The talking cure

Paul Constant

February 5, 2019

Some people approach therapy as an extended storytelling exercise: they're telling their own stories over and over, in an attempt to find a narrative frame that makes sense of it all in an honest and, hopefully, compassionate way. They tell the stories again and again, and often they learn that every variation that they tell contains an essential truth about their existence, and also a profound lie. Stories are like that—-every one contains a blend of reality and fantasy, of honesty and dishonesty.

Most of the characters in Seattle writer Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum's new story collection What We Do with the Wreckage are in some kind of therapy or another, and that therapy is usually tied to the part of their story that's the most broken. The people in these stories are reeling from trauma and from dependency and from heartbreak. Most of them are trying to improve their lives, but in order to do that, they have to look backwards, at the breaks in their narratives, to try to repair what's gone wrong.

In "Dear Mistress," a child is encouraged by a family therapist to write letters to the woman who is driving her parents apart. "Your anger is justified, Elisabeth," the doctor tells the child...

"...But we cannot let our anger own us. The Buddhist thinker Thich Nhat Hanh says that anger is like a knot. We can't untangle it until we recognize it, smile at it, treat it with tenderness. Can you do that, Elisabeth?"

Never mind that in the history of footwear, a knot has never been untied with tenderness. You get the sense that Elisabeth is in shaky hands, that neither her parents nor "Dr. R," as she calls her therapist, have her best interests in mind at the moment. Elisabeth calculates all the time the family has spent in therapy with Dr. R, and she rages at the mistress about that.

"Nine hundred minutes, Mistress, just to get over my father's love for you, to resuscitate something we didn't know we had until you took it from us," she writes. These words she writes are seething with anger and roiling with confusion. There's a hatred so pure in these sentences that it doesn't care who it hurts.

The best short story collections are artful works of juxtaposition, and Sundberg Lunstrum is definitely aware of how the stories in Wreckage build on each other, one after the other. Even if none of the stories are linked by characters or plots, their thematic ties are so strong that Wreckage reads like a novel.

It's not just a thematic link. The characters seem to grow and age over the course of the book, too. Wreckage opens with a story about a therapist watching over young girls with eating disorders, and then it continues with a string of stories about young characters — Elisabeth in "Dear Mistress" comes second — until finally the stories are about parents of children in crisis. These men and women range across a spectrum of ages and responsibilities, but taken in order the book ages and grows with them. The problems get more complex as time goes on.

In "Wheeling," Janie is slowly recovering from the sudden and unexpected death of her husband, over some unremarkable breakfast before work. ("'O,' he said, his wet mouth forming the letter, a fleck of egg on his lip, and he slumped forward against the table.") When a friend says that Janie is in grief, she practically spits flame:

"I'm not in grief. *In grief* makes it sound like grief is a bathtub you can climb into or out of. This is my life now, Caroline. I'm a widow."

It's a solid and important distinction that our language is bad at articulating. Do you have grief, or does grief have you, or are you grief personified? None of those options seem quite right, but they don't seem all wrong, either. Do you carry grief? Can you have a loss? Janie chafes at every bad option she's given as she tries to identify herself in her own story.

Not all the traumas in Wreckage are solid breaks or incidents with causes that can be clearly identified: sometimes people just float away from each other. In "Retreat, Retreat," a pair of couples try to find some excuse to stay together. Sundberg Lunstrum's description of their transactional behavior in bed feels remarkably compassionate: this isn't the kind of dead marriage that is consumed by drama and shouting and oaths and betrayal. It's just a once-special bond that feels smoothed into something common and frictionless by the relentless waves of times.

My favorite story in Wreckage is "Matter," a story told by an adoptive mother to a 5-year-old son with a learning disability. Set against the backdrop of wildfires that are choking the sky and turning them brown, our narrator is trying to encourage the boy to use language.

The therapist has also recommended speaking my thoughts aloud. Not all of them, of course. Certainly not all of them. I'm to narrate, rather. *Here I go, making the toast. Isn't toast lovely? Doesn't everyone feel better with a piece of toast for breakfast? Yum! Toast!* — that sort of thing. It's a way to surround Matty with language, the hope being that he will absorb words the way a sponge absorbs water. As I pour cereal and talk about pouring cereal, I try to imagine a lake swelling somewhere in him, the sound of my voice burbling up from its depths and sending rings out across the surface of Matty's consciousness.

"I'm to narrate," explains the narrator, apparently not seeing the reflexiveness in that line. She is doing to herself what her therapist encouraged her to do with Matty: soaking herself in words, telling her story as it happens, trying to make sense of the things that she sees and does, in clear and crisp language.

And really, what choice does she have? If the narrator of "Matter" didn't tell her story, her story wouldn't exist. She wouldn't exist. So she tells her story about telling stories, in the hopes that one day she can tell the right story — the one that will catch in her son, and allow him to tell his own story. You can't successfully tell a story without a narrator and an audience. And without stories, the world would be too lonely to bear.

Books in this review:
  • What We Do with the Wreckage
    by Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum
    University of Georgia Press
    October 1, 2018
    240 pages
    Provided by Publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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