The agency to overcome trauma
In the novel THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU, by Jonathan Tropper, there is an element of trauma or tragedy in the life of every character. The way each digests and addresses this trauma says a lot about personality and agency.
· Judd’s trauma is his wife’s infidelity, which results from his inability to face up to the signs of an unhappy marriage, especially in regards to the pain of loosing a baby. Even his relationship with Jen is fortuitous and not something he worked towards, but almost fell into. When marriage starts getting monotonous, he knows but chooses to do nothing.
· Phillip’s trauma comes from his neglected and overindulged childhood. He is immature and avoids responsibility. He tries to be responsible through other people, like a getting a mature girlfriend who will keep him in line or participating in the family business, where there is more at stake than a simple job. He lacks the agency to make adult decisions on his own.
· Horry’s trauma is not being able to have a normal life because of an accident that caused brain damage. Horry can’t live independently, have a stable relationship, or move up in his job. Still, he tries to have as normal a life as he can as an adult. He works, smokes, and has sex and doesn’t blame his misfortune on anyone else. In spite of his disability, Horry is one of the characters with the most courage and agency.
· Paul’s trauma comes from being attacked by a rottweiler, which ended his baseball career. As a result, Paul chooses not to go to college and remain home managing the family business. Part of Paul’s anger comes from not accepting responsibility for the dog’s attack, but also at not receiving appreciation from Judd (who’s tendency is to ignore and avoid the problem) for defending him.
· Wendy’s trauma stems from her unhappy marriage. After Horry’s accident Wendy chooses the opposite type of relationship, either seeking financial security or because of a need to punish herself for moving on. In contrast to her mother, Wendy choose to suffer in life.
· Alice’s trauma is her inability to have a child with Paul. Because of it she doesn’t see or enjoy all the other good things in her life. Having a baby becomes so important she is willing to be unfaithful and destroy her marriage to get it. She is also angry with Paul for not being as determined to have a child as she is.
It’s interesting that Hillary’s widowhood does not become a trauma like the trauma of others in the novel, even though it’s this sad and major event that brings them together. Although she has been able to prepare for her loss, she also chooses not to suffer but rather to move on. She uses her husband’s death to bring her children together, not only to let them know of a new relationship in her life, but to give them the opportunity to make amends for not visiting their father, to strengthen their sibling ties, to address and forgive old grudges, as well as to talk about the family business.
Once again, she demonstrates the importance of dealing with difficult moments but choosing to progress and to live happily. It is through her example during her husband’s convalesce and death that her children can learn (if they choose) that being a little bit selfish, facing up to the hard moments, choosing to live your dreams in spite of others, being forthright and authentic is the only way to be happy.
I recommend reading the book before watching the movie because you get to know the characters at a deeper level, especially their dark side.