The Shoe-Horn Sonata brings to light the toxic effects of holding onto trauma. After five decades of trying to forget about the terrible violence of the Japanese prison camps, Sheila is averse to the mere idea of talking about what she went through. Believing that “when something hurts you run away,” she has spent the last fifty years avoiding Bridie because she knows her friend will only remind her of the terrible experiences she was forced to endure. This, Misto implies, has kept her from working through her trauma, as she refuses to tell anyone that she was taken advantage of by a group of Japanese guards. However, she eventually tells Bridie about this harrowing memory, and though the conversation doesn’t go well because of Bridie’s harsh reaction, Sheila’s decision to rid herself of this harmful secret gives her the idea to tell the story on national television. The fact that she’s inspired to broadcast her story in such a major way after telling it to her friend suggests that finally talking about her pain is a liberating experience, one that helps her cope with the lasting effects of her embattled past. As such, Misto underlines the therapeutic and restorative qualities of emotional expression, implying that acknowledging trauma can help a person manage their various psychological burdens.
At first, Sheila is wary of talking about her time in the prison camps on national television. This is because she has been holding onto a secret about her experience for five decades and isn’t ready to break her silence. But since she doesn’t want to admit this, she frames her skepticism as something else entirely, talking about it as if it’s a simple matter of decency. “Well you’ve got to admit it’s not very ‘dignified,’” she tells Bridie, referring to the act of telling emotional stories on television. By calling into question whether or not it’s “dignified” to discuss her feelings in such a public manner, Sheila obscures her true reasons for not wanting to talk about her past. Rather than admitting that she isn’t comfortable speaking about her trauma, she avoids the matter altogether by acting as if the television show is beneath her. Of course, this avoidance aligns with the fact that she has stayed away from Bridie—her best friend—for five decades in order to put off having to reckon with her emotional past.
Unfortunately, Sheila’s inability to speak about her trauma has isolated her from Bridie, leaving her to struggle with her pain alone. As she tries to keep her secret, Bridie senses that something is amiss, saying, “Why do you push me away?” Still not ready to divulge that she was forced to have sex with the Japanese guards, Sheila says, “Can’t we just forget it?” but Bridie pushes on, pointing out that they “never had secrets in camp.” “I hardly know anything about you now,” she continues. “I don’t even know what your home is like or…how you’ve spent your life.” In this moment, the audience sees that Sheila has effectively estranged herself from her best friend, who is perhaps the only person in the world who might be able to help her process her trauma, since she too was in the camps and might understand the horror enshrouding her memories. But Sheila insists that staying in touch with Bridie would only have made things worse, saying, “All we had in common was the camp. I didn’t want to keep talking about it—I couldn’t, Bridie—it hurt too much. And when something hurts you run away…or you dig a hole and bury it.” Sheila commits to repressing her trauma, upholding that it’s best to “bury” painful memories, an idea that helps her justify her decision not to confide in Bridie.
When Sheila finally tells Bridie she was taken advantage of, Bridie is aghast, since she feels guilty for putting her friend in such a position. Tragically, this guilt turns into resentment, so that the entire conversation becomes accusatory and hurtful. However, Bridie eventually manages to empathize with her friend, saying, “Let me try and help.” In response, though, Sheila talks about the haunting memory of Lipstick Larry, the ringleader of the guards who raped her. “Every night when I fall asleep, Lipstick Larry’s waiting,” she says. “He calls to me and I go to him—and no one can change that. Not even you.” When Sheila says this, she points out that nothing anyone can do or say will ever “change” the past. In fact, she admits that she once tried to tell her mother about what happened, but her mother simply told her to “pull up [her] socks and get on with it,” dismissing the matter before Sheila even had a chance to tell the story. Because of this, Sheila has resigned herself to silence, clearly believing that confiding in loved ones is futile. Indeed, the only reason she ends up telling Bridie is because Bridie draws it out of her.
Even though Bridie doesn’t respond well when Sheila reveals her secret, it’s obvious that Sheila comes to see the experience as liberating, since she soon decides to tell the story of her rape on national television. Pointing out that “keeping a secret wears you down,” she frames going “public” as a way of “escap[ing]” trauma. What’s more, she says that there are “probably thousands of survivors” who are “still trapped in the war” because they’re “too ashamed to tell anyone” what happened to them. Unlike these survivors, Sheila now knows it’s possible to lighten her burden by expressing her pain. “The war hasn’t ended,” she says. “Not for me. For me it goes on. And now I want peace.” Saying this, she pinpoints the fact that trauma cycles on when a person remains silent about disturbing memories. By venting her pain, Sheila tries to find “peace,” and though Bridie remains hesitant, she later urges her friend to go through with the idea, ultimately helping her narrate the story on camera. In turn, the audience sees that Sheila’s decision to share her traumatic past has opened the door for Bridie to help her shoulder her burdensome grief. As a result, Misto accentuates the benefits of addressing trauma, suggesting that it’s possible to alleviate suffering (to a certain extent) by speaking openly about it.
Trauma and Repression ThemeTracker
Trauma and Repression Quotes in The Shoe-Horn Sonata
BRIDIE: She was sure you’d consider it—‘unrefined’—going on television—airing your feelings.
SHEILA: [starting to unpack] Well you’ve got to admit it’s not very ‘dignified’.
BRIDIE: So why did you come [Casually, trying to make light of it] And don’t say you did it for the chance of seeing me. Not after fifty years of hiding—
SHEILA looks at BRIDIE with surprising intensity—but not with affection. BRIDIE looks back at SHEILA, desperately wanting her to say that she did come to see BRIDIE. A few seconds of silence. It is clear that something is still going on between these two women—even after fifty years’ separation. SHEILA quickly turns to lift her suitcase onto the bed.
BRIDIE: [tersely] You’ll wreck your spine.
SHEILA: [annoyed] I know how to lift a suitcase thank you.
BRIDIE: [taking charge—as usual] We’ll do it like we used to […]
SHEILA: They were people I grew up with. A lot of them were friends of mine.
BRIDIE: And the Japs were the enemy. Every woman who gave in made it harder for the rest.
SHEILA: It was the only way they could feed their kids.
BRIDIE: [with disgust] Sleeping with a Jap? I’d never have done that—not for anyone. How could you go on living with yourself—or look your family in the eye?
This is a shattering remark for SHEILA, but she does her best to conceal any reaction.
BRIDIE: […] In 1945—when I was still in a Singapore hospital bed. I got a note from you saying you were going off to England—and you’d send me your new address. I’m still waiting, Sheila. [Hurt] Why did you leave me?
SHEILA: [not telling the truth] All we had in common was the camp. I didn’t want to keep talking about it—I couldn’t, Bridie—it hurt too much. And when something hurts you run away... or you dig a hole and bury it.
BRIDIE: You didn’t. Tell me you didn’t.
SHEILA: [angrily] You were the one who wanted to know. I told you to leave it alone.
BRIDIE: [shocked] You didn’t sleep with a Jap. Not you.
SHEILA: You were screaming. And he went and got quinine. For you. And he showed the tablets to me—and he pointed to the barracks—where his mates were waiting.
BRIDIE: Don’t! I don’t want to hear this!
BRIDIE: [upset] Why did you have to go with that Jap?
BRIDIE: You were only a girl—a child!
SHEILA: I had to do it. I couldn’t let you die.
BRIDIE: If only I’d known—I would never have let you... Sheila—please—let me try and help.
SHEILA: [haunted] Every night when I fall asleep, Lipstick Larry’s waiting. He calls to me and I go to him— and no one can change that. Not even you.
I almost confided in mother once. [Sadly] Isn’t that amusing? It was just before I sailed from Singapore. I took her hand and whispered that... there was something I needed to tell her—about the Japanese. Mother poured herself a drink and said: ‘You know what the Bible says, my dear. “No cross, no crown.” We must pull up our socks and get on with it.’ Took more than a war to change Mother.
I’m not just anyone, Bridie. [Thinking of them both] Keeping a secret wears you down. Believe me—I know. In the end you’ll do anything just to escape it.
SHEILA: I don’t see why it... should have to be a secret. Not now.
BRIDIE: [unnerved] You mustn’t discuss it beyond this room. You know how cruel other people can be. It’s the only thing that hasn’t changed in the last fifty years. What on earth has possessed you to—
SHEILA: [haunted] When I went back to Belalau—searching for the graves— I kept on thinking, why did they die? Was it all for nothing? All our friends? And that’s when I realised I had to talk about it. There are probably thousands of survivors like us—still trapped in the war—too ashamed to tell anyone. Lots of people will be watching when Rick’s programme goes to air. It mightn’t be too late to—
BRIDIE: [upset and threatened] To what? You think the armies of this planet will stop murdering each other because some old English woman disapproves of all the killing?
SHEILA shakes her head sadly.
Then what possible difference will it make?
SHEILA: [haunted but gently] Probably none. I know that, Bridie. But the war hasn’t ended. Not for me. For me it goes on. And now I want peace. And if the only way to get it is to tell the truth then—
BRIDIE: You were always impulsive and you haven’t changed since camp. [Bitterly] This is what Rick’s been after all along, I’ll bet. This is why the free booze and the room with ocean views. He’s been softening us up. Can’t you see that, Sheila?
SHEILA: And what if he has? It's still my decision.
BRIDIE: You know what they’ll call you. They’ll call you a whore.
SHEILA: [nervously] My knees were shaking— I was— terribly frightened. I said ‘What if the Japs come after us, Bridie?’ [Smiling sadly] I remember her words so clearly. ‘And what if they do?’ she said. ‘Since when have we ever been scared of the Japs?’
BRIDIE reaches out and takes SHEILA’s hand.
BRIDIE: So Sheila and I walked out of that camp. [Gently, fondly, perhaps smiling sadly] And on four wobbly legs we went down to the village. Sometimes I dragged Sheila. Sometimes Sheila dragged me. The main thing is we got there. And we could never have done that alone.
She went to... the Japs... to a Japanese guard—and... she sold herself to him for tablets. She was a beautiful, kind and brave young woman. [Looking at SHEILA.] She wasn’t just my friend— she was— she is—the other half of my life. And she gave herself to him... so that I... could have quinine... And she never told me till two nights ago. For fifty years she never told anyone... They don’t give medals for things like that. But they should.