On binary states

When people who have experienced violence in childhood come to see me for the first time in my counselling practice, they bring stories to tell, stories that take the form of puzzles. Each story is a description of a crime, a story that makes no sense. It is like watching someone find evidence of a crime and mistaking it for a message, or wondering if they are the one who is guilty.

Talking through this with someone can be strange and difficult, full of alarming metaphors and non sequiturs. The history we put together is often built on a structure of conundrums, each blocking the other, like a Rubik’s cube that has no movement in it.

For a long time I worked with Z, a man who was repeatedly raped by various male relatives as a child. Because of the frequent and often casual nature of the assaults, it seemed impossible that Z’s parents were not aware of them, and yet his parents’ solicitude towards him at various times had introduced a split into Z’s narrative of the rapes. How could my parents not know? They loved me, so of course they didn’t know.

This binary state, repeated infinitely, became a hall of mirrors in which Z wandered. Discussing this, and finding words and metaphors to describe it, became the foundation of our conversation – but not the true foundation.

One day Z spoke to me of a recent encounter that had distressed him greatly, an event I will not describe, but one that was as unusual as it was disturbing. It had induced in Z a rising panic that he struggled to control.

Fortunately, Z’s girlfriend was able to patiently listen to him in his distress and he felt able to bear his confusion. When Z came to see me a few days later, he told me that he had come to a frightening understanding.

I have always assumed, Z began, that the assaults I experienced were opportunistic. After a short pause in which he struggled to give volume to his voice, he said, ‘But what if the rapes were all planned? What if they were not just opportunistic? What if my uncle and grandfather spent the time between each rape planning the next one?’

‘Then you would have never been safe,’ I said. ‘But the thought of never being safe would have been unbearable for a child, maybe unimaginable.’

‘Yes, yes, exactly,’ replied Z. ‘At least now I can think about it.’

After a long silence, he said, ‘But Jesus-fucking-Christ it’s painful.’

Last winter, when Z and I had this conversation, the weather was unseasonably warm. The bitter, relentless summer that had ignited huge bushfires across the southern half of the continent had never really come to an end. It lingered, refusing to die, becoming something a little rachitic, but still baleful.

People spoke of spring coming early, but in reality it was always summer. Or perhaps there were now only two seasons: a breathable summer and an unbreathable summer. The seasons we knew had not gone out of whack or become dislocated, but had rather disappeared altogether. Seasons had become contingent events.

When I got home from work after speaking with Z, I lay in bed with the book I was reading splayed open beside my pillow. Everyone I had worked with that day had lived a childhood distorted by unsupportable weights, cruelties enacted in secret. Speaking of these things was, in effect, to speak the thoughts of the children who had been so brutalised.

Their thoughts were often surprisingly clear, and could be frightening in their dissection of adult life. It was like discovering that the butchers in an abattoir were five years old, armed with bloody flensing knives and possessed of a gaze that accurately assesses one’s mercantile value down to the last ounce of fat.

Z had the unnerving capacity to spot the slightest deviation in my attention, the merest shadow of expression. He was continually reading me reading him, and offering me commentary as if I were a palimpsest whose subject matter was his interior life.

The child in distress is very often calling for help on behalf of everyone else in the family. In the same way, I began to think of those who have experienced violence and abuse as calling for help on behalf of the rest of us, using whatever materials they have to hand, all the bits of junk from which they feel their life is built.

But the person who has experienced an unbearable trauma lives at the heart of Australian life, because violence, dispossession, alienation and abandonment are the true markers of our history. There is no-one who is not touched by them and no-one who can avoid or deny them. And those who believe they can are often the most violent and disturbed of us all.


Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

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