We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory
We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory (Tachyon Press, 2014) explores the social and psychological dynamics of group therapy sessions. I remember the first I attended. We few met briefly outside the room and exchanged anxious nods. When we entered and met the convener, no-one wanted to talk. To talk in a university tutorial session is to admit lack of preparation, and no-one wanted to do that. So long as we stayed silent, we need never reveal how addicted we were to our own ignorance. But over time, we grew more confident and actually dared ask for explanations. It was a slow journey, but some of us graduated. Most swore never to repeat the experience. We would all pretend to be wise without fear of contradiction. Naturally, a few years later, I became a university lecturer and organised therapy sessions on a daily basis. During all these sessions, seeing how little the students had understood of what I had said in lecturers, I was completely fine. Particularly during the therapy sessions in the nearby pub, we lecturers could lick the wounds to our egos as we exchanged experiences on the resistance of the young to learning. We helped each other get through it.
This rather elegant novella sees a therapist bringing five people together to talk about their experiences. These are not routine PTSD clients. Yes, they have all suffered trauma of one sort or another, but the source was either horrific activity by a human or some potentially supernatural event. The conventional view of such patients is that they are wholly or partly delusional and that they must be disabused of any elements of delusion before they can move on to the cognitive part of the therapy to deal with their reaction to whatever the real events prove to be. Except, of course, the experiences of these individuals is instantly more credible. One was captured by a group of cannibals who systematically removed the limbs of their captives for their mother’s evening meals. Fortunately, he was rescued in a police raid before they had gone too far. His case was notorious. Survival made him a short-lived celebrity and a long-term reclusive figure, embittered and defensive. Another was the victim of a man who pealed back her flesh and carved messages on to her bones. Obviously, the flesh was replaced after each operation, leaving only scars. But she lives with the temptation of discovering what messages he wrote. And so on.
There’s a revolving point of view as the first session triggers enough interest for the five to begin meeting on a regular basis. Slowly, they talk about their experiences. Well, it’s hard to shut up the cannibal’s dinner who seems to want to recount every discrimination and abuse he’s suffered since the rescue. Only one seems reluctant to say anything. She’s a bit mysterious but prepared to go for a drink with another of the group after the session has ended. When a third session member follows them, he’s attacked and ends up in hospital. That changes the dynamic of the story as we begin to see what might be happening. As the opening paragraph to this review indicates, we all have some experience of group dynamics. When people come together for the first time, they tend to talk at each other. Later they may begin to talk with each other and share personal information or experiences. But the group only becomes useful when the members decide to help each other. In this case, the people invited to the group all believe they are somewhat unique and have no peers capable of helping or supporting them. As the story progresses, this view slowly changes. They come to recognise they share a common bond of some kind and, perhaps, just perhaps, if they work together, they may be able to save themselves. Except, of course, it doesn’t quite work out like it does in fiction. In this world of bitter reality, the best they can hope for is survival. Except, no-one can say how long that state may persist.
Taken as a whole, We Are All Completely Fine is a remarkably seductive piece of supernatural horror, drawing the innocent reader into the web by dealing with a familiar situation. As we learn more about each person in the group, we can begin to see eddies of emotion shift as the members slowly admit the possibility of change. This may not be a change that improves their lot in life but, for the majority, any variation from the present reality is viewed as an improvement. The result is fascinating and engrossing, and there’s one promise I can make. If you read it, you’ll be completely fine too, at least for a time.