Theon Greyjoy: Catastrophic Transformation Into Living Death

Game of Thrones fans, book and show alike: this post DOES contain spoilers. If you are not up to date with your reading and show watching (Season 4, Episode 6), then read no further.

Also, this is very sad. You are warned.

Most recappers give little or no space to the action involving Theon and Yara Greyjoy in this episode. (Side note: why did the Show have to change her name from Asha to Yara? I like both names, but why invent a new one? Bah!) With everything going on in all the other plots, this makes sense. And frankly, the less time we spend with Torture Wackadoodle Champ of the Year Ramsay is generally just fine with me.

But I found this episode's interaction tragic in a way that touched me personally. My understanding is that this bit does not take place in the books, and was invented solely for the Show. Who knows what the reasoning is, but here's what happened:

Ramsay has tortured and flayed Theon within an inch of his life, has cut off various and sundry of his body parts, does not allow him to bathe, makes him sleep in the dog kennels, and has changed his name to Reek, changed who he is to Reek.  Reek does what Theon never would: calmly shaves Ramsay with a straight razor, and never even considers (so it appears) slicing open Ramsay's throat. Though Theon once begged Ramsay to kill him during his torture, Reek does not consider using the straight razor on himself to end his own misery. Loss of desire for revenge, self-respect, identity - these may all be taken away, but the body and altered mind are in agreement about self-preservation.

Yara, not knowing the full extent of what has been done to Theon, resolves to rescue him.

I'm going to pick the fastest ship in our fleet. I'm going to choose the fifty best killers on the Iron Islands. I'm going to sail up the narrow sea, all the way to the Weeping Water. I'm going to march on the Dreadfort. I'm going to find my little brother. And I'm going to bring him home.

And so she does set out. She reaches the Dreadfort, she finds Theon/Reek...and Reek, in full Reek-mode, refuses to leave with her, fearing a trick. He bites her on the hand and scuttles back inside his cage. Ramsay appears, there is some fighting, and eventually Yara leaves without him. When she is asked "where is Theon?" she replies "My brother is dead" in a voice that is dead.

What were Yara's choices? Put Ramsay aside for the moment. She could have stayed there, with Reek in his cage, and attempted some form of sisterly relationship with Reek. Or suppose she had been successful in forcibly dragging him away to the ship, and sailed home with him. He would no doubt be mad with fear, shrieking and needing to be restrained. How could she ever undo what Ramsay had done, how could Reek become Theon whole and healthy once more?

Or she could walk away and say "My brother [Theon] is dead". Reek lives, Theon is dead.

I had such a brother.

I was a year younger than him. Paul was seventeen and a week away from graduation from high school. He had a job offer as an apprentice to a carpenter. He was extremely excited about this, as he intended carpentry to be his life's work. A required pre-employment physical revealed a hernia that had to be corrected before he could start work. The carpenter promised to hold the job for him for surgery and recovery time.

Paul didn't want to make him wait any longer than he had to, so he pushed our mother to schedule the surgery right away.  So she did: May 31, 1979 at 12 noon. Sometime during the next hour or two is when my brother Paul died, and Other Paul came into being. Someone, or several someones, fucked up.

In the beginning, when he was in a coma, I thought "I am going to dedicate myself to his recovery. I am going to do everything it takes to help him learn to walk again, bla bla". I was going to be the star of an After School Special or the heroic sibling of one of those Reader's Digest True Life Stories. But as Yara found out, things were different at the Dreadfort. Waking up from the coma wasn't the first step to recovery, as we had thought.

It turns out that the brain can be tortured for quite some time and parts of its functioning cut out you know you wouldn't want to live without - the ability to walk, or feed yourself, or to see, or to speak coherently, to understand much, to have a short term memory, to control your facial expressions - and yet the body lives. The brain does not do so well when deprived of sufficient oxygen for a long period of time. The rest of the body hangs in there though.

There were lawyers, and inquiries, and depositions, and finally a settlement to provide for his care for the rest of his life.  The rest of his life was 33 years, almost to the day: June 3, 2012. Thirty-three years of lying on his back in a nursing home bed or sitting up in a wheelchair. He was lovingly cared for in every possible way by a nursing home staff that adored him. He was a handsome boy, and so young when he came into their care. Nearly everyone else there was very elderly, and no one was there as long as he was, so the staff kind of fell in love with him.

His voice had been damaged by a necessary tracheotomy performed soon after the surgery, and by months and month of screaming spells - he would scream for half an hour or more, incoherent cries over and over. In retrospect I think that during these times he was in some way dimly aware of his situation and terrified both by it and by his inability to communicate with us. The screaming spells were terrifying to me and my other siblings, and this is the period in life when I first experience a panic attack.

Eventually the spells stopped, whether because that part of his brain gave up, or because the right cocktail of meds to keep him soothed was finally found, or both. One could hardly have a conversation with him because of the damaged voice and the damaged brain. But he responded to music - all kinds of music . He learned (how?) the words to everything and sang along with songs on the radio or hymns played on the nursing home's piano. Other Paul loved music that Brother Paul would have made fun of and snickered at.  Oliver Sacks would have found his musicophilia interesting, I'm sure. When he sang, his voice was clearer, he enunciated better, he kept time with the music. When he talked, one word tumbled into another and the talking sped up faster and faster until finally, it was a jumble.

He recognized voices. Perhaps they were a kind of music to him. I might not see him for a period of months or even years but when I walked into the room and said hello he instantly called out the childhood nickname he used to tease me with. It was heartbreaking and terrifying and disorienting. I felt like a little girl every time I saw him, no matter how old I became. When he called out my nickname, I could not shake the feeling that Brother Paul was physically trapped and contained within the shell of Other Paul, like some hideous matryoshka doll. This strangeness intensified as the years passed and he gained weight, lots of weight, from inactivity and the starchy institutional diet. Besides music, food was one of the few pleasures left to him, and so why should he not have as much of it as he wanted?

Our family was fortunate to find a paid companion for Other Paul, a woman who came and spent many hours with him every day. She visited him on holidays, before even going to see her own friends. She came to love him and said he was like the brother she never had. She cared for him as we could not. At his funeral, when she saw photos of Brother Paul, it was shocking and unsettling for her. She said she had never pictured him in her mind standing up. Our Brother Paul was her Other Paul.

Other Paul's brain had been atrophying over the years and his death was the result of it finally giving up so much that the body had to go along with it. During those final days in the nursing home, I could feel  how much the staff cared for him. I also felt, from a few, a severity, an ironic disapproval. Here you are crying at his deathbed; where were you all these years he was alive?

Brother Paul died in 1979. I never could learn to love Other Paul, nor even to stop being frightened and extremely upset by him. It was this way for my siblings as well. Our mother never stopped being grieved by this. In 1979, she crawled right into that cage with Other Paul and took him into her arms. For her, Paul was Paul was her son. She carried him home on weekends for visits, until she and my father had to admit it was not possible anymore. She never gave up hope and belief that Science would find a way to fix him.  She had a folder full of newspaper clippings about The Miracle Advances Science Is Making In Fixing All The Brain. (Think about that, Brain Scientists, when you are putting out your next press release.)

Other Paul died in 2012, but on the way to the cemetery, riding in the car with my mother behind the hearse, I was terribly unsure of who was in the casket. Brother or Other? I feel this too when I visit his grave. I know that the answer is "both" but I hate Other Paul for taking away even this, my clean grief for Brother Paul after death.

I know it is the medical personnel who fucked up that are the proper objects of my hate. I know a mother's love is different than a sibling's love and we should never have been expected to love as a mother can love.  I know that nursing home staff who judge me for not visiting Other Paul and loving him as they did should put on my family's shoes and walk a mile to the Dreadfort. Then ask themselves do I want to enter the cage? Or will I turn around to the ship that will carry me away? And then say "my brother is dead".

8 responses so far

  • chemicalbilology says:

    Oh gosh Zuska. This is beautiful and terrible, and extraordinarily moving.

    • Zuska says:

      Thank you for reading it. I've never written about Paul before. That bit of GoT really moved me & brought out some things that have been floating around in my head for awhile.

      There are others who've experienced similar losses. The feelings are overwhelming - especially the guilt about the not-so-nice feelings. I think there is more attention to counseling these days but our family never had anyone to help us with this.

      • Arlenna says:

        You've captured something unexplainable with this, and even though I haven't experienced anything close to this firsthand, I could feel what you feel from reading it.

  • Tara Smith says:

    Hugs Zuska. Thank you for writing this.

  • Victoria says:

    Side note: the Show decided Asha was too close to Osha for us stupid TV watchers 🙂 Blah, right?

    Not side note: your story is... I don't know, I am so sorry you had to go through this. It is terrifying. Thank you for writing it down.

  • ecologist says:

    I don't know what to say about this. To say it was beautifully written, to say that it was sad and moving, or to say that it shook me to the core ... all that is true, but seems in no way sufficient for what you describe. So I will just say thank you for writing it, and my sorrow for your brother, and what he, and you, and your family went through.

  • What a beautiful post! So sorry you had to go through this, but it explains a lot of the issues that we caregivers have trouble understanding.

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