Drifting Out of Solidarity and into Shame
Octavia Butler’s short story, The Evening and the Morning and the Night tells the story of Lynn Mortimer and Alan Chi, young Black African American college students attending the University of Southern California. The two are roommates and lovers, both living with a rare congenital condition called Duryea-Gode Disease, otherwise known as DGD, which causes individuals to self-harm through self-sabotage, self-mutilation, or suicide at some point and to some degree
Violence enacted by DGDs is said to be a result of their drifting.
In the novel, drifting is a state in which the individual with DGD “went off into a world of their own and stopped responding to their surroundings” (Butler, 2001: 406). We can think of drifting as an intense state of psychosis that accompanies trauma, particularly for those living with post-traumatic stress that results in some form of dissociation, an overactive sympathetic nervous system, overwhelming stress, or high cortisol levels tied to fight-and-flight responses. We can liken drifting and DGD to mental illnesses such as depression, borderline and narcissistic personality, schizophrenia, bipolar, or variations of the autism spectrum and other neurodivergent ways of being.
Drifting is used to construct the entire DGD community as violent people and is used to justify violence, stigma, discrimination, and sanism against them, which in turn hinders how they are able to move through the world.
In the novel, Lynn and Alan are described in stereotypical terms as brilliant students unable to regulate their emotions or manage day-to-day living without constant supervision and surveillance. They require a strict diet in order to maintain some semblance of normalcy. Biscuits in particular are used to “control” them. As controlled DGDs, Lynn and Alan find themselves intertwined in an unlikely romantic relationship, an ironic twist of fate considering that the pair blamed their parents for their status as doubleDGDs, an added complication that sets them apart from other DGDs.
Double DGD means that both sets of parents passed down the trait to them. In the story, if one parent had been treated with the prescription drug that causes DGD, and had conceived a child after or during treatment, this increased the chances of the child acquiring DGD themselves. For Lynn and Alan, both sets of parents already lived with DGD before conception and also took the drug, resulting in their double DGD status.
Prior to meeting Alan, Lynn had never met another double DGD before. As the two consider marriage, they are called to reckon with the idea of giving birth to double DGD children themselves. It is in the wake of making such major life decisions that the two decide to visit Alan’s mother at Dilg, an institution run by other controlled DGDs where DGDs are sent for discipline, treatment, and rehabilitation. Dilg is “the retreat you try to send your out-of-control DGD relatives” (402). Lynn’s parents had sent her there once as a wake-up call when she was younger. She returned and tried to kill herself. It is with this traumatic history in mind that Lynn re-visits Dilg again for the first time with Alan.
It was there that they meet Dr. Beatrice Alcantara, the second double DGD Lynn had ever met, and the first to be a woman. At the age of sixty, Beatrice is one of the first double DGDs to ever be born and among the oldest remaining to live.
“I looked at Beatrice and couldn’t see anything to smile about. As we introduced ourselves, I realized I didn’t like her. I couldn’t see any reason for that either, but my feelings were my feelings. I didn’t like her,” Lynn reflects (407). At one point, as Beatrice reached for Lynn, Lynn recoiled, “I backed away from her, out of her reach, repelled by her touch” (408).
When Beatrice does eventually make contact with Lynn, her reaction is visceral. “I jerked away reflexively. By the time I caught myself, I had swung around as though I meant to hit her. Hell, I did mean to hit her, but I stopped myself in time,” Lynn assesses (417). For Beatrice, the feelings of repulsion are mutual. She tells Lynn, “People like us don’t get along well together. You must realize that I don’t like you anymore than you like me,” adding, “We seem,” she said, “to be very territorial. Dilg is a haven for me when I’m the only one of my kind here. When I’m not, it’s a prison” (414). Lynn responds coldly, “I swallowed; saw her through a kind of haze for a moment. Hated her mindlessly just for a moment” (414).
The two are unable to get along. They have clear language to articulate this rupture (“I didn’t like her”). We find the unconscious acted-upon-ness that is prominent with being moved affectively. It is evident through their visceral body language as their physiological responses affirm breakdown (“I backed away from her, repelled by her touch”). They make no mistake as to their dislike for one another (“my feelings were my feelings. I didn’t like her”).
As Lynn and Alan make their departure from Dilg, Lynn is unable to look back at Beatrice as the car pulls off. “I couldn’t look back at her. Until we were well away from the house, until we’d left the guard at the gate and gone off the property. I couldn’t make myself look back” (418), Lynn explains.
In the very last sentence of the story Lynn reflects, “For long, irrational minutes, I was convinced that somehow if I turned, I would see myself standing there, gray and old, growing small in the distance, vanishing” (418). Lynn is left stunned as to why or how she had even known to dislike or feel threatened by Beatrice. What invisible force could have been so powerful that it propelled the two away from one another?
Sometimes we meet people, and the vibes are just off. See my last blog post on affect. Because I study emotions, I’m interested in mapping out what emotions were also in the room when the two met. What would it look like to have shame get in the way of the two, based on how double-DGDs are framed by their society? Did they have some internalized stuff get in the way about how they see other DGDs as shameful? Is this like when we meet people who remind us of ourselves? What happens when we’re struggling to love ourselves and people show up in our lives that remind us of ourselves? Are we more likely to lean toward also not liking them as well, simply because they remind us of the parts of ourselves we can’t tolerate or repress?
This is the blueprint for a chapter in a future "book", so I won’t share too much more here. I do have another blog post on these two that I’ll post later. Stay tuned for part 2.
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Until next time, in solidarity