Tayo's Repression of Traumatic Memories
An in-depth look at 'Ceremony' by Leslie Marmon Silko
Whether a person wants to admit it or not, the actions and decisions a person makes are often based on their past experiences and traumas. When a reader applies the past experiences of a character to the actions that they make, they are using psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is described as “a particular kind of reading, and one that is often intensely personal... the ultimate test of validity remains the intuition of the reader: does the analysis feel like it makes sense?” (Carpenter 67-68).
There are many different subsections of psychoanalysis that can be used to analyze a piece of literature. One such subsection is repression. “Repression is the process by which we push out of our mind thoughts we find unpleasant or even painful” (Carpenter 70). It is paramount to note that while this description makes repression sound voluntary, it is something that a person does unconsciously when a trauma is too much for their mind to handle. Therefore, repression is not a choice, but rather a coping mechanism. It is also significant to understand that “the more we try to forget something (that is, the more painful or traumatic the memory), the greater the tendency of the memory to resurface” (Carpenter 70). This means that the repression of traumatic memories is only a temporary fix to the overall problem.
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko gives readers a glimpse into the life of Tayo, a Native American World War Two veteran suffering from Battle Fatigue, now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. After returning home, Tayo struggles to regain a sense of normalcy as memories of the war constantly bombard him despite his attempts to forget what happened. It is through these memories that the reader is slowly able to piece together Tayo’s life before, during, and after the war. Tayo tries desperately to ‘fix’ himself through drinking and ignoring his issues, only later turning to the medicine man Betonie for help. It is through the completion of Betonie’s ceremony that Tayo eventually finds peace. Through the use of Tayo’s repressed memories, Silko demonstrates that his struggles to reacclimate to Laguna can all be linked back to Rocky’s death, and consequently, World War Two.
Among other things, Tayo’s repressed memories of the war are dredged up by the Japanese. When Tayo was in the train depot, there were Japanese families returning from the internment camps. Upon seeing them, Tayo once again felt like he was fog, making the people around him worry about his well being. “They talked to him in English, and when he did not answer, there was a discussion and he heard the Japanese words vividly. He wasn’t sure where he was anymore, maybe back in the jungles again” (Silko 15). The sudden appearance of the Japanese when Tayo was not mentally prepared to see them sent him into a tailspin. Repressed memories have triggers that allow them to be recalled to the conscious mind, no matter how much a person wishes that the memories could be forgotten entirely. It becomes apparent to the reader that seeing the Japanese Americans was a trigger for Tayo, one that he might have been able to avoid if he had known that they were no longer being held in internment camps, and that seeing them would cause a flashback. This trigger makes a reappearance when Tayo is at the bar with Harley, Leroy, Pinkie, and Emo. Emo was rattling and playing with the teeth that had belonged to a Japanese colonel that he killed, setting Tayo on edge. “The teeth sucked up the light, and darkness closed around Tayo with an ambush of voices in English and Japanese” (Silko 57). Once again, Tayo was woefully unprepared for the onslaught of formerly repressed memories. His repressed memories of the war and of being a prisoner of war are triggered by the rattling of the teeth belonging to the soldiers Emo is so proud of killing. It takes a lot of unconscious effort to repress memories, but they cannot be fully repressed if Tayo does not avoid any and all triggers. Tayo’s following violent outburst can be attributed to the onslaught of vivid memories, each more gruesome than the last.
Tayo struggles with his memories, and learning to live again after the war. When Harley gives Tayo some wild grapes after his 'sunstroke,’ Tayo is unable to listen to the sound of the crunching seeds without wanting to vomit. "Tayo could not bite down on the seeds. Once he had loved to feel them break between his teeth, but not any more. The sound of crushing made him sick. He got up and walked the sandy trail to the spring. He didn't want to hear Harley crush the seeds" (Silko 41). Tayo feels sick at the sound of crushing, which alludes to Rocky's death. The reader learns through multiple flashbacks that Tayo watched as his cousin, Rocky, died from the strike of a rifle butt to the head during the war. This memory caused him to associate “any hollow crunching sound he heard” (Silko 40) with the sound of his cousin’s head being smashed. Rocky was not only Tayo’s cousin, but somebody that he was extremely close to. This memory not only haunts Tayo, but is a memory that he actively tries to repress and expel from his mind. Tayo repressed the memory of the sound that the butt of the rifle hitting Rocky's skull made, so now any crushing noise brings him back to that moment. Tayo is giving up things he loves, like the way that he eats the wild grapes, to keep the memories at bay, even if it is only temporarily. It is clear that despite how much effort he puts into repressing the traumatic memory of Rocky's death, he will never truly forget it. Tayo’s attempts to eliminate these triggers only serve to show the reader how deeply he wishes to bury the memories so that he can resume his normal life on the reservation.
Tayo’s mind attempts to further repress memories from the war by making Tayo experience physical symptoms such as vomiting whenever he is or is about to have a flashback. When Leroy and Harley get into a fight at a bar, Tayo is forced to drive them home. He pulls off the highway only to quickly scramble out of the truck as he “vomited out everything that he had drunk with them, and when that was gone, he was still kneeling on the road besides the truck, holding his heaving belly, trying to vomit out everything—all the past, all his life” (Silko 136). Despite how hard Tayo’s mind tries to repress the unwanted memories from the war, he is unable to fully forget. His body has therefore found a way to temporarily distract him from the past, and force him to live in the present. Vomiting allows Tayo to think of nothing but what he is currently doing, giving him a blessed reprieve from the constant flashbacks. It also allows time for his mind to further repress the memories that so easily debilitate him. Tayo once again vomits as he is captured by the cowboys working for Floyd Lee. He is sitting on the back of the cowboy’s horse when “Tayo [leans] over and vomited all over the sagebrush” (Silko 186). Tayo vomits whenever he has memories of the war threatening to take over. Tayo had just suffered from a flashback where “he thought he had been hit, and [called] Rocky for help” (Silko 184). Tayo needed a way to escape from the painful memories of the war and his dead cousin, so in an effort to sidetrack him, his mind forced him to vomit. Tayo is physically and emotionally tired, as he tries to cure himself by going through with the ceremony. His constant flashbacks leave him unable to properly function, and his mind is trying to find a way to temporarily ‘fix’ him so that he can properly complete the ceremony that Betonie declared would help him recover from his Battle Fatigue. Vomiting does not allow for Tayo to think about the war and the way that his cousin died. It is his mind’s way of taking care of him until the ceremony is finished and he no longer needs to repress the painful memories.
It is in the end of the novel that the reader is finally able to see the person Tayo is when he does not need to constantly repress the trauma of fighting in World War Two. Tayo watches from his hiding spot as Emo, Leroy, and Pinkie torture Harley, though it quickly becomes apparent that they were imagining that they were torturing Tayo. Tayo momentarily debates jumping in and saving Harley before deciding to “[move] back into the boulders” (Silko 235) and remain hidden. For the first time, Tayo is able to chose himself and walk away from a major fight. Previously, Emo had been able to provoke Tayo into “[breaking] a beer bottle against the table... [and shoving] the jagged glass into [his] belly” (Silko 48). Emo was able to goad Tayo into stabbing him, yet when faced with the decision of whether or not he should risk his life to save Harley, Tayo made the crucial decision that nobody’s life was more valuable than his own. This is significant because the United States’ military is famous for their stance of ‘no man left behind.’ The fact that Tayo realizes that his life is valuable and actively chooses to leave Harley behind means that Tayo has come to the realization that he is no longer fighting in the war. This moment also demonstrates that Tayo has stopped being controlled by the memories that his brain has been struggling so hard to repress; Tayo is fully in control of his actions for the first time in the novel. This concept is further explored when his aunt gossips about the deaths of his former friends. The scene is very domestic as old Grandma “[dozes] beside her stove with the dial turned all the way to HIGH, and Tayo [oils] his hunting boots” (Silko 240-241). Tayo is no longer repressing the memories of the war, taking away some of the mental strain and constant vigilance that he needed to employ before. He has gone back to his everyday life, finally able to interact normally with the family that he loves so dearly. Now that the ceremony is complete, he is able to not only live in the present, but look to the future. Tayo finally has his chance to be happy, and it becomes clear to the reader that he is not going to squander it.
Repressed memories serve to highlight that Tayo’s struggles to regain a sense of normalcy in Laguna all link back to the war. Tayo’s repressed memories and overall trauma from the war caused him to fail and fall down over and over again, yet the reader cannot help but root for him as he picks himself up and continues to fight to not only live, but to have a good quality of life. Tayo’s journey not only inspires hope, but allows a person to remember that there is a good reason to continue to fight no matter how many times they fall or how much it hurts to do so. It is through Tayo’s very real struggles that the reader learns that they cannot simply ignore trauma if they want to get better, and that accepting help is not an admission of weakness, but rather a sign of strength.
Carpenter, Scott. Reading Lessons. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. Penguin Group, 2006.