Parrots, Self-Harm, and That Violet

“Maybe everybody has a renegade tongue yearning to be on its own. Violet shuts up. Speaks less until ‘uh’ or ‘have mercy’ carry almost all of her part of the conversation. Less excusable than a wayward mouth is an independent hand that can find in a parrot’s cage a knife lost for weeks. Violet is still as well as silent. Over time her silences annoy her husband, then puzzle him and finally depress him. He is married to a woman who speaks mainly to her birds. One of whom answers back: ‘I love you.’” (24)

Morrison, Toni. Jazz. Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc., 2004.

“Self mutilation may occur during dissociative experiences and often brings relief by reaffirming the ability to feel.”

“These individuals are very sensitive to environmental circumstances.”

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013.

“We found that creating sub-optimal environmental conditions via deprivation of enrichment had significant and lasting effects on abnormal behavior. However, these effects were not the same across individuals. As predicted, we found that personality was an important factor in the severity of abnormal behavior in both optimal and sub-optimal housing conditions.”

“Furthermore, we extend this observation by providing evidence that different aspects of personality are related to distinct forms of abnormal behaviors. This has important implications for future studies investigating the relationship between personality and abnormal behavior in captive animals.”

Cussen, Victoria A., and Joy A. Mench. “The Relationship between Personality Dimensions and Resiliency to Environmental Stress in Orange-Winged Amazon Parrots (Amazona Amazonica), as Indicated by the Development of Abnormal Behaviors.” PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, 26 June 2015, journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0126170.

I think I like this kind of blog post layout. Rather than try to fit these excerpts into my writing when I need an example, which can be disruptive when reading, I just want to start out by telling you, “This is what I’m working with. Now I’m going to tell you how and why I’m working with it.”

So anyway, now for the “how am I working with it” part. Be warned, because this is going to seem pretty abstract, especially at first. Let’s just jump into some cold water:

Rose Dear, Violet’s mother, kills herself by jumping into a well. Suicide can be seen as an ultimate, irreversible form of self-harm, but Morrison uses her unique writing style to depict the action as a freeing experience for Rose as it is an escape from her captivity and the dangers she faced. (The book does not specify whether or not Rose Dear had been a slave or even born before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, but I believe it appropriate to call her a captive anyway – she was a black woman living in the south during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Whether she was legally enslaved or not, textual clues combined with a knowledge of history is evidence enough to prove she was in captivity). I personally don’t understand suicide as something that is seriously considered without the presence of some kind of mental illness/mood disorder (which one can be born with or develop later in life). Suicidal ideation and the action of suicide contradict our natural instincts to live healthfully in order to reproduce – it’s not a biologically normal thing, and when one has or develops a mental illness or disorder, there is an noticeable change in the chemistry of one’s brain that allows suicide to become a legitimate option. I am assuming (and it really is just an assumption, because I don’t have the ability to responsibly state this as a fact without having a degree in psychology or something similar) that Violet, who is Rose’s daughter, possibly inherited certain traits from her mother that make her more susceptible to consider and/or act upon a suicidal ideation or urge to self-harm.

If my assumption is correct (not that “correct” and “not correct” really exist in interpretation, but whatever) then the action of harming Dorcas’ corps and, therefore, harming herself in the process, is an act of self-harm resulting from a dissociative experience, as explained above in the DSM-V as a symptom of borderline personality disorder. Furthermore, this act of harming a representation of Dorcas and harming herself, is (possibly, of course) an attempt to bring Violet ‘relief by reaffirming the ability to heal.’ There are a couple of textual examples that lead me to believe that Violet’s harmful actions are actually reactions to her personal dissociative experience brought on by a hereditary disease or disorder paired with poor environmental conditions (i.e. living with a husband that expresses his love to an eighteen-year-old girl and not to her, his wife).

The first example is the quote from Jazz seen above. A few paragraphs earlier, the narrator was describing Violet as a “snappy, determined girl and a hardworking young woman, with the snatch-gossip tongue of a beautician,” (23). But then there is a sudden change in Violet’s speech while she is talking to Joe that can be interpreted as the exact moment when she dissociates from herself. Morrison writes it quite brilliantly (of course):

[Violet speaking]: “‘Got a mind to double it with an aught and two of three others just in case who is that pretty girl standing next to you?’ She looks up at Joe expecting an answer.

“‘What?’ He frowns. ‘What you say?’

“‘Oh.’ Violet blinks rapidly. ‘Nothing. I mean… nothing.’

“‘Pretty girl?’

“‘Nothing, Joe. Nothing.’”

After this moment, Violet “shuts up.” A few weeks later she finds the knife she lost in her parrot’s cage, which brings me to the second example. Beginning on page 89 is the section of the novel in which there are explained to be two Violets: Violet, and That Violet (who may also be known as ‘Violent’?). That Violet committed the harm against Dorcas and herself. That Violet is the result of Violet’s dissociation, and That Violet’s actions are an attempt to end the dissociation by making Violet feel something again.

I do want to bring the parrot stuff into the discussion before I end this post. Because of the genius that she is, I don’t believe that Morrison just randomly chose any species of bird to be the one that lived with Violet. Of course, parrots are known to have the ability to repeat words that they hear, and therefore Morrison needed to make her bird a parrot in order to include the effect of a caged bird vocalizing the words  “I love you.” BUT I think there is more to the significance of choosing a parrot beyond the fact that they can talk. Parrots are one of few animals that are known to commit physical self-harm while in captivity. I didn’t learn this fact until after my first reading of Jazz, but once I did discover it I immediately found my copy of the book and began re-reading the parts where the parrot is mentioned.  When I started re-reading the entirety of Jazz for the second time, which was for this class, I paid close attention to the parrot and Violet’s treatment towards it. This got me more interested in the nature of parrots, so I began to research. I found this really cool study that I wish I could talk about in more depth but I would like to end this post one of these days so instead I’m just going to briefly address the conclusion of the study, most of which is quoted above. Parrots in captivity self-harm; generally by ‘feather picking,’ explained in the study as similar to regular preening but is much harsher, more painful, and results in lasting damage to the parrot’s skin. The study concluded that the birds will self harm after environmental conditions worsen, which was conducted by removing any toys/unnecessary items from the birds’ cages (one parrot per cage), and no interaction whatsoever. These conditions remained for thirty days. After the thirty day period ended, human interaction and environmental comforts were restored. Though the feather picking ceased for the most part and the birds began to show signs of improvement, they never returned to the same level of general activity that they were at before the thirty days began, especially so for birds that had shown prior traits of neuroticism. Furthermore, these parrots who had been identified as having increased neuroticism, that being based off of certain traits that the parrots presented before the the environmental conditions were changed, performed much harsher, more damaging feather picking. The study concluded that both environmental factors and individual personality traits contribute to the severity of self-harm performed while held in captivity; that being that those with neurotic personality traits cause more damage to themselves than those that do not, even when they are given the same environmental conditions.

SO FINALLY what I’m trying to say is that Violet, who (arguably) suffers from some kind of mental illness/mood disorder (innate or developed) is then placed in an environment which provides virtually no human contact, particularly that of a loving variety. Her dissociation becomes so powerful so quickly, that at the end of a few weeks she feels that she has lost her ability to experience any emotion or say anything except “uh” and “have mercy” that she has no choice but to harm the body of her husband’s lover and in doing so knowingly harm herself in a silent, subconscious attempt to actually heal from the underlying, boring but festering anger-paired-with-fear-and-hopelessness that dissociation unsuccessfully covers, similar to the way that Violet covered the empty birdcages that once contained the closest thing she had to love.

2 Replies to “Parrots, Self-Harm, and That Violet”

  1. I want to add one thought to this that may or may not be important, but is certainly worth recording: I wonder if Toni Morrison is furthering the symbolism of Rose Dear’s death along with Violet’s ‘dissociation’ by showing the reader how the memory of slavery continues to haunt this country. Living in the south as a captive of racist practices despite slavery having ended about twenty years before she dies, it could be said that Rose Dear was being haunted by the memory of slavery, and since she has no hope of escape, she decided to create her own method of escape. Violet also performed a similar (well, kind of similar in some ways) act of harm upon herself in the process inflicting harm on others, which I see as similar because of the intensity and drama of both events, but different because the harm Violet inflicted on herself and others (meaning Joe and Alice, and maybe some other people I’m forgetting. The only exception is Dorcas — which is also something that is notable) has the ability to be healed. In a sense, the fate of Rose Dear and Dorcas is permanent; but the fate of Violet and Joe and Alice is not yet determined as they are given a second chance. It’s important to keep Dante in mind when considering that manner, too. Souls that are in Hell cannot heal because Hell is a permanent placement. But souls in Purgatory are there in order to ‘heal,’ in a sense, whether the process takes a few days or thousands of years, they will eventually enter into Paradise.

  2. “overlooking the probability that neuroticism instead makes you pessimistic when describing your health. Maybe I”m missing something here. Even if neuroticism inclines a person to rate his/her own health as poorer than it is (a likelihood that the authors acknowledge at the very beginning of the paper), how does that discount the idea that “neuroticism is protective if, and only if, you say you are in bad health? Obviously, self-rated health is an imperfect proxy for actual health. But if neurotic people in general tend to rate their health as worse than it is—including those who rate themselves as better than “bad—then examining the interaction between neuroticism and self-rated health seems fairly reasonable, if not ideal, given the data they had to work with. p.s. I am not a scientist, and I welcome any illumination as to why this judgment is misguided.

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