The Problem of Telling Trauma Stories:
The body is the primary place or landscape in which traumatic experience re-members in disorganised memory fragments re-experienced outside linear time. Consequently, the creative component of 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 playing out like a movie in my mind. 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 the following:
- That I did not realise that I was writing about trauma or what that word which I felt a physical aversion to even meant
- I was unaware that I am an adult survivor of complex childhood trauma. Nor did I have any clue that a lot of the way that I was, behaved and reacted was due to post-traumatic stress disorder. I just thought I was weird, a freak or not quite right and tried to hide my peculiarities as much as I could.
- Most of all I had no idea that I was not making up a story. Rather, my mind was unloading a veiled account of what I refused to acknowledge as having happened to me and those that I loved.
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 strategies of rationalising why I deserved mistreatment and deprivation. Through the cast of composite characters, I showed the reader how I’d grown up 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 that I had previously tried to forget and run away from. The main one being that I was a coward and the protagonist was not.
Up until my PhD, I had done everything possible to keep my promise to never tell, and now it was the only thing could say without knowing that I was saying it. It was all that I could now write about because I did not realise that it was my life and experience that I was telling.
I was indirectly and unconsciously addressing what I was terrified to disclose through fiction. When anyone asked me what my story and PhD was about the only answer I had was that I didn’t know. I could not stop writing or working on the PhD. It was like a compulsion. The words kept pouring out of me, but I had absolutely no idea or recollection of what I had written. It makes sense that I could not have known. Had I been aware, my arousal levels would have been raised so high that I would have drawn a blank and never written a word. Fear would have 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 'Just Breathe' – 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.
- It was necessary for me to speak to a therapist about my past for I was beginning to recall more of it on a daily basis. Everything triggered me, no one and nowhere was safe. I was out of control, reactive, terrified and making a mess of life. Fiction and no one, nowhere and nothing else was safe. I needed help to understand why it felt like I was going crazy, how it all made sense, the psychologies of all those involved in my past and why I was the way that I was.
- I needed to know that I had nothing to be ashamed of, that the responsibility was not mine and that I was not a bad person. That I did not deserve the upbringing, I had. No one did.
- I needed to accept and forgive myself for the story I had lived and the trauma fiction I was writing. Instead of judging and being disgusted by it I needed to find a way to value the lessons and insight bound up with it.
- Once I finally came to know and understand my story it became possible for me to remove it from the fiction. 90% of it was completely unnecessary and irrelevant to the story I wanted to tell. To craft 'Just Breathe' into a useful piece of fiction it was necessary for me 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 life and people did not. It allowed me to manipulate the story to make the trauma content included bearable and give the reader, protagonist and myself comic relief, small mercies and a sense of satisfaction. I could use lies to express an emotional and psychological truth that an exact listing of what took place could never communicate. I could say what I wanted to without feeling guilty or afraid of the consequences which would have resulted in 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.What I had to come to terms with was permitting myself 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 also want to 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 from my past could because of adverse effects from 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. It hurt me when people told me about their idealised romantic version of the Italian family I came from and that I must be one of them good, loyal Italian girls, who knew how to cook. It upset me, even more, to be told that the unemployed bums that had lived in my street and who I had served at the local pub needed to 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 universities' wealthiest colleges spoke a lot about the problems in outer working class suburbia. They had assumed 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 spoke in a reductive manner. The problems were much more complicated than what these people assumed. For the people I had grown up with did not experience the solutions to be as easy as these people believed. It seemed as though the 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 discussed. The people I loved, missed and had left behind. The people I had 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 so angry as these impeccably groomed individuals spoke that I 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 that 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. I do my best 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 by the end of my PhD. It is 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. And about me.
When one of my supervisors first told me that I was writing about trauma, and had I thought about how I would address it in the theoretical component, I nearly choked as I asked for clarification as to what this meant exactly. My PhD had seemed to this person to be very much about intergenerational trauma at a time in which I was still very unconscious of what I was 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 writing about or trying to figure out.
I felt convinced that my supervisor and I weren’t on the same page or even in the same book. My supervisor could see what it was a matter of psychological survival at that point for me not to see. I wish my PhD had not been as messy as it was but two years into my PhD, I still didn’t know what I was doing. I could only do it. I was utterly unable to say what it was about, and in the same breath, I refused to consider that it was about trauma.
I believed that 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 was for everyone, it is 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 did not know what I needed to do 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 had promised a lot of people that I would never say a word. Being silent is worse than being invisible, it is like not existing. The silence had gone on for so long that it was making me sick as 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. I just knew that I would make sense to peole if they could just see all the details I and my family went out of our way to hide. That’s what I thought I was doing in my story, telling it how it was. Showing it all in a way that made sense. I didn’t understand that what I understood life to be was what my supervisor was full of abuse and neglect and classified as trauma. More than that I had no idea That it wasn’t how everyone’s life was. I was so offended, mad and confused by what my supervisor had to say that I found myself on the run again and 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 thought no one understood and this would have continued had I not started to understand that it was only me who did not understand. Not only did I need to realise that truth of what I was writing about but I needed to 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 had been triggered and had complex 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 would 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 did not know what it meant and why I did not 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 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 Post traumatic Growth.