The Harmful Effects Of Trauma And Abuse In Octavia Butler's Kindred

Octavia Butler's writing about the Ante-bellum South in Kindred highlights the consequences of American slavery and the continuous racism and prejudice that still resides in modern-day America. Dana is exploited throughout the novel-- subtly by her husband, Kevin Franklin, and severely by her 'master' and ancestor, Rufus Weylin. Butler uses Dana, an educated female writer from the late twentieth century, to allow the contemporary reader to experience a direct relationship with the traumatic implications of American slavery. The first-person narration and focalization of Dana as an American slave lets the reader compare these dynamic characters and relationships, while ultimately emphasizing the harmful effects of trauma and abuse.

Dana's relationship with her husband, Kevin, demonstrates how white readers might be essentially unaware of the implications of American slavery. The interracial couple's relationship evolves throughout the novel and exemplifies the scars left from slavery. Kevin does not fully grasp the severity of race and the obstacles that Dana faces every day. However, he is a compelling character in evaluating how prejudice still resides in more modern times. Dana describes her husband as liberal and educated. He is likable and wants to support Dana, but as the novel progresses, some subtleties show his naivety. Kevin and Dana decide to get married, so they decide they are both going to tell their families. Kevin assumes that his only family left, his sister, will, without a doubt, accept Dana. Dana warns him that his sister might not recognize her because she is a black woman, but Kevin shrugs her off and is confident that she will fit right in. Kevin is wrong and is shocked by his sister's response, '…he wasn't ready for his sister's reaction. 'I thought I knew her,' he told me afterward' (Butler 110). He is a callow of the prejudice around him. His sister says that she does not want to meet Dana and refuses to have either of them in her house if they choose to get married. Though Kevin is not racist like his sister, he still downplays the seriousness and commonality of prejudice in society, which in turn has a traumatic effect on Dana.

Kevin, because he is white, is again seen minimalizing the effects of slavery and racism when he is taken back in time with Dana to the Weylin plantation. Kevin and Dana have, at this point, spent months on the plantation, and Kevin becomes bored with his repetitive life. He spent most of his time residing comfortably inside of Weylin's house and kept away from the realities of Antebellum Maryland. Later in the novel, Kevin and Dana are going to talk in private in the woods, and they spot a group of slave children pretending to auction themselves off. Kevin minimizes the experience of slavery because he describes the children as 'just playing' and fails to see the severity of the situation. He goes on to say, ''…but still this place isn't what I would have imagined. No overseer. No more work than the people can manage…'' (Butler 100). Dana interrupts him and must explain that he is minimizing the wrong of a racist society. Due to his privilege, Kevin does not notice the harsh realities of slavery unless forced. Because of their upbringing, the children are traumatized and are mirroring the life that they believe is their destiny. Even though Kevin, a twentieth-century intellectual, is well informed and aware, he fails to see how problematic slavery is.

Another instance where Dana experiences trauma is in her growing relationship with her ancestor, Rufus. Rufus, as a dynamic character, shows the contemporary reader how one can become conditioned by the environment. The relationship between Rufus and Dana is complicated and goes through the most change because they depend on each other for survival. At first, Rufus is just a little boy who is causing trouble because he fears his father and is smothered by his overbearing mother. Dana thinks that she might be able to have some influence on how Rufus grows up because she meets him when he is such a young boy. Dana attempts to teach Rufus how to respect her and other slaves. Still, every single aspect of his environment shows him that slavery is acceptable and that black people are property. Rufus' character unfolds when he attempts to have sex with Alice, a slave that he loves. She rejects him, so he tries to rape her. Dana tells him, '' You raped a woman--or tried to--and her husband beat you up.' (Butler 122). Rufus does not understand that he is traumatizing and demeaning Alice by treating her like a piece of property and not a person.

There is also an untethered trust between Rufus and Dana. Dana says, 'We should never lie to each other, you and I. It wouldn't be worthwhile. We both have too much opportunity for retaliation' (Butler 125). They, in some twisted way, need each other to survive, but he repeatedly goes against Dana until his inevitable demise. Rufus even eventually threatens Dana and tells her that he will make her go back and work in the fields. According to Dana, '…he sounded more like his father than himself. At that moment, he even looked like his father' (Butler 214). Dana realizes that she has failed in trying to counteract how Rufus's environment would mold him, and he turns into a racist plantation master. Rufus is Dana's oppressor, and it becomes harder for Dana to connect to him while creating more tension, knowing he is her ancestor. Rufus was a source of security for Dana, but as he inflicts more severe trauma on her, he starts to become an enemy.

Dana's interactions with Kevin and Rufus demonstrate how traumatic experiences can result in the acceptance of abuse from close relationships. Trauma affects Dana throughout the novel many times. She is described as having foggy memories, feeling unsafe, and is unable to grasp her reality (Butler 19). When she and Kevin are first moving in together, he asks her to sell her books to make room for their belongings. He also is a bit controlling and asks her to write his manuscripts for him. 'He said if I couldn't do him a little favor when he asked, I could leave.' (Butler 109). Kevin, although written out to be a 'good guy,' is still a stereotypical white dominant male in his interactions with Dana. He gets angry when he cannot control the situation. For example, after Kevin is stuck in the past for five years without Dana, he begins throwing household items and raises his voice at her. Dana says, 'And I felt that way after only spending short periods of time in the past, what Kevin must be feeling after five years. His white skin had saved him from much of the trouble I had faced, but still, he couldn't have had an easy time” (Butler 191). Dana is continuously defending his actions and blames it on the fact that he was stuck in the past, not that he cannot control his anger. This abuse of power towards Dana is apparent in the text, although she still stays with Kevin and marries him.

A more obvious example is in the final scenes of the novel. Rufus tries to rape Dana, and she kills him. It is self-defense, and it proves that Dana would hurt him if he ever attempted to hurt her. Dana's thoughts towards the situation are not simple. 'He lay with his head on my shoulder, his left arm around me, his right hand still holding my hand, and slowly, I realized how easy it would be for me to forgive him even in this' (Butler 259). She has love and sympathy for Rufus. She even considers just letting him rape her and says that maybe if she stood still, it would not hurt that bad. This scene is off-putting and confusing to the reader because why would Dana show any caring feelings toward someone who has caused her such profound harm? It is a prime example of how people can love and care for the ones who afflict the most abuse and torment.

In Kindred, Octavia Butler reveals the harmful effects of trauma and abuse by allowing the reader to become one with the character Dana. She encounters horrid abuse, sexism, and torment throughout the novel. These interactions demonstrate the repercussions of American slavery and show how environmental factors influence people's development, specifically in the Antebellum South. Just like Dana uses time travel to go back in time, the contemporary reader can use Kindred as a transportation device to compare Antebellum America to a more modern America, while exploring the themes of trauma and powerlessness.  

16 December 2021
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