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Nature vs. Nurture and Junot Diaz’s Road to Recovery

Writer Junot Diaz at the Mercantile Library Center for Fiction's Annual Benefit and Awards Dinner, held at the New York Tennis and Racquet Club.PHOTO/ Christopher Peterson – Wikimedia Creative Commons
Writer Junot Diaz at the Mercantile Library Center for Fiction’s Annual Benefit and Awards Dinner, held at the New York Tennis and Racquet Club.PHOTO/ Christopher Peterson – Wikimedia Creative Commons

By Milette Millington

Published: April 18th, 2018

As I read Junot Diaz’s article about his experience of being abused as a child in The New Yorker magazine, I felt an intensity of emotions. After reading Diaz’s unraveling of the horrific truth that he experienced, I was instantly silenced, simply trying to take in the events one by one. The thought of being raped, at any age, frightens me. In Diaz’s instance, it happened to him at the age of eight by an adult that he truly trusted; the thought alone would make me feel weak and insecure.

I think that the article raises questions about nature versus nurture through what Diaz calls “a mask of normalcy,” which is used as a way of coping with such a traumatic experience. I also believe that it signifies a change in what one considers to be normal. After such an experience, one’s definition of “normal” is engulfed in the traumatic horrors of the experience. Junot writes:

“By the time I was eleven, I was suffering from both depression and uncontrollable rage. By thirteen, I stopped being able to look at myself in the mirror—and the few times I accidentally glimpsed my reflection I’d recoil like I’d got hit in the face by a jellyfish stinger. (What did I see? I saw the crime, my grisly debasement, and if anyone looked at me too long I would run or I would fight.) By fourteen, I was holding one of my father’s pistols to my head. (He’d been gone a few years, but he’d generously left some of his firearms behind.) I had trouble at home. I had trouble at school. I had mood swings like you wouldn’t believe.”

Diaz’s definition of normal changed dramatically. “When I wasn’t completely out of it I read everything I could lay my hands on, played Dungeons & Dragons for days on end. I tried to forget, but you never forget. Night was the worst—that’s when the dreams would come. Nightmares where I got raped by my siblings, by my father, by my teachers, by strangers, by kids who I wanted to be friends with.”

The nature versus nurture argument explains the differences between biological traits and environmental traits. Natural traits are ones that a person gets from their parents, found in their genetic makeup, with no room for alteration. Nurtured traits are ones that are influenced by the environment around us. This poses a very famous question: Are we influenced by our genes or our surroundings?

I think that personalities are shaped by behaviors, and our behaviors are shaped by our childhood experiences, though I also feel they are influenced by social norms. Social norms shape our attitudes about certain things, such as the unspoken rules in society. They are also shaped by instinct. For example, humans share basic feelings such as happiness, pleasure, peace, love, anger, etc. The description of the social norms that Diaz was exposed to would be described as, according to the article, “More than being Dominican, more than being an immigrant, more, even, than being of African descent, my rape defined me. I spent more energy running from it than I did living. And always I was afraid—afraid that the rape had ’ruined’ me; afraid that I would be ’found out;’ afraid afraid afraid. ’Real’ Dominican men, after all, aren’t raped. And if I wasn’t a ’real’ Dominican man I wasn’t anything.”

Throughout every stage of our lives, we have new challenges to overcome, new goals to accomplish and new person-to-person interactions to experience. They all help us grow as individuals. They can help us understand the way that society impacts us. Some challenges do leave you with horrific memories. Such is true in Diaz’s case, in which he assessed it saying, “It’s the revenant that won’t stop; the ghost that’s always coming for you. The nightmares, the intrusions, the hiding, the doubts, the confusion, the self-blame, the suicidal ideation—they didn’t go away just because I buried my neighborhood, my family, my face.”

Emotional recovery from a traumatic experience, such as the one Diaz experienced, is a process. They are often experiences that an individual can never forget. Healing from those emotional scars is a challenge. It can take years for one to feel at peace with such trauma. I would say that Diaz dealt with his emotional recovery through writing. Through the process of writing his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” he was able to write down how he felt emotionally about the experience, which slowly let him clear his mind to get other ideas across.

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