Historically understood as a physical wound, trauma’s semantic application as an injury both psychic and material developed in the aftermath of the First World War. Its conceptual roots can be traced back to the language used to describe the effects of train wrecks in the late nineteenth century (‘spinal concussion’, ‘railway spins’, ‘railway heart’) and, in the early twentieth century, the afflictions suffered by soldiers (‘shell shock’, ‘war shock’, ‘soldier’s heart’). The modern language of trauma attempts to describe what is essentially incomprehensible, to capture and explain the haunting that follows an injury.
Although I had studied some of this theory from a literary studies perspective, it wasn’t until recently, conducting research on a racial discrimination case in the Federal Court, that I began to understand the cost of trauma to individuals, their immediate and broader communities, the people who work towards justice and to the narratives that communities rely on to understand themselves.
As part of my investigation, I read documents outlining incredible acts of violence allegedly perpetrated by Victorian police officers. The material was highly disturbing, and my body responded acutely; I was viscerally terrified by what others had suffered. I spoke with those who had directly experienced the violence, people who had the emotional wherewithal to endure a legal system that appeared incapable of facilitating justice for them. Their moral imperative to frame trauma within the language of law and justice affected me powerfully. I began to understand that trauma demands to be heard in many languages, but that articulation is critical to the process of moving towards justice. But I still wanted to know more about how the language of trauma operates, about the role it plays in healing and overcoming injustice.
Friends who were studying trauma and justice at uni told me about their law professor, Dr Peter Rush, whose lectures had inspired weekly discussions about trauma theory. He sounded like the perfect person to approach.
Taking the elevator to the eighth floor of the University of Melbourne’s law building, I prepared myself to meet a cynical, suit-clad man of the law. But when I met Rush, I found him much like other academics: wholly absorbed in his subject and initially intimidating, but ultimately kind, encouraging and generous with his time. He could not have been less like the jurist of my imagination.
When I asked Rush about the modern understanding and application of ‘trauma’, he talked about both its inexpressible aspects – the struggle to make sense of an incomprehensible event – and its possible physical manifestations through physical pains, sexual dysfunction, verbal and written slips, the performance of grief and, in a political context, the performance of protest. Trauma is, he explained, ‘registered in the body; it’s a materialist account of the psychic life’.
I’d always thought of trauma as a culturally shared phenomenon, experienced collectively and historically. Perhaps this was because I went to school with many young people who were from, or had parents from, nations or communities that had failed them. I came to assume that everyone was traumatised to some degree, that there was some event in every family that made it slightly strange and maladjusted.
Stories, both of trauma and otherwise, are one of the most powerful devices we have for transmitting culture and identity. The narratives constructed around September 11, for example, altered the political consciousness of the ‘free world’, just as the horrors of the Holocaust influenced Jewish identities. The parable – and, more powerfully, the true story – shapes the fragile foundations of cultures and identities.
The experience of trauma demands new modes of living; in its wake, individuals and communities must reconstruct their identities and habits to readjust to their lived experience. Its effects are never isolated to the individual, but inevitably trickle into the communities in which a person moves. Trauma is also the stuff of nation building, which is why identity politics never cease to be important for peoples who have historically endured identity-based oppression.
Yet if we understand trauma in this way, many questions present themselves. If trauma shapes all of our identities and the structures they operate within, how can a rape or torture survivor use the same lexicon? Do we cheapen the vocabulary of trauma by applying it so broadly?
In fact, the shared vocabulary of trauma plays an important role. A common language allows the unbearable aftermath of an event as suffered by an individual to become, in a way, collective trauma. Acknowledging the impact individuals’ trauma has on whole communities allows traumatised people and communities the language with which to identify the wrong done, the injustice. It allows people to attempt to understand the source of their grief, in order that they may articulate a remedy.
But I also wanted to know about people’s lived experience, about the ways in which trauma impacts and affects individuals and their communities, and about the role of language in coping with and articulating injustices. I decided I needed to speak directly with some trauma survivors, people who had unique experiences of trauma, and who could reflect on how they’ve come to understand their past.
Intergenerational trauma: conflict, loss, denial
One of my closest friends from that schoolyard is Zubeyda, a hugely intelligent and engaged woman who emanates a kind of celebrity vibe. She’s beautiful, dresses like a Spike Lee heroine and has impeccable comic timing. When she disagrees with you, she cocks her head back, gently screws up her brow and looks down her long feline nose as if to say, ‘I think you might be confused.’ It‘s very effective.
Zubeyda has worked as an administrator in the community law and social sectors, and is now writing a film about the complex interactions between those sectors and the African-Australians who depend on their services. She’s highly conscious of the ways in which trauma from other countries and other generations can affect the health and behaviours of people living within the diaspora.
Her parents settled in Australia during the 1980s when Somalia was under Siad Barre’s communist dictatorship. Resistance to the regime culminated in the civil war that has ravaged Somalia and that continues to this day. The conflict led to a terrifying loss of life, a fracturing of Somali culture and a mass displacement of people. During the war’s early stages, friends and family fleeing the conflict sought refuge with Zubeyda’s family. Having grown up in Brunswick, Zubeyda didn’t know much about Somalia. When her maternal grandmother and two orphaned cousins – their parents and siblings had drowned in a refugee boat en route to Kenya – came to stay, she began to understand more.
‘At that point I was four or five, and didn’t really understand the circumstances, or what was going on,’ Zubeyda recalls. ‘But I did know that there was another place my new family members came from, and that place was in trouble.’
Over the next few years, Melbourne’s Somali population swelled. For Zubeyda, this meant finding out more about her family’s origin. But it also meant the introduction of the destructive tribalism that had emerged during the civil war.
Zubeyda remembers her father coming home very late one night from a tribal meeting. Although her parents are from different tribes, this had never before posed a problem, for neither had been particularly invested in tribalism. Her mother disapproved of the meetings, saying, ‘If you’re so happy being at your tribal meetings, why don’t you just stay with your Sheikhal people?’ to which her father responded, ‘You’re only saying that because you’re Majeerteen, and you’re jealous.’
The following morning, Zubeyda asked her mother what Sheikhal and Majeerteen were. Her answer: ‘They’re two people who don’t understand each other. They’re not good people, and they’re not for you.’
The conflict that escalated within Zubeyda’s home eventually broke the family apart. Her parents divorced and fell back onto the support of their tribal communities.
‘I might not have been raised in Somalia, and not have witnessed the tribal war, the violence, but I did witness the violence and the tribal war on a smaller scale in my family,’ Zubeyda noted. ‘The Somali way of dealing with trauma is very unique. You can’t talk about it. You can do a lot of blaming, but you can’t seek counselling or therapy or anything of that nature, so [my parent’s] way of dealing with it was just to get angry.’
This response, in turn, is a source of anger and frustration for Zubeyda. Regarding her parents move towards a dependence on the tropes of tribalism, she said, ‘They’re adults and they made the decision to buy into that.’
When I relayed this story to Rush, he commented that such behaviour is actually a fairly common response. ‘You don’t talk,’ he said. ‘For good reason for some people, not so good reasons for others.’
Zubeyda had been broken from her parents’ culture by migration, and the culture itself had been broken by civil war. Her understanding of this fracture as collective trauma has given Zubeyda the power to articulate the origin of the destructive behaviours that affect the Somali diaspora within Melbourne. It has given her a language to articulate injustice, which in turn could be politicised in order to articulate the need for help or the possibility of a remedy.
The injustice of trauma
Trauma and injustice are mutually dependent: there is no trauma that’s not experienced as an injustice, and there is no injustice without some kind of traumatisation, however awesome or minuscule. ‘Trauma’ here is a breaking or puncturing of a culture, whether that’s a culture of nationhood or law, a culture of familial relationships, a culture of ethics or a culture of identity. If an event occurs that does not fracture one’s cultural understanding, community or the norms in one’s life, how could it be perceived as an injustice?
Even where the cultural norm that breaks is, by all accounts, unjust itself, its fracture does not fail to be traumatic. Siad Barre’s dictatorship was widely regarded by Somali people as damaging, but its downfall caused an injury to the state, which then collapsed. That is not to say that all nations, or individuals, will disintegrate in the aftermath of a traumatic break, but rather that the trauma itself requires political acknowledgement, and that countries that have endured long-term conflict often develop destructive social and political behaviours, such as the emergence of tribal conflicts in Somalia.
Zubeyda described moments of the civil war as an ‘oppression competition’ in which each tribe perceived themselves to be the biggest victims of the dictatorship and that this entitled them to greater power. Trauma, here, is captured by a political struggle.
This scenario reflects what Rush described as the ‘in-between space’ that trauma survivors experience. ‘You can’t fall back on the tradition that gave you an identity,’ he told me, ‘and you aren’t sure yet where you’re going.’ This in-between space connects the individual with the collective and is represented by transitional justice projects which, Rush said, ‘Locate the subject and the social in the in-between, the space of decision and of reflection on the visceral and political histories of life.’
Zubeyda’s story fills in some of the conceptual gaps of trauma – it elicits the relationship between the traumatic event itself and its presence in new spaces and new generations, and the power of the vocabulary of trauma for traumatised communities.
‘I haven’t been to Somalia, haven’t been to Africa,’ she said. ‘Obviously there are positives in my community that I love and I embrace, but what I’ve borne witness to was that anger, that destruction of the home, the paranoia. A lot of that has been brought on a plane from Somalia, into my home – that’s my trauma.’
Forgiving, but not forgetting
I recently attended a Melbourne Free Universities event in which three refugees spoke about their experiences. The panel consisted of Ihsan Dileri, an Afghani man who talked about working on peace-building projects in northern Afghanistan; Clovis Mwamba, a journalist from DR Congo who spoke about his experience of censorship and imprisonment; and Cecilia Sequeira Goncalves, the president of the Timorese Association of Victoria, who explained her refugee journey. An articulate woman with slightly Portuguese gesticulations, Cecilia was incredibly passionate in her description of fleeing the civil war that devastated her homeland.
Later, I met up with Cecilia to discuss how her experience impacted her family and community.
Cecilia’s departure from Timor in 1975 was a terrifying tale. She described running to the harbour with her infant children, while people ‘dropped like flowers’ by the roadside. Crowds of people gathered at the harbour, praying in unity, while others bullied the harbour officials to call the emergency signal. Miraculously, Cecilia and her family were put on a boat that eventually reached Darwin, which had just been destroyed by Cyclone Tracey.
So we came here, we didn’t know what to do. You feel helpless and you don’t have time to think much. You just worry about family and the children. I had my little baby with me. We wanted to stay in Darwin, but they sent us to Melbourne, and so we came here and stayed in a hostel.
After a week, we started working at [the] Ford [plant] in Broadmeadows. I worked for three days, but I felt sick and didn’t know why. Then they found out I was very ill. I think maybe because of those fifteen days without eating, without anything. I ended up in the hospital. I had to leave my nine-month-old baby. My cousins – one fifteen, the other one thirteen – had to take care of my children. That was the worst.
Then my oldest girl ended up in the same hospital as me. The doctor said that they were refusing to eat at the hostel, and she became very, very sick because she wouldn’t eat. She was looking for me all the time. She was seven years old. And when I saw her at the hospital, I just said, ‘My God, what is happening to me now?’ But then I went home, and, oh, my heart was breaking. When I saw my girl, my youngest one, my heart just broke. It’s just … I don’t know. You have to experience it to feel it. It was so hard for me then.
For Cecilia and her husband, the following thirty years were spent in shift work, with her husband working two jobs. She talked to me about the break with her culture as a deeply traumatic one.
‘If I started work earlier, I wouldn’t see my children go to school; if I started late, I wouldn’t see them come back. Always something missing,’ she said.
The longer she and her husband spent at work, the greater the loss of small cultural practices. And the fact that her children were growing less culturally Timorese added to Cecilia’s heartbreak.
‘In Timor, we never say “good morning” to our parents or grandparents. We say it in different way. We say, “Bless me, Mum. Bless me, Dad.” And when we came here my kids used to do the same to my husband and me … but when things started missing out, when I wasn’t there when they woke up in the morning, everything started to disappear.’
After Cecilia and her husband retired, leaving more time for them to reflect on and confront their past, they began to articulate their experiences using the language of trauma.
‘When we retired, things started sinking in. We just said, “Where are the kids?” They were having their own lives. It wasn’t our fault. At that time, we needed help. But nowadays, I think – I hope – that for people arriving they have counsellors to help them.’
Cecilia removed her reading glasses to wipe tears from her eyes. I, too, had been crying.
‘They’re now in their late twenties and thirties, and they’ve started realising that we were under stress and trauma. They didn’t know that – we didn’t know it at the time. I never showed anything. [Our children] say, “You never told us anything”, but we couldn’t. But while we were running away, doing things, our children were the ones to suffer.’
Retirement has allowed Cecilia to learn how to live with her trauma as well as how to transform it through community-building activity, specifically by working with Timorese community groups. Her involvement at an organisational level with her community, she said, was a part of this process.
‘I don’t expect any reward, nothing. Only one thing, which is sort of like help in one way, is to try to involve all the young generation with the community, try to see them get involved. The kids are good kids.’
The exercise of articulating, but not curing, trauma – of transforming, but not silencing, it – is the art of forgiving without forgetting.
‘Inside, in your heart, you always have something. You didn’t have help, you don’t understand why things happen this way. But you have to forgive. The only one thing that you have to do is learn to forgive. But not to forget.’
Talking through trauma
The language of trauma emerged alongside the psychological sciences, and it served as a way for survivors to conceptualise their experiences. But language is largely unable to articulate experiences that defy comprehension, experiences for which there are no adequate words.
Primo Levi describes the limitations of contextually bound language in Survival in Auschwitz: ‘We say “hunger”, we say “tiredness”, “fear”, “pain”, we say “winter” and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes.’ Is it, then, possible for ‘free words’ to adequately express the breadth of real trauma?
In reality, we are required to use common language (Levi’s ‘free words’) to articulate our experiences, even though such language is often ‘dead’, its lexicon made up of words that have largely ceased to resemble or make sense of the things they describe. This is what renders them ‘dead’ – words, which are meant to symbolise things, eventually grow to become independent of the things they name. How, then, can a word that loses currency, that is made dead by its broad cultural application, continue to serve?
The answer is that, while common language has limitations, these don’t diminish its practicability, or even its potential to describe. Rather they change the focus of meaning from the actual thing to the cultural understanding of that thing.
‘Trauma has become the lingua franca of a range of political struggles,’ Rush explained. ‘In order to be heard, you need to be able to speak in the language of trauma.’
‘There is a question that [trauma] has become our common-sense language to deal with atrocity and horrible experiences and political struggles. And if that’s the case, then maybe trauma has become a dead word, and thus the struggle to continually reanimate it against common sense. After all, an event is atrocious because everyday language does not have the wherewithal to represent it.’
‘There’s an ethics of surviving,’ he elaborated, ‘which is why you hear that demand to remember, to acknowledge, to recognise that which [one has] gone through or experienced. It is a demand that obliges those who remain.’
For the broader community, including many health professionals, the common response to trauma is curative. This approach essentially asks the survivor to ‘get over it’.
‘It comes with an implicit or explicit normative imperative to talk through the experience and leave it behind, to move on,’ Rush explained. ‘When someone says “get over it” actually what they’re saying is “I want to get over you and your troubles, complaints, suffering”.’
Another person’s trauma can thus pose a disruption to one’s own stable understanding of justice, and this is perhaps something we’re not willing to deal with.
Another tradition within trauma studies emphasises articulation over curing. For this approach, the transmission of trauma in words becomes the location of – and the means of identifying – the injustice of trauma. According to Lacan, truth and language are mutually dependent: ‘Truth hollows its way into the real thanks to the dimension of speech. There is neither true nor false prior to speech.’
Secondary trauma: empathy, community, transmission
My housemate May recently returned from an intensive five-month position with an Australian refugee research institution. The position required her to gather information from displaced and stateless women throughout Asia, the Americas and Africa, women whom she describes as some of the most traumatised in the world. The work was aimed at shaping refugee policy based on the experiences and needs of those whose lives are directly affected by it.
The duration and intensity of May’s work left her with associated trauma which is manifesting itself in a range of ways, including flashbacks, nightmares and strained personal and intimate relationships. Such experiences are not uncommon for those who work closely with traumatised people, such as humanitarian and medical professionals. May spoke with me about the ways trauma disperses among people, and the challenges she’s experienced coming home.
You somehow feel a strange sense of guilt and privilege and cynicism all in one. You just think, ‘Wow, I’ve been hearing awful stuff every day. I’ve heard about five-year-olds being raped, and horrifying stories of gender-based torture.’ Really, every day it’s that sort of thing, and then you come home and you remember how wonderful it was to have conversations about your car, or about movies, or just talking shit.
And somehow you begin to recede into yourself. You feel, firstly, that you can’t share the stories that you know and, secondly, that you can’t have a conversation without feeling like you’re about to burst into tears … You think ‘Am I going to explode and become very caustic in the course of a conversation?’ And what right do I have to say to people, ‘You have no idea about the world, no idea about people’s experiences of trauma’?
May and her colleagues were encouraged to debrief throughout their assignment. All of them had an educative understanding of trauma and its mitigation, but debriefing in such an environment, an environment in which they had witnessed and listened to unfathomable stories, was difficult. For May, these were also stories she did not feel entitled to share, due to the bond of trust she had developed with the women she worked with.
The associated trauma that many humanitarian workers experience can prevent them from working ethically and effectively. May recalled many colleagues saying things like, ‘I’d have to kill myself if I thought about all my cases still in detention’ or ‘My flesh has turned to stone and I don’t know how to turn it back.’
‘I think it’s the greatest shame in the humanitarian sector that there’s not enough support for the people who are working,’ she continued. ‘The end result of that is bad work, bad protection, insensitive people.’
The three women who shared with me their experiences each understand trauma at both personal and community levels, and powerfully articulate it in terms of its relation to others. For each of them, trauma has broken some sense of continuity: of the nation, of the diaspora as it imagines itself, of families and of the professional communities that these women move in. Each of them is compelled now to improvise alternative ways of operating, of transforming those communities. The experience of trauma as an injustice, and the articulation of such, is integral to their articulation of the wrong, and the demand to be heard and helped.
Ellena Savage is the immediate past editor of the Melbourne University student magazine Farrago. She writes regularly for Eureka Street and edits the Lifted Brow‘s arts supplement Middlebrow.
Overland 204-spring 2011, pp. 96–103
• Supported by Copyright Agency Limited Cultural Fund
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