Combustion Cycle

by Sarah Cooke

Illustration by Emma Lloyd

published September 23, 2016

The month before I turned twenty-one, I became obsessed with Ben Affleck’s back. Specifically, I became obsessed with the giant phoenix tattoo on it. On a Thursday night when I had actual work to do, I spent two hours and sixteen minutes (thank you, Microsoft Word time stamps) trawling celebrity gossip sites. It was a case of misplaced identification: Ben Affleck had a tattoo! I want a tattoo! So what if it looked like somebody had vomited all over his back? We’ve all made mistakes. Besides, it’s meaningful. When I yelled this at my roommates, or rather, yelled this at them while tripping over a pair of boots, they nodded and smiled, and then told me to get more sleep. 




For a phoenix, occupational hazard has its perks. In ancient Greek mythology, the phoenix is a bird that gets reborn every time it spontaneously combusts. In forest fire logic, this translates to: Burn down to build back up. And in America, a nation in love with the idea that the mythology it tells itself is actually history, this translates, roughly, to just another Monday. 

Although Ben Affleck’s phoenix tattoo (vomit glory it might have been) seemed like an aggressively average footnote to that tradition, I couldn’t get enough, even when I learned that it might be fake and for a film. Around friends, I turned into a gossip blogger revisiting her greatest hits: 

This just in: Ben Affleck, former Bad Boy, is now a Family Man. He and The Fam love their arugula!

This just in, but actually: Ben Affleck got a tattoo. He also had an affair with the nanny. You know, to shake himself alive again.

OKAY NOW THIS IS REALLY JUST IN: The nanny posted on social media a photo of herself posed like a proud high school senior showing off her class ring—only it’s not just any ring, it’s all seven of Tom Brady’s Super Bowl Rings. Nice work, Nanny! 

It was around this time that my boyfriend told me that I always showed up as a person in pain. He said this casually, as if it were an indisputable fact. Suddenly, what one of Affleck’s exes had said— “Ben makes life tough for himself” (Gwyneth Paltrow)—rang a little too clearly. We broke up months later, and although I promised myself all summer long that I would get a tattoo, I never did. 




When a friend heard that I was working on a piece about Ben Affleck, she referenced his role in Gone Girl—David Fincher’s 2014 film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel—and I nodded like I knew what that meant. At the time, all I’d seen was a YouTube clip of Rosamund Pike delivering the Cool Girl monologue: “Men always use that as the defining compliment, right? She’s a cool girl,” i.e. hot but not slutty-hot, smart but not too smart. (Like most narratives about masculinity, it also involves misogyny.) From Wikipedia, I learned that Nick Dunne does what some men do: use women to give their masculinity emotional depth. This is partially why Fincher cast Affleck. As Fincher told Vanity Fair in 2014, “I think he [Affleck] learned how to skate on charm.” 

What makes Ben Affleck different from Nick Dunne is that he’s got nervous hands, and he’s had them for what seems like a while, or what counts as a while in Hollywood, a town with a short history and even shorter memory. The first Ben Affleck debuted in 1981 and culminated with him and Matt Damon winning an Oscar for their screenplay of Good Will Hunting. Ben Affleck #2 emerged in 2004 after he broke up with J. Lo and fell into drugs and bad career choices, prompting Manohla Dargis of the Los Angeles Times to observe: “Ben Affleck has had such a rough year (or so I’ve read) that it almost seems unfair to pick on either his newest film or latest nontabloid performance.”

The current model, Ben Affleck 3.0, reared its head in 2006, when Affleck received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance as George Reeves (Superman in the 1950s) in Allen Coulter’s Hollywoodland. As he told Variety: “This character was broken, but he’s also the archetype of all those kinds of guys I had played—the actual, real version, which is damaged and somehow unhappy and trying to be something other than what he is.” Following Hollywoodland, Affleck began directing films that were not only commercially successful but were also, surprisingly, actually good. In 2013, his film Argo won Best Picture and was, according to Anthony Lane of the New Yorker, “further proof that we were wrong about Ben Affleck.”   

It depends on which Ben Affleck you’re talking about, though: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon’s Best Friend (“the only person who Ben Affleck hasn’t been unfaithful to,” joked Ricky Gervais at the 2016 Golden Globes); Ben Affleck the (Un)Faithful Boyfriend; Ben Affleck the Resurgent; Ben Affleck the Resurrected. It makes me wonder if redemption might be an addiction like any other, persuasive and appealing until it’s not, until it’s no longer something you do on the weekends but something that’s a staple of your life, as much a part of you as the other myriad mundane things we do to get ourselves through the day. It’s both tragic and totally boring, which is to say, a lot like anybody else’s life, which might be why it provokes sympathy. Ben Affleck, proving that even if you believe in birth by burning, life’s still too short to play a game you know you can’t win.


It's hard but you can't hold grudges. And it doesn't matter how you get knocked down in life because that's going to happen. All that matters is you gotta get up.

— Ben Affleck, accepting the Best Picture Oscar for his film Argo (2013)


Today, it seems that Ben Affleck only got up so that future Ben Affleck (4.0) could knock him back down. To some Affleck observers, this has to do with what Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Petersen glossed as “an issue with shame.” In her 2016 article “The Unbearable Sadness of Ben Affleck,” Petersen explains: “Over the last 20 years of stardom, he’s voiced that shame about the roles that he’s taken, the relationships he’s made public, his lack of education, his drinking habits, and, most recently, his tattoo, which, after a swift and public backlash, he quickly (and rather dubiously) claimed to be ‘fake.’ He has not, it should be noted, been ashamed of his gambling habits or his extramarital affair—allegations which, at least publicly, he still denies.”

In 2001, Affleck underwent treatment at Promises in Malibu, which describes itself as a “premier, luxury drug rehab center” and came recommended by Charlie Sheen, the then-poster celebrity of recovery. Although Affleck called his stay a “pre-emptive strike” against his family’s history of alcoholism—and this may well be the case—People nonetheless linked it with his Las Vegas casino spree in 2001, “a Lost Weekend—only Ben Affleck wasn’t losing.” 

A few years ago, my father and I went for a hike on a path that I didn’t realize was a circle until the second time we passed the corpse of an exhausted tree. As we walked, he told me about how his one cigarette became three packs a day, even though his father, my grandfather, had lost a lung to cancer. The first time my mother met my father, she thought he was a chain-smoking asshole. I quit for her, he said, eyes on the ground. He didn’t want to trip. My father is getting old, not just older. I tried not to look at him too closely. I don’t go to casinos, he added, because I know I would never be able to leave. In 2014, Affleck was allegedly banned from a Las Vegas blackjack table because, as one source told ET, security thought he was “too good.” 


In person, Mr. Affleck was friendly and funny but    also soft-spoken and vulnerable. At times he seemed anxious and out of sorts, as if waiting for some other shoe to drop.

Dave Itzkoff, The New York Times, “Ben Affleck’s ‘Broken’ Batman” (March 14, 2016)




Around the time I got into college, I was retroactively diagnosed with depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although I didn’t know then about my family’s transgenerational traumas (abandonment, abuse, addiction), I thought that getting any diagnosis at all was a relief, until I realized that it meant that for the last eight years, nobody had noticed that I was a crashing hurricane. The life in which somebody did notice still haunts me. 

I went into therapy wanting to get out of it as soon as I could. To heal and heal now, because I wanted or maybe even needed a story to believe in, one where I could stride off into a perfectly crafted future where nobody would hurt me and I would do everything right and I wouldn’t feel a thing. Learning that this would not be the case—that healing is, in fact, an utterly unsettling, undetermined process—made me blister first with indignant anger (Are you seriously telling me that I’ll never know exactly what happened to me?) and then resignation, that depressed version of acceptance: I’ll never know exactly what happened to me. In the car after therapy, my mother would drive with her hands knotted around the steering wheel, and I’d turn on the radio and place my head against the window and watch as the woods swallowed us whole, and wonder if that’s what I had to let this pain do to me, too. 

In her landmark book Trauma and Recovery (1992), which established PTSD as an official psychological diagnosis, Judith Herman identifies narrative as a tool for trauma recovery. As she explains, because trauma tells itself through erasure and fragmentation, the recovery story belongs to the effort of working through all those pieces—seeing which ones fit together, which ones form unlikely angles of interruption. “This work of reconstruction actually transforms the traumatic memory, so that it can be integrated into the survivor’s life story,” writes Herman. She adds that the story “does not get rid of the trauma,” because its aim “is integration, not exorcism.” 

But what does that integration look like? Medicine has historically tended to define recovery in relation to a patient’s ability to return to work, with the assumption that some kind of emotional stabilization has occurred. The risk is that a patient could feel, as I myself did (and occasionally still do), that if you can’t remain in one ‘stable’ range of emotions, then you’ve failed. You’re feeling too much, or in ways that are wrong, or outside of what you’ve learned to call safe. A story about how you got lost and then found might be easier to believe, if it weren’t so easy that it’s almost insulting.

What most people overlooked from the NYT article, however, is what Ben said about himself, which is what I’ve always said about him: 

In those idle moments, he said: “I get antsy. I’m my own worst enemy in that way.”

Slapping his hand in his palm for emphasis, Mr. Affleck added, “You’ve got to realize, this line of work, it’s rooted in a feeling of needing to audition all the time.”

He is the prince of self-sabotage. This is a person who gets to the top and can’t help but destroy what he’s built so that he can manufacture redemption all over again. This is what he’s just admitted. It’s a 10-year cycle., “Jennifer Garner and the ‘antsy’ Ben Affleck” (March 15, 2016)


In one model of the Christian sin-grace paradigm, redemption takes a linear arc. Rupture—man’s fall from Eden—leaves you wounded and capable of wounding: original sin predicts future sin. Through the grace of God, however, you receive love, not because you deserve it, but because God’s generous like that. And although sins take many shapes, this mode can apply to most of them, notes theologian Serene Jones in Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Broken World, because they all have “a shared narrative, dramatic structure: God breaks in and saves. Whatever the problem might be—pride, lust, greed, unfaithfulness, social injustice—grace overwhelms it and something new happens.”  

The fallen learn to fly again: what could be wrong with that? A lot, according to Shelly Rambo. In Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, Rambo argues that what’s hopeful about the sin-grace paradigm (you fall but rise again better than before) can also be dangerously seductive, in that it promotes a model of continual redemption where a wound becomes a sign of inevitable success. She writes, “The pressure to get over, to forget, to wipe away the past, is often reinforced by one particular way of reading Christian redemption. The narrative of triumphant resurrection [of Christ on the cross] can often operate in such a way as to promise a radically new beginning to those who have experienced a devastating event.”

Americans are particularly susceptible to this risk, because we have the same pain-to-perfection narrative hardwired into our national identity: the American Dream of equality, an idea so intangible that it’s easy for many white people to forget it’s built on slavery and colonialism. Citing the work of narrative psychologist Dan McAdams, Rambo outlines the narrative that Americans use to make sense of their lives as “(1) a state of original innocence or goodness; (2) a subsequent fall, struggle, or separation; and (3) a rescue, recovery, or transformation.” McAdams’ work, she adds, “highlights the way in which redemption can become a gloss or a kind of fantasy.” 



For about three 10-year cycles now, Ben Affleck has been trying to write himself out of shame, but so far, he’s only succeeded in writing himself back into it. Relationships, career choices, addictions alleged or otherwise: he can’t escape the seductive story of how he got hurt and then better. In fairness, it’s easy to hide running from yourself as running towards a better self, easy because it’s addictive. And regardless of whether it’s called redemption or recovery, that narrative says, I’m getting better. But better how—because you’re invulnerable, or because you’re vulnerable and okay with it?

When I turned 21, I ate cake at six in the afternoon and drank water at a bar that smelled of chlorine. I also cried a lot: I couldn’t believe I’d made it. I’d never imagined that I would live long enough to see the other side of my pain, to watch as its shadow fell below ground and night rose to meet the yawning moon.

I don’t know how to tell the story of how I got better. I don’t know how, because that story is my life: I’m still, and most likely always will be, getting better. How do you talk about what you’re in the middle of? In America, where it can sometimes feel like narratives of pain only matter if they resolve in redemption, being in the middle of something is usually cause for concern. The American Dream doesn’t acknowledge what happens when dreams backslide, and for good reason: change that’s uncertain or cyclical or a little bit messy doesn’t fit into a national ethos of exceptionalism. It’s an embarrassment, the Dream would say. Why can’t you manifest your damn destiny already? 

In the first few years of therapy, I started an earnest “Couch to 5K” program and graduated, in time, to hour-long runs in the stale loneliness of a nearby park. Bono sang into my ears, How long must we sing this song? With recovery, there’s no end, no neat sign-post of Mile 500: Where I Got Better. It happens and is happening, and that’s what you get. With no one sure path to follow, it’s a model of healing that can be hard to accept. But it’s also sustainable: you no longer feel like you’ve got the ombudsman of your personal narrative lurking behind your shoulder and shaming you with all the places at which you got lost along the way. There, there, and maybe there, too.


SARAH COOKE B’17 believes in better.