In fiction, the story of how complex childhood trauma effects adult life is at liberty to find the most effective representation for psychological and emotional truth because it is not strictly limited by non-fiction’s arguably allegiance to facts; memory; case studies; research or clinical theorisation. All of these elements can be used to inform the fiction written, so that in essence, a survivor-writer can recognize the most effective form (story world, sequence of events, cast of characters, dialogue, location, narrative voice, setting) to express psychological and emotional truth alongside resonating with the facts of realities being lived. In fiction, this can be done without having to compromise the most effective means of telling a story that gives the reader an emotional journey and insight to inner rather than the actual life of a complex trauma survivor.
A survivor-writer is free to fabricate or elaborate on events and characters, to choose an appropriate time period, organise their own logic and coherent unfolding of events. With poignant setting, composite characters, dialogue and, of course, the fictional ‘I’ to narrate and translate emotional and psychological truth into the story which is structurally designed to meet our human need for meaning and significance. The human needs are rarely encountered in the actual lives of those affected by complex childhood trauma.
Aside from being able to make something meaningful and constructive out of the traumatic experience and to fabricate a satisfactory story resolution, the fictional ‘I’ also gives the survivor-writer space and a mask through which to expose how traumatic experience feels. While, at the same time, being held as safe and protected as possible within the structure of story which must keep moving towards climax; protagonist’s arc, growth or irreversible shift. This is classically towards the positive as a reward for the reader persisting through the middle filled with obstacles, lessons and minor turning points.
Another of the many reasons fiction is a safe and empowering space to engage with traumatic content is due to the survivor-protagonist being a construction that can have much or very little in common with its survivor-author. The choice of what takes place on the otherwise blank page is always the survivor-writers and for someone who has experienced abuse how important this is this cannot be emphasised enough.
In writing the novel Just Breathe, I gave the protagonist the courage, strength, support, persistence and capacity to take risks that I wished I had. However, through the writing process of revising and analysing the subtext of every scene, I gradually came to exercise these qualities myself. The practice I got from examining the exchanges between characters helped me start seeing with clarity the relationship dynamics at work in my life where I was silently compliant in encounters and activities I had no authentic desire to participate in. Through taking this revelation to therapy, I came to realise that my core belief was that I had no right to say no and what I wanted didn’t matter. Because how this contrary core belief functioned how I negotiated my way amongst others made sense. Although I didn’t want to continue this way, didn’t mean changing was as easy as pressing an off button.
Instead, my transformation was gradual, took practice, caused much discomfort, confrontation and sometimes rejection from those uncompromisingly accustomed to my doing what they wanted. This shift in me was synonymous with coming to believe in, love and root for my protagonist Lumina with a conviction that she had the right to speak her mind and live according to her values and truth. Like following in the footsteps of an older sibling, I too refused to continue playing the submissive, hidden role that had me stuck in a lifestyle and company I couldn’t breathe amongst. In giving Lumina the courage, strength, conviction and persistence required to change I indirectly gave it to myself too. By vicariously experiencing my protagonist beginning to be active in the way I wanted to be I became more like this alongside her. To clarify, I did not become my protagonist but came to unearth unactivated qualities in me parallel to the growth of Lumina, the fictional ‘I’ Warrior is narrated through.
Dorothy Allison gives us an example of other advantages of writing fiction in Bastard Out of Carolina, which is highly derivative of her childhood, and yet it is not constrained by the facts and in no way encompasses the degree of actual abuse Allison was subject to since she was five. Instead, we have a story that involves the violence and sexual abuse from which Bone suffered since the age of seven, and which culminates in Daddy Glen sexually penetrating her at twelve. The resolution assures us that this is the last time he ever sees or touches Bone. Again, this is not an exact mirroring of Allison’s experience which did not have such a clear structural arc. The structure is an attribute of the story, not life. When we tell a story, we translate something of the life we experience through the structure for it to make sense and have meaning.
There is a multitude of reasons why Allison, like the other survivor-writers considered in previous posts, choose fiction rather than memoir to tell a trauma story. The main being that fiction is at liberty to ‘lie’ to tell metaphorical and experiential truths, which do not typically become visible from documenting verbatim facts and memory. Furthermore, in fiction, the survivor-writer can create a sense of meaning and significance to experience that until writing remained chaotic, confusing and meaningless.
Once the survivor-writer writes a cohesive fiction, their own traumatic experience at the level of symbol and metaphor (which is the language of the unconscious where trauma is stored) is processed, and an irreversible shift or growth towards the positive takes place. This is due to the creative writing process being a conversation between unconscious and conscious content, where the survivor-writer gains in an indirect way a sense of coherence, order and conscious mastery over their own complex trauma. Wish fulfilment, and the playful, imaginative aspect of fiction plays a significant role in this as the survivor-writer is able to intuitively draw on their own inner creative resources to make trauma bearable through inserting a friend, safe place or intervention.
Fiction invites the fabrication of coherence, story logic and where linearity threads together the story where life and the nature of how traumatic memory works does not. Witnessing through the novel, a gradual escalation of Allison’s protagonist, Bone’s emotional, mental, verbal, physical and sexual abuse, the reader neither gets desensitised because of the variation nor traumatised. The survivor-writer Allison, in turn, do something constructive, contained and authoritative with traumatic content. Unlike the experience of complex trauma, in fiction, she can use the linear time to gradually unfold the way Bone experiences, reacts to and is impacted by each progression in the severity of Daddy Glen’s abuse.
This is not true of Allison’s autobiographical experience with her stepfather’s abuse, but fiction has allowed an authentic fabrication conveying something of her emotional and psychological truth and a fictional representation to capture and communicate something of the experience and inner world in a way that makes sense. Furthermore, Bone’s different coping mechanisms against the terror in which she lives includes allowing the reader to see Daddy Glen as a fully realised character, rather than an unadulterated monster. Daddy Glen is depicted as a pathetically broken man whom Bone’s mother ultimately chooses every time. This maternal betrayal seems the most hurtful of Bone’s extreme ongoing traumas.
I could see her fingers on Glen’s shoulder, see the white knuckles holding him tight. My mouth closed over the shout I would not let go. Rage burned in my belly and came up my throat. I’d said I could never hate her, but I hated her now for the way she held him, the way she stood there crying over him. Could she love me and still hold him like that? I let my head fall back. I did not want to see this. I wanted Travis’s shotgun, or my sharp killing hook. I wanted everything to stop, the world to end, anything, but not to lie bleeding while she held him and cried.
Allison 1992, 291
In The New York Times interview by Alexis Jetter with Allison entitled ‘The Rosanne of Literature’ (1995), the author alludes to the autobiographical associations between her mother and the mother featured in the novel, as well as her stepfather and Daddy Glen.
When Allison was 8, her stepfather beat her so badly that her mother took her three daughters to a motel for two weeks. But Ruth Allison, who worked for 40 years as a waitress – “teasing quarters out of truckers and dimes out of hairdressers” – couldn’t support her girls on her own. When she ran out of money, they all went back home.
Only when she was 11 could Dorothy tell a cousin that her stepfather was raping her. The cousin told Dorothy’s mother, who packed up her daughters again. But the stepfather swore he’d stop, and they returned. “We sat in her Pontiac, in the driveway, and she explained to me why we were going back,” Allison recalls. “She promised me that it would never happen again. She kept her promise. He beat me for five years after that, but that particular kind of sex stopped.”
Writing became an act of resistance; only in that way could she control how the story ended. But until the age of 24, Dorothy built a ritual fire each year, and burned every page. “One or two things I know for sure,” she writes in her memoir, “and one of them is what it means to have no loved version of your life but the one you make.”
Allison spent her childhood telling stories to her younger sisters and to herself. “I believe that storytelling can be a strategy to help you make sense out of your life,” she says. “It’s what I’ve done. ‘Bastard out of Carolina’ used a lot of the stories that my grandmother told me and some real things that happened in my life. But I took it over and did what my grandmother did: I made it a different thing. I made a heroic story about a young girl who faces down a monster.”
Jetter, Alexis. 1995. ‘The Roseanne of Literature’. New York Times Magazine. December 17. http://www.nytimes.com/1995/12/17/magazine/the-roseanne-of-literature.html (Accessed 19/4/2016)
As Allison asserts, fiction is a genre in which it is acceptable to manipulate, collate and appropriate from a multitude of influences so that original and authentic form. Using tactical patterning of images, motivated language and symbolisation, narrative structure, and characterisation) can be recognised and worked to effectively express internal (psychological and emotional) experience and include fantasy, which makes engaging with traumatic content bearable to both reader and writer. It also can incorporate the role of place, context and other figures’, stories or points of view that enable complex childhood trauma to be staged and therefore provide a holistic consideration of the consequent nexus to the adult’s limited situation, resources and circumstance.
Allison, as well as the survivor writers discussed in previous posts Sapphire and Benjamin Alire Sáenz, are all poets and political activists and Sáenz also a visual artist. They employ fiction as a creative space in which to engage aesthetically with trauma by depicting journeys through suffering. These stories demonstrate how beautifully, and poetically language can be expended to reflect the power of transformation, humour, persistence, transcendence, hope and profound insight. They make visible how deeply complex trauma takes one into the recesses of our human capacity to feel, think, suffer, do, persevere and renew. Their work demonstrates an interdisciplinary awareness of politics, psychology, art, film, literature, place, class, abnormal psychology, non-fiction, music and spirituality.
It seems to be because trauma is an interdisciplinary field that it can be most productively explored by fiction and thus facilitate its processing in a relatively safe, all-encompassing, integrative, creative, and empowering way. Furthermore, it also indirectly resonates with the work which is aimed for in therapy: a dialogue between the conscious and unconscious via the adult survivor-writer and text, instead of the analyst and analysand.
In a typical coming-of-age story, the protagonist loses their innocent, immature and naïve understanding throughout the narrative and enters into a state of relative wisdom and maturity. A child of complex trauma has lost their innocence and accessing the kind of acquired knowledge characterising experience is beyond their reach, given their thwarted development. The story, therefore, is not about moving forward and learning but going back to the past experience and developing a means through which to understand and contain it.
The subplot in a coming-of-age story, such as White Oleander by Janet Fitch, Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell, Butterfly by Sonia Harnett and Looking For Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta, is usually devoted to a love interest, sexual awakening and becoming a man or woman by the loss of virginity. The adult survivor of childhood complex trauma is preoccupied with the unresolved and internalised relationship with their abuser, who is often responsible for their first sexual experience. This relationship is what gets worked through as opposed to a love interest.
The protagonist in a classical coming-of-age-story defines themselves against the views and values of the previous generation. A survivor-protagonist is undergoing what it takes for them to break the silence and speak about the trauma they endured as a child. They challenge the perverted abuse of power in adults who are of the preceding generation. And in fiction things can be changed and distorted enough for the survivor-writer not to feel too exposed or vulnerable by communicating experiences they were most likely either threatened to never tell, too ashamed to speak of or in an environment in which to keep the abuse secret or hidden was implicitly known. There is also the child’s developmental inability to identify or put words to traumatic experience so with all the ways this silencing takes place it lives on in the adult who may find it more accessible, safer and possible to put words to trauma via the mask the fictional ‘I’ offers.
Furthermore, fiction turns down the volume on the degree of responsibility and self-hate or disgust that is unwarranted but too commonly fiercely felt by the survivor. In doing this becomes another way in which permission is given to tell what they’ve never before spoken of and remained sickened from the unbearable weight of continuing to carry it within.
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