The Lovely Bones: The Return to Earth

Although the deceased can see them, they cannot see the deceased.
Although the deceased can hear them calling out,
they cannot hear the departed calling back.
So, the deceased may turn away in a state of despair.
At this time, three phenomena – sounds, lights and rays of light – will arise,
and the deceased may faint with fear, terror, or awe.
– Tibetan Book of the Dead


For those who have paid any attention, it’s no secret that the novel upon which The Lovely Bones is based is a fictional recounting of the author’s rape in the early ’80s as a freshman living in upstate New York. Alice Sebold had already published Lucky, a memoir that recounts the experience, including the excruciating process of cobbling together a normal life while pursuing her case through the humiliations of a justice system that often seemed more concerned with protecting the rights of her rapist than her own. Obviously, Sebold’s writing serves as a vehicle for expressing her rage; it’s also the means by which she labors on behalf of her own redemption. And yet, for many reviewers, the film based upon her novel was seen as nothing short of repulsive. For example,

The Lovely Bones is a deplorable film with this message: If you’re a 14-year-old girl who has been brutally raped and murdered by a serial killer, you have a lot to look forward to. You can get together in heaven with other victims of the same killer, and gaze down in benevolence upon your family members as they mourn you and realize what a wonderful person you were.

The reviewer’s defense of life is admirable. Yet this seemingly noble indignation belies an unwillingness to consider the effects of such trauma upon a child. Clearly, Alice Sebold did not die. What she’s describing is a different kind of death, one that left her estranged from friends and family, condemned to a despair unseen by all except those who have shared her fate. Even their mourning will underscore this estrangement, centered as it is around their loss rather than hers, an anguish over what was taken from them rather than what the child has been asked to endure. In other words, besides the brutality she suffered at the hands of her killer, she has become invisible in their eyes, as well.

Eclipsed and Alone

How else are we to make sense of the solitude and desolation with which Susie is met in the immediate aftermath of her death? It is both a sign and a symptom of the breach that has been formed, the insurmountable gap that now exists between the girl and the world she once took to be her home. The streets are barren and, when people enter the scene, they are nothing but ghostly phantoms unable to see she’s still there. She walks and talks – even shouts – in her struggle to be seen and heard. She still breaths and thinks and feels. Despite the their non-responsiveness, she cannot be dead. But the child and world have become strangers to each other; she a refugee that wanders, while the world fades into a mist of nothingness. Alienated from the very rhythm of life that everyone seems to take for granted. That is, everyone but her.

Psychologists use the term derealization to describe this experience, one of the most alienating effects of a trauma that lodges itself upon the soul. It’s also how survivors come to recognize their life as having been split in two: the life before and the yawning emptiness that followed. For it’s upon the heels of terror that the world comes to an end: no longer recognized by others, no longer seen, no longer loved and protected; for what has happened has no existence in their eyes: forever banished to a nightmare world of mist and fog where others do not – and cannot – recognize a young girl’s plight.

Screaming for Help Running for Home

As any healthy child will do, Susie screams, pleading for someone, anyone, to hear her cries for help. Hoping that someone will heed her pain. But her voice echoes in silence, bouncing off stone and concrete, indifferent to her fate. As any healthy child would do, Susie looks to her family – to her parents – for the protection and compassion she deserves, terror-struck by the prospect of her own annihilation. Swallowed from existence and caught in a gaping hole.

For comfort is what families are supposed to provide, recognizing the horror she’s been asked to endure. Compassion in the face of her pain, and reassurance that everything will be alright. For Susie has nowhere else to turn, no one else to whom she can go. When a young child has seen the face of death, who else should be able to tame such fear if not the Mom and Dad who brought her into this world as an expression of their love?

A Vacant Home

But when Susie gets there, all she will find is an empty home, just as desolate and ghostly as the world beyond. When she manages to calm her nerves and slow her breath, she begins to hear signs of life, voices that speak, although not to her. Instead, she hears her mother speaking to the authorities, talking as if she’s already gone. Fighting the fear that her daughter might already be dead. Two worlds inhabiting a single home: Susie’s struggle against her very own extinction and her family behaving as if she’s no longer there.

Which is precisely how the unreality of the world comes to infect her very soul, how the it bleeds into her very being. How she will come to see herself as already dead. Depersonalization is the term coined to name this awful experience, pointing to the ways in which victims of violence are robbed. But even this fails to convey the nature of one’s own annihilation, for it’s not merely “personhood” that’s gone but the very idea of existence itself. For in being rendered invisible in the world and in her home, Susie has been turned into a ghost.

Neither her Mom nor her Dad can hear her cries for help, much less her desperate need for recognition and comfort. If this is the fate with which a victim of violence is faced, it’s not so difficult to see how she might come to the conclusion that she no longer exists.

Facing the Terror Alone 1 Facing the Terror Alone 2

Susie follows the voice of her mother, seeking the kind of comfort that only a Mom can provide. But rather of maternal care she finds a sliver of light from the upstairs bathroom instead. And as she walks through the door, she will discover the awful truth of what was done to her. For until now, everything was a blur, caught-up in the imperative to flee. Doing everything to save her life. But having returned to the safety of her home, and in the absence of one who is meant to console, she will find herself inconsolable. Without the assurance that she can withstand the truth of what was done to her, she slowly disappears into thin air, consumed by the horrible recognition that her life is no more.

For in the place of a bath meant to calm, she finds the filth of the man who brought her life to an end. The mud soiling her shoes and the clothes strewn across the floor unwanted reminders of the cornfield where his awful deed was done. On the sink, all she sees is evidence of the crime no one will ever know: blood comingled with dirt and water, the crooked blade used against her, the girlish tokens of a childhood lost forever.

The truth of what was done to Susie will forever be lost on her family. In recruiting others to solve the crime, will they have relinquished the possibility of learning for themselves. Which can only add to Susie’s invisibility and ghostliness. Is it any wonder that those who have suffered like Susie would find a heaven that provides the means for their escape? That the traumatized would seek any measure of happiness that may come their way, however short-lived it may turn out to be?


When a child is forced to live with her own extinction, there are only so many things she can do. Which is exactly what we see with Susie who’s stuck in the In Between, shifting between the only possibilities available to her, flailing against the terrible fate that has become her own. One is the escape she finds with her father, the heaven she’s able to find when both reach across the expanse that separates them, enabling the joyful pretense that she never was forced to stare in the face of death.

Susie also finds comfort as an observer, watching friends and family on the other side, living the kind of lives that are no longer available to her. She also frolics with her newfound playmate, chasing any semblance of pleasure that can be found, anything that can numb the pain that no one else seems able to recognize, perhaps even providing some assurance that she still possesses a body that can feel. Even her rage is premised on the absence created by her death, flailing against the crime of her murderer and the non-existence that came to follow.

Each of these give voice to the fragmentation of a life that has come to it’s end, only able to vacillate between one and the other. They could even be considered personas – each a protest against her death – giving voice to the “lost girl” who refuses to be resigned to that fate. Different roles that convey the but a single message: I’m not the nothing that everyone takes me to be.

A Haunted Yearning

Because such a state of agitation cannot be sustained for long, those who find themselves in Susie’s position will soon begin to forget what had brought them to the In Between, a state of selective amnesia so characteristic of the traumatized and the forgotten. This loss of memory is made all the easier when no one else has recognized their pain, when no enlightened witness has given credence to what they suffer in silence. An unnamed horror that has remained unseen.

Which is how life in the In Between comes to acquire the confusing rhythms that haunt Susie’s soul. Feeling like she’s forever on the edge of a great and awesome discovery, even as the skies begin to darken. Time stands still as the lost seek to find their way, working to give sense to their new surroundings, no longer able to count on loved ones for guidance or encouragement along the way. Unchanging days will bleed into each other, an eternal purgatory that seems to tease of possibilities that are never found. As if this floating world was the end of the line, even while cruelly hinting at the possibility of a beyond.

It’s the face of this mystery – why she’s here and how she can escape – with which the traumatized are confronted, unable to rely on anything other than the abilities and sensations they can properly call their own. The best one can do is persevere in one’s travels, hoping to remain consciousness enough to recognize the signs when they come one’s way.

Flash Backs

The only clues available to Susie are those that come from experience, learning to decipher the patterns that emerge in the course of her travails. Among these are the lights that call for her attention, flashing in the day as well as the night. For the houses of revolving beacons found throughout the In Between seem to be matched by tiny replicas in the world from which she came, in the dungeon beneath the cornfield as well as the den in her former home.

Like the flashbacks known to haunt the traumatized and afflicted, these lights can be blinding, interrupting one’s stream of consciousness and train of thought, as if they possessed a will of their own that sought to return the experiencer to another place and time. Victims of violence invariably confront these intrusions at the most inopportune of times, particularly if the assault was sexual, for it’s during the most intimate of moments that the flashes will come, perpetual reminders of what was done. Robbed of the ability to love simply and without complication. Only to be transported to the horror that existed before. Forever haunted, unable to escape.

Less well known are emotional flashbacks, just as invasive but irreducible to sight or touch or sound. Neither does their arrival signal a connection to a specific time and place. And yet, these intrusions can be deciphered, too, for they speak of a different kind of memory stored in the body and the mind. For some, it may be the terror of an assault that always looms just around the corner, the fear that death will come when it’s least expected. It may be a despair diffuse and overwhelming, a corrosive hopelessness that infects the heart and the soul. Sometimes it’s both. Sometimes it’s more: joys, terrors, and sorrows. And not least of all, rage.

Anger and Despair

In the face of such confusion, it’s only natural that Susie would still yearn to reach across the barrier separating herself from her family. But as is clear to see, news of Susie’s death has brought them face-to-face with a terror they’re unable to face, much less comfort the girl who seeks their protection. Susie’s fate will return them to a realm of feeling, both ancient and almost forgotten, one that can only trigger the most primitive strategies available to ensure their own survival. Because Susie’s fate strikes a terrible chord, normally healthy reactions turn into denial, responding as if their own safety was endangered. For him, the urge to fight; for her, the need to disappear.

For a child who desperately looks to her mother for reassurance and care, all she will find is the space of abandonment, a woman who, quite literally, is no longer there. Neither will Susie’s siblings be of much help, as they, like her, are only little people in a world of giants, desperate to establish a foothold for themselves in the world. For her sister, this will come in the form of scholarly achievement, and for the baby brother, who might feel particularly vulnerable, an interest perhaps in the cause of preservation.

With nowhere else to turn, it is the father who comes to take the mother’s place, his rage a substitute for her protection, for at least he’s still there, visibly shaken by what was done to his daughter. But as Susie eventually comes to discover, even this is premised on her obliteration, for it’s his loss – rather than hers – cementing their relationship across the barrier of the In Between. As they rekindle the flames of anger and the desire for revenge, not a word is spoken of what was accomplished beneath the cornfield on that fateful night. An alliance built upon the unseen and the unspoken, one that only serves to fortify her ghostliness.


Despite the alluring promise of revenge, this pact allows the awful secret to remain sequestered, reinforcing the very banishment that she protests. For it’s only the faintest outline of his daughter’s fate he’s willing to hear, unable to bear the truth she carries alone. Whether such an inability comes from him or another, the end result is the same: forever the murderer’s unwanted bride, the only two who’ll ever know what happened that autumn night when Susie never came home for dinner.

Banished to silence is her terror and humiliation, feeling somehow responsible for what was done to her. Banished to silence is the terror when brutalized by the desire of one who should know better than to take advantage of a child. When there is no one else to listen or to console, they fester like an open wound, never to be dressed, never to be healed.

The shame for being lured by one who played on her curiosity, crippled by self-recriminations that berate a child’s fascination over the playhouse designed just for her. The dawning realization – and the fear – that came when his behavior shifted, no longer seeking to impress the girl. The revulsion when she becomes his object, groping and groaning in a language that should mean nothing to a child. The terror when when her efforts at self-protection elicit threats of violence and his rage.
Creating a pact of silence: “This will be our secret; you’ve been a naughty girl.”

When it’s only a parent’s anger that a child can count on, the only terms by which her torment will ever be addressed, all of this will remain submerged. Forced once again to live by terms other than those of her making. Forced to resign herself to paltry offerings that speak to the needs of others rather than her own.

Fated Meeting 1 Fated Meeting 2

Which might be why Ruth – initially just a marginal figure – slowly comes to inhabit the center of this story. For she’s the only one who was witness to Susie’s death, the only one left forever changed. The one who came to dedicate her life to learning about the sisterhood to which Susie now belongs. Gravitating to the sinkhole’s edge and other routes of passage between this world and the next, seeking the truth of the lives that came before. Daring to look into the face of death.

For those who have dedicated their careers to the study of the traumatized, this split – and affinity – between Susie and Ruth is no accident. It mirrors the breach inscribed within those who’ve died at another’s hands. A split between a persona apparently normal and another emotional, both forever caught in the grip of fear. This is the night and day of a dissociated existence, a fabricated front behind which lurks an unspoken horror. One numbed to the pain lodged in her body, the other unable to escape its ceaseless torment.

If healing is to be found, each must find her way back to the other, and this is the story of The Lovely Bones. For the moment when one ran past the other is the pivot around which the story unfolds, a fateful meeting that anticipates an end that is yet to come. Each laboring on different sides of the In Between, seeking a return to the other to whom she belongs. Each listening to the messages from the other side:
the flash of lights, the blinding emotions, the mysterious pains that haunt the body. Straining to recognize echoes from a past crying out to be recognized and heard.

Straining to Hear Learning to Speak

The traumatized, particularly for those who’ve never been heard, are faced with a tremendous struggle to lead a normal life, compelled to put the awful past behind. This is the role for which the apparently normal persona has been recruited, to protect her other from danger, seeking to blend into a world that knows nothing of her death. It’s a disguise with which many survivors do battle, forever believing they’re a fraud. Unable fit in, unable to belong. Unable to love and be loved.

Which is why the two sides of the split must find each other, to heal the rift brought about by the trauma: death at the hands of a murderer and the silence with which her pain was met. For the emotional one was banished from consciousness, first, by virtue of the need to survive, and later, to protect others from her neediness, voracious in its need and overwhelming for those unable to recognize its source. Sequestered from the land of the living, only to be make itself known by way of flashing intrusions, mysterious outbursts, and crippling fear.

When these two come to be aware of the other, the task becomes one of shifting allegiances and changing direction. The apparently normal no longer needing to pretend, the emotional one no longer stifled and unheard. For the flashbacks are nothing other than the child screaming for attention, speaking to the fact of her suffering, seeking an ally in the task of healing.

For both are needed if their true heaven is to be found.

Introducing Susie to Ruth 1 Introducing Susie to Ruth 2

And how does Ray Singh fit into this picture?

As strange as it may sound, he’s the one that introduced them to each other. And while it may have been a pairing for which neither showed any enthusiasm, their mutual affection would slowly emerge. For it is only after their passing in the darkest of nights that Ruth would find her life’s direction, dedicated to learning about Susie and the fate of the dead. And it’s only after Susie is banished to the In Between that she comes to recognize what her other is doing, learning to appreciate the one her schoolmates had come to dismiss as a strange and solitary girl.

It’s also Ray who cements this relationship, the two seemingly inseparable after Susie’s death, each committed to learning about the afterlife. And so, as Susie watches from a distance, her relationship with each of them is transformed. No longer indifferent to Ruth, her crush on Ray slowly becoming something else. The three forming a trinity paving the way for her homecoming, no longer doomed to a life in banishment.

Susie's Story

It’s not insignificant that Susie is the narrator of this story, for she’s the one who was relegated to silence, muffled and hidden in the dark. And in telling us about the shape of her journey, she also speaks to the impossible task of healing. Of the way in which one girl makes it back from the land of the dead.

Her story gives voice to the terror and confusion, the sorrow and despair, of one who’s been discarded and forgotten. For in providing us a glimpse into her journey, we see the effects of psychic murder. In lifting the veil separating one world from another, we also see how a child struggles to give meaning to her fate, the lengths she will go through to give sense to it all. The people she yearns to rely upon, and how she comes to find a different family for herself.

We will also be witness to a miracle. For despite the ever-shifting panoramas within which she finds herself – glimpses of heaven as well as hell – she’ll have discovered the trick of listening to the voices that emerge from the dark, the messages that the flashing lights bring. And in so doing, she shows us quite clearly what’s meant when we’re told of “the great liberation through hearing.”

Critics may call it deplorable, but dismissal has always been the prophet’s fate.

~ by mistified on February 7, 2011.

3 Responses to “The Lovely Bones: The Return to Earth”

  1. Another great piece. congrats

  2. Who took the top picture?

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