Elizabeth Bear started me thinking about this with a post that is both fabulous and true for a given value of truth and a given value of broken. It’s about reading and writing and cultural expectations and the idea of epiphantic healing and I wanted to like it much more than I did, since it clearly touched a lot of people. But something about it didn’t work for me at a very deep level, and my subconscious has been picking at what that something is until this came out:
In the dungeon nothing is wild and free
Sometimes a myth is all that keeps you alive, a myth in the shape of a story or book. You can’t leave the dungeon. If you could, it wouldn’t be a dungeon. But stories are day passes that let you out for a time, myths that let you believe for a little while that there’s another kind of place, one where happily ever after really happens and that a moment of magic or insight can make the pain stop. When you’re in the dungeon you don’t need someone to tell you that those moments aren’t true, that pain doesn’t just go away, or that the magic moment is never going to happen. You know that.
What you need is very different from what you know. What you need is that day pass, that myth that allows you to believe that somewhere the reality of the dungeon is the myth, and the idea that it can all be made better is the truth. It’s the myth that keeps you sane, the myth that allows you to keep breathing every day, to hang on a little bit longer.
How you got into the dungeon isn’t as important as the dungeon itself, but I’m a storyteller, so I’ll tell you a little bit about one kind of dungeon.
It’s the dungeon of being a child who doesn’t have the power physically or legally to walk away from the situation that causes the pain. The pain doesn’t even have to be something that everyone would agree is awful, though often it is. All it has to be is unbearable and inescapable by normal means. When you’re in the dungeon, instant healing is not a “lie” it’s a “myth” and a reason to keep on keeping on. And with this particular dungeon sometimes you do get out, sometimes you grow up and you get the keys to the dungeon and you walk out into the light. And while the healing won’t actually be instantaneous or magical, that moment that you realize you’re out is, that epiphantic moment.
Sometimes a lie is a myth. Sometimes a lie keeps you alive long enough for myth to become truth. Again, for a given value of truth and a given value of broken. So, if people want to keep writing myths where breakage can get better in a moment, there’s an audience out there who really needs them.
Clearly Bear’s answer is right for her and for a lot of her readers. I just had to write this because some people need a different truth.
There was a lot of interesting and valuable writerly discussion that followed in the comments when I originally posted this in 2007. I’m going to include some portions of my comments here as they clarify and expand on my points, specifically in regards to a question raised by one of our commenters about character development and the idea that epiphantic healing leaves someone “untouched.”
I’m not actually talking about coming out untouched. I think that’s actually one of the chief spots where I disagree with Bear’s post, the idea that epiphantic healing means being returned to the initial state.
Now, it may be that I’ve missed all the books she’s talking about and she has missed the ones that I have read, but I have never seen characters made whole in a way that returns them to their initial state.
That would miss the entire point of character development and maturation that goes on in the vast majority of stories, and I don’t know of a single author outside of certain types of media tie-ins (where they’re not allowed to significantly change the characters) who does healing as reset.
What I usually see in epiphantic healing is a step forward into a new state of wholeness, not a step back into the old.
Another thought. Maybe it has to do with the way I see the intial state pre-breakage.
Elizabeth talks about the teapot lid that’s been glued back together being her best, scars and all. To me that implies a rigidity and completeness to the inital state that I don’t see in people. It also implies that the proper state of the thing in question is it’s original state, hence the gluing back together. She was speaking metaphorically of course and the state she’s talking about is clearly not meant to map directly onto a human being.
So what she intended and what I got may be wildly different things.
But I think of people in a much more plastic work-in-progress kind of way. Take a perfect new block of clay. Say it’s pristine and geometrically perfect. Then break it apart. Shatter it. That’s more how I see a person who has been broken. If you have the right sort of mold, you can near instantaneoulsy smash the disparate piece into a new, complete shape.
That’s how I see epiphantic healing in a novel, remembering of course that the new shape is going to have tags and loose bits and is open to being reshattered and reformed again. Of course, the piece can be put back together slowly and shaped lovingly into something perfect over time and that’s much more likely the way things will go. It may also get mixed with something else, fired, utterly broken, etc.
Anyway, I’m really not trying to say that Bear is wrong. She’s perfectly right for a given value of truth and a given value of broken. I’m just saying that there are many values for those variables and one person’s horrid lie is another’s life-saving myth, or even soul-saving truth.