I know why I keep watching them. The handful of episodes from this one cartoon. Of all things. But I know: I know what it reminds me of, and I know that what I remember hooks its way through my brain and pulls – and then that broken part of me wakes up and steps automatically into the shadows. Tasting it, I turn around, reset the pulleys, and deliberately draw myself to the dark. Again and again. This is how torn memories live on; this is how we try to stitch them back together.
This kid, this young woman – Korra – has been captured. She’s important, this character named Korra, because she is something special and powerful called the “Avatar.” It matters to the plot, although not really to my memories. She’s a child, barely the age of my own students. This matters. She’s restrained, held in the air Christ-like in chains. This matters too.
The fantasy reminds me just enough and not too much. A threatening ghost. I do have specific memories of trauma, though most are confused and fragmentary. Still, some crinkle in my hands like something wrapped up and brand new. I remember being held down at my wrists and ankles. More than once, though there’s one time in particular that refuses to fade. To see something like it on the screen is to somehow to experience it without experiencing it.
So I watch as the bad guys poison the child. I never know if it’s the poison sinking into her skin or the way she jolts in pain, limbs taut, unable to fold in on herself. Whatever it is, I jolt, too, and I never seem able to look away. Watching attentively, remembering… Something. Many things. They’re never clear to me, the rush of memories, but the feeling is exquisite: hurting badly while stretched out, fighting not to flinch. Ex-quaerere – exquisite – comes from a word that means “to seek,” refers to the perfectly sought and found. Exquisite pain. Instantly, I know the feeling again. That strangely thin terror, frail and tremulous, unable to comprehend surviving. The feeling is the memory.
But here is where Korra changes and I do not.
The young woman awakens in her most powerful form and breaks free, snapping the links of titanium chains. She fights, furious, wielding devastated revenge. It is not quite enough, and that not quite is something I know. She still almost dies. The poison eats away at her, and her enemy literally tries to steal her breath away. That flickers like something in the back of my brain – I don’t know what. The heroes capture the bad guy, and poor Korra is freed of the poison (mostly).
I don’t know what it would have been to escape. I watch her fight and lose and win, and this is to experience it somehow. To somehow dream of what it might be like to live outside a tragedy. She fights, and I see in her reckless anger my own. She colors in the details, and so do I: to have wanted so badly to claw free, the rage that kind of feeling requires, the rage that still sits there deep in my chest. Hot anger that conceals trembling fear.
She lives, but she’s still hurt – she’s not the same – and that’s a feeling I know too. Or rather, I know what it feels like to be broken until feeling itself seems to have gone away. It matters that she doesn’t make it out whole. It makes a difference, draws me close. I watch it again, that past and that sorrow living on in me and on the moving screen. I’ve done things like this before. Gotten caught in a mimetic loop. It’s something that the traumatized do. I sit almost helpless, obsessed, aching to watch again and again – and again. Trying somehow to safely touch the memories, searching for a way to escape them.
Mourning what did happen through something that didn’t.