The Fantasy of Healing

Finding life after divorce where you’d least expect it — as a witcher in a fantasy role-playing video game.

Photo-Illustration: The Cut, Photos: Getty, CD Projekt RED
Photo-Illustration: The Cut, Photos: Getty, CD Projekt RED
Photo-Illustration: The Cut, Photos: Getty, CD Projekt RED

Geralt of Rivia, the hero of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, is introduced to us naked, soaking in a steamy postcoital bath in a wooden tub. We are in the bedroom suite of Kaer Morhen, the witcher castle of the Wolf School, where Yennefer, the love of Geralt’s life, is also nude except for the towel wrapping her hair, her shapely figure leaned on a chaise, reading, posed to show off her perfect ass. Despite her objectification, Yennefer is all business: She sends a magical lobster into the tub to nip Geralt in his sensitive bits, reminding him of his promise to their adopted daughter Ciri that he’d train with her. The erotic tone of the scene is tempered by domesticity, family, the mundane threaded through with love and deep longing as its main emotional chord. For a fantasy role-playing game, the music is warm and folkloric — a slow, yearning melody played on classical guitar to evoke an almost painterly intimacy unlike the grand epic symphonies of more traditional fantasy games. We are anchored in the vulnerable space between lovers the morning after — the home to come back to at the end of the hero’s journey.

The scene is a training ground meant to teach the player the controls and introduce the world’s mechanics, how Geralt moves, how to activate his “witcher senses.” Gamers play as Geralt throughout, but here, we watch him as himself, moving and talking on his own. It’s a richly rendered cinematic introduction to the characters with a focus on the tension of Geralt and Yennefer’s relationship. His desire for Yennefer goes unsatiated, rebuffed by her toying condescension, their spiky dialogue hinting at old conflicts. She is still wary of his womanizing past, guarded after a betrayal.

Geralt: Of all the women I’ve known, you’re the only one who does her makeup before.

Yennefer: Oh? You’ve known many?

Geralt: What’s it matter? Only ever thought of you.

Already these weren’t just characters, they were two people with a history. I found myself restarting the game a few times to play through this opening scene again and again. Something about it hurt, felt familiar in its undertones — the fragile intimacy the morning after a painful fight; the realization that you can never truly know your partner; the unspoken, knowing sense that he’s been inside someone else.

The last place I expected to confront the pain of the end of my marriage was in video games. I’m not a gamer in the slightest. I’m a 39-year-old Mexican American single mother, first-generation high-school graduate now Ph.D. student, and the eldest daughter of working-class immigrants — not The Witcher’s target demographic. My time is measured in labor, responsibilities, obligations, and guilt, which is to say, I have none.

And yet here I was, in the summer of 2020, on the couch slaying wights in a filthy apartment, ordering Postmates at 2 a.m. after not eating or sleeping for four days in a loop of avoidance and hypervigilance. In September of 2017, one month after buying our first home, two years after our son was born, and on my first book’s publication date, my partner of ten years abruptly ended our marriage. In the months and years that followed, a flood of long-hidden behaviors came to a bright surface, crumbling every structure of reality I knew to be true. In the interest of privacy, I cannot divulge what I endured in the aftermath, only that the consequences have obliterated every aspect of my health.

I was never hungry or tired on the ever-changing cocktail of antidepressants and amphetamines I was prescribed. But no matter how much they increased or decreased my dosage, I could not bring myself to pay my bills, do my taxes, text back, attach the file someone needed to an email, shower, or do anything other than keep my son abundantly alive. For the four years that followed the end of my marriage, I was unable to leave my apartment without risk of a panic attack — running into a neighbor at the mailbox could set off a grid of emergency lights in my brain; unanswered emails would trigger my smartwatch to alert me of an escalating heart rate; meeting friends for dinner would leave me in shambles, sobbing in my car. This is complex PTSD, a condition that can emerge after a big traumatic event but can also come from years of living with a constant low level of fear, paranoia, abuse, and a lack of security and safety. Trauma is commonly defined as “too much too fast,” but in my case, it was also “never enough for too long.”

To heal, I repeat the story of what happened every week in therapy. I see it in everything I watch, read, listen to. I don’t mean to repeat it to eye doctors, at birthday dinners, to the TurboTax specialist on the 1-800 number. With every vulnerable post online came the polite distance of a mute, every moment of honesty an act of professional sabotage, every attempt to seem better and connect bare in its desperate grasping. The more I spoke, the more I disappeared — grieve too long, too loud and you become the unspoken spam of your social circles, muted out by polite apathy. And yet, the story repeats itself against my will, forces me to cast the same characters, enacts itself in who I desire. No matter how much I told it or didn’t want to tell it, language only confirmed my powerlessness. This was a story I could not change or move on from no matter how hard I tried. So I learned to silence this pain by isolating it, locked every door. Something big was happening to me, but in the end, who would truly listen?

No matter the circumstances, divorce, frankly, is boring, and of all the things you lose, you don’t realize you’ve lost yourself until you exit your body mid-sentence and watch yourself become terrifying and inappropriate, someone to avoid at parties, just another scorned woman who let herself go. This, too, becomes a loop — how you embarrass yourself.

I have been divorcing someone for four years. In the beginning, I was unmoored, disconnected from reality and the passage of time. On the days my son was with his dad, the only thing that soothed me through the shock and sleepless nights was playing fantasy movies and television shows over and over — Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings. When they would end, I’d go back to the beginning and replay them until I had memorized every word, breath, beat. Ironically, the rich worlds of fantasy are what allowed me to regain my footing in reality. If I memorized the story, the lore, the maps, the family lines and sigils, I could always know what was coming, rely on my memory, double-check the details and reconcile them with what I was seeing. But after a while, even Game of Thrones couldn’t numb the agony anymore. Immersing myself in the earthy realms of fantasy could not reimagine a more just world or liberate me from this one, a world in a constant state of emergency run by monstrous men, all happening alongside my own personal disaster. Nothing felt real. As the Amazon rainforest burned and the pandemic raged and my exam deadlines passed, I could not look at my life, much less confront the monster within: grief that was trying to kill me.

Since childhood, the periods of deepest grief have also produced my most magical thinking. Amid personal devastation, as Bruno Bettelheim writes in Uses of Enchantment, fairy tales are portals for children to places of recovery, escape, and consolation from the anxieties of abandonment — a coping mechanism I brought with me into adulthood. Fantasy is a space safer than memory to process trauma and escape abuse into a world where the helpless are empowered by magic, friends are found among outcasts and survivors, and a hero will defend you with his sword until you find out the hero was you all along.

Perhaps I am so drawn to fantasy because it is also the space of immigrant dreaming. The projection of the self into an impossible imaginary to bear the reality of the present is its central question: Forces larger than myself have estranged me from my home — what can displacement into new lands make capable in me?

For survivors, fantasy can make the realm of the erotic feel safe again. If one has only ever known lovers as abusers, elaborate scenarios with beloved characters can make desire after violence seem possible again, reassociate deep wounds with magic and pleasure. In western speculative fiction, the presence of magic requires that it be grounded in its own system of limitations and moral boundaries. This is something like consent —worldbuilding as a contract for an agreed-upon set of rules. In role-playing games, to create an avatar or become the hero is to move through a world with a renewed sense of trust, where triggering situations become a kind of exposure therapy and trauma can be encountered and reenacted in a controlled setting but this time with a sense of agency in the decisions and outcomes of the story.

Two years into this mourning period, in the autumn of 2019, my younger brother Gilbert came to live with me to help out with my son and try his luck in L.A.’s music scene. He was often concerned about how far I pushed my body to work. I do not indulge in luxuries, and I could not waste a single minute — even leisure had to have a utility. I’d work at the computer until he went to bed and still be there by the time he woke up, having worked all night for the fifth night in a row. I’d grade for 16 hours straight, forget to eat, write 20 pages overnight until my son woke up. I’d long lived this way, even while married, ever striving toward the fantasy of financial security.

Bro, do you ever have fun though? Please chill,” he begged. He suggested I try playing Skyrim, one of the most popular massive open-world fantasy role-playing games, to fill the void Game of Thrones left behind. In March 2020, as pandemic lockdown orders became mandatory and everything was canceled, to distract me from doomscrolling the news between writing and chores, my brother finally convinced me to at least create my custom character. Within hours, I was hooked

I thought back to the hours my ex spent playing games on his computer, relieving stress while I took on all of the domestic labor, put myself through college, held down two jobs. I thought about the toll two full-time retail and food-service jobs take on the body, how my mother works more than 80 hours per week at a grocery chain and comes home only to take on all of the domestic labor after her shift. How she modeled these constantly overloaded stressors as my baseline.

Killing draugrs with my enchanted ebony bow was not a productive use of my precious time, so wasting it, wasting my time, made it even more engrossing despite the nagging guilt I felt. As I played, I felt a very old tension deep within me finally release, and over the next few days came complete surrender. I would sometimes cry after a long game session, realizing I’d finally spent hours not thinking. Every muscle in my body had been imperceptibly clenched with years of tension and urgency. By complete accident, I’d become grounded in the present moment, killing vampire elves in a snowy forest. When intrusive thoughts did surface, it was during dialogue exchanges, where my options for interactions were morally categorized as persuade, intimidate, and lie. But over time, the thoughts lessened. I was letting go of something heavy, but I didn’t fully understand what it was.

And then, amid a new set of quests in a little Skyrim town, a completely unexpected option was presented to me: My character could get married.

My husband Rune, an NPC (or non-playable character who interacts as part of the game’s storytelling), said three lines: “It’s good to see you. I made you a homecooked meal. We have a cozy little profit, love.” He was kind, supportive, and mostly silent. We adopted two daughters, whom he raised while I went out and killed dragons. We built our house in the mountains by a lake with a library, an alchemy lab, and a fish hatchery. He did not cheat, he did not lie, he did not neglect, he did not yell or make messes he expected me to clean, and when I returned, he was still there. He would never leave.

It’s good to see you.

Gently, the game walked me directly to a wound to live out a vision of marriage I never got a chance to live.

Recent case studies have shown that video gaming can be a more effective behavioral intervention for PTSD than talk therapy for lessening intrusive thoughts and fearful avoidant behaviors. It is also helpful for desensitizing triggers, as seen in combat veterans’ experiences with first-person shooter games and with car crash survivors and the prevention of traumatic memory formation through Tetris. PTSD is characterized by the activation of deep psychological scars, which drastically alter behavior into learned patterns of avoidance and suppression that reinforce themselves every time they keep the sufferer “safe.” This is why it’s so difficult to treat PTSD — patients may not benefit from talk therapy, especially as protective avoidant behaviors become more entrenched; narrating traumatic events doesn’t work if there’s no available memory to recall or if engaging the memory is dangerous or it’s so ingrained by repetition that it cannot be analyzed in such a way that prompts a change in behavior.

EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, is an alternative therapeutic modality where the patient recalls traumatic events while moving their eyes from side to side or engaging in an activity that requires their full attention. Researchers such as Harvard psychologist Richard J. McNally and Dutch psychologist Marcel van den Hout explain how eye movements, as well as other tasks that require short-term memory, “tax memory in such a way that trauma-related images become degraded and less emotionally evocative” and are effective at alleviating trauma symptoms.

Video games do both, mimicking EMDR’s physiological component by requiring that the patient engage both rapid side-to-side eye movements and short-term memory to complete tasks and quests. Intrusive thoughts will inevitably surface during play for PTSD sufferers, and for veterans, first-person shooter games stage a site of recall by recreating the environment of combat, allowing exposure to triggering situations and images in a controlled, safe environment.

After my brother Gilbert (and his PlayStation) moved back home to Houston in September 2020, I did the unthinkable: I bought my own PS4. By then, I’d finished playing through his copies of Skyrim and Assassin’s Creed, gateways into the world of fantasy role-playing video games. In search of a new game, I finally came around to The Witcher 3 on fellow writer-gamer Carmen Maria Machado’s recommendation. And it is here that the real confrontation with my demons began.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, CD Projekt Red’s massively popular award-winning 2015 video game, is considered the gold standard across the board in terms of writing, character development, romance, and story in massive open-world role-playing games. Six years later, it continues to rank first among best-of lists, and Netflix recently adapted the games and book series.

It’s worth noting here that video games — even fantasy video games— have often been a hostile, even unsafe territory for women of color, beginning in 1982 with Custer’s Revenge, a game where General Custer, a pink man with a huge erection, must avoid arrows and make it to the other side of the screen to rape a bound Native woman. Previously, I’d associated gaming and its characters with shitty preteen boys at the mall arcade who called me a “button-mashing bitch” when I’d win as Kitana in Mortal Kombat; with bongs and bad boyfriends in dragon button-up shirts and JNCOs beating women in Grand Theft Auto; with my ex-husband, an avid, lifelong gamer with Warcraft posters up on his bedroom walls well into his 30s. I associated gaming with everything sexist, lazy, and impotent about white middle-class toxic masculinity. I thought gamers to be my total opposite in terms of politics, positionality, and priorities.

I remained skeptical of Geralt in the early stages of Witcher 3 until I sensed that he was different from the misogynist archetypes in Grand Theft Auto or first-person shooter games. Geralt’s character, and his particular expression of masculinity, began a slow process of building the trust necessary to expose me to a wilder pain just below the surface, aching to erupt. While I doubt the developers of Witcher 3 had someone like me in mind, playing as a male character known for his voracious appetite and sexual conquests, it turned out, still led me to encounter scenarios that would set off a near-deadly trigger.

You might be thinking, It’s a video game. It’s really not that serious. And maybe that’s true, but as with any story, it’s what we bring with us that’s serious. I read the game through the screen of my pain as it reflected back my own monstrosity: Mexican womanhood is a state of powerlessness, where suffering and forgiveness are idealized in the form of the Mary, and grief and rage are made monstrous in La Llorona — two myths forged in relationship to men. Mexican daughters are raised in a culture of shame, expected to obey and punished when we don’t. We are shaped by guilt and disciplined through labor, groomed to follow our mothers’ sacrifices and endure a life in which family is an obligation and infidelity is assured. When everything is your fault, you learn to doubt your memory, the integrity of your actions, and distrust your own testimony.

Today, I cannot remember much of my relationship — when you are denied your memory, what you’ve seen with your own eyes, told “that never happened,” even your reflection in the mirror is not enough to prove your body exists in space. Instead, it’s like waking up unable to describe the blank echo of a dream you just had, a dream that lasted ten years.

At the beginning of The Witcher, the first game in the trilogy, Geralt wakes up with amnesia — a narrative device that allows the player to discover the world alongside its hero. Geralt does not remember Yennefer or Ciri. Instead, he enters a sexual relationship with Triss, who takes advantage of his amnesia and seduces him with magic, withholding key information so that he will be unfaithful to Yen without his knowledge. But echoes of Yennefer throughout the games stir a strange longing in him, deeper than memory.

The first two Witcher games are not romances but complex political intrigues known for their strong characters and branching story lines with significant, far-reaching consequences. But perhaps the Witcher games are also especially notorious for their explicit sex scenes, nudity, and adult themes. Amid brothels and princesses and sorceresses who practice “lesbomancy,” in The Witcher and The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, Geralt’s amnesiac promiscuity is part of the fun until the end of Witcher 2, when Geralt finally regains his memory.

By Witcher 3, Geralt has visibly matured, and having completely recovered his memory, he has urgent priorities — to find Yennefer and Ciri and put his family back together. In the game’s first quest, Geralt desperately tracks Yennefer, whom he now remembers as the love of his life — a reunion we have to wait half the game for with many pitfalls along the way. Would I indulge every opportunity to be with someone else behind her back, or play it faithful, as if doing so would, in some universe, make someone remain faithful to me?

Geralt at middle age — handsome, grumpy, and gruff with his signature gravelly voice — still comes off as all hypermasculine, virile aggression, initially a turnoff for me in the early stages of the game. But as I played on, I took note of his devotion to Ciri, his love for Yennefer, how soft and silly he could be, his spiky sarcasm, the result of a lifetime reviled and alienated as a “freak.” For being a witcher stripped of his emotions, his dialogue options often have a wide range of possibilities — get involved emotionally in this quest or don’t get involved? — which of course means I always got involved. 

But he isn’t a white knight or a romance hero; he also struggles with his own complicated humanity. As he unravels the truth behind a monster, he also unravels something in himself: the pain that animates a haunting, the betrayal that binds a curse. To be a witcher is not just about killing monsters or lifting curses but about a solitary life dedicated to the reparation of harm. And while Geralt might use two swords and offensive magic to fight, he uses feminized folk practices to heal victims, homes, and communities. In the Witcher games, monsters are never just monsters but manifestations of human trauma and the monstrosities we inflict on each other that make demons, werewolves, and wraiths of us.

In The Witcher 3’s central love triangle, Geralt has two options — mercurial Yennefer or sweet Triss — to choose as his life partner. True to canon, the game heavily encourages you to repair things with Yennefer and shows its bias by planting multiple in-game books, poems, ballads, and plays about their love story and nothing about Geralt and Triss other than embarrassing rumors. (Not to mention, their queer daughter Ciri is firmly on the Geralt–Yennefer ship, as am I.) Geralt is affable, even playful when he reunites with old friends throughout the game, many of whom are sorceresses, but upon reuniting with Yennefer, he completely loses his cool:

Geralt: You look beautiful.

Yennefer: Thank you. It’s nice to see you. The eulogy.

Geralt: You smell wonderful.

Yennefer: Geralt — we’re at a funeral.

Geralt: You smell wonderful at this funeral.

[Eulogy continues.]

Geralt: Haven’t seen each other in two years. I want a solitary cottage by the sea. I want to lock myself inside with you, stay there for a week.

Yennefer: What would we do there?

Geralt: Got so many ideas.

Yennefer: The one with the rope you use for trophies, that one seems interesting.

Geralt: Stop reading my mind.

Yennefer: Got something to hide?

Geralt: Don’t like secrets?

Yennefer: No.

The Witcher 3 somehow manages to build so much tension in its romantic relationships that the sex feels emotional, yearning, and romantic, especially the scenes with Yennefer (albeit also heteronormative and white). But reconciliation with Yennefer after Geralt’s infidelity with Triss is not so easily won, requiring careful choices and multiple lengthy quests to finally earn her back for good this time, fulfilling the promise of the opening scene. (Failure to reconcile has its own consequences.)

This is why it’s disappointing that, once you reconcile with Yennefer, you immediately have the chance to cheat on her after spending half the game pursuing her. Following their reunion, Geralt ends up at the Passiflora brothel, where one of the first dialogue options, unrelated to the quest, allows you to ask the madam about the girls on offer. Out of curiosity, I chose that dialogue option as my stomach sank with dread. At the end of the day, Geralt, who had earned my trust in his role as father, devoted partner, and defender of survivors, was a character written for cis hetero men, gamers, and fans who would read these scenes as a harmless indulgence of justifiable urges. After pursuing Yennefer for so long, Geralt deserved a reward because, in the end, she would stick around anyway. And that’s the way it goes — the thrill of the chase is always more appealing than the daily grind of fidelity and commitment, and not even in the realms of fantasy could I be free from the terms of male desire.

The propositions at least were pleasant, not creepy or disrespectful. I could have skipped the encounters with the sex workers — they’re there simply as a novelty — but I wanted to see for myself what it felt like to deceive, how to disconnect sex and desire from those who depend on your fidelity, how to not consider consequences, to just think of myself and my own pleasure first and “relax with a beautiful woman.” I have never centered or prioritized my desire. Instead, I have always been at the mercy of men, of being or not being desired, of what they do or do not do with that desire.

Visiting the brothels as Geralt was not erotic or satisfying — more embarrassing and awkward, even heartbreaking. Still, I visited the brothels a lot, not for pleasure, but with a strange compulsion to confront a painful scenario in the effort to understand, watching the same bouncing breast animations over and over — a kind of exposure therapy, sometimes numb, sometimes aroused, full of shame, mostly always in tears.

I felt empty, perhaps emptied of something, when the scenes ended. But every time I went, it hurt a little less. In a flood of shame, I’d reload my last save to the moment before I entered the brothel, overwriting my infidelity to Yennefer like it never happened. Through roleplaying Geralt, I switched roles: Now I was the one deceiving. Now I was the one deliberately deleting evidence, manipulating the game’s memory to cover up indiscretions not even I could resist. But it wasn’t for the same reasons — I wasn’t hiding something that felt good, or out of shame, or any other reasons people cheat. I erased the brothel visits out of respect for Yennefer. I used their fictional relationship to stage the site of my own betrayal and pain.

Yennefer was right to be suspicious — it is not possible to play Geralt as completely monogamous. I tried many times, reloading saves to make different decisions that would bypass kissing his friend without my consent. Throughout the game, Geralt is presented with opportunities to indulge in the game’s emotional gray areas with other women far from Yennefer’s notice, and he can visit brothels as often as he’d like without penalty to his long-term relationship. And while Geralt can choose either Triss or Yennefer as his life partner, there are severe consequences to romancing both. (Do not do it.)

While researching whether Geralt is monogamous in the books (he is … and isn’t), several users on Reddit point out that Geralt and Yennefer are about 100 years old, and as magical beings, they are made sterile — two major factors in the practice of monogamy.

I am critical of my own monogamy. I have thought through Black feminist, queer, and Indigenous critiques of marriage and monogamy as colonial constructs many times throughout my life. I am critical of cis heteronormative relationship structures, the colonial-capitalist construct of marriage, the unlikelihood of monogamy with longer lifespans, how upholding the nuclear family where the patriarch has all the power deeply entrenches the project of Western whiteness. I am queer. In the hope of saving my marriage after childbirth, I proposed polyamory to my ex and was open to seeing sex workers together, but in the end, I never had the guts or the desire to be with anyone else.

I can hold all of these critiques and still believe in monogamy because of a deep historical bind to the precarity of my subject position: I am repeating the patterns of my mothers, estranged from their families by marriage. In Mexico, my grandmother was taken far from her family by her husband at 14; in Houston, my mother’s nearest family member is an eight-hour drive away at the U.S.–Mexico border; here in Los Angeles, my nearest family member is 1,600 miles away. An isolated woman in a strange place is vulnerable, unprotected, easily controlled, and even easier to leave.

Perhaps this is my generational curse. Migration is an abandonment wound that tears families apart, erodes ties, severs connections, erases memory. When you’ve lost so many people you love to borders, illness, labor, the state, and you feel alone in a strange country, you don’t leave your spouse. My parents stay in a toxic marriage because separating would mean death for my disabled dad. Marginalization often means we can’t cut ties with family because not only do we have an embodied compassion for their racial trauma, cutting them off would make them vulnerable to severe structural harm. When marriage becomes the last bond holding everyone together, monogamy feels like a kind of safety.

Somewhere along the way, I confused marriage with a trauma bond.

Documents are easy to disappear. Eventually, my marriage became a field of deleted files, fragments, and residues of overwritten saves, impossible to reload. After years of parsing a divorce-lawyer-guarded stonewall, what can evidence do? It’s always the same carousel of lies, the same steely silence at the end of my power. In the end, I finally had to let go of any possibility of truth.

In Witcher 3, what is satisfying about Geralt’s detective work is the way his witcher senses highlight invisible violence. As he walks through the aftermath, streaks of bright-red energy reveal the emotional residue of what happened in the air, allowing us to visualize his intuition and reanimate the scene, follow the trail and recover suppressed evidence. For survivors, the way Geralt’s witcher senses give memory and feelings shape and allow them to stand as evidence is a powerful thing to witness. Geralt can’t be gaslit — even when all evidence is erased and nothing can prove the victim’s testimony, feelings are the record that exposes abusers and contradicts their lies.

Still, I always chose to not punish the abuser but repair the harms they’d done. The Bloody Baron, a violent alcoholic abandoned by his wife and daughter; Olgierd von Everec, a husband haunted by his most monstrous act, the neglect of his wife — as Geralt, I did not kill them or force their families to forgive them. I chose the longer, more complicated solutions, fought demons, relieved haunted places scarred by traces of their violence, only to let them go and live with their choices. While the game gave me the power to utterly ruin the hurters and delight in their suffering, it also gave me agency and control over Geralt’s actions in his personal life as a partner and father. And all of these choices were deeply meaningful — would I choose to live in a just world where, with great power, I chose not to do harm? With those choices, the worst thing I could bring myself to do was make Geralt fuck a lot of sex workers. I chose to hurt myself.

On my second and third playthrough, although I tried to play a darker version of Geralt, to make different choices and punish with violence to see the “bad endings,” in the end, I always chose to make him faithful to Yennefer, supportive of Ciri, to not hurt. With each playthrough, I gained a new understanding of trauma, of the humanity refracted through the monstrous, and chose again to lift everyone’s curses, repair relationships, restore memory, liberate communities, reduce harm. I could take my personal revenge, but Geralt made me fight for something bigger.

Healing is a complicated process — nonlinear, interior, exterior, social, personal. Sometimes it’s just being stuck for a long time, hitting a wall, a stalemate. Maybe it is not possible to heal, instead we must be rearranged into another self, one that can go on. Maybe healing cannot be achieved by bringing the monsters in our lives to justice but by facing the monster within, and in the letting go, ending the cycle. And while I do not believe forgiveness is possible in the face of great harm, especially if the harmed person remains powerless, I now believe in a kind of justice that goes beyond the carceral logics of punishment; a vision of justice that, through centering the end of trauma, must end the monstrous conditions we live in.

Geralt of Rivia, witcher, monster hunter, folk healer, lifter of curses, is a partner and father whose story begins in the aftermath of his betrayal and who chooses to repair his relationship and reunite his family. He healed something in me. He teaches us to live as moral outcasts, protect exceptional daughters, love brilliant and difficult women. Most importantly, he shows us that at the center of every curse and the core of every monster is an unremembered, unavenged victim, a story untold. Geralt lifts curses not just by exposing hidden truths through their telling but through a collective remembering that corrects the historical record, undoes a knot of violence, accounts for hidden evidence, believes the unbelieved. To break a curse is to reload a deleted save and witness our choices so that, in the end, we can bury our ghosts and be released from our monsters, so that we might live out a future liberated from the past.

Trauma is a narrative choice — the choice to repeat a story until it becomes a curse, an ouroboros. The human brain does not like to hold on to trauma for that long; traces of it endure to keep us safe, but perhaps it is the insistence on the story that keeps us stuck. I now see the difference between trauma and grief: Trauma is a fixation on what is lost, while grief is proof that love still lives. Neither is just. My body will always store the traces of trauma in the absence of memory, clenched like a fist in anticipation of nothing. I have a long way to go, but I have stopped punishing myself so much with labor and learned to allow myself to rest, waste time, do nothing. Video games help me recall, writing to release. Rather than resign myself to an eternal state of suffering, trapped in deleted memories, cursed to a repeating story, as Geralt, I was given two swords: steel for humans, silver for monsters, tools to confront the haunted parts of myself.

And in doing so, the curse I am lifting is my own.

The Fantasy of Healing