In 2011, a mother in New York state drove her children into a river in a tragic and bizarre case that made national news. Only one of her children, a 10-year-old boy, survived. Author Helene Dunbar was haunted by the story, and couldn’t help but wonder what that boy’s life would be like. These Gentle Wounds is her answer to that question.
These Gentle Wounds follows 15-year-old Gordie, who is suffering from severe PTSD five years after surviving his mother’s attempt to kill him, along with his siblings and herself. Gordie’s life after the incident is fragile, as is his mental health. When his abusive and absent biological father unexpectedly reinserts himself into Gordie’s life, Gordie is forced to face the debilitating consequences of his trauma all over again. Though he has always been dependent on his half-brother Kevin’s help in his journey through grief, Gordie must find his own strength in order to overcome his devastating past.
“I think that loss is universal. We all lose friends – maybe not through tragedy, but through moves or simply growing apart. So it’s kind of a universal feeling,” said author Helene Dunbar in a recent interview.
In These Gentle Wounds, Gordie deals with the destructiveness of loss, as well as the quieter, more intimate emotions that come with it. Dunbar, who isn’t unfamiliar with loss herself, balances the light and dark of emotional trauma beautifully, perhaps in part because she understands it so well. When she was thirteen, her mother passed away suddenly.
“I was fortunate as a teenager to be very close to my father and my grandparents and aunts, uncles and cousins,” she said, recalling how her support system enabled her to navigate her grief. “I had this happy, strong support system. But even that didn’t shield me from the grief of losing my mom. There’s no way it could have.”
For Dunbar, writing is an avenue through which she still explores her own experiences. “As a reader, I like books that make me cry because I want to be affected that deeply. I think there is some of that in why I write about serious subjects and why I write YA.”
Though she now admits that her own experiences did informThese Gentle Wounds in some way, Dunbar didn’t actually recognize the way her past would be relevant when she was writing.
“I spoke with a close friend after These Gentle Wounds came out and I said something about how I needed to talk about the book, but didn’t have anything from my own life to draw on, and she laughed at me.”
In These Gentle Wounds, Gordie’s grief is compounded by extreme Post Traumatic Stress, and his mental health unravels as his anxiety and fear escalate. Dunbar was very deliberate in her exploration of PTSD in Gordie.
“Gordie’s voice was always very clear in my head and I had a strong sense of how he viewed the world and how he saw himself in it. So when I began to research the many ways in which his PTSD might show itself, it was pretty clear to me how he would have been changed by his experiences and want he would do to comfort himself,” said Dunbar.
For Gordie, PTSD manifests through debilitating flashbacks, physical “ticks,” and even hallucinations. “Childhood trauma has been proven to affect the developing brain in many ways. But there are no cookie-cutter set of symptoms or manifestations of that trauma,” Dunbar explained. While Gordie’s “spins,” as he calls his episodes, are disturbing, they are also familiar and strangely comforting for him, which only complicates his ability to process his experiences. “[Gordie’s spins] are also the only connection he has with his mother at all, so he gets a strange sort of comfort from them at the same time.”
It is exactly this type of nuance that makes Gordie’s character and mental illness so remarkable. Dunbar isn’t afraid to push against a reader’s comfort level, and she doesn’t hold back when it comes to Gordie’s struggles.
“I think the whole issue of mental health in teens is a complicated one,” said Dunbar. She acknowledges that mental illness is never a black and white issue, and many times, especially in cases of trauma, families aren’t always able to step up and support their teens because they are facing their own struggles.
“I have many teacher friends who have shared the ways in which they’ve had to step in to help students because their parents have been otherwise unaware, unavailable, or just don’t know how to deal with it in light of their own issues.”
In Gordie’s case, the people he considers family aren’t necessarily capable of helping him out, but he certainly isn’t alone. “He has a lot of people reaching out to him, but he isn’t ready to take the step of accepting their help,” said Dunbar. Though Gordie’s perspective is often skewed by his grief, he manages to avoid getting completely lost in his isolation.
“Ultimately he really doesn’t believe that he deserves their help, and it isn’t until he finds a cause that feels much bigger than himself that he is able to face his his fears.” Community becomes an invaluable aspect of Gordie’s recovery.
The idea of community, and the value of friendship, is something Dunbar clearly values. From Gordie’s own ragtag family, to the intense trio of friends in her upcoming book What Remains, to her own experiences as a teenager, Dunbar explores how an individual’s community can be defining, challenging, and healing. Dunbar said that as a teenager she had “extremely close friends and was certain that those friendships would continue forever (and many have).” Her upcoming book, What Remains, explores the friendship of three extremely close friends. Dunbar did want to explore grief and loss in her newest book, but she was also motivated by her own experience of teen friendship while writing.
“The friendships in What Remains are really intense and all-encompassing and that’s what I wanted to focus on. The triad of Cal, Lizzie, and Spencer is something I’m really proud of.”
[EDIT] The original post incorrectly listed the These Gentle Wounds release date as May 15th and has been edited to reflect the correct date.