Nalo Hopkinson’s bildungsroman Midnight Robber tells the story of a young girl named Tan-Tan and her struggle as she is forcefully removed from the safety of her home planet and forced to grow up in a hostile environment, first, under her disturbed father’s rule and then, having to fend for herself in an unknown and alien place. Apart from the futuristic aspects of the novel, the kind of life Tan-Tan has to endure, including neglect, abandonment, rape and incest, is a very real occurrence in our society today. In fact, Mia Fontaine stated in an article from 2013 that appeared in The Atlantic that “[o]ne in three-to-four girls, and one in five-to-seven boys are sexually abused before they turn 18, an overwhelming incidence of which happens within the family.” Tan-Tan’s ability to deal with what happens was one aspect of the novel that stood out to me as I was reading it, and, having been interested in psychological defense mechanisms because of having worked at a psychiatric clinic in the United States and having had encounters with people who were experiencing defense mechanisms, I was fascinated with the progress Tan-Tan made throughout the novel. Tan-Tan goes through several different forms of defense mechanisms before she finally matures enough to approach her problems in a very healthy way towards the end of the novel. Professor George Eman Vaillant insists in his essay Ego Mechanisms of Defense: A Guide for Clinicians and Researchers (1992), that there are four different level-classifications of defense mechanisms, which include pathological, immature, neurotic and mature defenses. I believe that Tan-Tan experiences at least one form of these defense mechanisms of each classification throughout the novel.
Even in the beginning, Tan-Tan is living a life of neglect. Her mother and father seem to be lost in their passions. Granny Nanny and her house-eshu seem to substitute for the role of care-givers and Tan-Tan seems to feel a great desire for the approval and the affection of her father. This may be due to the fact that Tan-Tan already feels connected to a female care giver due to her being literally connected to the Nansi Web, which is always represented as female. Tan-Tan deals with this neglect by focusing her attention on the midnight robbers. She dreams of being like them, looking like them, and feeling like them.
“In fact, it seemed like nobody wanted to pay any mind to Tan-Tan no more. […] She was used to staying out of Ione’s way, and playing Robber Queen, […].”
This fantasy could be classified as an immature defense (Vaillant, 1992). Professor Vaillant names Fantasy as one of the defense mechanisms that fall under the category of immature defenses and describes it as a tendency to retreat into fantasy worlds in order to resolve inner and outer conflicts. This is probably a very normal form of psychological defense, especially for a child.
When Tan-Tan has to leave her home planet Toussaint, she begins exhibiting strong signs of fear. She feels alien to the hostile environment and she begins clinging to her father even more than before. However, the disturbing actions of her father, who rapes her on her 9th birthday, bring up an even stronger defense mechanism than the previous one. She begins to develop a split-personality.
“She felt her own self split in two, to try to understand […]”
This could be seen as a form of dissociation, which would be classified as a neurotic defense. Tan-Tan takes on another personality to defeat the emotional distress of being her father’s little girl while enduring something that should not be done to her by the man who calls her his daughter. This defense mechanism continues on throughout the novel. She turns her “Midnight Robber” fantasy into a real persona who fights to protect herself and those in need. This persona has detached itself from Tan-Tan’s pain so intensely that, in one example, she even fails to understand a reaction which is very much like her own would have been. When Tan-Tan, in the form of her “Midnight-Robber” persona, encounters a boy getting physically abused by his mother, she becomes infuriated and starts hitting the mother. The boy goes to the mother’s defense and Tan-Tan is very confused by this action, which shows that she fails to understand that she, too, stood by her father for many years before finally ending his life in self-defense. This could be considered a form of repression as well. Tan-Tan seems to have forgotten the emotions which she felt in moments when her father was not imposing his perverse sexual actions on her. Tan-Tan saw her father as a person with two faces, whose one side was deserving of love. “Good” Tan-Tan loved her father. It was “bad” Tan-Tan who killed him. Her lack of understanding for this situation shows a kind of repression, which can be classified as a neurotic defense mechanism.
Another form of defense occurs when Tan-Tan encounters the people who are tied to the cane field and forced to work. Tan-Tan, in her “Midnight Robber” persona, cannot handle this kind of abuse and simply runs away. Guilt and self-hatred plague her after this occurrence. Having been confronted with this kind of evil, Tan-Tan feels helpless and returns to the immature defense of escaping hardship. This is also the only time that the alternate persona of hers displays any form of psychological defense mechanism.
In the end, Tan-Tan exhibits several forms of mature defense mechanisms. After Janisette discovers her and vows to kill her, Tan-Tan holds a speech in which she finally manages to accept what has happened to her. She also shows a highly advanced level of courage, humility and mindfulness. Acceptance, courage, humility and mindfulness are classified as mature defense mechanisms. Acceptance is displayed in her ability to address what has happened in an open and honest way:
“Yes, he inject Tan-Tan with he child,
She sister or brother.”
She also exhibits courage in being able to confront Janisette for never having stood up for her:
“And you one
Come to accuse she? Of what then, nuh?
Tan-Tan also proves herself to be capable of humility by admitting to killing her father in front of the crowd, which causes her to shed shame and guilt and find a more healthy way to deal with it.
“She kill she daddy dead. The guilt come down ‘pon she head,
The Robber Queen get born that day, out of excruciation.”
By acknowledging her faults and her shame, she is finally able to identify as Tan-Tan again. “Good” Tan-Tan and “Bad” Tan-Tan have been successfully reintegrated to make Tan-Tan whole. This gives her the strength to stop resenting the fetus inside of her and embrace it, as well as proving the kind of mindfulness that takes a very mature mind.
Midnight Robber is a complex novel about a complex young woman and her struggles. It was very intriguing to watch Tan-Tan’s inner growth throughout the novel. Nalo Hopkinson created a character with very real problems and provides the reader with a kind of map of a struggling young girl’s thought-processes, which is unique but, at the same time, relatable.