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Trauma, Memory, and Imagination in Paul Hornschemeier’s Mother, Come Home

By Mitchell C. Lilly

What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. . . . When a guy dies . . . you look away and then look back for a moment and then look away again. The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.
— Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried 71

Paul Hornschemeier’s young-adult graphic novel Mother, Come Home brilliantly depicts a poignant tale of mourning, coping, and moving on after traumatizing loss told by the fictional Thomas Tenant, who loses his mother to terminal illness and later his father to suicide at the age of seven. Now narrating as an adult, Thomas returns to the period of his childhood following his mother’s passing and describes the toll her absence takes on the psychological wellbeing of his father, David Tenant, who drifts into a paralyzing depression shortly before he takes his own life to escape the grief and guilt he suffers after his wife’s death. Thomas re-occupies this time-space by adopting the point of view of his seven-year-old self to share, as best as he can, not what was happening but what seemed to happen during those months after losing his mother, or how he as a seven-year-old boy was able and yet unable to comprehend fully what was going on around him at the time. “[O]f course,” Thomas points out, “I did not understand any of this explicitly. I was seven, after all.”1 Perhaps due to an incomplete grasp of what was taking place around him, over the course of the narrative, Thomas shares his story with us in such a way that seems to elide memory and imagination which, Matthew L. Moffett asserts in his review of the comic, illustrates that “Thomas copes [with loss] by entering a bright, cartoonish fantasy world where everything is how he wants it” (182). The insight that Thomas withdraws into a “fantasy world” to cope with loss has proven popular for reviews of the novel; for example, a critic in Publisher’s Weekly presumes a similar reading to Moffett in that Mother, Come Home is “written from the point of view of a young boy . . . who’s dealing with the death of his mother by retreating deep into a fantasy world while his father gradually collapses into insanity” (154). Thomas, however, does not turn to imagination to hide away from trauma but to deal with it. More still, the recurring notion that the fantastic and imaginative portrayals vividly illustrate how Thomas primarily withdraws from loss misses the interplay between memory and imagination that makes it possible for childhoods like Thomas’s, which are fractured by shock and loss, to be expressed through a narrative of the trauma.

Far from hiding away from grief, for Thomas, imaginative re-enactment creates a means for writing out and coping with loss to repossess traumatized remembrance, which, in turn, helps explore the coming together of memory and imagination that can provide trauma survivors an alternative means to work through and share their stories of shattering loss. More still, Mother, Come Home traces how, after shock, fact and truth, memory and imagination may now coexist inseparably for those who live through and continue to live with trauma. Representing trauma in an imaginative re-enactment illustrates a story that goes beyond the facts of historical authenticity and challenges all who receive it to consider how imagination enables Thomas to pass on a story that may otherwise overwhelm telling. Altogether, imaginative remembrance does not mean that Thomas imagines traumatizing losses that did not happen, nor does it permit him to escape into some “fantasy world,” but instead mediates a way for him to repossess the traumatic truths of his childhood in forms and to intensities that memory, by itself, cannot fulfill.

Shards of Shock: Mother, Come Home as Trauma Fiction

By nature, traumatic experiences evade complete recollection; shards of shock that tear into the deep tissues of memory. “Massive trauma precludes its registration” by the mind, Dori Laub clarifies, because “the observing and recording mechanisms of the human mind are temporarily knocked out, malfunction” (57). Latency, the temporal delay separating the original traumatic event from the recollection or reliving of it, explains why survivors of trauma find it virtually impossible to remember or narrate – indeed, if they are capable of performing either task at all – the traumatic experience(s). These disruptions in/of time and memory, Cathy Caruth explains, stem from how trauma fundamentally involves “a shock that appears to work very much like a bodily threat but is in fact a break in the mind’s experience of time” (Unclaimed Experience 61). All too commonly, survivors of trauma discover they can only roughly describe how their experience seemed to happen because trauma, Dominick LaCapra points out, “brings about a dissociation of affect and representation: one disorientingly feels what one cannot represent; one numbingly represents what one cannot feel” (42). That is, beyond immediately affecting memory, trauma almost indefinitely problematizes its representation in conventional narrative frameworks, from authentic survivor testimony to trauma fiction.

Consequently, modern testimony and literature have had to adapt new ways and forms for representing the debilitating effects of traumatic situations on the human mind. Anne Whitehead explains, in her eye-opening work Trauma Fiction, that contemporary literary fiction especially “has been marked or changed by its encounter with trauma. Novelists have frequently found that the impact of trauma can only adequately be represented by mimicking its forms and symptoms so that temporality and chronology collapse,” thus creating narratives “characterized by repetition and indirection” (3). Well before the turn to trauma in modern narrative, however, the French psychotherapist Pierre Janet anticipated much of the current discourse on trauma and memory during the late nineteenth century with his premises of “trauma memory” and “narrative memory.” Bessel A. van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart clarify Janet’s ideas on traumatized consciousness in that memories riven by trauma clutch at “the unassimilated scraps of overwhelming experiences, which need to be integrated with existing mental schemes, and be transformed into narrative language” (176). Narrative memory embodies an experience not effaced by traumatic exposure, thus permitting the memory to be organized and recalled in an unbroken sequence of narrative: the story of the original memory can be told without lapses in time or gaps in what is remembered. Traumatized memories, on the other hand, attest to experiences that, when they originally occurred, violated the chronological and temporal frameworks of memory: the story of the memory cannot be told without elisions and disruptions if, in fact, the survivor’s story can be told to any extent at all. Altogether, the temporal complexities of trauma influence the forms and content of trauma narratives by straining what is remembered and how it is formally represented, and it is this traumatic strain that Mother, Come Home struggles with and works imaginatively to overcome.2

Shards of shock are embedded deep into the narrative content and form of Mother, Come Home. On the thematic level, the comic’s content conveys acute symptoms of trauma by way of elisions in characters’ memories as well as compulsive behaviors and recurrent dreams that are telltale indicators of post-traumatic exposure. To illustrate, during the Drifting Man chapter that begins the novel, see Figure 1, a cartoon version of Thomas’s father David floats amidst a monochromatic world searching for someone, presumably his deceased wife, whom he imagines is only “hiding” and waiting to be found. As David drifts through varying states of confusion, we sense his unwillingness to accept his wife’s death and, more tragically, how her death was not successfully integrated into memory. At one point, David glides over an ink-black sea, pursued unknowingly by some outlandish creature, when he mumbles that “Everything’s sort of beautiful now, but I’ll admit I still wonder what happened . . . what exactly, I mean: I’ve figured things out generally. Not that it all matters much now, I suppose.” After his wife’s passing, certain details about how she died continue to puzzle David, especially “what happened . . . what exactly,” and the ellipsis that fractures his thoughts represents the “break in [his] mind’s experience of time.” Ellipses typically represent discontinuity or erasure of something that is hinted at yet remains unknown in a given story. For trauma narratives, ellipses fundamentally signify devastating and unspeakable remembrances that a narrating agent cannot share because the memories destroy logic, language, and other human systems of expression and comprehension.

Figure 1: David, the Drifting Man.

For David, though, not only does grief obscure the memory of his wife’s passing, but also his own guilt over her death leaves him with incomplete, unfixed memories and a fractured sense of self. As David confides to Thomas the night before he kills himself, “Your mother killed herself. But I had to . . . I had to . . . help her . . . she couldn’t do it by herself. She was too sick.” David at last shares he killed the mother, or at the very least helped her kill herself, but he never works out the task he performed in helping her die to work through his grief and guilt. In other words, did he kill her or did he only help her kill herself – is there a difference? Where more remains for David to relate there are only ellipses over which the unknown and unspeakable endure. Yet, David’s moments of shattered speech nevertheless tell us many things about the irreconcilable conflict within him concerning being the husband, mourner, and assisting killer of his beloved wife. More specifically, the fractured language corresponds to what narrative critic Elana Gomel describes as “an aspect of violence that cannot be incorporated into discourse [e.g., killing a sick wife]. Necessary, even pivotal, to the story, the violence remains outside discourse, indicated but not shown; spoken about but not described; hinted at but not explicitly named. And this aspect has a disturbing impact on the coherence of the narrative and, consequently, on the coherence of the self created through this narrative” (xx). Namely, David no longer knows who he is after killing his wife, or what he did exactly to speed her passing, which makes his sense of self and the narrative he provides distressed and unfinished. Worse still, as a bereaved killer, David’s guilt intensifies his grief, transforming his mourning into little more than “interminable melancholy” (LaCapra 69). To this end, shock and shame leave David with a fractured sense of self that he cannot piece back together or live with and, as Gomel persuasively contends, “A subject with no inner logic is a subject in ruins” (xx). Overall, for David, the loss of his wife along with his uncertain implication in her death destroys logic and, as he tries to explain to Thomas, “in that vacuum everything’s nonsense, is . . . amplified unbearably.” Due to his overwhelming trauma and guilt, David sees no alternative but to kill himself by stepping off a cliff. As he acts, Thomas watches and comes to be traumatized by what he witnesses and struggles with remembering the act afterward.

After Thomas witnesses David’s suicide, the shock of his father’s death does not sink in for Thomas until he sees David’s unfinished peanut butter and jelly sandwich, “[o]f which he had eaten only three or four bites. Somehow this forced him deeper onto those stones. This made his ribcage cut through his skin. This stained his coat in the patterns of the jelly that breached the paper hide of that bread,” shown in Figure 2. Thomas stands right behind David as he commits suicide, and reaches out and touches his father’s coat seconds before he falls; and yet, looking back on that moment, Thomas claims, “I don’t remember the pushing or the falling or the body my father became,” and alleges that he “did not watch him hit” the stones below. One moment David stands at the edge of the cliff and, in the time it takes Thomas to reach out and touch the corduroy of his father’s jacket, David is “already gone.” The ensuing panels after his death show Thomas numbly picking up a lion mask and walking back to the makeshift tent he and his father shared the night before. Seeing the unfinished sandwich triggers the trauma of his father’s fall from the cliff, which is to say, the original moment of trauma makes itself felt at a later time and place through an estranged scene, one that simultaneously comprises an event and an image for Thomas.

Figure 2: Seeing the unfinished sandwich minutes after David’s suicide.

Caruth claims that “[t]o be traumatized is to be possessed by an image or an event” (“Introduction” 4-5), which assumes, perhaps unrealistically, a discrepancy between the traumatic past-event and its latent, triggering image. Instead, Thomas sees his father’s shattered body slice through “the paper hide of that bread,” replacing the innocuous image of his unfinished peanut butter and jelly. Thus, it is only when Thomas returns to the tent and finds the unfinished sandwich that David’s death erupts into memory. In other words, suddenly, Thomas remembers the afterimage of his father’s body broken across the stones; the memory and “the absurdity to which it leads” are made viscerally real too quickly and too late because Thomas is still not prepared for the shock of his father’s death. The image of the unfinished sandwich, and the “body” the visual recalls, embody and express “an event that has no beginning, no ending, no before, no during and no after” and, therefore, no logic (Laub 69). There is no “now” that the trauma of “then” does not dismantle for Thomas, who walks away from the site and sight of his father’s suicide only to confront the body and the stones it burst upon waiting to fall back upon him in a future time and place.

Trauma continues to influence the narrative through Thomas’s compulsive behaviors and recurrent dreams, which are common post-traumatic reactions. After his mother’s death, Thomas shares, “I was, in her absence, the groundskeeper, and these were my grounds: her garden, her room, her hiding place, [and] the woods between.” All of these areas are in some way associated with his mother: she tended the garden; the room belonged to her and his father, who moves out after her death); the woods, Thomas later realizes, are where he was conceived; and his mother’s “hiding place” is, in truth, her grave. Tending to these places after his mother dies becomes a way to remain close to his mother despite her absence, and to mitigate the trauma of her loss. Thomas also repeatedly wears a lion mask, “a present” given to him by his mother, as he completes his grounds-keeping tasks. More important, though, Thomas tells how, during this time, “I would dream things. These big, humid allegories.” One of the comic panels depicting these dreams captures Thomas falling or maybe floating, illustrated in Figure 3, while another shows a large bird dropping Thomas to plummet to the ground or lifting him up into the sky – maybe even flying in to catch him as he falls. What took place exactly in the dreams Thomas cannot, with certainty, now remember, “due in no small part to hundreds of youthful daytime fantasies enacted to erase the nocturnal dramas. I would play games and make songs to forget about what I remembered in the evening.”

Figure 3: Thomas falling or floating while dreaming.

How the dreams are represented in the story indicates Thomas’s trauma, which becomes clearer once David falls to his death during the narrative’s conclusion, because Thomas seems to be falling in two of the three dream panels and cannot remember exactly what he dreamed during the months after his mother’s death. In addition, because his father kills himself by falling from a cliff, the dreams seem to be overwritten by the memory of his father’s suicide. In other words, Thomas falling in the dreams correlates with his father falling from the cliff, which has not yet taken place at this point in the chronological sequence of the narrative.

Because the dream panels capture moments frozen in time, Thomas, always midway through his fall, represents his father locked in time and space to the moment of his death: when David fell. As mentioned above, however, the dreams are ambiguous for we cannot be certain whether Thomas falls or floats. Falling embodies the memory and facts of his father’s death while floating connects with the truths of his father’s “escape,” discussed below. What is important to note for now is that falling and floating embody unique yet corresponding issues about the trauma Thomas works to retrace and come to terms with over the course of his narrative.

Beyond traumatized characters and content, Mother, Come Home represents symptoms of trauma on the structural levels of the narrative. “In their most typical forms,” Brandy Blake Ball points out in her analysis of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen comics as trauma fiction, “graphic novels possess many formalistic features that could be used to express trauma” (par. 3). As Ball asserts, fragmentation is an integral way graphic narratives represent trauma stylistically: “A fragmented narrative effectively represents trauma symptoms because traumatic events can disrupt chronological time” (par. 6). Trauma creates fragmented memories; graphic narratives tell stories linked by fragmented panels, or, as Scott McCloud explains in his innovative work Understanding Comics, “Comic panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments” (67). A graphic narrative that doubles as a trauma narrative, then, mimics the fragmentation of traumatized memories via the panels broken up across the pages of the comic.

To illustrate, after the “Drifting Man” section that opens the novel, the narrative depicts the time when Thomas’s mother gave him the lion mask. At first, the panels follow a chronological order as Thomas accepts his mother’s gift, but the linear structure of the narrative is soon broken by disjointed images: a close-up of David’s foot standing on the snow-covered ground around his wife’s not visible grave; David’s unfinished sandwich from the climax of the tale, which rests out of place and time during this early episode in the narrative; Thomas, again, holding the lion mask after his mother gives him the “present”; a close-up of the robe Thomas wears to his mother’s funeral; a dialogue balloon saying “Thanks, Mom” floating over snow-covered ground and transposed over a somber sky, the day of the interment; the dialogue balloon from the fifth panel spoken here by Thomas who now wears the lion mask; and Thomas and David standing in front of the mother/wife’s grave right after her burial. Unlike the first six panels, which are all moderate-sized panes of equal height and width sharing a single page in the comic, the last panel spans two complete pages by itself and, in so doing, depicts the immensity of this unmatched moment in time and memory. To be clear, though, all of the panels depict memories, and the splintered chronology portrays Thomas’s shock and confusion after the sudden losses of his mother and father at a young age. What is more, the picture of his father’s unfinished sandwich which rests below a text box that reads “[t]hat is the one thing I remember about my mother,” remarkably renders that trauma effaces the temporal framework of memory leaving only displacement, indirection, and fragmentation in the wake.

Post-traumatic fragmentation continues and intensifies via several portrayals that create an impossible simultaneity as past and future traumas co-occur within mutual spheres of representation. It is difficult to say when the schoolroom portrayals take place, mostly because they superimpose events that in one sense have already occurred – much of what we see in these panels relates to traumatic flashes from Thomas’s past – while in another have not yet happened in the chronology of the narrative. Consequently, the past and future traumas blend indistinguishably with one another within the liminal time-space of the schoolroom. Michael Rothberg’s notion of “multidirectional memory” and Roger Luckhurst’s coinciding “polytemporality” or polytemporal memory create an important framework for working through the simultaneous representations of past and future shock in the schoolroom scenes. Although acting as a counterpoint to competitive memory, or one social group’s struggle for recognition of their sufferings in opposition to those of another – for instance, the legacy of Africanist oppression across U.S. history versus the Third Reich’s persecution of Jews and other “undesirables” during the Holocaust – Rothberg states, “multidirectional memory” is fundamentally “meant to draw attention to the dynamic transfers that take place between diverse places and times during the act of remembrance” (11). Similarly, for Luckhurst, polytemporal memory stands for the ways in which “the traumatic events of one time and place are read through the filter of another” time and place (60). While multidirectional and polytemporal memory, respectively, are structured around social or political implications for remembering or marginalizing the pain of others, they are nevertheless relatable to the personal manifestation of trauma that Mother, Come Home portrays for, in the space of the schoolroom, “the traumatic events of one time and place” are manifestly “read through the filter of another.”

Figure 4: Dealing with past-future trauma in the schoolroom.

Writing on the classroom chalkboard tells us that Thomas and his classmates are reading a book titled We Make Good Our Escape, which shares its title with Mother, Come Home‘s third section, “We Make Good Our Escape,” see Figure 4. What is more, the passages the schoolchildren read aloud match almost exactly with bits of dialogue and narration leading up to David’s suicide later in the narrative. For instance, a little girl reads a passage from the book about how leaves on trees do not really turn white when it rains, but only seem to because of the wind turning them over. We later encounter what she reads here echoed the night before David’s death, as father and son take shelter from the rain in their makeshift tent, when David tells Thomas about the “little systems of explanation” people make up “that are easier to digest than the intricacies of reality.”3 In another panel, a young boy reads, with some difficulty, “[h]e extended his arm to the surface of the coat’s fabric,” which anticipates the future portrait of Thomas extending his arm to lightly touch the corduroy of his father’s coat the moment right before he kills himself. However, the teacher excuses Thomas from class soon afterwards so he does not have to hear “the very sad part coming up in the story” – the upcoming suicide of the father. Of course, during our first reading of the comic, we are not aware of what is truly going on here – the relevant and significant similarities between the class’s novel and Thomas’s experience – that makes the classroom scenes seem unremarkable at first. Nevertheless, the schoolroom panels and the tragic ending they correspond with imprint trauma onto the structural levels of the narrative, because a cataclysmic and haunting incident takes place – albeit, in spoken form – yet is grasped only after originally encountered, much like trauma stems from severe stress that makes itself felt after the life-shattering experience has already occurred.

Mother, Come Home strikingly illustrates the emotional and psychological tolls of trauma on human memory through interweaving the story content with the fragmented frameworks of the narrative. Beyond content and form, however, Mother, Come Home most notably illustrates the interplay of memory and imagination that enables traumatized persons an alternative way to share with others an experience that would be almost impossible to tell through memory alone. Consequently, Thomas’s creative narrative suggests that fact and truth, memory and imagination, coexist inseparably for those who live through and continue to live with trauma, which poses challenging questions for how we read and empathize with trauma narratives that elide memory and imagination in similar ways.

Trauma, Memory, and Imagination in Mother, Come Home

The instantaneous impacts and permanent effects of trauma create serious complications for survivor memory and narrative. Yet, past and current theorists of trauma commonly regard memory as the means by which a traumatized person claims agency over the original shock, thus sidestepping the interplay of memory and imagination in the construction of trauma narratives. After discussing how traumatized patients are instructed in therapy sessions to establish agency over extreme life-events by envisioning aspects that were not a part of the original experience – picturing beautiful flowers blooming amidst the awful muck of a concentration camp – van der Kolk and van der Hart reach an odd conclusion about the power of memory to rescue itself from the crippling paralysis and amnesia of trauma: “Memory is everything. Once flexibility is introduced, the traumatic memory starts losing its power over current experience. By imagining these alternative scenarios, many patients are able to soften the intrusive power of the original, unmitigated horror” (178). However, van der Kolk and van der Hart contradict their claim that “memory is everything” for, as they share, it was through “imagining . . . alternative scenarios” that survivors of trauma were in due course able to mitigate the shock of the initial trauma and repossess the memory of their experience(s) to some considerable extent. Memory is one thing but not the only thing in survivor remembrances and descriptions of suffering. On the contrary, trauma, memory, and imagination share a dynamic, though often censorious, liminal time-space that mediates what is remembered and how it is remembered in trauma testimony, memoir, and fiction.

More recently, psychoanalyst Isaac Tylim asserts, “Memory and horror [trauma] are not compatible. The reason for this lies in the fact that . . . horror is the result of destructive forces that no human metaphor has the means or capabilities to express” (305). So as not to overburden memory, both clinicians and their patients frequently call upon “imagination in representing the horrors that [would otherwise] resist representation” to extract the shards of shock from memory and gather them into a narrative of the experience (306). Focusing even further on imagination in recent trauma studies, Eugene L. Arva redefines trauma as a fundamentally recursive interchange between memory and imagination. “Trauma does not create subjectivity,” Arva claims, “as some theorists would want us to believe, but undermines its most important reality ordering function – memory” (53). For traumatized persons, a tangible sense of unreality pervades the original shock which makes the ordeal and descriptions survivors try to tell about it virtually impossible. These “time-spaces marked by events whose violence has rendered them resistant to rationalization or adequate representation” fundamentally entail “an act of imagination” to be rendered narratively and “artistically visible” (Arva 26; 40). Since memory malfunctions during and after the original or repeated trauma, imagination may perform a supportive if not restorative task in reassembling the pieces of memory into a stream of narrative in which temporal lapses and anachronisms may remain, essentially authenticating posttraumatic veracity across the narrative’s thematic and structural levels.

Performances of imagination in trauma narratives nevertheless trigger questions of grave significance concerning the overall authenticity of the survivor’s story. After filming interviews with Holocaust survivors for the Yale Fortunoff video archive, Laub remembers the remarkable testimony of a female Auschwitz survivor, whose incredible story sets “traumatic imagination,” a conscious attempt to share one’s trauma as truthfully as possible even if certain details or strategies of sharing the experience make the story seem untrue, against traumatic fabrication, a conscious misrepresentation or manipulation of traumatic history designed to deceive others into believing a narrative that may be more or less make-believe.4 Laub explains, the survivor “was relating her memories as an eyewitness of the Auschwitz uprising; a sudden intensity, passion and color were infused into the narrative. She was fully there. ‘All of a sudden,’ she said, ‘we saw four chimneys going up in flames, exploding. The flames shot up into the sky, people were running. It was unbelievable'” (59). What the survivor tells and how she tells it, with “sudden intensity,” “passion and color,” works through the communicative complexities of her trauma – if only momentarily, the woman speaks out against the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust – and permits the interviewers to imagine and, more importantly, share with her an extraordinary moment from Auschwitz history without wrongfully appropriating the experience as their own. However, Laub continues,

Many months later, a conference of historians, psychoanalysts, and artists, gathered to reflect on the relation of education to the Holocaust, watched the videotaped testimony of the woman, in an attempt to better understand the era. A lively debate ensued. The testimony was not accurate, historians claimed. The number of chimneys was misrepresented. Historically, only one chimney was blown up, not all four. Since the memory of the testifying woman turned out to be, in this way, fallible, one could not accept – nor give credence to – her whole account of events. It was utterly important to remain accurate, lest the revisionists in history discredit everything. (59-60)

Laub shares that he “profoundly disagreed” with the consensus that the woman’s testimony was invalidated and unreliable because portions were historically inaccurate, and argued instead that the survivor “was testifying . . . not to the number of chimneys blown up, but to something else, more radical, more crucial: the reality of an unimaginable occurrence. One chimney blown up in Auschwitz was as incredible as four. The number mattered less than the fact of the occurrence. . . . She testified to the breakage of a framework. That was historical truth” (60). La Capra studies the same passages from Laub in a late chapter of his enlightening work Writing History, Writing Trauma in which he reflects on the historians’ dilemma regarding the woman’s counterfactual description of accredited Holocaust history. La Capra determines that

In one important sense, her testimony is not open to criticism as evidence of her experience as she now recalls and relives it. . . . What she relives of the past, as if it were happening now in the present, may, to a greater or lesser extent, be (or not be) an accurate enactment, reconstruction, or representation of what actually occurred in the past. It may involve distortion, disguise, and other permutations relating to processes of imaginative transformation and narrative shaping, as well as perhaps repression, denial, dissociation, and foreclosure. But these issues have a bearing only on certain aspects of her account and could not invalidate it in its entirety. (88-89; emphasis added)

Ultimately, for Laub and LaCapra, the fantastical or counterfactual material does not invalidate the authenticity of the woman’s testimony. Though what she says may not fit the facts of what we know about the Auschwitz uprising, she makes no attempt to deceive her listeners; to make them believe that four chimneys rather than one were destroyed. She testifies to the truths of an experience she carries distressingly within her, and she speaks of how it seemed to happen, and not simply the facts of an event as it absolutely – that is, without any shade of uncertainty – did happen.

Much like what is remembered and what is imagined creates challenges for the veracity of the Auschwitz survivor’s testimony, Thomas’s imaginative re-enactments of certain traumatic episodes from his childhood enable him to share the emotional and psychological complexities of his trauma through narrative. Yet we, those he entrusts with his story, must keep in mind that “the re-presented or reconstructed truth will not be of what actually happened but of what was experienced as happening” (Arva 5-6). That is to say, for Thomas, his original memories are not only, as he admits, “muddled through a seven year-old’s screen,” they are also complicated by the traumas that bookend this period of his childhood. Consequently, when dealing with trauma fiction, or even trauma history, we must remember that what we are told and what we see are not necessarily what happened exactly, but what seemed to take place, which conveys the truths of the misfortunes endured by the survivors that they must afterwards create some way to live with.

Throughout Mother, Come Home, Thomas adjoins memory and imagination, in this way, shows and shares the truths of his traumatizing childhood loss. During an early section of the narrative titled “The Hiding Place,” for instance, Thomas portrays a one-panel, imaginative re-enactment of his mother’s funeral in which he and his father are drawn in a child-like fashion: the lion mask blends with Thomas’s face, while David floats above the ground at the foot of his wife’s grave. As cartoon sketches, the portrayal emphasizes the shock and surrealism of that day, for Thomas and his father have just lost their mother or wife to terminal illness, and the day of her funeral is the only time the two visit her “hiding place” together. A more realistic portrayal of the interment precedes the imaginative one in the story, and the contrasting aesthetics of the two depictions challenge all who read and see to consider carefully which illustration more truthfully attests to loss and mourning. The original enactment renders the post-burial scene in remarkable artistic detail and captures father and son in a moment of shared grief, shown in Figure 5. The latter illustration, on the other hand, portrays the same moment but does so in the style of a child’s drawing. The original portrayal represents what the mother’s funeral must have looked like and creates a literal version of what took place, while the cartoon illustration represents how the mother’s funeral seemed to Thomas, which, due to the fantastical caricatures and physics of the drawing, at the very least would be described as improbable or unreal.

Figure 5: The mother’s funeral rendered in a stark, realistic style.

To be clear, both illustrations of the mother’s funeral trace back to a mutual memory but both portrayals draw that memory in distinctly different styles and with different outcomes. One version conveys a verisimilar portrait of the funeral that, although factual, does not quite express the submersed truths of the son and father’s bereavement. The cartoon version, on the other hand in Figure 6, enacts a remarkable level of imagination yet does not necessarily distort or misrepresent Thomas’s memory of his mother’s funeral; quite the contrary, the imaginative aesthetics permit him to show how her interment seemed, which makes the cartoon drawing appear unreliable or untrue, while possibly more truthful to memory, shock, and loss. Overall, the two representations illustrate the interplay between memory and imagination in the narrative because, when viewed jointly, the two versions coauthor a more authentic narrative of traumatizing grief. That is to say, one draws out the facts of the memorial – for instance, the funeral was a somber day, other people attended, and there was snow – while the other sketches the truths of the loss. Thus, taken together, we get a more thorough portrait that the day of his mother’s funeral was a solemn day for Thomas and that he felt, or perhaps everything seemed, dreamlike or at the very least to drift outside of reality. Either illustration by itself could convey certain facts or truths of the mother’s funeral, but the interplay joining the two creates a more illustrative and meaningful narrative portrait that one could not fulfill without the other.

Figure 6: The mother’s funeral illustrated in a childlike, imaginative style.

Possibly the most illustrative and haunting example of the interplay between memory and imagination in Mother, Come Home takes place in the book’s final section, “We Make Good Our Escape.” After David commits himself to residential care and Thomas must move in with his aunt and uncle, Thomas runs away to rescue his father and “escape” with him – though to where Thomas does not say. As with the two illustrations of the mother’s funeral, the narrative sets up two versions of Thomas and David’s escape. The first is drawn in a childlike fashion and seemingly portrays how Thomas imagined he and his father would perform their getaway. Thomas arrives at the clinic and hands over his forged patient-release papers to the nurses who swiftly discharge his father from the facility’s care with no questions asked. Afterward, Thomas and his father run into some nearby woods when, at that point, David stops and says, “I have horrible things to tell you. Nothing is very simple.” David then tells Thomas that he must leave him now, which sets in motion the following dialogue between father and son:

Thomas: “Will you write?”
David: “A little bit. You will begin to understand later.”
Thomas: “And then I’ll write.”
David: “Yes. And we all will be released.”

David then drifts away into the distance, leaving Thomas all alone, illustrated in Figure 7. What originally looks like make-believe, however, is actually later revealed to be an imaginative re-enactment of a real, traumatic memory by the second portrayal of Thomas and David’s escape in the narrative.

Figure 7: David’s escape sketched in an imaginative style.

Unlike the first portrayal, the second version of Thomas and David’s escape is drawn in a more realistic manner that copies exact details of what happened during the escape, see Figure 8. After David checks himself out of residential care, father and son walk into some nearby woods where David tells Thomas “horrible things.” More specifically, he shares with Thomas that his mother killed herself but that he helped her do so. The next morning, as the two stand at the edge of the cliff, David tries to tell why he must leave – kill himself – but ultimately realizes that “nothing is very simple” and he cannot explain to Thomas why he must “go away now.” David writes “a little bit” on a piece of paper for Thomas who, as the narrator, comments, “I suppose there are always notes with these sorts of things, though I have never thought of his as such.” Looking back, what his father writes at this moment can be considered a suicide note, but Thomas personally never views it that way. Over the panels that follow, David falls to his death and Thomas, just as in the imaginative portrayal, is left all alone.

Figure 8: David’s escape, seconds before his suicide, drawn realistically.

Although the two versions of Thomas and David’s escape are visually different, they both illustrate a mutual trauma and the “horrible” revelations, the difficult or impossible explanations, and the important task of writing even “a little bit” to comprehend the pain and the loss of others. As we see above, Thomas originally adopts an imaginative and minimalist strategy to share this tragic chapter from his childhood, but he does not misrepresent the veracity of the memory. He merely shows and tells the death of his father in the style a seven-year-old child might, and the unexpected turn the story takes anticipates the tragic end the memory enfolds. At the end of the imaginative version, David floats away; in the other, he falls to his death. Falling connects to the facts of his death while drifting or floating connects with the truths of David’s “escape”: by the end, David has drifted so far away emotionally and psychologically from the world and from his own son that before he even kills himself “he [is] already gone.” Whether he drifts away or falls to his death, for Thomas, his father is always paused at the edge of the cliff one moment, but then “already gone” by the next. David’s suspended falling and drifting represent how Thomas was ultimately unprepared for the shock of losing his father when the suicide took place, along with how the loss continues to stick in the tissues of memory to this day. As with the mother’s funeral, the interplay of memory and imagination across the final pages of the narrative help Thomas sift through the shards of shock to write out and come to terms with loss by unifying what was real with what seemed real which, in due course, pieces together a trauma narrative of extraordinary character and unbounded truth.

Conclusion: “And we all will be released.”

Although Mother, Come Home may not close on an optimistic note, Thomas’s narrative nevertheless establishes itself as a conscious movement toward reclamation over one’s self and past after trauma. By implementing imaginative strategies for representing trauma and memory, Thomas reimagines the pain and losses of his childhood on his own terms, in his own fantastic way, in an ongoing movement to gain agency over his past and show he will not live and suffer idly in the wake of an overwhelming history. Instead, he will use creative yet truthful means to share his story and make the damage endured – along with those who endured it – matter. Although applied to a different context, what Arva concludes about trauma and imagination in histories of slavery lends significant meaning to Thomas’s determination to reimagine his past to cope with and share his trauma: “Surviving . . . means keeping alive the ‘real’ story long after the initial one has consumed itself. The real story is the one that succeeds in recreating past traumatic events by attaching them to present affects and making them matter to the modern consciousness” (170-71; emphasis original). As a work of trauma fiction, perhaps it is dubious to talk of a “real” story of traumatic past events in Mother, Come Home, and yet, the comic is nonetheless revelatory about the capabilities of fiction to realistically represent psychic and emotional pain in non-sensational and thoughtful ways, as well as to the “real” powers of imagination to counteract past traumas in a style that encourages significant, critical reflection and introspection. Thomas’s story creates its own “real” story by reimagining traumatic past events as they sincerely seemed to happen, not as they with certainty did occur. Above all else, Mother, Come Home suggests that extreme trauma calls for extraordinary, at times fantastical, forms of representation to portray and come to terms with the horrors of one’s past. What we read is not just the real story, but also the only story, the true one.


[1] It is essential to note that Mother, Come Home lacks pagination, which makes it difficult to provide exact page citations, and this is why when quoting specifically from the comic no page numbers are provided. Moreover, given Mother, Come Home‘s embodiment of trauma on thematic and stylistic narrative levels, pagination, which functions as a clear marker of story-time and space by allowing readers to track their movement through texts, is overwritten by trauma. Pagination implies an order or sequence that imposes clear temporal and spatial codes that do not accord with what we know about traumatic encounters and how those incidents engulf conventional narrative constructions.

[2] This theoretical overview, of course, documents works formed during or informed by the clinical and critical frameworks of trauma that emerged in the mid-nineties. As testament to the long-standing influence, many of these paradigms are still widely recognized in trauma studies to this day. More recently, however, new research on traumatized consciousness challenges the canons of trauma developed by Caruth and others. For instance, Richard J. McNally’s paradigm-changing work Remembering Trauma argues that traumatic amnesia or dispossessed memory is a myth. Instead, for McNally, “people remember horrific experiences all too well. Victims are seldom incapable of remembering their trauma” (2). However, these survivors may not wish to think about their experiences either at all or until sometime much later, not wishing to think or “failure to think about something does not entail an inability to remember it (amnesia)” (McNally 2). Important if not indispensable though they may be, it is perhaps a shortcoming of both Caruth and McNally’s frameworks for studying trauma that they either imagine that trauma creates amnesia in all cases (Caruth) or that survivors remember their horrific experiences down to even minute details but elect not to think about them or talk about them (McNally). In reality, there are almost certainly clinical cases and literary texts to confirm both on the trauma/memory spectrum, and there is no reason why trauma narrative studies cannot place these frameworks in a practical union with one another rather than agonistic relation.

[3] What David actually tells Thomas during this moment is unknown, for a text box of narration eclipses David’s speech bubble. Thus, either Thomas does not remember what David said exactly, and presents his abridged version instead, or he remembers all too well what his father shared but, for his own reasons, wishes not to repeat it for his readers.

[4] Although Arva establishes the “traumatic imagination” in order “to describe an empathy-driven consciousness that enables authors and readers to act out and/or work through trauma by means of magical realist images” (5), my adoption of the concept slightly deviates from his focus on magical-realist modes of representation. Even so, at its core, the traumatic imagination illuminates trauma literature that creatively portrays histories of extreme distress to work through the lingering, otherworldly memory-spaces binding what happened with what seemed to happen. The affect these works produce may, for varying durations and to different intensities, simultaneously elide realism and fantasy to pose ontological and epistemological questions about the remembrance and representation of trauma. For a work excellently portraying the politics and poetics of the “traumatic imagination,” see Tim O’Brien’s masterwork Vietnam War short story collection The Things They Carried, which thematically and stylistically problematizes what happened and what seemed to happen to illustrate the confusion of war. For a work embodying traumatic fabrication, see Binjamin Wilkomirski’s controversial Fragments: Memories of a Childhood, 1939-1948, which pretended to be and was marketed as the author’s true memoir of surviving such experiences as imprisonment in Polish concentration camps during the Holocaust, though such claims were in fact falsified.

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