Thursday, October 24, 2019

The trauma of Dongju

The motif of surviving a slaughter by playing dead is so widespread in popular narrative that it is hard to actually believe it. In modern warfare soldiers are trained in so called “dead-checking” – that is checking if a fallen enemy is really dead. Just as the following statement:

Marines are taught “dead-checking” in boot camp, the School of Infantry at Camp Pendleton, and the pre-deployment training at Twentynine Palms called Mojave Viper, he said. (source1)

Even though that specific word appeared in connection with US Army operations in Iraq around 2004, such behavior is nothing new, actually. Like Charles, Duke of Orléans who was taken prisoner after the the Battle of Agincourt on 25 October 1415. He was found hidden under the pile of bodies, supposedly brought down by his own heavy armor.[1]
Also, there is a story about one of the earliest famous pirates:
A year or two (dates regarding l'Olonnais are uncertain) into his piratical career, l'Olonnais was shipwrecked near Campeche in Mexico. A party of Spanish soldiers attacked l'Olonnais and his crew, killing almost the entire party. L'Olonnais himself survived by covering himself in the blood of others and hiding amongst the dead. (source2)
As for fictional accounts I can only now remember Mistle from “The Witcher” novels – she was beaten, raped and left in a ditch and she survived only because she pretended to be dead.
In many places, however, hiding among the corpses would not be such a great idea – some armies, or rather the commanders, took specific souvenirs from the battlefield – a head, ie. 

Digression: during the Imjin War (1592-1598) and especially in Jeolla province, Japanese troops were faced with a strong resistance. Remunerations were traditionally paid to troops according to the number of severed heads one could show. But soon (mostly during the second wave of the attack) not only Joseon soldiers were being killed, but thousands of the civilians. As one of the Hideyoshi’s orders states:
Mow down everyone universally, without discriminating between young and old, men and women, clergy and the laity—high ranking soldiers on the battlefield, that goes without saying, but also the hill folk, down to the poorest and meanest—and send the heads to Japan. [2]
Soon the heads started to pose the problem (it’s quite a big thing) so instead only ears and noses were hacked off. To this day those “trophies” have monuments in Japan, not far from Kyōto – a mound called Mimizuka/The Hill of Ears (or sometimes Hanazuka – the Hill of Noses). Therefore, it would be close to impossible to play dead during these events.
Stealing valuables or clothes from the bodies also was not uncommon and it is really a problem to play dead when a person is being stripped. During WWII soldiers on every front (Europe and Pacific alike) were equipped with bayonets to check if a killed soldier is really killed. Most recently, during the tragic shooting in Westgate Mall, Nairobi, such behavior was present as well (I will not link to any article, because there was a photojournalist on scene and the images are graphic, but 67 people were gunned down[3]). 

            This not that terribly lengthy introduction serves as the background to show that such behavior is not unlikely during a slaughter. This leads to the real reason of me writing about this – Dongju’s own trauma. Her mother died protecting her during a coup and to survive, the little girl had to play dead. She was even tossed into a mass grave, along the body of her mother. And I have to say that for a series with such a fluffy and light premise, it can deliver a horrifying blow to stomach. This was one for me and I couldn’t stop thinking about that scene. And it wasn’t the last, but maybe there will come time I will write more about other disturbing events. “The Tale of Nokdu” is set in horrible times – in between two invasions and just before a coup d’état. In 1598 the Japanese invasion ended that left the country in ruin from which it never really recovered. That is why we have Widow’s Village – a sanctuary for women who were abandoned, unheard victims of war brutality, and rape made them pariahs. In 1627 a first Manchu Invasion of Korea will take place – and in 1923 Prince Neungyang will stage a coup to overthrow Gwanghaegun (no royal name) and ascend to the throne as King Injo. However, the real power will remain in the hands of a political faction of Seo-in (the Western faction) – aristocrats who help him. And truth be told, King Gwanghae was the only one who tried to implement some changes to bring back the country from the cliff. Both his father and the next king contributed to the country’s ruin and invasions. But the history is written by the victors, so victorious Injo and the Seo-in faction scrapped his good deeds from the official records. But history is also a bitch, so contemporary historians think more favorably about Gwanhaegun than his predecessor and successor. 

            To help me understand what I saw, I started to read about the coping mechanisms in bereft children. And even though most (if not all) of the data and articles concern 21st century research in such field, I think some remarks may be valid when talking about experiencing such traumatic event and ways of coping with it. Dongju went through a highly traumatic day in her life – her mother died untimely and violently right in front of her, protecting her. Because (it) is generally agreed that an anticipated death is easier for children to cope with than sudden loss—just as it is for adults—because forewarning seems to provide an opportunity to prepare at least cognitively. (source 3)   
And to survive herself, the little girl had to pretend she’s dead as well. Such happening leaves the mark and sooner or later symptoms of bereavement start to show. Some researchers state that:
The particular symptoms and syndromes associated with childhood bereavement are generally considered in terms of the immediate reactions that occur in the weeks and months following the death, the intermediate reactions that can appear later in childhood or adolescence, and the long-range or "sleeper" effects that may appear in adulthood either as enduring consequences or delayed reactions to the loss. (source 3)
We have yet to see how Dongju was coping in months after her mother’s death. We do know she’s feeling a prolonged sense of duty and grief (hence her anguish in the latest, 7th episode when she tearily admitted she didn’t want to push Nokdu away and yet she perceived this deeply selfish emotion as a betrayal of her mother’s memory and her own avenging plan). She surrendered everything just to take her revenge, because she thinks it’s the only way of honoring her mother. Because (many) of the reactions in bereaved children that have been described — denial, idealization of the dead parent, inhibition or isolation of grief related affects, identification with the lost parent, displacement — are common defensive strategies. (source 3) She has now but one goal and was prepared to do absolutely anything necessary to make her plans work. And here creeps in her vulnerability. With such mindset, a person can easily be manipulated. I can’t say it was the case, but such possibility is not unlikely, given the scope and depth of Yulmu’s scheming. 

There were also two other things that came to mind while I was watching that scene. First, Mary Douglas just hovered over with her purity and pollution concepts. I was wondering whether Dongju was given time to mourn, was she given the ritual of sending her mother off and severing the ties. Douglas states that (…) ritual conserves sanity and life: madness brings filth and is a kind of death. Ritual separates death from life: ‘the dead, if not separated from the living bring madness on them’[4] This applies to Dongju’s situation – she was mentally polluted with death and we have no idea whether she purified herself. Her single-minded focus on one thing only is only bringing her harm. And the other thing my mind wandered to was Julia Kristeva and her abjection for a dead body. The fear of a dead body was projected on the life itself – and abjected. Dongju’s life after her mother’s death resembles death itself. She does not seem to be partaking in life – she’s withdrawn, existing but not really living. She’s not passive per se, because she can be very spirited and mean-hooked, but her inner walls closed her off to the scent of life. But maybe she slowly emerges from the inert world of a suspended animation and will start to feel. Something other than "depression, "exaggerated responses, " "pathologic grief, " "anger, '' and "sadness," (source 3) That swing scene showed she can. And that she wants to.

            And that would be all – a short recapitulation of what was going on (and in some way still is) in my mind when that scene happened.

[1] McLeod, Enid. Charles of Orleans: Prince and Poet. Viking Press, 1971 p. 129.
[2] Hawley, Samuel. The Imjin War: Japan's Sixteenth Century Invasion of Korea and Attempt to Conquer China. Royal Asiatic Society, 2005, pp. 465-466.
[3] The article I read was even titled ‘Close Your Eyes and Pretend to Be Dead’.
[4] Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger. An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge, 2001 p. 177.