By Lea Dokter
For as long as I can remember, stories have been a foundational part of my life. I have started to think of them as a breadcrumb trail weaving through my own story, beginning with my mother, and later helping me find my way back to my father. They helped me navigate the twisted undergrowth of childhood and the confusing labyrinth of adolescence. Stories are the glue that give my life some semblance of shape and coherence, counteracting the fracturing power of trauma.
My earliest memories of them are of those told by my mother, invented on the spot as she sat on the edge of my bed; her stories almost always took place in forests, revolving around the adventures of anthropomorphic animals. Although the general fallibility of memory makes me question the accuracy of this recollection, I vaguely recall a story about a squirrel’s birthday party.
My mother had always been a writer, dabbling in poetry and journalism in adolescence, then writing articles for the neighbourhood magazine as a creative outlet next to the demands of motherhood and work later on. As most writers are, she was also an avid reader, and I treasure the battered copy of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World I found among her possessions years after her passing.
It was a surprising find, tucked away among her scrapbooks, articles, photo albums, and other miscellaneous possessions my father could not bear to look at, nor get rid of. The dusty box had been tucked away in the attic, waiting to be discovered when my father, too, passed away. How strange to find that this novel, which I had fallen in love with several years before, was one my mother had not only read, but presumably treasured as well – the sole surviving material evidence of my mother’s taste in literature.
Her body succumbed to the cancer that was corrupting it from the inside when I was seven years old. Never again would I get to witness her impromptu storytelling; I found solace in the books she had bought me instead. I vividly remember the colourfully illustrated pages of Rupsje Nooitgenoeg and De Mooiste Vis van de Zee, which transported me to different worlds in which, for a moment, the grief could be forgotten.
I had always been a bit of an outsider. Home had been my safe space, but now that my mother was nothing more than a collection of stories and a decaying heap of flesh in a box underground, it felt as if our house, too, was blanketed by six feet of damp, suffocating earth. I fled into fiction. The books absorbed me, to such an extent that I completely lost touch with whatever was going on outside the place the pages transported me to. Children can be immensely cruel; if I’d had a rough day at school I would flee into a different universe where the fictional characters almost felt like friends.
Books were an escape, a place to go when the present was less than ideal. Simultaneously, the grim tropes of fairy tales manifested themselves in our home, which turned hostile when my father decided to move my new stepmother and her two children in. I was never forced to clean the fireplace, but it was clear from the very start that my stepmother had marked my younger brother and me as obligatory annoyances on her path to happiness. Fiction gave me hope that my life, too, could unexpectedly change for the better. Like millions of young Harry Potter fans around the world, I stayed up the night of my eleventh birthday in the vain hope an owl would come crashing through my window, for it would deliver me from this bland and painful muggle existence, marked by neglect.
Aside from providing an escape, books also provided a means for identification. Needless to say, the wicked stepmother trope was a welcome affirmation of my feelings. Much like Cinderella’s, mine had made it abundantly clear that her offspring would always come before me and my brother. Seeing my situation reflected in stories made me feel like I was not alone. Over time, as I started to consume more complex narratives, circumstantial identification evolved into an almost interpersonal connection: I felt understood by characters who had similar experiences to mine, more specific than broad biographical details, who felt and thought similar things, and who saw the world in the same way I did. They suffered the things no one talked about, the things I kept to myself – melancholy, loneliness, automutilation. Somehow, the stories I read made my experiences feel valid.
Unlike most fathers in tales involving evil stepmothers, mine was still alive, although metaphorically speaking he may as well have been dead at times. Trauma is difficult to comprehend as a child, especially the trauma of others. How to interpret a parent pulling back into themselves, locking the vulnerable parts away in a high tower with no golden locks to climb upon? How to interpret it as anything but rejection?
My father wasn’t much of a reader, with one notable exception: anything written by Stephen King. At age twelve, I snuck his copy of Desperation up to my room, and devoured it. It was terrifying in the best way, and over the next few weeks I steadily made my way through Carrie, De Marathon, and Misery. Though not the most observant parent, my father could not help but notice, and although he questioned the suitability of these books for a girl my age, he also realised we had passed the point of no return.
The evil stepmom moved out, taking the entire contents of the bookcase with her. Instead of starting another argument, my father purchased a cheap second-hand collection of Stephen King novels online. Most of them were Dutch translations, as my father had assumed, but to his surprise some English copies were also included. I was intrigued.
English had always been one of my favourite subjects in school, and growing up in the age of the internet certainly helped me gain some proficiency. I decided that I would give reading in English a shot; after all, how could I claim to love the way Stephen King wrote if all I ever read were translations?
Although painstakingly slow at first, I was soon reading everything in English, aside from books originally published in Dutch. When the time came to decide which degree I wanted to pursue, there was only one option I could associate with some form of happiness: English literature. The best thing my ex-stepmother has ever done for me, it turns out, was taking my father’s books.
The pursuit of literature solidified into an actual, physical escape from our dysfunctional household. The apartment I moved into was set to be demolished in a year or so, and therefore very cheap; I had a garden and lots of space, but everything was damp, and there was no heating. I felt at home for the first time in twelve years.
University was not exactly Hogwarts, but it read like a fiction I had never fully believed would become my reality. Friendships seemed to form effortlessly, books providing fertile ground for conversation. We were reading constantly, my literary horizons expanding at an astounding speed. Many of the authors I now consider to be among my favourites – Atwood, Welsh, Duffy, Plath – got introduced to me by professors I soon desired to equal some day.
However, these five years were not a simple upward trajectory to a happy ending. Traumatic pasts tend to disfigure present realities; whilst condemning my father’s drinking and my brother’s cocaine habit – causation or correlation? – I feel the lineage press urgently on my shoulders as I open my first bottle of wine at 1.37 PM on a Tuesday.
Years spent consuming dystopian narratives did not pay off in terms of preparing me for the real thing. Global society seems to be disintegrating at an increasingly rapid speed as I’m pursuing a Master’s degree in comparative literary studies. Books have transformed into objects of study, layered works of art, which I frequently delve into – not to escape, but to analyze. Analyze and admire.
Books are no longer just stories to me, but carefully constructed commentaries, reflections, explorations. They still have the power to transport me to different worlds, but this acts less like a temporary escape and more like a broadening of perspective. Identification is no longer the main attraction, but some works have a way of grabbing you when you least expect it.
For a course on African Literature, we’re reading Soul Tourists, focalized through a perspective far removed from my own. The novel opens by detailing the circumstances of the protagonist’s father, who casually slips into messy alcoholism and self-neglect after his wife passes away. The teacher asks how everyone is enjoying the novel, prompting a classmate to state that so far, the novel hasn’t gripped him yet. What a luxury. Descriptions of piss-soaked carpets, the result of alcohol abuse and depression, call to mind the diarrhea-caked bedframe I wiped clean after my father’s suicide. The dried vomit, months old, on the laminate.
The horror narratives my father and I shared a passion for paled in comparison. Ironically, we had very little in common other than clinical depression and a love for these dark novels. I plucked the English ones from the shelf, then stumbled across old children’s books and my mother’s copy of Brave New World in the attic’s cobwebbed recesses. They currently reside next to each other on my own bookshelves, an odd but meaningful little genre of their own.
I tend to remember my mother in the bright colour scheme of the children’s books she collected for me, my image of her a pastiche of pictures, stories, artefacts, and unreliable memories. I often wonder if we would have gotten along at this age – I feel, or rather want to believe, we would have been friends. At least we could have discussed Huxley together.
Would she agree with me that the most intriguing part of the novel is the beginning? Did she read 1984 as well, and if so, how did that compare for her? Which aspect of the dystopias did she find most unsettling and why? Would she please tell me another story?
For as long as I can remember, stories have been a foundational part of my life. They began with my mother, and reconnected me to my father; they have comforted, familiarized, touched, provoked, broken, repaired. The breadcrumb trail has become a yellow brick road, a solid foundation bright with the promise of home; I have dedicated myself to stories, intending to spend the rest of my days reading them, researching them, talking about them. Who knows, perhaps I’ll end up writing them. If I do, I hope my parents would have liked them. After all, without my mother’s stories, my father’s novels, my own literary story would never have begun.
Lea Dokter, 25, is currently finishing up her Master’s degree in Comparative Literary Studies at Utrecht University, after graduating (cum laude) from an English Language and Culture Bachelor’s. She specializes in countercultural literature, women’s writing and life writing, specially autofiction. In her free time, Lea reads a lot of non-fiction, focusing on themes such as feminism, gender, and societal critique. She’s a big fan of the dystopian and speculative fiction of Margaret Atwood, as well as other authors such as Irvine Welsh and Carol Ann Duffy.
Photo by Lea Dokter
Carle, Eric. Rupsje Nooitgenoeg. Translated by J.H. Gever. Gottmer, 1996.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. Penguin, 1970.
King, Stephen. Carrie. Translated by Ingrid Niekerk, Luitingh-Sijthoff, 2006.
—. Desperation. Translated by R. Vernooi. Luitingh-Sijthoff, 1996.
—. De Marathon. Translated by Mariella Snel. Luitingh-Sijthoff, 2000.
—. Misery. Translated by Margot Bakker. Luitingh-Sijthoff, 1994.
Orwell, George. 1984. Penguin, 2008.
Pfister, Marcus. De Mooiste Vis van de Zee. Translated by Nannie Kuiper and M.E. Ander.
De Vier Windstreken, 1996.