According to American Psychological Association, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs in some people after a horrific event, accident, war or sexual abuse. People with PTSD can re-experience the traumatic event, and the memories will arise involuntarily, “the individual has recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive recollections of the event” (APA 275). Through sudden recalling of the event which caused PTSD, the person who experienced the event returns to the day of the traumatic event and relives it. Mala Ramchandin in Shani Mootoo’s 1996 novel Cereus Blooms at Night, experiences traumatic and destructive events which disrupt his life. I will attempt to examine the relationship between PTSD, physical and emotional abuse in this paper.
Set in a fictional place called Lantanacamara, Cereus Blooms at Night exposes the lives of the citizens living in the town of Paradise. The main focus of the story is how Mala is abused by her own father and treated as everything that is happening in the Ramchandin house is perfectly normal by the community. She goes through a lot from an early age; her mother and sister abandon her, the man she loves runs away when he realises what was going on in the house, her father sexually abuses her. After her visit by Otto who is dressed like Ambrose, Mala’s love, the police takes the old woman, Mala, to an Alms House and this is where she meets Tyler and is taken care of by him. Despite Mala’s silence, after listening to Mala’s fragmented sentences and gossip, Tyler narrates her story.
Tracing back to the abusive father Chandin’s life as a child, the novel provides a detailed description of the colonisation of the island, how the citizens of this imaginary island were treated by the colonisers and the backstory of Mala’s own story.The old Ramchandin, who is an indentured field labourer, is concerned and hopeless about the future of his only child. Thus, when the Reverend Thoroughly wants to adopt his son he thinks that it is a good chance for Chandin, that his life is saved. The immigrant workers hear about the Reverend’s visit quickly and talk about how lucky Chandin and his family is. However, it becomes clear that the Reverend had an agenda when adopting Chandin and it was to convert Indians who live on the island to Christianity. Colonisation’s power becomes evident when Chandin “was unwittingly helping to convert Indians to Christianity” (Mootoo 29) even before he enters the Reverend’s house. Edward Said argues that the idea of “The East” is created by “The West” to justify the occidental’s desire to colonise and dominate. Europeans justification for postcolonial violence is that the eastern people such as Indians, need to be “educated” and “civilized”, whereas the actual reason is the desire to take advantage and oppress. An example of this can be seen in the Reverend and his family’s treatment of the Ramchandin family, especially Chandin.
The effects of moving out of his own house to the Thoroughly house changes Chandin’s personality; he stops visiting his parents, starts to look down on them, and tries hard to be like the Reverend: “He would change, he decided once and for all. . .he diligently studied and imitated the Reverend’s pensive stroking of his chin or his tapping of his fingers against a book. . .he made strides as wide as the towering Reverend’s, and he clapped his hands, similarly” (Mootoo 34). He is the colonised and being the “Other”, the outsider whose presence in the Thoroughly house is for the purpose of converting Indians to Christianity. His name is kept because the Reverend thought that “Chandin’s own name would win is people’s trust” (Mootoo 30). He is the colonised, the “Other” whose presence in the Thoroughly house is for the purpose of converting Indians to Christianity. His name is kept because the Reverend thought that “Chandin’s own name would win is people’s trust” (Mootoo 30). Deracinated from his culture, Chandin craves to be taken as an English man like the Reverend, and he completely detaches himself from his own family. As time passes, he realises that he will never be entirely English and white, he develops feelings of self-hatred especially after Lavinia “failed to notice him” (Mootoo 33). His self-loathing starts to grow and he hates everything about himself: “He began to hate his looks, the colour of his skin, his accent, the barracks, his real parents and at times even the Reverend and his god” (Mootoo 33). The symptoms of postcolonial trauma start to show itself in Chandin’s behaviours when he is in the Thoroughly household. Once he realises that there is no way for him to be with Lavinia, Chandin begins to hate himself: his appearance, his posture, his accent, etc. He cuts off all his ties with his biological mother and father, and he is unable to relate to his own race. Understanding that the Reverand’s strict saying that he is “to be a brother to Lavinia and nothing more” (Mooto 37), day after day Chandin becomes aware of the fact that he will never be part of the Thoroughly family entirely. Having learnt that the Reverand does not approve his love for Lavinia and hearing that he is “to be a brother to Lavinia and nothing more” (Mooto 37), Chandin’s self-loathing peaks. He marries Sarah who is “the small, dark girl from the barracks” (Mootoo 32) and his knowledge of being discriminated because of his race and Lavinia’s direct rejection reveals the spiteful, self-loathing man he always was deep down. Years later, his wife Sarah and his obsession Lavinia run away together and so begins the nightmare of Pohpoh and Asha: Chandin sexually and emotionally abuses them. Having witnessed her younger sister’s rape as well, Mala experiences the trauma of witnessing Asha’s suffering and psychological damage inflicted by their own father.Thinking that Asha would have left with her mother and Aunt Lavinia and be safe from Chandin’s cruelty if it was not for her, Pohpoh develops feelings of guilt, so she takes the role of the mother and goes to Chandin’s room to suffer for her little sister when he calls for Asha too. It is fair to say that the reason for Tyler’s interest in Chandin’s backstory is because of his yearning to understand how a human can possibly reach such a low point. In this novel, the reader can see that Chandin, who is the perpetrator of Mala and Asha, is also a victim of Eurocentric society.
Mootoo gives the rape scenes without holding back; these graphic descriptions of the abuse help the reader better understand the trauma Mala went through almost all her life. Mala’s actions or lack thereof, make the symptoms of PTSD become apparent in the first pages of Cereus Blooms at Night: Her refusal to talk and eat, her groaning in the middle of the night, and her inability to even lift a finger. After Tyler’s initial attempt to approach Mala fails because flinches “as though Tyler might hurt her” (Mootoo 13). The impacts of incest and rape do not always show themselves in the form of PTSD, sometimes it can not be easy to detect the symptoms of sexual abuse especially if the abused one is a child. Being hurt by someone they trust, the children describe the abuse with expressions of fear or disgust. In the case of Mala, being continuously raped by her own father, she tries to find a way to cope with all this. Asha who is also abused by Chandin runs away from the incestuous house, whereas Mala does not leave with her sister but stays behind which leads to even more depression. Starting from the abandonment of her mother and Aunt Lavinia, Mala goes through many different traumas in her life. Her father’s sexual and emotional abuse all her life, her sister’s seeming abandonment and Ambrose’s escape from her house after he understands “everything” (Mootoo 226), leave Mala unable to express any of her emotions anymore.
DSM-V holds the view that the person who has either been exposed to direct trauma such as sexual violence or witnessed someone close to them experience a traumatic event may have “recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive distressing memories of the traumatic event(s)”. (DSM-5 271)