A Review of Jennifer Sinor’s Ordinary Trauma: A Memoir
August 7, 2017 § 4 Comments
By Jennifer Ochstein
At a writing conference I recently attended, a panelist fielded a question from an attendee about what makes a good memoir. I’m intimately fascinated by this question since I devour memoirs and am writing my own. The panelist told this story: a creative writing professor he knows was asked by a student why she received a B rather than an A on the piece she submitted. The professor told the girl that her experiences just weren’t that interesting. While the panelist said he’d never tell a student such a thing, he believed that was the crux of it: some people just have more interesting experiences than others.
While I understand the impulse to say such a thing, I bristled, particularly since I’d just finished reading Ordinary Trauma: A Memoir by Jennifer Sinor for the second time. In my mind, the oxymoronic nature of Sinor’s title alone demolishes that misconception.
On a deeper level, juxtapositions and structure, metaphors and language prime readers. What the writer does with the experiences, how she crafts and renders them, causes the particularity of a lived life to universally reverberate with readers, making them feel as if the memoir helps them make sense of their own experiences. At least, that’s how Sinor’s memoir resonates with me. For Sinor, trauma becomes so commonplace, so ordinary, that it defines the life of her family, but how she renders those traumas makes her memoir. Sometimes the ordinary is the most heart-rending.
Sinor’s father seems to know and accept this so he trains his daughter, Jennifer, to act accordingly. He instructs Jennifer to never let her emotions get in the way of acting rational. Beneath the surface of his lesson is a personal edict he seems to live by: bury trauma. Her father, a career Navy man and maritime law expert, gives her practical advice on how to do this:
When something bad happens to you, Jennifer … you simply think of your mind like a dresser … A dresser full of drawers. And you take the bad thing, the memory, the loss, whatever it is, and you put it in the drawer of the dresser. Envision yourself doing this, like you were packing clothes in there. Then you shut the drawer and lock it. You lock it. Do you hear me?
Jennifer falls in line, lockstep.
Sinor sets Ordinary Trauma against the backdrop of the early 1970s and 1980s Cold War to illustrate the unacknowledged tensions and traumas that submerge families in their own cold wars, taking them to the brink of destruction. On top of that, she juxtaposes incidents that reveal how her family’s cold war escalates and how she consistently must lock away her feelings in order to keep those escalations from erupting and blowing her to smithereens. She does this by creating an internal order, fixating on counting pennies, for example, or listening to a Christmas song over and over. Later she develops anorexia. Fixating keeps her from emotionally marking the traumatic experiences, including her own near-death as an infant, sexual abuse, the scalding of her newborn younger brother, and later accidents that nearly caused his death. All of it is neatly tucked away so that she can hardly figure a way to deal with her own emotive reactions when they arise unexpectedly. She writes, “I cannot sort them, cannot label them, cannot explain my actions.”
Survival over pain and loss becomes a kind of liturgy that her father also teaches her. Just as she fixates on counting pennies, he teaches her how to count ocean waves during one of the family’s stints living in Hawaii. He wants her to master them rather than fear them, to dive beneath them rather than be drowned:
Waves arrive in sets of seven, he explains, and within each set of seven the waves increase in size, the next always bigger than the last. In addition, each set of waves also increases through seven sets of seven, the forty-ninth wave, then, being the largest of the series … The rules of the sea. At the seventh wave, like magic, the waves subside, a tiny ripple wandering up the sand.
It’s as if by mastering the rules, she’ll somehow never be pummeled and dragged out to sea. What she needs to watch out for is the rogue wave, the kahuna, “the one that will take you down,” her father tells her.
It’s the juxtaposition of her father’s advice to lock away her hurts and his lessons in diving deeply beneath the ocean’s waves that reveals the real oxymoron and packs the most powerful punch. She learns well from his lessons. On the one hand, because she locks away that which hurts her the most, she can hardly understand her own actions and emotions, but when she’s confronted with a kahuna, a life circumstance she suspects will surely drown her, she realizes the gift her father gave her: “the strength to do the hard thing” and the ability to “save herself.”
Sinor not only schools us in the art of the memoir, but also in the art of survival.
Jennifer Ochstein is a Midwestern writer and professor who has published essays with Hippocampus Magazine, The Lindenwood Review, The Cresset, Connotation Press, and Evening Street Review. Like many other creative nonfiction writers, she’s working on a memoir about her mother, and she’s discovered it takes just as long to process that relationship as it has to live with it.