” (Kokernot 150) During Liam’s part, you learn a little of their past together. You see the aftermath of the assault, for both Miriam and Liam. At the wedding, they dance together, and the story ends with Miriam leading Liam into the forest. Each character has their own reaction to the assault. Miriam is numb and Liam is angry.
Numbness is the main emotion felt in Miriam’s section. She acts as if she’s trying to feel something. Throughout the story, there are parts where she intentionally hurts herself. She did it with the electric fence at the beginning of the story, “[…] she touched the grass to the metal wire, the fine hairs on her arm rose. A low, steady pulse tickled up her neck. It almost hurt.” (145) She also admitted that as a teenager, she would take a curling iron and “press the hot metal to the nape of her neck and hold it until it burned a flat red mark” (151.) A main symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder is “reduced responsiveness” which is another word numb. After suffering a trauma, people want to stop hurting. In order to do that, you stop feeling. It destroys you because how can you live if you don’t feel? Her memory of the assault would “come back as clear and uncomfortable as a hot light on her face” (150) which is another symptom of PTSD (re-experiencing the event.)
Liam did the opposite. In his part of the story, you really feel the his angry toward Caleb, and what happened to Miriam. You see Liam’s reaction in a flashback when Miriam shows him a picture of Caleb: “Liam told her that he’d kill Caleb when he got out [of juvie].” Years later, he’s still very angry. In the story, Caleb is a girl’s date at the wedding, and Liam sees him get escorted out and he clenches his fists so hard, all the blood leaves them. He holds enough anger for both him and Miriam. I think this shows that maybe he also didn’t cope well with what happened to Miriam. When something that horrifying happens to someone you love, it can destroy you. Unlike Miriam’s numbness, his main emotion is anger.
Returning to Miriam’s numbness, years after the assault, asks the question: how well did she cope after the assault? I don’t think she coped well. She lived in a small town where everyone knew what happened, and they treated her differently, “teachers at school had been extra patient with her” (151). Even at the wedding, her friends made a big show to call her upstairs. She was constantly reminded of the assault because everyone treated her differently. Except for Liam, “Liam had still shot glances of undisguised longing across the sea of cafeteria tables, like nothing had ever happened.” (151) Unfortunately, Miriam needed more than just a “longing glance.” She needed professional help, which I’m not sure she got.
Another part that led me to believe Miriam didn’t get help after the assault was because of Caleb. He was a huge part of the story, yet he was barely in it. He assaulted Miriam and left her to die, naked in a forest. Despite this, she has this affection for him. When he was being escorted out of the wedding, she was “disappointed he was leaving.” The thought of Caleb seeing her caused “a shiver of pleasure [to run] up her spine.” (149) She also wants to protect Caleb. You see this in a flashback when Miriam shows Liam Caleb’s picture in the yearbook, and he said that when Caleb’s out of juvie, he was going to kill him. Miriam told him “If you touch him, I’ll never speak to you again.” (153) Her feelings towards Caleb are like a version of Stockholm Syndrome, “the psychological tendency of a hostage to bond with, identify with, or sympathize with his or her captor.” (Merriam-Webster) I think if Miriam had properly coped with what happened, and if she had gotten proper help, she wouldn’t have this kind of attachment to Caleb.
There’s one symptom of PTSD that Miriam doesn’t have, which is avoidance. Avoidance is basically avoiding something/someone (person, place) who hurt you, so, in Miriam’s case, Caleb. She has the painful flashbacks, and the numbness, but she doesn’t want to avoid Caleb. In one moment, she sees Caleb, and imagines what would happen if a car hit him. She tells you,
“she would have liked to be the one to call an ambulance. She would ride in the back with him to the hospital. He would wear an oxygen mask and for a moment he would not know who she was but in his daze would mistake her for an angel. Then all at once he’d go wide-eyed with recognition. He would be unable to speak. She would take her glove off to squeeze his hand to let him know she had forgiven him, to demonstrate she no longer wished him dead.” (150)
The first thing I notice is the amount of detail given. It’s obvious Miriam has given this some thought. It’s normal to imagine what you would say/do if you came face to face with someone who hurt you. Usually, there’s more anger. You think of hurting them, like they did to you. It surprises me after such a horrific crime she would forgive him so easily. I think because she didn’t cope well with what happened, her emotions are confused, and she’s not sure what to do or how to feel.
What does it mean to cope properly? I think that Liam gives you a glimpse of what needs to happen for Miriam to cope and maybe gain back a little bit of who she was before the assault. “He could recall what she had been like before this kind of loneliness. And then everything that had happened to her happened to her, and afterward it was like she carried a bomb inside that couldn’t explode.” (155) Put simply, she needs to explode. Exploding, in this context, means to have the memories of the assault surface. The only way you can move on from something traumatic is to confront the memories, and remember what happened over and over, until it loses the painful emotions, or in Miriam’s case, maybe help her sort through her confused emotions. She’s been holding in what Caleb did to her for years and she needs to just it all out. Holding in such intense and painful emotions destroys you. I also get the impression she’s been dealing with this pain alone. Liam says “loneliness” and I think that no one can handle such a traumatic experience alone. It can be just as damaging as holding in the painful emotions.
I loved M & L. I thought Kokernot did a great job showing life after a trauma. It was an emotional story, and I think the ending was perfect. It ends with Liam, following Miriam into the woods. You’re not sure what will happen between Liam & Miriam. The love they have for each other is evident, but is that enough? If Miriam is going to “explode” I think she needs Liam. He’s always made her feel like “nothing [bad] had every happened.” (151) I don’t think Miriam can or should “explode” alone. Liam can it a little easier.
Kokernot, Sarah. “M & L.” The Best American Short Stories, edited by T. C. Boyle, Mariner Books, 2015, pp. 144-155.
Merriam-Webster. “Definition of Stockholm Syndrome.” www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Stockholm%20syndrome. Date Accessed: October 3, 2017.
Hall, Erin. Abnormal Psychology Course Pack. 350-211: Abnormal Psychology. Dawson College, 15 Oct. 2017.