Trauma, Fiction and Ethics (Part 3)

Continued from Part 2

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In this Trauma Fiction and Ethics series, I look at the ways in which fiction can give the permission, possibility and safety required to speak. To break through the silence that threatens to drown the core sound trauma survivors continue to hold somatically (physically and symptomatically) within the body and soul (psyche) until they hear and know themselves and are heard and known by others. According to their truth. No matter how ugly, threatening or hurtful.

It is my hope that we, as trauma survivors, might seize the opportunity to reach out, connect and in time emerge as a community to be the support we need through dialogue, sharing what works and helps and giving that unparalleled recognition that comes with mutual understanding. That through creative writing we might connect, engage with, contribute and build upon a constructive sharing of the challenges, uncertainty and potential loopholes fiction offers in our struggle to represent through story that which, for many reasons, is impossible to directly say and factually recount.

Years of research, practice and experience in reading and writing trauma fiction, evolved my understanding of how tales crafted and refined through the governing elements of fiction may indeed allow for outcomes that offer powerful emotional journeys to communicate something of the effects after trauma and the possibility of Posttraumatic Growth.

Fiction, unlike non-fiction, is at liberty to privilege the telling of tales that prioritise the emotional and psychological truths of the journeys depicted. They may include multiple points of view rather than a strict adherence to facts which do not express what such experiences feel like and mean to the individual, family, place or community.

Rather fiction is, in many ways, a malleable genre that allows storytellers to take what they will from life, research and imagination. And because of this collage-like capacity, it becomes possible to break the silence on truths we might never otherwise find ourselves able to directly speak or write about for the unfortunate fear of betraying all that our silence protects for a multitude of complex reasons. Fiction is a space where survivor writers can feel the fear and yet remain safe to write it out anyway as they find and develop their own, personal language and form to express what’s always screaming, at varying intensities, from within. Because of

  • story design,
  • cast of characters,
  • place,
  • recurring settings within the place,
  • point of view,
  • voice,
  • image system,
  • events,
  • encounters,
  • dialogue,
  • arcs

fiction can actively challenge and work around what is unsayable through metaphor much like physical and behavioural symptoms function. Only unlike fiction, they typically have adverse consequences on survivors’ health.

For me personally, engaging with traumatic content was initially only ever possible when mediated through fiction. Despite years of therapy, well-meaning individuals and medication as well as self-medication, fiction worked in a way that nothing else could in order to get me to speak on what mattered deeply to me. When I started my creative writing PhD in 2009, fiction became the one space in which I’ve been able to—over time—make conscious contact with and fully recognise the story of my complex childhood trauma for what it was. This started to take place sixteen years after the point in my life where the trauma started to decrease and five years after it more or less stopped altogether.

What needs to be clear is that I began writing indirectly about my story without realising I was doing so. As far as I was concerned the story I was creating was 100% made up and inspired by the working class struggles (such as addiction, poverty, gambling, domestic violence, acting out) I’d grown up among, hung out with, partook in and served at the Chelsea RSL, located towards the end of the Frankston Line. This all took place just as I acquired a resident tutor position at the prestigious and breathtakingly beautiful building and gardens known as Queen’s College. I lived and worked here as an English and Creative Writing teacher and mentor as well as being a creative writing tutor to undergraduates studying Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne.

This very clean, cultured upper middle class environment couldn’t have been more foreign to the only company I’d ever lived or worked among so I wrote about what was familiar and therefore felt more ‘real’, ‘known’ and ‘true’ to me. The ideas, narrative voice and scenes came flooding in. I was afraid of the children of lawyers, doctors, deans, dentists, well known families, and very successful businessmen who were so well-adjusted, quiet, pleasant and full of smiles that I just couldn’t relate.

They told stories of how their parents had attended the same college and met here like their parents had. No one swore when they spoke or lit up a cigarette before mentioning all the things ticking them off. None of this made sense to me or felt true and as time went on I was sad to learn that not all was as perfect as it appeared.  At the beginning though, the biggest thing I couldn’t get my head around was the fact that I was actually being paid to be in the same place as these people who I was supposed to teach. But I had no idea what it was that I could teach them as it was me who was learning in abundance from them.

It seemed as though they knew far more than I could pretend to. They’d traveled, regularly attended the ballet, theater… knew their way around a sophisticated, aesthetically pleasing and refined world that I’d certainly fantasised about but never actually expected to be in it. Now that I was I didn’t know how to behave or present myself. These people had a power, freedom, wealth, calmness and leisure that I craved.

The world I was made of didn’t know how to connect with such privilege, our worlds don’t typically breathe in such intimate proximity. I tried imitating them but found myself feeling bored and empty because I didn’t have a history that rendered such protocols meaningful and of importance to me. My values and perspective were different and it never occurred to me that this could be okay.

I was totally taken by how beautiful all the money I was surrounded by but didn’t have made daily life. I breathed convinced that these people were inherently better than me in every way and if I just figured out how to become better I’d be important enough to have the kind of beauty money could afford too. To be worthy of my position among them and role as a university tutor, I stopped drinking, smoking and abusing pharmaceuticals as though I didn’t want there to be a tomorrow like I had a habit of doing in Chelsea. I got on with what I was there for; to fund my way through a PhD in Creative Writing and with the scholarship save until I could afford my way independently in this incredible aesthetic world.

I’d only ever written short stories, poetry and essays for uni so I focused hard on learning how to write a novel. I was too arrogant then to realise how much I didn’t know that I didn’t have a clue as to what to do. I dealt with my conscious fear of this seemingly sophisticated and knowledgeable world like I did all my fear now that drugs and alcohol weren’t an option; through writing and running around Princess Park as though my life depended on it.

To stop drinking, smoking and self-medicating the way I had in Chelsea since thirteen was hard. I couldn’t stop sweating, crying and feeling angry. I needed to be alone so I locked myself in my room and wrote, lying to anyone who asked about a deadline I always seemed at my wits end to meet. Truth is I had imposed the deadline upon myself to keep focused and as clean as everyone here seemed to be. I gave the impression that these deadlines had been assigned by the uni, competitions… and while this wasn’t a lie I couldn’t exactly tell them that it was so important to me because it was the only way I knew how to become worthy of my position. I was withdrawing hard, fast and with fury and wouldn’t dare admit it or that I was terrified of how calm and quiet this place was. I took all my restless energy and raw anger out on my word document, completely losing myself in the process.

I believed it was the character, Lumina, whose story it was that I was feverishly scribing. I believed divine inspiration was completely taking over. The story was so cruel, dark and heartbreaking it’s actually now humorous to think I could’ve perceived the vision as divinely inspired. There wasn’t a divine word in it. Perhaps I needed to think this in order to give myself permission to keep going or at the very least not to hate on myself while I wrote it.

The only person I eventually let read it was one of the few friends who refused to let me disappear from her life. We met at a writers’ festival through a mutual writer friend and have been great allies ever since. She said my story was sad, real sad. She often said this about my writing but this time it put my defenses right up. “What do you mean sad?” I thought as my body stiffened. “It’s not that sad. I’d deliberately made it absurd in parts to make the reader laugh.” So I ran through my memory, searching for what it was that I’d written to make her think it was so sad. That’s when I became self-conscious and felt like a weirdo with a really sick imagination because it occurred to me that what I had put the protagonist through was awful. I started feeling just how much I hated the protagonist. In the word document I’d treated her like the boxing bag I used myself for in the manner my dad had.

A lot of time still had to pass before I would first listen to what I was saying in the story I was writing and give it the degree of cohesion, relief and love characters in story demand in order for the readers to love them too. I had to learn a lot in order to be able to understand the story from each character’s point of view and stop hating the character that most resembled myself. This required unpacking the autobiographical story of my family members’ experiences with trauma over the generations as well as that of the community and place I had grown up in. To understand them was to understand the composite characters they inspired. To find compassion, consideration and love for my protagonist meant I had to confront the self-loathing and need to punish, hurt and sabotage myself.

Continued in Part 4

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