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Finding hope in shared struggle after trauma

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In a sea of recovery memoirs, each one more determined than the next to provide a blueprint for how to recover from the unspeakable, Meera Atkinson's recently released Traumata stands out like a welcome sore thumb.

Meera Atkinson's TraumataIn tight evocative prose, it lays bare the mutually sustaining relationship between trauma and patriarchy and asks us to look at the ways in which patriarchy creates, sustains and feeds voraciously off the pains of those most impacted by misogyny, racism, and capitalism. Using memoir as a kind of litmus, Atkinson challenges the myth that traumatic events are socially 'out of character' and instead asks us to look at how by its very nature, patriarchy demands the abuse of its most vulnerable citizens.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, one of the most comprehensive investigations into the relationship between childhood abuse and adult health and wellbeing, found direct links between childhood trauma and a significantly increased vulnerability to a diverse range of conditions, including foetal death, heart disease, depression and alcoholism.

While this study helped to put child abuse and trauma on the mainstream health map, it also highlighted the role of structural inequality in entrenched ill health and repeated experiences of both institutional and interpersonal violence. It demonstrated unequivocally that abuse and neglect are both common and unequally distributed. It is the seeds of these structural roots of trauma that Atkinson seeks to bring to light.

But despite decades of evidence supporting the link between trauma and oppressive social systems, the medicalisation and personalisation of trauma persists.

It's only been a short time since Peter Miles allegedly shot and killed his wife, daughter and four grandchildren in Western Australia. If you read the major news outlets, you'll find explanations for his catastrophic actions nestled within the many column inches devoted to this story (mental illness? stress? easy access to firearms?), and you'll find helpline numbers listed at the end. Most include Lifeline, some also offer supports for specifically for men, and after recent criticism from feminist writers Celeste Liddle and Amy Gray, a few now provide the numbers of family violence support services.  On the ground in Margaret River, trauma counsellors are available to residents.

In the same week, a police car was filmed crossing the road and hitting 18 year old Aboriginal man, William Farmer. No support services are listed at the end of this article. It's almost as if in laying bare state-sanctioned violence, it would be disingenuous to offer the numbers of state-funded support services. This is one of the uneasy links between trauma and white supremacist patriarchy that Atkinson would like us to make.


"This is not a dystopic nightmare, but a beautifully written and strangely hopeful book about terrible things. And the hope comes in part from a sense of inexhaustible struggle."


Through her stories and the stories and scholarship of others, she excavates the intergenerational cycle of sexual assault, child abuse, addiction, family and state violence and challenges the often-passionate protection of the idea that our traumas are personal. This personalisation of trauma is what some public health researchers refer to as the problem of 'lifestyle drift', or the fact that well-established social determinants of health have become individualised and marketed as lifestyle issues rather than clear examples of how inequality is at the root of physical and mental illness.

Traumata is a tender read and a challenging one for those who would like to believe in the transformative magic of individual recovery from adversity, in violence as a social aberration or the myth of the good guy gone bad. The author is telling us her own traumatic stories, but she provides convincing evidence that they are shared by many, and that this means both that trauma survivors are not alone and also that recovery cannot occur in isolation. It is in a sense a creative non-fiction and sociological exploration of what the ACE study sought to offer.

Atkinson is not only concerned here with detailing the traumatic impact of patriarchy, she also catalogues the ways in which, as independent feminist scholar and writer Sara Ahmed describes it, when you name a problem you become the problem. She engagingly threads her trauma narratives into the fabric of the worlds that hold them and carefully describes how so often these worlds amplify, distort and exacerbate trauma, allowing it to spread and to infect generation after generation.

These are the iatrogenic traumata, a word to describe the wounds caused by our hospitals, schools, police, border force, courts and therapists — those people and institutions ostensibly in place to support and to protect. She describes the toxic psychiatric labelling of traumatised women in particular, and the violent punishment of people who are unable to contain their distress in the face of institutional assault — those seeking asylum, safety from violence, community and bodily autonomy.

If this sounds pretty bleak, it is, and it isn't. This is not a dystopic nightmare, but a beautifully written and strangely hopeful book about terrible things. And the hope comes in part from a sense of inexhaustible struggle. Atkinson searches, and finds some things that help. She learns things and she lets go of things. The hope comes not from what she tells us she did, but from her description of the process of striving to live with the effects of trauma and in her understanding that this is a shared struggle.

Traumata is not a recovery memoir, though Atkinson does detail her wrestles to find relief and meaning in her own history. She does the therapy, practises the meditation, works to be as settled as she can. But she doesn't succumb to a wellness purchased through disconnection from the roots of childhood trauma, or to an idea of pitiable brokenness. Instead she tells us 'I continue to show up in all my flawed, neurotic glory.' It is this kind of forensic showing up that she has to offer in the way of illumination: to continue to go on, to see, to name and to call out.



Zoe Krupka headshotZoë Krupka is a Melbourne psychotherapist. She recently completed a PhD at LaTrobe University in relational ethics and lectures and supervises research at the Cairnmillar Institute. She has written about therapy and culture for the Age, the Conversation, New Matilda and Eureka Street. Zoë's blog

Topic tags: Zoë Krupka, patriarchy, abuse, trauma, Meera Atkinson



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Existing comments

What a great article, succinct and illuminating. Thank you.

Jena Woodhouse | 21 June 2018  

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