Survivor’s Guilt

by Sheila Kohler

One of the questions I have been asked most frequently, since publication of a recent memoir, is if this book has brought closure, if the writing of it has enabled me to go on with my life. Have I put the tragic event of an older sister’s death and possible murder behind me? My sister died at thirty nine in a car crash on a dry night, no other car in sight, her husband, a heart surgeon, who had beaten both her and their six children for years, at the wheel. Why had I not been able to stop this tragedy, knowing how dangerous this man was? How responsible was I? Could writing down this trauma enable me to forget? Does writing ever enable one to overcome what might be called survivor’s guilt?

Certainly this kind of material occurs again and again all through literature. “Beowulf,” the Anglo-Saxon poem, is one of the earliest examples where fratricide is closely woven into the text: Unferth, the Danish thane, kills his brothers, we are told; Haethcyn, the Geat, son of Hrethel, kills Herebeald and Grendel, himself, the monster, is the descendant of Cain who has killed Abel.

One of the most moving moments in Beowulf, a poem that comes to us from the 9th century or perhaps even earlier, is what is called “the father’s lament” (ll 2444-62), when a father confronts the death of a son killed by his own brother. Haethcyn, the younger boy, accidentally kills his brother, Herebeald, shooting him with an arrow. The father is left to lament an act without any means of redress or revenge. The poet writes:

“Morning after morning he wakes to remember
That his child is gone; he has no interest
In living on until another heir
Is born in the hall, now that his first-born
Has entered death’s dominion forever.
He gazes sorrowfully at his son’s dwelling,
The banquet hall bereft of all delight,
The windswept hearthstone; the horsemen are sleeping,
The warriors are under ground; what was is no more.
No tunes from the harp, no cheer raised in the yard.
Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
And sings a lament; everything seems too large,
The steadings and the fields.

The Beowulf poet, whose references to religion are mostly from the Old Testament, mentions the killing of Abel by his brother Cain, which results in the birth of a race of ogres, elves, evil phantoms and giants, banished monsters. Amongst them is Grendel, a “fiend from hell” whose nightly vicious attacks become the scourge of the Danish king, King Hrothgar’s hall. This brother-killing, Cain killing Abel, results in a race of banished monsters, amongst them Grendel and Grendel’s mother, both of whom Beowulf fights.

Grendel, of course, is also the well-known novel where John Gardner gives voice to this monster who has emerged from the darkness of the misty marshes so mysteriously and frighteningly in Beowulf and is killed by Beowulf in the first part of the poem. Why, we might wonder, does this writer, writing in the 70’s, want to take up an ancient monster from an old poem and describe the world seen through his eyes? How does he get us to identify sufficiently with a monstrous, man-eating creature? And why would he try something so difficult?

Gardner, who knew the poem well, teaching it for many years, had, perhaps, a particular interest in this story because of his own life. As a young boy, growing up on a farm, he had accidentally backed a tractor into his young brother and killed him, a traumatic event he describes beautifully in a story called “Redemption.” Did he in some way identify with this monster, descendant of Cain, the brother killer, and so desire to give him a voice, to speak for him in the first person? Did he, himself, feel like a monster and perhaps even act like one at times, savaging his fellow writers so aggressively? He is reputed to have spoken disparagingly of Saul Bellow and Donald Barthelme, to mention two. Was he simply suffering from survivor’s guilt and was this his way of going on with his troubled life?

Another example that comes to mind is John Coetzee, the South African Nobel Prize winner, in his historical novel The Master of Saint Petersburg. This is ostensibly a novel about Dostoevsky, who returns to Saint Petersburg after the death of his step-son, Pavel Isaev, who has died in mysterious circumstances. The book is extremely well-researched and contains many erudite and exact references to Dostoevsky’s life (his epilepsy, his debts, his gambling, his first and second wives, the revolutionary Sergei Nechayev). But there is one glaring example where the novel alters the known facts of Dostoevsky’s life. In reality this step-son—who seems to have been something of a black sheep—does not die at all during Dostoevsky’s life but long after Dostoevsky is dead. Why then does the book center on the famous father’s great grief? Why do we have a scene when he prostrates himself on his grave? Why does he, in the act of making love to his housekeeper, find his dead son in her embrace? Is this then perhaps rather a father (John Coetzee) writing in this form to express his own survivor’s guilt, his own great sorrow at losing a son so young and so tragically?

These are questions we cannot answer, of course, but are interesting to us in considering how and why a writer takes reality and transforms it. Whether the act of writing of these tragedies even indirectly was of help to these writers in their lives we cannot know. We do know John Gardner died young and tragically in a motorbike accident at forty nine, whereas John Coetzee is still living and writing successfully today. Certainly, we can say in both cases that the ability to access this traumatic material and give it distance by transforming it into a structured form, ultimately made art.

All I can say as a writer myself is that certainly the writing down of my sister’s life and death in fictional or non-fictional form, which I have done again and again, though it may have enabled me to go on with my own life, has not helped me to forget. On the contrary, it has helped me to remember, to preserve precious memories in written form, memories which I can only hope to share with others who might find something of themselves in my words.

Sheila Kohler is the author of fourteen books, including, most recently, the memoir Once We Were Sisters, and she is the winner of the Willa Cather Award and two O. Henry Prizes for her fiction. Born and raised in South Africa, she has lived in the U.S. for many years and teaches at Princeton University. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

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