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I had so much fun writing the Mad Max blog I decided to write another psychological summary. This time I want to cover The Bird Eater by Ania Ahlborn. I am sure not very many people have ever heard of this book, or even its author. She’s a relatively unknown but up and coming horror author, and if you have not read any of her works, you need to.

Good horror authors tell an interesting story and sometimes scare you. Great horror authors create an entire psychological landscape that permeates every area of the characters’ unconscious minds. This is actually one reason why Stephen King is known as the King. In his works, especially his earlier works, he uses some everyday ideas to gobble on the fear of the main characters. Take Misery for example. Paul Sheldon has become exhausted writing his Misery series and wants to venture outside the story and genre, yet he is terrified that he will only ever be known as the Misery author. This fear is played out by the psychopath Annie Wilkes abducting him and holding him hostage. As his self-proclaimed #1 fan, she represents an entire fan base that would be betrayed if Paul wrote other material. The same thing in Cujo- Donna feels trapped in her marriage and her aggression to get out of it is literally translated into the aggressive Cujo trapping her and her son in a Ford Pinto.

 Ania uses similar themes and archetypes in The Bird Eater. The story tells that of Aaron Holbrook, an alcoholic who returns to his once abandoned home in rural Arkansas. As a child, his family was killed in that home, the last being his aunt, before he was transplanted halfway across the country to Oregon to live with his closest relatives. In present day, we learn that he grew up to become a medic, lived a rather average life, until he was involved in a car accident that took his son’s life. This accident went on to ruin his marriage and he slowly descends the steps into alcoholism.

Based on his therapist’s recommendation, he moves back to the home in Arkansas which he finds has been in his possession since his family was killed. While running into old friends and an old flame, he begins to see a teenage boy around town and his home. This boy harasses Aaron by vandalizing his property, breaking and entering, and even leaving piles of dead birds in his house. Later we learn this boy’s name is Isaac, and he may have had lived in that same house many years prior, but he is actually a hallucination of Aaron’s. We will revisit that shortly.

This book could very well have been titled The Tragedy of Aaron Holbrook because it details his slow mental degradation and lapse into near insanity. Of course, we don’t live in Greek or Shakespearean times and our literature requires a little more advancement and creativity. Hence, why it’s fun (for me) to pick out all of the analytical and psychology components of great stories.

The first and foremost construct we need to understand is that this is a story about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Everything that happens in this novel somehow relates to Aaron’s psyche condition following the traumatic event that took his boy’s life. Many people understand that PTSD is related to combat veterans, and often times it is. However, PTSD manifests as symptoms related to any traumatic experience. Sexual assault survivors, near death experiences, and people in accidents all but not exclusively may exude some symptoms of this anxiety disorder. It starts with a traumatic event in which the victim feels terrified for his/her own life. There, a deep anxiety/fearful response seeds itself into the unconscious mind. Typically, this is too much fear and anxiety for the average person to handle, so the victim begins to repress all associations of that event.

We know from psychology that repression is one of the most detrimental things to our own mental health. Stress is just like physical pressure, if it builds up too much, it finds the area with the least give in order to escape. In PTSD, this may begin as insomnia paired with intense nightmares, irritability, difficulty concentrating, hypervigilance, and it builds itself up to more extremes like panic attacks and hallucinations. This, of course, if the victim never uses some sort of cognitive behavioral technique to approach the stressful stimuli and gain acceptance of the past trauma. We called this exposure therapy in the army.

Aaron displays textbook signs of PTSD, including immense survivor’s guilt, at one point wishing the wreck had taken him and spared his son. Now we come to the next, pertinent feature of Aaron’s psyche- his inability to cope with the past. His therapist tells him it will be good to revisit his past, it could be therapeutic. He resents his therapist for suggesting this, but still gives a try anyway, mainly because he doesn’t have much else right now.

Let’s step back into repression for a moment and discuss how this anxiety infiltrates Aaron’s mind, and Aaron’s unwillingness to confront it. If you read my Mad Max blog, or are knowledgeable in psychology, you know what the shadow is. Because of Aaron’s consistent repression, he creates a shadow that manifests itself as this bird kid who continually harasses him. Somewhere in Aaron’s life, he became obsessed with birds, having many tattooed on himself, and therefore that was the mind’s most obvious choice. Keep in mind, however, that this manifestation is directly related to the accident. He associates this bird kid several times with his own son, at one time seeing him wearing a name badge with his son’s name on it- Ryder.

The bird kid is also very much a hallucination. Several times we are revealed, as the reader, to find that Aaron is the only person who can see him, except towards the ends (more on that below). At one point, he catches him on a video recorder, and eagerly shows his friend, Eric. To his dismay, Eric saw no bird kid nor any apparition. As the stress grows greater with Aaron, so do the hallucinations and hauntings.

This idea of dealing (or the inability of) with his past does coincide with his past trauma and PTSD, and running these two themes parallel throughout the novel is a great idea, but it is important from a literary perspective not to confuse the two, despite there being no real boundaries at times between them. Aaron has trouble negotiating his past altogether. The scene where he takes Cheri to a distant lake, away from her husband, and they copulate is a great representation of his mind’s inability to do so. We tend to idealize the past, forgetting the negative features and instead clinging on to the feeling we thought it gave us. Aaron does this with Cheri, thinking he can look back to a woman in his past rather than focus on any type of future with his separated wife, or even moving on from her. Right before they leave the lake, however, his unconscious mind gives him a swift reminder as Cheri, for a brief moment, appears as a bird and a large flock descends upon her, scaring Aaron up the bank and to his car.

This theme again replays itself at the end, when Cheri is pregnant, moves into Aaron’s house and decides to name her son Isaac. She too, cannot get over her past and perpetuates this fearful notion of some haunted bird kid stalking the town.

Finally the only two times where the bird kid is seen by someone other than Aaron, comes shortly before those people die. This is a creative way to show coincidental projections. One lady becomes instantly fearful driving Aaron home, she begins to brood on the idea of a kid who lived in Aaron’s house, incidentally named Isaac Aaron Ryder, who disappeared in his teenage years, never to be found. She psyches herself out so much over this sudden fear, she eventually loses control of her car, and sees an apparition of Isaac Ryder shortly before she dies.

The second person, Aaron’s friend Eric, meets a similar fate shortly after. He flies to Aaron’s home when he hears mixed messages from Aaron and feels he is in instant danger. Upon arriving to his house, which he believes throughout the entire novel to be haunted, he finds he is locked out. While attempting to break in, the same fear envelopes him, and he envisions the same swarm of bird and bird kid apparitions that has been haunting Aaron over the course of the story.

I didn’t ruin the entire ending of the novel for you if you have not read it, but if you have a vivid imagination you can probably guess where it goes. I have read several of Ania’s works, and plan to read them all in the not so distant future. I am honestly surprised she has not gained more traction. Her novels are shorter, easy to follow, and would translate very well into movies. I am also sorry if this blog was harder to follow. This is a deeply complex and rich story, and was probably a lot easier for me to interpret because of my many years working with PTSD in the army. Just like the themes of PTSD and not moving on from the past, many problems psychologically are interrelated yet separate.

I also want to note that Aaron never learns to confront and accept his past, both from the traumatic accident that cost his son’s life and his early childhood in Arkansas. It continues to gnaw on him and he responds by trying to repress it over and over again. This is why I mentioned earlier it should be called The Tragedy of Aaron Holbrook. Throughout the entire novel, he does this to himself. Of course it’s fiction and make believe, and we, as the reader, want to be entertained with some supernatural horror tale. However, the bird kid isn’t real, it’s just a figment of Aaron’s imagination as his shadow.

I have actually witnessed something similar with a patient in the army. I won’t go into great detail out of respect for that patient’s privacy and to stay consistent with medical law, so I will keep the details of the incident vague. While deployed, this soldier was involved in a situation where a child died when he was on patrol, and felt immensely guilty. From my eyes, I could tell this soldier had absolutely no ability to stop the chain of events that led to this massacre, yet he still clung to that guilt long after returning home. He too repressed the traumatic experience, which led him to seeing hallucinations of this child at various times, along with other various symptoms of PTSD.

This disorder is not something to take lightly. Depending on where you are in this world, it may be rare occurring. However, someone around you is suffering. This blog wasn’t intended to become sentimental, but I want to conclude with some information on finding appropriate resources for someone suffering who needs immediate intervention.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicide, talk to someone via a healthcare provider, the suicide prevention line, or a close friend/relative:

1 (800) 273-TALK (8255)

If you or a veteran you know is having difficulty with anxiety, depression, or is experiencing symptoms related to PTSD, call the Veteran Crisis Line or reach out to your local VA. Our heroes deserve all the help for their sacrifices:

1 (800) 273-TALK (8255) Press 1 or

1 (877) 717-PTSD (7873)

 

Next up is A Quiet Place followed by Gravity.


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