Trauma, Fiction and Ethics (Part 1)


Transcript to the lecture written for the Institute of Koorie Education

Presented 17th August 2016

Dr Angelina Mirabito

White Female Caucasian Perspective and Approach to Telling a Trauma Fiction:

My story and approach to writing trauma fiction is the effect of my white Caucasian Western female experience. It’s a product of complex childhood trauma including emotional, verbal, financial, physical and sexual abuse within a highly patriarchal Italian-Australian community. Catholicism and superstition within this insular family community in some instances bred perversion. In this context some men have abused their wives and children who were and in many ways still are either forbidden or too afraid to speak truthfully about the lives they have lived and in some cases still do.

It is only now, after much speculation and inquiry that I can say that an understanding of what fear and ignorance does to people who have and do repeatedly lose everything is the key to understanding the intergenerational story of trauma I was born into and has in many ways directly and indirectly informed the life I’ve gone onto live and the kind of trauma stories I write.

For Extra Context:

My grandparents on both sides were from the islands of Sicily, their families bartered for lack of money. As children they were sent to work on the fields with their parents from the time they could walk and so they remained as illiterate, afraid and superstitious as their parents. As young adults the men were required to participate in WWII and upon their return it was evident that survival on the Sicilian islands was no longer an option.

First the men got a boat to Australia, worked whatever jobs they could, saved and paid for their wives and children to follow. It was here that many of these women learned that the men they’d married before the war were no longer the same. They were now strangers to each other in a foreign land where they could neither speak nor understand the language. The women, like my paternal grandmother, did not learn to speak English as they stayed home raising the children, doing their and others’ housecleaning and like my maternal grandmother, worked in factories while the men learned what English they had to in order to get by in their full-time menial jobs.

My mother was born here and married very young and naively as a result of the Italian family community being all she was exposed to. She thought my dad was rich because he had a car while no one in her family had ever had one. Also, my dad looked like Elvis and she’d always fantasised about being Priscilla so they courted one another despite her family insisting my dad had a temper and was no good. Again my mum was very young and cared about being physically beautiful. She thought my dad was a spunk and promised to marry him when he threatened to kill himself if she didn’t.

I came into the picture within a year of my parents marrying. My mother valued keeping face like she had originally valued beauty and this increased with my father’s drinking and rage as the money it cost him to raise children bothered him more and more. My mother acted as though my dad didn’t have a drinking problem, that he never verbally humiliated her or hit me. To this day she acts as though my father is the greatest man but many saw and heard from the start the truth of the lives that we lived under my father’s reign in what he referred to as his ‘castle’.

No one ever dared stop or mention what they bore witness to. Perhaps they didn’t know how to but I think it might have been from the fear that they’d never see us again. My mother would have defended my father who would’ve insisted that we never see or speak to anyone who openly challenged or spoke ill of him again. And so silence to what everyone knew but never said is the through-line to the history from which all the stories I’ve ever written are influenced.

I grew up being warned never to speak about so many things that I stopped speaking altogether until I got into trouble because the primary school teacher wanted to send me to a psychologist. My mother told me to answer the math and spelling questions teachers asked in class to get them off her back so I did. The one time I trusted a cousin I idolised on my father’s side I got the strap because she told her parents I said my dad always hit me, drank and that I was afraid of him. From that day forward I’d assumed I’d die without telling anyone anything true about me ever again. That is until I found myself unable to stop speaking through the safety, protection, disguise, relief and survival I found in fiction writing the day I started my PhD in Creative Writing.

Due to cultural and ethnic differences our experiences, stories, emphasis and approaches are going to differ. Perhaps there may be instances of crossover and similarities? There might even be specific things that we do or ways we have of perceiving, thinking about or representing trauma that are useful to creatively appropriate and translate into expressing what it is, in essence, that we want to make known to others through story.

Working with traumatic content can be challenging and elusive, so we can never have too many resources in our creative took kit. The more awareness we have of ways to represent what we wish to communicate the more chance we have to identify the most effective metaphors, narrative techniques and ways of manipulating story design to produce powerful stories that ring emotionally and psychologically true.


What is Trauma?

Trauma, can only be labelled as such for the traumatic effect a specific period, event, incident or encounter leaves on the individual which is why it is now clinically referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The survivor’s experience defies coherence, and therefore the civilizing principles of logic, time, order and words. These are also the very building blocks for story which is, in essence, all about structure so trauma and story are in fact unlikely bedfellows and a fundamental problem we, as storytellers need to creatively solve in ways that are appropriate to each project.

Because story is structure it demands sufficient context be given so what takes place throughout the beginning, middle and end not only makes sense but offers sufficient meaning, significance and transformation. Classical stories are about change that results from the obstacles overcome in the middle and writers are taught to include content manipulated according to the rules of cause and effect, set up and pay off. Life, especially trauma, is not at all so neatly organised. There is no author editing, drafting and manipulating a trauma survivor’s life story into something logical, easy to digest, assimilate and grow from.

And yet stories are universal to how we remember, share a sense of who, what we are and are a specific way of making connections. Through story we come to reveal, learn and make sense of ourselves and each other, so when traumatic experience cuts us out of our own narrative, continuity, coherence and ability to articulate and assert ourselves, alienation is one of the many negatives we experience as a consequence. Not only from others but from ourselves.

To be clear on what I mean by this, we become unconscious unto ourselves. In clinical terms this is referred to as dissociation. Being able to give a narrative or story of self is to be conscious of the relationship between our experience and the meaning we attribute to it once having organised events and significant moments in regards to how the past effects our present sense of self, others, the world and our present reactions to situations that arise in our everyday lives. This capacity to organise experience according to time and words also makes it possible to logically identify how we might envision ourselves progressing into the future and what we need to do in order to have the best chance of fulfilling our hopes and aspirations. Some people do it through writing up five-ten-fifteen year plans. However unprocessed or untold trauma destroys one’s capacity for this. Survivors mentally and emotionally remains paralysed in the past because they’ve not processed what happened sufficiently enough to recognise it as past tense.

In other words, undigested trauma is compelled to continue living unseen and unheard in the individual’s mind, body and emotional life. In this respect Freud’s notion of ‘repetition compulsion’, is interesting to think about because it does seem as though there is truth in the idea that the presence of trauma continues to express itself symptomatically through physical ailments, repeating toxic relationship dynamics and compulsive maladaptive behaviour. In this way, unconscious content might be regarded as always using metaphor to indirectly tell and make known it’s truth. Since story is metaphor in addition to being structure, fiction becomes a very apt space for engaging with trauma content:

  1. Because trauma can only be known and articulated through metaphor.
  1. Trauma has no structure, order or coherence to it so fiction serves to supply this so that survivor writers may arrange and organise the content in a way that does make sense. Fiction can hold the trauma in a way that the survivor cannot until some assistance has been given in order to digest and make bearable the experience.

Trauma and Story

The intention of this paper is to facilitate a safe holding space to discuss what it can and might mean to construct stories from how unspeakable human experience can be. The challenges and problems faced by storytellers working with trauma content in fiction are as complex as the ethical questions that inevitably arise throughout the creative process. It is my hope that as fellow creative practitioners we can be of assistance to each other by sharing effective strategies and ways of thinking in order to overcome such technical and emotional obstacles. A major one being that from the outset, we don’t necessarily know how to do, clarify or create what we feel driven, inspired or even haunted to manifest.

For example, during most of my PhD I found it impossible to explain what it was exactly that I was doing. I didn’t know what my argument was despite spending every free waking hour working on it. I lacked the necessary theoretical and concrete understanding and objectivity to explain and situate myself both creatively and academically and yet I couldn’t refrain from blindly speeding ahead according to my gut instinct and feverish compulsion to write. I just had to finish what I’d started writing so I could find out what I was saying.

There was no space in my head or heart for anything other than arriving at the end. All the words were fighting their way out at once. People spoke to me but I had no idea what they’d said or what I was trying to say back. I cancelled all the commitments I could and switched off my phone to write until I was empty enough to again see, hear, taste, smell, think and speak.

It was quite disturbing to find that not long after I finished writing my initial draft the compulsion to keep writing returned. For the most part all I could function to do was to trust my instincts would get me through the word document I needed to tame if it was ever going to make sense. But weekly, the story coming out of me grew bigger, evermore incoherent and overshadowed every other aspect of my life so that I lost all sense of who I was outside of the childhood experiences that had affected me.

Furthermore, my fictional story had become enmeshed with my autobiographical one. For this reason, the writing practice was consuming me from the inside out. It was the source of numerous story problems that needed to be overcome through addressing my longstanding personal problems. To grow into a fiction writer, I had to grow beyond the way in which my autobiographical trauma story was affecting me. I didn’t know this at the time though.

I just felt desperate to write out every last word so I could go back and read them to get a sense of the whole picture because the fragments told me nothing I could understand or work constructively with. I was also terrified all of it may prove non-sense and I would not be able to creatively and critically make an original contribution to knowledge with it. I was afraid that I was wasting the precious time and opportunity I’d been given by the university.

I hid how scared, embarrassed, lost and fragmented I felt inside the word document I continued adding too and refusing to show anyone. Instead of reading over what I’d written more words kept cascading out. The sentences continued so fast that I couldn’t remain conscious to what it actually was that they were saying. There was no punctuation, story design or any semblance of a plan, just speed, gaps and misspellings. What was on the page mirrored the behaviour of traumatic memory in that it was very repetitive, circular, polarised, fragmented and for the most part, incoherent.

To put it simply there was insufficient context for any of it to make sense, have meaning or significance. It had no logic, understanding or order. It wasn’t until later drafts that I had the capacity to effectively employ the elements of fiction to layer in story design and organise the content according to structure; activate metaphor through a strategic image system; series of events; recurring settings; deliberate scenes, cast of recurring characters with their own arcs; first person point of view; a sense of time and a nuanced depiction of place to produce something that moved forward and had meaning. Once I could actively own the role of author in the novel I could plot out a story, and an emotional and character arc that demonstrated change and growth through the subtle transformations set up to take place after the climax.

While writing the initial drafts though, all I managed to decipher was whether the word at hand felt and sounded right. I wrote from a predominately unconscious state and cared only about the rhythm of words strung together. I was ignorant to the fact that I was triggered and recording on the page the past I was mentally, emotionally and physically re-experiencing and yet completely separate from. I didn’t have the capacity to see the connection between myself and what I was remembering. I thought this was my imagination dictating to me the story of the main character, Lumina who I insisted had nothing to do with me.

I couldn’t stay mentally present while I wrote so I couldn’t rely on my mind to consciously guide me through this process, make any sense of it or facilitate order. At this stage I couldn’t fulfill the duties of my role as a writer because I couldn’t do what writers do. They make choices, choices according to what best serves the story they wish to tell. They have a very specific agenda and think through what to run with by identifying the best option to serve this purpose or focus. The end point they envision is the rationale for how a scene unfolds, what characters say, reveal and the manner or pace in which it all unfolds. Each detail is considered with regard to its role and function in the story as a whole. Often less is more and scenes, characters and settings need to be fused or cut out altogether.

I felt my way through what would become the novel Warrior many times before developing a capacity to cognitively stay present enough to understand what was going on and take control of the story. To take control of this project and PhD was synonymous with taking control of my life. Life had always seemed like it was happening to me but as I learned to call the shots as the author of a novel, it became clear to me that I was now the adult who could deliberately call the shots in my life. I could take the time to be aware of all the automatic self-sabotaging choices I was making, take responsibility and change the story I was but didn’t want to be living. How this worked became clearer as I became increasingly able to distinguish and organise in two separate word documents what belonged to my autobiographical story to be discussed in therapy and what was essential to the novel I was writing for readers and the PhD.


Continued in Part 2


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