By Susan Beckham Zurenda
Trauma is a complex word. We associate the term most often with military personnel who are exposed to war trauma and who experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but exposure to traumatic experiences doesn’t affect only those who are exposed to war. The consequences of repeated trauma have always been part of the human condition.
In my novel, Bells for Eli, my character Ellison (Eli) Winfield experiences another kind of trauma that begins with a devastating accident at age three when he swallows Red Devil Lye from a Coca-Cola bottle. Eli’s calamity generates trauma on top of more trauma until it seems more than a young child can bear. Despite this he survives. Eli is a fighter and by age 12, it appears he has conquered his ordeal. He looks normal on the outside, he has friends, and with his tracheotomy gone, he can even swim like other kids do. As a teenager, he develops into a handsome young man adored by girls. Only, really, he isn’t thriving. Underneath, he’s still in survival mode.
Eli’s accident is inspired by a similar traumatic incident one of my first cousins experienced at a young age. My uncle poured Red Devil Lye into a Coca-Cola bottle to blow up balloons for my cousin Danny’s second birthday party. I was told my uncle left the bottle on the back steps, and Danny drank from it. I was only a young child then myself so I don’t actually know, but I don’t think in the 1960’s, when Danny’s accident happened, that people believed childhood trauma could have permanent consequences.
We aren’t living in the 60’s anymore, and we’ve come a long way in understanding. Regrettably, I still hear adults say things like, “He was so young when that happened. He won’t remember it when he’s an adult” or “Those experiences will make her tough when she’s older. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”
However, those adages can be wrong where many children are concerned. It may be that trauma exposure as a young child is especially injurious. Children and their brains and nervous systems are still developing and being traumatized can negatively affect brain development.
In response to childhood trauma, or trauma at any age for that matter, the body courses with adrenaline and cortisol to help the victim fight or run away, but a child often can’t escape his or her traumatic circumstances. Living this way for a long time can have a big impact on the body and the psyche. Even if later in life the child finds him or herself in a functional supportive environment without pain, the stress response that was so adaptive in the traumatic or abusive environment might be maladaptive for a flexible, connected, and fulfilling life.
As a result, children who suffer trauma might grow up responding quickly and decisively to the smallest signs of threat. As a defense mechanism, they might also suppress their emotions. Such children often don’t want to be quiet and still because if they are, their memories surface. With their high cortisol levels, these children often yearn for excitement that distracts them so that they don’t have to feel anything. In Bells for Eli, Eli is unwilling to self-reflect and examine his feelings. He craves excitement and risk because dangerous activities like climbing towers allow him to escape his feelings. Drugs also enable him to escape and as he refers to it, “bring peace.” But he also develops into a young person with tremendous compassion and caring for others in need because he understands suffering and persecution.
Not every child experiencing repeated trauma will develop PTSD symptoms. A study by Thormod Idsoe , Atle Dyregrov, and Ella Cosmovici Idsoe found that for students who experienced bullying, 27.6% of boys and 40.5% percent of girls had PTSD scores within the clinical range. Anywhere from 12% to 52% of people who had a long term, chronic illness as children will have PTSD or other lingering emotional side effects from what they endured.
My character Eli experiences both situations: a long-term painful medical condition and relentless bullying by his peers. Though no one in the novel seems to focus on a connection between Eli’s adolescent behavior and his childhood experiences — least of all him — he is indeed among those trauma survivors who remain permanently scarred.
In spite of his limitations and pain, Eli is an amazing boy. He never quits. Other boys mock him for being a weakling, but what Eli lacks in physical strength he makes up for in spirit. On his first day of school — it’s second grade because he wasn’t yet strong enough to attend public school in first grade — a boy named Willard Timms is the first to react to Eli’s abnormal appearance. Sitting behind him while their teacher, Mrs. Hammell, distributes textbooks, Willard asks Eli about the string running from his nose and behind his ear and secured at the back of his neck. Eli ignores the question. Willard then tugs on the string, causing Eli to gasp and rise up from his seat. Mrs. Hammell harshly scolds Willard who dutifully begins to unpack his school supplies and seemingly forgets about Eli.
Unfortunately, bullies can be persistent. Not long after, at recess one day, Delia, the first person narrator of the novel, describes Willard’s retaliation:
I asked Eli what he wanted to do, if maybe he wanted to walk with Nealy, Gloria, and me.
“Let’s swing,” he said. We walked over to the long line of canvas strap seats. Most of them were empty, so we had our pick. I could see Gloria and Nealy in the distance, walking the perimeter of the playground, but I couldn’t join them. I had to stay with Eli.
Our legs pumped hard; we were in an unspoken competition to see who could reach the highest point, when three boys stepped in front of us. One of them was Willard Timms.
“What’s sissy boy doing? Swinging with his girl cousin?” Willard said. He reached out and caught the chains on Eli’s upswing and brought him to an abrupt stop. They faced each other, Eli sitting — his breathing labored from his exertion on the swing — and Willard towering above him. The other boys, Jimmy Watson and Joe Cribb, stood nearby.
“You’re nasty,” Willard said. “You know that?”
“You’re the one who’s nasty,” Eli responded. I stopped my swing quickly by lowering my feet and dragging them in the dirt. Every muscle in my body grew tense.
“Let’s see who’s nasty,” Willard said. He looked over at Jimmy and Joe. Eli stood up from the swing, facing Willard.
I wanted to run for Mrs. Hamell but there wasn’t time.
Willard swung at Eli’s face. Immediately, a thin stream of blood appeared, trickling from Eli’s nose. But Eli did not fall and he did not so much as whimper. He stood erect, his nose bleeding down his lips, and kicked as hard as he could into Willard’s groin. My heart squeezed with pride when Willard screamed in feral pain. I imagined a phrase Eli sometimes repeated going through his head: All’s fair in love and war.
Jimmy and Joe stepped up, ready to pounce on Eli, but by then everyone on the playground had tuned in, including the teachers.
By early adolescence all outward appearances of Eli’s accident have disappeared. He wears no string. The tracheotomy is gone, and he breathes through his nose. He exhibits no foul smell because the opening in his stomach has been closed, and after a series of trials, he proves himself to the other boys and is no longer bullied. He possesses a natural brilliance and is gifted with charm and charisma. A talented musician inspired by the sound of bells, nothing lures Eli more than a bell tower, especially the old fire tower with its enormous alarm bell behind his grandmother’s antebellum home.
Eli is a boy full of potential. He is empathetic and has a keen awareness of others’ pain. And it’s stimulating to be his friend because risk does not scare him. But Eli embodies many PTSD symptoms which impair him. He angers quickly; he blocks his feelings; he exhibits self-destructive behavior, and except for Delia, often has difficulty trusting others. As has been the case since childhood, he is adept at hiding his internal physical and emotional pain.
As he ages, Eli’s persistent need for stimulation to distract him from dealing with his emotions becomes more problematic. He listens to no one. He uses illegal drugs to excess. His need to forget surpasses everything.
After his beloved grandmother whom he calls Mimi dies, against the advice of Delia and his girlfriend, Isabel, Eli climbs the fire tower to toll the years of his grandmother‘s life. The 60-foot tower is old and unstable, but Eli relishes the risk, for it distracts him from his sadness. During his descent, rusty bolts connecting the ladder to the tower come loose about midway down and Eli swings out into space, hanging onto the ladder. Fearing the ladder will break off, he tells Delia he’s going to jump, but she believes he’ll kill himself if he does.
Eli’s life illustrates the complication of fate, how it takes with one hand and gives with the other. In large part as a result of his childhood trauma, Eli is a tormented young man, yet because he has suffered, he is also a young man with a tremendous capacity for love and compassion. His accident changes the trajectory of his life and the lives around him. Especially, the typical relationship he and Delia might have had becomes one of incomparable love and deep complexity. Theirs is a world where cruelty and pain threaten two cousins whose extraordinary love prevails, a world in which, in the end, Delia will learn a deep family secret and truths about Eli she has never known.
After teaching literature, composition, and creative writing to thousands of high school and college students for 33 years, Susan turned her attention to putting a novel in her heart on paper, the genesis of which started with a short story that won a fiction prize some years ago. She is delighted to present her debut novel, Bells for Eli, to readers on March 2, 2020. Susan will give a talk related to Bells for Eli and sign books at Midtown Reader in Tallahassee on Sept. 24 at noon. This community event is free and open to the public.