“Disarticulated. Dismembered. Destroyed”: Abuse and Schizophrenia in Nancy Huston’s The Story of Omaya

by Danielle Schaub

March 19, 2012


Dealing with an unstable young woman raped serially and interned for schizophrenic symptoms, Nancy Huston’s The Story of Omaya provides an interesting case for a discussion of psychopathological symptoms and their linguistic, structural and stylistic manifestation. The daughter of a brilliant scientist referred to as the Owl (probably on account of his tendency to disconnect from reality) and a mother obsessed with her research on the brain, Omaya spends much time alone in her childhood, her anxieties and emotional needs left uncontained. Suiting her condition, the narrative points to disjunction, particularly with its sudden switches of narrative perspective in the middle of a paragraph, if not in the middle of a sentence. Conveying hallucinations, deviations from normative perception, obsession with eyes and distressing thoughts, the imagery reflects her instability, enhancing the pathological interpretation. Thanks to the novel’s imagery, diction, structure and style, Omaya’s behaviour, attitudes and thoughts illustrate different aspects of object-relations theories while contributing to bibliotherapeutic recognition of spiritual suffering.


“Disarticulated. Dismembered. Destroyed”: Abuse and Schizophrenia

in Nancy Huston’s The Story of Omaya[1]


Though clinicians understand the psychic patterns of their patients, they do not always record these convincingly, for want of the literary tools needed to express what Bowlby (1989) considers the unthinkable, the unintelligible and the inexpressible experiences of childhood loss. On the other hand, writers manage to capture psychic patterns, offering food for thought to psychoanalysts. Freud (1987; 1997) most eloquently illustrated his reflections and theories with examples from literature, just as numerous followers. Bowlby (1989) even contends that literary texts can contribute to psychoanalysis by highlighting phenomena sometimes overlooked by theoretical approaches. Stressing the contrast between the universalising character of clinical literature and the individualising character of creative literature, Aberbach (1989) amply documents examples of writers recording emotions familiar to them in the face of loss. Emerging from individual experience, trauma narratives enhance psychological understanding as writers often write from experience, whether direct or indirect, and access feelings through which to reconstruct trauma and validate the experiences of trauma survivors (Vickroy, 2002). Stressing the devastating effect of victims’ conflict between denial/obliteration and revelation (Herman, 1992; Caruth, 1996; McNally, 2003), such narratives have led to a popular awareness of responses to momentous experiences, helping readers comprehend their own and sometimes in the reading process envisage better coping strategies.[2]

With its “hallucinating universe characterised by its distinctive poetic quality but also by its unbearable cruelty” (Morin, 1985, p. 21; translation mine), Nancy Huston’s The Story of Omaya[3] provides an interesting case for a discussion of psychopathological symptoms and their linguistic, structural and stylistic manifestation.[4] Based on a news item and a court case the author attended,[5] the novel consists in the disjointed stream of thoughts that the female protagonist, Omaya, embarks on while engaged in her testimony at a trial in which she must convince the judge and the jurors of her claims that the men already charged with assault and battery have also raped her. The narrative evoking memories from the past replayed in umpteen altered versions and delving into the most chaotic stream of consciousness reveals the schizophrenic tendencies of Omaya together with her post-traumatic stress disorder reawakening past traumas. The daughter of a brilliant scientist referred to as the Owl (probably on account of his tendency to disconnect from reality) and a mother named Cybele and obsessed with her research on the brain, Omaya spent much time alone in her childhood, her anxieties and emotional needs left uncontained, securing fertile ground for psychotic development the more so as the novel indicates that her father might have abused her sexually in her early childhood. Omaya then grew up into an unstable young woman, frightened of any new situation, imagining threats everywhere and failing exams by messing her timetable. Eventually to escape from the preordained world her mother has planned for her, she becomes an actress and identifies with the characters she plays more than with herself. She starts living alone in a flat, getting moral support from her girlfriend Alix and her fellow actor Saroyan, to whom she clings by turn. Delusions and hallucinations already disturb her. Penniless when the theatre company disbands, she ends up staying with friends until her internment in an asylum where she undergoes electric treatment and from which she escapes one night. During her escapade, she meets some men who rape her serially, leading to further psychotic reactions and traumatic stress.[6] Thanks to the novel’s imagery, diction, structure and style, Omaya’s behaviour, attitudes and thoughts illustrate different aspects of psychoanalytical object-relations theories.[7] As the protagonist’s divided train of thoughts centres on physical objects that “fight” against her, on irrational fears about the physical and human environment, on her inability to function, to orientate herself in town, to stick to timetables, to express herself coherently and cognitively, the narrative with its dislocated inner monologue reviewing past and present scenes in chaotic disconnection points to disjunction suiting Omaya’s condition. Reflecting her instability by conveying hallucinations, deviations from normative perception, obsession with eyes and distressing thoughts, the narrative enhances the clinical interpretation all the more poignantly as its idiosyncratic structural, stylistic and linguistic nature suits the pathological perception of reality and thinking process.

The structure of the novel matches Omaya’s psychopathology admirably as it consists of dislocated sections, rather than of a text made up of several chapters running through smoothly. Reminiscent of Ferenczi’s comments on “extreme fragmentation which could be called dematerialisation” resulting from powerlessness “in the face of [an] overpowering attack” (1930/1955, p. 220), the novel consists of fragmented threads of consciousness placed one next to the other for the readers to reconstruct the puzzle of Omaya’s life or rather what her psyche reveals about it. As a result, readers wonder throughout what they may believe or not just as therapists would do with a patient suffering from similar pathology. Quotations from the court case — whether fictionally “real,” distorted, or imagined — lead to a stream meandering through past and present events with abrupt switches and weird connections evidencing irrational fears and anxieties, paranoia, cerebral cross-wiring and functional maladjustment that may find their source in the protagonist’s childhood. Randomly put together and intertwining, the disconnected strands of the narrative create a maze that readers must walk to feel the impact of Omaya’s little containing childhood and adolescence that feeds her terrifying delusions, hallucinations and thoroughly dislocated thoughts forever alluding to her flawed talk, behaviour, and cerebral abilities.

Huston’s choice to use the stream-of-consciousness technique[8] best conveys Omaya’s flow of conscious experience. Unlike William James’ considerations that “consciousness . . . does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. . . it flows” (James, 1980, 1981 rpt. p. 239), Omaya’s jumps from thought to thought so haphazardly that it produces disconnected strands as if it could not follow the thread. Starting without any exposition to prepare the readers for the distressing narrative, the onset takes the readers from Omaya’s fight with a zipper and her thoughts about her lifelong difficulty with zippers to thoughts of the court case, the behaviour she should adopt, the questions asked to her, the case’s chances of success, the necessity to smile:

Stuck. It’s got stuck again and Omaya is struggling with it. I’ve spent my whole life struggling with zips, it seems I’ve never done anything but that, try to insert the little piece of metal into the hole, it goes in but it gets stuck, and I can’t pull up the tongue, my fingers are gigantic and numb, Omaya sees every wrinkle on every knuckle, deep ridges in the dry flesh, nibbled skin around the finger nails, white spots underneath, Omaya’s fingers try to make the zip slide but it’s broken, I’m absolutely sure, it won’t ever work again and I’m freezing cold, the fingers growing impatient, shake the tongue, yank at it violently, it gets stuck, and now, beneath the thick forest fringe, my pores begin to exude a viscous liquid, the others can’t see it but they find me laughable just the same, I’ve been fiddling with this tongue for the past ten minutes and still I haven’t got the better of it. . .  Other people dress without thinking, their hands performing nimble gestures without their brain having to get involved, other people dress and undress in arabesques, objects don’t resist anyone but Omaya, it has to close sooner or later, I refuse to acknowledge defeat, they all hope I’m going to collapse the way I did last time, but today I won’t give them that satisfaction, I won’t even raise my eyes, I’ll answer all their questions in a neutral, objective tone of voice, and they won’t get the better of me (SO, pp. 1-2; original ellipsis)

This passage illustrates how the structure of the novel conveys the mind’s meandering track, hopping into nooks of the psyche, detached yet somehow connected by sheer juxtaposition. Within each sentence chaos or disconnection prevails. Fragments as in the one-word initial sentence emphasise the destructive impact of a fact or disconnect events from their sequence. Comma splices (as in sentence 3) with their incorrect use of commas between independent clauses allow juxtaposition of statements one next to the other as if they flew into one another breathlessly though their connections often remain haphazard. The whirl creating connections by virtue of the spatial closeness sometimes pauses for an ellipsis, as at the end of sentence 3, suspending thought before it picks up again in a different direction, a pattern that often happens between sections too. The effect of the structural organisation calls to mind Bick’s theory (1968, 1986), more particularly the lack of skin as boundary that jeopardises integration and organisation. The chaotic organisation thus reflects the kaleidoscopic division of the self that cannot keep itself in one piece.

As if such disjunction did not suffice, the stream of consciousness proceeds splitting the narrative voice into two, as the narrator refers to Omaya sometimes as I, sometimes as she.[9] Complicating matters further, the switch between the first- and third-person pronoun happens within sections, sometimes even within sentences as in sentence 3 of the opening passage. Particularly illustrative of Omaya’s inability to perceive her own inner space nor her self as an object worthy of connection for lack of a “skin functioning as a boundary” (Bick, 1968, p. 484) in the relationship with her mother, the switch evokes the inability to contain the self; split into two, the personal referents point to the vision from a distance and from close by, blurring the visions of the self.[10] Like a camera zooming in and out so often that it cannot reach full focus, the daze also may evoke Klein’s comments on the schizoid’s fear of close connection (1946/1975). The blur presiding the confusion at the origin of the switch may also exemplify Bion’s attacks on linking (1984) between objects in schizophrenics if one considers that the first- and third-person pronoun refer to two different objects though they both denote the same body. The containing function being destructive, she simply attacks her fragmented self. The narrative voice splits over and over again, reflecting through its fragmented discourse the original separation without any containment, in Bickian fashion, as if ideas escape, find no skin, no receptacle to hold them.

Going beyond the opening, the initial confusing narrative perspective finds an echo in the semantic choice:

Stuck. It’s got stuck again and Omaya is struggling with it. I’ve spent my whole life struggling with zips, it seems I’ve never done anything but that, try to insert the little piece of metal into the hole, it goes in but it gets stuck, and I can’t pull up the tongue, my fingers are gigantic and numb, Omaya sees every wrinkle on every knuckle, deep ridges in the dry flesh, nibbled skin around the finger nails, white spots underneath, Omaya’s fingers try to make the zip slide but it’s broken, I’m absolutely sure, it won’t ever work again and I’m freezing cold, the fingers growing impatient, shake the tongue, yank at it violently, it gets stuck, and now, beneath the thick forest fringe, my pores begin to exude a viscous liquid, the others can’t see it but they find me laughable just the same, I’ve been fiddling with this tongue for the past ten minutes and still I haven’t got the better of it. . .  (SO, p. 1)

From the onset, even before allowing readers to consider the narrative perspective, fragmentation marks the text. By standing on its own, the initial monosyllabic, onomatopoeic one-word fragment already establishes disconnection semantically while alluding to penetration by virtue of its denotation; besides, it points to passiveness on account of the past participle that claims a standstill with no possible future as the explosives enhance its finality. The narrative thus plunges into a dead end even before it starts, leaving Omaya and her story impaled.[11] The next sentence confirms their relegation to nought by first focusing on a neutral subject the nature of which remains unknown. Only then does Omaya come in, her existence subordinate to the unknown subject. Squeezed between the initial and final indefinite pronouns it, Omaya cannot rise to existence the more so as the action — is struggling — acquires a stative quality by virtue of its non-constructive result, merely echoing the passive stuck. The next sentence offers an ephemeral relief as the external dehumanising focalisation gives way to internal focalisation. However the voice merely appropriates the passiveness by piling up several statements negating a way out. Even the comma splices have more of a disjunctive paratactic feel than a linking quality.[12] The middle switch of perspective from inner to outer focalisation and then back to inner focalisation only contributes to further disjunction the more so as none of the sentences announces a positive outlook or a constructive option. The pronoun I and the pronoun she exist by virtue of impotency and stagnation made worse by the devastatingly negative physical description and the inhuman/inanimate overbearing indefiniteness.

The abrupt switch of narrative perspective within sections and even sentences matches dislocation at all levels, calling to mind Bion’s attacks on linking. In spite of the potentially integrative character of the comma splices abounding in the text, the constant switch in focus of attention affords disintegration, the more so for the alternation between details and vital information, between factual and hallucinatory revelations.[13] In the previously quoted passage, Omaya’s fight with a zipper in the courtroom switches to existential lack of achievement, to physical deformity, back to the fight with the zip, her physical reaction to the emotionally fraught context, to imagining people’s critical perception, and finally her inability at securing results. Such whirl characterises the whole novel in varying degrees, sometimes more pronounced, sometimes less, conjuring up behavioural patterns related to object-relations theories.

Visual signs of the endangered psyche, the imagery arising from Omaya’s inner perception clarifies the nature of the monsters she fights. Omaya’s fear of dark places, of encounters with assailants, of being stuck with no escape, of exposure evokes irrational anxieties borne of childhood helplessness in the face of sexual exposure, seems to point to Ferenczi’s claim about an adult confusing the “language of tenderness [for the adult language] of passion” (Ferenczi, 1933/1955 p. 156). Throughout the novel, the imagery manifests Omaya’s fear of the sexual, if not obsession with anything that may bear similarity with any aspect of the sexual act. The clubs carried by the police within the court hall during her trial, for instance, she associates with the male sexual organ in its various stages of activity. The imagery used in her confused memories of the journey for an audition in Berg when her car overheated helps corroborate the supposition that her father abused her:

While the engine is cooling off, Omaya stretches out in the grass at the side of the road. The flayed virgin. The rabbit… No! It was the Owl’s fault!… He’s the one that taught me how to drive. Everything seemed so easy. I can float! I can drive! Seated at first between his legs, I would hold the steering-wheel. When a lorry suddenly loomed up in front of us and a collision seemed inevitable, I’d cover my face with both hands and the Owl would save me from death. As long as he was there, I had nothing to fear.  (SO, p. 36)

Her comparison to a flayed virgin immediately suggests dispossession, harm, criticism and exposure, all easily associated with the feelings a child may have at losing her innocence, particularly when integrating the aggressor’s feelings of guilt. Sidetracked by the experience of an overheating engine, a symbolic transposition for the male sex that could not keep its sexual impulses out of harm, Omaya now lives beside the road of life, unable to function. The rabbit inevitably adds to the connotations attached to flayed, conjuring up helplessness, indeed deprivation of a protective skin. The symbolism attached to rabbits, in particular that of “uninhibited (but often immature) sexuality” (de Vries, 1974, p. 379), inevitably reinforces the feeling that early exposure to sex has traumatised her. The exclamation that follows highlights the burden of guilt that Omaya carries and the need to stress the adult’s responsibility. The ellipses before and after the exclamation give space to the readers to fill in the gaps of indeterminacy (Iser, 1989) created by the jumps of consciousness and to let the words create their own web of connections affording further interpretations. The ease with which the adult convinced the child as well as the child’s excitement at sharing knowledge brings to mind Ferenczi’s comment on the child’s need of tenderness and the pathological adult’s mishandling of it. The oscillation between accusing the father and finding a shelter in him as well as refusing to see when seated “between his legs” and “hold[ing] the steering-wheel” — two undeniably sexually-charged parameters — leave little doubt as to the nature of the trauma Omaya incurred at an impressionable age whether it happened in reality or in her fantasies. The whirl of images and contrasting emotions points to the blur caused by the adult’s confusion of tongues (Ferenczi, 1933/1955).

Other passages add to the picture in symbolic fashion. Caught in the anxiety generated by the original trauma, Omaya further identifies with the aggressor, as Ferenczi notes (1933/1955). When stating, “I’ve just killed her [the rabbit]. Omaya did it. She killed her” (SO, p. 59), the voice marks the process of identification with the aggressing father, ending up expressing guilt over having performed what she has undergone. Similarly, the reference to adult talk thereafter shows the father’s success at blurring boundaries, calling to mind Ferenczi’s “Confusion of tongues” (1933/1955): “I know how to drive, I’m really grown-up now, he talks to me like a grown-up, my hands have replaced his hands, we form a single body” (SO, p. 60). She even blames herself in one of her multiple elaborations on phrases concerning her behaviour or intellectual aptitude: “Stay on track. Never wander from the straight and narrow. Do not follow the Owl, who strays too far from the beaten track. If you agree to accompany him oin his night walks in the forest, you must accept the consequences” (SO, p 89).

Further substantiating the likelihood that Omaya suffered from the confusion of tongues, the narrative’s obsession with the sexual shows how the mind falls prey to the original confusion. The description of the stuffed owl at Omaya’s grandmother’s place and her fear of it allude to sexual abuse:

If the door was open I couldn’t pass in front of it and go downstairs, I would have awakened the owl who slept with its eyes wide open, I would have heard a ruffling of feathers, its head would have pivoted towards me and its yellow eyes would have caught sight of me, ferocious golden marbles beneath two feather-bristling brows, its wings would have started beating and its hooked beak clicking, the owl would have flown across the room and swooped down on me and I would have been dead. (SO, p.7)

Reminiscent of Yeats’ evocative “Leda and the Swan” (1924), the imagery suggests fear of sexuality and of the petite mort. The run-on quality of the sentence suggests the inability to stay focused after a trauma, while its comma splices show how none of the actions come alone but in succession without clear demarcation; even the modals translate the feelings of distress: against one expression of inability — couldn’t — stand seven expressions of the likely — would have — showing how fears dominate reactions. Given the father’s nickname — the Owl — Omaya’s fear of the stuffed owl and its down-swoop killing her figuratively evokes an abusive sexual act that killed her emotionally and its impact on the emotive child. The confusion between the stuffed and the human or living (feathers – brows) conveys the imaginative slippage of which the child takes cognizance but only partially: “Of course, it was the owl that was dead . . . even at the time she knew it, it was dead but only on condition that the door to the den remained closed. If it were left open, one had to expect the worst” (SO, p. 7).[14]

Still in line with Ferenczi’s approach to trauma, Omaya’s helplessness results in her inability to react against her aggressors in adulthood, oscillation between her innocence and guilt over the traumatic abuse/s, mechanical approach with occasional defiance of the maternal controlling approach, as well as terrorised anxiety in the face of unpleasant circumstances and personality splits verging on fragmentation. Whenever perception of men enhances their physical attributes — their Adam’s apple, hair on fingers and limbs — she panics as if hair were causing her to suffocate the way she must have felt as a child. When she goes over scenes where men have made a pass at her, her reaction follows the same pattern:

He touched my foot, he ran into me, over me… Achtung! No… He did touch Omaya’s foot, that’s true but he didn’t do it on purpose, he said he was sorry, they said they regretted what had happened, withdraw your complaint, I beg you, you won’t accomplish anything this way, all you’ll do is make yourself even more miserable and ill, if you persist. (SO, p. 3)

These two sentences show the divided perception of the traumatised. First overwhelmed, the first-person narrator remembers the actions as though leaking into one another, rather than a sequence of acts divided by proper punctuation as if experienced as hallucination. The leak triggers trauma responses —Achtung!  and immediately thereafter another voice, that of the Super-Ego, addresses her in the second person minimising the action, begging her to see that the man, who becomes plural, did not mean it. In short, the voice of the Super-Ego urges her to excuse the man and forget the harm she has incurred. The confusion between the one and the multiple — he … they — reveals the confusion borne of over-stimulation at a stage when Omaya the child could not defend herself and could not find empathy since the mother refused to see what happened; all advances perturb and confound her older self to the extent that she cannot evaluate facts rationally, blurring perceptions, fragmenting her self as the text shows the passage between the first-, second- and third-person pronoun in turn.

Increasing the splits, the therapist that Omaya consults seems to provide Freudian interpretations of no use to the unprepared patient rather than affective, empathic responses à la Ferenczi:

“Where did this sudden wish to cut your friend’s throat come from?”

“Not a wish. It didn’t come from me but from the knife. I loved her.”

“Love is often a distorted form of hatred, as you know very well. A form the conscious mind finds more acceptable. So tell me, why did you want to eliminate her?” (SO, p. 44)

Omaya’s answer suggests that she has remained stuck in the mind of her childhood self, distinguishing between herself from the objects she may hold like a child claiming not having done something, but his/her hand has. Calling to mind Ferenczi’s consideration that a child “identifies two things on the basis of the slightest resemblance, displaces affects with ease from the one to the other, and gives the same name to both” (1912/1916, p. 233), the passage hints at the repression of the aggressive instinct into the unconscious. Interpreting without taking the nature of traumatic experience into consideration, the therapist offers interpretation prematurely at a time when the regressive patient cannot digest it. Similarly, some of the idioms Omaya must explain in her reminiscences of her autodidactic pursuit or therapy reflect the tension between Freud and Ferenczi as they evidence the contrast between stepping into line, which society requires, and blurring boundaries, which Omaya’s psyche adheres to:

“There’s no smoke without fire, that means that when you light up a cigarette, you think you can protect yourself behind a smokescreen, whereas, in fact, it isn’t a means of protection but a means of destruction, the inner fires are gradually consuming the bronchi of the trees . . . you dance until you’re breathless . . . and all that’s left of your identity is a charred ballet shoe.”

     “Your answers are growing more and more inappropriate.”  (SO, p145)

Read as associations rather than definitions, Omaya’s explanations in the various passages with such tasks throw light on the nature and origin of her pathology, the traumatised self in childhood with no empathic parent to protect her or to help her bear the burden.

Evoking attacks on links (Bion 1984) or defective skin function (Bick 1968 and 1986), Omaya cannot retain information, nor even maintain full attention on the argumentation against her at the trial.[15] Time and again, she disconnects, for she cannot face the accusations and insinuations against her. At a loss for defending herself, she cannot hear the questions, does not understand them or dozes off, even at the end of the trial (SO, p. 148) when the final verdict allots her “a nought” (SO, p. 148) and no chance to appeal. Her final soliloquy switches narrative perspectives from third- through first-, to second-person narrator, calling for the readers’ identification in a whirl where ellipses invade the text or rather fragmentary thoughts, concepts, phrases embedded in occasional sentences:

Of course: Omaya’s the one who can’t hear them. How could I have heard them when they were trampling me underfoot? But you — you’ve never heard anyone but them. Driving along in their literary vehicles — so lyrical, so cathartic — they would point out to you the beauties of the countryside . . . by car, fast and far  . . . and little did it matter to you who was getting crushed beneath the wheels. Each one of them at the wheel, taking turns . . . turning roles . . . rolling past . . . extolling past . . . No! It’s not over yet, it can’t end this way, nothing’s been decided yet, it’s not up to you to take the decision . . . to take the wheel . . . your turn to play . . . your play to turn . . . your wheel to roll . . . your role to play . . . No! That isn’t what I mean, it’s the words that talk that way, the words have contracted a serious illness, they’ve been infected with the plague, they’re buboes swelling in my brain, pustules bursting under pressure, and yet the rose was such a lovely, shocking pink, pink in a violet heart . . . No! . . . Bang! Right in the heart . . . right on target . . . rifle discharge . . . electrical discharge . . . They fasten the electrodes to your temples … (SO pp. 149-150; original ellipses)

Evoking short-circuited cerebral activity in the face of electric shocks, the inner monologue brings together a kaleidoscopic vision of the traumatised and her reality, where the twists and turns enact the multiple facets of the trauma, mental distortions, medical procedures in apt word play whose subversive quality enhance the critical state of mind Omaya finds herself in. The ending mirrors the impact of past, present and future traumas on her, namely being “knocked off at point blank range” (SO, p. 151), indeed clothing the anagram “I am O,” with a fall in the abyss.

Exemplifying disruptiveness not just through the visual breaks in the text but also through the constant abrupt change of subject, the novel brings up haphazardly well-known cases of mental imbalance in women affected by their interactions with men so much so that they lose their good looks, ability to function, and sanity, or even commit suicide, the disconnected strand of thoughts, such as Ophelia (SO, p. 26), Camille Claudel (SO, p. 38-39), Charlotte Gilman Perkins’ female character in “The yellow wallpaper” (SO, p. 40), Virginia Woolf (SO, p. 43). In its disjunction, the disrupted inner monologue returns to the flayed rabbit over and over again: “The Owl’s the one who flayed her, tearing off the strips of skin, peeling the skin upwards from her rump the length of her back, he’s the one who chopped her into pieces for a stew, he’s the one who licked his chops. Omaya sees nothing of this. She’s curled up in bed, shivering, her head spinning, neon lights before her eyes” (SO, p. 61). The confusion created by the use of the third-person female pronoun to signify the rabbit and/or Omaya champions the interpretation that Omaya and the rabbit are one, the rabbit only a mirror of the child who has undergone disjunction of her psyche like the rabbit of her skinned body. The chopped up narrative therefore visually simulates the dismemberment originating in the trauma/s on account of which Omaya must embark in “learning to walk again, with greater difficulty each time” (SO, p. 61). The skinned rabbit inevitably brings to mind Bick’s theory that the child not held together by the primary care giver ends up having no “skin functioning as a boundary” to allow the introjection of the containing functions so that identity confusion prevails (1986, p. 484).

Traces of post-traumatic stress disorder recur, causing Omaya to cut any possible connection as if to confirm Bion’s attacks on linking (1984). Among these, exclamations marking hyper-arousal, such as “Alert! Alarm! Achtung!” (emphasis in the original), scattered throughout the text in triple A (SO, p. 3, 35, 69) or single A form (SO, p. 3, 9, 34, 49, 88), symbolise the electric charge to the brain caused by a sight, an event, a thought triggering anxiety or rather panic. The very moment the trigger sparks, Omaya severs her connection to life, for the sake of hyper-vigilance. In the same manner, apart from numerous allusions to lack of sleep, lack of appetite, lack of involvement, lack of affect, the narrative bears the marks of post-traumatic disorder when Omaya cannot integrate questions and establish connections between words:

“What time did you leave the Castle?”

“… I’m sorry, could you repeat the question?”

“What time did you get home last night?”

“Get home?”  (SO, pp. 4-5)

None of the questions should pose any comprehension problem; yet Omaya fails to understand the simplest words as if she did not speak the language. The questions answered by questions speak of distress, the blank of dislocation. The same happens when stress causes her to lose memory of words she knows while trying to recall part of the trial:

 “Call the accused.”

No one said that. But what? What did they say? Call… There’s a word for it…

“Call the prisoner.”

No, that’s not it either. You’re not being held prisoner, here, young lady. No one is detaining you. Your situation might be called confinement, but it hasn’t yet become incarceration. If you don’t like it here, instead of complaining all the time…

That’s it:

“Call the plaintiff.”

The one who’s constantly complaining, about anything and everything. Lack of sleep, lack of appetite, lack of love, lack of humour, lack of integrity, lack of orientation, lack of keys.  (SO, p. 103-4)

The text reveals its own confusion while presenting Omaya’s loss of memory and wayward thinking mechanisms. As she tries to remember words heard at the trial, the text uses inverted commas; yet two out of the three instances of marked direct discourse correspond to no spoken statements, but merely to Omaya trying out words in the hope of regaining memory. As for the longer passage (“No, that’s …. all the time”) in free indirect discourse (McHale, 1978; Sharvit, 2008), it evidences two voices, admittedly Omaya’s speaking to herself neutrally, and Omaya impersonating one of the staff members at the asylum where she is interned, a voice of condescension or rebuke.[16] The final passage in free indirect discourse denigrating Omaya, enumerating symptoms typical of PTSD that stress lack of inner connection so prominent in Bion’s theories regarding schizophrenics (1984).

Akin to the fragmentation at the heart of Bion’s theory, Bick’s considerations of the skin also apply to Omaya’s perception of her body and her clothing.[17] Full of holes, her clothes do not offer the protection she needs. Her description suits Bick’s approach in that holes, rips and cracks offer a visual counterpart to the dislocation of her childhood history. Torn to pieces by her father’s mishandling of her, Omaya bears traces of the fractured self in her outer appearance:

She looks at her feet, her tights have holes in them, the big toe as usual, these tights are almost new, they can’t be mended because they are made of some synthetic stuff instead of wool, I’m the only one who comes here every week with holes in my tights, holes taunt me and torment me. If ever, in a moment of expansiveness, I put my hands behind my neck and stretch, someone will point out that right there, under my arm, there’s a rip in my sweater… Or else there’ll be a thread dangling from the hem of my skirt, or a button missing from my jersey, to say nothing of laddered stockings, tangled necklaces, frayed cuffs, broken heels… (SO, p. 81).

Although the comma splices of the first sentence might evoke a flow of intertwined thoughts like a skin holding and protecting the various parts of the body, its imagery conveys just the opposite with holes apparent semantically, symbolically and syntactically. On the symbolic level, when the narrative mentions holes, rips, cracks, it recalls the wound inflicted to initiands of which Omaya was a premature candidate the more so as the opening bears connection with the vulva (de Vries, 1974, p. 254) while the big toe with the phallus (de Vries, 1974, p. 469); ladders in the tights call to mind Freud’s association of ladders with the sexual act (de Vries, 1974, p. 288); tangled necklaces hint at the “erotic link or bond” (de Vries, 1974, p. 338); missing buttons at the fragility of the unprotected receptacle; frayed cuffs at faulty ties; the broken heels at the unchaste or loose (de Vries, 1974, 246) or a useless weapon (de Vries, 1974, p. 246). Semantically, the passage illustrates Bick’s theory, since it focuses on holes that leave the body unprotected, alluding to the faulty skin and its impact — taunt, torment; all the present and past participles in the last sentence  — dangling, missing, laddered, tangled, frayed, broken — inform lack, fault, confusion resulting from the fragmented perception caused by poor mother-child impaired skin function. Even the tights offer no proper skin, for their synthetic component bears no relation to natural membranes.  Syntactically too, the passage exemplifies Bick’s approach. In spite of their potential flow, comma splices present no continuity, as each sentence unit jumps from subject to subject, from third-person perspective to first-person perspective. The first and last words — third- and first-person deictics she and me — allude to the split personality originating in the trauma signalled by the holes through which the big toe — a phallic symbol of sorts — penetrates and the subsequent obsession with exposed openings. Even the complex periodic sentence that follows, a sentence leaving its main subject for the end as if effecting suspense, fails to act supportively for it contrasts the initial expansiveness and the final rip, showing that emotions lead to blemish in a warm, womb-like cavity. The final sentence of the quoted passage reinforces the dissolution at the heart of Omaya’s life, as it piles up various visual manifestations of the “flawed personality” Bick discusses (1986, p. 299) finishing with asyndetic strength as well as unlimited unmentioned aspects of appearance.[18]

Omaya’s attitude to clothes also awakens reminiscences of Bick’s second skin (1986).[19] Her desire to have a new wardrobe, for instance, bears a close relation to the desire for a second skin. “Clothes,” she notes, “are always so lovely when you see them in the store, when I try them on for the first time in the dressing-room they’re even lovelier and they communicate their loveliness to me” (SO, p. 82). Through clothes she attempts at containing herself. However, once they belong to her, new clothes “gradually deteriorate, they grow more and more frumpy and faded, as though I were now communicating my invisible taints to them (SO, p. 82; original emphasis). Like her body whose clumsiness originating in a non-existing binding force because in infancy her mother did not hold together, clothes belonging to her undergo contamination. Successful second-skin formation (Bick, 1986) only works when she wears the clothes of friends or costumes of imaginary women whose lives she vicariously lives on the stage. Such garments contain her, as it were, because she adopts the personality of the women related to them: “I can put on her personality at the same time and it makes me feel free, I have the right to talk and eat as I imagine she would do” (SO, p. 82). Like Bick’s patients who entertain relationships with adhesive identification (1986, p. 294), Omaya borrows not only the clothes, but also the woman’s personality: “I can borrow anything I want from her and she never feels dispossessed, she accepts me, we live completely together, I look at her in the mirror, I smile at her and she smiles back, she prompts me whenever I forget my lines, she keeps my mind and body together” (SO, p. 82).

With its implied reference to both containment and acceptance, the previous quotation also evidences the nature of the original relational problem in Kleinian or Balintian terms.[20] Further examples of narrative passages that illustrate Balint’s theory of the basic fault or Klein’s considerations of the primary caregiver’s role abound. At the onset of the novel, the narrative discloses the origin of Omaya’s instability:

Omaya is not out of her mind, she has nothing to fear, all she has to do is remain calm and everything will be all right, Cybele will come. She loves me. She’s always said so: It’s not you I hate, it’s your lies, do you understand? You I love, but I detest your lying to me. Go to sleep now, my little one. Cybele is here. Cybele is not here. She’s never here. But she will come. Always in the future. She will love me. As long as I tell the truth. The truth does exist, Omaya, whatever you may think. Clarity is synonymous with beauty. Why do you insist on making things obscure? (SO, p. 6)

The comma splices of the first sentence evidence the age-long recourse to set phrases casting a spell for the child in need of protection and anchorage of her self. The faulty punctuation implies that Omaya does not have firm boundaries, that statements leak onto one another without clear delimitation. To calm herself down she states her mother’s love but then proceeds to negate it with statements of empty love proffered by the mother, the statements that prove that the mother cannot contain her daughter; encouraging the child to sleep amounts to getting rid of her emotional burden.[21] The once-uttered words without the marks of direct speech imply that Omaya has internalised their lack of support for the imaginative child she was, for the terrors she felt. The lack of speech markers for the maternal phrases allows confusion to set to the point that the mother’s reassurance about her presence becomes integrated into a succession of sharply delimited statements pointing to her definite emotional absence and the child’s wishful thinking that one day she will engage emotionally. Voices get confused to the point that Omaya splits meaning so as not to feel the pain of maternal absence/distance. Pointing to lack of continuity, to hypothetical well-being, the fragment Always in the future evokes that the child is on hold, which fragments her perception for lack of proper support. Follows a complete sentence (She will love me) that asserts a future fact only annihilated by the following condition, a fragment for a fragmentary truth that inevitably calls to mind the mother’s inability to face imagination and its departure from normative perception. The mother’s internalised words regarding the existence of truth again split reality in different ways. If merely reproducing the mother’s pontification, it stresses not only the need to rely on scientific facts, but also divergence of opinion enhancing the non-existent unity of thought and emotion that could hold the child. If it superimposes Omaya’s voice, the statement points to Omaya’s split of the self, being both speaker and recipient of a statement emphasising deviation. The same holds for the last two sentences that end up putting Omaya on trial, whether the judge is the mother or Omaya attacking herself from within.

The child come adult then confronts the maternal figure for failing to contain her as a child:

You’re the one who hid your eyes, Cybele. Concerning the Owl. You’re the one who absolutely insisted on remaining in the dark. That time, you let the sunlight of truth shine just for me. Blazing, incandescent. Not that it’s of the least importance now, of course. The Owl won’t come, he can’t do any more harm. From him I inherited the vacant eyes, and from you the false smile.  (SO, p. 6)

Accusative, Omaya’s voice addresses the basic fault (Balint 1968/1992) in her own life, telling her mother off for not protecting her. Symptomatically, the precise nature of the fault remains unmentioned, merely alluded to through language abounding in imagery opposing light and dark, truth and lies, and in the middle the burning fire that consumed the child, literally and figuratively. Unsurprisingly, Omaya severs the Owl by presenting him in a fragment as if she cannot envision the flow of events. Similarly, the impact of the event/s —blazing, incandescent — remains singled out, signalling the source of Omaya’s dislocated, consumed self. Follows another fragment that insists on the futility of revelation once the hidden has damaged the self. There syntax reinforces the repercussion of the trauma on the psyche: once fragmented, the self will bear the mark of its disintegration just as a broken plate can never hide the blemish no matter how skilfully glued together again. Interestingly, the non-committable actions — coming, harming — appear in a comma splice that evidences the damaging flow of sexual activity. Finally the concluding statement alludes to the crippling pathological effect of the “blazing, incandescent” unsaid. The parallel structure with its deictic[22] identification joins the parents, reinforcing the blame for not protecting her against the traumatic interaction she had with her father.

Owing to the damage, Omaya distances herself from the world of her parents and chooses to embark on a career as an actor. Her feeling that roles adopted feel more real than her own part in life unfortunately leads her to lose connection with herself, for in her training she learns to work with “a different mask each week” in order “to bring [her body] into total agreement with the mask” so as to “undergo a complete metamorphosis” (SO, p. 53). Bearing close relation to Winnicott’s false self (1960/1965), the problem with enacting the lives of others and identifying totally with them lies in the distance from the true self it effects. By embracing the roles she must play, Omaya loses touch with her own true self. She equates her life at the theatre with “the framework of [her] freedom” (SO, p. 11):

 Everything is artificial — the feelings, the words, the motives — this is the framework of my truth. Omaya borrows someone else’s voice, and that is what allows her to exist. She borrows someone else’s body, someone else’s memories, someone else’s tastes and distastes, and that is what makes her real.  (SO, pp. 11-12)

Delimiting her false self, the roles she impersonates enhance the gap between her true and false self so much so that a friend from the asylum cannot read her for all the contradictions marked on her face:

“You’re Omaya? One single person?”

“That’s right. All of me is Omaya, all of Omaya is me.”

“Then why don’t your eyes agree with your mouth?”

“Nothing agrees with anything.”  (SO, pp. 74-75)

The contradiction between the messages sent by the one and the other signals the split between the true and the false self, as well as recalling other instances where the text refers to her “real smile instead of [her] snarl” (SO, p. 2), for instance. Each time she acts, she adopts her character’s psyche so wholeheartedly that she forgets that she is performing, launching in improvisations exceeding the boundaries of the script, perceiving cues as existential threats and over-reacting. In the process, she loses track of reality, no longer discerning what belongs to what realm, as if true and false self embarked in a bewitching dance. When improvising a scene in the underground late at night (SO, pp. 90-91), she imagines the scene so intently that she loses her mind, attacking Saroyan as if the situation really threatened her. She realises how, by entering the skin of her character, “she’s made a mistake, she’s over-reacted, her actor’s instinct has led her astray, and that is serious. It’s very serious that even at the Theatre she starts to lose her head” (SO, p. 91). Delusions overcome her as she watches her face in the mirror or that of friends such as Alix and Saroyan, witnessing their terrifying hallucinatory transformation. Having no clear sense of her true and false self, she lets her imagination reach such paroxysms that delusions and hallucinations overwhelm her so that not only strange men terrify her but even her closest friends on account of the danger experienced in dyadic relationships in her early childhood. No matter how supportive Alix and Saroyan try to be, Omaya loses the thread, has psychotic fits borne of the unbearable anxieties generated by the lack of maternal empathic attunement in early infancy and childhood and the subsequent perception of human relationships as potentially dangerous.

The disconnection at the heart of the text characterises the being who has severed the chains of continuity in her life owing to a traumatic experience in a context where no adult contained her; in short, when at the early stages of her life a chain link broke, the absence of parental support left her hanging in the middle of nowhere, with no grounded true self, but only a false self to rely on. As a result Omaya ended up with no inner connection to herself, which her life narrative evidences symbolically, structurally and stylistically. Progressively, with the disintegration of her mental and psychological abilities, the text becomes more and more disconnected as Omaya claims that words have been infected by the plague (SO, p. 150). Words flake off to the point of becoming meaningless syllables and letters in letter soup, reminiscent of Bion’s patient (1984, p. 28). Sometimes succession of words forming an idiom leads to implausible headlines, associations like totally disconnected stream of consciousness with ellipses forming blanks in between. Reflecting the depth of emotional distress and its fragmenting impact, the text shows that in the process of disintegration resulting from early childhood trauma and subsequent failed containment, Omaya loses her capacity for verbal coherence, indeed curtails the ability to locate herself in language that would allow her to write her life as a narrative with “a beginning, a middle, and an end” so to form a whole according to Aristotle’s ideal plot structure in Poetics (350 BC; 1:VII). Matching its organisational dysfunction, the text’s stylistic characteristics point to psychotic impairment while its imagery and symbols sharpens its disorientation. Deprived of the essential binding power that Bick discusses in the skin connection between the infant and her primal object (1968), Omaya leads a life script that lacks a skin to hold its parts together. As a result, her life narrative consists of fragmented whirling snippets that exemplify the disjunction of her personality and the lack of integrative cohesion it affords. By the end of the novel’s chopped up chaos that entangles and clinks aspects of object-relations theories one off the other, the narrative contains more holes than flow, enacting its own psychotic dislocation, leaving its readers with a better understanding of the protagonist’s pathology and Omaya with her anagram I am O.























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[1]I would like to thank Emanuel Berman and Dana Amir for their insightful suggestions.

[2]Such reading approach calls to mind another literary contribution to psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in that it evokes bibliotherapeutic practice where patients face their own issues through literary texts with which they interact as if they were a third voice in the clinic (Zoran, 2000).

[3]Hereafter cited within the text as SO. Unlike other novels by Huston, this novel has not received the critical attention it deserves, presumably owing to its highly disturbing subject.

[4]Written before reading Gaboury-Diallo’s article on compositional strategies among others in the French version of The Story of Omaya, this chapter may present somewhat similar technical findings but its psycho-analytical argumentation differs totally from the purely strategic discussion in the earlier article.

[5] Information gleaned from a personal conversation with the author (April 2001).

[6]  The novel does not specify the time frame between the assault and the trial so that post-traumatic stress disorder cannot be established with any certainty. Markers of traumatic stress certainly abound but these appear in reactions to traumas that need not lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.

[7]Given that the text renders events and recollections through the protagonist’s psyche, psychoanalytic considerations throughout should not read as allegations but rather as possible interpretations of what the text seems to suggest about the life of a fictional character. As in clinical work where clinicians turn to several psychoanalytical theories to fathom the pathology of their patients, the discussion will refer to different aspect of object-relations psychoanalytic theories.


[8]First coined by William James in The Principles of Psychology (1890), stream of consciousness refers to the continuous flow of thoughts, feelings, perceptions and impressions that make up a person’s subjective life. According to James, consciousness at work flows smoothly like a river or a stream, hence his use of stream of consciousness (1980), that could refer to Freud’s notion of free associations. In literature, the stream-of-consciousness technique thus refers to “the manner of writing in which a character’s thoughts or perceptions are presented as occurring in random form, without regard for logical sequences, syntactic structure, distinctions between various levels of reality, or the like” (Random House Dictionary, 1973). For more information on the stream-of-consciousness technique see Humphrey, 1954; Bowling, 1965; and Cohn, 1978.


[9]In her discussion of compositional strategies in the novel, Gaboury-Diallo (2007) adds the two forms of address used to refer to Omaya in the dialogues of the French version — tu and vous— as opposed to the unitary you in the English version, as well as the ambiguity created by the non-existing neutral personal pronoun it that affords further confusion between Omaya and the zip she fights with at the onset of the novel.

[10] Commenting on identity in Nancy Huston, Bond (2001) considers the switch as a sign of Omaya’s instability and lack of existence.

[11] With respect to the French version of the novel, Gaboury-Diallo (2007) mentions the ambiguity created by the non-existing neutral personal pronoun it in French that affords further confusion as the it between Omaya and the zip she fights with. As the it translates as elle (she), the opening reads as She is stuck, which eventually dehumanises Omaya.

[12] Parataxis consists of placing syntactic units side by side without using either coordinating or subordinating conjunction. In Huston’s novel, commas separate full sentences whose focus changes so unpredictably that it requires a great effort on the part of readers to establish connection between the various syntactic units.

[13] Commenting on the strutural explosion of the novel, Gaboury-Diallo (2007) notes the erratic punctuation and the constant switches of focus that fragment the text.


[14] In line with Berman’s remarks on trauma, repression and fantasy (2007), rather than ascertaining that the text unequivocally proves that her father abused her in the narrative past — an event the text does not reproduce — Omaya’s confusion between the human and the animal as well as the allusion to her power of imagination may serve as cautionary signs not to draw conclusions regarding incest.


[15] Bion (1984) claims that psychosis consists of attacks on linking that break bonds with others and within oneself rather than creating them. Bick (1968 and 1986) argues that failed skin containment in early childhood leads amongst others to cognitive impediments and problems of cerebral integration and organisation.

[16] Free indirect discourse characterises presentation of thought that throws confusion on referents: to mark present thought, it paradoxicallyly uses the past tense of narrative production and distancing personal pronouns (she or he instead of I) together with temporal and spatial deictics that mark closeness (now instead of then, here instead of then).

[17] Bick (1986) contends that the lack of protection offered by failed skin containment often generates lack of grooming and the feeling of holes.

[18] The omission of coordinators in enumerations, asyndetons tend to increase the speed of presentation as well as its strength.

[19] For Bick (1986), where skin containment fails in early childhood, a child may compensate for failed skin containment in early childhood by developing a second skin based on muscularity. The attraction of clothes then functions as a desire for containment.

[20] Klein (1946/1975) discusses the primordial role of the primary caregiver in reflecting the unpleasant as bearable. Failure to procure inner balance results in inability to work through the paranoid-schizoid position and its “persecutory fears. . . that strengthen the fixation-points for severe psychoses” (Klein, 1946/1975, p. 2).

[21] In this respect, Gaboury-Diallo (2007) offers an interesting homophonic and mythic interpretation of the mother’s name, Cybele. Other than stressing the mother’s exceptional beauty marked by the homophony, she claims that Cybele was “raised by leopards and lions and surrounded by eunuchs serving her or priests who emasculated one another” (Gaboury-Diallo, 2007, p. 42). Such interpretation may clarify the mother’s inability at holding her daughter, for in her own upbringing she lacked the human nurturing that might have secured the ability.

[22] Deictic words, such as personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, we they and me, your, her...), demonstrative pronouns (this, that, the former, the latter ...) and spatial and temporal markers (here, there, now, then...) help identify the relation between the speaker and referents.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Danielle Schaub "“Disarticulated. Dismembered. Destroyed”: Abuse and Schizophrenia in Nancy Huston’s The Story of Omaya". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/schaub-disarticulated_dismembered_destroyed_abu. March 22, 2023 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: November 16, 2011, Published: March 19, 2012. Copyright © 2012 Danielle Schaub