Writing About Childhood Trauma, by author and guest blogger, Susan Zurenda

My Character Eli Winfield and Childhood Trauma by Author of Bells for Eli, Susan Zurenda

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Trauma is a complex word. We associate the term most often with military personnel who are exposed to war trauma and who experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Individuals with PTSD suffer such symptoms as flashbacks, nightmares, emotional withdrawal, anger, and fear. My maternal grandfather had PTSD from his service in World War I. Then, the condition was known as Shell Shock. My grandmother couldn’t manage the magnitude of the war’s effects on her husband and also raise her daughters, so my grandfather was sent to live with two sisters.  He misused alcohol, often physically shook with fear, and sometimes seemed to hallucinate when re-experiencing his traumatic events. But exposure to traumatic experiences doesn’t affect only those who are exposed to war. The consequences of repeated trauma have always been part of the human condition.

In my novel, Bells for Eli, my character Ellison (Eli) Winfield experiences another kind of trauma that begins with a devastating accident at age three when he swallows Red Devil Lye from a Coca-Cola bottle.  His father had been using the substance, because it has properties similar to helium, to blow up balloons for his son’s birthday party.  Eli’s calamity generates trauma on top of more trauma until it seems more than a young child can bear. But Eli survives. He is a fighter and by age 12, it appears he has conquered his ordeal. He looks normal on the outside. He has friends. With his tracheotomy gone, he can even swim like other kids do. As a teenager, he develops into a handsome young man adored by girls.  Only, really, he isn’t thriving. Underneath, he’s still in survival mode.

My novel is inspired by a similar traumatic incident one of my first cousins experienced at a young age. I was only a child then myself, so I don’t actually know, but I don’t think in the 1960’s when my cousin Danny’s accident happened that people believed childhood trauma could have permanent consequences.

We aren’t living in the 60’s anymore, and we’ve come a long way in understanding, but I still hear adults say things like, “He was so young when that happened. He won’t remember it when he’s an adult.”  Or, “Those experiences will make her tough when she’s older. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”  In reality, it may be that trauma exposure to a young child is especially injurious. Children and their brains and nervous systems are still developing and being traumatized can negatively affect brain development.

In response to childhood trauma, or trauma at any age for that matter, the body courses with adrenalin and cortisol to help the victim fight or run away. But a child often can’t escape his or her traumatic circumstances. Living this way for a long time can have a big impact on the body and the psyche. Even if later in life the child finds him or herself in a functional supportive environment without pain, the stress response that was so adaptive in the traumatic or abusive environment might be maladaptive for a flexible, connected, and fulfilling life.

As a result, children who suffer trauma might grow up responding quickly and decisively to the smallest signs of threat. As a defense mechanism, they might also suppress their emotions. Such children often don’t want to be quiet and still because if they are, their memories surface. With their high cortisol levels, these children often yearn for excitement that distracts them so that they don’t have to feel anything. In my book, Eli is unwilling to self-reflect, but he develops into a young person with tremendous compassion and caring for others in need because he understands suffering and persecution.

Not every child experiencing repeated trauma will develop PTSD symptoms. A 2012 (Idsoe, Dyregov, & Idsoe) study found that for students who experienced bullying, 27.6% of boys and 40.5% percent of girls had PTSD scores within the clinical range. And anywhere from 12% to 52% of people who had a long term, chronic illness as children will have PTSD or other lingering emotional side effects from what they endured.

My character Eli experiences both situations: a long-term painful medical condition and relentless bullying by his peers. And though no one in the novel seems to focus on a connection between Eli’s adolescent behavior and his childhood experiences—least of all him—he is indeed among those trauma survivors who remain permanently scarred.

Despite his limitations and pain, Eli is an amazing boy. He never quits. Other boys mock him for being a weakling, but what Eli lacks in physical strength he makes up for in spirit. On his first day of school—it’s second grade because he wasn’t yet strong enough to attend public school in first grade—a boy named Willard Timms is the first to react to Eli’s abnormal appearance. Sitting behind him while their teacher, Mrs. Hammell, distributes textbooks, Willard asks Eli about the string running from his nose and behind his ear and secured at the back of his neck. Eli ignores the question. Willard then tugs on the string, causing Eli to gasp and rise up from his seat. Mrs. Hammell harshly scolds Willard who dutifully begins to unpack his school supplies and seemingly forgets about Eli.

But bullies can be persistent. Not long after, at recess one day, Willard retaliates. Following is a short passage illustrating Eli’s torment. His cousin, Delia, is the first-person narrator here and throughout the novel.

[On the playground] I asked Eli what he wanted to do, if maybe he wanted to walk with Nealy, Gloria, and me. 

“Let’s swing,” he said. We walked over to the long line of canvas strap seats. Most of them were empty, so we had our pick. I could see Gloria and Nealy in the distance, walking the perimeter of the playground, but I couldn’t join them. I had to stay with Eli. 

Our legs pumped hard; we were in an unspoken competition to see who could reach the highest point, when three boys stepped in front of us. One of them was Willard Timms. 

“What’s sissy boy doing? Swinging with his girl cousin?” Willard said. He reached out and caught the chains on Eli’s upswing and brought him to an abrupt stop. They faced each other, Eli sitting—his breathing labored from his exertion on the swing—and Willard towering above him. The other boys, Jimmy Watson and Joe Cribb, stood nearby. 

“You’re nasty,” Willard said. “You know that?”

 “You’re the one who’s nasty,” Eli responded. I stopped my swing quickly by lowering my feet and dragging them in the dirt. Every muscle in my body grew tense. 

“Let’s see who’s nasty,” Willard said. He looked over at Jimmy and Joe. Eli stood up from the swing, facing Willard.

I wanted to run for Mrs. Hamell but there wasn’t time. 

Willard swung at Eli’s face. Immediately, a thin stream of blood appeared, trickling from Eli’s nose. But Eli did not fall and he did not so much as whimper. He stood erect, his nose bleeding down his lips, and kicked as hard as he could into Willard’s groin. My heart squeezed with pride when Willard screamed in feral pain. I imagined a phrase Eli sometimes repeated going through his head: All’s fair in love and war. 

Jimmy and Joe stepped up, ready to pounce on Eli, but by then everyone on the playground had tuned in, including the teachers. Mrs. Cousar arrived first and separated the boys. She grabbed Willard’s ear, twisting it until he was forced to lean into her. With her other hand she yanked Eli’s arm and dragged both of them to Miss Crockett’s office.

By early adolescence, all outward appearances of Eli’s accident have disappeared. He wears no string, the tracheotomy is gone, and he breathes through his nose. He exhibits no foul smell because the opening in his stomach has been closed. And after a series of trials, he proves himself to the other boys and is no longer bullied. He possesses a natural brilliance and is gifted with charm and charisma. A talented musician inspired by the sound of bells, nothing lures Eli more than a bell tower, especially the old fire tower with its enormous alarm bell behind his grandmother’s antebellum home.

Eli is a boy full of potential. He is empathetic and has a keen awareness of others’ pain. And it’s stimulating to be his friend because risk does not scare him. But Eli embodies many PTSD symptoms which impair him. He angers quickly; he blocks his feelings; he exhibits self-destructive behavior, and except for Delia, often has difficulty trusting others. And as has been the case since childhood, he is adept at hiding his internal physical and emotional pain.

As he ages, Eli’s persistent need for stimulation to distract him from dealing with his emotions becomes more problematic. He listens to no one. He uses illegal drugs to excess. His need to forget surpasses everything.

Eli is a tormented young man. Yet he is also a young man with a tremendous capacity for love and compassion.  His accident changes the typical relationship he and Delia might have had into one of deep complexity. It grows into an incomparable love, blossoming into an intimacy that cannot be, for they know to love one’s cousin in that way is taboo. Theirs is a world where cruelty and pain threaten two cousins whose extraordinary love prevails.

TO PURCHASE Bells for EliAmazonBookshop.orgBarnes & NobleEagle Eye Book Shop

TO CONTACT SUSAN ZURENDA: susanbzurenda@gmail.com

More about Susan Zurenda:

After teaching literature, composition, and creative writing to thousands of high school and college students for 33 years, Susan turned her attention to putting a novel in her heart on paper, the genesis of which started with a short story that won a fiction prize some years ago. She is delighted to present her debut novel, Bells for Eli, to readers on March 2, 2020. During her years of teaching at Spartanburg Community College and then as an AP English teacher at Spartanburg High School, Susan published short stories and won numerous regional awards such as the South Carolina Fiction Prize (twice), the Porter Fleming Competition, The Southern Writers Symposium Emerging Writers Fiction Contest, The Hub City Hardegree Contest in Fiction, Alabama Conclave First Novel Chapter Contest, and The Jubilee Writing Competition (twice).  Since 2018, she has published six stories in literary magazines. For future events and to learn more about Susan Zurenda, please visit: www.susanzurenda.com.

Please leave comments, like, and repost on social media! 

Interview with Susan Zurenda, Author of Bells for Eli, A Novel: Fiction Series Part II

Interview with Susan Zurenda, Author of Bells for Eli, A Novel

head and shoulders sitting SBZ, credit Anna Beckham

The point-of-view is something I believe writers would enjoy debating. How did you settle on this narrator? Why not tell it from Eli’s perspective? Did you experiment with different points-of-view or was this something you were firm about from the beginning? 

I did debate whether to tell the story from a first person narrator’s perspective or third person limited, but I always knew the story would come from Delia’s heart and mind. After experimenting a bit with both points of view, I decided on first person because it was more intimate, and I wanted the reader to feel close to Delia. Keeping readers out of Eli’s head was a given because Eli is a child and later a young man who not only keeps his feelings to himself, but tries not to examine his own feelings. One of the tragic consequences of Eli’s childhood trauma is his need to escape his feelings by any means possible. Also, Eli is stoic by nature, so instead of knowing any specifics about the physical and emotional pain Eli endures, the reader feels Eli’s pain through Delia. To have the story come from Eli’s point of view would have defeated some of my main purpose for the character.

I couldn’t help but notice that Eli’s name is also found in Delia’s name. It made me think about William Shakespeare’s famous quote: “What’s in a name!” I assume this was not accidental. What is the significance behind your choice in these character’s names?

I chose the name Ellison to connote Southern aristocracy. Ellison is often a surname, and Southerners are crazy about naming their children for last names reminiscent of a family line.  I gave him the nickname Eli because Ellison seemed too heavy a name for a child; plus, Southern children often have nicknames. The name Adeline has a lovely old-fashioned charm, and traditional Southern parents often choose “old” names. I learned the name Adeline suggests a desire for love and companionship as well as a penchant for adventure. My character Adeline fits this description. I gave her the nickname Delia for the same reason I gave Eli his nickname. What I did not consciously realize when I created these names is that the name Eli is literally inside the name Delia. A close friend with whom I taught English for many years asked me about the connection after she read my early manuscript. She thought I had created the names on purpose to fit together, but I did not. Thus, I consider the names Eli and Delia to be an excellent example of how a writer’s subconscious works!

Do you think the bells, especially ones specifically pointing to a certain chime or song, create a pseudo soundtrack to Bells For Eli?

I played the piano for many years and started college as a music major, graduating from college with music as my minor. Maybe for this reason I wanted Eli to be a musician. Who knows?  At any rate, he is a talented musician with a particular love for percussion instruments, especially bells. There’s a lot of music in Bells for Eli, and I like your idea of considering all the pieces in the novel as a playlist that helps to define both Eli’s and Delia’s characters. Whether it be “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin lifting Eli into a sense of peace or “Love Can Make You Happy” by Mercy causing Delia’s heart to ache for her cousin, music underlies feelings and circumstances in Bells for Eli.

Was there anything symbolically you would like to add about your use of bells? Or, John Donne’s poetry that maybe readers haven’t picked up on?

Bells have many meanings in the novel, both literal and symbolic. I’ll name a couple as a teaser, but I don’t want to take anything away from the reader’s own satisfaction in discovering how bells enrich the novel.

As bells are said to herald the arrival of a supernatural power or spirit, to be the voice of the sound of revelations, I hope bells provide imagery to deepen the strong mystical/spiritual element in the novel. Bells often announce momentous occasions, and Eli, with his adventurous and risk-taking nature, is always making an “announcement” of himself in adolescence.

I’d like to leave the connection of John Donne’s bells in his beautiful poem “For Whom the Bell Tolls” to situations in Bells for Eli for readers to experience at the end of the novel.

Is the town of Green Branch and Magnolia Manor based upon/by inspired real places?

Green Branch is typical of many small towns in the South in the 1960’s-70’s, but it is not based on a particular town.  Much of Green Branch is imagination, but there are definitely bits and pieces of several towns I’ve known incorporated into my fictional setting. For example, the model for the town clock that Eli and Delia climb sits on Main Street in Winnsboro, SC. It is the oldest continually working clock in America. Congress Street, where Eli and Delia live, has an eclectic array of houses built over a number of decades, not unlike an old downtown neighborhood in Spartanburg, SC, where I live. The model for Magnolia Manor is my great-grandparents’ home out in the country in Lancaster, SC, my hometown. This home actually has an old bell alarm tower that I climbed as a child. It’s still standing today.

Will you describe the readers’ reactions to the relationship between Delia and Eli?

I have been deeply touched by readers’ responses to Delia and Eli and their relationship. I can’t tell you how many people have told me their relationship moved them to tears. I love the words a reviewer used recently, saying Delia and Eli’s relationship was treated with “such tenderness and delicacy.” Overall, readers have been tremendously receptive to the love that binds Delia and Eli, and I am grateful that my characters have this effect.

What is next on your agenda? Do you have any current events coming up? Have you started writing anything new?

I had over 50 events scheduled among 8 states between March-Memorial Day, most of which were postponed or cancelled as a result of the pandemic. Slowly, I’m starting to do live events again, small or private ones with proper precautions in a controlled environment. I have a dozen or so events coming up from August-October. But people are still cautious, as they should be, as I am.

I have begun writing a second novel which doesn’t even have a working title yet. I’m about three chapters in. The story requires three points of view, and I’ve got to see if I’m up to the challenge of keeping the threads from each viewpoint both connected and separated. These three main characters are a high school English teacher, a privileged, brilliant Caucasian teenage boy, and an impoverished, equally smart (but without the boy’s educational advantages) biracial teenage girl. We’ll see where it goes!

TO PURCHASE Bells for EliAmazonBookshop.orgBarnes & NobleEagle Eye Book Shop

TO CONTACT SUSAN ZURENDA: susanbzurenda@gmail.com

More about Susan Zurenda:

After teaching literature, composition, and creative writing to thousands of high school and college students for 33 years, Susan turned her attention to putting a novel in her heart on paper, the genesis of which started with a short story that won a fiction prize some years ago. She is delighted to present her debut novel, Bells for Eli, to readers on March 2, 2020. During her years of teaching at Spartanburg Community College and then as an AP English teacher at Spartanburg High School, Susan published short stories and won numerous regional awards such as the South Carolina Fiction Prize (twice), the Porter Fleming Competition, The Southern Writers Symposium Emerging Writers Fiction Contest, The Hub City Hardegree Contest in Fiction, Alabama Conclave First Novel Chapter Contest, and The Jubilee Writing Competition (twice).  Since 2018, she has published six stories in literary magazines. For future events and to learn more about Susan Zurenda, please visit: www.susanzurenda.com.

Please leave comments, like, and repost on social media!