The Haunted Country of Our Past: Guest post by Lynn C. Miller
Lynn C. Miller’s third novel, The Day After Death, came out in March from the University of New Mexico Press. Miller’s prior novels are The Fool’s Journey and Death of a Department Chair. She is the Editor of the literary journal Bosque.
Lynn C. Miller: The Haunted Country of Our Past
A psychologist friend and I were talking one day about how trauma in families affects each member of the family differently, and she remarked that sometimes the family system makes it impossible for the most vulnerable member to survive. That led me to the central “haunting” in my new novel, The Day After Death: The protagonist, Amanda, has a fraternal twin, Duncan, who dies in an ice skating accident when they are twelve. With him that day was their older brother, Adrian, whom Amanda blames for her twin’s death.
When Amanda wakes up one day in her early forties with the memory of Adrian’s bullying her as a young girl, all her childhood fractures surface, including Duncan’s mysterious death. She must, at this mid-point in her life, come to terms with her past and try to understand the family dynamic, and secrets, that haunt her.
Amanda excavates the past through her work in the theater and through therapy. Both in college and later, she is involved with productions of Harold Pinter’s play, Betrayal, which tells the story of a love triangle in reverse chronology. Her participation in the play upends her life and leads to an involvement with the director, Sarah Moore, who becomes her lover. Later in the novel Sarah dies, and Adrian is present on the day she dies, and––once again––Amanda holds him responsible for the death.
You always hope that when you reference another work of art, in this case a play, that the work provides layering to your story and deepens its resonance. In my novel, Pinter’s probing of love and loyalty and the back and forth movement of time in the drama underscore Amanda’s journey to understand her memories of the past while beginning a new relationship in the present where she must learn to trust again. The theater, where art imitates life and life imitates art, is a laboratory for psychological action. Pinter’s play shows how secrets can transform and ultimately poison relationships. The play also shows the power of the triangle, as the three characters align and realign in various scenes, with the power of two pressuring the third. The secret that Adrian and their mother share about how Duncan died is one of the things that pit Amanda and Adrian against each other throughout their lives.
As I said earlier, Amanda also pursues the truth through therapy with Helen, a Jungian psychologist. Theater and therapy are related, I think, in that each examines closely human motivations and the reverberation of an action on other actions. Both involve risk. In a play, what each character says about another or does to another, causes a further action. Therapy is like that too: as you talk about a situation, one question breaks through a barrier to a larger question. In The Day After Death, as Amanda learns more about herself, she goes deeper; she develops a thicker skin and sees herself more clearly. In the theater, the audience becomes the mirror for the action; in therapy, the therapist is the mirror for the client.
I think our lives are full of hauntings; we all search for healing from difficult experiences during the course of our lives. Adrian is a difficult character but not an unsympathetic one. He, too, was damaged by family secrets. Amanda’s healing depends upon her being able to see past Adrian as the villain in her life and on her realizing that she––and no one else––is responsible for her joy and sorrow.
I wanted to explore the rippling effects of family secrets in this novel, as well as the ways in which we can find meaning and forgive others for their limitations even while we transcend our own. The human being is flawed but the human spirit is unstoppable. How do we live with the past? How do we shape our lives? Who are we responsible for? These are questions that I hope resonate for readers in these pages.