Despite what one might assume reading Facebook, no individual is truly autonomous. Even fictional worlds are ruled by this truth: no protagonist exists independent of the place, people, and history that both proceed and accompany the events of their singular story.
Acknowledging this reality can be a challenge when constructing first-person narratives. However, the emotional depth of a story can be powerfully augmented when a first-person narrator acknowledges suffering beyond their own personal experience, and the cultural, historical, and social realities within which their own story exists. Rarely have I encountered a short story which accomplishes this as succinctly and gracefully as “The Wind,” by Lauren Groff, which appeared in the New Yorker in February.
“The Wind” is a brief story with an immense emotional punch. In less than 4,000 words, this haunting tale about a single—though extraordinarily harrowing—morning in a family’s life provides one of the most astute illustrations of intergenerational trauma I have read. This is accomplished with a unique method of first-person retrospective narration. The story is told by a narrator who is both present and invisible, a narrator who knows that this story is not about them, even though their life has been colored by its aftermath. Let’s call this point of view discreet first-person narration.
What do I mean by this? Though this story is narrated in the first person, the narrator decentralizes their own role so completely that the story initially appears not to be in the first person at all. “The Wind” begins in dialogue told in the third person from an evocative distance. The characters are introduced unnamed, which adds a sort of eerie anonymity. “Pretend, the mother had said when she crept into her daughter’s room in the night, that tomorrow is just an ordinary day.”
This distant, ethereal, third-person narration continues until the brief, fifth paragraph, within which the narrator is describing the character referred to as “the younger brother.” “He was six, his brother was nine and the girl was twelve. These were my uncles and my mother as children.” It is here that readers learn this is not a third-person story at all, but a first-person story told from an unobtrusive distance, by the daughter of the girl at the center of the tale. The daughter is telling her mother’s story, yet, as the narrator makes explicitly clear in the final paragraphs, it’s her story too. She has decentered herself as a narrator; her influence is both purposefully discreet and deeply significant. This concise story of the most traumatic moment in this narrator’s mother’s life—the morning she and her brothers tried to help their mother flee from their abusive father—illustrates an extraordinarily complicated truth about how the aftereffects of trauma linger in families.
Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that immediately following the reveal of the teller’s voice, the narrator propels us forward in time:
Much later she would tell me the story of this day at those times when it seemed as if her limbs were too heavy to move and she stood staring into the refrigerator for long spells, unable to decide what to make for dinner. Or when the sun would cycle into one window and out the other and she would sit on her bed unable to do anything other than breathe. Then I would sit quietly beside her, and she would tell the story the same way every time, as if ripping out something that had worked its roots deep inside her.
The intimacy of this moment not only anchors the telling, but also raises the stakes. As does the shift that follows, deepening the connection to the tale. The names of the characters adjust to account for the generational telling that is being undertaken. “The mother” becomes “my grandmother” and “the daughter” becomes “my mother” as the story once told to the narrator is now told by her to us. The brothers are referred to occasionally as uncle, but their first names—Joseph, or Joey, and Ralph, called Ralphie—are also used, erasing distance. What’s past is past, there’s no changing facts. Part of this, the reader understands, is due to how the story has been distilled through repeated retelling. Yet this lack of embellishment also multiplies the haunting tenor of the narrative voice as the story within the story comes to its ghastly end.
The use of this discreet first-person stance also allows the narrator to provide glimpses of what happens to these children after this day, through use of brief flash forwards, peeks into these children’s futures presented before the story hits its heartbreaking climax. (Or, perhaps, nadir is a better term?) While readers know, from the moment that this narrator introduces herself, that her mother must have survived this horrible day, we also learn more specifics about the fates of these young children through information provided by the narrator, most importantly that all “three children survived.”
Similarly, the narrator provides an explicit glimpse of Joseph as an adult. “He would grow up to be a grave man, living in an obsessively clean, bare efficiency, teaching mathematics at a community college.” The narrator then describes the brothers’ adult relationship and the sad end of Ralphie’s life. “Ralphie had a fishing accident when I was a teenager, and my cold, dry uncle Joseph fell apart at the funeral, sobbing and letting snot run down his face, all twisted grotesquely in pain.” These time leaps and glimpses into the future provide temporary emotional escape, and even a sense of conclusion, during the most dramatic part of the story of that harrowing morning. And all of this is made possible by this distinct application of the discreet first-person retrospective.
It is at the ending of the story, however, that the deepest effect of this unique form of telling is felt. The final section of the story consists of two long paragraphs. In the first, the narrator tells readers that the way the mother always told her the story included a false ending, within which everyone escaped unscathed. “She told it almost as though she believed this happier version,” the narrator discloses. Though really, that day ended in significantly more gruesome fashion, with the abusive husband/father—who was a police officer—finding his wife and children before they could flee the territory of his jurisdiction. The narrator tells us that “behind her words I see the true story, the sudden wail and my grandmother’s blanched cheeks shining in red and blue and the acrid smell of piss. How just before the door opened and she was grabbed by the hair and dragged backward, my grandmother turned to her children and tried to smile, to give them this last glimpse of her.” The story we are told, then, occupies a liminal space between the story her mother told her and the tragic truth.
The final paragraph reads:
The three children survived. Eventually they would save themselves, struggling into lives and loves far from this place and this moment, each finding a kind of safe harbor, jobs and people and houses empty of violence. But always inside my mother there would blow a silent wind, a wind that died and gusted again, raging through her life, touching every moment she lived after this one. She tried her best, but she couldn’t help filling me with the same wind. It seeped into me through her blood, through every bite of food she made for me. Through every night she waited, shaking with fear, for me to come home by curfew, through every scolding, everything she forbade me to say or think or do or be, through all the ways she taught me how to move as a woman in the world.
This narrator knows her mother’s trauma has affected her own life, but again, she is discreet about it. She does not harp on how hard it was to grow up with a mother who experienced this trauma, nor does she even hint at any way that this inherited trauma made her life more difficult. Instead, she simply recognizes that she is only one of an uncountable mass of women who have experienced such grief, either directly or in an inherited form, as she did. The final sentences of the story read: “She was far from being the first to find it blowing through her, and of course I will not be the last. I look around and can see it in so many other women, passed down from a time beyond history, this wind that is dark and ceaseless and raging within.” The way this narrator decentralizes herself in this final sentence is profound. Just look around, this narrator is telling us, there is pain everywhere, it’s inescapable. But maybe how we choose to tell the stories of our pain can allow us to turn that pain into something greater, something necessary, something that might ease the pain of others.