“The main character is totally vicious, but she has her reasons. Actually, she kind of reminds me of you.” The friend who insisted that I read The Hunger Games knew me all too well. Still, I wasn’t sure if I was insulted or flattered.
Prickly. Proud. Calculating. Hard-nosed. Hard-assed. Lethal. These are the adjectives ascribed to sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, the hardscrabble heroine conscripted into a gladiatorial arena as popcorn fodder for the proletariat. Even fans of the book fault Katniss for her arctic reserve: “Yeah I was kind of not a fan of Katniss as a protagonist,” says i09 commenter CaffeineNictoteneVodka. “She seems to run from this hero role kicking and screaming … And she has no idea how ridiculously awesome of a man Peeta is.” Fellow commenter Vvornth concurs: “While being an iconic person Katniss acts in a completely selfish and unsympathetic manner.”
These masterful grammarians were responding to an article called “10 Things from the Hunger Games Books That the Movies Probably Can’t Pull Off.” The eighth thing, according to writer Meredith Woerner, is that “Katniss is pretty awful.” I don’t think I’d realized how thoroughly I empathized with the girl on fire until the troll patrol raised my hackles.
If she’s selfish, unsympathetic, and straight up awful, I thought, then so am I. So is anyone who has ever had to make a quick, unflinching decision just to survive—whether that means literally seeing another sunrise or just getting the beating to stop.
Katniss comes of age in a North America that’s a butcher’s map of a continent called Panem, where a sinister Capitol oversees twelve districts. Every year, in each of these districts, a boy and a girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen are plucked from a lottery to battle to the death on national television. If they’re lucky enough to be popular, the audience might sponsor them and have supplies airlifted into the arena. When Katniss’ twelve-year-old sister, Prim, is reaped, she volunteers to take her place as tribute.
But long before she was dodging knives in the arena, Katniss sacrificed her youth to a mother “who sat by, blank and unreachable, while her children turned to skin and bones”; to a sister who was too soft and too sweet to be anything but helpless. By becoming head of the household after her father dies, she keeps her family fed, but she’ll never have the luxury of innocence. Not like her sister, who remains “as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named.”
Even Prim, who Katniss calls “the only person I’m certain I love,” is seen as just another mouth to feed, “always asking for more.” This acidity eats through my tone when my mother calls, though many years have passed since she put ice packs on my jaw and sponged foundation over black eyes while thanking me for “being brave” and “standing up for your brother.”
My mother, my brother and I didn’t fear the goose-stepping soldiers of a cruel Capitol; we feared my father’s silences. Just as the citizens of Panem learned and re-learned how to live under the ever-shifting restrictions of a capricious regime, we learned and re-learned which look meant he was happy drunk, and which look meant he was the other kind. Just as tributes pandered to the cameras in the hope of getting something, anything, to put in their bellies or soothe a wound, we kept the house spotless, we brought home A’s. Something, anything, so that the sound that broke his silence was a murmur of approval, and not the throat clearing cough that meant he was too angry to speak.
Though my copy of Bastard Out of Carolina has been dog-eared to tatters and I still won’t lend out Happy Baby because I can’t bear not to have it on hand, though I cried so hard reading The Chronology of Water that I spooked the dog, it is a YA trilogy—one fueling a frenzy of merchandising and Team So-and-So vs. Team WhatsHisFace hashtags—that resonated the most with me. Reading Katniss’ voice—raw yet wry—was like opening a door on my sixteen-year-old self; watching the fear flutter through her carefully arranged restraint is like looking in a mirror.
What the Hunger Games gets, unequivocally, heart-wrenchingly gets, is that survival—whether that means putting food on the table, shooting an arrow into your enemy’s throat, or standing in the kitchen of your father’s house and telling him, in a voice that surprises you with its steadiness, that you’ll kill him if he hits you, your mother or your little brother ever again—is not a happy ending. Not in and of itself. Not when getting up every morning, getting out of the arena, getting off the living room floor, means getting to the point where anything that isn’t putting one foot in front of the other is just pointless—even if that anything is tenderness; especially if that anything is tenderness. Let alone love.
Yes, Katniss is callous, jarringly so; no, she doesn’t realize how ridiculously awesome Peeta, her fellow tribute, is. Or maybe she does: “A kind Peeta Mellark is far more dangerous to me than an unkind one. Kind people have a way of working their way inside me and rooting there. And I can’t let Peeta do this. Not where we’re going.”
Letting him under our skin would push us out of our shells, reminding us that there is softness and sweetness in the world. And, just as a kiss or a touch is tender, so is a creature scooped from its shell.
Though I’ve written reams of papers about gender and violence and the hero archetype, I’d never read anything that came close to describing that feeling—that mix of brute fear and odd calm—of knowing that you’re taking a beating so someone else—someone softer, someone sweeter—won’t have to. And then I read the reaping scene.
“There must’ve been some mistake. This can’t be happening … I see her, the blood drained from her face … and I see the back of her blouse has become untucked and hangs over her skirt … It is this detail that brings me back to myself.
‘Prim!’ The strangled cry comes out of my throat and my muscles begin to move again … With one sweep of my arm, I push her behind me.
‘I volunteer!’ I gasp. ‘I volunteer as tribute!’”
I couldn’t breathe again until I closed the book. I set it on the coffee table (part of the first matching set of furniture I’ve ever owned) and paced around my apartment, stopping at the bookshelf. I picked up the dictionary and looked up tribute: “A stated sum or other valuable consideration paid by one sovereign or another in acknowledgement of subjugation or price of peace, security, protection or the like.” Despite myself, I smiled: All those years, I’d been doing so much more than “starting trouble” first, so I could get hit instead of my brother; I was offering protection.
Every time I spilled the milk, slammed the door, or looked at him the wrong way, I was as noble as Katniss ascending that stage. The Hunger Games has gifted me with a new way of perceiving the lowest moments of my life. I am not just the girl whose skin burns from the sting of leather; I am the girl on fire.
Cheryl Strayed, writing as Sugar, once said: “Art isn’t an anecdote. It is the consciousness we bring to bear on our lives.” Whenever I can bear to remember myself as a young girl, I will still see—will always see—my arms thrown over my face to block the blows. But now I have the image of another brave girl about to take another kind of beating, a girl surrounded by the protective silence of her home district, “Which says we do not agree. We do not condone. All of this is wrong.”
Whenever I wrote about being a survivor (such a clean, sanitized word; like a lead actress in a horror flick, artfully spattered with cornstarch blood), I never addressed how living through the violence made me vicious in turn. I never staged the scenes where I broke every single dish in a college boyfriend’s apartment, or screamed at one ex so loud and for so long that he spat back, “Why don’t you just threaten to kill me like you did to your father?” I never described bloodying my knuckles on the wall behind his head because I was so close, too close, to punching him in the face.
“Every tribute has a list of kills,” Katniss reflects. “A bow pulled, an arrow shot … I killed a boy whose name I don’t even know.” Even Peeta, “the boy with the bread” who has shown her unconditional kindness, can be as expendable as the boy with no name: “There will be twenty-four of us. Odds are someone else will kill him before I do.”
These books illustrate why PTSD is—as my former shrink once put it—the gift that keeps on giving: Nobody will be trustworthy, not entirely. Not when our parents and our governments, the very people who were supposed to protect us (or at least not cause us harm) are the ones who’ve thrown us in the midst of swinging fists and tracker jacker stings. How can we ever believe in anyone, even when we know (intellectually, at least) that we should? And if we can’t believe in anyone, why should we be anyone worth believing in? The Hunger Games trilogy gives an arrow-strike of a pulse to what Genet called “the irreducibility of terror.”
More importantly, they gave me a heroine who is unflinchingly candid, and entirely unapologetic—about her own brutality; about who she had to become so that she could survive. In the third book, Mockingjay, Peeta mocks Katniss for her lack of empathy: “You’re a piece of work, aren’t you?” Though she doesn’t betray her anger in front of him, Katniss is stirred by his words—not to feelings of sorrow or regret, but a sense of grim resignation: “Finally, he can see me for who I really am. Violent. Distrustful. Manipulative. Deadly.”
This is what the arena—whether it’s a booby-trapped woodland or our living rooms—turns us into. We can’t regret that, because being all of those things is what got us out alive. Still, those of us who have survived know, just as Katniss knows, that we’ll “never go home, not really.” We’ll spend the rest of our lives trying to think our way out.
Cruel. Blunt. Hard-nosed. Hard-assed. Distrustful. Vicious. These are the adjectives ascribed to a thirteen-year-old Laura Bogart, an eighteen-year-old Laura Bogart, a twenty-five-year-old Laura Bogart. Colleagues and lovers alike lobbed them at me, as I grew older and grew up. I matured into a woman who considers other people’s feelings; a woman with a graduate degree and a great job, a string of publications and an apartment spacious enough to host dinner parties. Friends who stay up long past their bedtimes to help me with a work-in-progress I’m tearing my hair out over. Sure, sometimes they call me cranky, but they know I have their back.
Yet I found myself nodding tearfully at the end of Mockingjay, when a battle-worn Katniss confesses that, “on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in anything because I’m afraid it could be taken away.” Though she tries to remember every act of kindness she’s ever seen, I soothe myself by remembering that we are the sum of our choices. I can be the girl who said she’d kill her own father and I can be the girl who loved her little brother so much that she went into the arena for him.
Katniss may be abrasive, even ruthless, but she is also tough and fair and loyal when it counts. Her heroism isn’t just piercing the villains with her arrows; she takes a fire “kindled with rage and hatred” and subsumes it. What remains is “the bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction.” The promise that life goes on is only fulfilled when we move beyond mere survival, when we allow ourselves to embrace the tenderness that terrifies us more than anything a gamemaker ever dreamed up.