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Bruce Bracken's novel reveals what it means to be 'Invisible'

{{youtube:medium:center|PF2OEalvZsw, Bracken discusses his new book.}}

All of us have become increasingly aware that our world is filled with aggression and abuse, from people who harm others physically, to those who wound with their words.

Bruce Bracken, co-director of the school psychology program and professor of educational foundations at William & Mary, has written a novel about another type of abuse, one far less recognized.

Invisible, published in March 2014, is the story of Campbell Hayden, whose unimposing physical, emotional and personality characteristics are so easy to ignore or overlook – family included – that the character feels non-existent, and vacillates between embracing and agonizing over that role.Bruce Bracken

Bracken got the idea for the story when he turned on the news one night and saw someone interviewing a homeless man. The reporter asked the mendicant what was the worst part of being homeless.

“He said that sleeping cold nights on a grate didn’t bother him. Neither did sitting on a park bench all day,” Bracken recalled. “He said the real problem was being invisible. ‘People walk past me all day and never see me.’ That interview gave me the idea for the novel.

“There are a lot of us who feel invisible day in and day out, or sometimes randomly. When you go to a party and someone talks to you while looking over your shoulder. Or you’re the junior person at a senior-level function, and no one pays you any attention. You feel as if no one sees you.”

Many of the gunmen in the recent spate of mass shootings have left behind evidence that they considered themselves to have been abused in some form or fashion. But Elliott Rodger, the alleged shooter in the May murders of two women, four men and the wounding of 13 others in Isla Vista, California, harped on the fact that he felt invisible to the community around him, especially the women attending UC Santa Barbara.

“There’s a continuum in the way people abuse others– physical and verbal abuse is direct maltreatment,” Bracken said. “The other end of the continuum is ignoring. Marginalizing and isolating people can be just as devastating as berating or hitting them. People sometimes feel invisible or seek invisibility because they have been ignored or isolated to the point that they have no cache, no credibility, and simply want to be left alone.

“In the story, I use examples of how people feel invisible. At one point my character confesses that merchants seldom  ‘notice me until I place my money on the counter.’ Money brings illumination. So even invisible people can be illuminated briefly – but only when they’re meeting someone else’s needs. After that person’s needs have been met ...”

Rather than merely telling a story of one person’s crusade to be seen and acknowledged, Bracken issued himself a literary challenge: Make his main character more invisible to his readers than even they would realize as they progress through the novel.The cover of 'Invisible'

“Campbell Hayden goes through the entire story projecting a highly believable image,” Bracken said. “But at the end of the story, you find that your impressions were so wrong.

“It took considerable effort to keep the reader unaware of what I was trying to accomplish. The storyline was either too stilted at points, or too vague at others. It took a lot of thought, a lot of rewriting and a good bit of plotting to pull off the literary challenge. Throughout the story, Campbell experienced many things that made it difficult to portray (or conceal) my protagonist’s true characteristics.”

Bracken has a scene in his book – loosely based on an event that happened to someone he knows – in which the character’s parents pull out of a highway rest stop and leave Campbell behind. Unaware their oldest child isn’t with them, they nonetheless return to the rest stop to recover an important possession the mother believes was left behind. When Campbell silently climbs back into the car along with the rest of the family, the parents berate their child for not helping them find the lost possession.

How can such a thing occur?

“Invisibility is a condition often reinforced by parents and willingly adopted by children,” he said. “When kids find it’s easier to be silent and not be seen than to be abused or mistreated, they seek the shield of invisibility to avoid detection … and abuse. ‘The less I am noticed, the less grief I get.

“In this case, not only was Campbell’s invisibility accepted and reinforced, but heaped on it was the abuse and insult that came from parents returning to a rest stop in search of an object they valued far more than their forsaken child.”

Bracken is working on a third novel – Achilles – involving a Marine suffering from post-traumatic stress. He said all three books – The Hollidaysburg Christmas Miracle, Invisible, and now Achilles -- possess a common literary theme: the transformation of each story’s main character.

“In Achilles, as a result of working with a clinical psychologist with whom he falls in love, the ex-Marine is transformed from a rugged and rough, foul-mouthed hedonist to an aware, sensitive and caring man with extraordinary abilities,” Bracken said.