While New Year’s Eve revelry tends to be disappointing, I am a sucker for all else related to the end of a year: lists and summations and reflections, all these wild stabs at closure. The Awl usually has one of my favorite spins on this, closing out the year with a series of essays from writers reflecting on lessons learned or not learned or unlearned over the preceding 12 months. This year’s features some two-dozen writers mulling the theme “Save Yourself,” and you could do much worse than kicking off 2016 by reading through a whole mess of them.
A good place to start is with two meditations on pain and recovery by Emma Carmichael and Helen Rosner. When it comes to the injuries each sustained this year, Carmichael’s was severe, while Rosner’s was (comparatively) minor. But both inflicted their own kind of trauma, disbelief, and reckoning. “I’ve been made to believe that a natural progression from a close encounter with death is to have a new perspective on things, maybe a steelier resolve, ” Carmichael writes, weighing her long, recent recuperation after a serious car crash. “On some level, this must be what people mean when they ask me now how I’m doing, or if things are back to ‘normal’ yet.”
Rosner, meanwhile, got third degree burns on the bottoms of her feet from stepping on hot coals. She found her first instinct was to act like it hadn’t happened: “I remember taking [the] pain and folding it up inside my head in a way that felt, in that moment, strikingly like the process of making an origami mouse, and tucking it away.” She looks back on a time when feelings seemed easier: “I used to worry that I bared my feelings too readily, too voluminously; more recently, when I’m thinking about them at all, I worry that I don’t show them nearly enough,” she writes.
In the year’s final two editions of Everything Changes, the wonderful and unpredictable email newsletter she produces for The Awl, Laura Olin solicited and then presented readers’ answers to the question “How did you save yourself this year?” The many thoughtful, often raw answers she got in response (which she collected in a spreadsheet here) are, as intended, a worthy companion to the longer year-end essays—and worthy prompts in and of themselves.
Rachel Louise Snyder’s “No Visible Bruises: Domestic Violence and Traumatic Brain Injury” in The New Yorker
The side effects of traumatic brain injuries have been studied at length among athletes and soldiers. In addition to a laundry list of long-term cognitive, behavioral and social problems, such injuries have also been associated with seizures, depression, aggression, cognitive decline, progressive dementia, endocrine dysfunction, and premature death. But as Rachel Louise Snyder reports, victims of domestic violence, despite suffering the same debilitating symptoms, are largely overlooked by research and not properly diagnosed. This is particularly troubling as early detection and treatment can prevent or reduce the more severe side effects of traumatic brain injuries. Recent research has also shown that it takes women longer to recover from traumatic brain injuries.
Snyder does an incredible job of illustrating the plight of these abuse survivors (largely women). It’s often a he-said, she-said affair, but what she says doesn’t always make sense, or may change from telling to telling, because what he did left her brain unable to reliably recall the events that occurred in linear order. Now she looks crazy and won’t be believed, because on top of that, she didn’t have enough externally visible injuries to warrant proper medical care and diagnosis. Snyder offers compelling interviews with many of the leading experts in the field about the particular danger of domestic violence brain injuries caused by strangulation.
Strack … studied the case files of three hundred non-fatal domestic-violence strangulation cases. Strangulation turned out to be a critical marker. Not only did it dramatically increase the chances of domestic-violence homicide, but only fifteen percent of the victims in the study turned out to have injuries visible enough to photograph for police reports. And emergency rooms tended to discharge victims without CT scans and MRIs. What Strack and the domestic-violence community understand today is that most strangulation injuries are internal, and that the very act of strangulation turns out to be the penultimate abuse by a perpetrator before a homicide.
One of the most isolating aspects of domestic violence victims’ experience is shame. Brain injuries among athletes and veterans are not complicated. These are public figures, heroes even, who sacrificed themselves for team or country. For victims of abuse there is self-blame: the sour hint of “how could she let that happen to her?” The stigma needs to end.
Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Siege of Miami” in The New Yorker
The first time I got away from South Florida I was elated. The changing fall leaves were beautiful and the snow was beautiful and spring was beautiful. I swore I’d never go back to Florida. But after I graduated from college I ended up returning. Once I moved again four years later all that sunshine had turned me into a wimp. I’d only moved to mild North Carolina, but I found myself wanting to go back south to the warmth of Miami, where much of my family still lives. Instead I moved further north to Pittsburgh for graduate school. And while part of me wants to get back to all that heat, I’m also worried about Florida disappearing under water.
Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellently reported piece made my image of what that might look like much clearer. Kolbert talks to many experts (like people who explain that it’s not just the sea level, but also the porous limestone that South Florida’s built on that’s the problem), people who insist there’s a solution (like Miami Beach’s mayor who believes in “human innovation”), and people who don’t think that climate change is real (like governor Rick Scott who “instructed state workers not to discuss climate change, or even to use the term”).
But mostly it’s a story that, like Kathryn Schulz’s “The Really Big One” about the earthquake overdue in the Northwest, terrifies me. Kolbert cites a range of estimates of how much the sea level is predicted to rise by the end of the century in South Florida—anywhere from three to thirty feet. But she notes, “Recent observations…tend to support the most worrisome scenarios.”