A man cuts a woman with a knife. On the surface, those eight words are a story in themselves. But it makes a difference who the woman is, and a big difference who is doing the slicing. A doctor incising is one story, a killer slashing quite another. In her debut memoir, Mercy: A Memoir of Medical Trauma and True Crime Obsession, Trahan delves into how these stories overlap emotionally and psychically.
After two surgeries and other invasive medical procedures, Trahan becomes a devotee of true crime TV shows. While her quotidian, get-through-the-day mind understands the difference between a switchblade and a scalpel, her deeper, existential, God-don’t-let-me-die brain doesn’t. Some survival instinct in her very DNA has gone on red alert, wanting to know every possible direction from which danger could suddenly emerge. Plus, what’s more compelling than a real-life horror film?
Trahan seamlessly weaves together her experiences of operating tables and emergency rooms with the grim fairy tales offered up by shows like Forensic Files. While medical advances have made many procedures less invasive, the fear of the unknown, of our physical boundaries being breached, is as great as ever. Trahan explores the different ways we perceive the world—through thought and feeling—and gives the body its rightful, elemental place in our perceptions, and the stories we tell ourselves.
The Rumpus: Let me start at the beginning. The title of your book is Mercy: A Memoir of Medical Trauma and True Crime Obsession. I love how the word “mercy” can be read simply as a noun, or as a plea, which mirrors the dual narrative. Did you have the title early on, or did it reveal itself as you discovered your metaphors? And, if the latter, which metaphors ultimately led you to mercy?
Marcia Trahan: Oh, I struggled over the title! I originally called the book The Semiprofessional Patient, because it was then exclusively a medical story. But as I began to include true crime, I knew I’d have to find a new title. So I started making lists of words that resonated with both the medical trauma and the true crime aspects of the book, and “mercy” kept coming up. Yes, it’s both a noun and a plea, and that seemed to fit the two aspects of the narrative. It brings to mind the mercy bestowed by lifesaving medicine and the mercy withheld by violent criminals. I also find it a beautiful word. I love one-word titles, but the word has to be an exact fit with the material and grab readers’ attention.
Rumpus: I also love the structure of Mercy and how its complexity plays off the beauty of the one-word title. Many writers work on braided essays, but carrying that strategy of weaving together different themes in a book-length narrative is a feat. Was that a struggle, or did the structure help you tell your story? Can you let us know about your process?
Trahan: Thank you! Throughout the five years I spent writing the book, I struggled with structure, constantly moving chapters around, taking them out, putting them back in. The original manuscript implied a connection between medical trauma and violence and didn’t make that connection explicit until quite late in the story, so the structure was looser.
Rumpus: What caused the change?
Trahan: When Barrelhouse Books accepted the manuscript, the editors, Mike Ingram and Lilly Dancyger, encouraged me to say more about true crime throughout the book, and to make implicit connections explicit. Putting their suggestions into practice was an intellectually thrilling experience for me. I linked true crime with medical trauma as well as with issues around marriage and family of origin. I’ve never written a braided essay, so yes, weaving together themes for a whole book was a huge challenge. I’m immensely grateful for Mike and Lilly’s help with expanding on these themes and solidifying the structure. The book is much richer for it.
Rumpus: As with the title, you’re brilliant in coming up with single words to convey a whole world, as it were. For another example, you coin the term “undermind” to name that part of our psyche that is part Id, part subconscious, part myth-maker. I love how you use it to explain the way the body conflates two different kinds of violence against it, medical violence that heals, and criminal violence that kills. How early in the writing process were you able to put a term to what unites your twin obsessions, and can you explain more about its relationship with your obsessions?
Trahan: Yes, I call the unconscious “undermind” because it’s the underlying and undermining part of our minds. I initially thought of my medical experiences as things that would upset anyone, such as two surgeries to remove a cancerous thyroid, a blood clot filter breaking inside the main vein leading to my heart, intensive dental work that lasted for many hours. Who wouldn’t be disturbed by such things?
Rumpus: Right. I’m a hypochondriac, yet the book, and that word, bring the narrative to a deeper level.
Trahan: I’m glad you think so. Until I considered the unconscious mind, I didn’t understand how those experiences affected me in particular, considering how I’d grown up being afraid of men, and how all of my doctors and dentists were men. When I began reading about the unconscious and thinking about how it was connected to my medical trauma, it was just before I started writing the book. My unconscious knew I needed to watch true crime TV—which I know sounds like an excuse!
Rumpus: But it certainly wasn’t.
Trahan: Exactly. After my medical experiences, I was driven to binge-watch programs I previously wouldn’t have watched for five minutes. I ultimately figured out that it was my unconscious, searching for symbolic representations of my procedures, such as men invading women’s bodies the way male physicians had invaded mine. I realized that the unconscious doesn’t register a doctor’s good intentions; it only registers that something has happened to the body. I think I was a few years into the book before the word “undermind” occurred to me.
I now look frequently to my undermind for clues as to what is going on for me psychologically. For example, if I tell myself that I’m not that stressed out but I find myself with a stomach ache or insomnia, I pay attention to those cues. That’s my undermind saying, “Hey, you are stressed out, and you need to take care of yourself!” My undermind is smarter than I am, basically.
Rumpus: I’d say you’re very smart! For example, in the book you write this brilliant line: “In true crime, the complexities of a woman’s life are erased by her murder.” Being a memoirist is quite the opposite. Writing isn’t therapy. Still, can you talk about whether exploring and revealing the complexities of your life in Mercy provided some measure of emotional, spiritual, or even physical healing? And, if so, how?
Trahan: Memoir is about recreating the complexities of a life. It was painful to revisit my medical trauma and the ways in which I learned to fear men as a young girl, but it was also empowering. At last, I’ve made sense of a lifetime’s worth of fears, making connections I don’t think I would have made in a therapist’s office. I think a memoirist often has to go even deeper than a therapy client might, because readers expect memoirists to recreate all the details of her life events and provide a vicarious experience, plus offer deep insights into that experience. The process of writing Mercy has allowed me to understand myself more fully than I did in therapy, and that understanding has granted me some degree of emotional and spiritual healing.
Rumpus: Right, there are different ways to “discover” the self, such as in therapy, through writing, through pop culture—which true crime stories kind of are.
Trahan: Yes, I’d definitely classify true crime TV as pop culture.
Rumpus: And in true crime stories, I’m fascinated by how actors recreate victims’ lives and deaths. You write that, “These women are often made more beautiful by their elegant passivity.” Writing somehow allows us simultaneously to be ourselves, as well as to be our own creations. Can you talk about how you either did or didn’t experience that kind of “split-screen” perception of your life while writing about it, and what that felt like?
Trahan: There were times when I tried to distance myself from the subject matter, as if what was happening to the person on the page had never happened to me. For instance, when I read my thyroid surgical reports in preparation for writing about the surgeries, I initially told myself, I’m so over this; this happened years ago; this can’t bother me anymore. But every time I revisited those reports, I found that my body had grown cold. Every time. That’s my pesky undermind at work again! It recorded everything that’s ever happened to me, and it’s not shy about reminding me of what I think I’m supposed to be “over.” The surgical reports essentially showed that under anesthesia, I had achieved that “elegant passivity.” That’s what the culture wants from women, even (or especially) if we have to die to get there.
Rumpus: And women do die, sometimes physically, other times emotionally. Your book seems so timely. The country is gripped both by a pandemic and by a spasm of violence sparked by police brutality. Could you talk about any similarities you might see between your personal experience and our collective experience?
Trahan: It’s actually been tricky to talk about Mercy during this time. Part of that is the fact that it’s so strange to celebrate a personal accomplishment in an era of enormous loss and upheaval. I’ve thought, What does my book matter when there is so much pain and turmoil and injustice, so many things that are much bigger than my life? But I believe that memoir is about far more than one person’s experiences; it should be about the world that shapes those experiences, about the world we all live in. I also believe that we always need books, to keep our minds sharp and our power of empathy alive.
In the midst of the pandemic, we rightly see doctors as heroes. In “normal” times, we necessarily have a more complex view of doctors, and Mercy speaks to that complexity. Overall, it’s a story of illness, fear, love, trauma, and survival, and these are aspects of being human that are relevant now, and will always be relevant.
I’ll be interested to see if any patients who survived COVID-19 report experiencing medical trauma. When we receive life-saving treatment, we may simply be grateful or we may wrestle with the psychological and physical aftermath. For example, I’ve never been on a ventilator, but I’m thinking it must be so scary to come out of anesthesia and find you’ve been intubated. It seems incredibly invasive to me, even though it’s absolutely essential in dire situations. My medical treatments were both absolutely essential and traumatic.
Rumpus: So having written about both medical procedures and true crime shows, do you feel differently about either? Do you still watch Forensic Files with the same fascination? Would you still have the same trepidation if you faced another visit to a surgeon?
Trahan: After I finished the final revisions of Mercy, I found I was less interested in watching true crime. I’d spent all this time criticizing it, and I guess my own criticisms got to me. I would come across the description of an episode for Forensic Files and start reading, “A young woman’s body is found in a swamp,” and I’d automatically think, That’s horrible! I don’t want to watch this. Because I know how these stories typically go: the young woman’s death is what matters, not her life, and she’s probably white and attractive since our culture wouldn’t care about her death otherwise. Her family gets maybe a minute to grieve on camera. A part of me was just done with this kind of story once the book was finished.
But my medical trauma is not resolved; I’m still processing it. If I ever have to face another surgery, I know I’ll be scared, and I won’t be surprised if I turn back to true crime. It’s hard to explain my dread of invasive medical procedures; people have always said well-meaning things like, “Well, at least they’ll take care of the problem,” which doesn’t take my fear into account. True crime TV, for all of its faults, acknowledges that scary things happen to our bodies, and for that reason, it offers a strange kind of comfort. For the record, I do use healthy methods of dealing with trauma, like yoga, meditation, and journaling. So to prepare for another surgery, I’d probably use true crime TV and downward dog! Though not at the same time. That would be too weird, even for me.
Read an exclusive excerpt from Mercy here.
Photograph of Marcia Trahan by David Seaver.