Conversations With A Friend: The Challenges of Living Outside of ROOM

A while back Vogue ran an interview between Demi Moore and a friend of hers. In essence, the two just talked to each other about life, aging and a project they’re working on together. It was a good interview, but I think what I liked most was the concept of being let into a conversation between two friends. So, when my friend and fellow blogger, Jade, suggested that we do something similar I took her up on the idea.

Here's Jade and I in Oxford (yeah, that's me plus 50lbs).

Jade is a master’s student in English Literature and Feminist Theory at Wright State. We met as students in a summer program at Oxford just before my senior year of undergrad. We actually met in the airport waiting for the bus. I recognized her from facebook. (Unsurprisingly, someone from the program started a group so we could get acquainted beforehand). From her facebook, I had already decided we would be friends. I was right. She ended up being the person I was closest to while I was there. Since she now lives in the same city as my younger sister, Dayton, we’ve been able to meet up about once a year.

When we met up last year in December, we exchanged the names of books we thought the other should read. One of the books she recommended to me was Room by Emma Donoghue. I picked it up just before Christmas and tore through it quickly. After I finished, she suggested that we chat about it and share our conversation with our readers because, whether or not you’ve read the book, it has so much of value in it to be discussed. Yesterday, we were finally able to coordinate our schedules and chat. If you’re one of those people who hates hearing about books before you read them, than go no further until you’ve read it yourself. But, if you aren’t such a stickler, I hope you’ll read on and maybe add to the discussion yourself.

Before jumping into our conversation, I’ll share with you the blurb from the back of Room so that you’ll have enough context:

“To five-year old Jack [the narrator], Room is the world. It’s where he was born, it’s where he and his Ma eat and sleep and pray and learn. At night, Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where Jack is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.

 Room is home to Jack, but to Ma it’s the prison where she has been held for seven years. Through her fierce love for her son, she has created a life for him in this eleven-by eleven-foot space. But Jack’s curiosity is building alongside Ma’s own desperation—and she knows that Room cannot contain either much longer.”

 [The first half the book is set in Room, the second half is concerned with their life outside of Room.]

me: I’m so excited to talk about Room! Though I don’t even know where to start!

Jade: Me too! …I guess we could just start with our first impressions of the book…I mean we both read it a while ago, but maybe how did we feel during/after reading it?

me: Good idea!

Jade: I can remember when I read it last summer, feeling very uneasy about their confinement. Like how I might feel while watching a film or news story about someone being kidnapped…and of course you don’t know why they’re being confined for a while. The author does a great job of making it light-hearted though, since it’s in the little boy, Jack’s voice.

me: Yeah. I kept trying to figure it out. I knew something dysfunctional was going on. I really like how Donoghue gives you these subtle hints. Like how part of their daily routine was screaming at the skylight. Her choice to put it in Jack’s voice was SO wise in my opinion. First of all, because it sort of helps to protect the reader from experiencing the full trauma and allows it to be a mystery for a while. The best part about it though is that it shows how even the strangest things can become our normal.

Jade: Yes, I still get goosebumps thinking about that scene. It’s so interesting because we know what they’re doing and he doesn’t.

I like how you feel that she’s trying to keep us from feeling the full trauma…I think she does that throughout the book too.

me: Yeah. I think one of the most valuable parts about it is that it stops the reader from being in complete panic and, most importantly, from feeling pity for them. Feeling like they’re complete victims. Instead of regular humans

Jade: Yes, I agree, and there’s so much about motherhood/parenthood. I had to read over and over again trying to figure out what he meant by ‘get some’…did you feel that way? I didn’t understand it right away.

me: Yeah. It took me a while to realize that she was still breast feeding him. It was such an interesting choice on Donoghue’s part. I think she may have had the mother do that to show that she needed healthy intimacy. You know, every night she shares her body with this stranger who kidnapped her and rapes her. So, with her child, she loves, she chooses to share her body.

Jade: Wow, that’s a really interesting way to see it. I really just figured she continued for more practical reasons, because that was one less thing for her to have to ask for – milk. Her body produced it naturally and so she didn’t have to ask Nick to bring it to her.

And it’s interesting that she becomes so self-conscious about it once they go out into the ‘real’ world. It doesn’t fit the conventions so she doesn’t want to do it anymore.

me: Well…that makes sense though right? I mean, it’s like that blog I wrote about how people do weird things when they live alone that they’d feel uncomfortable doing outside of that environment. It’s such an intimate thing. Before it was just between the two of them but once they’re outside of Room that intimacy is invaded upon. Let’s be honest, it isn’t actually healthy to breast feed for so long. It rots your kid’s teeth and isn’t particularly great for a boy as he ages for him to remember his mother’s breasts. I think that when she’s outside of Room, when she knows they have a chance at a normal life, she wants to have that.

Jade: I think it would be extremely hard for her too not to associate Room with Jack for the rest of his life. You almost see that in the way their relationship changes. He wants to go back to Room, where he’s comfortable, where things are familiar, and she obviously can’t think of anything worse.

To connect to what we were saying about the breast feeding, I think that might be why she wants to move away from that physical intimacy. Every time she did that outside Room, she would have been reminded of the days and years there.

me: Yes and no. The truth is that even without Jack she would always carry Room with her. Just because she doesn’t want to go back and live there (because she experienced it so differently than Jack) doesn’t mean it hasn’t shaped her in good and bad ways. I think Jack is her sign that something positive has come of her captivity. He was her hope.

When it comes to breastfeeding, I don’t think her stopping was as negative as you’re taking it. I just think it’s a sign that her world has opened up and she’s changing accordingly. In Room, Jack was her world. He was the only person she could be intimate with in a healthy way, or by choice. Out in the world, she can be intimate with other people. Maybe one day have a healthy romance. So she had to make space for that.

Jade: Yes, but I really don’t know if she thinks there was anything else positive there other than Jack, do you? I mean, yes, it shaped her, but I don’t know many other positive ways than being able to focus all her energy on Jack. What positives do you think she carries away from that experience other than Jack and the knowledge that she survived?

me: She knows her strength now. She has learned how to be an incredible mother. How to love fiercely and protect what she loves. Remember how in those interviews she brought up how she has researched all these people who also lived through traumatic things? And guess what? They’re still people. And guess what? They found ways to be happy. I think that’s sort of what she was trying to get across to the reporters. “This experience hasn’t made me less human.” Part of being human is living through some shitty times. It shapes you and for a long while it may haunt you but you move past it and continue to live and create new memories and you don’t let the bad take over the good.

She makes it very clear that Jack is HERS. That she’s claimed him and won’t let his identity, even in other’s eyes, be defined by the bad of Room.

Jade: Yes, I see what you mean. But similar to what I said the other day about bullying, I’m not sure that in order for us to know these things about ourselves we HAVE to go through those shitty times. It reminds me of a lot of people in the Holocaust who were able to live, but I’m not sure they would say they were GLAD to have gone through it. Again, those were just my feelings after reading it…

I felt like when they were outside Room, she started being less patient with Jack. Almost like she didn’t understand where he’d gotten all these crazy ideas about life, when she was the very one feeding him those ‘untruths.’ It’s certainly understandable, though.

me: I definitely don’t think she was ever glad she was in Room. No, you don’t entirely need bad situations to teach you those things but the truth is that they do. Whether you NEEDED them to or not really isn’t a healthy question to ask yourself because you can’t un-have that experience. You can’t know what you’d be without them so it’s best not to dwell too much on wondering.

To me, what you see out in the world is just the difference between Jack and his mother’s experiences clashing. They always had two completely different perspectives. She just hid hers for a long time. Neither can really understand where the other is coming from. She doesn’t know what it’s like for one’s world to always have been so small and for that small world to be stolen from you and replaced by something so much bigger and confusing and complex. He doesn’t know what it would have been like to have always had a big, complex world diminished to a room.

Jade: Yes, I agree completely that they will never be able to fully understand how each other felt/feels after leaving Room. Though they were there together and experienced it so intimately together, Jack’s mother is influenced by her time before Room just as Jack’s time outside of Room is influenced by being born in Room.

The sections in the book are called ‘Presents, Unlying, Dying, After, Living’. Why do you think Donoghue chose to call the last one ‘Living?’ It almost seems to suggest that what they were doing before wasn’t ‘living,’ but I think that contrast with what we’ve said already and what the book says overall…

me: Yeah. It is an interesting choice. But I think in Room, in many ways, they were just surviving. Outside they’re living. I like how Donoghue shows that living is so much more complicated than survival in some ways.

I must admit, I was REALLY frustrated with how everyone dealt with Jack and his mother outside of Room. Though I think it’s realistic. It pissed me off that hardly anyone seemed to understand that Jack didn’t view Room badly. Or realize how traumatic experiencing the world would be. Kids don’t take change well. I feel like everyone knows that, I think we do, but how often are we tender with children about change though we know how hard it is for them? Then there is the mother. Everyone wanted her to adjust so quickly or to completely act like a victim. It really shows how hard it is for us to deal healthily and humanly with people who go through trauma. To not expect them to be exactly who they before. To not expect them to snap out of it and leap into their new life. And to treat them with dignity and respect. Like they have, yes gone through something intense, but are not broken.

Also, I don’t think anyone seemed to understand how hard it would be to come out into a world so changed. To have that regret of years stolen.

Jade: Oh, yes it was very frustrating, and like you said – realistic. And then to think they actually ask why she hadn’t aborted the child for his own sake. I mean, I could actually see something like that happening, someone actually asking that question.

I think it says a lot about our society and parenthood too, because when I read the book I couldn’t believe how much I agreed more with her parenting techniques while in Room. They were intimate, she was encouraging, and honestly, how many people teach and play with their children like that? In our society, there are so many other things we ‘need’ to be doing that we don’t get to spend that ‘quality’ time with our children. Even though she was confined, she was able to give that one-on-one attention to her child, something we see that he no longer gets outside Room. It’s definitely a commentary on our parenting styles in contemporary America, I think.

me: I totally agree. I was making lots of mental notes about all the things she did with Jack in Room that I would want to do as a mother. Not only did they have that quality one-on-one time but because they had less technology and toys they did more imaginative play which is SO healthy for kids and on such a decline. It’s tragic and problematic.

Jade: Yes, that’s why I felt like my mind had just exploded when I finished the book, because a part me, like Jack, wanted to go back to Room, just because of that healthy playtime and development. On one hand they were experiencing/surviving this trauma (although Jack wasn’t aware of it) and on the other they were ‘living’ like so many of us don’t. Donoghue did a good job with that.

Well what about Nick? Should we talk about him and his role, because there’s a lot of commentary Jack provides on trying to ‘understand’ him, and then there’s a lot when we venture outside Room with Jack and his mother.

me: To be honest, I hate to even think of Nick. To try to understand or explain him just repulses me. I’d much rather talk about her ending. I LOVED her ending. It really shows how good of a mother she still is that she allows them to go back to visit Room. Though it is the last thing she wants to do. I think it’s true and fitting that when he goes back nothing seems the same and he’s ready to say Goodbye. It’s a reminder that we can’t ever really go back. We can return to a place, but not to a time, which is what we really want when we go back. To me, it is a hopeful ending. It shows that they’ll adjust. I think his mother will get into another good pattern with him, even though it’ll never be the same. Radical change is just hard.

To some extent, I think being out in the world has shown both of them a division that always existed. Even in Room she wasn’t a perfect mother. She had those depressed days when she wouldn’t leave the bed and he had to care for himself. So as interdependent as they were, they were also independent and we just see it more outside of Room because they aren’t as physically close.

Jade: Yes, I agree that the ending is very hopeful. It didn’t tie up everything in a neat little bow, and it showed her realistically. Even though she was out in the world, where she’d wanted to be the entire time she was in Room, there were still those days when she was depressed. I also enjoyed that we got to see Jack interact with his grandmother.

There was really only one thing I wanted to talk about with Nick (and we don’t have to) but I just think it’s strange the books he provides for her and I wanted to know what Donoghue was doing: The Shack, Twilight, The Guardian, Bittersweet Love, and The Da Vinci Code. I also think it’s interesting how she shows Jack trying to understand this person who comes in at night and brings them things but who his Ma calls “not human like us.” There’s a moment in the book when Jack asks, while they’ve been praying, why they don’t thank ‘him,’ and it was this great tension moment…it was like if we were watching it in the theater I think this would be a moment when everyone would get dead quiet, waiting for Ma to react – I stopped and thought, “Ok, how is she going to deal with this? How is she going to ‘play’ it? How would I if I were in that moment?.That’s really all I wanted to say about it…

me: Yeah. After I wrote that I was actually thinking about how I like that Donoghue doesn’t give him a real name. All there is is the name that Jack has come up with. Nick for St. Nick because he comes at night and brings presents. I’d forgotten that the mom says he isn’t human like them. So it’s even more fitting that Jack names him after a character that isn’t real. Yeah, that is a tense moment. Though I don’t remember being as struck by it as you.

Jade: Well what else would you like to discuss about the book? :)

me: It’s funny you asked that because I was just thinking …’What things really stood out to me that we haven’t yet discussed?’ I think to me what is interesting to think about is how this book not only relates to motherhood/parenting and disturbing instances of kidnapping and rape but how it also just addresses some very simple things. Like the difference between how adults view the world and children. How people can experience the same thing but radically differently.

A lot of what I thought about at the end of the book is how our culture just doesn’t know how to deal with the harsher and ugly sides of life.

Jade: Yes, I agree, and similarly, how hopeful and exciting the world seems to children. They see everything as magical; even though he was in this situation, every day, every new thing he discovered, every spider web was this amazing event and something to be cherished..

I’m at that point in my life – I feel I’ve been there for a couple years now – that I look back on how I viewed things as a child and my rosy colored glasses have been pulled off. I’m writing a lot about it right now because I think it’s an interesting feeling to explore. It would even be interesting for Donoghue to give us a 10 years later perspective – how does Jack feel now? Although, I don’t know if I would want to know. It might not be so hopeful. But, yes, I think there’s so much in this book about our own life outside Room.

me: Yeah. Having chosen to speak through a child was such a powerful and wise choice on Donoghue’s part. I loved that aspect. And … for some reason I really loved his resistance to change and how annoyed he was at everyone for telling him he lived in a nightmare when it truly wasn’t one for him. For some reason I keep coming back to this. Maybe because for all of us change can still be hard. Also, because there are things like that in my own life. Like our culture makes being overweight seem like the worst thing in the world but I found life, in some ways, so much simpler when I was 240. And then there is being bullied. Honestly, it didn’t bother me. It helped me find my voice.

Jade: Yes, I can see that. We could learn a lot from Jack in that way, that we need to resist how people tell us to think about the world. I think the more we learn about how the world really is rather than the way we view it as children can be discouraging, but perhaps we need to try and view it as a magical place – keep that childish curiosity, as well as the awareness that comes with adulthood.

me: I agree with you 100% about that. In many ways, I still do maintain a sense of wonder despite all of the bad. I think it helped growing up with a Dad who always said “Bad things aren’t surprising. Good things are. Look in the newspaper. All you see is bad. If you see something good, that’s surprising.”

Jade: Great words of wisdom :) Well I’ve enjoyed discussing this book, and thank you for taking my recommendation to read it. I’ll have to finish your recommendations soon so we can talk about them!!

me: I’m so glad we’ve had the chance to finally have this conversation!

 What would you add to our discussion?

If you have a Twitter, I’d love for you to follow me @LindseyReneeGc.

One thought on “Conversations With A Friend: The Challenges of Living Outside of ROOM

  1. Fascinating discussion.

    Concerning your readings of the book, I particularly appreciate hearing the tensions of how Ma feels versus how Jack feels (in relation to how many people believe they ought to feel). But even more, this child-like perspective is one I miss increasingly as I grow older (distance surely plays some role) such that I’m ever impressed with the ‘we can go there, but we can’t go back’ (whether we should if we were able to is unanswerable). It reminds me so much of the feelings of loss I experience when reading Narnia. In coming back there is always loss, but what lessons we have learnt here are meant to be applied elsewhere – back in a wore-torn country in which children have little place. But the true England yet calls and it is near to the true Narnia; the country yet unseen. That feeling of loss may yet be met and met truly as it has yet only been met partially. And then we shall play in the true river and care little for the loss of change.

    On a larger note (of importance, not of length), ‘seeing’ your friendship was particularly appreciable. With close friends there are certain manners of like (and unlike) mindedness which come with maturity. I am proud to know (not as well as I should like) two mature thinkers in whose thoughts the ink hasn’t as yet dried fully. Moreso, I here observe two wisening young women who have much to offer.

    Cheers,
    Josiah

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