When I saw reviews of The Rise of Skywalker saying that it had “walked back” much of what made The Last Jedi so interesting, my sudden protectiveness of that film surprised me. Why I was I so loyal to it? It was a big corporate franchise picture; it didn’t need my help. And then, I remembered what the film had given me. I’m in a much better place now than I was when I first saw the film, which is how I’m able to write this essay. But if discussion of being in a dark place is hard for you right now, it’s okay to come back to this later.
It is a Sunday afternoon in January, 2018, and I am standing in my office looking out at the snow, and I want to see The Last Jedi in theatres for a second time. I have the time. I have the money. I have checked the bus schedules and the showtimes. The Force, it seems, is with me. The only trouble is that I seem to be paralyzed. I don’t know why I’m paralyzed. I don’t know why my feet won’t move, or why I can’t go put on a coat. I don’t know why I can’t grab my bag and my phone and my snow boots (a dirty Hoth white, this season) and just go. This is something normal people do all the time, I tell myself.
When I try to move, my throat closes. My body feels as though it is stuck in a flow of sticky resin. I am watching myself fossilize, trapped forever in a piece of dark amber that no one else can see. When I try to break free of it, when I even consider the act of seeing this movie, a voice inside says,You have deadlines and You’ve already blown them and You’re squandering all your opportunities and How dare you, how dare you, howdareyou, howdareyouhowdareyouhowdareyou.
I am frozen in my own carbonite.
Depending on how deeply you immerse yourself in the transmedia storytelling that has come to define the Star Wars franchise, you may already know that the Dark Side had its eyes on little Ben Solo as far back as the womb. His mother Leia comments on it in one of Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath novels: she dreams about the dark side ensnaring the boy quickening inside her. Later, it’s implied that young Ben heard the voice of the dark side whispering to him all along, telling him he wasn’t good enough, that he would never live up to his potential, that he was a disappointment to everyone around him.
Epigenetic trauma is the process by which the impact of stress is passed down through the expression of DNA. Like us, our genomes are constantly expressing themselves in reaction to stimuli, including traumatic experiences. Each time they do, tiny “tags” are added to the genome, like footnotes. There’s a footnote for genocide. A footnote for starvation. A footnote for warfare. A footnote for abuse. A footnote for violence. These footnotes interrupt the flow of an otherwise simple narrative: infinite combinations of the same four letters, a curse word that echoes across an entire planet.
The footnotes to that curse can be reproduced, like a reprint of a special edition volume that has restored versions of the same old additions. One hypothesis of depression (and other conditions) among families is that epigenetics is a key mechanism by which it’s transmitted. Your mother watches her whole civilization die, and you are born screaming her grief. Your father escapes slavery, but still you are born feeling his shackles. Like midichlorians, except instead of lifting rocks you can barely lift yourself out of bed.
I have it. My father has it. My sister has it.
I try explaining this, sometimes: I explain family members dead of alcoholism and suicide. I explain family members hospitalizing themselves, having rage blackouts, having panic attacks so severe we want to call an ambulance. I explain, but I forget who knows and who doesn’t. When I have a panic attack that puts me in the emergency room, someone tells my husband that I was really just faking a heart attack for attention. I don’t tell people about the other three that put me there.
I tell one person about the therapy dog I meet in an emergency room, when I’m breathing so hard my vision blurs at the edges. He’s an Irish wolfhound appropriately named Fergus. His handler gives me a trading card saying so. I know it’s meant to emulate a Pokémon card or a baseball card, but I can’t help but think of the holy cards my mother once collected, with the saints and their beatitudes. He leans against me and I lean against him, and everything dissolves. The pain in my solar plexus drains out as from a lanced wound. And for the first time I acknowledge that maybe it’s not GERD or a gallbladder attack or a weird cardiac flutter. Maybe, if the most effective treatment is this dog, it’s something much bigger than that. Maybe it’s bigger than me.
It is the Christmas of 1988 and my father is filming me with a camcorder he borrowed from work. He is working retail and my mom is a receptionist. In a month or so, they’re going to borrow money from my grandmother to get me an adenoid removal surgery. The video is to preserve me, to freeze me in this moment. I am highly conscious of being recorded, as I am every time my father points a camera at me. Later on, he’ll work in surveillance. For now, he records me saying “What?” to every question.
My ears are full. I have constant ear infections. I have a case of pneumonia that never really goes away — it simply ebbs and flows. We’re such good customers that my pediatrician starts giving us the freebies that the drug companies give him: pens, pads of paper, a magnet shaped like a pill that is still on my parents’ fridge. A steady stream of adult-dose antibiotics annihilates my gut flora and my ability to eat. The pencil marks on the white bedroom door frame chart my growth in millimeters, not inches.
(Years later, when I fuss over someone’s small bruise, they’ll ask: “Were you sick a lot, as a child?”)
I get very good at things I can do by myself, like pressing buttons on the Betamax. I watch Star Wars — all of them — over and over. It has big sounds that I can always hear and big performances that don’t require careful listening. At night, when I breathe deeply through a nebulizer for twenty minutes before bed so I don’t wake up choking, my mom calls it my Darth Vader mask. I play pretend Star Wars with my mom, but never as Darth Vader. For some reason I always play Han Solo, but not the Han Solo who saves everybody during the trench run, or the Han Solo who shoots first.
For some reason, I always play the Han Solo who is frozen in carbonite. I stand perfectly still against my bedroom wall, hands up, mouth open, eyes shut. I stand there until she thaws me out, until I am allowed to peel myself off the wall and crumple to the floor, alive again.
It is that Sunday afternoon in January of 2018 and I have somehow forced myself to stand inside a bus stop and wait. I don’t remember the walk between my front door and the bus stop. I lose time, like that. I have no idea this is a symptom. I think I’m just flighty, or lazy, or unreliable. (I’m dissociating.)
The bus doesn’t seem to be coming. I check the time and realize I’m going to miss the movie. I think about going back home. I shouldn’t be here, anyway. I should be doing something else. Anything else. I should be writing. I should be cleaning. I should be exercising. I should be blogging. I should be hustling. Everyone else is working so much harder than I am. Everyone else is so much more deserving than I am. Everyone else knows what to do and how to be, and who the hell do I think you are, going outside like a normal person?
I travel all the time for work. Between January of 2017 and 2018 I have been to Dubai, London, Amsterdam, New York, Calgary, Edmonton, St. John’s. I breeze through airports. I make eye contact with customs officials. I stand up and speak publicly for hours. I teach classes and facilitate workshops and give keynotes. I relish these moments. They’re how I know it’s possible to feel something different. I hold tightly to this knowledge. I have to keep reminding myself of it. I’m like Galileo facing my own internal Inquisition. Although the torture never really stops, I can remember those moments and think: And yet, it moves.
It’s when I consider getting coffee for myself somewhere that I cave. Coffee, as they say, is for closers. It’s for other people. The other people I am perfectly fine standing up in front of when it’s in another context.
It is January of 2018, and I am eight months away from a prescription that will allow me to casually make jokes on my own again. I am a year and four months away from an official diagnosis. When I sit down to write, everything comes out broken at first. (I write a story about a woman hiding the cancer that is slowly killing her, told from the perspective of someone furious at her for hiding it. In terms of metaphor, it’s a bit on-the-nose.) I am cut off from myself. I am on an island that no one else can find, and at its core is a dark place. It’s cold. It’s calling me.
But there is also this other darkness, the darkness of the cinema, and in that darkness there is a flickering light and a story. The story is about how no one is alone, how failure can be learned from, how lineage isn’t destiny. Sitting watching it, I’m suddenly able to breathe and smile and laugh. I can get swept up in dogfights and sword fights. I can have fun. I can enjoy things. I can allow myself that. I can experience these things — adventure, excitement — without shame. The darkness of all theatres is a place to explore our own. Inside the cinema, like a certain cave on Dagobah, we have only what we bring with us. Fear. Failure. But also the truth. Also the possibility for something different, something new.
Somewhere inside of me is a little girl up against a wall, slowly thawing back to life.
With gratitude to Rian Johnson, and Carrie Fisher.