Why “picturing out” makes fiction a safe and enabling space to constructively engage with trauma and raise it to conscious awareness.
Trauma is experienced when an event, encounter or happening is so overwhelming that it cannot be consciously or emotionally contained or known by the person who survives it. Humans are designed to protect their chances of survival at all costs; in times of crisis and threat automatic reactions, and instincts are motivated to facilitate this. Therefore, when a child whose physical safety or life seems threatened and the degree of pain felt is that of dying or breaking, all of the limited resources a child has are drawn on to protect the self from complete annihilation. To survive what is traumatic experience to the individual, in this case the child, is to cease being fully present during the experience. This dissociative reaction as well as other adverse responses is what identifies an experience as traumatic. The event or encounter is itself neutral or indifferent like the weather and much like the setting it takes place in.
For example, in cases of child molestation, a perpetrator is not traumatized by what takes place however he or she may indeed be mindlessly “acting out” or repeating his or her own childhood trauma but this time occupying the role of the abuser and replacing another for the previously held victim position. The perpetrator has a positive experience, deriving pleasure and having his or her needs met from exerting power and control over another that is not their physical or intellectual equal. The child however is traumatised and irreversibly changed. Unless given the assistance needed to process, assimilate and overcome being used as a gratuitous sex object threatened never to tell, the abuse continues to have multiple negative effects throughout future phases of life. The horror or terror experienced by the child reigns over unconscious life which is a psychic state without the concept of time or its passing and therefore the means with which to chronologically organise one’s life narrative and where or how the trauma fits within it. Traumatic experience, which is always stored in the unconscious, is literally unspeakable and without words because conscious life is structured by language, words (constituting the symbolic order), grammar and time, not the unconscious.
The conscious mind does not know what happened exactly throughout the traumatic experience; the unconscious records it through the body, senses and it has an archetypal impact at the level of human development the individual is at when this trauma takes place. All future transitions into the stages of human development are cognitively and emotionally compromised as the survivor remains developmentally arrested in parts, stuck at the age of their traumatic experience. Consequently, the trauma continues to be unknown, undigested and yet to be assimilated by conscious awareness.
The psychic wound or brokenness remains as raw chunks of highly charged emotion, chaotic and ever-present in the unconscious which again has no concept of time, language, grammar or coherent voice through which to know and organise experience. Instead the unconscious expresses its injured state through physical pain, digestive issues, shortness of breath, sweating, paralysis, hyperventilation, anxiety, depression, dissociation and an aversion to triggering sights, places, people, sounds and smells. There are also situations in which the survivor will be triggered emotionally and react to people, places and circumstances with seemingly inappropriate anger, sadness, fear, mistrust and disgust. All of these unconscious ways of remembering send the survivor into an indirect re-experiencing of the past as if still at the age they were when the original trauma took place.
Psychoanalyst, Carl Gustave Jung astutely points out in the illustrated quote above, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life.” The same sentiment is raised in Sigmund Freud’s “repetition compulsion.” Freud’s approach to effectively treating trauma survivors is far less optimistic than Jung and contemporary mental health professionals for he considered the trauma survivor to be compelled to unconsciously repeat the traumatic experience until death. This assertion stems from the understanding that the unconscious re-members by re-experiencing trauma through mindless and symptomatic ways such as ‘acting out’, impulsive self-sabotaging behaviour and fits of rage that indirectly repeat the trauma.
To make the ‘unconscious conscious’ is what needs to be done to stop the cycle of “repetition compulsion” but how?
For the trauma survivor to survive s/he has become an accumulation of deeply rooted defense mechanisms that are hypervigilant in their efforts to protect and defend against all threats of the individual coming to consciously know or feel the traumatic experience that at the time of trauma seemed powerful enough to annihilate or murder the self.
In addition to the human design and will to survive at all costs is the need to grow and this sets a survivor’s inner world in terrible conflict. The parts of the self frozen in the age the trauma occurred are protected from knowing, feeling, consciously digesting and assimilating the trauma to prevent the feared total annihilation. Yet without doing this there is no growth, integration or actual life being lived. Therefore the unconscious is compelled to continue raising the unconscious traumatic content to the somatic, sensorial and emotional level as well as through compulsions to behave and react in certain ways that are self-sabotaging and result in reinforcing limiting beliefs about the self, others and world.
Psychoanalyst Donald Kalsched in his books and interviews discusses the unconscious “picturing out” of traumatic experience through nightmares and visual art that can be effectively worked through in therapy in order to make unconscious content conscious. The unconscious speaks in symbols, symptoms and metaphors in the “picturing out” process and together the patient and analyst interpret what this might mean and engage in a dialogue to make sense of what has been experienced, the effects it has had and often through such discussions it becomes clear to the survivor why they think, feel and behave the way they do and how this informs the present life they are living. In addition to this it ideally becomes apparent to the survivor how he or she can think, do and behave differently to create a better present with which to build a better future as well as solid strategies for which challenges arise as they inevitably do for everyone throughout life. Through the process of interpretation a cathartic transformation takes place like when reading a powerful work of literature, film or art. This occurs because to interpret and engage with an emotional journey “pictured out” is to consciously become aware of the content, process it and assimilate it via the meaning and significance attributed to it.
In the image above is an elephant terrified of a mouse. It seems the elephant is unaware of how large it is and how harmless and tiny by comparison the mouse actually is. This image is perfect for how an adult survivor of complex childhood trauma might “picture out” their internal reality before processing that she or he is now an adult whose childhood perpetrator no longer has access to. In fact the perpetrator being the one who committed the crime is the one with something to fear.
To recognise the traumatic event or period of life is now over it needs to be consciously registered and for this to happen the unconscious needs to be engaged with on its own terms and in its own language, metaphor. For this reason I propose considering Donald Kalsched’s concept of “picturing out” in relation to fiction writing. Fiction is a tale of invention, concoction and the story produced is metaphor much like the traumatic content expressed through symptoms and “picturing out.”
Like myth and fairytale the unconscious occupies the timeless landscape of archetypal figures. Furthermore the hero’s journey in myth and much literature involves a symbolic venturing into the unconscious and emerging from it. This is pictured out or externalised through metaphor in story where form is given to the hero’s inner life and arc. Fiction is the space where the conscious (structured by language, words, sentences, grammar, logic, order, linear sequencing of time, beginning, middle, end and external reality) and unconscious (metaphor, symptoms, emotion, archetypes, dreams, loaded images) work together to fabricate a story world. Within the conventional constraints of fiction the survivor writer can “picture out” traumatic content that in its otherwise raw state, makes no sense, has no meaning, context, sense or organisation according to time.
By appropriating unconscious content to the aesthetic constraints of storytelling both the imagination and conscious mind are asked to problem solve through story design; image systems; cast of characters; scenes and beginning, middle and end; events; dialogue; narration; point of view and time to give the content enough context in order for coherence to be established and meaning derived from the emotional experience a reader comes to fiction for under the understanding that they will be rewarded for the obstacles and pain the journey involves because a satisfying resolution and insight has long since been promised by the genre. To achieve this involves a process of writing which includes revising and rewriting until finding what works. This process and writing practice makes unconscious content conscious because it both speaks the language of the unconscious and makes unconscious content consciously bearable.
- The survivor writer is active with the writing practice when authoring a fiction. Like the writer the protagonist does not stay passive or stagnant in fiction for story requires something to happen between the beginning and end and there is no story without the writer writing it. A story’s structure, generic conventions and features act as a set of conventions the writer creatively collaborates with to make the story content coherent. Structure also acts as an emotional container or safe holding space for the writer to “picture out” emotionally charged content from the unconscious. Once these pictures or image system has been located in the story they are appropriated accordingly through the drafting and rewriting process. Over the time it takes to complete writing a story these metaphors are transformed, integrated and assimilated into a narrative with meaning, significance and a satisfying resolution. They are no longer the dangerous emotional chunks wreaking havoc in the unconscious but consciously assimilated and known emotional experience.
- In this writing space of invention and imagination the survivor writer has a proxy digestive system through which to process and assimilate traumatic experience. As fiction involves both the conscious and unconscious in the writing practice through each draft the survivor writer gets familiar with and less threatened by the traumatic content. This is akin to what is known as exposure therapy and it works off the premise that gradually exposing the patient to what it is they fear and slightly increasing the duration of exposure each time until the fear is reduced and no longer limits their ability to do things they want. For example attend a social event, speak publicly or go to a supermarket.
- In fiction the survivor writer does not have to stick to the facts and can therefore fabricate and organise traumatic content in a way that is bearable, makes sense, and perhaps even include what the survivor wishes would have happened. For example in fiction the survivor writer can feature a perpetrator that is made accountable whereas the survivor writer’s own perpetrator may not have been; a friend or safe elder to help the protagonist may be included where this may have been lacking in the survivor’s life and the protagonist may be endowed with qualities the survivor wishes he or she possessed.
- A survivor had no power or choice as a child during the traumatic events, however as the writer of trauma fiction the adult survivor writer has complete say over what takes place, how and when. Again the survivor writer is active, not passive in this constructive encounter with traumatic content. This experience of being in control is very important to counteract the previous powerless position of the original trauma and subsequent post-traumatic effects. It also creates a means through which the survivor as writer can retain a sense of their adult self while engaging with traumatic experience instead of regressing to the child that they were at the time. Being the author of a protagonist’s trauma story creates a safe mediation and therefore distance through which to keep a sense of the adult self’s cognitive and emotional functioning in tact which is essential for the processing of such content.
- By using the imagination and employing fabrication a survivor writer can express and give form to his or her psychological and emotional truth. Metaphor and context makes it possible to tell a truth of what it feels like to go through a certain set of experiences. Also, the survivor experiences the effects of trauma symptomatically or metaphorically so using a mask or substitute forms for trauma allows for communicating what the subjective experience is like in ways that documenting the facts verbatim cannot.
- When writing fiction nothing is fixed. The survivor writer is always free to go back and change anything at anytime whereas there is nothing that can be done about the facts of what actually happened to him or her. Furthermore there is no pressure on the survivor to interrogate his or her memories for exactly what happened and when and so he or she is spared the anxiety produced from this. The survivor writer’s ability to make changes in story where he or she cannot change what happened in life is empowering and has the potential to function as the first step in changing his or her own present. By visualising a way in which the protagonist can overcome adversity and go on to create a better life enables the survivor writer to see that by choosing differently, reaching out to others that are safe and behaving in certain ways, he or she can do this too.
- Story is about context so the setting, social and familial environment and location trauma takes place in is taken into account and considered by the survivor writer who in turn becomes aware of the role these factors play in their protagonist’s story and consequently their own. Especially how the perpetrator is able to gain access to the child.
- In fiction the writer employs a cast of characters whose perspectives need to be both understood. By considering the antagonist or perpetrator’s point of view the survivor writer comes to realise their abuser too is a flawed human being and not the larger than life monster with the power of a demigod that they still fear and so a shrinking of the monster takes place. By writing scenes with a perpetrator in them the survivor writer is forced to take a step back, be still and observe how he or she conducts him or herself both in relation to the protagonist, others and in specific locations and situations. Through this the survivor writer sees the abuse didn’t take place because of any failing on their part but because of their circumstance and young age making them vulnerable and easily accessible. They may also start to see the ways in which they were effectively groomed, manipulated, threatened and through no fault of their own too naive to know any better. It is common for a survivor to internalise the blame and shame and believe him or her self to be evil but writing the story out gives him or her the opportunity to see their protagonist is not to be blamed at all. Where they may not be able to love, consider and feel self-compassion they can for their protagonist which is a significant step in the right direction. A trauma survivor is often unable to feel anger at his or her perpetrator and guardians because it is too threatening but it can be possible for them to feel anger towards their protagonist’s abuser and guardians. By “picturing out” the cast of characters tied to the protagonist’s world the survivor comes to see how their stories are part of his or her trauma story. That there really is a place for all the pieces that felt so shattered and random. From the distanced perspective of the author it all does make sense because it is the author’s duty to make sure it does in a way that protagonist is too immersed to see. And from this experience the survivor writer learns how to observe his own life this way by seeing the cause and effect of all the characters or people in their life and therefore informing or impacting upon it. In short by the survivor writer making sense out of his or her protagonist’s story he or she is indirectly developing the capacity to make sense of and fully know his or her own.
Many fiction editors I’ve heard talk grin when they say any debut novel is an author’s thinly veiled autobiography. Writer’s have to get their story out of the way before they can write about anything else. It makes sense that it would be this way. To write creatively is to enter into a dialogue between the conscious and unconscious. First and foremost the unconscious is going to “picture out” and make sense of its unresolved content so that it may indeed move beyond it. When a survivor writer sets out to write fiction this too will take place. Part of the story writing process is to come to recognise and know one’s own story. So the story that runs parallel to the survivor writer’s fiction is his or her coming into contact with his or her personal trauma story. This is where therapy is important during the writing process. For adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse a free counseling service is available at CASA House. Therapy and fiction writing work together very well in the post-traumatic growth journey because in writing fiction one learns how to use language in order to talk about traumatic experience and by learning different ways of dealing with and understanding one’s traumatic experience and story in the therapeutic dialogue the survivor learns how to get their personal story out of the fiction they are writing and to creatively use what’s useful and insightful about it in order to produce an effective tale that offers an emotionally transcendent experience for both survivor writer and reader.
Throughout this article I have repeated that the unconscious records and expresses traumatic experience and memory somatically (within the body) and via the senses so when a survivor embarks on a fiction writing journey it is important to practice holistic self care. Seeing a therapist is invaluable but equally invaluable is nourishing the body with unprocessed food, exercise (walking, yoga, cycling, swimming), calming music, having the scent of your favorite essential oils keeping you present, and massage. In addition to this I find the sauna and steam room essential. The same with spending time with safe people and making the time and budget allowance for attending cinema screenings, theater performances, live music and art shows. Watching how others picture out and sound out their unconscious content can be helpful and inspire ideas as to how one might “picture out” their own.