Rick Morton writes prose like drag artists perform gender: with unabashed enthusiasm, stylistic flair and carefully calibrated exaggeration. Readers are first distracted by the glitter-bombs of wit on display. Only afterwards do they note the pathos and intelligence on which the act is built.
My Year of Living Vulnerably isn’t camp in the sense of being primarily interested in the beautiful surface of things, however. Humour is deployed here in addressing topics so dark they would otherwise leave readers in stunned despair.
Take trauma. Morton’s book is structured around the author’s recent diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder: an outcome that would surprise no one who read about the author’s childhood in his 2018 debut One Hundred Years of Dirt.
But the horrors Morton experienced are not used as a reason to turn inward – though it would be understandable if they were. Instead, he uses this damage as a place from which to start out. Trauma furnishes sincere curiosity and a shared point of human reference. The author’s research provides public context for private pain.
The result is a dozen essays concerned with how we might individually and collectively heal from those hurts that come as standard with the human condition. Though it is resolutely not a self-help book – Morton claims to have nothing to offer anyone beyond his own confusion – moments of clarity clump and eddy in the narrative stream. Most of them have to do with love.
In “Forgiveness”, for example, the author writes with disorienting blitheness of a sexual assault he suffered as a young adult. Morton views this rape as an act of violence made possible by the psychological blind spots created by original childhood trauma. The only way Morton can see to break this cycle is to forgive those responsible.
The point, he says, is not to let his rapists off the hook; it is to allow himself to go on. It’s indicative of the range of Morton’s project that this understanding is gleaned from the transcripts of South Africa’s post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the work of a contemporary Anglo-Irish poet, David Whyte, who writes that “to approach forgiveness is to close in on the nature of the hurt itself, the only remedy being, as we approach its centre, to reimagine our relation to it”.
Wryly comic, hard-thought and deeply felt, My Year of Living Vulnerably succeeds – humanly, partially – in this effort. It is a heartbreaking book but a beguiling and necessary one. And a work far wiser than the modesty of its author would allow.
4th Estate, 310pp, $34.99
Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 20, 2021 as "Rick Morton, My Year of Living Vulnerably".
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