Interviewed by John Haggerty

Read Kathryn McMahon’s fiction piece, Pearls

John: One of the great things about this piece is the way it examines the ideas of safety and danger. A swimming pool should be a safe place, but in this case it was more perilous than the ocean. Is security just an illusion? And if so, what are we to do with this fact?

Kathryn: Yes, security is an illusion, and I don’t mean because life can change in the blink of an eye, though this is also true. While most of us don’t need to fear apex predators anymore, there are plenty of other ways that life can bite us in the a**. And many people don’t really know what security feels like, whether that has to do with financial issues or health (or both), additional impacts of marginalization, and/or being a woman out in the world. Security has a lot to do with privilege. Of course, the feeling of security can also disappear if we lose a parent or our significant other falls out of love. Trauma can also make us mistrust our sense of security even when we’re safe, or it can make us chase danger because it’s familiar territory. And sometimes it’s just hard to trust that things are okay and deal with them when they aren’t. But what choice do we have other than to plow through?

I admire the ability to approach a subject with so much subtlety. What made you decide on this oblique approach to the narrator’s victimization, rather than broach it head-on?

Sometimes when we revisit the past, we do so with an urge to fix it, and this makes the act of remembering creative and dynamic. Especially when dealing with memories we want to run from. Talking about trauma often casts the person experiencing it as passive and the event as temporary. But there is so much more to it than that. Here, I wasn’t interested in the trauma itself but in the ongoing struggle afterwards. I think sometimes we’re embarrassed by how much an old trauma might still affect us. But trauma is a strange and mysterious thing. Trauma is a time machine. It has this dark, magical quality where it can make us feel like we’re reliving the past again and again. A traumatic event turns its surroundings into a palette of symbolic triggers. A sound, a shade of blue, a particular object—any of these are enough to make someone travel back to a moment of pain. I heard Kathryn Davis once say, and I’m paraphrasing, that we live in the when, not the where. We’re used to thinking of ourselves as tied to place, but it’s really the time layered over place that’s meaningful to us. I think the ghosts from our past direct our lives more than we care to admit, and this sense of being haunted by trauma, of trauma lurking just out of sight, just below our toes in the murky waters of the subconscious, was something I wanted to explore.

Mel has somehow moved on from all of her trials in a way that the narrator hasn’t. What do you think enables some people to move on from trauma, while others remain captured by it?

The short answer is: I have no idea. But what we consider “moving on” to mean is also worth questioning. Maybe Mel has never really dealt with her trauma. Maybe she’s throwing herself into dark water to block it out. She is, after all, not facing that courtroom. Maybe it’s because she’s put her trauma behind her or maybe it’s because she’s buried it. Trauma is very good at laying its eggs in us. At making us question reality and identity and safety and any number of things. It’s a parasite riddling the self with uncertainty. I’m not sure why some people are better at shaking it than others. But I’m sure therapy helps.

Mel’s pearl diving is nicely evocative, in that objective correlative sort of way. Are you with Mel on this? Should we keep diving in shark-infested waters? Are the pearls worth it?

In general, yes. I think finding ways to make ourselves feel powerful is the best thing we can do when some part of us has been shattered. What that means is going to be different for every single person. It certainly doesn’t need to involve sharks, or even anything physical. (And other forms of healing may take priority.) But teaching ourselves to take risks—appropriate risks—is, to me, a way of teaching ourselves to trust our judgment again, to rebuild a sense of self, and to gather confidence or anything else that may have been lost. All of these are victories worth diving for.