Why Fiction can be a Safe Space for Processing Traumatic Experience

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Archetypes, Myths and Guides

Central to this article and previous posts is the idea that post-traumatic growth potentially results from unconscious complex trauma content becoming consciously integrated into one’s self-narrative through fiction. The question explored is whether or not writing and reading trauma fiction participates in facilitating post-traumatic growth and if so why use this approach as opposed to literal memoir and autobiographical writing?

In the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud and psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung, who went from friends to rivals, used therapy, dreams and myth to work with and interpret the unconscious coded content adversely effecting their clients’ ability to function with efficacy in daily life. To this day an aim in therapy is to increase the patient’s awareness of these coded disabling dynamics at play as a result of trauma to decrease the power of such effects by introducing healthy and sustainable coping strategies.

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In the 1940s, Joseph Campbell began to establish himself as an American mythologist, who would go on to devote his life to study myth through the ideas of these psychoanalysts. Campbell considered the classical hero journey or myth as a metaphor for everyman’s inevitable passage into the unconscious where he finds his or her authentic Self and then returns to take his place with a sense of purpose and meaningful contribution to the community.

In psychoanalysis the analyst might be said to occupy the role of Hermes, the Greek god who guided heroes through Hades’ underworld or the unconscious. In such stories the hero learns from the challenges, deceits and lures of the underworld (metaphor for death or the unconscious). Typically the hero does not get stuck or imprisoned by the potential traps of the unconscious content but through persistence, assistance and will overcomes setbacks. Consequently, the hero is able to integrate a core sense of Self and attain wisdom that enables him to return to his community and live a meaningful life motivated by a strong sense of purpose.

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In such myths the classical heroes’ internal journey is externalised through metaphor. That is, like visual art, working at the level of symbol. The hero leaves his/her everyday life to “slay the dragon” and overcome obstacles that bring out the truth of who she or he is and intergrate the qualities informing the kind of place she or he will take up as a contributing member of society upon this return.

In Carl Gustave Jung’s  Four Archetypes: mother, rebirth, spirit, trickster  (1902) he conceptualises archetypes such as great mother, father, child, devil, god, wise old man, wise old woman, the trickster and hero, to be the aspects of one’s psyche and personality but also embodied in one’s external reality.

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A survivor-writer is engaging with these archetypal figures on both literal and symbolic levels through the writing process and, in doing so, increases his/her conscious awareness of the psychic dynamics at play on an archetypal level. Joseph Campbell goes on to say that archetypes are used to tell stories in the way that they are used to tell myths and perhaps this contributes to what makes the novels of adult survivors of childhood trauma such as Push (1996) by Sapphire (Ramona Lofton), In Perfect Light (2005) by Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Bastard Out of Carolina (1992) by Dorothy Allison so powerful to read. Each survivor-author has externalised the internal past trauma taking place in the survivor-protagonist’s mind so that the reader can have an intimate understanding of the way the world is experienced by these survivor-protagonists and how they fight their way through to post-traumatic growth.

In Push by Sapphire there is the shadow great mother and shadow father in her parents who commit incest; the child, her baby Abdul and Mongo her little girl with Down Syndrome, and the wise old woman, the young lesbian teacher Ms. Rain. In Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s In Perfect Light there is Grace Delgado the great mother; William Hart and Andrés’s pimp the devil; Illeana the child; and Dave the young lawyer occupies the place of the wise old man. In Bastard Out of Carolina there is Anney the great mother in Bone’s eyes but shadow mother to the reader who can see this woman-child objectively; Reese the child; Daddy Glen the trickster and shadow father; wise old women in her aunts; the devil in Daddy Glen and herself and god in music. The hero’s journey with the classical story structure employed to tell it and archetypes included in the cast of characters make for useful attributes when considering the survivor-writer going through the process of writing a trauma fiction.

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Myths are fictional stories, which have been in an integral relationship to psychoanalytic theory and therapy since Freud who conducted the first research into trauma. So, in investigating fiction’s therapeutic value and role in post-traumatic growth, I have asked whether story can be seen as metaphor for encounters with the unconscious? Is the cast of characters, a means through which to externalise the psyche’s archetypal relationship-dynamics? Can the staged dramatic action be used to make contact with the driving material of the unconscious to facilitate increased conscious awareness and a re-alignment with the Self after complex trauma?

To test the externalization of the psychic archetypes’ capacity to perform the internal psychic dynamics at play in the protagonist’s and survivor-writer’s drama of the mind, I have used Joseph Campbell’s work on myth, the hero, and the typical hero’s journey involving an adventure into the unconscious and back out to inform the choices I make when writing trauma fiction. It helps me to create a structure for the story and ensures that I will find a way out for both myself and the protagonist. This is an important feature to acknowledge in light of the fact that trauma has no structure and survivors often spend a lifetime imprisoned by its effects. The connections Campbell has made between the heroes journey, unconscious content and metaphor is my Hermes, or guide through negotiating the most effective ways to manipulate structure and find the best form through which to externalise the internal transformation of an adult survivor of complex childhood trauma.

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Story allows for the unfolding of a journey that represents a struggle with and departure from the unconscious’s oppressive reign so the form is like trauma, multi-faceted and complex.

Obstacles:

The problems of writing and reading complex childhood trauma in fiction are multiple and the notion of writing trauma might even initially be regarded as counterintuitive, considering that trauma is a state experienced outside language and something which the survivor can never actually attach to words. Yet, as the three novels discussed in other posts Push (1996) by Sapphire (Ramona Lofton), In Perfect Light (2005) by Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Bastard Out of Carolina (1992) by Dorothy Allison demonstrate, language can in fact be manipulated and organised through story to communicate a sense of the unsayable. Traumatic experience can indeed be inferred or performed precisely by what is not said. Much of what language fails to hold can be implied in the gap between reader and text. Implication and inference are achievable through breaks in dialogue-driven scenes, rifts in the narrative structure, poetic prose, imagery, including the mobilisation of images drawn from the settings, montage of scenes, and by maximising the use of subtext in dialogue. Essentially story can communicate effectively something of traumatic experience through the strategic selection of what to include, how to execute it, and ways of organising words on the page to perform a life, family and community crippled by complex trauma and mindlessly continuing to perpetuate it.

Traumatic experience is in essence an encounter with death. All that the survivor had been able to previously make sense about the self, people and world ceases to exist. In The Powers of Horror (1980), Julia Kristeva discusses trauma being a state outside the symbolic order/structure or system on which language exists, thus its inherent resistance to language is due to its not being compatible with the containment of words, the syntactic rules and therefore coming to story in verbal form.

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If it were, and could be, readily articulated and made coherent, it would not have a traumatic hold over the protagonist. However, fiction, like the unconscious, allows the writer to work creatively through metaphor (setting, place, time, objects, events, encounters, characters, dialogue and register) around the problem of trauma being outside language, just as the unconscious does via symptoms. This indirect approach makes engaging with trauma both relatively safe and bearable. Both the unconscious and fiction use form, sequence of events, characters, settings and physicality of the body as an external means to express or allude to what cannot be said or known of inner reality and emotional experience by manifesting a presence that communicates something of what is not said or processed.

The three authors Sapphire, Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Dorothy Allison whose whose work is analysed in previous posts as well as myself have drawn from autobiographical experience, places they have lived, people they have known and contemporary, social problems repressed, inadequately addressed, resourced, and represented, in order to inform their fiction, so that it might offer the reader an emotional experience and lend coherence to complex childhood trauma, thus nurturing post-traumatic growth. Just as unconscious compulsions result in acting out past trauma, as do other symptoms of PTSD, in fiction the writer performs a vicarious and coded experience of trauma through metaphor and poetic use of prose.

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In writing Warrior it was my intention to learn how to work story as metaphor to effectively situate the reader in the protagonist’s internal chaos and have it remain coherent alongside the privileged objective perspective of the larger family, community, place, socio-economic, religious and cultural story within which it takes place. By working with the reader’s ability to know more than the protagonist and enabling the insight that the survivor lacks, I attempt to have the reader understand and empathise with why a survivor reacts, behaves and perceives in ineffective ways until slowly realising what is not working and why. Awareness is built through risks that the survivor-protagonist takes by trying different things, failing but learning from failure, and eventually succeeding in making better choices to create their desired life. The trauma story structure needs to be circular and involve repetition-variation (repetition-compulsion) like trauma in reality and the way that it manifests in behavioural and relationship patterns, as well as through circular speech and thought processes.

According to Robert McKee’s work on story, there needs to be a mathematically plotted narrative trajectory from the initial situation, through the middle, climax and resolution and the character arc. Traumatic content is an overwhelming mess so too have a structure with which to put things in made it possible for me to separate myself from the content and create a story that is not mine and yet is made from what is emotional and psychologically true to me. Warrior, the novel I wrote, unfolds in dramatic action to reflect the protagonist Lumina’s inner turmoil. She is caught on a psychological roundabout of haunting memories, thoughts, fears and compulsive behaviour and does not know how to step off. For most of her life she has gone in circles and her post-traumatic growth involves fumbling—one step forward and five steps backwards—before being able finally to effectively own the driver’s seat in her life.

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Summary of Tendencies Identified in Writing a Post-traumatic Coming of Age Narrative:

 

A) Fiction is an open space that can observe how the psyche’s trauma-affected dynamics and defense mechanisms play themselves out; why and to what end. At the same time, it is able to function as a container for the story of such a fearful and broken footing in the world and to step up, acknowledge the past and claim agency and voice over the future.

B) Unlike any other discourse genre or medium, trauma fiction has the capacity to demonstrate, via privileged insight into a character’s consciousness, world and point of view, precisely something that theories, lectures and clinical textbooks cannot communicate, whether in snippets of case studies and brief testimonies that inform and summarize rather than show. Trauma fiction can do this in depth, particularly over a novel-length story.

C) Fiction is story and story is synthesis, unifying the sum of its parts so the survivor-protagonist’s fractured and fragmented self can move in the direction of post-traumatic growth and synthesis. The featured stories of post-traumatic growth are powerful, enlightening and inspiring because they use an interdisciplinary-informed approach to communicate something of what it means emotionally to be human and effected by trauma.

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Conclusion

The complex trauma focused on in this article and previous posts is the result of sustained childhood sexual and physical abuse, which, despite being criminal acts, so often go unpunished. Although these articles explore the value of fiction and its capacity to assist in post-traumatic growth, the fact remains that the problem continues across countries, religious institutions, classes, ethnicities, professions, education, and sexes, as it has throughout human history. Protagonist-survivors featured in such stories go through a process of changing their perception of past trauma, themselves and others. This shift in the way the past, self, other and world are seen in turn transforms the survivor into someone able to access her/his personal power, change, re-appropriate value given to her/his traumatic experience and abuser(s), and grow beyond it.

To observe in fiction a protagonist/survivor coming to see things differently, and in turn to be different, builds an awareness of how survivors in life can come to know their trauma, what the experiences have meant to them, and how this knowledge is implicated in who they have become. This, in turn leads to a realisation that, as adults, they can create better lives for themselves and give new meaning to their traumatic experience. Furthermore, these stories suggest to individuals, and to society at large, modes of listening, acknowledging, speaking about and responding to the traumatic experience mediated by the survivor’s words, couched in their everyday life and environment. They make it possible to engage with the realities as well as the theories of complex trauma.

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For adult survivors to recover a capacity to recognise and render intelligible the connection between their present way of life and past trauma, they need to be able to—like fiction—have a holding a space within which to observe, know, give meaning to and see the structure in their personal story. For this reason, these articles posted have argued that fiction can assist in post-traumatic growth and that there is value in reading, writing and discussing it, due to its interdisciplinary integration of ways through which to know, engage with and work through trauma.

 

The effects of complex trauma on a survivor’s adult life are far-reaching and yet defy being consciously known. They may not always be able to be put into words but in fiction can be indirectly represented by showing how unmanageable and dangerous content is when it is sublimated through symptoms, reactions and fear. The objectivity that fiction affords makes it possible for such symptoms, behaviour and fear to be read as meaningful and coherent, as well as offering insight to thoughts, inner consciousness and the inclusion of other relevant context. Fiction strategically builds and constructs through language a world and its characters, giving what happens significance, meaning and purpose.

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By observing a survivor within their story, or by reading a survivor’s writing, the reader gains a similar ability to find clarity, to recognise and speak of what is going on or has gone on. Trauma can be worked through in therapy, theorised in psychology, read about in trauma fiction and written as fiction by an adult survivor of childhood complex trauma and each approach asserts an intelligible pattern. In doing so it builds a kind of mastery over, or independence from, the perverse, destructive power of abuse. These different, yet similar ways of knowing, engaging with, listening to, articulating and working through trauma create different experiences, dialogues, outcomes and values, which together, broaden and thus enrich and empower our understandings, creating more effective ways to alleviate suffering.

If this article has been useful to you please like it, feel free to comment and/or share it with those to whom it would be of interest and benefit. 

 

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Judy Bird says:

    Have been following these posts and am pleased to see so many academic threads and much research brought together into a whole that supports the anecdotal.
    I have difficulty with the absolute in the heading ‘Why Fiction is a Safe Space for Processing Traumatic Experience’ having found that many find reading and/or writing fiction that processes such trauma as re-traumatising unless they have specific support (that works with the specific fiction in either reading (bibliotherapy) or writing) and/or the resources, ability and resilience to research and apply that research as you have. I would have shared this post had the heading said that it ‘can be’ a safe place rather than it ‘is’.
    Your remarkable abilities are not shared by many who have suffered trauma, so while I applaud this cohesion of so many ideas into an applicable whole to support the idea of writing as a strong form of therapy, it must be borne in mind that writing without support to offer the shifts in perspective required can be counterproductive.
    My congratulations on such lucid postings on this topic.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for you response Judy.

    There is truth in what you say, I stand gratefully corrected and have amended the title accordingly. I appreciate you bringing the implications of ‘is’ rather than ‘can be’ to my attention as that was unintentional and an oversight on my behalf. The best circumstances for a survivor being able to have access to the benefits of fiction writing and reading is through a therapeutic fiction writing course taken alongside therapy so it does not become a re-traumatising experience. I am doing all I can to making these courses an available, accessible and affordable option.

    Best,
    Angelina

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I enjoyed reading your post and gained some helpful information which supports some of my own post-traumatic growth understanding and further added to my knowledge bank about post-traumatic growth overall… thank you Karen…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for your response Karen!

    You’re very welcome. I’m very happy that this post had some helpful information to offer you and added to your understanding of post-traumatic growth.

    Kindest Wishes,
    Angelina

    Like

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