Jean Grey experienced death long before she ever actually died.
As a young girl, she witnessed her friend Annie being hit by a speeding car, and the horror of the event left her comatose for several months before Charles Xavier came to give her psionic therapy that would slowly nurse her back to health. In some variations of this story, Xavier placed boundaries between Jean and this trauma, allowing her to remember it in passing but not to fully access the feeling that had left her devastated.
Whatever the incarnation, the Phoenix’s merging with Jean has always sprung from an act of severe trauma. In deep space, while attempting to save her fellow X-Men, her skin burning from the pain of re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, the cosmic entity known as the Phoenix approached her, tempting her to merge with it and thus to survive this agonizing death. Jean agreed, and in doing so saved herself, but began a cataclysmic series of events that would severely change the direction of many lives, not just her own.
Seldom does trauma remain buried forever, and its sudden resurfacing can prove just as damaging. In many ways, this is the center of the tale of Jean Grey and the Phoenix.
Jean’s Early Life
Jean’s early childhood is generally considered to have been fairly happy, though she was an odd child from the jump. Her powers began manifesting much earlier than those of most X-Men, though she kept this to herself as much as possible. After her friend Annie’s tragic death, Jean had to work to put it behind her and establish boundaries between her personality and that of the deceased Annie.
In the X-Men, Jean and the other members of the team encountered consistent traumatic events, among them the attempts of the villainous Magneto murder them on several occasions. Afraid of her own power and surrounded by those who were likewise scared of her, Jean contributed little to these fights. At Xavier’s urging, she continued to suppress herself throughout her developmental stages, in some ways undermining her own ability to resist the Phoenix.
Jean Grey’s merge with the Phoenix was born out of altruism. Jean was struggling to save her team and the Phoenix needed help defending the immensely powerful M’Kraan Crystal, which was in danger of falling into the hands of a despot. In the beginning, the merge was beneficial, as Jean began to rejoice in her newfound sense of power and grew exponentially as a person. While we now know this was not Jean, she later absorbed the memories of the Phoenix during this time — thereby the growth, as well as the trauma experienced by the entity, later became her own regardless of her presence. Eventually, the Phoenix was manipulated by the Hellfire Club and her boundaries broken down until she consumed millions of lives in space, extinguishing a planet to sate her thirst. Reeling from the gravity of her actions, she ended her own life on the moon in the middle of a battle with the Shi’ar, right in front of her long-time lover, Scott Summers.
It is important to note that Jean was not the only person traumatized by the Phoenix. An entire planet was eradicated by her force and the cosmic ripple effect caused by that was no small thing. Then there was the catastrophic effect on the X-Men, and particularly those closest to Jean — Cyclops and Storm — were profoundly troubled by the loss of someone so dear to them. Storm herself struggled to control her own impulses, reminded of how they had destroyed her best friend. Meanwhile, Cyclops was so broken by what had occurred that he wandered aimlessly for months. When he finally returned, it was with his new fiance, Madelyne Pryor, the spitting image of Jean. The blase introduction of a partner identical to the one whose death he had witnessed firsthand indicated not only a clear inability to heal from a deep inner wound but also an unwillingness to even address it as it manifested in his own life.
The Phoenix and Inferno
When Jean returned from her gestation period in a cocoon after the events of the Dark Phoenix Saga, she encountered a Cyclops who had been shattered by events that she herself had not even been truly present for. It was eventually discovered that Cyclops’ new fiance had been a clone of Jean, given life when she sensed the Phoenix’s death on the moon. Indeed, Madelyne Pryor, having been born the moment the Dark Phoenix seemed to die, was a personality comprised of echoes of Jean’s traumas. She went rogue and attempted to destroy both Jean and Scott, unable to deal with her own pain when they reunited and left her stranded.
When faced with ultimate destruction once again, rather than fight, Jean chose to compromise. The three personas — Jean, Maddie, and Phoenix — all merged together, finally becoming a whole entity. In some ways, these fractured parts becoming one indicated a moment of deep healing for Jean. It would be some time before the Phoenix would resurface as a threat, and Jean and Scott settled into a long marriage before his own upheaval at the hands of Apocalypse severed much of the bond between them and he began a relationship with Emma Frost. Seemingly willing to write herself out of the story, Jean sacrificed her life for the greater good once more.
A teenage Jean Grey was introduced into present comics continuity, showing us what she really might have been like before her life was ravaged by the Phoenix Force. Though this Jean did begin a healing process throughout many epic stories that allowed some focus on her growth, old pains resurfaced. Temporarily deceased, adult Jean appeared in ghost form during the Jean Grey series and attempted to appeal to the young Jean, begging her to protect herself. To make matters even more intense, in this story, adult Jean was forced to come face to face with the trauma she had caused Emma Frost, who she had briefly terrorized as the Phoenix, and came to a deeper understanding of a woman she had known as a bitter rival.
In Resurrection, we saw that Jean was trapped in repetitions of her own best and worst moments, repressing her trauma only to see it resurface again and again in new, inventive ways. Indeed, trauma often adapts and changes with its victims throughout their lives, remaining somehow intact even after years of active attempts to placate it. For Jean, her worst moments and her best all seemed to merge together in a whirlpool she could not escape. With the help of the X-Men, she parted ways with the Phoenix and began working to build rather than destroy. In this, Jean Grey’s story has always been one of hope, and a deeply felt belief that no matter what, it is always possible to rise up from the ashes of the past to embrace a better tomorrow.
Though many of us are affected by trauma, it is important to note that Jean immediately took her resurrection as a prompt to do things differently than she’d done them before. She attempted to build community, reaching out to people that she had never even tried to form bonds with. For many, this is how the most effective healing takes place, in extending hands to others and attempting to create bridges linking them to a greater community of survivors. In this, Jean Grey of the comics has taken the worst things that have ever happened to her and channeled them into something positive. Whether or not movie Jean will do the same is hard to say, but one can only hope that in all her many forms Jean Grey and all victims of residual trauma can someday know peace.
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