Memory is a Strange Thing

Arrival (2016)

Paramount Pictures

One of the many staggering things about Amy Adams’ performance as Dr. Louise Banks in Arrival is her aloneness—the way she projects not being just sad or lonely, but wholly isolated. In her home, in her classroom, engrossed in translation, Louise feels like someone habituated to loneliness. It is impressive work because it is so unlike Adams, whose screen presence feels intrinsically social, who is often tasked with conveying pure unrestricted charm. It is impressive work because it’s unlike almost anyone else, too. Many actors can convey deep interiority, but they do so reactively, relationally. Adams does this in a vacuum—at times, she does it by creating a vacuum where none exists. Her loneliness makes Louise’s communication with the extraterrestrials all the more striking: Here is this misunderstood woman, building a tenuous connection with a misunderstood other. It only makes sense that this connection is what so many who love the movie have grabbed onto in these isolating, isolationist times.

Adams’ aloneness lets you believe that her translation work is not only building cross-planetary community but helping her transcend past devastations. You think, at first, that the death of her daughter and the end of her marriage have walled her off. When we see Louise’s daughter Hannah in the film, she is presented to us as a flashback: her narrative unfolds like fragments of past resurfacing in the present, more tangible because it is shown, not told. Early in the film, Louise’s translation work feels like a distraction from her grief, a way to give herself the illusion of forward progress.

Halfway through the movie, something shifts: Her work seems to help her find genuine healing; these communications start to feel just as necessary to her survival as they are to the survival of the aliens. She grows a little lighter, a little looser, more connected not just to the extraterrestrials but also to the humans around her. But as Louise settles into herself, we learn that her pain is not historical but futuristic. She grasps the alien language in all its non-linearity and thus becomes unmoored from linear time herself, able to see past and future. Louise uses this skill to fend off the looming threat of interplanetary war—and, we realize, to visualize her own future, in which her not-yet-born daughter will die and her not-yet-husband will leave her once she tells him that she knows their child will die. The film thus circles back to its earliest images; it echoes the circularity of the alien sentences Louise deciphers.

Though this twist is intended (in both the film and its source material, Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”) to hail questions of free will and possibility, it also echoes what trauma has felt like for me lately: a collapsing of time; a space in which the lines between past, present, and future no longer exist. 2016 and 2017 jogged loose something I wanted to believe was firmly located in my past, a collision of professional and personal made possible by someone’s power, my vulnerability, others’ silence. The news cycle and my body revive these memories without any effort or desire on my part. My brain recycles the past when I’m awake and doesn’t let up when I’m asleep, so my days are a drowsy slog punctuated with half-asleep naps, sudden-onset nausea, shaking hands. I perform a competent impression of myself and then resent the fact that no one can sense what I put so much effort into hiding.

Of course, I am not alone in this. I have spent the last few months compulsively making myself aware of how not-alone I am; I read every harassment and assault story that crosses my twitter feed, hoping each narrative will be the one that makes me feel some sort of collective belonging, that somehow mitigates my pain. This compulsion in fact makes me feel worse, but I’m not alone in that, either. As Jo Livingstone writes, “…all pain is isolating, and the trauma of sexual assault is specifically very isolating. It is a pain that is almost always experienced alone, that drives you into yourself and away from others. So it is a strange kind of paradox that, when a whole culture is exerting itself to acknowledge and redress your pain, it causes further pain, more isolation.”

In an effort to mitigate my pain, my isolation, I spend an hour each week talking to a therapist in circles and nonlinear fragments. I return to the same details over and over; I jump backward and forward in time; I forget significant moments and remember them in the car afterward, in my bed three nights later; I tell myself that I will mention them in my next session and never do because I get distracted by another memory I did not anticipate. As I try to create a narrative of what has happened—what is happening, what will happen—I am acutely aware of how inadequate and incoherent my efforts are. My expectations that I could explain myself cogently are of course unrealistic, a product of placing myself in a linear teleology of recovery that I wish were real.

But I can’t help but want to tell the story better, even though it’s not a story yet. This memory doesn’t have a beginning or an end, or any shape at all, really. Did this experience start with the event, or did something else from my past lead me to it? Did the story end when it stopped happening, or is it still in progress? Will I keep cycling back through these moments until I find a way to explain them to others, to turn them into a coherent story?

I did not expect a movie about extraterrestrial contact to help me get a handle on these questions; this year has been weird, but not weird enough that an alien invasion story might resonate with my daily life, I thought. But Arrival is as much about the value of working to understand an unfamiliar other as it is about working to be understood. It’s about the radical revision that you must do once you experience something that renders all of your old communication strategies and logical rules futile. The film depicts translation and communication as, above all else, a search for meaning and order in the wake of disruptive events—and it presents this search as an inherently collective, mutual enterprise. Louise does not just learn the aliens’ language, nor does she simply teach them ours; she teases out the overlaps between the two to find a shared foundation on which communication can be built.

As she does this, our preexisting individual, linear, word-based language structure applies less and less to her work, and to the film’s visual and narrative register—but it is not replaced with the aliens’ collective, circular, image-based vocabulary. A new, hybrid system emerges, and the film becomes simultaneously more cohesive and more fragmented as it reaches its conclusion. The quiet and loneliness of the first act are broken up with more dialogue and narration, but the story remains driven by repeating images and meaningful quiet. In its final moments, the film ties everything together by cutting between present, future, and past, guiding us with time-bound dialogue and a voiceover from Louise.

This emergent narrative structure, and the cross-planetary communication it echoes, offer a framework for speaking the unspeakable—a magpie method of grabbing onto whatever allows connection in a given moment, whatever lets us express that which we could not explain if we were still playing by the old rules of communication, and conversation, and narrativization. It offers an answer (albeit a work-in-progress one) to the question that sits at the heart of all attempts to theorize trauma: How do we explain that which goes beyond the limits of what we can express in language?

Some suffering makes our memories untrustworthy, collapses our structures of meaning and purpose, destroys our sense of time as a linear, organized enterprise. It’s not just that this kind of pain is difficult to express to others who might not understand (and might not want to); it’s that it erodes our belief in the fundamental ideas that undergird communication. Some suggest that images might be a better medium for representing painful memories, and they do give a tangible materiality to suffering that engenders empathy. They do not lean as heavily on our conventions of communication, our expectations of narrative linearity. But it’s not easy to verbalize the way images resonate, and I can’t know if my empathy takes on the same contours as yours when we both encounter the same image. And so images alone cannot solve the inadequacy of language to express trauma.

Arrival suggests these gaps between us are not problems, but gifts—that language and image are linked, and central to our survival; that their inadequacy forces us to find new ways to communicate and connect; that communication is not just necessary but productive, an effort that we are collectively and individually made better by pursuing. It is difficult work, but its results are worth the struggle: it rewires our brains, it opens up new possibilities for being in the world.

But some of these possibilities are terrifying and painful. I felt briefly betrayed by the ending, crushed by the realization that the past was the future, that the changed Louise we see in the film’s final moments is not moving on from tragedy, but preparing for it. “Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it, and I welcome every moment of it,” she says. Yet her tone of cautious optimism suggests that moving on from the past and preparing for the future might—like our wildly different and seemingly inadequate ways of speaking and of listening—be more similar than we’re led to believe. Not that recovery might be best understood as a beginning rather than an ending. Rather, that recovery requires communication because communication helps rewire our brains to accept what is always imperfect, what never ends permanently. This work helps us build connections that mitigate isolation, but it also puts us at risk of further pain. Maybe “recovery” is simply the willingness to become vulnerable again.