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THE RESPONSIBILITY OF REMEMBERING:
TRAUMATIC MEMORY AND WAR IN THE HUNGER GAMES

Contemporary young adult fiction often has a stigma attached to it - one that associates YA novels with shallow portrayals of teenagers grasping for their identity amongst cruel high school cliques and dating dilemmas. As such, Suzanne Collins’s dystopian series The Hunger Games may be criticized for merely being a more violent version of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series: both sets of novels depict a female protagonist caught in a love triangle between two handsome young men. However, while the love triangle trope in the Twilight series functions simply for entertainment, the corresponding trope in The Hunger Games supersedes this criticism by operating as an educational tool, as Collins crafts her own brand of young adult fiction: “I don’t write about adolescence. I write about war. For adolescents.”

Through her depiction of The Hunger Games protagonist Katniss Everdine as an alternative soldier type, Collins exposes the flaws in the masculine heroic war mythos, which denies validity to forms of soldierhood other than combat - especially that of women. By establishing her own validity as a female soldier despite this exclusivity, and surviving the battle arena, Katniss enters into the collective of traumatized and un-idealized veterans who, upon their return from war, struggle to reconcile their pre-war and post-war selves. For Katniss, this bifurcation manifests itself through the love triangle trope: she balances two love interests, who represent two incompatible spheres - the domestic, in Gale, and the warfront, in Peeta. In her struggle to cope with wartime trauma, Katniss chooses Peeta because - through their status as Hunger Games veterans - they form what Jennifer Goldenberg terms a “community of sameness,” a resiliency-building group identity among trauma survivors. Katniss and Peeta, then, are able to find a mutual healing process, both in each other and in memorializing those who have fallen.

After the fall of the Capitol in the series’ finale Mockingjay, Katniss and Peeta create a memory book filled with words, images, and details about everyone and everything from their past that “it would be a crime to forget.” Each page in the book starts with a sketch or painting of a loved one they have lost and follows with descriptions of the special moments surrounding these people: Prim and her goat; Rue covered in flowers; Peeta’s father with cookies. Then, they “seal the pages with salt water and promises to live well to make their deaths count.” This pledge to remember those who died eases the pain of their more traumatic recollections and gives their survival a purpose - one that surpasses Katniss and Peeta’s previous joint occupation of living to find day-to-day distractions. Now, it is their responsibility to reinscribe the stories of those they loved onto public memory. Peeta and Katniss cannot forget the traumas of their past, and their memory book - along with the memorials built in place of destroyed Hunger Games arenas - ensures that their children will not forget either. According to Judith Herman, in Trauma and Recovery, trauma survivors “discover they can transform the meaning of their personal tragedy by making it the basis for social action...[they can] transcend it, by making it a gift to others.” Katniss and Peeta’s mission as survivors - and, indeed, the mission of the text - is to push this remembrance beyond the survivor’s personal memory and into the collective, as they attempt to guarantee that future generations will remember the human cost of war; in doing so, the Hunger Games survivors counter the machinations of war espoused by the Capitol.

In the eyes of the Capitol, the series’ hegemonic power center, the Hunger Games functions like a televised sporting match. Tributes, chosen by lottery from the oppressed Districts, battle one another to the death in simulated battlefields controlled by Gamemakers, whose sole purpose is to enhance the entertainment value of the killings. And, for the Capitol, true television is violence it can see up close: “They like to see the tributes draw blood personally.” Thus, the in-text viewers of the Hunger Games are given a fictionally-heroic version of violence in which hand-to-hand combat, brutal and animalistic physicality, and the dehumanization of its participants create a craving for shock value: the “audience expects a show” and is given one every time “a new shipment of tributes…roll[s] in and die[s] for their entertainment.” Katniss and her competitors are, ironically, both objects and potential war heroes, in that their role is either to become a corpse or to make corpses: war heroism demands blood.

The gratuitous violence required by the Capitol’s entertainment culture exposes what I term the heroic war mythos, operating behind all mass representations of war and violence. The heroic war mythos functions in a three-step process: by predefining heroism in war, obscuring or absenting all war experiences that do not meet this definition, and then perpetuating itself by claiming its limited experience of war as universal. In the Hunger Games, war heroism is defined as triumphing, with masculine bravado, under direct physical duress - most often, combat. By invalidating all other possible definitions of heroism and soldierhood, this definition ignores both the plight of war victims and the human aspects of performing soldierhood: the mental, emotional, instinctual, and the domestic responsibilities that entail surviving and ultimately succeeding in traumatic wartime situations. Collins’s series shows the effectiveness of these alternative soldierly realities, and in doing so it counters the exclusivity of the heroic war mythos. For the Hunger Games soldiers, contrary to the wishes of their audience, corpse-making is not the only potentially successful route: while the Hunger Games cameras initially focus solely on the more bloody aspects of the soldiers’ survival, a new array of female soldier-types quickly emerge in the form of Katniss and her fellow tributes, Rue and Foxface.

When Rue, the female tribute from District 11, bemoans her shortage in strength to defeat larger soldiers, Katniss reminds her, “We’re strong too…just in a different way.” While tributes in the Games almost exclusively prepare for weapon-based combat, they frequently underestimate the challenge in daily, domestic essentials such as feeding oneself and staying alive - areas in which tiny Rue excels. Tributes who do not have these skills, such as those from privileged districts, must rely on other, limited - and often dangerous - methods of finding food within the arena. Even if Rue cannot find food, she already “know[s] how to be hungry,” and therefore knows how to avoid unnecessary risks. This is, after all, the Hunger Games, and sometimes starvation is the most challenging enemy to overcome.

Foxface, the female tribute from District 5, thinks more quickly and intuitively than any of the other soldiers and - like Rue - uses her non-combat skills to procure sustenance and survive. She feeds herself by stealing just enough from the other tributes to keep them unaware of the missing food; her scavenging skills allow her to avoid the unnecessary conflict that dooms many of the less instinctual tributes. When the contestants find themselves summoned to the Cornucopia for a “feast” - an opportunity to obtain the one object of survival each individual needs most - Foxface adroitly crafts and enacts her plan while the rest of the combatants “are still poised around the plain, sizing up the situation.” Foxface can intuit the most beneficial choice to make in any given situation, and often, in doing so, can eliminate combat from her war experience altogether. Although she ultimately cannot escape her violent circumstance, she does provide a possible alternative soldier model based on intuition and instinctive avoidance of combat. Katniss hypothesizes that if the Capitol would have given the tributes some sort of test, Foxface would have been “the smartest of all the tributes.”

Foxface and Rue serve as models to help Katniss expand her version of soldierhood.  Katniss proves herself capable of acting instinctively, like Foxface, and just as resourceful as Rue; to this, she adds reason, perception, and a methodical deliberation of her tactics. Katniss understands what most combatants forget - that the Hunger Games is a source of entertainment for the Capitol, and pleasing the viewers dramatically increases the chances of winning. Thus, Katniss finds motivation for every move she makes not just in her immediate survival, but also in the awareness that an audience watches her. When combatants unintentionally stumble past the tree she hides in, Katniss knows that she’s “guaranteed a close-up.” And depending upon what emotions her face reveals, she could either gain or lose sponsors. Katniss decides the best strategy is to stay put until she knows exactly how to play this moment: “As I slide out of the foliage and into the dawn light, I pause a second, giving the cameras time to lock on me. Then I cock my head slightly to the side and give a knowing smile. There! Let them figure out what that means!” Katniss continues to play to the cameras throughout the rest of her time in the Games, calculating her facial expressions, her words, and her very tone of voice - aspects most tributes fail to consider.

Katniss finds methods of gaining insider knowledge of her arena surroundings, allowing her access to strategic options unavailable to soldiers purely focused on combat. Her strategy of patiently premeditating over her actions and their consequences, for instance, enables her to set up an indirect communication system with her advisor Haymitch, the distributor of sponsors’ gifts. She calculates - based on the arrival times of gifts - how he wants her to present herself to the audience. When she kisses Peeta and steps outside the shelter to find a pot of hot broth, Katniss deduces the reason for the gift’s arrival: “Haymitch couldn’t be sending me a clearer message. One kiss equals one pot of broth.” Katniss’s alternative soldierly reality, then, arises from her awareness of the Hunger Games as a whole: she recognizes the simulacrum, gathers the data that it provides her, and from that data learns how to manipulate the simulacrum. She sees that she is performing for an audience, so she becomes an actor, knowing that giving her audience what it wants will increase the gifts that she receives - a good way to stay alive if a soldier does not want to pursue and kill other combatants.

But Katniss does kill when she needs to, which separates her the most from other alternative female soldiers like Rue and Foxface. Although Katniss’s model of a soldier relies predominantly on her ability to reason, she cannot entirely neglect physical combat and win the Hunger Games. This is still war - the Capitol needs bloodshed - and eventually, the soldier must choose to fight or die; Katniss chooses to fight and complements her non-combat tools with capability in battle. She leaves the Hunger Games as a victor because she has two choice weapons: her mind and her bow. Both weapons save her and Peeta on the last day of the Games: she slays Cato to eliminate their last competitor, and then she forces the hand of the Gamemakers by threatening to commit suicide with Peeta unless both are allowed to survive. By expanding her soldierly capability beyond that prescribed by the heroic war mythos, and using pragmatic means to survive and win the Hunger Games, Katniss enters into a soldierhood that, by definition, excludes her. This transgressive process gives her access to war heroism - a heroism, she quickly discovers, that is fraught with the traumas of war.

Through the horrors Katniss experiences in the arena, she learns, like most war veterans, the impossibility of returning home as the same person. Before entering the Games, she notes only a modest difference between hunting animals and humans: “The awful thing is that if I can forget they’re people, it will be no different at all.” But she finds that she cannot forget they are people - at least not afterwards. When Katniss reflects on her first kill, she understands the true difference: “Amazingly similar in the execution. A bow pulled, an arrow shot. Entirely different in the aftermath.” Katniss’s killings in the arena are moments she “will never be able to erase from [her] memory.”

Katniss returns from the Hunger Games a traumatized war veteran suffering from symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. While she tries daily to reintegrate herself into District 12, she finds she can never escape her memories; the flashbacks are always there to remind her: "Bam! It’s like someone actually hits me in the chest. No one has, of course, but the pain is so real I take a step back. I squeeze my eyes shut and I don’t see Prim - I see Rue, the twelve-year-old girl from District 11 who was my ally in the arena…Rue, who I didn’t save. Who I let die."

For Katniss, even the most natural occurrences in her day-to-day life - like seeing her sister Prim - prompt her to recall some aspect of the Hunger Games and force her to relive each traumatic experience. The flashbacks and nightmares - symptoms of a trauma-related guilt - repeat themselves compulsively: “My worthless attempt to save Rue. Peeta bleeding to death. Glimmer’s bloated body disintegrating in my hands...These are the most frequent visitors.” Katniss revisits each of the deaths she caused, directly or indirectly, in vivid physical detail - the reality of these nightmares distances her from her surroundings, and makes reorganizing her memories into a coherent narrative seem impossible.

In order to help her reestablish this lost foundation, Katniss’s doctors begin to teach her coping mechanisms to sort through her memories and relocate herself in time and space: “I start with the simplest things I know to be true and work toward the more complicated. My name is Katniss Everdine. I am seventeen years old. My home is District 12. I was in the Hunger Games. I escaped. The Capitol hates me.” Yet even with her initial steps towards recovery - the beginnings of her survivor story, in which she attempts to reinscribe reality onto her fractured memory - she often ends up crouched down somewhere on the floor, head braced between her hands, trying to block out what comes next. The survivor-guilt - experienced when a person survives a traumatic event while others have not - never leaves her, especially when she walks through District 12, her old home, and sees all of the dead bodies: “I killed you, I think as I pass a pile. And you. And you. Because I did.” Herman observes that, among survivors, “To be spared oneself, in the knowledge that others have met a worse fate, creates a severe burden of conscience.” For Katniss, this “burden” manifests itself through the language she uses to communicate her experiences, both to herself and to those who might help her.

The anxiety consumes her, evident in the style of her thought process: “Making knots. Making knots. No word. Making knots. Tick-tock. This is a clock. Do not think of Gale. Do not think of Peeta. Making knots.” Laurie Vickroy, in Trauma and Survival in Contemporary Fiction, discusses how writers of trauma-based fiction “position their readers in the...disordered positions of the narrators and characters” so that they “may compare this with their own, perhaps less problematic memory processes.” Katniss’s thought process does just this: as a fractured version of her traumatic memory, and as a childlike repetition of short, incomplete statements, Katniss communicates her “disordered position” to the reader through both form and content. To compensate for the loss of her pre-war self, this reordering of reality is Katniss’s first step in the healing process: according to Herman, “Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites for...the healing of individual victims.” Katniss must be able to “tell the truth,” which to her fractured identity begins by “making knots” and tying strings of narrative back together. With the nonexistence of her home and the absence of her family, Katniss has nothing familiar to bring her back to reality - not even her most intimate pre-war companion - and as such must find a way to reestablish her survivor story.

When Katniss wins her first Hunger Games, she returns to find Gale - the pre-war part of her love triangle - fulfilling a stereotypically feminine role: in the domestic sphere, waiting for Katniss to come home from the warfront. And similar to post-war relationships between the soldier and those left behind in the domestic sphere, a dissonance develops between who they were before the war and who they are after. The soldier, redefined by war experiences, clashes with the spouse’s sense of self, unchanged because of the mutual exclusivity of the domestic and war spheres. Likewise, by remaining in the domestic, Gale has no access to Katniss’s wartime recollections as a Hunger Games combatant. Gale no longer knows the post-war Katniss, the traumatized war veteran: “The only time I really get to see Gale now is on Sundays...it’s still the best day of the week, but it’s not like it used to be before, when we could tell each other anything.” As Katniss’s war traumas replace her pre-war experiences in her memory, her connection to Gale becomes strained. While this does not discount Gale for Katniss completely, it does alienate him from the part of her mind that, for her, is most real: her traumatic memories.

Gale and Katniss fail to reconnect because they do not share a “community of sameness,” a group identity that survivors of traumatic events share in order to heal. In her research for the Transcending Trauma Project, Goldenberg explains that there is a “tacit understanding - even on a non-verbal level - between survivors that simply cannot be found among other groups.” Because Gale did not participate in the Hunger Games except as a distanced spectator, he lacks membership within the group of survivors. All of her flashbacks, the nightmares, the guilt - Gale cannot know how this feels like Hunger Games veterans do, and Katniss, as a survivor of trauma, cannot fully communicate her experiences and their impact on her identity to him. Her survivor story cannot be told until she can integrate her traumatic experiences into her redefined identity; until she does so, Gale cannot fully be a part of her intimate life.

Katniss finds - again, as so many veterans and trauma survivors do - a road to healing through the construction of a “community of sameness” with her fellow survivors. She knows that when she cannot sleep in the middle of the night, she can slip into Finnick’s room and find him awake, suffering from similar nightmares. Then, Finnick will teach her more methods of distraction, like how to tie knots. She also knows that, when matters become absolutely unbearable, when she has “lost [her] grip on everything,” she can turn to Haymitch for a drink of his special white liquor. Even Johanna, who distances herself emotionally from her fellow survivors, provides Katniss with physical motivation during exercise and training.

Katniss builds her most constant “community of sameness” in the forced solitude of the Victor’s Village, where Hunger Games winners are kept separate from the general population.  Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch - the sole District 12 survivors - live in their own community, where their internal solitude manifests itself as an external reality; there, the mental and emotional distance that they feel from civilians becomes a spatial distance from their pre-war community. By segregating veterans from civilians, the Victor’s Village makes reintegration into society nearly impossible, and creates a further bifurcation between a soldier’s pre-war and post-war self. Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch’s “community of sameness” forms naturally from their internal and external solitude; together, in their newly-developed veteran sphere, they recreate a new sort of communal economy: “I hunt. [Peeta] bakes. Haymitch drinks. We have our own ways to stay busy, to keep thoughts of our time as contestants in the Hunger Games at bay.” This economy of solitude, while severing the survivors’ links to their former reality, allows them to begin the rebuilding process by reconstructing their psychological sense of community. Herman describes the process by which such group dynamics assist in the healing of traumatized victims: "The solidarity of a group provides the strongest protection against terror and despair, and the strongest antidote to traumatic experience. Trauma isolates; the group re-creates a sense of belonging. Trauma shames and stigmatizes; the group bears witness and affirms. Trauma degrades the victim; the group exalts her. Trauma dehumanizes the victim; the group restores her humanity."

The traumatic experience acts both as the divisive event that drives the individual from society at large, and the source of the “community of sameness’s” unity. Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch, because of their shared traumatic memories, can rewrite their survivor stories - and can reinscribe them onto the public sphere - because of the support of the group.
                   
Katniss and Peeta form their own, intimate “community of sameness” because, unlike Gale, Peeta knows the experience of waking up every night with horrific visions of people he killed and watched die. He understands the fear of reliving their deaths every night in his sleep, and the desperation of trying to make the nightmares stop. And, when all other coping mechanisms fail, Katniss and Peeta battle the nightmares together: “Every night I let him into my bed. We manage the darkness as we did in the arena, wrapped in each other’s arms, guarding against dangers that can descend at any moment.” They share the same traumas, and for that reason, they can rebuild social bonds on a partnership level, beyond that of the larger “community of sameness.” Goldenberg notes that most Holocaust survivors married other survivors because of their implicit understanding that another, non-traumatized spouse could not provide. Katniss likewise cannot reclaim intimacy with Gale: their lack of mutual experiences creates a dissonance too deep to overcome. The resolution of the love triangle, then, with Katniss choosing her resilient, post-war intimacy over her naïve, pre-war intimacy, emphasizes the route towards a recovery from trauma for what is, ostensibly, a naïve, pre-war audience. Katniss and Peeta’s relationship, as the amelioration of the traumas in the series, presents a potential model for trauma healing on a larger, extratextual level: the recovery and recording of traumatic memory.

Katniss and Peeta’s creation of their multimedia memory book at the end of the series is both an act of healing and an act of revolution: by reestablishing the absented memories of their fallen friends, they simultaneously heal their own fractured selves and disrupt the forced memories of the hegemonic Capitol. In pledging to remember the family members and friends they lost, Katniss and Peeta revise national memory, which represses and absents certain supposedly non-heroic experiences. The Capitol, in its post-war celebrations, parades, and victory tours, ensures that the public remembers its heroes: survivors who embody, and thus perpetuate, the heroic war mythos. By honoring only the Hunger Games winners, the Capitol excludes the memory of victims who died in battle and, in doing so, modifies the nation’s collective memory of its past into a false reality.

Katniss and Peeta’s memory book then - and the Hunger Games series as a whole - does more than just memorialize the dead: it returns a repressed sense of reality to the readers and asks them to participate in a revision of their nation’s myths and history. Laurie Vickroy says that “trauma narratives...enact the directing outward of an inward, silent process to other witnesses...engaging them in a meditation on individual distress, collective responsibilities, and communal healing in relation to trauma.” Hunger Games readers, then, are invited to become secondary witnesses to the traumas they read; by sharing in these traumas, they are given the responsibility of remembering the realities of war behind the false, heroic myths put forth by hegemonic power centers. “War and victims,” claims Holocaust survivor Leo Eitinger, “are something the community wants to forget; a veil of oblivion is drawn over everything painful and unpleasant.” In reshaping cultural memory, the series attempts to cure a national amnesia that forgets about the unheroics of war. Instead, the series asks readers to bear witness to the horrors of war, in hopes to break its repetitive cycle.

Although The Hunger Games series is entirely fictive, it does simulate the effect of nonfictional traumatic literature or witness testimony - for an adolescent audience less equipped, perhaps, to manage such directness - by drawing parallels between the operations of fiction and trauma itself. Cathy Caruth, in Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, contends that traumatic concepts and experiences are communicated through necessarily fictive or fictionalized language, in that both literature and trauma communicate a larger understanding that cannot be completely quantified. The question of how trauma is communicated, according to Caruth, “Can never be asked in a straightforward way, but must....be spoken in a language that is always somehow literary: a language that defies, even as it claims, our understanding.” Both literature and trauma can be analyzed to a point, but neither, by definition, can be made objectively understood. Mass culture avoids these recalcitrant topics because they contradict its primary value: expediency. The Hunger Games series addresses the problem of national amnesia - of the mass glossing-over of disturbing realities by a culture unwilling to trouble itself with the repercussions - by exposing, to the uninitiated adolescent, the process by which we numb ourselves to trauma.

Like viewers in the Capitol, numbed to the killing of children, our own national culture suffers from a similar desensitization to the horrors of war. The saturation of American culture with heroic images of war, from Uncle Sam posters to G.I. Joe to Call of Duty, reinforces the heroic war mythos through each iteration of violence. Participants in this mythos, whether for or against “the war” or “the soldiers,” largely forget the fundamental premise: they are sending away humans to die and kill other humans. By celebrating and politicizing the heroic war mythos, our nation discounts the humanity in the individual soldier and unnecessarily perpetuates violence as a means to a manufactured sense of glory. Our culture’s avoidance of horrific memories is, on one level, comprehendible: Herman argues that “survivors understand full well that the natural human response to horrible events is to put them out of mind.” However, she continues, “Survivors also understand that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” The “natural human response,” for Herman, is what must then be overcome in order for traumatic experiences to be dealt with socially; furthermore, it must be overcome by reinscriptions of “public truth-telling.”

The Hunger Games
series counters this cultural repression by bringing warfare to young adult readers - readers unaware of the socially-constructed “veil of oblivion” - and making it public and personal. In doing so, Collins forces adolescent readers - perhaps for the first time - to examine their participation in the violence they witness, offering them a glimpse at the reality behind these myths: that war traumatizes and deheroicizes. This “knowledge of trauma,” according to Vickroy, “offers the opportunity…to examine our need for cultural and individual myths that block understanding” and places a moral responsibility on those who have this experiential knowledge. The Hunger Games diagnoses our culture with a national amnesia that represses and forgets the things it most needs to remember. And, in creating an awareness of this amnesia, the series acts as a healing process: it helps ameliorate our numbness to violence so that we can avoid the cyclical, self-destructive nature of the heroic war mythos. It places on us, as secondary witnesses, the responsibility of remembering and restoring the traumatic realities within the myth.


February 2013

From guest contributor Erin Holzer

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