Ellena Savage is the latest essayist in Overland’s CAL-Connections Project, an endeavour that draws attention to the systemic exclusion of certain groups within Australian literary culture by partnering emerging writers from under-represented backgrounds with established editors. In Overland 204, the focus was on women writers.
We spoke with Savage, who is the immediate past editor of Melbourne University’s student magazine, Farrago, about her essay ‘My flesh turned to stone’, which explores the nature of trauma and the significance of talking about traumatic experiences.
In your essay, you write how the ability to articulate trauma is ‘critical to the process of moving towards justice.’ How important is the role of language in a trauma victim’s search for justice and healing?
Trauma is, by its very nature, incomprehensible. The academic I interviewed in the essay, Dr Peter Rush, described it beautifully, as a ‘haunting’ following an incident. Words can’t fully describe the experience of trauma.
I’m no expert in the theory around trauma, and there’s so much of it to sift through. But what I found interviewing the women I spoke with for the essay was that they were truly willing to share with me their traumatic experiences, and each of them linked their individual experiences of trauma to the collective. Two of the women expressed to me that they found the very experience of giving an interview, of expressing their experiences publicly but in a forum where they had time, respect, and ultimately control of their words we published, very positive.
I think there are a few links between describing trauma in words and paving out an idea of justice to cope with traumatic experiences. The first is that trauma demands to be heard. It can have so many manifestations, like nightmares, flashbacks, sexual and social dysfunction, and self-destructive behaviours like substance abuse or violence. What’s different about talking about trauma to these other expressions, is that there’s somewhat more consent in the articulation of trauma. It guarantees that the survivor has a stake in her identity and self, in relation to the collective.
Reality is formless, but language is structured and symbolic. So, secondly, the value of talking through the language of trauma is that it translates trauma into something intelligible for others; testifying pushes it into the imagination of the other.
And thirdly, articulating trauma provides space for the survivor to demand acknowledgement that there are reasons why she, or her family, community or nation-state are altered. I think this is where the articulation becomes political. If there are reasons for the alteration, then there are means of negotiating the future around the traumatic event.
Justice doesn’t necessarily mean being cured of trauma. Again and again while researching for this essay I read accounts of highly traumatised people choosing to not be relieved of their anguish. There’s a line of poetry by Alexander Kimel, ‘I Have to Remember and Never Let You Forget’. He’s a survivor of the Holocaust, and I suppose for him, preserving and politicising the memorial in one’s memory is a legitimate means of forging a kind of justice in an altered existence.
Translating trauma into common language is similar to translating justice into law; it doesn’t comprehensively address everything going on, but it points to a way of connecting an individual experience to the collective experience. I think this link between the individual and the collective is essential to describing and moving towards justice for the survivor.
You also write that trauma is not just an individual experience, but that it potentially can also be shared among the families of victims, and even entire communities. How should we speak about, and mitigate, trauma if it can be felt so broadly, beyond the individual?
This is a pretty complicated problem that I tried to grapple with in the essay, but didn’t really find a solution for. I propose that the invisible exchange of trauma from one person to the next, from one generation to the next, forms the basis of many of our identities. I used the example of post September 11 nationhood in the United States, and the construction of Jewish identities after the Second World War, but there are countless examples of trauma galvanising particular behaviours and identities, that can extend to entire genders, for example.
Trauma is necessarily, and not just potentially, a shared experience. But you’re right – if we’re to say that the construction of the female gender is bound to the historical persecution and enduring trauma of women, then how can a person whose foundations of reality have just been pulled from beneath her due to conflict or a natural disaster or torture, how can she possibly use that generalist language to describe her incredibly personal and individual trauma?
This is a problem of semantics: when we apply this language of trauma – which is a relatively new and specific language – so broadly, it slips its way into common language, which can perhaps cheapen its currency. So, maybe the concept of trauma becomes a historical, collective one, and the experience of immediate anguish following a crisis needs new words.
You also mention associated trauma, which is common among humanitarian and medical professionals who work closely with traumatised people. Often there is not enough psychological support for those who work in these fields. Why do you think this is?
Within humanitarian and mental health disciplines there is a general understanding that debriefing is necessary for the health of professionals, but in my research for this essay, I found that that many organisations – and I only really looked at the development sector – don’t have formalised debriefing systems in place. So, you have professionals who know they need to be debriefed, but the systems are ad hoc and inadequate. I know that Foundation House is one of the few organisations to have in-house debriefing, but even then it’s only for the mental health professionals there.
Researching this story, I heard and read many stories of people working in the humanitarian sector whose superiors would imply that there’s a moral imperative for their staff to remain unperturbed by the information that they’re constantly processing. And they’re right – it’s not useful for the clients of NGOs to be helped by professionals who are falling apart. The point is that without formalised and thorough debriefing systems in the workplace, traumatised professionals provide bad work.
I heard some stories of UN staff saying and doing some incredibly callous things, probably because they were so traumatised by years and years of exposure to the most traumatised people who were performing their anguish in highly disturbing ways. That’s where the title of the essay comes from: the words of a humanitarian worker saying that her flesh had turned to stone and she didn’t know how to turn it back again.
What’s next for you? I hear you’re writing a book on policing in Melbourne.
Earlier this year, I started working on a long-form journalism book based on allegations of racial violence by police officers in Victoria, but it was pretty serious and disturbing material, and I almost reached a saturation point. So, I’ve put that project on the backburner for the time being, although I’m still researching and writing some journalism on the topic. Between working at a bookstore and doing some freelance editing, I’m just practicing my writing – mainly essays, journalism and comic writing – to figure out what I might be good at. Or, as the case may be, what I’m not.