I’ve always been plagued by endlessly recurring thoughts about how I’m a bad stupid sinful selfish lazy arrogant rude useless ugly fat disrespectful hardhearted unlovable disgusting et cetera person. The name for this phenomenon is shame, and for me and many others, it’s a result of having been abused. I previously discussed how I Refuse to Be Your Enemy!, vol. 1, contained a profound depiction of an abuse victim. That post has a fuller discussion of what shame is, but in brief, shame is a distorted worldview that says “I’m bad,” and tells me badness is endemic to my identity. Shame isn’t about doing bad things; it’s about believing oneself to be a fundamentally bad person. Well, a mere two days after I Refuse to Be Your Enemy! released, J-Novel Club published a second new series that intersects with the same topic. The hilarious and thought-provoking narrator of Tearmoon Empire, vol 1, proved surprisingly helpful in my struggles with shame.
The book opens with protagonist Mia Luna Tearmoon’s execution on the guillotine. Deposed crown princess of the eponymous empire, she clearly evokes the historical Marie Antoinette (even making a comment reminiscent of the spurious “Let them eat cake” line incorrectly attributed to the French queen). Likewise, her nation has experienced a series of tragedies plainly inspired by the real French Revolution. So when Mia mysteriously wakes up back at twelve years old, with full memories of everything she experienced in the revolution, it becomes apparent that the prologue is essentially setting up a tale of time-traveling Marie Antoinette trying to avert the French Revolution. It’s great and you should check it out.
There is much to appreciate about this book, and the unusually snarky narrator is one of Tearmoon Empire’s outstanding elements. It’s uncommon to find a story where the narrator is one of those seemingly omniscient outside observers not at all present within the story, yet has a distinct voice that practically makes the narrator a character in his own right anyway. The narrator’s sardonic opinions regarding the characters and events of the story provide a lot of levity. But for me, the narrator became much more than just a source of comedy.
For as long as I can remember, shame has been the inner narrator of my life, dispensing harsh and (in hindsight) unfair and even nonsensical commentary about myself. Seriously, if there’s a way to put oneself down, I’ve done it: I found fault with anything and everything I did. I blamed myself for things that weren’t even my responsibility. I dismissed the value of my successes and minimized whatever talents I might possess. Instead, I exaggerated my flaws. I treated real instances of failure as proof that my entire character was corrupt, rather than as individual mistakes. I worried that I was a hypocrite who accidentally deceived other people into thinking I’m a better person than I really was. If others said complimentary things about me, sometimes I assumed they were exaggerating. Other times, I decided they were sincerely mistaken due to not knowing the true me; obviously if they knew how wicked I really am, they wouldn’t say such nice things. I’d just ignore any evidence that didn’t fit my preconceptions about my own worthlessness. In my head, believing the teeniest little positive thing about myself equaled pride, so I stringently stifled any thoughts that I ever did anything good or had any good qualities. Sometimes, if circumstances forced it, I might internally concede that I committed a superficially good action, but then tell myself it didn’t count because I must have done it out of evil motives. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
Unbeknownst to me, shame was leading me to lie to myself on a daily basis. Long before I knew what it was, or I understood that I’d been abused, or ever saw a psychologist, I was dealing with shame that came from the emotional abuse I experienced growing up. Even after learning that my pervasive sense of self-loathing had a name and that it comes from abuse, shame’s lies remained persuasive and constant. I did start to question these self-attacks, but the accusations continued to sound incredibly reasonable in my head. I didn’t really want to believe these cruel thoughts about myself, and knew that I had justification for doubting whether they were true. I also had learned that genuine guilt is tied to specific acts, so if I found myself feeling badly, but couldn’t identify anything I’d done wrong, chances were good that I was feeling shame and not guilt. However, I was also paranoid that I might use shame as an excuse to ignore my sins. “What if some of the self-judgment is true and I’m just using this business about shame and abuse to salve my conscience as I go on living wickedly?” I worried.
Enter the snarky narrator of Tearmoon Empire. The narrator is scathingly critical of Mia and those around her. If Mia does anything “good,” the narrator is quick to jump in and insist that it doesn’t count because Mia really had a selfish or stupid motive and the positive effect she had was a complete accident. If she manages to succeed at something to such a degree that even the narrator must grudgingly concede Mia was “good” in some sense, he quickly dismisses the whole incident as trivial, insignificant, hardly worth paying attention to. Her seemingly good deeds must never be construed as evidence of any virtue on Mia’s part. If characters around Mia witness her behavior and regard it in a positive light, the narrator denounces them as delusional fools who pathetically misunderstand her. They only think well of Mia as person, the narrator says, because they don’t know the truth about her. Does any of that remind you of something? Like, maybe something you read, oh, in the two paragraphs before this one?
The narration’s snide disparagement is certainly funny, but it also challenges readers to consider whether Mia is as bad as the narrator insists she is, as good as the other characters believe her to be, or perhaps something in between. As I read Tearmoon Empire, vol. 1, and pondered this question, I had a stunning epiphany. I don’t have an exact quote from when I made this realization, but it sounded something like this:
“There is an uncanny resemblance between the shame-fueled self-narration in my head and the comically derisive narrator of this light novel.”
It was eerie seeing how much this hypercritical light novel narrator’s attacks on the protagonist echoed the things I’d tell myself on an almost daily basis. Minimizing good things, dismissing positive perspectives from other people as ignorant accidents, suspecting wicked motives behind everything one does… The narrator’s tactics were all too familiar to me. However, there was one very important difference between my self-judging inner monologues and the narrator’s charges against Mia: I treated the former totally seriously, while I found the latter obviously ridiculous.
Though the narrator’s critiques of Mia occasionally contain an element of truth, much of the time it’s laughable how different the narrator’s scornful remarks are from what Mia explicitly says and does, or from the conclusions witnesses draw about Mia. The narrator’s snarky commentary is humorous in itself, and it gains a second level of humor as one starts comparing the narrator’s claims with how Mia actually acts and how other characters react to her. It’s literally unbelievable that Mia could really be the moronic evildoer that the narrator makes her out to be. Keep in mind, not once does the narrator suggest Mia is trying to deceive people: according to him, she just bumbles around trying to be a jerk but inadvertently giving people delusions that she’s a good person. The longer the book goes on, the more silly it becomes how much over-the-top stupidity it would take for all the other characters to misinterpret the princess so thoroughly.
Thanks to Tearmoon Empire’s narrator, I could see numerous lies that I’d told myself placed in a different context that made it unmistakable how absurd and untrue they were. Cruel indictments that sounded plausible in my head became far less compelling when spoken by another voice about another person. Since reading this book a couple months ago, it’s been easier than ever for me to recognize when I’m starting to tell myself lies, and to fight back against that tendency. I’ve done so much better at telling shame to just shut up when it starts trying to spew more of its familiar falsehoods, instead of getting wrapped up in self-deception and spending hours mired in tearful self-recrimination. The gap between the narrator’s view of Mia versus the other characters view of her enabled me to see more clearly how wrong I’ve been for dismissing outside evidence of my worth and trusting only the philippics of my own thoughts. This wasn’t a light bulb switching on—this was a whole array of massive sports stadium lights flaring up all together and drowning me in their radiance. To put it another way, you could say that I found Tearmoon Empire to be a truly light novel in more ways than one.
I never would have guessed that I’d end up praising a light novel for helping me deal with psychological trauma, but life is full of surprises. “Now let me be clear,” I’m not claiming that reading a good book is sufficient to solve serious mental health issues. If you or those you love are struggling, seek professional help. It works! I’m certain that my years of prior psychological and psychiatric care were essential for helping me grow to the point where I could benefit from reading Tearmoon Empire. This book is only one step in a long journey that’s not over yet. But the fact remains that reading a Japanese novel about a time-traveling Marie Antoinette analogue was a life-changing experience that has helped me in dealing with the shame from my childhood emotional abuse. Thank you, Nozomu Mochitsuki, for writing this book, and thank you, J-Novel Club, for translating and publishing it. I’ll keep fighting not to let shame narrate my life anymore.