by Krystal Sierra
April 2, 2021
As You Were by David Tromblay
[CW: sexual assault, violence, animal abuse]
Extreme. That’s one way to describe David Tromblay’s As You Were. Another way is horrific. A memoir that speaks to American Indian art, culture, history, and tradition, is not this one. Instead, Tromblay’s is a discovery of self only after he has lived to tell the tale, centering his trauma and survival as explicit indicators of his character. What we find in Tromblay’s work is an unchecked family trauma with its Chippewa heritage, tradition, and history as counterpoint to severe child abuse: His character is purified by outlasting his abuse. The brutal beatings, burnings, and neglect as well as his subsequent psychological wounds are not that uncommon. Children are at-risk to any number of horrors that happen at home—a gauge of a broken society rather than an indictment of family. The book, however, is Tromblay’s effort to break from the abuse, to inflict none of the same abuses on his own family, and to discover the healing aspects of his Native community. Those things are what makes this story unique.
The miracle here is that he survives the beatings of his childhood at all and forges his own way despite the terror of his upbringing. I found myself thinking throughout As You Were that it is by miracle, and miracle alone, that Tromblay does not die.
There’s no telling how it began, or what made you weaponize a squirt gun, or how Glen let you pull the trigger on his Super Soaker and shoot a stream of ammonia into the nest, the stream they followed back to you, the source of the assault. Still, pain has a way of beginning a story in a fog, and maybe becomes the mortar the other—known—details are stacked upon.
There are too many maybes that come before when Dad hammers his fist down on top of your skull, slamming your knees into the floor where the cabin meets the screened-in front porch. Your face and chest slap against the floor, too. You never saw it coming, so maybe Dad was standing behind you when he hit you.
Tromblay presents As You Were in second-person and in present tense; he recounts episodes of stunning and incomprehensibly abusive treatment between father and son, and grandmother and grandson, with little remove. When Debbie, Tromblay’s sister, attempts to intervene, her attempt is met with brutality that equals his.
And with dog in hand, yelping for someone to help, Dad belches out, “Get out from under that bed, little girl.”
For him, there is no counting to ten, or even three. He doesn’t do all that. Instead, he flings the tiny teacup poodle against the far wall of the trailer’s back bedroom. It lets out one final yelp while falling to the floor, where the rest of its breath leaves its lungs. Or maybe it yelps while flying through the air, toward the wall.
Tromblay finds solace only when he goes numb or blank: following a beating with a wire hanger and locked in Grandma Audrey’s closet (not the first or last wire hanger beating and not the first or last time Tromblay is locked in Grandma Audrey’s closet) or during the multiple times he slips from consciousness as his father beats him with fists or bat. One afternoon, Tromblay is raped by his father’s cousin, and we, like Tromblay, understand that there is no escaping this hell.
When his weight lifts off you, your privates and belly are wet, warm, sticky, stinking. What he left behind pools in your belly button. He rises to his knees, leaving you covered in his sweat and shadow. He warns you he could flip you over and give you AIDS. You don’t know what it means. Only that it’s bad. So bad you remember hearing how Aunt Bobbie’s brother-in-law got it and jumped off the Bong Bridge to die less painlessly.
Before you say one thing, he looks down and says, “See? You liked it,” and reminds you of how you could’ve stayed at Grandma Audrey’s cabin.
Tromblay’s account shifts in time between his childhood at Fond du Lac Reservation to his early days in boot camp as a private in the Armed Forces. Time shifts from one chapter to the next, seemingly haphazard as memory does while theme builds on theme and increases in intensity chapter by chapter. What is constant is the present-tense insistence on you, which blurs the line between reader and narrator, situates the reader as the receiver of these injustices alongside Tromblay, and invites a visceral response.
Grandma makes you take a seat on the top step, and she shaves it all off. But Grandpa Bub has had these clippers put away since before they were married, since before she makes him go to Cliff’s Barber Shop, since before he began to comb it all to the back and have her cut it with a pair of old kitchen scissors she keeps in the junk drawer.
Regardless of how the clippers are rusted and dulled with age, you have to sit there while she runs the blade through your hair so fast you think she’s trying to get it done before the commercial break ends. It sounds the same as when Grandpa runs the lawnmower over the gravel driveway at the cabin. You duck the same too, except it’s not because you’re afraid of a flying rock, but because some of the hair is coming out by the root.
Structurally speaking, As You Were is nearly perfect. On occasion, typographic experimentation illustrates the frightening conditions.
“WHAT THE HELL IS THAT NOISE?”
Dzanc Books neatly summarizes As You Were as a coming-of-age story, “echoing from within the aftershocks set off by the American Indian boarding schools, fanned by the flames of nearly fifteen years of service in the Armed Forces, exposing a series of inescapable prisons and the invisible scars of attempted erasure.” Coming-of-age as a characterization is much too simplistic. Tromblay grapples with the devastation of his own internal landscape and his role as a veteran, Native American, and father. We learn that though Tromblay escapes abuse in 1992, its impact permeates his being.
There’s one pill, four times a day, to keep your mood stable. No more explosions. No more manic episodes. No more fight or flight or freeze. When the gel cap explodes, when its contents creep back up your esophagus, its acidity flashes you back to taste the CLP [cleaner, lubricant, and preserve] left on your tonsils—right before you remembered it’s got to come straight up from under the jaw and back behind your eyeballs on its way to the top of your skull, unless you’d like some CAN [Cardiovascular Autonomic Neuropathologist] at the vet’s home to wipe your ass for the rest of your life. And then you lost your nerve, again, and slid the safety back on.
How do readers move past the exploitative idea that we are doing no more than consuming the atrocities that befall Tromblay and so many children like him? Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) might give us a clue.
Sontag sets out to answer a question posed by Virginia Woolf in her 1938 book-length essay, Three Guineas: “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” Tromblay explores a similar question: How are we to break a cycle of violence when society is shaped and scarred by violence?
Commodities are not a raw material or primary agricultural product that can be bought and sold, such as copper or coffee. Commodities are why you stand in line at the community center on the first Saturday of every month. There you receive blocks of pasteurized cheddar cheese product that comes in the same sort of flimsy cardboard box the government uses for clips of M16 ammunition.
In Tromblay’s memoir, we are not simply reading a documentarian’s true-crime account or viewing a photojournalist’s wartime image. The memoir itself is an act of revolution and ownership, creating something out of torturous experiences. The memoir forces us to confront experiences we may share with Tromblay so that we might heal our wounds too.
In a few short paragraphs of a final chapter, Tromblay attends a powwow, converses with an Ojibwe warrior elder, and begins to write among other Native storytellers in Santa Fe. It is in this period of transition and self-discovery as a Chippewa that the book neatly closes and indicates the beginning of the author’s healing in a way that war, therapy, and pharmaceutical drugs could not help.
Krystal Sierra lives, works and writes in Cleveland, OH. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Ashland University and Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Baldwin Wallace University. She is a freelance writer, performance artist, and works towards a more just society in community development.