Interview by Ariel M. Goldenthal
Marcia Trahan’s Mercy: A Memoir of Medical Trauma and True Crime Obsession (Barrelhouse Books, 2020) is an exploration into the complex interplay between televised violence and personal trauma. Trahan weaves these two narratives together, detailing the medical procedures that saved her life while letting the reader feel the pull of tales of horrific violence against women.
In stark prose, Trahan cuts to the core of her memories. “My mother had taught me by example to dread medicine,” she writes. Though her mother’s obsession with true crime only takes hold on Trahan decades later, she feels the effects of her childhood deeply. Early in the memoir, she describes the loud anger and fear that permeated her childhood with language that is both simple and heartbreaking. With careful and vulnerable descriptions, Trahan leaves little to the reader’s imagination.
“Our parents didn’t hit us. Except for the ‘one good spanking’ my father gave each of us very young, so good we never needed another. Except for the time I saw my father slap one of my sisters hard across the face, for mouthing off to him. Except for Mom’s story about one night when it was just her and my father and my oldest sister, then three months old. The baby wouldn’t stop crying in the middle of the night. My father got up. At twenty-one, he knew nothing about quieting babies. I wonder if he was drinking then. I wonder why I’m looking for some way to excuse his reaching into the crib and slapping his infant daughter. Mom leaped up and pushed him away, hard.”
The emotional power of Trahan’s writing lies in its directness. By unfolding the events of her traumas in cinematic narration, she lets the reader feel the pain and the intellectual curiosity in between her words. This same simplicity directs the reader to Trahan’s underlying research question: “Fear is uncomfortable—and it’s fascinating. It is our most basic, most powerful emotion. It was something that was thrust upon me, but it’s mine now…I want to fully inhabit my fear, explore it, and know it. I want to understand the workings of my mind.”
In chronological order, Trahan leads the reader through the procedures that she underwent for thyroid cancer. In between this framework narrative, she unpacks her fascination with true crime, bringing the reader along as she explores the darkest of criminal histories. Even when she details the crimes that the men committed against women, Trahan doesn’t waver in her commitment to precision.
The cadence of Trahan’s sentences directs the reader where to breathe and how to feel. When she writes about her obsession with violent true crime television series, her short sentences focus on her external interests while the longer complex sentence reveals her internal scars: “I love seeing criminals get caught. I’m interested in troubled families. And I carry with me a tangle of fears that date back to childhood, a certain degree of personal darkness, and an array of experiences that permanently marked me though they aren’t as obviously traumatic as rape.”
Trahan’s language changes, however, when she writes about Andy, whom she “trust[s] most in the world.” In these moments, her distant tone is replaced by spatial metaphors and lyrical depictions of their connection. Every concern about his response to her obsession with the darkest corners of television and every worry about his reaction to her diagnosis fades by the end of the memoir. “We are not twins, but we travel through life much as twins do, our places in the cosmos defined by the position of the other,” she writes.
Trahan teaches as much as she shares in her memoir. Mercy: A Memoir of Medical Trauma and True Crime Obsession deftly braids together the narrative threads of medicine, family, love, and obsession, revealing complex connections between them.
Ariel M. Goldenthal is an assistant professor of English at George Mason University, where she also received her MFA in fiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Grace in Darkness; An Anthology of D.C. Women Writers, Fiction Southeast, and Flash Fiction Magazine, and has received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train.