An Excerpt from The Memoir Prize 2021 Grand Prize Winner: Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen, by Gint Aras. The full Relief by Execution: A …Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen by Gint Aras
In the weeks following the release of my recent memoir, Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen, three readers asked me (in different places, unaware of each other) exactly the same question: “Have you seen Joker?” These readers wondered if I identified with Arther Fleck, The Joker.
The short answer is yes, I did identify with that character. Obviously, it’s complicated, and I have a lot to say about this question. I’ll try to keep it spoiler-free.
Todd Phillips’s Joker provokes the audience to sympathize with a remorseless killer. Along the way, it considers a number of interconnected issues: income inequality, urban decay, the disintegration of personal and collective morality, the abandonment of the unfortunate, and the experience of mental illness. Socio-economically, Gotham doesn’t seem to have a middle class, just an über-class of politicians and financial sector cretins, then a massive working class of single moms, shopkeepers, random commuters and clowns. With few exceptions, most everyone is deplorable.
Arthur Fleck, the Joker, is a victim of child abuse. He suffers from a cocktail of mental illnesses. His tic is a joyless laugh that seems to hurt his body. He can barely function, even in a job—he’s a “professional” clown— that does not require him to do much besides wear a disguise. Most people abuse, berate, isolate or laugh at him.
Gotham’s citizens are exhausted from struggle but quick to sneer at others. Fleck ends up on television when a recording of his flop at an open mic is sent to a talk show. The host publicly ridicules Fleck. No one shows him any real affection. The person nicest to him, another clown, is merely civil.
The film tries to provoke a brand of sympathy that’s part of a primitive, pathological and cult-like ethos: it asks for whole acceptance of Fleck. Another filmmaker could leave us empathizing with a man who descends to madness following an abusive childhood. But Phillips either dares or invites us to feel good about Fleck’s murders.
After all, his targets are the people we love to blame: grifters, influencers, privileged douchebags, abusers and liars. His first killing of a “financial sector cretin” can pass as an act of self-defense, but subsequent murders are acts of fury against “the awful.”
Fleck asks, without any irony, why the masses care about the people he has killed. One of Fleck’s victims tries to reason with him: not everyone is awful. In the context of the film, the words ring hollow: the few characters who fit that description—a single mom and a dwarfish clown—are merely innocuous.
When Fleck tells this victim, “You’re awful,” the man says, “You don’t know the first thing about me, pal.” It’s true. The film doesn’t explore that victim to any nuance. The audience joins Fleck in ignorance.
As part of the film’s cult-like ethos, its moral system is binary: there’s a massive group of awful people fighting among themselves. Their divisions are not based on any ethic or value system; they’re merely haves and have-nots who look down on the opposite side as society’s true filth. Then there’s a microscopic group that’s withdrawn and mostly powerless. Fleck is a socially mobile character in the film, and his means is violence. When he starts killing, he moves from the latter group to the former.
He desires love and attention but feels noticed only in destruction. His “awful” targets are not just the elite: they include family members and former co-wokers. The risk the film takes is to leave things arbitrary: is Fleck a symbol representing Todd Phillips’s amoral world view, or is he a cog in an aesthetic that’s critiquing society?
I’m not here to settle that question but to admit that, to my own discomfort, I identified with Arthur Fleck, at least to a point. While I wished he might stumble into someone who could love him, I knew only a masochist could do it. His traumas are beyond repair, certainly in this version of Gotham City.
My memoir, Relief by Execution, reveals my struggle with PTSD. While I say quite a bit there, I don’t get into a lengthy description of that moment, experienced by many who’ve suffered childhood traumas, when defense-mechanism amnesia or disassociation breaks. It’s the moment when you remember, “Oh no, that happened!” You had forgotten whatever that is; your brain pushed it away for your own good. Returning to those memories can be like stepping into a room you always knew was in the house but never bothered entering. You find the thing that should never have been found, so it paralyzes you.
That’s the mild version of this experience, of course, because it can also be like turning a corner on a familiar neighborhood street to get assaulted by a flame thrower.
At the moment Fleck realizes the abuse he suffered in childhood, the force of this memory levels his identity as a riot would burn a city. The result is madness.
Some people kill themselves at such moments. In a harrowing scene, Fleck chooses to kill someone else. The eruption of near-limitless rage and hatred overwhelms the compassion and introspection necessary to heal. His new identity, the Joker, is less a disguise than a madman’s reality show, whose definition of humor is a lack of remorse.
Fleck’s transformation into (or adoption of) the Joker persona brings up important questions about the nature of human agency, and what capacity people have to choose actions when confronted by harrowing circumstances.
Few of Fleck’s feelings were foreign to me. While I explore chronic self-pity and blame in Relief by Execution, I don’t reveal any particular revenge fantasy, though I’ve learned they are normal (and dangerous) symptoms of conditions like PTSD, best handled with care. Mine were so frightening that I feared even writing them down on a sheet of paper that I might shred or burn.
Of course, unlike Fleck, I had therapists and friends (and a city) who did not abandon me for falling apart. Despite the people and support, I often felt alone, powerless and inconsequential; my anxiety was an ironic system, wherein my desire for love and affection transformed into self-important paranoia: the perception that most everyone loathed me when in reality I hardly crossed anyone’s mind.
So, it’s terrifying to imagine how someone truly alone and abandoned could collapse completely, lose all remorse, and find a sense of agency in violence. However, I don’t feel one needs to have suffered from PTSD to get to that point. People say our prisons are full of such people.
Curiously, I was thinking about these social issues as I left the cinema to walk home. And I recalled something Fleck says right before committing his climactic murder.
When he describes killing men on a subway train simply because they were awful, a group of people boo him, and he wonders, “Why is everybody so upset about these guys [I killed]? If it was me dying on the sidewalk, you’d walk right over me.”
I found Fleck’s observation to be meta. If he were dying on the sidewalk, we’d walk right over him. In the same way, Would we have this discussion about mental health and societal decline if the film weren’t about the Joker?
Imagine it were about some random guy in New York who suffers abuse, loses his mind, descends to self-absorption, dances on stairs in The Bronx, and takes to crime. We’d probably pass by that film in the same way we’d pass by Fleck dying on the sidewalk. The studios know this. The only way to pull us in to a conversation about these issues—and to leave us introspecting over questions of who is responsible for an individual’s behavior—is to offer up the comfort of the stories we think we know, the comic books we find worth our time.
Some people are suffering because society isn’t interested in the experiences they’re having. From their point of view, society seems much more interested in who is having the experience. If Fleck is right about anything in the film, perhaps it’s this. If not about a Batman character, Phillips’ film would be obscure art house cinema, discussed by cinephiles and college professors.
This might help explain why so many people feel Todd betrays their morals—their sensibilities and expectations—even as they de-emphasize the suffering his film represents, focusing instead on its nihilistic outcome: a horde of clowns worshiping a remorseless madman, one who arose out of the gutters of a city that seems incapable of supporting its citizens.
That outcome won’t do. It leaves us uncomfortable.
Photo from Wikipedia.
I’ll reveal that this question comes from students. I think it’s worth saying a few things about it on my blog.
Obviously, I write a lot about religion. Religion is a powerful force in the game of human fate, with tentacles in everything from political systems to educational institutions, nations’ customs and individuals’ identities. I’ve studied religions both formally and informally, and I’ve read a lot of the sacred books, including the Bible, Bhagavad-Gita and others.
I’m in the school that says you can’t really study Western Civilization without knowing the Bible, and you’re at a massive disadvantage as a student of literature if you don’t know at least the plots of the major Bible stories, including lessons in ethics like the Book of Job, the Sermon on the Mount or Paul’s letters. This isn’t just because every book of note will be packed with allusions to the Bible, but also because certain cultural assumptions trace themselves to a Judeo-Christian understanding of reality.
This is an evasive way of saying I’m neither Christian nor Jewish, but that I have deep reverence for the ethics and lessons of those traditions. Granted, I was raised Catholic, which is a lot like saying you used to be a cop or a member of the Latin Kings. Once you’re in, your mind will forever be affected. You can pawn your badge or burn all your black and gold, but the way you see the world remains. I have an easier time remembering the Act of Contrition than all the passwords I use on the internet.
I don’t identify as Catholic. Beyond that, my personal spirituality is a private matter.
Readers of this blog know I belong to a Zen center. I’ve written about mindfulness and trauma on multiple occasions, and I’m quite open about my meditation practice. Zen practice was as effective, if not more effective at treating my PTSD —at least after a certain period of time— as talk therapy. I stayed on because, frankly, it’s a sensible way of looking at the contemporary world, and I’ve also met wonderful people at the center.
What does a Zen Buddhist believe? My advice to anyone who wants an answer to that question is to try meditating. That’s the answer. While Zen has its set of ethics, it does not offer a list of rules that need to be followed. With the exception of meditation, there’s not really a set of beliefs or behaviors that equal Zen. What’s there to believe, and who’s in position to believe it? That’s a Zen question.
Still…this probably doesn’t satisfy the readers’ question. If I’m going to do something besides evade it, I should probably make an offering. What I’m willing to do is to present a list of questions that currently make up what I like to think of as my spiritual journey. I don’t have answers for them:
- Is time a line, a circle or some other shape?
- Is consciousness the result of the brain or is the brain the result of consciousness?
- Will the individual please stand up?
- What must be done in order to count beyond one?
- Where is the past?
- Where is the future?
- If Jesus truly believed in paradise, would he have raised Lazarus?
Photo: 9/11 Memorial, New York City
This is a blog version of the story I told on December 14th at Is It a Thing, a monthly spoken-word series here in Chicago. I’m dedicating it to my good friend Kerri Smith Majors, who asked me to write it. Note: the post contains excerpts from The Fugue.
Here’s the question posed in this entry: What did editing a manuscript I had not looked at for more than a half-decade reveal about my PTSD?
I’ve already blogged about the 15 year path that led to the publication of The Fugue. The first words came in 2000. Once finished, I failed to sell the manuscript and put it away in 2006, later beginning work on a new project, what eventually became Finding the Moon in Sugar. I considered The Fugue a failure and stopped trying to get anyone interested.
A short time after I self-published Finding the Moon in Sugar (2009), I ended up diagnosed with PTSD. Its onset came after* I got caught in a convenience store robbery, which I blogged about in this entry titled Gunpoint. To summarize: I was certain the robbers were going to kill me that night, and I accepted my death while watching the robbery unfold, reflected in store windows.
I obviously survived, but not unscathed. Within a few days, I started having PTSD symptoms. My PTSD was (and sometimes still is) like a bad and incessant acid trip, complete with phantom sensations, memories of voices, unusual sounds, smells, flavors and inexplicable visions. The visions can be hallucinogenic and dreamlike or frighteningly realistic. I’ll write about them some day.
Doing something as simple as brushing my teeth or making a cup of coffee often brought on confusing sensory overload. My body experienced “phantom pains”, especially in my face and ribs, and my throat would constrict. I’d want to run and hide but could only sit somewhere and trip balls. I’d get lost in neighborhoods I’d known all my life, the street signs resembling electronic tickers, letters of all languages flying in them at unreadable speeds.
I soon figured out that the robbery had triggered childhood memories, which I wrote about, in part, in an essay titled Baptism Party, later republished by The Good Men Project under a different title. I’d learn soon enough that the effects of child abuse are not unlike the effects of war, at least in terms of what happens to the brain.
In order to heal, I had to make dramatic changes to my lifestyle. With guidance, therapy, a commitment to health, mindfulness and Zen practice, and the help of many loved ones, I eventually learned to manage my symptoms, even to neutralize or eliminate some altogether. Writing helped. So did telling my story in public.
In 2014, I was reading from Finding the Moon in Sugar in a bar. During that reading, I met Jason Pettus, the owner of The Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. He asked if I could send him some material to review, and soon enough he offered to publish The Fugue.
I had last looked at the manuscript sometime around 2008. When Jason and I started editing, I was shocked by some of the things I found. The main character, Yuri Dilienko, grows up in a dysfunctional, abusive family, its members traumatized by war and other events. He also ends up in prison for over a decade, found guilty of arson and parricide.
Early in the narrative, a character suggests Yuri might have PTSD. Of course, I had completely forgotten this. Then my descriptions of PTSD “in the moment” left me thunderstruck.
In this excerpt, Yuri’s just been released from prison, has moved back to his hometown and is thinking of getting a job in a bar. The reason he hesitates showing his hands is because they’re dotted with scars suffered in childhood:
He noticed a “Help Wanted” sign hanging behind the bar, so low that only people at the bar could read it. Maybe this was some kind of subtle joke, because people who sat at bars usually needed help. Yuri imagined working there. Most of the men were only drinking beer, and if they ever wanted something different, scotch and soda, Yuri was sure he could mix it.
“I’m sorry.” Yuri spoke to a bearded man. “Excuse me. I’m sorry.”
The man perked up. “What for?” He lit a cigarette.
“That sign there. Below. The Help Wanted.”
“The sign? Oh, for the job?” He rattled and stuttered: “Yeah, that’s…that’s for the job.” The man coughed into a loose fist. “Hey, Sonia!” She stepped over from the bar’s other end. “If you want the job,” he told Yuri, “Sonia’s gotta read your palms.”
All the other men now seemed interested.
“You wanna job?” asked Sonia. “Is por bartender. We have the day position.”
Yuri shrugged. “Daytime? You mean what? Noon?”
Sonia smiled at him. “I see your hands. Both hands.”
Yuri hesitated. The whole bar was watching him, some of the men grinning. He wanted to take his cane and tell the people he was very sorry, it was a big misunderstanding, because he had to go. While looking at their intense faces, pockmarked skin, lopsided mustaches, Yuri felt surrounded by the most violent men—grotesque and incapable of compassion, their eyes the color of mortar. His mind began racing, as it did often when he found himself confused or surprised. Strong, hard hands grabbed at him from all around and a shiver buzzed over his entire body, electric over his chest. He was powerless and could only give in, curl up, let the blows come, let them pass, then bury rage and fear deep in his center, deep into his pelvic bones and base of his spine.
In this next scene (slightly edited), Yuri is working in a butcher’s shop. It’s only days before the house fire that will take his parents’ lives:
A powerful force in his center, like a glass sphere packed with the molten heat of a red sun, wanted to charge up his throat.
At the end of the workday, Reikel smiled to Yuri as he left, said, “See ya Monday.” On the way to the bus stop, Yuri threw up his lunch…popcorn, salami and apple juice. This was the third time he had thrown up, the onset of nausea unexpected, gone as soon as he had vomited, since he had shown Reikel his hands. Nobody ever saw Yuri vomit.
Cicero had become a ghost town surrounding him. Hundreds of sparrows were chattering in a small yellowing elm. Their bickering and chirping grew so loud and overwhelming that Yuri stood entranced until a woman exited a nearby car.
On 12th Street, he saw his bus lumber away without him, so he went to a diner to rinse his mouth in the bathroom and wipe his face and chin to be sure he was clean.
Once home, he couldn’t sculpt. Every idea and sketch seemed pointless and stupid. He was always hungry, although nothing tasted good and no drink quenched his thirst or whet his constantly dry mouth. The hardest place to be in all of Cicero was home. While he sat in his kitchen, it felt as though parts of him were gradually disappearing. Yuri felt extreme nervousness, a shifting fuzziness in his periphery, and that powerful glass sphere inside him.
Everything required hands. At Reikel’s, his hands seemed to do what he asked them, but at home they refused to obey. Everything required hands. Warming up a plate of leftover macaroni and cheese. Washing himself, his entire body…before he could wash his body he’d have to wash his hands. Flipping through the sketches on the table seemed such a chore. When Lars used his hands, music came so easily, like air through a wide open door. Yuri could tell that Lars never thought about borrowing hands or finding new ones, and he didn’t have nightmares that his hands were left wrapped up in aluminum foil at the bottom of a paper bag…
…Whenever he awoke, he had trouble knowing what day it was. He found busses running on the Saturday schedule. Weekends were the worst because he had so much time to sculpt but found plenty of excuses, shopping for things he didn’t need—paper clips and deodorant—always walking to the largest stores on 22nd with the biggest crowds. Among these people, nobody knew. Sometimes Yuri walked out on the yellow lines in the middle of 12th Street’s busiest traffic and felt completely invisible.
These are only two scenes among many more that describe what it is like to have PTSD. The sudden nausea, throwing up, the nightmares. The feeling of disappearing, of being invisible, even in traffic. The daydreams of beatings, and the simultaneity of rage and confusion, the constriction of the throat. How could I have known it to this vivid detail?
My wife thinks I have always* had PTSD, or an anxiety disorder of some kind, that the robbery just cranked up the volume. I might agree with this theory if, prior to writing the novel, I had known how it felt to “crank up the volume”.
Composing the book, I had very little information about PTSD, had read a few articles, knew some stories about veterans’ issues. I never intended this book to be a portrait of a sufferer and don’t remember thinking very much about it. Perhaps the way I imagined PTSD might be influenced what form my PTSD took. PTSD is, at least in part, a condition of the imagination, a disorienting fusion of memories and fantasies, delusions and recollections, their tone depending at once on the nature of one’s fears and experiences.
I can’t answer how this happened, except to say that I found it fucked up, a mystery of the creative mind. Obviously, plenty of characters in The Fugue experience things I never did—all novelists imagine experiences they’ve never had; we depend on observations or overheard stories to narrate them. But this brand of premonition, if that’s the word, left me fascinated. It’s a layer in the book I could never have anticipated but now can’t deny.