Swamplandia! Personal Essay

Fear of Other People


When a child loses a parent, they become stunted in their psychological and emotional health. This leads children to making unhealthy social connections and can be very dangerous. There are certain things that children are taught to fear, however strange they may sound. However, when a child isn’t taught these things it will end up hurting them. In Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! we see that the children are not taught about normal social interactions. Ava, the youngest daughter of three, loses her mother to ovarian cancer. With the dying of their mother, their home, Swamplandia!, starts to go bankrupt and forces the family to reevaluate their situation. This death and reevaluation causes strife within her family and leaves her with no one to talk to or interact with, which causes more damage than just her mother dying because she is basically losing her whole family. When looking at this novel from a psychological sense there is a major change in Ava’s behavior. Her behavior goes against what we, as a society, were taught because Ava was not taught to fear anything but seths. We then see Ava replace her mother with the Bird Man in a sense, and because her mother is gone she is unable to see when something or some one is dangerous. When Ava loses her mother and her family she becomes unable to create safe and healthy social interactions with other people and this leads to her getting raped by the Bird Man. Russell’s book is important because this is something that many girls go through today. Rape and sexual abuse is a serious situation that has damaged the United States. Over six hundred thousand girls over the age of eighteen have been raped, and those are just girls over eighteen. Girls Ava’s age, or around the age of thirteen the statistics show that, “Between 1/3 and 2/3 of known sexual assault victims are age fifteen or younger” (NSVRC). I believe that Russell wants to make this problem known, that there are a large amount of girls getting raped and sexually abused. I believe her purpose in writing this book is to make people understand the damage that is cause by the loss of a parent and how it can cause detrimental effects to a young girl’s health. Moreimportantly, she wants to tell people that fear of humans is necessary. Ava was not taught to fear humans and in a society where people are the only predators to other people, this is a necessity.

Ava becomes an unknowing captive of the Bird Man. While in the beginning she does go with him willingly, but when she wants to leave he stops her. When she wants to talk to the sheriff, he stops her, and when she tries to scream for help, he stops her again. So in order to stop her, Bird Man uses both physical and psychological means. When Ava attempts to yell for her sister his “hand flies [flew] out and retreated” (Russel 301) so fast that she doesn’t at first realize what happened. When she does, Ava finally begins to understand his true intentions, even though he claimed it wasn’t to hurt her. This however, is still not enough to make her leave. To psychologically keep her close to him, he makes her believe that he is the only person who can help her find her sister, and makes sure she believes that if she left him she wouldn’t survive. Russel is also alluding to a bigger meaning about the underworld. She portrays this as not only a physical place but perhaps that the Bird Man himself is a metaphorical hell. He then tells her that the whole swamp is haunted and understandably this is unbelievable, but to a young child who has gone through what Ava has, this can be very frightening. This is another way Bird Man is able to psychologically keep her at his side. The Bird Man has essentially isolated Ava to where he is the only social interaction she has. While all of this happens, Ava allows herself to become emotionally attached to the Bird Man and is developing a fondness for him. Even when he displays unsavory traits, like hitting her across the face, it is only when he rapes her that she realizes that she needs to get away. This entrapment by the Bird Man leads to Ava developing PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. When appeasing a captor feelings of fear and shame often come up. This emotion of shame is often so strong that “dissociation is often involved in the context of PTSD” (Cantor) which is something we see with the case of Ava. While the Bird Man is raping her, she detaches herself from herbody in order to numb herself with the pain, and she tries to appease him because she finally realizes that he can really hurt her. Subconsciously she knew that he was a dangerous man, and we know this because we saw evidence of her obeying him as time went on. However, during the rape is the key moment when she realized it consciously. This is when her natural instincts kick in and she flees. She is unable to pay attention to her subconscious because she was never taught to. These natural instincts that Ava is having come naturally to those in society because we are taught to fear people, namely men if you are a woman. But Ava has only been taught to fear seths because those are the physically biggest predators that she interacts with.

Ava, the youngest of three children, seems to be the most emotionally stable person in the whole family when her mother dies. However, outward appearances can be deceiving. It is in a person’snature, when they lose someone close to them, to replace that person with someone else. Ava, in losing her mother, can’t replace her with her father because he is obsessing over Carnival Darwanism. She can’t replace her with her brother because he leaves due to Swamplandia!’s “mismanagement” and “the poverty of our [their] island education” (Russell 73). Finally Ava cannot replace her mother with Ossie because she herself has replaced her mother with the occult and is moving away, in a spiritual sense, from her family. Along comes the Bird Man, some one who would be a typical predator to most people. However, to Ava, who has lost her “wariness of potential predators” (Russell 35), he appears to be a normal man. When we look at previous predators, for example, the red-eyed men, Ava has been protected by her father: “When we had a crowd of these red-eyes, the Chief would not let me wrestle and performed the whole show himself” (Russell 21). However, instead of teaching her how to handle these situations and defend herself, he just protects her himself. This was because theChief thought he would always be around to protect his children. When her father and siblings leave Swamplandia! she is alone and unprotected.

To Ava, the Bird Man seems utterly harmless, and when she meets him, she senses no reason tofear him. Within minutes there is physical touching: “He reached his gloved hand out and pressed two fingers against my lips” (Russell 163). Russell even writes this with sexual undertones, making it seem as if there is a secret shared between lovers; these are clues to readers about what is wrong here. This is also foreshadowing of events to come. Ava is still unwary of this predator, and takes his hand as she leads him to her house. This unwariness is due to the lack of fear, which was not taught to her. The reader can start to see the build up of realization within the Bird Man as Ava displays herself to be more and more vulnerable. This vulnerability allows the Bird Man to take control of this situation that Ava is left in and allows him to take advantage of her. One of the key moments that the Bird Man starts to become aware of this vulnerability is when she says her sister is going to the underworld. However, instead of saying she is being silly he suddenly smiles and says, “I know its real [the underworld]. It’s just that your sister is pretty young to make that trip” (Russell 188). He gives her the acknowledgement that she is so desperately craving and hasn’t had since her mother’s death. While readers might think that until this point, Ava has shown herself to be strong of character and that this seems very uncharacteristic of her, there are a few things that must be realized. Since her mother’s death, this is the first time any person has paid complete attention to Ava, and as a child this is necessary to her health and growth. With this attention that the Bird Man is paying her, she is becoming even more comfortable with this man and develops a connection and emotional attachment with him.

When looking at Ava and how she attaches herself to Bird Man we can see a distinct pattern. Attachment theory states that “(a) human beings are wired to connect with one another emotionally, inintimate relationships; (b) there is a powerful influence on children’s development by the way they are treated by their parents, especially by their mothers; and (c) a theory of developmental pathways canexplain later tendencies in relationship based on such early experiences” (Snyder). Because her mother left her at an early stage in her life, she is unable to fully emotionally connect with her and this leads her to connect with someone; any one. Also because Ava grew up not believing she had anything tofear, she is not skilled in knowing when some one is a potential predator like the Bird Man. This underdeveloped skill the main purpose to why Ava was raped.

Regina Sullivan, of the Zoology department of Oklahoma University, states that there are four

components of the attachment theory. It starts with rapidly forming an attachment to the caregiver, seeking said caregivers proximity, the caregiver proving a safe haven, and the person undergoing abusewhile remaining in contact with the caregiver (Sullivan). While this theory is usually applied to infants, Russell has moved this forward and applied it to a child, Ava. She does this because Ava is an infant in the knowledge she has about predators and fearing humans. She is not grown up and she has no one to look up too so she doesn’t know that these things she and the Bird Man are doing are inappropriate. Ava forms a connection to the Bird Man when he agrees to help her find her sister. This connection is then further enhanced as he feeds her lies about the so called underworld they are traveling to, forcing her to start thinking that he is her only hope in finding her sister. Ava sticks very close to the Bird Man’s side when they are traveling to the underworld because she is in the unknown and she trusts him. Not only are humans predisposed to fear the unknown but because he is so sure of himself, it gives her a false sense of security. The Bird Man creates a safe haven when he is first in her house and he makes coffee with her mothers china. This also attaches him to the fond memory of her mother which would in turn create fonder emotions towards him. Another example is that Bird Man creates a place for them to spend the night while going on their journey to the underworld. Finally, the cycle ends with Ava being raped by the Bird Man. While most emotional attachments take time to form, with the loss of her mother, abandonment of her brother, leaving of her father, and the disappearance of her sister Ava is essentially left with no choice but to attach quickly.

When Ava meets and spends time with the Bird Man, he is essentially giving her something. He is giving her human interaction. Humans are very social creatures and there are five universal and core psychological needs of the human condition. These include: to be loved (attachment), to be heard (empathy), to belong (home, family, identity), to achieve (fulfillment), to have belief in something and hope for the future (meaning) (Seager). Before her mother died, Ava had all of these things, she was able to be mentally and socially stable. However, when her mother died, she no longer was receiving these five needs. When she meets the Bird Man he does give her these things and it is something that she desperately clings on to.

When looking at the need for attachment, we see that while no one outwardly showed that they did not love her any more, she was no longer getting that physical attention. She was unable to stay physically close with any of her family members. Once her mother died, her family didn’t listen to her as much and they became wrapped up in their own problems, which in turn lead to loss of empathy. The Chief becomes so wrapped up in creating “Carnival Darwinism” and protecting Swamplandia! from other types of predators. This was something that was supposed to help his family survive but it causes him to be unable to see the problems at hand and take care of the situation. Even when her sister believes her to be lonely she just complains, “I’m busy, chickee. If you’re lonely, go watch TV” (Russell 108). When Ava’s family starts falling apart and she realizes that they are about to lose their home, she starts to lose her identity and her sense of belonging. As some one who under normal circumstances would share everything with her family, a key moment when readers can see the loss of belonging is when she makes excuses to tell her family about the ruby alligator. While she says that she doesn’t want to tell them because, “If she [you] tells anyone about the red alligator, she will die or disappear” (Russell 61) it is not only about the red alligator. Russell uses this opportunity to show that her mothers death has affected her trust in other people and in turn shows that Ava feels a lack of belonging when it comes to her family. It is believed that when a parent dies it isn’t just the relationship that dies, but ones sense of self in that relationship and this is exactly what happens to Ava (Silverman). This is because it is other people who help shape and define you, especially parents. As Balk quotes Muuss, an author who studies psychological theories of children states, “Theories of adolescence propose that this is an

age at which young people are negotiating the developmental tasks of defining their identity, individuating from the family, and establishing a place within their peer groups” (Balk, Muuss, 1996). Once her mother died, she felt like she needed to take over her place and essentially become her mother in order to save the park. This individualization and establishment of place is lost with her mothers death as Ava struggles to find where she fits in. As for a sense of fulfillment, while Ava feels some for practicing her mothers alligator wrestling moves, she is clinging to the past. The one thing she does have is hope, hope that she can save her home, hope that she can find her sister, and hope that her family will “win”. And this is what is keeping her together. Martin Seager, a clinician and activist on mental health issues, believes that if these five psychological needs are not met, a person will mentally deteriorate. He also states that it is ”not because they [we] would contract a mental condition but because we are subject to the human condition” (Seager). These needs are critical during Ava’s developmental years because she is growing as a person and what she learns now will become what she knows as an adult. Taking Freud into consideration regarding her mothers death, he believed that “mourning was something that [Freud long ago] was recognized as the psychological blueprint for all mental distress” (Seager). Ava is now experiencing this mental distress which leads to her easy acceptance of a otherwise suspicious man. However, in her eyes she now has someone to help her find her sister, is listening to her, and is taking care of her. Ava uses these things to justify staying with the Bird Man. Although these feelings soon leave when he rapes her, she is suddenly left very empty of these emotions she finds with him.

The loss of Ava’s mother plays a major role in why Ava was raped. Without proper socialinteractions and connections, Ava was unable to see the danger in leaving with a dangerous manmaking Russell’s ending inevitable. Ava was forced into a corner from lack of human emotions and interactions and reached out to the only person who showed her even the tiniest bit of attention. Under the circumstances, Ava cannot blame herself for what happened or fear that it “happened because she[I] really wanted it to,” (Russell 395) which she does. She wasn’t taught to know any better and in that situation was unable to see the dangerous situation she was in. Had her family remained at Swamplandia!, she still wouldn’t have known that he was a predator but she would have been protected. If she had been taught to fear humans, Ava would have known what to do in the situation she was forced into.

An important part about this novel is the fact that Russell is writing truth. Instead of writing

what she believes every one else wants to read, she does the opposite and writes what can happen in every day life. In writing the truth, Russell writes about how this sexual abuse from the Bird Man stays with Ava and how she fears it was her fault. She is essentially blaming herself and this shame isexperienced in rape victims who blame themselves for their humiliation” (Cantor). The topic of rape and sexual assault is very touchy and people do not like talking about it. When it is brought up, people start getting uncomfortable because it isn’t like an animal doing these things, its another person. Hurting someone of your own kind is unnatural and thinking about others doing that makes people wary. While to talk about teaching your children to fear other people seems strange, it is something that people, especially parents, do every day. This is because while it is unnatural for one to hurt someone of their own species, it does happen. Humans are instinctively taught not to hurt one another but if something goes wrong in their genetic makeup, in how they were raised, or they become emotionally or psychologically damaged, this can change. It is sad, but we as humans need to be taught to fear other people because it is necessary.


Works Cited


Balk, David E., and Charles A. Corr. Adolescent Encounters With Death, Bereavement, And Coping. n.p.: Springer, 2009. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 15 Nov. 2012.

Cantor, Chris, Price, John. “Traumatic Entrapment, Appeasement And Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Evolutionary Perspectives Of Hostage Reactions, Domestic Abuse And The Stockholm Syndrome.” Australian & New Zealand Journal Of Psychiatry 41.5 (2007): 377-384. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 15 Nov. 2012.

Russell, Karen. Swamplandia! New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Print.

Seager, Martin. “Bad Science And Good Mental Health.” Therapy Today 23.7 (2012): 12-16. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.


“Sexual Assault Statistics.” National Sexual Violence Resource Center, n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2012.


Silverman, Phyllis R. “What Is Lost When a Parent Dies.” Psycology Today. Phyllis R. Silverman, 30 Aug. 2010. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/raising-grieving- children/201008/what-is-lost-when-parent-dies>.


Snyder, Rose, Shapiro, Shauna, Treleaven, David. “Attachment Theory And Mindfulness.” Journal Of Child & Family Studies 21.5 (2012): 709-717. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 13 Nov. 2012.


Sullivan, Regina M. “Developing a Sense of Safety: The Neurobiology of Neonatal Attachment.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1008 (n.d.): 122-31. NCBI. 24 Jan. 2006. Web. 12 Nov. 2012. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1868534/>.










This entry was published on May 9, 2013 at 10:40 am. It’s filed under Analysis, Blog, Books, Personal, Review, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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