Aroha embodies (or doesn’t!) a lot of ideas. First and foremost, she’s lost her mind but crazy people are as unique as everyone. How she’s gone mad is rooted in a number of inspirations.
Firstly, early in life she struggled to break free of a family background that was violent, unloving and underprivileged. Her life’s mission was to prove she wasn’t just the sum of her background. Having to embark on this journey in childhood, Aroha was forced to sacrifice her childhood and devote her energy to growing up and becoming self-sufficient too quickly.
As is, sadly, often the case with such people, Aroha instinctively pulls the ladder up behind her. She has no empathy or tolerance for the visible weaknesses and struggles of others; Joanna’s artwork is anathema to Aroha. Painting pictures and apparently dreaming of fame is the very portrait of laziness and ‘not getting on with it’ that Aroha can’t stand. Aroha’s inner mantra is ‘Just deal with it (I had to)!’ While not a sufferer of typical PTSD, Aroha is the victim of long-standing childhood trauma (little-t trauma as it’s called in psychology terms), and the psychological developmental arrest this often causes.
Aroha has fallen prey to a common health hazard endemic in those who have striven through hard traumatic lives right from the start. She clings to her sparse achievements and stays set in her ways, close-minded and inflexible in her thinking and ideas. Being a doctor was an accolade in Aroha’s day but she was never able to deal with hospital politics. She thought getting her qualification would earn her a ticket to acceptance and wasn’t emotionally able to deal, when she found just another level of rejection. She may have been a doctor but she never got far in the profession owing to lack of people skills.
In life, particularly because of the physical nature of her childhood rejection, Aroha also needed to feel in control and worked her body hard to be strong and tough in an attempt to make herself feel the safety her parents not only didn’t provide her with but actively threatened with their haphazard violence and inconsistent moods. Now Aroha feels she’s having it rubbed in her face if people appear occupationally or physically lazy. Deep down, such people as Joanna hold the mirror up to Aroha’s unconscious envy.
Before writing Aroha (both the novel and the character), I would probably have said such rigidity of thinking and feeling is more commonly seen in elderly people (which it may be because keeping an open mind is a creeping challenge for all of us as we age). And Aroha is indeed getting on a bit, in a way.
But in the process of developing Aroha’s character, I changed my view. I now think that inflexible and close-minded people are usually that way all their lives and only more visible in old age because the world has changed around them and left them behind and unable to adapt. If you grow up with smart phones, you’ll be as good (or bad) at using them as anyone in your generation regardless of how emotionally immature you are. But if smartphones disappear and become nano-tech you are afraid of or struggle to understand, your peers are more likely to adopt the new stuff and leave you behind, lamenting the good old days when a phone was something you could damn well hold in your hand!
As is evident in her interactions with the people around her, Aroha gets it wrong at the interpersonal level all the time. This is because for both practical reasons and a lack of capacity to accept change, she can’t understand other people if they think and feel differently to her about and in, a given situation. She spent so much time growing up early when she was a child that she never developed the ability to be empathic and see things from others’ points of view; this also curtailed her ability to learn and evolve in her thinking; it made her somewhat of a rote-learner. She found her way and invested a lot of hope for a better life in that way being the only way. She backed herself into an emotional corner.
While the exact ways Aroha has lost touch with the world are clearly my fantastical inventions, the idea came from a phenomenon I’ve seen in many people from my generation and subsequent ones. Though it’s far from universal, many people my age and younger seem to lose touch with their parents and vice versa. Aging parents become a burden and people we tolerate and ‘do our time with’ and feel obliged to take care of, but don’t particularly listen to any more. Interactions with such parents and other elders are fraught with conflicting senses of duty, loyalty, sympathy, dismissal and sometimes even resentment and revulsion. Think of grandma and her casually despicably racist jokes and clanger generalisations beginning with things like ‘they all…’. Or grandpa and his screaming misogyny offered up at mealtime as a compliment for your new female partner brought home to visit for the first time. I think you know what I mean.
I think this is probably a result of many factors including but far from limited to times of unique change with the onset of new technology etc, some elderly people having more capacity to accept and embrace changing technology and society than others (like anyone), and parents and adult children’s shared capacity (or lack of it) to give up their respective roles as parent and child and re-unite as adult friends. The Aroha character, aside from being just a part of the story, is also a metaphor for a nightmare case of failure on all these fronts.
Another idea that inspired the Aroha character and her bits of the plot is the impact of loneliness on a person. It’s well known that people in enforced sustained isolation of whatever kind, lose their minds. Our brains are physically wired to need social contact and at least some degree of closeness or meaningful connection with others. The parts of the story around the impact of Aroha’s isolation on her and also of her changing abilities in interaction with other people were inspired by the way we shrivel in isolation and grow through interaction even if it’s not necessarily a pleasant experience.
And the final facet of the inspiration for Aroha’s character was Freud’s old but tried and tested idea of that which is repressed eventually always finding expression; much like the vast heaving fat-berg discovered in the London sewerage system in the last few years. At the same time as being a real character in the plot Aroha is also a metaphor for a painful past that demands resolution no matter how torturous that resolution will be.
While I think it’s a light-hearted and entertaining read, Aroha is a story with its feet in the shade in more ways than one!