The Room by Emma Donohogue (2010) – Book Review

Ms. Asmita Sharma

Psychodynamic Psychotherapist, Delhi Mind Clinic

“This is a bad story.” 

“Sorry. I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have told you.” 

“No, you should,” I say. 

“But—” 

“I don’t want there to be bad stories and me not know them.” 

The Room opens through the eyes of a five-year-old boy named Jack. Jack who’s entire world resides within an eleven by eleven foot room. That the room is a prison where he and his Ma have been kept captive, Jack has no idea about. For him, the Room is what the world looks like. Until he finds out about the traumatic conditions of his birth and his mother’s kidnapping. Jack’s entire world suddenly stops making sense and what follows is a harrowing tale of escape and the disorientation of the world outside post imprisonment.  This is a story of courage and fortitude in the face of unbearable pain and trauma. Based on incidents from real life this book exemplifies how fiction can provide an in-depth study into the human capacity for resilience and adaptation. While there are multiple ways in which  this book can be read, the three most poignant themes I would like to discuss are the  following: 

Trauma and Resilience:

“Scared is what you’re feeling. Brave is what you’re doing.”   

Trauma happens when the mind’s capacity for containment is encountered by excessive stress from outside, and unable to process something so unthought and unknown, the unprepared mind collapses. For Jack, his life is no exception and he lives knowing nothing about the severe trauma that his mother went through.

The mother, on the other hand, deals with the brutality she faces every day at the hands of her kidnapper and despite the intense, unthinkable assaults she finds a way to be Jack’s Ma again. She shields him from the macabre details of his beginnings and from their captor, makes him see the room as home, a space of security and belonging when in reality it is her living hell. She bears her trauma alone until she has to break Jack’s illusion of safety and reveal to him the terrible reality of his existence.

This is a critical moment. Would this revelation destroy the emotional capacity of a 5-year old? Wouldn’t it forever wipe out the magic and wonder of life for him? It is here that the truly amazing potential of the human capacity for survival takes over, imbuing strength even to a 5-year old making him take immense leaps of courage, fighting unimaginable horrors (both internal and external) and coming through. 

However, the nature of trauma is such that often its aftereffects are experienced once one reaches the shores of safety. Having left behind the scene of trauma, fuelled by the human need for survival, it is living that now becomes the struggle. Trauma changes the way we see the world. One of the most painful overcomings of trauma is to accept that the world will never be the same again. That something essential has forever changed. How do we reintegrate the life before and after?

The traumatized person experiences this fragmentation internally. We see how plunged into a chaotic, noisy, changed, new world  Jack and his Ma struggle to cope. The outside world expanding endlessly disorients the little Jack who’s mind and body cannot perceive this much space. His mother who was uprooted suddenly at the age of 19 finds herself back into the world she so longed for all these years in captivity, and now no longer recognizes it. She has no sense of belonging to anything or anyone. The place she called home feels strange, the people she called friends and family feel like strangers. She herself becomes a stranger to her old self. Holding onto herself despite insurmountable odds during captivity she suddenly feels lost and confused about who she is.

Together and apart Jack and his Ma float in and out of this world, often having no sense of time and space and most painfully finding their bond which helped them through for so long dangerously compromised. The testing of reality in these new conditions of safety and freedom happens slowly, as we live through the journey of these two protagonists. With them, we as readers also mourn the lost haven, a  place of familiarity, and move towards the new world. We experience the fear, the tenderness with which new connections begin to blossom. We feel internally the struggle of moving on, of learning a new way of life, of finding again a way to be whole.    

Imprisonment and the Paradox of Freedom 

“Before I didn’t know to be mad that we can’t open Door, my head was too small to have Outside  in it.”   

A strange affliction besets the mind when one experiences being imprisoned. While on the  one hand the confines feel suffocating, compromising one’s liberty to live life fully; on the  other hand the same imprisonment can also transform into a certain kind of containment  making the prisoner dependent upon it.

One of the paradoxes of freedom is that while it opens up possibilities, it also disorients and places the onus of responsibility which can often be felt with a crushing force. The yearning to return to a place of confinement can be seen in certain inmates released after completing their incarceration who wish to go back to the prison. We find a similar condition affecting Jack and his Ma who find themselves often missing the room they were confined in. While for Jack it is a place that marks his beginning, for his mother it always signifies the collapse of her life. Yet it is a place where they bonded with each other. Every object in the room is a character forged between them.  They all mean more than just inanimate objects. The human capacity for attachment befuddles them as they yearn for a place lost, one they so wished to escape as to risk their very lives for it.     One of the ways in which an imprisoned existence is made tolerable is to break down the sentence into purposeful chunks of time. Ma lays out a time-table for Jack, setting rituals they will do together: run around a makeshift track, watch TV but not too much, make snake-shaped strings with egg-shells and more. She is trying to bring order into their lives so the passage of time becomes bearable so that there is some semblance of sanity they both continue to cling onto. It arranges their otherwise strange existence into recognizable forms. The familiarity of this schedule is perhaps the only way they experience stability.

Life is simple. Everything is the same, every day. It is the only way to make sense of their unusual life unfolding in an eleven by eleven-foot room. This stability,  continuity, and familiarity is also disrupted when they are free. They are free to leave but they also remain freely suspended in space expanding sharply ahead of them and objects and people crowding that space in a rush. More and more they begin losing touch with their simple life and everything feels complex.

How space and time impact the way our psyche functions is richly explored in this novel. Forging new connections, relationships and rediscovering their own bond disrupted by the sudden freedom is how Jack and Ma would now navigate through life. As readers accompanying them on this journey we get to understand deeply what it truly means to be free. 

Separation Anxiety

“It’s weird to have something that’s mine-not-Ma’s. Everything else is both of ours. I guess my  body is mine and the ideas that happen in my head. But my cells are made out of her cells so I’m  kind of hers.”   

One of the reasons why this story grips the reader’s imagination is its uncanny resemblance to a universal experience we have all dealt with, which now remains largely relegated to our unconscious minds namely, the pain of separation. While there are many separations that one has to navigate through life, the original separation between the mother and the child which is at once a painful process as well as a necessary milestone in growth as an individual, is one which shapes the way we experience ourselves internally  and the world outside.

These early experiences are evoked as we immerse ourselves into the room in which Jack and his Ma maintain an unbreakable bond with each other. There is no distance between Jack and Ma. The room signifies the womb, standing in as an extension of the mother which encompasses the child offering warmth and security. Jack experiences himself as an extension of his mother and not as a separate person. They both exist in unity, as one. This illusion shatters when they are both “outside”.

The world outside demands them to separate and grow as separate individuals. This separation can be experienced as painful but is a necessary part of growing into a healthy individual. It requires immense tolerance of flooding emotions of fear and rage. Jack and his Ma for a  time lose touch even though they inhabit the same physical space. Their emotional needs become different and it is here that their relationship is tested most severely. Would they be able to cover this growing distance between them, with the shadow of the little room looming large over them? How do a child and an adult woman experience this separation anxiety? How do they navigate the overwhelming states of confusion and melancholy that fills them? The story provides a catharsis for our own deep-seated experiences of separation by taking an honest, up-close look at these unstated but important experiences of becoming an individual.    Even in its stark honesty of human frailties and hardships, The Room offers a testament to the endurance of the human spirit. It reflects upon what relationships are made of and how nothing is ever really lost but has simply changed into something else.  

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