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“The main character is totally vicious, but she has her reasons. Actually, she kind of reminds me of you.” The friend who insisted that I read The Hunger Games knew me all too well. Still, I wasn’t sure if I was insulted or flattered.

Prickly. Proud. Calculating. Hard-nosed. Hard-assed. Lethal. These are the adjectives ascribed to sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, the hardscrabble heroine conscripted into a gladiatorial arena as popcorn fodder for the proletariat. Even fans of the book fault Katniss for her arctic reserve: “Yeah I was kind of not a fan of Katniss as a protagonist,” says i09 commenter CaffeineNictoteneVodka.  “She seems to run from this hero role kicking and screaming … And she has no idea how ridiculously awesome of a man Peeta is.”  Fellow commenter Vvornth concurs: “While being an iconic person Katniss acts in a completely selfish and unsympathetic manner.”

These masterful grammarians were responding to an article called “10 Things from the Hunger Games Books That the Movies Probably Can’t Pull Off.” The eighth thing, according to writer Meredith Woerner, is that “Katniss is pretty awful.” I don’t think I’d realized how thoroughly I empathized with the girl on fire until the troll patrol raised my hackles.

If she’s selfish, unsympathetic, and straight up awful, I thought, then so am I. So is anyone who has ever had to make a quick, unflinching decision just to survive—whether that means literally seeing another sunrise or just getting the beating to stop.

Katniss comes of age in a North America that’s a butcher’s map of a continent called Panem, where a sinister Capitol oversees twelve districts. Every year, in each of these districts, a boy and a girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen are plucked from a lottery to battle to the death on national television. If they’re lucky enough to be popular, the audience might sponsor them and have supplies airlifted into the arena. When Katniss’ twelve-year-old sister, Prim, is reaped, she volunteers to take her place as tribute.

But long before she was dodging knives in the arena, Katniss sacrificed her youth to a mother “who sat by, blank and unreachable, while her children turned to skin and bones”; to a sister who was too soft and too sweet to be anything but helpless. By becoming head of the household after her father dies, she keeps her family fed, but she’ll never have the luxury of innocence. Not like her sister, who remains “as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named.”

Even Prim, who Katniss calls “the only person I’m certain I love,” is seen as just another mouth to feed, “always asking for more.” This acidity eats through my tone when my mother calls, though many years have passed since she put ice packs on my jaw and sponged foundation over black eyes while thanking me for “being brave” and “standing up for your brother.”

My mother, my brother and I didn’t fear the goose-stepping soldiers of a cruel Capitol; we feared my father’s silences. Just as the citizens of Panem learned and re-learned how to live under the ever-shifting restrictions of a capricious regime, we learned and re-learned which look meant he was happy drunk, and which look meant he was the other kind. Just as tributes pandered to the cameras in the hope of getting something, anything, to put in their bellies or soothe a wound, we kept the house spotless, we brought home A’s. Something, anything, so that the sound that broke his silence was a murmur of approval, and not the throat clearing cough that meant he was too angry to speak.

Though my copy of Bastard Out of Carolina has been dog-eared to tatters and I still won’t lend out Happy Baby because I can’t bear not to have it on hand, though I cried so hard reading The Chronology of Water that I spooked the dog, it is a YA trilogy—one fueling a frenzy of merchandising and Team So-and-So vs. Team WhatsHisFace hashtags—that resonated the most with me. Reading Katniss’ voice—raw yet wry—was like opening a door on my sixteen-year-old self; watching the fear flutter through her carefully arranged restraint is like looking in a mirror.

What the Hunger Games gets, unequivocally, heart-wrenchingly gets, is that survival—whether that means putting food on the table, shooting an arrow into your enemy’s throat, or standing in the kitchen of your father’s house and telling him, in a voice that surprises you with its steadiness, that you’ll kill him if he hits you, your mother or your little brother ever again—is not a happy ending. Not in and of itself. Not when getting up every morning, getting out of the arena, getting off the living room floor, means getting to the point where anything that isn’t putting one foot in front of the other is just pointless—even if that anything is tenderness; especially if that anything is tenderness. Let alone love.

Yes, Katniss is callous, jarringly so; no, she doesn’t realize how ridiculously awesome Peeta, her fellow tribute, is. Or maybe she does: “A kind Peeta Mellark is far more dangerous to me than an unkind one. Kind people have a way of working their way inside me and rooting there. And I can’t let Peeta do this. Not where we’re going.”

Letting him under our skin would push us out of our shells, reminding us that there is softness and sweetness in the world. And, just as a kiss or a touch is tender, so is a creature scooped from its shell.

 

Though I’ve written reams of papers about gender and violence and the hero archetype, I’d never read anything that came close to describing that feeling—that mix of brute fear and odd calm—of knowing that you’re taking a beating so someone else—someone softer, someone sweeter—won’t have to.  And then I read the reaping scene.

“There must’ve been some mistake. This can’t be happening … I see her, the blood drained from her face … and I see the back of her blouse has become untucked and hangs over her skirt … It is this detail that brings me back to myself.

‘Prim!’ The strangled cry comes out of my throat and my muscles begin to move again … With one sweep of my arm, I push her behind me.

‘I volunteer!’ I gasp. ‘I volunteer as tribute!’”

I couldn’t breathe again until I closed the book. I set it on the coffee table (part of the first matching set of furniture I’ve ever owned) and paced around my apartment, stopping at the bookshelf. I picked up the dictionary and looked up tribute: “A stated sum or other valuable consideration paid by one sovereign or another in acknowledgement of subjugation or price of peace, security, protection or the like.” Despite myself, I smiled: All those years, I’d been doing so much more than “starting trouble” first, so I could get hit instead of my brother; I was offering protection.

Every time I spilled the milk, slammed the door, or looked at him the wrong way, I was as noble as Katniss ascending that stage. The Hunger Games has gifted me with a new way of perceiving the lowest moments of my life. I am not just the girl whose skin burns from the sting of leather; I am the girl on fire.

Cheryl Strayed, writing as Sugar, once said: “Art isn’t an anecdote. It is the consciousness we bring to bear on our lives.”  Whenever I can bear to remember myself as a young girl, I will still see—will always see—my arms thrown over my face to block the blows.  But now I have the image of another brave girl about to take another kind of beating, a girl surrounded by the protective silence of her home district, “Which says we do not agree. We do not condone. All of this is wrong.”

 

Whenever I wrote about being a survivor (such a clean, sanitized word; like a lead actress in a horror flick, artfully spattered with cornstarch blood), I never addressed how living through the violence made me vicious in turn. I never staged the scenes where I broke every single dish in a college boyfriend’s apartment, or screamed at one ex so loud and for so long that he spat back, “Why don’t you just threaten to kill me like you did to your father?” I never described bloodying my knuckles on the wall behind his head because I was so close, too close, to punching him in the face.

“Every tribute has a list of kills,” Katniss reflects. “A bow pulled, an arrow shot … I killed a boy whose name I don’t even know.” Even Peeta, “the boy with the bread” who has shown her unconditional kindness, can be as expendable as the boy with no name: “There will be twenty-four of us. Odds are someone else will kill him before I do.”

These books illustrate why PTSD is—as my former shrink once put it—the gift that keeps on giving: Nobody will be trustworthy, not entirely. Not when our parents and our governments, the very people who were supposed to protect us (or at least not cause us harm) are the ones who’ve thrown us in the midst of swinging fists and tracker jacker stings. How can we ever believe in anyone, even when we know (intellectually, at least) that we should? And if we can’t believe in anyone, why should we be anyone worth believing in?  The Hunger Games trilogy gives an arrow-strike of a pulse to what Genet called “the irreducibility of terror.”

More importantly, they gave me a heroine who is unflinchingly candid, and entirely unapologetic—about her own brutality; about who she had to become so that she could survive. In the third book, Mockingjay, Peeta mocks Katniss for her lack of empathy: “You’re a piece of work, aren’t you?” Though she doesn’t betray her anger in front of him, Katniss is stirred by his words—not to feelings of sorrow or regret, but a sense of grim resignation: “Finally, he can see me for who I really am. Violent. Distrustful. Manipulative. Deadly.”

This is what the arena—whether it’s a booby-trapped woodland or our living rooms—turns us into. We can’t regret that, because being all of those things is what got us out alive. Still, those of us who have survived know, just as Katniss knows, that we’ll “never go home, not really.” We’ll spend the rest of our lives trying to think our way out.

 

Cruel. Blunt. Hard-nosed. Hard-assed. Distrustful. Vicious. These are the adjectives ascribed to a thirteen-year-old Laura Bogart, an eighteen-year-old Laura Bogart, a twenty-five-year-old Laura Bogart. Colleagues and lovers alike lobbed them at me, as I grew older and grew up. I matured into a woman who considers other people’s feelings; a woman with a graduate degree and a great job, a string of publications and an apartment spacious enough to host dinner parties. Friends who stay up long past their bedtimes to help me with a work-in-progress I’m tearing my hair out over. Sure, sometimes they call me cranky, but they know I have their back.

Yet I found myself nodding tearfully at the end of Mockingjay, when a battle-worn Katniss confesses that, “on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in anything because I’m afraid it could be taken away.” Though she tries to remember every act of kindness she’s ever seen, I soothe myself by remembering that we are the sum of our choices. I can be the girl who said she’d kill her own father and I can be the girl who loved her little brother so much that she went into the arena for him.

Katniss may be abrasive, even ruthless, but she is also tough and fair and loyal when it counts. Her heroism isn’t just piercing the villains with her arrows; she takes a fire “kindled with rage and hatred” and subsumes it. What remains is “the bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction.”  The promise that life goes on is only fulfilled when we move beyond mere survival, when we allow ourselves to embrace the tenderness that terrifies us more than anything a gamemaker ever dreamed up.

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Laura Bogart LAURA BOGART is a writer/editor who can't seem to find it in her heart to leave Baltimore for too long. Her work has appeared in Wazee Journal, 34th Parallel, Xenith, Glossolalia, and Full of Crow, among others. Her piece "The Seduction of Lobster Boy" appeared in the inaugural issue of Ne'er Do Well magazine. In 2009, she was awarded a Grace Paley Fellowship by the Juniper Institute at UMass Amherst. She is currently working on a novel she can only describe as Kill Bill meets Lolita at the sideshow. She's also piecing together a collection of linked stories. Laura relies on her dog Tova to nudge her away from the laptop when she's been staring at the screen for too long.

45 Responses to “What The Hunger Games Gave Me”

  1. tree turtle says:

    Splendidly well done.

  2. Mela says:

    Brava, Laura. Beautiful as always.

  3. Arielle Bernstein says:

    Some are Team Katniss. I am Team Laura Bogart. :)

  4. Tammy Allen says:

    I’ve been looking forward to reading this series. From what I’ve heard from my eleven year old daughter and movie previews, your assessment of Katniss is stingingly accurate. I especially appreciate that you wove in PTSD and its inherent relate ability to the kind of mindset it takes to survive.

    “These books illustrate why PTSD is—as my former shrink once put it—the gift that keeps on giving: Nobody will be trustworthy, not entirely. Not when our parents and our governments, the very people who were supposed to protect us (or at least not cause us harm) are the ones who’ve thrown us in the midst of swinging fists and tracker jacker stings. How can we ever believe in anyone, even when we know (intellectually, at least) that we should? And if we can’t believe in anyone, why should we be anyone worth believing in? The Hunger Games trilogy gives an arrow-strike of a pulse to what Genet called “the irreducibility of terror.””

    Thanks for the great read.

  5. Michele Powell says:

    Wow. Deja vu. So I am not alone in both upbringing and view of these books! Good to know! Who I am seems to always be an issue. My rightness seems to piss people off, yet they never seem to want to know the whys and the hows. You learn a lot about life, body language, energy, etc. when you grow up the way we did. I too have the, “Touch her again and I promise I will gut you with this knife,” moment. When you learn the fullness of who you are and what you are capable of at such a young age, it robs you of that youthfulness you should have experienced. It changes how you view the world and yourself. It often puts you on a level that few can view, nor understand. I am so very tired of making excuses for who I am. I came from a noble place within myself, and I will not apologize for that. If they care to listen though, I will explain to the best of my ability! I may not be the smartest girl, but I could possibly be one of the wisest. Looks like I am in good company too!
    Michele P.
    Temecula, CA

    • Laura Bogart says:

      “When you learn the fullness of who you are and what you are capable of at such a young age, it robs you of that youthfulness you should have experienced. It changes how you view the world and yourself. It often puts you on a level that few can view, nor understand.” Yes. This. A thousand times, this. We are the lion-hearted, Michele. We really are. We must never forget it.

  6. angela says:

    Laura, I loved this.

    I don’t remember ever disliking Katniss while the I read the series. I always thought she simply had to do anything she could to survive.

    • Laura Bogart says:

      Oh, thank you, Angela. Thank you so much.

      I was utterly gobsmacked by some of the comments on that article (and by the article itself, which was by a writer I usually admire!). I was like, did y’all read the same book I did? It was all about survival, and about protecting those she loved most (even though she sometimes had to hurt those same people).

  7. Meg Tuite says:

    What a powerful review!!! I haven’t read these books, but believe I should!! “I can be the girl who said she’d kill her own father and I can be the girl who loved her little brother so much that she went into the arena for him.” You are my hero, Laura, for bringing everything you write back to that place where it becomes about all of us! It breathes our realities!! That’s what it’s all about!! Thank you so much for your bravery, your exquisite writing, your truth!!! And I will always have your back, sister! I’m scrappy!!

    • Laura Bogart says:

      Oh, Meg, you are too sweet and wonderful. I do believe you and I would make a very fine pair in the arena! In all seriousness, though, these are such kind words from a brilliant writer and I thank you!

  8. tanita says:

    Thank you for articulating what possibly drew me to the books, and kept me reading. I have my doubts that the movie is going to “get it” at all, but knowing that this larger truths are there within the text, waiting for the next reader who needs them, gives me a feeling of …relief. Again, thanks.

    • Laura Bogart says:

      Thank you, Tanita. I really appreciate you reading. I share your fears about the movie, but from what I’ve heard, it’s pretty faithful. Everything I’ve seen (I can NOT stop watching those teasers that have been posted) leads me to believe that Jennifer Lawrence will do right by Katniss.

  9. zoe zolbrod says:

    Elegant, powerful, fierce essay, sparking my first interest in The Hunger Games. Thank you.

  10. [...] What The Hunger Games Gave Me This one is about the writer’s personal response as an abuse survivor to Katniss’s focus on survival. It’s the character’s key trait; it’s what makes her strong and also sometimes unappealing. [...]

  11. Seth Pollins says:

    This is a wonderful essay, Laura. Like Zoe above, you’ve sparked my first interest in The Hunger Games, as well as your other work.

    “The Hunger Games has gifted me with a new way of perceiving the lowest moments of my life.”

    Isn’t this what great writing is all about, gifting us with new ways of perceiving the lowest (or, really, all) moments of life? James Hillman did this for me in the wake of a crushing medical diagnosis. On the other hand, each summer, I read Gatsby in anticipation of re-perceiving the new, life-filled season. Your essay has had a similar effect: you’ve gifted me with a new way of perceiving heroism. Good on you, Bogart.

    • Laura Bogart says:

      Oh, thank you, Seth. My monitor is getting a little blurry. I really do believe, with every fiber of my being, the power behind that Strayed quote. Art gives us a way of seeing ourselves reflected in our most troubled moments, and, in doing so, give us hope.

  12. Alysa says:

    This is a fantastic, moving piece. I’m really gratified that the books spoke to you — I had some friends who found the ending to the series unsatisfactory. I, for one, thought they couldn’t really end any other way. Well, I suppose they could but it would have been phony. The series is one of those that makes me grateful for my relatively uneventful life and peaceful existence. Its a wonderful reminder, every now and then, to get some perspective and be able to say again, “I really do have it good.”

    • Laura Bogart says:

      Thank you, Alysa! I agree with you about the end of Mockingjay. I loved the way it realistically reflected that the impacts of trauma don’t always go away, but can become muted. Katniss does mourn who she was, or who she could have been if this hadn’t happened, but she looks to the future with a strength of will that I found so very heartening.

  13. [...] –What The Hunger Games Gave Me–insightful article about domestic violence and Katniss’s character [...]

  14. marcella says:

    I avoided reading Hunger Games for awhile thinking “that’s not my kind of book.” When I finally gave it a try, I was immediately captivated by Katniss. I too had a mother debilitated by depression and saw Katniss as a kindred soul. Thank you for your beautiful essay; sharing your experience will open the eyes of some & offer the solace of not being the only one to others.

  15. Rachel says:

    Damn. Breathtaking review. I agree with you on so many levels. As a survivor (different background than yours, but survivor nonetheless), Katniss resonates because she does what she has to in order to survive. As you did, as do we all. And there is collateral damage that comes with that. But never an apology for surviving. There is a fierce beauty in being so strong to weather such storms. That fierce beauty shows through in your writing. Thank you for this.

    • Laura Bogart says:

      Thank you so much, Rachel. The unflinching ways the books portray the aftermath of trauma really moved me. I was really heartened and inspired by that honesty. Katniss never apologizes for all she had to do to survive, but the things that were done to her and to the ones she loves will always resonate. I would love to give Suzanne Collins a big hug for bringing Katniss to our world!

  16. Charles Bogle says:

    Just curious, as you touch on some aspects of the books that you feel would be difficult to get into a film…

    Have you seen the movie of the first book? How do you feel the filmmakers did, particularly with those hard-to-translate parts of the story and characters?

    • Laura Bogart says:

      Hi Charles, I did see the movie this weekend. I don’t want to get too spoilerish for the folks who haven’t seen it yet, but I do think it was a pretty terrific translation. The reaping scene still haunts me. There were certainly a few areas they had to truncate or express in shorthand (or else they movie would have been three hours), and for the most part, these were deftly, intelligently done. I did feel the ending was a bit rushed (and that the stakes at the very end of the novel, in terms of Katniss and Peeta’s physical conditions, were much higher; I wish they’d have kept a bit more of that in the film), but Jennifer Lawrence was the perfect Katniss. Truly, she was stunning.

  17. Darmowe Ogłoszenia…

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  18. Jalang says:

    To learn to let Peeta in would be a devastating journey. Anybody who understands where this character is knows that. You look around the real world and see people who connect with all the wrong people over and over again. Stepping out of their comfort zone is what it takes, and that’s courage that only comes with age and wisdom.

  19. [...] Katniss’ goodbye scene with her mom was appropriately harsh, given how angry Katniss is about how her mother has failed her and Prim. It connected well for me with this very nicely done essay about Katniss and domestic violence. [...]

  20. antoniacrane says:

    Bogart gave me full throttle chills because she articulated the words rolling around in my throat since I finally saw Hunger Games yesterday—right after I received a phone call that my friend Brian died at 39. Talk about the bright yellow of rebirth. I didn’t see the heroine as ruthless or callous. I saw her as generous, loyal and feisty. And, I never once trusted that blonde boy Peeta. I felt similarly when I first saw the movie “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”—hello Donald Sutherland once again. He coached Buffy and while watching her kick ass said, “Finally, a real slayer.”

    • Laura Bogart says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Antonia. I’m so sorry about the loss of your friend. He’ll be in my thoughts.

      Oh yes, that was one of my favorite moments in the Buffy movie. The TV show was a really good friend to me during some rough times, too. Buffy and Katniss share an innate goodness and decency that I’ve always sought to emulate.

  21. Fawn Neun says:

    This speaks to me of another unfair onus – the one that girls be “likable.” Always.

    Greatness does not require likability.

    It’s okay for girls to be Great.

  22. rebecca says:

    I had a non-traumatic childhood and a trauma in adulthood (a spouse who killed himself when we were 27). I really love your post. I loved Katniss all along — it never once occured to me to find her unkind or callous. She was living life. She was breathing every day, taking the next breath, hunting the next piece of game for food, hunting the next tribute to STAY ALIVE. She was doing what she had to do. What’s callous in the series is the society — the institutionalized murder and starvation. When people find Katniss unkind, I feel like I’m on a different planet from them; I can’t even parse it.

    • Laura Bogart says:

      I’m so sorry for your loss, Rebecca. Breathing every day is all that we can ever do, really. I think the people who found Katniss unkind or callous perhaps had the luxury of never knowing what it’s like to really be in that position where you have to be a little hard and a little rough to make it through the day. I’m glad the rest of us have figures like Katniss to cleave on to.

  23. FB says:

    First of all, thank you for your post. Just like when I read the Hunger Games for the first time, it is such a pleasure and relief to read that somebody gets what you have to do, who you have to be, to survive. I was also physically abused, in my case by therapists. My uncle, who is a doctor, finally admitted that the therapy I have been subjected to from age two was nothing less than torture – something the doctors don’t usually tell the parents for fear it might make them stop the treatment (go figure). So as I was driven to a torturer four times a week where my parents stood by while I screamed and begged, only to do it to me at home, I learned the price of helplessness and trust. It made me a person who goes to work with screaming back pain because A: I was taught to disregard pain and B: I will not lose my job and my independence, however many painkillers I have to take. In the end, you have to be able to stand up for yourself and endure pain, because you can’t know someone else will, even when they love you – especially when they love you. So survived-but every unexpected touch literally burns my skin.

    And then there is the other side, the side of the dandelion in the spring, which Prim represents. Because I think you don’t give her enough credit. Even when their father died, Prim wasn’t helpless. When Katniss found the flowers, she asked: “What else? What else can we find?” And she nursed Ladyback to health, supplying the family with a lasting supplyof milk and cheese, something Katniss couldn’t provide.
    Even Buttercup proved useful in the end, entertaining 13 and guarding Katniss from the night when Prim died. Prim needed Katniss for protection and Katniss needed Prim to stay sane. She could not live without Prim, she even looked for a Prim substitute in the Arena, which was decidedly not practical.
    Katniss needs the softness of Prim to survive but she instinctively knows she needs to protect it because it is too fragile to withstand brute force. Katniss can withstand it- but only because Prim fuels her with the tenderness that is incompatible with the toughness she needs to keep them all alive.

  24. FB says:

    Sorry Laura, I just wanted to make the word *gets* bold. My post is a bit too strong now. I don’t know how to work this computer that well… Can you moderate the post?

  25. Crince Rice says:

    I do not even know the way I ended up right here, however I thought this put up used to be great. I do not understand who you are but certainly you are going to a famous blogger for those who aren’t already. Cheers!

  26. Sharon Kass says:

    Re your “Family Values” piece:

    I’m sorry you grew up in a dysfunctional (to say the least!) home. So did I.

    But family structure really does matter. Children have innate gender needs that only an intact (husband-wife-headed) family can fulfill.

    That’s a fact, whether liberals like it or not.

    –Sharon Kass
    http://www.fatherhood.org
    http://www.narth.com

    • Laura Bogart says:

      Can you quantify what these “gender needs” are? Or even what “gender needs” even means? Or why gender needs can’t be met by friends and family of same-gendered parents. Probably not. It sounds like you want to cloak your bigotry and homophobia in the mantle of the “traditional” two-person home, which means you completely and entirely missed the point of that piece. There’s a term in therapy that describes what happens when someone who has been bullied and abused takes on the attributes of the bullies and abusers, and that term is “identifying with the aggressor.” Look it up.

  27. Howdy! I know this is kinda off topic but I was wondering if you knew where I could find a
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