A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: Book Note
Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (Doubleday, 2015) is a very long novel (720 pages) that’s been getting a lot of praise. I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago. Two of my friends have also read it: the one I would have predicted would hate it loved it, and the one I would have predicted would love it hated it. You might not want to read further though, if you haven’t already read the novel, although it isn’t giving much, if anything, away to tell you what it’s about.
The novel’s protagonist, Jude St. Francis, is a highly accomplished man who was severely abused and prostituted when he was a boy. He is also progressively disabled. So in excruciating detail you read about what you probably knew only in passing from news articles about adult male survivors of childhood abuse; many loathe themselves, blame themselves for what happened to them, ask themselves all the time what they did to bring the abuse on. You also get a fictionalized, but I think probably accurate, description of how child victims of sexual abuse are groomed by their abusers.
And even though it’s a novel, you can’t just turn the page and forget about what happens to these boys, as I do while reading the latest scandal about abuse of boys by trusted authority figures. I spend a lot of time swearing at the Catholic Church when I read these accounts, but it’s not only Catholic “brothers” and “fathers” who do this kind of thing: it’s also teachers, Protestant ministers, rabbis, and a lot of other people to whom we entrust our sons.
In the case of Jude St. Francis, you also get details, page after page after page, about what it’s like to be progressively more and more disabled. There’s a lot in the novel about his sense of pride, his unwillingness to admit his disabilities, his determination to manage on his own as long as he can.
Some decades ago my husband and I watched a television program called The Rockford Files. Rockford, a private investigator, was forever getting beaten up and then just walking away. So then you begin to think that’s how it really works: it isn’t. A beating can leave injuries and scars that last a lifetime. One of my students was beaten up in the 1980s by members of a motorcycle gang who were angry that they were denied entrance to a student-only pub at McMaster University. My student just happened to be walking by at the time. He was severely injured and almost blinded.
Sexual abuse can leave both physical and psychological scars. For some people, they never go away. The psychological abuse intensifies when people blame themselves, asking themselves constantly if they could have done something else, if they could have avoided their abusers. Many of the people whose accounts are printed in the newspapers mention these feelings of shame and guilt. Many engage in self-harm and some commit suicide.
If you can take it, A Little Life is a very compelling novel that tells you a lot about abuse and disability. The historian Lynn Hunt in her Inventing Human Rights (W.W. Norton, 2007) argues that the emergence of novels in 18th-century Europe allowed readers to empathize with the fictional characters; this extended to a capacity to empathize with real people in their real environments. This is what A Little Life does; it extends our ability to empathize with abuse survivors and people with disabilities.
One very important criticism of the novel: the cover features a photograph by Peter Hujar called Orgasmic Man. This is absolutely the wrong photograph for this book. One of the saddest lines in it is something like “Being an adult means you never have to have sex again.”