Thursday 27 October 2022

How to Break a Curse

How To Break A Curse

Guest post by Tenacity Plys

If you’ve ever tweeted about feeling like a changeling, you’re probably neurodivergent. That was one of the signs for me: that ugly duckling feeling of being so fundamentally different from the other kids in your grade you could be a separate species. Basically, if the popular kids treated you like you weren’t human in middle school, you might have been considered inhuman in the Middle Ages as well—you would have been a changeling.

While changelings were babies disowned by their parents as too strange to be human, that narrative is complicated by the fact that neurodivergence is genetic. While some members of a family might be noticeably different enough to be diagnosed, some people fly under the radar their whole lives. Thinking back on family stories I’ve heard over the years, I realized I’d never know how many people in my family were like me. They didn’t even know it themselves!

With that in mind, when I sat down to write about neurodivergence and the changeling myth, I didn’t just want to write about one changeling. I wanted to write about generations of them. The book that resulted is called Family Curse, but neurodivergence isn’t the curse—curses work better as a metaphor for generational trauma. The neurodivergence of the characters isn’t a metaphor for anything, actually; I just think it’s cool.

Like every story, Family Curse is about what people in the present will do with what they inherit from the past. The autobiographical level of my work is usually an exegesis of some aspect of my personal past that can illuminate my way forward (even if it takes me years to see what my subconscious was trying to tell me when I wrote it, lol). In a larger sense, the past can mean our inheritance from the last generation, our society’s institutions, or something else, depending on who’s telling the story and who’s listening. Curses trouble the passage from past to future.

In curse narratives, the past makes war on the present, dragging characters back in time to repeat cycles of violence. The Oresteia visualizes a curse as a flock of Furies stalking the palace at Mycenae; these bird-women represent lust for revenge, which is the fatal flaw of Atreus, then Agamemnon, then Clytemnestra, then Orestes and Electra. It’s like the House of Atreus has a vendetta against itself, and tellingly, no revenge killing can resolve it. Orestes finally breaks it by… *checks notes* …inventing Athenian democracy? As an ending it sounds weird, but this abrupt left turn is a lesson: turning to justice rather than revenge is what quiets the Furies and their endless clamoring for more blood. In other words, that’s how a curse can be broken.

Since the Atreus curse always appears in the form of one family member killing another because they believe it will give them justice for past wrongs, I would argue that’s literally all their curse is—no bird-women needed. A classics professor in The Secret History speculates that what the ancients called fate is actually another word for what we call psychology; characters in Greek drama have free will despite the fact that their “fatal” flaws make their actions look deterministic. In this way, one act of violence centuries ago can echo down the generations, even when memory of the actual event is lost.

When we don’t even remember the origin of a family curse, how do we make sense of ourselves, let alone find a path to healing? If a missing piece of my familial puzzle came to me at 28, how many more are left to find? I wrote my book as a replacement for the fragments of history I can never get back—not just for my biological family, but the people like me through the centuries whose stories will never be told. If I’m lucky, this (and therapy) will get the Furies to leave me alone.

You can pick up Tenacity Plys’s novella Family Curse - Field Notebooks 1880–2020 as a print chapbook or e-book from Bottlecap Press at

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