In speculative fiction, PTSD might be the only disability that I hesitate to call underrepresented. Instead, it is misrepresented, whether as a necessary rite of passage cured by a change in mindset, an automatic flip to either total debilitation or cartoonish villainy, a mostly dormant condition causing the occasional panic attack, or (my personal least favorite) a false diagnosis by characters unaware of what’s actually going on. The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin demonstrates awareness of these tropes, and masterfully avoids them.
The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer begins with Mara in a hospital, with no recollection of the building collapse that killed three people—including her best friend and her boyfriend—but somehow left her barely harmed. Her family moves to Florida, and she struggles to cope with her trauma and a series of escalating creepy events, not to mention to distinguish between the two.
From the first scene in the hospital, where Mara’s fear of the needles in her arms begins with inaudible attempts at speech and jumps to screaming, “Take them out!” with no in-between, her PTSD symptoms felt true to my experience. She has the symptoms most readers expect: nightmares, bursts of murderous rage, fragmented flashbacks, and hallucinations of the trauma. But Hodkin goes the extra step in showing the less sensational but equally debilitating aspects of PTSD, such as being paralyzed in the face of seemingly minor tasks. Mara spends an early scene staring at a spider, unable to touch it for fear that it will die. Best of all, the story strikes a beautiful balance between depicting the way PTSD permeates every aspect of everyday life while still keeping Mara a witty, strong-willed, complex character whose personality is not defined by her disorder.
Mara’s relationship with her PTSD feels as thoughtful and accurate as the depiction of PTSD itself. She cycles between minimizing her illness as nothing to worry about and dismissing her genuine experiences as symptoms of said illness. As someone who has gone through this cycle, this felt both very real and very painful. She expresses fears of being weak and broken, fears that many PTSD sufferers (especially young women, who are already used to being treated as weak) can relate to, but the story never falls into the trap of treating her as weak or broken. Mara also goes through a not-uncommon struggle with medication, initially viewing them as a crutch and a sign that she’s truly “crazy.” Ultimately, the story depicts medication for what it is—a treatment that can alleviate some symptoms and cause some side effects, neither a miracle cure nor something to be condemned.
Writing characters who both have mental illnesses and are also dealing with unexplained supernatural-seeming events is always tricky. Too many writers are inclined to reveal either that the protagonist was sane all along, or that the supernatural aspects were never real. Hodkin carefully reminds the reader that Mara both experiences trauma-related hallucinations and sees things that, according to the laws of what we think of as reality, shouldn’t be real, and that these facts do not cancel each other out. “I do have PTSD,” Mara states, in both the first book and its sequel, The Evolution of Mara Dyer, “but this is real.”
I do caution readers who are triggered by scenes where it is unclear whether a certain event is real or a figment of the character’s imagination, as the series contains several of them, but by the end, Hodkin always makes it clear.
The series also includes two queer characters, one gay antagonist and one bisexual protagonist. Their orientations are discussed without sensationalizing or moralizing. Said bisexual protagonist is sadly without a romantic plotline, at least as of the first two books in the trilogy, but it’s still refreshing to see the word “bisexual” in a speculative YA series, applied to a fairly significant character.
Now for the bad: the series does a good job of portraying PTSD, but when it comes to race and gender and other mental illnesses, it leaves something to be desired.
Mara is half-Indian, a fact that could be removed from the story without changing it at all. There are approximately three mentions of her heritage in the first book: first that she doesn’t look Indian, second that she doesn’t like Indian music, and third that her mother doesn’t wear Indian clothes. Of course, there are plenty of second-generation immigrants who feel disconnected from their culture, and half-white children who look fully white. Both are stories worth telling. However, when these are the only mentions of her heritage, I am left feeling like Hodkin wanted to call the character half-Indian without putting forth the effort of writing a half-Indian.
It is important, even vital, to write racially diverse characters whose ethnicities aren’t the primary thing about their characters or stories. But when someone writes a character of a different background than theirs, they have a responsibility to make said background more than a footnote. Being of Indian descent isn’t just a matter of saris, dark skin, or listening to Bollywood. It influences values and family life. As a half-Indian reader who is even more generations removed than Mara is, the extent to which Indian culture had neither explicit nor implicit influence didn’t ring true. The Evolution of Mara Dyer is a slight improvement over the three mentions in the first book, since it discusses Mara’s Indian grandmother. However, it ultimately continues to feel like neither effort nor research was expended.
The other problem with the Mara Dyer series is that it uncritically embraces several sexist tropes. Mara’s love interest, Noah, spends the entire first book following her even when she rebuffs his advances. Their first date occurs because he announces to the school that they’re already dating, which is supposed to be a romantic gesture, and then he tells her “you owe me” and she agrees that she does. Throughout the first book, every step of their relationship consists of Noah pursuing, Mara rejecting him while being secretly interested, and him continuing to pursue until she relents. The reader, of course, is in Mara’s head and knows that she reciprocates his interest, but that’s what makes the trope so damaging. It presupposes that the girl who is rejecting the boy’s advances secretly wants him, and therefore excuses the boy’s refusal to accept her boundaries.
The second book shifts gears, with Noah not wanting to push their physical relationship until she’s ready and him ultimately saying that he wants her to be the one taking the first step and doing the chasing, but this shift of gears would be a lot more convincing if the story at any point acknowledged that he had been chasing her against her stated wishes in the first place.
The story also features the sexist cliché of the gorgeous, viciously cruel ex-girlfriend who Noah of course reveals he was never interested in and also never slept with, and whose clinginess and promiscuity are described in cringe-worthy terms. Her only role in the story is to be one-dimensionally nasty, and once she has caused her trouble, she is written out of the series.
In spite of my issues with the first book, I ultimately found it a gripping read. Unfortunately, the second book reveals that the series’ realistic and thoughtful portrayal of PTSD doesn’t extend to other illnesses. In the first book, Mara perceives an imaginary distinction between illnesses like PTSD and depression, and illnesses that make people “actually crazy.” In the second book, we see that this distinction is not Mara’s flawed opinion but the view of the series itself.
Mara spends chunks of the book in treatment for her illness. The replacement mean girl character is a fellow patient named Phoebe. Mara frequently describes Phoebe as “psychotic” and “certifiably insane.” I initially hoped this was a sign of Mara’s internalized ableism and the book would treat it as a character flaw; instead, the narrative seems to support it. For example, in one scene Mara calls Phoebe “crazy” in front of a group, and receives applause from her best friend. Phoebe frequently manipulates those around her by feigning breakdowns and then smirking at Mara when her fake breakdowns are taken seriously. It is disappointing to see a story that previously showed so much awareness of problematic tropes suddenly have nuance-free portrayals of malevolent characters “faking it for attention.”
The series also uses these “actually crazy” diseases as scares for Mara. First she fears she has schizophrenia, and later she realizes that her behavior is in line with the criteria for sociopaths. The latter especially frustrated me, because antisocial personality disorder is one of the most maligned and misunderstood mental illnesses, and the story uses her similarity to the disorder as a way to highlight her character flaws, a method that cannot work unless we accept that sociopaths are by nature bad people.
The Mara Dyer trilogy starts out with a lot of promise, and remains one of the best fictional depictions of PTSD that I have come across. That just makes it more disappointing when the series misses the mark on other mental illnesses, as well as racial and gender issues. It’s possible that the third book in the trilogy improves on some of these problems. For readers who enjoy stories with creepy twists and strong character voices, and don’t mind their romance with a heavy dose of problematic clichés, it may be worth finding out.