Almost three decades ago, when my older daughter was in preschool I got a call one day: she had slipped on a slide at the playground and cut her chin. How badly? “I think you’re going to want to take her to the doctor.”
Okay. Bad enough to flap her generally unflappable teacher. I made my apologies to my boss and got myself uptown, and inspected the chin–when you can see identifiable layers of adipose tissue, yes, it’s time to call the pediatrician. So I called the doctor, asked our after-school babysitter to meet us there, and gathered up my bloodied but unphazed girl. With the immediate scare of blood and tumult over (Julie had been holding an ice pack and gauze at her chin for some time) she regarded the whole exercise with curiosity–until the doctor told us he had to stitch up her chin. This would involve several small injections of lidocaine to dull the pain, then the process itself. At which point Julie went from vaguely curious to Totally Against The Whole Idea.
We got through it, but it wasn’t fun–not for Julie, not for our sitter Lisa, who had to leave the room out of an abundance of empathy, not for me, and I suspect not for our patient pediatrician. Julie lay on the table with me holding her hand. I explained why she had to get stitches. And she yelled, with the precise articulation of an outraged three year old: “I do not want the doctor to fix my chin. I want to go to my home.” I had to overrule her objections–fat tissue bulging out of the wound upon inspection! Nope–but we got through it and afterward I took Julie to get a lavish treat (and one for Lisa and me, too) and we all went home.
For the next week or two, however, I heard about it. In a way I hadn’t expected.
That evening, of course, she had to tell Daddy all about it, and her sense of grievance was understandably enormous. She was praised for her bravery, and cuddled more even than usual (and Julie was a serious cuddler) and I read her her three books, sang her her three songs, and off to sleep she went.
But for the next week, every night instead of one of the books in our rotating roster, she wanted to hear the story of “How Julie Hurt Her Chin.” Which wasn’t about how she came to fall and slash herself on a piece of playground equipment, but about her experience at the doctor’s. And she wanted all the blood and gore and outrage: when I tried to tell her an expurgated version she corrected me with asperity–after all, she had been there. She knew. By the third or fourth night, I knew not to try to cut anything out or make it less awful. And the refrain at the end of the story was always “And Julie was very brave.”
Here I am, first child, making it all up as I go along, as one does. And I wondered if I should be telling this story over and over. Except that as the week went on, and we moved into the following week, the ritual became less emotional, more rote. I couldn’t leave out any of the details–no one is more pedantic than a small child who knows better than you what the story should contain–but the telling and the hearing was less charged. About two weeks after the incident, when I asked what we were going to read tonight, she opted for three books–“How Julie Hurt Her Chin” was out of the rotation.
I thought a lot about this. What I realized was that my daughter needed to hear the story in order to master it–to lessen its hold on her. Now, telling this story didn’t wholly remove the trauma or turn the incident into something wreathed round with rainbows and sparkly ponies. For years Julie had significant issues about shots and needles generally, which I suspect grew directly out of the incident. But the story did allow her to return to normal, to go back to the playground and the slide, and to incorporate the event into the larger narrative of her life without it becoming a central part of it.
I used this in The Stone War, late in the book, when the protagonist hears small children talking about how one girl came to be a part of the settlement of survivors in the wake of a devastating disaster in New York. He wonders, “why do they do that to themselves?” And Barbara, the woman he’s talking to, tells him, “They don’t do it because it hurts, John. They do it because it heals. Kids tell themselves stories about things that scare them until the things lose their power, until it becomes safe.”