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 is a product of complex childhood trauma including emotional, verbal, financial, physical and sexual abuse within a patriarchal Italian-Australian community context. Catholicism and superstition within this insular family community in some instances bred perversion. For example, 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.
After much speculation and inquiry, I have come to understand that fear and ignorance distorts can people that have never recovered from having lost everything. For both of my grandparents and those, they immigrated with lost family, friends and the life and place that they had known to have a chance at a life beyond abject poverty in Australia. Understanding the impact of this loss has been key to making sense of the intergenerational story of trauma into which I was born. For this complex trauma has in many ways, directly and indirectly, informed the trajectory of my life so far and the kind of trauma stories I have written and continue to write.
Immigrant Generation Context:
My grandparents on both sides are from the islands of Sicily where 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. For my maternal grandmother, this meant that she remained as illiterate, afraid and superstitious as her parents. While my paternal grandmother was literate but experienced more trauma than my maternal grandmother, she married God after her husband's death and never left the house.
When my grandparents were young adults during the 1940a, 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. My paternal grandmother being among them. It is the only thing I ever remember saying about her deceased husband. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for her. Her and her husband having had become strangers to each other in a foreign land where they could neither speak nor understand the English language. The women, like my paternal grandmother, did not learn to speak English as they stayed home to raise the children, clean, cook and take on other housecleaning jobs. My maternal grandmother, worked in factories while the men learned what English they had to to get by in their full-time menial jobs.
Second Generation Italian-Australian Context:
My mother was born here and married very young and naively as a result of the Italian family community was all that 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 cared about keeping ,’face like she had initially 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 believes that my father is the greatest. However, something of the lives that we actually lived under my father’s reign in what he referred to as his ‘castle’ was evident to others. While they noticed what they saw and heard at family gatherings they never actually said or did anything to stop it.
For no one ever dared intervene on what they witnessed. Perhaps they did not know how to, but I think it might have been from the fear that they would never see us again. My mother would have defended my father who would have 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.
As a Sicilian-Australian female, silence is what I was born into--a world of yelling and demanding men. The silence has many forms and continues to muzzle me. Silence is like a survival instinct; I'm only conscious of after the fact. I have disappeared inside the words I never say, disguised them in fiction and thrown them up. It has only ever been specific men that my silence has protected.
I learned how to be silent from the strap, threats that my brother's life would be the price if I spoke and that if I said a word, I'd be believed to be crazy. I was warned never to talk about so many things growing up that I stopped talking altogether. It got even more confusing when I got into trouble from my mother because the primary school teacher wanted to send me to a psychologist for not talking. My mother told me to answer the math, and spelling questions in class to get the teachers off her back, so I did. The one time I trusted a cousin I idolized 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 within the safety and disguise of fiction. I kept writing right through to a Ph.D. in Creative Writing.
Due to cultural and ethnic differences our experiences, stories, emphasiscivilisingand 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 is useful to creatively appropriate and translates 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 toolkit. 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 methods of manipulating story design to produce compelling stories that ring emotionally and psychologically true.
What is Trauma?
Trauma can only be labeled 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 a story which is, in essence, all about structure, so trauma and story are unlikely bedfellows and a fundamental problem we, as storytellers need to solve in ways that are appropriate to each project creatively.
Because the 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 organized. 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 we are and what we are. They are a specific way of intimately connecting with others. Through the story, we come to reveal, learn and make sense of ourselves and others. When traumatic experience cuts us out of our narrative, continuity, coherence and ability to articulate and assert ourselves we feel alienated from others and ourselves.
To be alienated unto ourselves is reffered to in clinical terms 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. Meaning is attributed to organised events and significant moments in regards to how the past affects our present sense of self, others, the world and our 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 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 remain paralysed in the past because they have not processed what happened sufficiently enough to integrate 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 tell and make known its truth indirectly. Since story is metaphor in addition to being structure, fiction becomes a very apt space for engaging with traumatic content:
- Because trauma can only be known and articulated through metaphor.
- Trauma has no structure, order or coherence whereas fiction does. Survivor writers may then arrange and organise the content in a way that does make sense. Fiction is able to hold the trauma in a way that the survivor cannot. Assistance is required to make unsayable experience digestable and assimilated.