Written on the Body: Sharp Objects’ Brilliant Portrayal of Trauma

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Sometimes, you have a dream whose metaphorical meaning is so thuddingly obvious it almost seems too much. The classic scenario of dreaming that you’ve gone to school or work and realizing you don’t have pants on speaks to clear anxieties about embarrassment, sexuality, bodily shame, fashion mishaps, and the judgment of others.  I have a recurring dream where I’m on the top of the 25-story building where I work, and there are no guardrails.  It doesn’t take a Freud or a Jung to interpret what that means.

[Editor’s note: Spoilers below.]

One of the ingenious things about Gillian Flynn’s 2006 novel Sharp Objects is how it uses a very straightforward, physical device to symbolize many different themes: abuse, trauma, depression, loneliness, self-harm, and even individual human agency (the underlying impulse behind many self-harming actions). The book’s main character, Camille Preaker, is a journalist who comes from a rich family in a Missouri town, Wind Gap, which is governed by a sybaritic elite but actually operated by an invisible black and Latino underclass.  She experienced not only the untimely death of her younger sister but also the rule of her sadistic mother, a matron of the old Southern gentry.  At some point young Camille took to carving words into her own skin: “baby,” “girl,” “vanish,” “dirt,” “drained,” “cherry,” “sick,” “gone,” “falling.”

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The words are almost talismans. By inscribing what is inside on the exterior, it simultaneously makes it real, puts it into the world, and expunges, exorcises it.  For Camille, writing on her body is a way of exercising control over forces that seem uncontrollable: her dysfunctional family, her own depression, personal loss, and sexual abuse.  It might hurt, but it’s her means to exert authorship, to wrangle these horrible things and command them.  The cutting says: this body is mine, and I can sketch on it whatever I want.  It’s Cartesian, in a sense.  I cut, therefore I am.

Of course, the words on her body have a bitter and ironic double effect.  They speak, but they can’t be heard, because the scars prevent Camille from ever pulling down her guard and exposing herself to people, especially potential romantic partners.  They keep her at a distance from others, an arm’s length, much as her alcoholism does as well.

Flynn’s novel is a wonderful exploration of the interiority of women’s experience of trauma, akin in a way to The Handmaid’s Tale. (The psychopathic small town of Wind Gap has norms about gender and power that are really not that far removed from Gilead.) It also calls to mind Jeanette Winterson’s classic 1993 novel Written on the Body, albeit in a curious way.  That book was all about lust and physicality, yet the central conceit of the book was that the gender of the main character was artfully disguised and never made clear throughout the entire narrative.  Lots of things were going on, but the body itself was absent.

The brilliance of Jean-Marc Vallée’s HBO adaptation of the book is the way that it visualizes what is purely textual in the novel — much as the Hulu version of The Handmaid’s Tale takes what was a very impressionistic, fluid, and in some ways digressive narrative and made it tangible and real.  The words Camille carves on herself in the book are just that, words.  But in the television series they become legible in a different way.  Vallée has also cleverly placed stray words in the background and obscure corners of the screen, which convey the protagonist’s inner mental state just as much as the words she cuts on her own skin.  They are basically Easter eggs for the discerning viewer — an interesting aesthetic choice, perhaps unique to the DVR era.

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Amy Adams’s performance in the series captures all the nuances of anger, grief, and self-loathing that come with enduring the unendurable, and finding equally painful ways to cope.  Indeed, the HBO Sharp Objects is that very rare thing: a TV or film adaptation that accurately articulates and expands upon the spirit of its novelistic source material.  The woeful Southern gothic of the show’s setting evokes that of other, similar works, such as True Detective, but with a tad bit less of the ponderous pretentiousness.  It is Old South pathology and anguish in its ghostliest, most freebase form.

The scene in which Camille sleeps with accused killer John Keene is erotic, but also evocative for a very different reason.  He is revealing his own vulnerability — his grief over the death of his sister, and angst over being suspected of her murder — while she is visibly exposing the documentary evidence of her pain.  The familiar language of talking about sex as opening up to someone or revealing or exposing oneself is bracingly felt here.  Both of them are survivors, even if their wounds manifest in different ways.

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Sharp Objects also plays with another, bigger linguistic trope: that our experiences, especially painful ones, inscribe themselves on our bodies or our selves.  It is common to talk about emotional “scars” in a purely figurative sense; things that happen to you leave a mark.  Camille makes those scars highly literal.  But the genius of the story is that the “things” aren’t cutting themselves into her. She is doing it herself.  She is the writer.   The novel and the TV series are ultimately about learning how to master traumatic experiences and narrate one’s own self, writing on the body — even if it means doing so in ways that most would agree are not exactly ideal.  That Camille is herself literally a writer as a profession is a piquant echo of the book and series’ overarching themes.

Sharp Objects also evokes the similarly great HBO film The Tale, a meta-narrative about writer/director Jennifer Fox’s own experience with childhood abuse.  The takeaway from that story, it seemed, was that my trauma is part of me, but it is not me; I am not just what happened to me.  Fox dealt with it by reframing the story in a slightly fictionalized, filmic narrative; Camille deals with it by cutting the words.  In either case, they are the authors of their own lives, unwilling to relinquish that role to anyone else.

Everyone’s body tells a story about their lives, from birthmarks to tattoos to the residue of injuries.  My own body still has the scars from when I slid on muddy grass into the gnarled, rusty wire fence next to my aunt’s house while playing “War” with my cousin at age 9; the twisted and curved spine that was not treated because of lack of health insurance; burn marks; the numb finger that I accidentally cut while cooking a few years back.  Sharp Objects reminds us that we are documents ourselves; as much as the interior record of one’s memory or expression written on paper, the body too can be a text.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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