Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Fractals and THE CASUAL VACANCY by J. K. Rowling


My previous two posts focus on the adult characters in THE CASUAL VACANCY by  J. K. Rowling and on the various purposes for which they use language. This final post on THE CASUAL VACANCY will focus on the concept of fractals as explained by the philosopher Jean Houston and on the application of this concept to the character of Terri Weedon in THE CASUAL VACANCY.

THE CASUAL VACANCY, a novel for adults, is J. K. Rowling's first novel since her Harry Potter series. It is set in the fictional rural English town of Pagford. A "casual vacancy" on the Pagford Parish Council has resulted from the sudden death of council member Barry Fairbrother, due to an aneurysm. Rowling takes us through the political process of filling the newly vacant council seat and through the many directly-related and tangentially-related inter-personal interactions that unfold. Through all this, we learn that the seemingly idyllic town of Pagford is far less idyllic than it appears at first sight; tensions that have simmered for years begin bubbling and even bursting to the surface.

TERRI WEEDON. One very interesting character in THE CASUAL VACANCY is Terri Weedon. My preious post focused on Terri's use of language as a way of defending herself against others and of keeping herself in others' good graces. This post will focus on additional aspects of Terri's life. 

Terri Weedon is one of the "undeserving" poor of the Fields, an impoverished area to the north of Pagford over which Pagford has jurisdiction. Many in Pagford regard residents of the Fields as the "undeserving" poor, who do not work but drain society of resources - in contrast to the "deseriving" poor within Pagford itself, who work and contribute to society. The poor of the Fields are seen as lazy free-loaders and their children as undisciplined trouble-makers.

Terri Weedon, in fact, is considered to be a particularly "undeserving" resident of the Fields. Terri is a heroin addict who has cycled through the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic more than once, only to return to her drug habit. She is a prostitute. She is the mother of four children. Her eldest two were removed from her home and raised by others. She lives with her sixteen-year-old daughter, Krystal, and her four-year-old son, Robbie, and her fitness to care for them is highly questionable. Krystal often escapes the chaos of her own home life by spending the night at the home of her friend, Nikki. Robbie, at four, is still wearing diapers and is frequently absent from the nursery school where he is enrolled.

FRACTALS. The concept of fractals comes from mathematics and especially from the work of mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot (1924-2010). As I understand it, fractals are irregularly-shaped repetitive patterns, such as those seen in a head of broccoli, in trees, in the arteries of the human body, in the bronchi and alveolar sacs of our respiratory system, in our heartbeat, in clouds, in ocean waves, in coastlines. A fractal pattern repeats itself in larger and smaller scales: the pattern of a whole head of broccoli is repeated in smaller and smaller form down to the smallest broccoli floret; a fractal pattern can be traced through the distribution of trees in a forest, an individual tree, a branch of that tree, a twig of that tree, and an individual leaf. Traditional geometry with its circles, squares, rectangles, and triangles applies to human-made shapes; the shapes found in nature tend to be fractal patterns instead.

The concept of fractals has been applied to human life patterns by the philosopher Jean Houston. In her online course "Awakening to Your Life's Purpose," Jean Houston says that "if we look at the events in a human life in the same way as we look at nature or a coastline, we might discover another order of fractals present in the themes recurrent in the larger and smaller eddies of the happenings, the events, moods, tragedies, comedies of your life," and that "each life is made up of multiple interpenetrating waves, fractal themes which build up a standing wave of extraordinary complexity and beauty."

I believe that we can see an important but unfortunate fractal pattern in Terri Weedon's life: a fractal pattern of abandonment.

ABANDONMENT PATTERN IN TERRI WEEDON'S LIFE. In Terri Weedon's life, we see the pattern of abandonment repeated again and again, like a fractal.

  • ABANDONED BY HER MOTHER. Terri's mother left when Terri was eleven years old and disappeared forever from Terri's life. This is a crucial and excruciatingly painful abandonment.
  • ABANDONED TO AND BY HER FATHER. When Terri's mother left, she not only deprived Terri of her motherly presence, but she also left Terri alone in the care of an abusive father, Michael Weedon, who beat and raped eleven-year-old Terri. It wasn't long before Michael Weedon put Terri in the hospital by hurling a pan of hot fat at her, burning her seriously. It is a witness to the horror of Terri's life with her father that she remembers her hospital stay as a glorious time during which, in spite of the physical pain, she was in clean surroundings where people were kind and attentive to her. We might also say that Terri's father abandoned her in the sense that he deprived Terri of proper fatherly care.
  • ABANDONED BY NANA CATH - FIRST TIME. Nana Cath, Catherine Weedon, is Terri's grandmother. During Terri's hospital stay, Nana Cath was Terri's only visitor. Nana Cath sat with Terri in the hospital and then brought Terri to her own home when Terri was well enough to be released. Terri felt that she was in heaven in Nana Cath's clean and loving home. But after several days, Michael Weedon came for his daughter, and Nana Cath simply couldn't stand up to her brutal son. Terri was forced to return to her father's abuse until she finally ran away at thirteen and was caught and put into state care.
  • ABANDONED BY RITCHIE ADAMS. Ritchie Adams is the father of Terri's two eldest children. He left Terri.
  • ABANDONED BY HER ELDEST CHILDREN. Actually, this was not the doing of the two children themselves, but of the social workers, who removed each child from Terri shortly after the child's birth and placed the child into an adoptive home - which actually makes sense, given Terri's unfitness as a parent. Terri never saw either child again.
  • ABANDONED BY BANGER. Banger is perhaps the father of Krystal and maybe of Robbie. Banger, too, left Terri.
  • ABANDONED BY NANA CATH - SECOND TIME. Shortly after Robbie's birth, it seems that Nana Cath became fed up with Terri's drug addiction and prostitution. Apparently, there had been an ugly scene that Rowling describes on page 266: 
      You don't even know who the father is, do yeh, yer whore/ I'm washin' my 'ands of yeh, Terri, I've 'ad enough.
     That had been the last time they had ever spoken, and Nana Cath had called her what everyone else called her, and Terri had responded in kind.
     Fuck you, then, you miserable old cow, fuck you.
  • ABANDONED BY SOCIAL WORKERS. Social workers came and went. Terri would have one social worker for a while, then that social worker would leave and be replaced by another one. Terri liked the social worker Kay Bawden, who truly tried to help Terri, but Kay was actually just filling in during the absence of Mattie, Terri's assigned social worker, so when Mattie returned to work, Kay, too, left Terri. This must be quite difficult for poor people who are assigned to social workers. Social workers have a great deal of say-so in important aspects of one's life, yet one has no control over which social worker is assigned to one's case, and the social worker assigned to one's case can change at the drop of a hat.
  • ABANDONED BY NANA CATH - THIRD TIME. When Nana Cath dies, Terri again feels abandoned. Now there will never be an opportunity to reconcile with Nana Cath. Nana Cath is gone from Terri's life forever.
  • POTENTIALLY ABANDONED BY THE BELLCHAPEL ADDICTION CLINIC. Terri has been making some headway in battling her heroin addiction at the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic in the Fields, but now the Pagford Parish Council is threatening to close Bellchapel. If this happens, Terri will have to go to Dr. Parminder Jawanda, her physician in Pagford, to receive her methadone treatments. Terri abhors the idea of going so frequently into Pagford, where people treat her even more disparagingly than she is treated in the Fields.

THE ONE WHO DIDN'T ABANDON TERRI: Unfortunately, Terri sees the drug dealer and pimp Obbo as the one person who has stuck by her. Terri met Obbo when she was fifteen. They had gone to the same school and had smoked their first marijuana together. Obbo had once hidden Terri from Ritchie, the father of her first two children, when Ritchie turned abusive, and Obbo occasionally gave Terri free heroin. In Terri's eyes, Obbo was more trustworthy than anyone else, including Nana Cath. 

FINAL ABANDONMENT OF TERRI: Terri is finally abandoned by the two children who live with her, four-year-old Robbie and sixteen-year-old Krystal. While Robbie is in Krystal's care, Krystal has sex with Fats Wall by the river, after instructing Robbie to wait for her on a bench. But Robbie wanders off, falls into the river, and drowns. On learning this, Krystal returns home, barricades herself in the bathroom, and injects herself with a lethal dose of heroin, thus committing suicide. We last see Terri at Robbie and Krystal's double funeral. 

THE ABANDONMENT FRACTAL: Abandonment is a fractal pattern in Terri Weedon's life.
  • CORE EVENT: The core event, establishing the abandonment pattern, is the abandonment of Terri at age eleven by her mother. In a good home, when a parent dies, much can be done to surround the child with supporting love. But Terri came from a highly dysfunctional home, where her mother's departure was devastating for two overwhelming reasons. 
  1. First, Terri's mother left willingly. She chose to leave, and Terri never saw her again. This is far different from a death. This is saying to a child that the child means nothing to the mother, usually the most important person in a child's life.
  2.  Second, Terri's mother left Terri in a horrible situation. Granted, Terri's mother was escaping from a very abusive husband. But she orchestrated her own escape without planning for her children. The three children were left in the care of the abusive Michael Weedon. The two older children were able to escape by moving in with their boyfriends' families. But Terri, at age eleven, had nowhere to go. She was left with a terrifying father who beat and raped her. Her mother's abandonment did not just leave Terri motherless; it left Terri in hell.
  • PATTERN: Each successive departure of someone significant from Terri's life re-enacted and entrenched the abandonment pattern. The initial core abandonment was so devastating that Terri would configure all later departures of people from her life as manifestations of the same fractal.
  • POOR MODEL OF FAITHFULNESS: Because Terri was so sensitive to abandonment, she was ready to see ANYONE who stayed with her as faithful, even the drug dealer and pimp Obbo. Obbo undermined Terri's attempts to stay off drugs and endangered Terri by asking her to hide stolen and illegal material, but Terri saw him as the one faithful person in her life because he was always there and didn't out-and-out hurt her.
  • THE FUTURE: It is hard to imagine what will happen to Terri Weedon next - beyond the deaths of Robbie and Krystal. What a painful abandonment to add to all the previous abandonments.

OVERALL: I find the idea of fractal patterns in life to be very helpful. Observing the fractal pattern of abandonment in Terri Weedon's life and seeing how it recurs and re-entrenches helps in viewing with compassionate eyes a person who repeats negative behavior. It is easy to condemn Terri's visible drug addiction, prostitution, and lack of parenting skills, while ignoring the invisible pain of her abandonment fractal pattern.

It is also clear in examining life fractal patterns that these fractal patterns are matters of interpretation. Terri INTERPRETS departures as abandonment. She could interpret them differently.

I think that a key for my own life is to recognize fractal patterns, consciously reinforce the positive ones, and re-interpret the negative ones so that they are no longer negative. For example, in a fractal pattern of abandonment, one might reinterpret people's departures as simply their moving on to something else, rather than their abandonment of me.

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