Continued from Part 1
Transcript to the lecture written for the Institute of Koorie Education
17th August 2016.
Dr Angelina Mirabito
The Problem of Telling Trauma Stories:
The body is the primary place or landscape in which traumatic experience is remembered in disorganised fragments re-experienced outside linear time. Consequently, the creative component to my creative writing PhD was, for the first three drafts, a structureless mess. I had no idea how to turn it into the novel I could see in my mind’s eye. In fact there is no end to just how much I didn’t know at the beginning of my PhD and the trauma fiction writing journey. The most significant ignorance being that I:
- Did not know that I was writing about trauma or what that word which I felt a physical aversion to even meant
- That I was in fact an adult survivor of complex childhood trauma. I didn’t know a lot of the way I was, behaved and reacted was due to post traumatic stress disorder, I just thought I was weird, a freak or simply not quite right and tried to hide my peculiarities as much as I could.
- That I was not making up a story but my mind was unloading a veiled account of what I refused to acknowledge as having happened to me and those I loved.
Rather the story world I believed I was fabricating according to my will haphazardly depicted how I’d grown up understanding life in a way that made it possible to survive the overwhelming fear and confusion. I had during my formative years developed all sorts of dissociation mechanisms and ways of rationalising why I deserved to be treated the way that I was. Through the cast of composite characters, I showed the reader how I’d grown up being treated and what I’d observed others doing to each other. I also made the protagonist strong and smart enough to take down the perpetrators. Everything I wrote betrayed all I had previously tried to forget and run away from. The main one being that unlike the protagonist I was a coward.
Until my PhD, I’d always done everything possible to keep my promise to never tell and now it was the only thing I would say. I could now write of it because I didn’t know I was. Through fiction I was indirectly and unconsciously addressing what I was terrified to disclose. It’s why whenever anyone asked me what my story and PhD was about the only answer I had was that I didn’t know. Had I consciously known, my arousal levels would’ve been raised so high I’d have drawn a blank. Fear would’ve had me paralysed and without words. It is only now that I can understand that many things needed to happen for me to be able to write the trauma fiction which became a novel titled Warrior – an adult survivor of childhood trauma coming of age story:
- I needed to believe it was fiction I was writing.
- I needed to have complete amnesia from what I was writing whenever I was writing it and the moment after I finished reading anything I’d written.
- I then had to speak to a therapist about my past that I was beginning to recall more of on a daily basis. I needed help to understand how it all worked, the psychologies of all those involved and why I was the way that I was.
- I needed to accept and forgive myself for the story I had lived and the trauma fiction I was writing. Instead of judging and be disgusted by it I needed to find a way to value the lessons and insight bound up with it.
- When I understood my story I could remove all of it from the fiction because it was completely unnecessary and irrelevant to the story I wanted to tell. To craft Warrior into an effective piece of fiction was to allow it to become something completely separate from and independent of myself.
- This allowed me to create a world and story in which things made sense in a way that they couldn’t in life. It allowed me to include things to make the trauma content included bearable and give the reader, protagonist and myself a sense of satisfaction. It allowed me use lies to express an emotional and psychological truth that a listing of the facts is unable to communicate. I could say everything I wanted to without feeling guilty or afraid of the consequences which would’ve had me lying had I been writing non-fiction. Because I in no way betrayed anyone’s identity or the facts of what happened I did not need to apply for ethics during my PhD but that wasn’t ever the issue for me. What I had to come to terms with was giving myself permission to write the only thing I had to say and that was by using fiction in a way that told the truth without any facts.
I want to also acknowledge that there was part of me that was marginally aware of the meaning and significance of what I was doing as I continued to write my initial drafts. I felt the weight of responsibility of writing on what no one else I’d known could because of how they’d been adversely effected by the long-term effects of trauma and in some cases drugs and alcohol. Unlike them I’d somehow managed to go to and remain at university where I’d spent years studying and learning how to use words and understand things that made it possible for me to figure out how to begin tackling the unspeakable and this PhD was my chance.
Whether I was ready or not part of me knew now was the opportunity I might never again get. For three years the university would pay me to read, research and write about what I wanted to work on. I felt it was my duty to use the privilege I had to expose how things really were in the world I came from because I was sick of hearing other people tell me about their romantic idealised version of the Italian family I came from, how I must be one of them good, loyal Italian girls who knew how to cook and how the unemployed bums that had lived in my street and who I had served at the local pub should just clean themselves up and get it together.
The upper middle class people I had come to live among as a resident tutor at one of the wealthiest colleges spoke a lot about the problems in outer working class suburbia, assuming that I wasn’t one of them. They, like their very involved parents, seemed to be coming from a genuine place when they spoke but they were speaking in a reductive manner about people I’d grown up with who didn’t experience the solutions to be as easy as these people suggested they were. It became apparent to me that outer working class suburbia had only ever been exposed to these people theoretically.
They didn’t have the relevant experience or exposure to understand the unemployed and addicted individuals they spoke of. The individuals I loved, missed and had left behind. These people I’d watch suffer greatly, visited in clinics, drank with, attended funerals with and observed try and fail over and over again to make their lives work the best they could with what they understood and had. I felt very angry as these impeccably groomed individuals spoke and always ended up excusing myself from the conversation to lock myself in the nearest toilet cubical to cry because I didn’t know how to speak in a way that they would see differently.
So I’ve only ever written about Chelsea and its surrounding suburbs at the end of the Frankston line. I care deeply about exploring and giving voice, literary presence, representation and depth to these people so often spoken for by those whose interpretation seems to reduce, judge and erase through over-generalisation the beauty, poetry and suffering these people unwittingly pass on from one generation to the next. Those that have inspired my writing do not typically read or speak about their emotional experience rather they sedate it through addictions or act it out through reckless behaviour. In fiction I try to show enough for these people and the stories they live out to be seen as complex, worthy of respect and significant. I also write stories that are influenced by the Italian-Australians I know to speak back to all the times I’ve been told by others what growing up must’ve been like for me, and who and what I am as a result, to make it explicitly clear that the Italian experience so many assume I was so lucky to have has nothing to do with the reality I experienced.
Confidence, connection, acceptance and the willingness to allow others to help me were all things I lacked but would learn towards the end of my PhD. In fact, it’s what made it possible for me to finish. After my second year of candidature intermission, I returned to my PhD and would return to the project over and over again after repeated periods of abandonment to write the story it took me a long time to realise and accept was about trauma.
When one of my supervisors first told me that I was writing about trauma and had I thought about how I’d address it in the theoretical component I nearly chocked on the words asking for clarification as to what this meant exactly. My PhD seemed to this person to be very much about intergenerational trauma at a time that I was still very unconscious of what I writing. Although this person was 100% right I stared back in shock not knowing why such a thing would ever be said. “Trauma?” I sincerely believed that trauma had nothing to do with anything I was trying to figure out
I felt convinced that my supervisor and I weren’t on the same page or even in the same book because my supervisor was exactly where I didn’t have the cognitive capacity to be at that point in time. I wish my PhD hadn’t been as messy as it really was but two years into my PhD, I still didn’t know what I was doing. I could only do it. I was completely unable to commit to what it was about and in the same breath I refused to consider that it was about trauma.
I believed my supervisor didn’t understand. The truth was that it was me who didn’t and couldn’t understand. I simply thought I was writing about the way life really was for everyone, it’s just that no one would speak about it. “What did trauma have to do with it?” I remember wondering this over and over again. If my supervisor had of said it had to do with class I would have been able to make sense of that but trauma? It completely perplexed me. I didn’t know it then but my supervisor had identified the problem I was experiencing with my novel and project: the fact that I didn’t know what I needed to do in order to make it work had everything to do with not understanding that I was indeed writing about intergenerational trauma. And that I was using fiction as a way to help myself continue to survive because for so many different reasons I’d promised a lot of people that I’d never say a word and the silence was making me sick because it had grown heavier than I was. I wanted to cope like I always had but couldn’t.
Life had always felt confusing but I just knew it could make sense if people could just see all the details we went out of our way to hide. That’s what I thought I was doing in my story, telling it how it really was. I didn’t understand that what I understood life to be was what my supervisor could see classified as trauma. That it wasn’t how everyone’s life was. I was so offended, mad and confused I found myself running away again by taking another year off my PhD.
I’m embarrassed to admit this but the truth is I even went so far as to swap supervisors for the second time. I really thought no one understood and this would have continued had I not started to be the one to understand. Not only did I need to understand what I was writing about but I needed to then accept it. I am truly sorry for how all over the place my PhD journey was and all the supervisor changing I went through because I didn’t know that I was being triggered and suffering from PTSD but I am grateful for the grace, acceptance and patience afforded me
I spent weeks walking the streets trying to figure out why on earth I’d ever write about trauma. How could I write about it if I didn’t know what it was? I was so against the idea that I refused to do a Google search to begin finding out what it even meant.
During this candidature intermission I got very sick and stopped leaving the house. In fact for four weeks the only time I got out of bed was to use the toilet. I got suicidal and ended up seeing a psychologist again. I started doing what I always did in therapy and brought in whatever it was I was writing at the time: a short story, collection, poem and in this case a novel.
It wasn’t long before this concept of trauma came up again and I told my therapist what happened when my previous PhD supervisor said this ugly word that had nothing to do with me. She sat with me while I unpacked why I hated the sound of the word, how I didn’t know what it meant and why I didn’t want to know a thing more on it. She proceeded to discuss its meaning and the reasons why she had associated it with my story. She gave me literature to read on it and pretty soon I became obsessed with understanding what trauma is. It is precisely from this conversation onward that I actually started to hear what my story was saying. It is also the moment that would begin what will be my life’s work: advocating for the therapeutic value of reading and writing trauma fiction featuring Posttraumatic Growth.
Continued in Part 3
This part includes what I wanted to also incorporate in the lecture but couldn’t due to time constraints.