Becoming Abigail by Chris Abani: The Mind in Pain
Warning: This post is long, since I've approached this book from an analytical perspective. Also, I do give a lot of details about what happens in the book--consider this my spoiler alert.
In Becoming Abigail , Abigail’s mother, whose name is also Abigail, dies from childbirth. To add more agony to her father’s pain, Abigail (the daughter) looks just like her mother, to the point where the father struggles not to confuse her with his dead wife. Consequently, Abigail’s presence is a constant reminder that his wife is dead—a death brought upon by the birth of this Abigail, his daughter. All her life, Abigail is surrounded by her father’s pain, a pain that she helps to precipitate. Abigail loses her virginity to a cousin at the age of ten (one of the many sexual abuses that she would experience) and exhibits a variety of dysfunctional behavior that forces her father to send her to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist doesn’t think that Abigail is crazy enough to warrant his attention and so gives her aspirin and sends her away (I wonder where he got his medical degree). Eventually, Abigail’s father sends her off to go live with her cousin, Peter, in London, the same Peter who, unknown to the father, molested Abigail a couple of years ago. Abigail, to appease her father, goes to live with Peter, though with apprehension about his motives, especially since all the other children that he previously took with him supposedly all ran away and fell with bad crowds. Peter, true to Abigail’s fear, had planned, all along, to sexually exploit her (specifically, to make a prostitute out of her). When Abigail fights off the night visitor that he sends her way, he handcuffs her and places her outside in the garden, where he treats her like a dog and rapes her. In the end, Abigail bites off his penis and (with the help of Peter’s wife, Mary) escapes and ends up in the custody of the police. She is assigned a gentle and understanding social worker, Derek, who eventually becomes her lover. Derek’s wife finds him having sex with his fourteen-year-old charge and calls the police. As Abigail watches Derek slip away from her, she feels a traumatic loss—the loss of the only person she had a choice in inviting into her, the only person who ever saw her with all her scars and still liked her. Derek’s arrest, I imagine, seems like a death to her. One more dead person; the only person left in her life. The situation with Derek seems like the last blow, and so crushing is this blow that she is unable to cope, and so she commits herself to the river. Her self is entirely dependent on others; there is no one to prove her existence (in London, she does not even exist, since she has no papers) and she has not fully developed her self. Given her destructive tendencies, there were other ways for her to commit her final act, but I think she chose to jump into the river, because there is some sense of merging with something, of being part of something. To put it simply, Abigail’s life is tragic from the beginning to the end.
Becoming Abigail is like an onion, and as one peels through the pages of the book, one uncovers more and more misery and pain. There is nothing sweet about this novella, except for the writing, which compels one to keep on reading. When reading this story, it becomes immediately obvious that this is the creation of a poet, a talented poet. The sentences, emotions, and thoughts are encapsulated in vivid imageries that at once overwhelm with the meaning behind them, while at the same time manage to encourage curiosity about what happens next. The horror of what is going on is narrated in a matter-of-fact way, so that the emotional intensity of what is going on doesn’t immediately register.
So why would anyone want to read a book about such a terrible life? Well, the answer is that it allows us to see the other side of human; it allows us to see what cripples us. Abani adeptly takes one frequently occurring situation (death from childbirth) and shows us how that can lead to a series of unfortunate events. In this story, we see different characters each contributing to the final scenario. A change in action by one or more of the characters would have precipitated a different outcome. Sometimes, it is good to know our breaking point, in order to be able to recognize and avoid it in our personal worlds. The story also points to the power and fragility of the mind and the need for more resources to shelter the mind and ensure that it is not corrupted. An incident can predispose one to a certain destination, but the more important factor in determining one’s likely destination is people’s reaction to the incident. Abani’s story shows our need for love; our need to have our lives validated by others. We want to know that we matter in this world—if this is not firmly established in our minds, Abigail’s life can be a typical life.
So who is Abigail? Abigail is a girl whose mind seems trapped in her mother’s body. The story is, in some sense, Abigail’s struggle to claim her mind as her own, independent of this body that she must share with her mother. Abigail, the daughter, is painfully aware of her physical likeness to her mother, so she grieves a mother she never knew and creates imaginations about her. Of course, this creates a dysfunction of identity because Abigail cannot always be sure that when people say Abigail, they mean her and not her mother. She sees it in her father’s eyes that she is a vessel through which the other Abigail (dead mother) transiently lives, as well as the reminder to all of the sorrow surrounding her mother’s death. So, Abigail is caught between throws of sorrow and relief and joy, all having nothing to do with her. All her odd (pathologic) behaviors, such as decapitating dolls and conducting funerals for each of them and so on, might be a way for her to show her uniqueness, apart from her mother, even as she grieves her mother’s death. By showing her father her grief over her mother’s death, she reminds her father to become aware that she is still alive and is separate from the dead Abigail. In fact, it is mainly when she is behaving oddly that her father is clearly able to establish this Abigail as Abigail the daughter. It seems that Abigail must repeatedly wonder whether her father wishes she were never born. She doesn’t get the feeling that she, by herself, is of special value to her father, and, consequently, to the world. Her soul is in pain at the ambiguity of her existence, in being herself while being another (and no one) to others. She expresses the pain she feels by substituting it with a pain that she can more easily define and explain: self-inflicted pain. She burns herself and demarcates which body part she is and which part is her mother; so, she is never truly whole or independent. The pain from the burn seems to make her forget the more persistent pain she bears for her self, which is filled with dead memories of someone long gone—someone whose presence is pervasive yet unfamiliar.
Her father’s pain is also obvious. It is difficult for him to look at his child without seeing or hoping to see his wife. His life is punctuated by pain and relief at seeing her. He cannot help expecting her to be like his wife, and his dismay is apparent when the child shows that she is anything but. When he decides to let her live with Peter, it is partly to relieve his inner torment. The decision to let her live with someone else might also serve to ease a potential sexual tension, which is going to become more and more apparent as Abigail grows into her mother (at least physically). Still, that decision to give away his daughter kills him (literally), because it crystallizes Abigail’s death and shows his neglect and rejection of his daughter, the only progeny of his beloved wife. Unable to handle this, shortly before Abigail is to leave with Peter, Abigail’s father hangs himself.
For Abigail, her father’s death seems to give her a sort of freedom, freedom to try to be only Abigail (the child). So, we see an Abigail emerge that is strong, resistant to the force and wishes of others upon her (such as when she fights off Peter as he is beating his wife, as well as when she fights off Peter and his client during their sexual abuse of her). However, the necessity of precipitating such a fierce and active Abigail also (and later) damages her—it probably gives her the impression that her life would always be about fighting to be free of other people's wishes upon her. She is too scarred, too damaged by her previous experiences that the path she ends up in seems inevitable.
One remarkable thing about this story is how well the pain, the suffering, and the darkness of living are so crisply represented. Yet, the pain is oddly beautiful—beauty forced on by the style of the prose. Chris Abani has managed to create a novel that is so pungent and so pathologic that one is not fully aware of the depth, until one finishes the book—the story is like a knife that cuts and causes bleeding only when one removes it from the victimized flesh. Even more impressive is that he accomplishes this in about a hundred and twenty pages. The story is a euphemism for pain and suffering. Reading it, one is greatly moved by the originality, cleverness, and truth of the words, as well as by the clarity with which pain and emotions are elucidated, that one does not have time to fully feel them. Then one puts the book down and Wham! The story’s full breadth and complexity hit one’s mind and disrupts one’s mental and emotional peace. At the end of the story, one has to think about Abigail. Abigail, Abigail. What a life!
One thing that doesn’t sit too well with me is that the book gives a limited viewing of Abigail’s life. A large part of why Abigail’s life ends up the way it does has to do with her environment, yet we know little about it. Abigail’s mother has such a strong presence in the story, yet we don’t know much about her. We don’t know much about the father either, which would be helpful in that it would help to explain why he saw more sorrow than joy in Abigail’s existence. Why was it so hard for him to embrace Abigail as the physical manifestation of his love for his wife? Why couldn’t he see her as his wife’s parting gift? Nevertheless, not many authors can handle such a painful life with such grace and artfulness, without diluting its torment and poignancy or presenting it purely for shock value. Abigail’s life is made interesting to readers, and in that sense, she (and people like her) does receive some acknowledgement of her presence. Becoming Abigail is an engaging, albeit sad, look into the delicate nature of the human psyche.
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