Tag Archives: Trauma

Victims, Trauma, Spinoza, and Butler

5 Jun


Trauma Narratives. University of Zaragoza


I’ve never met anyone whose ambition it was to be a victim, though I don’t doubt such people exist.

Victimhood is not considered an honourable state, rather it’s an abject one, shrouded in shame and often guilt: had I done something differently, been a better person, had more sense, (insert your favoured self-blaming admonition) this thing wouldn’t have happened to me and I wouldn’t be a victim.

Victims are frequently blamed by others and victims frequently blame themselves, so all in all, no one in a healthy state of mind would desire the experience. In the current economy of victimisation, the victim is always deeply in debt.

Being confronted by your own vulnerability isn’t an easy experience: many of us spend an inordinate amount of energy convincing ourselves we aren’t vulnerable, which is entirely unrealistic as we are, every minute of our lives, vulnerable to something or someone. Vulnerability is one of life’s inescapable conditions.

I suspect, though I have no proof, that one of the elements of victim blaming is anger at a being confronted by a victim’s obvious vulnerability that can’t help but remind us of our own precarious state in the world, a state many of us would rather not admit to. It doesn’t bear thinking about, the things that can happen to us, and victims can make us think about it.

If the injury can somehow be made to seem their own fault that makes us feel safer. We have control: we just won’t do what they did. These convoluted self-delusions are a sorry waste of psychic energy: denial is ultimately exhausting and it’s entirely unfair to project our own vulnerability onto someone else, rather than learn to live with it.

When I visited the doctor last week we got into a conversation about the 17th century Sephardic/Portuguese philosopher, Baruch Spinoza. I’m not sure why this topic came up but anyway, we talked about how Spinoza was banished from his Jewish community for what were perceived to be his heretical views. A cherem, or herem was declared against him, a form of shunning and ostracism employed as punishment for his refusal to accept god as some kind of divine human with emotion, intention, and desires. For Spinoza, god was Nature, and there was nothing beyond Nature and the laws of the natural world.

Spinoza also argued passionately for freedom of thought and speech: it is permissible to speak any thought, although not necessarily permissible to act upon that thought. Forbidding speech causes resentment and an inevitable backlash against the deciders, and only sends thought underground. No wonder Spinoza remains relevant hundreds of years after his time.

This conversation about Spinoza reminded me next of Judith Butler, American philosopher and gender theorist, who in 2002 gave the annual Spinoza Lecture at the University of Amsterdam. This lecture morphed into the book Giving an account of oneself, in which Butler examines, among other things, the concept of injury and victimhood, and what new ethical possibilities these experiences open up for a subject, what she calls…the moral predicament that emerges as a consequence of being injured…

From the traumatic and unpromising site of injury and desire for revenge or redress, Butler argues that …a model of ethical capaciousness… might emerge. This model of ethical capaciousness, she continues …understands the pull of the claim (for retribution) and resists the pull at the same time, providing a certain ambivalent gesture as the action of ethics itself.

As Spinoza’s thinking suggests, ethical capaciousness is permitting the thought without taking the action, a moral victory perpetrators outstandingly fail to achieve.

Much taken with Butler’s notions of un-willed injury as a site of ethical possibility, I wrote a paper that I gave at a conference at the University of Barcelona in 2008, titled The Experience of Being Injured: An Otherwise Perspective. The conference was about myth, history and memory, and I was exploring how traumatic injury and its aftermath, both societal and individual, are contained within these frameworks.

All of this has come  flooding back to me as a consequence of the last post I wrote on Sheep about memoir and trauma. There are, it’s alleged, too many people writing about their personal traumas; public accounts of private trauma will not bring about political change; must we have one more “misery memoir” and why aren’t these things kept private. These are some of the objections to what has over the last years become an outpouring of first person accounts of traumatised lives.

They are the objections of the very privileged, and they are both ignorant and pointless: trauma is not going away and one of the ways assaulted individuals attempt to deal with distress is to give their personal pain expression. This is a way of clawing back some of the agency lost when another exerts silencing power over you.

Criticising traumatised people for doing something that assists them is victim blaming. Unlike the victim, the consumer has the choice not to enter that world: it isn’t a victim’s obligation to stay silent in order to avoid disturbing bourgeois sensibilities.

Granted some media have seen an opportunity and set about exploiting it: take that media to task, not the authors of traumatic narratives.

The sheer volume of traumatised people on the planet is breathtaking: from stateless and displaced refugees escaping wars, to defence personnel, to paramedics and police, to those traumatised in childhood by sexual abuse; domestic violence, and sexual assault. Trauma and post traumatic stress shape and dominate societies and relationships. The effects of PTSD are crippling, not only on the sufferer but on everyone around him or her. The costs to society are astronomical.

Butler’s concept of the moral predicament anyone faces as a consequence of being injured can help shift one out of victimhood into agency. What actions does the injured party take or not take as a consequences of the injury? What does one do about the natural desire for revenge, for redress, for acknowledgement, apology? How far can one go before becoming a perpetrator?  What if the law will not assist you, or fails in its attempts?

The moral predicament that results from un-willed injury is an opportunity to regain the agency that is lost when someone is used by another as a means to an end. It is an ethical possibility that rises out of the ashes of an immoral act. Very often the first step on this alchemical progression is the externalisation of personal trauma through artistic expression.

It’s ludicrous to expect that a memoir or a thousand memoirs of personal pain will bring about political change, then complain when it doesn’t happen. What actually does change is that instead of one or a thousand people crippled and without agency, some will make a partial or whole recovery as they struggle with their moral predicament and give that struggle expression. Every victim experiences a form of cherem, of shunning, of banishment. Having no voice is one form such exclusion takes.  If we find a voice with which to paint the trauma, or write it, or compose it for piano, who cares, if the outcome is functional, productive people?

Expression of our personal pain is indeed a blow for justice: that it may not be someone else’s notion of what justice is and how it ought to be attained is irrelevant. Traumatised people have usually done enough of what other people want the way other people want it done. We don’t have to do it anymore.

And most of all we do not have to observe the bourgeois values of “privacy” that silenced many of us in the first place, and made our abuse possible.



On what Clementine did

8 Dec

Online Abuse


I’ve read two opinion pieces today on how Clementine Ford handled the online aggression and threats against her by  naming and shaming the individual responsible, and publishing a compilation of the obscenities fired her way over a period of several months.

There’s this one by Helen Razer in the Daily Review, and this one by Jack Kilbride in New Matilda.

Razer argues that the significance of public commentary is lately at risk of being measured by the amount of hate the author is subjected to, rather than the work the author produces.

Kilbride argues that if women only handled it better the nasty trolls would stop trolling, which is roughly the linguistic equivalent of telling us not to dress provocatively because if we do we’re asking for it, and I can’t be bothered with the man just now.

Razer’s perspective on publicly revealing personal trauma is an interesting one. Her piece is titled, Why violent threats don’t make you an important commentator, so obviously she’s working from the premise that there’s an audience daft enough to measure the significance of one’s work by the amounts of threats one receives, and their degree of severity. This makes me absolutely negligible, as I receive practically no threats, and barely any abuse, except I did for a while cop a fair bit of upsetting reprimand, public and private, from Razer.

Razer writes:

The idea is not important. The trauma victim becomes important. The claim that “Clementine Ford is important for women” should be made about the growing body of this writer’s work and not about the threats she has received. The violent attention of barely literate misogynists has become the register of a good thinker. 

Good thinkers have always been the targets of abuse, and injury, and not infrequently death, since long before there were internet trolls. Online attacks are merely the most recent manifestation of hatred for good thinking: with the Internet haters have discovered an opportunity they’ve never had before to globally spew their bile, and so of course there are more visible victims.

Being the target of abuse doesn’t make anyone an important commentator or a good thinker: Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine cop their fair share of threats and abuse and nobody capable of thinking straight could call either of them good, or important, or even really thinkers, to be honest.

Razer links to this interview with Yasmin Nair, titled The Ideal Neoliberal Subject is the Subject of Trauma, in which Nair makes the claim that everyone must identify as a trauma victim to be considered a legitimate subject:

It just seems like trauma has become a requirement. I’ve been writing recently about how I am sick of being on panels where everybody starts to confess to their rape, or to their sexual trauma, and I just want to walk out on them! I just want to say “if you cannot think about critiquing policies and the state without having to assert how and why you have been a victim, then let’s end this conversation. Does everybody have to be a victim in order to gain sympathy, first of all? And what does it mean to have to constantly reconstitute yourself as a subject of trauma? What happens to people who don’t do it? Are they to be seen as traitors?

There’s this weird kind of culture of confession which is also something I write about: this constant imperative to confess, and this imperative to reveal oneself as the wounded subject, that I find very disturbing…There’s a kind of demand for authenticity in all of this that I find particularly vexing. And I know for a fact that many people who have a critique of trauma and of violence and of the state may well have been sexually abused, but just don’t talk about it. And does that make them less authentic?

Is the narrative of personal trauma obfuscating the bigger discussion of context, policies, and the state? Or are the two narratives  more compatible than Nair (and Razer) argue?  And after thousands of years of silence on the subject of our trauma, who, after a mere couple of decades of public discussion, has the right to suggest that the traumatised are silencing another, more important conversation? Hasn’t this always been said to women?

Does revealing personal trauma make one more authentic? Or does keeping silent about personal trauma add to one’s authenticity? Does revealing personal trauma detract from the value of one’s work? Or add to it because experience complements abstract knowledge?

I am more interested in the fact of those questions than I am in any answers. In speaking and writing about my own traumatic experiences, I’ve never once thought to ask myself, will I seem more authentic if I say this, or if I don’t say it? This could well be a grievous oversight on my part, however, I’m not in the habit of wondering whether or not I seem authentic, and it seems to me a tortuous thing to have to ask oneself before writing and speaking, the kind of core self-doubt that can do little other than reduce me to quivering silence.

Why should a woman have to ask herself before she writes, will writing this make me more or less authentic?

In her piece on Ford, Razer links to this earlier post, written in 2014, in which she writes at length about her own experiences of being stalked, threatened, and extremely frightened, and the long-term effects these experiences have had on her life. It hurt me, I think irreparably, she writes. I don’t think any the less of Razer’s body of work because she reveals this about herself.

Indeed, she has apparently written a book on the subject, and I don’t think any less of her intellect because she’s written a book on her personal trauma. I am, however, more than a little irritated by the apparent double standard at work here. Razer has confessed her suffering and revealed herself as a wounded subject, yet seems to be arguing that others should not.

Thinkers are at times simultaneously wounded subjects. It seems to me an admirable goal to enable us wounded subjects to contextualise our experiences of wounding in terms of the systems and regimes that govern our lives. If we do not speak about our trauma in the first place, we have no hope of contextualising it for ourselves and others.

If you are exasperated by the sheer number of victims using their voices, perhaps it is wiser not to blame them for your exasperation, but rather go to the source, and hold the source accountable. As I noted earlier, women have been silenced for thousands of years, and it is only in the last three decades we have begun to speak. It would seem a little early for exasperation.

As far as I’m aware, there is no guide-book for how a woman should react to trauma. Each of us does it in our own way and nobody has the authority to police that. Ford does it her way, as does Razer, as do I.

Each one of us who confesses herself as a wounded subject does it in a way that can have significance for somebody else, because there is no one way, and there is no right way, and there is no time limit.

The idea is important. The trauma victim is important. It isn’t either or.

This is authenticity.





28 Dec

I’m looking for a
Home- where the wheels are turning
Home- why I keep returning
Home- where my world is breaking in two. Brian Eno & David Byrne, “Home”

The house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace…the house is a large cradle…it maintains him [sic] through the storms of the heavens and those of life. Gaston Bachelard, “The Poetics of Space”

Because it’s Xmas I’ve been thinking about home, and the devastating effects of not having one.

Homelessness takes several forms. There’s hard-core dispossession, when people literally have no roof over their heads and live on the streets. Sometimes they find a bed at a shelter for a few nights. There’s couch surfing homelessness when people move round friends and relatives’ homes in an effort to stay off the streets. There are families and single people living in cars.

There’s the homelessness of asylum seekers, dislodged from their belonging by circumstances outside of their control, seeking somewhere on earth where they can safely settle.

Then there’s living in places where you just don’t belong, such as institutions, where you are only there because you have no choice. That was my kind of homelessness from the age of fifteen.

My kind of homelessness was middle class. I had a roof over my head. The roof was that of the boarding school I’d been attending. The family I’d lived in up to that point consisted of my mother, her second husband, my stepfather, and my two little half sisters. My mother married her second husband when I was seven, and he brought us to Australia from England.

Up to that point I’d been raised by my grandparents in what seems now an almost idyllic situation. We were cash strapped – Granddad was a retired coal miner, and working as a night watchman at the gasworks. I was much-loved by him and Eleanor, my grandmother, even though they’d raised three children of their own. We had food, clothes, shelter, entertainment, and Granddad’s corgi dog. I had an uncle, and an aunt who kindly painted my tiny toenails for me by the kitchen fire when she was attending to her own. I idolized my uncle. I was safe, treasured, and kindly disciplined. I had what every child needs – a bevy of adults to take a loving interest in her. There was always someone to listen, and there was always someone to play with.  It worked for the adults as well: nobody was overburdened with sole responsibility for my well-being.

I hardly remember my mother during this time. She lived in the same house but must have been largely absent from my child’s world, as the impression she left was negligible. It didn’t matter.

It must therefore have been a great shock to me to be wrenched from that cosy world into the uncertain future offered by my stepfather and mother, both of whom were practically strangers to me, and transported to the other side of the world. Such a shock that to this day I have absolutely no memory of the parting. While she was alive, my grandmother revisited this trauma endlessly whenever we saw each other, which was rarely as we were now worlds apart, in every possible way.

My mother made an upwardly mobile marriage – her second husband was a doctor. Her first, my father, to whom she was married till I was three months old, played drums in a band. I know almost nothing about this man.I did go through a period of trying to find out, without success, and eventually I thought what the hell, the man obviously didn’t care about me and do I really want to find someone who didn’t care about me? No, I decided, and finally let it go.

The marriage took my mother out of the North Yorkshire mining town and working-class culture she loathed, to a new country and the rich possibilities of middle class professional life.

Unfortunately, her new husband was violent, abusive in every way possible, and had an eye for her seven-year old daughter. Suffice to say the next seven years of my life were a kind of hell into which I felt I had fallen through some fault of my own. Children do this. They assume responsibility for the most enormous adult events and if no one tells them otherwise, they labour under the burden for years.

The contrast between those seven years and the seven that preceded them was absolute.

At the age of almost fifteen, I revealed to one of the nuns at my Anglican boarding school just exactly what was going on in my home. Astonishingly, these intelligent, compassionate women believed me. I’d explained for them their bewilderment at my lack of scholastic progress when I clearly wasn’t stupid, my inability to sleep, my habit when I did sleep of walking and falling down the stairs, my inability to eat and thus to thrive, and my constant illnesses. Within days they had taken action. They consulted the Bishop, the Dean, and their lawyers. They summoned my mother and stepfather to the school, having first hidden me in a safe house so neither of them could see me. Lawyers, nuns, the Bishop and Dean confronted my parents, who made no attempt to deny my account of events in our house.

A deal was done. I was to be handed over to the guardianship of the nuns. I was never to go home again. My mother would be allowed to visit with me, but my stepfather must agree to never attempt to see me again, otherwise they would call in the police.

I was safe.

I was ambivalent about these arrangements. My family was appalling, at the same time it was the only one I had. My home was a place of great danger, at the same time, it was the only one I had.  I was relieved and grateful to have been rescued, but at the same time, I had no home. A boarding school is not a home, no matter how kind they are to you. I was supposed to go to various friends’ homes for holidays, which I did for a while, until the mortification of being unable to reciprocate their hospitality became too much for me. I would hide on the last day of school, and not reveal myself until they’d all gone. Then I’d be allowed to stay with the nuns in the great big empty boarding house, until term started again.

The nuns were good to me. They were beyond good to me. They did everything they could to make up for my losses. I wasn’t always grateful. When I played the piano in a competition where everyone else’s mothers and fathers showed up to support and admire, I wept after my performance that the nuns who’d come with me weren’t my parents, and I was the only girl there without anyone. My final act of ingratitude was to repudiate their religion.

The humiliation of living as an emotional beggar in an atmosphere of comfortable middle class families stayed with me for years. It will probably never entirely leave me. Where I live, though I’ve been here for years, still feels disturbingly temporary. Every time I try to think of it as home, I baulk.I can’t go there. Such is the power of a word. I don’t believe I won’t lose  home again, and a real home is not supposed to be a thing you can lose.  No amount of rational thinking and concrete experience convinces me otherwise. I remain, on this topic, seven years old, and dumbfounded at the turn my fortunes have taken literally overnight.

The legacies of that time have been many and I’d be hard pressed to decide which was the worst. However, this is a piece about home, so I’ll focus on that one. I have never been able to get my head around the concept of home. It’s not about bricks and mortar. It’s a magical name for a yearned for and unattainable state, full of meaning, feeling and emotion that I’m unable to let myself experience. Why? Because first I’d have to rage and grieve over having home snatched out from under me all those years ago, and that’s a dark place I can only very infrequently visit. To survive I’ve held those feelings at bay. I hop over them as I hop over hot sand on a blistering summer day, never letting my feet settle long enough to suffer anything more than slight discomfort. And only when I’ve forgotten my thongs.

The price I pay for acquiring these skills of avoidance and denial is never being able to feel I’m at home, or even that I have a home. The pay off is survival. We’re urged to confront that which disturbed us, rather than allowing it to fester and thrive and taint our daily lives.  While that is necessary, timing is all. Premature confrontation brings down the defenses that have been our friends, and allowed us function in the world. After all these years, my instinct tells me it’s time to let them go, and I couldn’t have done it a moment sooner.

For our house is our corner of the world, Bachelard writes,…it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word. 

What then, of the child whose cosmos consists of abuse and exploitation? What, then, of the child whose topoanalysis reveals primarily sites of torment and terror?

The truth for me is that I can’t let myself feel home in the present until I grieve for the loss of that first one. I can’t imagine doing that grieving, and surviving the experience. Emotional cowardice provokes childish, self-berating dialogue: I can’t do it! Yes you can, you have to! No I don’t, you can’t make me! Well, if you don’t you’ll stay homeless forever! I won’t! I will not! You can’t say that stuff to me!

In a more adult state I realise I have to lay these matters to rest. I don’t want to leave this life carrying so much ancient sorrow into whatever comes next, even into nothingness. I want to leave with the cleanest possible emotional slate, grievings grieved, angers soothed, losses accepted, insult and injuries forgiven, both those I inflicted and those I suffered, at peace, as much as is possible, with the hand I was dealt. I want to have used my potential for surviving that hand to my fullest extent, and I want to leave satisfied that I achieved that.

In other words, I want to go home.

So this is my New Year’s resolution. I will do whatever needs to be done to assuage the loss of home. And then, with any luck, I’ll be able to feel home again, as I did when I was born, as I did as a little girl, as I did till I was seven. I think this will not only make life better for me, I’ll probably be a more pleasant person all round, having relinquished one more source of post traumatic stress that shuts me off from others whom I care for, and who care for me. The misery buck has to stop somewhere in a family. Let it stop with me.

Heaven knows- what keeps mankind alive
Every hand- goes searching for its partner
In crime- under chairs and behind tables
Connecting- to places we have known

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