Analysis on William P. Young’s The Shack
Unfortunately, more than often one consequently undergoes a dreadful depression and impenetrable silence after a traumatic event. It is an occurrence we see displayed in William P. Young’s The Shack as Mack is subjected to “the great sadness” succeeding the horrendous kidnapping and murder of his daughter, Missy. The Shack illustrates the struggle of overcoming trauma through Willie’s testimony of Mack’s journey toward overcoming and surviving trauma. Dori Laub describes the importance and process of this journey of traumatic and emotional victory in his essay, “Truth and Testimony: The Process and The Struggle.”
According to Laub there are three levels of witnessing traumatic event; the first one being witnessing one’s own experience, the second one being witnessing one’s story of their experience, and the third level is witnessing the process of witnessing. Mack and his family undergo the first level of witnessing when they are inside witnesses of their victimization by the kidnapping of Missy at the camp site. Willie undergoes the second level of witnessing as he is the listener of Mack’s story as well as the re-teller of it. The final level of witnessing is what will help Mack overcome the event as he starts to realize the process of witnessing what he is going through.
Willie isn’t the only one who is involved as a listener in the second level of witnessing. The Holy Trinity, which Mack meets at the Shack, Jesus, Sarayu and God, or Papa are also a witness to Mack’s story. Papa aids Mack in the reliving and re-experiencing of the event by sending Mack an invitation back to the abandoned shack, the scene of the crime where they came across poor Missy’s bloody dress. As Mack and the three of them exchange dialogue about the horrific event, Papa, Jesus and Sarayu become the receiver of Mack’s testimony. Their purpose, therefore, is to serve as a “companion on the eerie journey of the testimony” and share with Mack the mutual “struggle to go beyond the event and not be submerged and lost in it” (Laub, 62).
Telling one’s traumatic story could be a process filled with struggle and affliction as one processes their memories and thoughts of a certain event in attempts to piece their story together. “There are never enough words or the right words to articulate the story that cannot be fully captured in thought, memory, and speech” (Laub, 63). Because of the difficulty in telling their story, many trauma survivors are fated to live their lives in an inevitable “loneliness and bereavement.” Accordingly, Mack fell into an unpierceable silence when tackling “the great sadness” he succumbed to ensuing Missy’s abduction and murder. “The Great Sadness entered his life and he almost quit talking altogether” (Young, 13). According to Laub, it would be essential for survival that Mack breaks through, talks and tells his story. One must express their imperative to tell in order for the continuance of life. Mack, however, seemed temporarily at a silent, frozen pause. “The survivors did not only need to survive so that they could tell their stories; they also needed to tell their stories in order to survive” (Laub, 63).
According to Laub, this incapability to overcome the stress of trauma in order to battle silence makes the “impossibility of telling” that allows “silence about the truth to commonly prevail.” It is important for Mack to defeat the silence accompanied succeeding a traumatic event because the longer remains silent about it, the longer it becomes distorted within one’s mind. “Survivors who do not tell their story become victims of a distorted memory which causes an endless struggle with and over a delusion” (Laub). Mack is already somewhat delusional as the events cause him to question his prior beliefs and he becomes quite blameful and angry towards God. A non-delusional Mack would not have self-isolated himself emotionally from his family and friends who were unable to “thaw his heart, or penetrate the bars of his self-imprisonment” until after his experience with the divine trilogy during his re-visit to the shack.
Dori Laub explains that one of the consequences of allowing a traumatic event to become distorted in the mind is that it begins to affect one’s perception of themselves. According to Laub’s account of a Holocaust survivor he interviewed for the Fortunoff Video Archive, “her previous inability to tell her story had marred her perception of herself. The untold events had become so distorted in her unconscious memory as to make her believe that she herself, and not the perpetrator, was responsible for the atrocities she witnessed.” The distorted way in which she perceives herself causes her to fail at being an “authentic witness” to her own self (Laub, 65).
Kate, Missy’s sister is an excellent example of a character who fails to be an authentic witness to herself. Her self-perception is false and distorted based on her memory of the traumatic experience. She fell into a similar impenetrable silence as well. “Kate seemed to have been affected the most, disappearing into a shell, like a turtle protecting its soft underbelly from anything potentially dangerous. It seemed that she would only poke her head out when she felt fully safe, which was becoming less and less often. Mack and Nan both worried increasingly about her, but couldn’t seem to find the right words to penetrate the fortress she was building around her heart… It was as if something had died inside her, and now was slowly infecting her from the inside, spilling out occasionally in bitter words or emotionless silence” (Young, 39).
Unlike Mack, she didn’t get an invitation from Papa to help her overcome and tell her story but Mack was given a valuable token of vital information as Sarayu, the colorful and windy personification of the Holy Spirit, expressed to him how Kate blames herself for the kidnapping and death of her sister. Her distorted self-perception caused her to feel an unbearable guilt as she blamed herself and not the perpetrator for the horrendous acts committed to Missy. “What Sarayu told him was so obvious. It made perfect sense that Kate would blame herself. She had raised the paddle that started the sequence of events that led to Missy being taken” (Young, 133). Thanks to this enlightenment Sarayu helped him achieve, he was able to console his daughter to overcome her own struggles when he awoke from a coma. As he told her she shouldn’t blame herself, Kate’s unspoken guilt came pouring out and she began her own process of healing through dialogue and witnessing.
According to Laub, “a witness is a witness to the truth of what happens during an event. The truth of the event could have been recorded in perception and in memory, either from within or without by any of a number of ‘outsiders’.” Willie is an outside witness and friend of Mack who records the story. Laub believes that “ultimately, God himself could be the witness.” In The Shack God is personified and literally becomes a witness and receiver of testimony as Papa exchanges dialogue with Mack and tries to help him overcome the tragedy. “‘Well, Mackenzie Allen Phillips,’ she laughed, causing him to look up quickly, ‘I am here to help you.’ If a rainbow makes a sound, or a flower as it grows, that was the sound of her laughter. It was a shower of light, an invitation to talk, and Mack chuckles along with her, not even knowing or caring why” (Young, 87). Through talking and engaging in dialogue with Mack, the Holy Trinity was able to convince Mack to let go of his bottled emotions, express his story and eventually forgive the killer for what he did in order to heal.
After Mackenzie’s younger daughter died and he kept his feelings under lock and key in the depths of his heart and soul, he was helplessly entangled in “the great sadness.” However, with the assistance of Papa’s invitation, he was able to relive the events, be relieved of his pain and patch up his relationship with God through talking and testimony, which Laub calls a “dialogical process of exploration and reconciliation of two worlds- the one that was brutally destroyed and one that is- that are different and will always remain so.” Mack felt as if an immense weight had been lifted from his shoulders once repressed memories began to come back to him and he let out his words, tears, anger and rage during his journey to and experience in the shack in which Missy’s blood-stained red dress was found on that dreadful camping trip three years earlier.
Although the events happened in his dreams while he was in a coma for four days after crashing his car on his way to the shack, there was a noticeable difference in Mack when he awoke. Not only did his visions help him to find Missy’s undiscovered body in order to bury it and help the entire family carry on and heal but Mack woke up with a profound transformation. The great sadness was gone and he was ready to begin a life filled with happiness and simplicity.
Laub considers testimony as being an essential part in the process of facing loss. Although it doesn’t undo what was done or bring back the dead, it does offer a sense of relief that allows possible repossession of yourself and life after being faced with a traumatic experience. Overcoming silence and participating in testimony is “the realization that the lost ones are not coming back; the realization that what life is all about is precisely living with an unfulfilled hope; only this time with the sense that you are not alone any longer” (Laub, 74). The Shack really shows how it is necessary to eventually be open and expressive about your feelings, and not to repress memories in order to alleviate depression and the strong, passionate emotions that are accompanied after trauma has occurred and continue to attempt living a fulfilled life.