Generational Trauma and Cyclical Violence: The Creation of a ‘Broken Earth’

In Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, continuous geological disasters represent the cyclical violence between orogenes and stills. This violence becomes cyclical when— to create autonomy—the bullied become bullies. In my first essay, I explored how Jemisin uses the orogenes to frame the concept of “scapegoating”. I stand by my initial claim that self-preservation is, as with all survival mechanisms, an intrinsic and hard-wired urge. Jemisin says it herself in The Fifth Season, “frightened people look for scapegoats”. She addresses a universal truth: vulnerable populations always get the brunt of the blame. As a result of the fears of stills, orogenes are societally conditioned to believe that they are evil. Ultimately, this image of the orogenes becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ is perfectly encapsulated by Nassun, as she says “It’s like everybody wants me to be bad, so there’s nothing else I can be.” The first book in the trilogy provides a setup for this concept; it discusses the ways that the orogenes are dehumanized and, consequently, sacrificed. After revisiting The Fifth Season with the context of the other two novels, I realize that Essun uses anger as an expression of autonomy. She is not awarded autonomy, so she must pry it out of unwilling hands. By exacting violence, Essun harbors the control she never received as an ostracized child. However, she shows us that violence is a dead-end and nonviable coping skill. 

The Fifth Season provides insight into the nature of revenge. Unless someone breaks the cycle of violence, healing is impossible. For instance, Essun often lets her rage and grief consume her, using orogeny to kill people and destroy towns. She even goes so far as to smother her own child, which seems to be a response to her own traumatic childhood. When she first meets Schaffa, she is told “Don’t think unkindly of your parents, Dama. You’re alive and well and that is no small thing”. This idea—that parents do not owe their children love and affection— creates a deep wound. It is also revealed that she is locked in a barn, “freezing and pooping in a corner”. She suffers abuse through both emotional and physical neglect; this dehumanization follows her well into adulthood. When she discovers her son has been murdered and her daughter is gone, it seems to reopen this wound of abandonment. The cycle continues, and she resorts to murder and destruction as coping mechanisms. Essun never allows herself to sit in anguish, instead, she violently blocks it out. Although her violence can be an outlet for difficult emotions, it also becomes a form of maternal protection. When she makes the decision to kill Coru, she thinks “Better that a child never have lived at all than live as a slave…Survival is not the same thing as living”. In her own way, Essun tries to break the cycle of violence. In her mind, killing Coru is the only way to stop him from experiencing the hurt that she did.

Between the first and second book, Essun realizes the full weight of generational trauma. In the Broken Earth trilogy, Essun and her daughter suffer from the same hatred that is deeply ingrained in their environment. Essun’s abusive childhood makes her prone to coldness and a stranger to mother-daughter affection. She is shunned from parental love the very moment her orogeny is discovered. The feelings of abandonment only persist when Schaffa justifies her parents’ actions, telling her that it was better for them to “keep something rather than lose everything”. This separation from her parents occurs at an incredibly formative age, but the pain of being shunned continues well into adulthood. Later in her life, Alabaster tells Syenite, “That we’re not human is just the lie they tell themselves so they don’t have to feel bad about how they treat us”. No matter where she turns, Essun is constantly reminded of the “core belief” she learned as a young kid: Her orogeny makes her unworthy of love. Her ‘inner child’ never truly heals, so she is unable to understand how to love and protect her children. To exacerbate this, after Uche is beaten to death and Essun kills Corundrum, Essun has no room in her heart to properly nurture Nassun. Although she loves her daughter, she can never truly show her. Nassun, then, inherits her mother’s childhood wound. After finishing the trilogy, I realize that Coru’s ‘mercy killing’ is inherently connected to Essun and Nassun’s relationship. Because she failed to protect Nassun, Essun harbors guilt. This guilt, I believe, led her to ‘protect’ Coru by killing him. 

The parallels between Essun and Nassun’s childhoods are clear: both are shunned early on for their societally-imposed identities. Nassun experiences healing because she is the one who allows herself to truly love. Essun, on the other hand, is imprisoned by her hurt and bitterness. As The Obelisk Gate explores the perspective of Nassun, we learn that she is initially Jija’s “favorite” and his “little girl”. However, his image of her becomes tarnished when he learns of her orogeny. Although Jija and Nassun’s journey is a way for Jija to protect her, he ultimately wants to change the core of her being. Essun was raised with this mentality as well; her parents completely defined her by her orogeny. Once found out, she was no longer a child; she became a monster. Although Jija is trying to get Nassun help, he upholds the idea that her ‘evil’ must be eliminated. Both Essun and Nassun have trauma stemming from identity suppression. This societally-imposed ‘pollution’ of self is communicated by Nassun: “The way of the world isn’t the strong devouring the weak, but the weak deceiving and poisoning and whispering in the ears of the strong until they become weak, too”. After Nassun is constantly conditioned to believe she is evil, she says to Jija,“I wish you could love me anyway, even though I’m bad”. So, she knows that Jija does not truly love her. He cannot get overcome his societal conditioning. However, Schaffa “loves [Nassun] no matter what, as a father should”. The difference between Essun and Nassun, then, is that Schaffa tries to break the cycle of abuse with the latter. Although his very nature is exploitative towards Nassun, he tries his best to protect her. This contributes to Essun’s bitterness, as she never had a father figure like Nessun did. Both Essun and Nassun are traumatized by ‘scapegoating’, but Schaffa’s love for Nassun is what saves her. The dynamic between Schaffa, Essun, and Nassun is a perfect example of cyclic trauma. Schaffa’s trauma causes him to abuse Essun, who in turn traumatizes Nassun. 

Towards the end of The Stone Sky, it is a big question whether Essun can overcome her childhood trauma and reach out to her daughter. After all, she was not equipped with any lessons on how to heal relationships—or how to heal in general. Ultimately, it is Essun’s ability to confront her own trauma that saves the world and ends the Seasons. She mends her relationship with Nassun by showing her that love and forgiveness is the only path to healing. Nassun is imparted with her mother’s wisdom: “Open the Gate, pour the Rifting’s power through it, catch the Moon. End the Seasons. Fix the world. This, Nassun sess-feels-knows, was your last wish”. Their relationship transformation is represented through this particular quote, as Essun and Nassun develop an intuitive connection. Both mother and daughter fight through their hurt, anger, and resentment to heal the world. Essun finally assumes her motherly duty: to instill in her daughter kindness and love. 

The transformation of Essun really moved me, and the final page of The Stone Sky solidified a lesson I will always carry with me. Even after experiencing an entire existence of rejection, Essun decides to heal the world that burned her. Although, simplifying her transformation through so few words seems like an injustice. Even to someone with all the empathy in the world, the amount of suffering Essun went through is unfathomable. Not only does she forgive the world for being so cruel, but she also sacrifices herself to preserve it. It is no coincidence that when Essun and Nassun make the decision to heal, geological disasters are quelled. When they make a decision to stand against violence, the Earth calms itself as well. Although geological destruction will never cease entirely, the ending of the Seasons marks an interruption of cyclical violence. When Essun sacrifices herself, Nassun finally realizes that her mother loved her all along, and a mother’s love is the ultimate survival tool. Hoa perfectly captures this at the end of the book: “That is how one survives eternity…or even a few years. Friends. Family. Moving with them. Moving forward”.

The Fifth Season: Can we escape scapegoating?

N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season uses geological concepts to demonstrate how societies scapegoat the most vulnerable populations. Jemisin’s work showcases the notion that self-preservation is an intrinsic human urge. The characters in “The Fifth Season” are able to rationalize injustice because the power of personal fear outweighs the power of empathy. This is apparent through the treatment of orogenes, whose abilities give them powerful control over the Earth’s geological functions. In their book “Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology, and the Wrath of God” Geologists Nurr and Burgess perfectly conceptualize the Stillness, writing “The earth’s convulsions nevertheless have had major influences on societies when they occurred at times of political or economic stress”. The Fifth Season universe exists in this perpetual state of political and economic stress, constantly teetering on the verge of collapse. Their society’s way of combatting collapse is by exercising a totalitarian rule over orogenes. Not only does the Fulcrum have an incredibly rigid and high-stakes education system, but it enacts a version of slavery over the orogenes. The Fulcrum perpetuates the idea that orogenes are dangerous ‘untouchables’. Alabaster tells Syenite, “With a comm destroyed in such a horrible way, the Fulcrum will need scapegoats to blame”. Scapegoats, at least for some time, quell the looming threat of another geological disaster.
The nature of ‘scapegoating’ is parasitic in every sense– not only are orogenes the sole receivers of blame, but they also have a crushing weight of responsibility on their shoulders. The Fulcrum is its own version of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), albeit one significantly more abusive and tyrannical. The USGS offers an early warning system for earthquakes called ShakeAlert®, and many people depend on this service to take protective measures in times of an impending geological disaster. In The Fifth Season, orogenes can take protective measures a step further by sensing and completely stilling earthquakes. This makes me wonder: if we had the ability to completely stop earthquakes, knowing it would require the exploitation and human rights violations we see in the Stillness, would we use it? In a world that capitalizes from cheap, inhumane, and child-abusive labor, I think we would. Orogenes are derogatorily called “roggas”, which Essun dictates as “a dehumanizing word for someone who has been made into a thing”. This deeply resonates in our society, where humans are simply valued as commodities. Jemisin writes of a harrowing truth, “Necessity is the only law, says stonelore”. In the context of both The Fifth Season and of existing society, this quote shows that the necessity of humanity’s survival will always trump the rights of individuals.