I came home last night to my father-in-law watching movies downstairs; which is normally the case in this new life of mine. It took me a moment to realize that he was watching the last movies in my favorite series; Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. I know, I know… I can hear now the cries of why I “should love something more than a current popular series.” But if you’ve never read the series, or perhaps… never read it from my perspective, you have no idea what lies beneath all that clever text.
First of all, I’m a Journalism and Public Communications major, turned professional communicator, turned author/activist. I take true delight in the fact that the series reflects lessons in the power of propaganda as much as it does the horrific costs of war. Secondly, I identify with Katniss Everdeen on a level that sometimes frightens me, and keeps me awake on long nights like tonight when I have nothing but my own mind to keep me company.
Initially, Katniss is the unsuspecting victim of incredibly bad luck, and soon finds herself in a battle for her very life. However, a young boy from her home, Peeta Mellark, is pulled into the same string of bad luck. By the end the series, Katniss’s actions have little to nothing to do with the preservation of her own life. She is instead motivated by a desperation to keep Peeta alive, and kill the one she sees as responsible for the suffering of Peeta and countless others.
I first read, or devoured might be more accurate, The Hunger Games series after the release of the first movie. Yes, I am typically that person. My husband, the proud bibliophile, had read them long before, and been the one who convinced me to see the film. After coming home from watching the movie, I read the entire series in a matter of two days. While I found the first and second books captivating, it was the third book - Mockingjay - where I began to draw personal parallels I would never be free from.
As I pad restlessly around my house once again tonight, I realize that the more time has passed since that initial warning tremor in my spine all those years ago, the more of Katniss’s experiences become eerily similar to my own. Katniss’s experiences revolve around a war that results from the cruelty and callousness of Panem’s leaders. Mine revolve around the cruelty and callousness of the U.S. Justice System. Both of us also battle the indifference and sometimes unintended cruelty of those who live untouched by the system itself.
War is not required to amass casualties. Panem had a lengthy body count long before Katniss won her first Hunger Games. The National Registry of Exonerations has already catalogued more than 18,000 years that have been stolen from more than 2,100 innocent American citizens who cannot be given back the lifetime they’ve lost. Even then, experts agree this barely scratches the surface of the true volume of innocent Americans sitting idle and often forgotten in U.S. prisons. And just like Panem’s Capitol lived a world apart from the districts that sustained its excess, the United States is steadily creating a uniquely separated class of citizens who are restricted from basic aspects of normal life because of their history of incarceration.
When I read the series, my husband had already been wrongfully accused of our precious daughter’s death; meticulously framed by the professionals involved. Jocelynn’s death had left me aimless; often wishing for my own. It wasn’t until we were attacked a few months later, that a desperation to save more than myself steeled me into action. I couldn’t afford to die. Clayton would not survive without me. I recognized that motivation in Katniss’s character well.
I also recognized her trauma. Both Peeta and Katniss suffer from fairly severe PTSD in the series; which increases with each new type of arena they face. My first arena had been the hospital, where I faced down a cruel and calloused doctor and officer who inflicted intentional harm during my final hours with my child and her body. The second had been an interrogation room where officers, who acknowledged my innocence (and age at a mere 22-years-old), attempted to mentally break me with autopsy photos of my precious baby cut open on a metal table like a high school science lab dissection.
PTSD is a very real and familiar companion of mine. There was a period of my life where I lived in perpetual terror of my own mind and actions. Violence manifested in my dreams that was so real and palpable, I was terrified I may not be able to control the impulse if confronted with the opportunity in real life. Flashbacks would strike me out of nowhere; which I was powerless to pull myself out of. Sometimes, I would scream myself awake at night or run to the bathroom to vomit, but equally often my husband would shake me loose of my nightmares. I understood Katniss’s dependence on Peeta for sleep, and the character Haymitch’s motivations to drink. Fortunately, for me and my liver, the drink brought me no relief.
I remember watching my husband, and wondering to myself, after reading the final book. I began asking myself what I would do if they did take him from me. Would I have the strength to fight them for him? Would I be able to watch him suffer? Would I win him back? These were terrifying questions that haunted me often; until I received the answer to the first 3 years later.
Yes, they would take him from me through wrongful conviction and imprisonment. Yes, they would torture him as I watched helplessly; unable to stop them, and unable to fight with anything more effective than my own words and voice. But yes again, I would fight; with all the strength I could manage day by day.
Like Katniss was consumed in the games by the gamemakers and the audience, Clayton and I were forced to play, for our third arena, the sick and twisted U.S. Justice System game at trial. Its gamemakers are the lawyers and judges, and its audience is the American people and press. As I kiss Clayton’s cheek, “That journalist is taking our picture… Will they use it to help us or hang us on the front page tomorrow?” As they play the 911 call of my child dying, “If I sob uncontrollably I’ll be thrown out of court… but if I do not, will the jury believe the prosecutor’s lies that I do not care?” My husband’s shaking hands after my cross-examination as he asks with confusion, “They think I lost my temper and killed my child, but I could sit there and watch that man torture you?”
The song The Hanging Tree, which was taken from the series and has now become fairly popular, has lines that both haunt and comfort me. Our hanging tree is the prison. ‘They say’ we did a lot of things we didn’t actually do. He has ‘called out’ to me before to flee from this terrible sentence, and many frequently expect me to act as if he has died, but I will not abandon him. Sometimes it’s hard to process or abide that ‘strange things have happened’, and continue to happen, but just because something took place in a courtroom, doesn’t mean it was legal, just, or fair.
Katniss and Peeta lost their home to fire bombs, and Clayton and I lost ours to foreclosure. Peeta and Katniss both lost family to the war. Clayton and I lost his mother to heartsickness. Katniss would not risk having children for an arena, and we would not risk them to a government that would seize them and force them into foster care. Now they are stolen by separation and time.
I am thankful that, unlike Peeta, Clayton has not been broken or twisted into something other than himself. Instead of facing a sociopathic enemy, he has been continually worn down by an apathetic system which often inflicts intentional harm to force cooperation. Despite being forced into solitary-confinement-like conditions for months at a time, he fought to stay positive, keep active, and advocate for relief for himself and the others trapped with him. Clayton has been motivated all of his life by helping others, and this continues to be one of his most defining traits.
There are also many aspects of Katniss’s character that I am continually thankful I have the age and maturity to rise above. I am no longer so crippled by my PTSD. I do not afford myself the option of hiding away. No one controls my voice but my God and me. I may be trapped as a piece in someone else’s game, but I am no pawn. I am an opponent. I may not have a bow and arrow, but my voice and boldness have worked major miracles in a system so corrupt it no longer even recognizes justice, truth, or human compassion.
I keep fighting. I tell myself that Clayton, just like Peeta, will one day be released. He may be damaged, and he will definitely be different, but he will be alive and free. I promise myself that one day, we will make a new home, and live without the fear of being forced into another games.
(c) 2017 Christiane Allison