Content warning for discussions of abuse (non-specific) and cycles of abuse. While this post contains many of the elements of a review, it is also about my own experience with cycles of abuse and what this book means to me as a result. If that’s not something you’re interested in, or if it is something you’re going to struggle with, I suggest avoiding this post. Pretty much every paragraph includes some non-specific discussion of abuse and cycles of abuse, so there isn’t anything below this paragraph to read if you’re thinking of just skimming past those bits.
I’ve been thinking about cycles of abuse lately. Kind of a heavy topic, I know, but I’ve been working my entire life to be the final stop of one such cycle. It takes way more effort and constant labor than someone who didn’t grow up in one might think, and it can be incredibly isolating, so it’s difficult to not be thinking about it at least a little bit every day. I’ve recently spent a lot of time interrogating my reactions and decision-making process so I can ensure that I’m not passing the abuse and pain I experienced down the line to anyone else the way my parents and their parents did, which is frankly exhausting at the best of times and almost too much to bear at the worst of times.
Most of the time, it isn’t this much constant effort. I’m in a bit of a trasitional stage right now, as I work through some traumas of my past and try to build a more solid, positive sense of self. As a result, I’ve been rethinking old decisions in the light of my current life, making sure I’m still comfortable with them now that I’ve managed to exorcise the whispering voices of my abusers. After all, if I’m finally allowing myself to advocate for my own wants and desires instead of only what I need to survive from one day to the next, it is probably worth revisiting what I previously considered an acceptable expression of negative emotions.
A lot of this process was prompted by a book I started last summer and finally managed to finish a month ago. Normally I’m a voracious reader, tearing through books with the same reckless abandonment of my bedtime and sleep schedule that shows up every time I get sucked into a fun video game, but Chuck Wendig’s The Book of Accidents hit so close to home that I needed time to prepare myself mentally. I remember the moment of clarity I had, about halfway through the book, that I was not going to be able to handle the stress of something that resonated so deeply with my past and traumas on top of everything else I had going on at the time. I’m glad I set it down when I did, because I turned out to be absolutely correct when I finally decided I had the strength to pick it back up again.
At its core, The Book of Accidents is about a family confronting their past as they work towards a better future. It is about cycles of abuse, the work it takes to end them, and the ways they can play out in our lives and the lives of those around us. It is a book about love, about pain, about the power of choosing to do better. It’s also an incredibly eerie horror story as well, with some wonderful dark fantasy flavor to an otherwise mundane-seeming world. Creepy in how near it is to our world, to how relatable even the darkly fantastical elements feel. It is a master piece that the author declares took him multiple tries and many years to finally write in a way that felt satisfying and right, which feels right for a story so complex and well-written.
It is also the first story I’ve ever read that features a character with a past and path like my own. Multiple characters, actually, but one in particular that takes a step past the relatbility I’ve found in other stories before this one. Nate Graves, one of the main characters and the father of the small family (two parents and a child) that is central to story, grew up abused by his father. Unlike most characters with similar pasts who break the cycle, he wasn’t redeemed by someone else. He chose to be different and worked his entire life, a process we still see happening throughout the book, to not continue the cycle of abuse he grew up in, that his father grew up in. A process I am incredibly familiar with.
Most of the time, when we see characters with pasts darkened by a horrific cycle of abuse or similar trauma, they turn into villains if they aren’t redeemed or helped by someone outside their cycle. In many stories with villains and heroes, this early redemption or assistance is all that separates them, implying that the only way to prevent this kind of cycle from continuing is for someone else to reach into it and lift a victim out of it before they become an abuser in turn. Which has always been deeply uncomfortable for me and, to be honest, incredibly insulting. After all, if the lesson I take from all these depictions of people with pasts and paths like me is that I should be a villain if I followed their logic, it can make my efforts to end the cycle on my own (with the assistance of my lifelong therapy, of course) feel futile.
This story is the singular exception that I’ve found, setting up cycles of pain and abuse not as the explanation for why the characters behave the way they do, but as a means of exploring ways that cycles can end in great detail. Wendig gives us examples of all kinds of beliefs, practices, and philosphical explorations of how cycles end through the various characters, always providing everything the reader needs to make a decision themselves before weighing in on whether that example is good or bad. I don’t want to get more specific than that because it would spoil some aspects of the story, but The Book of Accidents is perhaps the most comprehensive exploration of these cycles that I’ve ever encountered and it’s a damn good book, to boot.
For the first time in my life, I felt validated. I felt like someone else knew what it was like to struggle through these constant fear of falling back into the cycles that nearly broke me. I saw a character that felt more true to me and my lived experiences than I ever have before and it turned out that he was an exceptional hero. What a treat. An excellent, well-written story that was a delight to read AND the first time I’ve ever felt my deepest struggles represented in a story.
I see a lot of characters similar to me in various stories, given the prevalance of white, masculine-appearing characters in all media. I’ve always struggled to identify with them, though, because of how different I felt from the way all these characters were portrayed. A lot of that had to do with growing up without any real agency, thanks to my neglectful and abusive parents and abusive older brother. Even more of it had to do with the way I was forced to adopt Catholic Masculinity as an identity because of my parents’ beliefs about the kind of person they wanted me to be regardless of how I felt. But there was always this extra heavy layer of separation because I never saw a character who was treated like I was treated, who suffered and survived the way I did, who didn’t go on to become a villain or some villainous character that needed redemption as a result.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to finally see someone who looks like you in a heroic position since I’ve had the privilage of such characters my entire life, but this was the first time I ever saw a character who felt like me. It was the first time I ever saw a character express thoughts and feelings I felt about the sheer labor of ending a cycle and the overwhelming fear of somehow losing control and perpetuating it instead. It was the first time I ever felt like maybe I wasn’t alone in trying to be the last cog in one of these awful machines that grinds the viscious cycle to a halt.
It has been over a month since I set the Chuck Wendig’s The Book of Accidents back on my shelf and I’m still thinking about it. The prose is beautiful and easy to read. The world is real and alive in a way that few stories achieve. The characters are as real as any person I’ve ever met. It makes the bold claim that we can end these cycles of abuse and pain from inside, that pain can turn into love without first needing to know love or redemption. If that seems like an awful lot to fit into one book, you’re right. It is an awful lot to be in one book, but Wendig pulls it off nevertheless. If you’re skeptical or outright don’t believe me, I suggest you read it for yourself. Even if you wind up disagreeing with me, you’ll have at least read a great book.