Trauma often remains unspoken, living deep down inside of its victims and their ancestors. I have just been reading Chapter Four in Cynthia Banham’s book A Certain Light which deals with the trauma of being an Italian POW that her grandfather carried, but never spoke of. Cynthia, a journalist only finds out about her grandfather’s devastating history after she nearly dies, loses her legs and is badly burnt in an aircraft crash in 2007. In fact I wonder if, in reading her book, the unspoken trauma hidden in the family unconscious was seeking a way out in some way, a way to be told and validated.
After the crash Cynthia travels to Triest in Italy and then Berlin to explore her grandfather’s experiences working in a tank manufacturing factory as forced labour learning over time of the many deprivations he was subject to both during his captivity and in the many years following his release during which the German government refused to recognise his suffering or offer any form of compensation.
I found the following paragraphs enlightening as we cannot always speak about trauma and these ideas of Cynthia’s called to mind the eloquent title of trauma specialist, Peter Levine’s book on trauma In An Unspoken Voice. Wounds that go silent do not lose their power and find expression in other ways, mostly non verbal.
We often think that well being after trauma relies on talking about what happened, on freeing one’s voice. However, the silences that follow trauma can be viewed in another way – not as the repression of one’s voice, but as a kind of voice in itself. Silence, in other words, can be a medium of expression , can tell us something about the traumatised person’s experiences, if we listen. While sometimes not allowing a survivor of crime or wrongdoing to tell their story can be an injustice, not respecting silence can also cause harm.
There is another reason to observe and try to understand the silence that can follow trauma. The way someone chooses, or feels compelled, to live after surviving deep trauma can communicate in non verbal ways. The anthropologist Carol Kidron, who has studied the effects of genocide on the children of survivors, calls this ‘silent memory work.’ Idiosyncratic behavioiurs adopted as a response to trauma are like scars, they can communicate the past without a survivor directly narrating their story.
I think about bread and its revered place in my grandparent’s house, and the unspoken family history behind that. Bread has an almost holy quality to it. There were rules. A loaf of bread could never be placed upside down. Leftover bread was never thrown away, no matter how old or mouldy (but used to feed the birds). Multiple uses were found for stale bread… Nonna soaked the hard bread in water before feeding it to pigeons and sparrows…. Sometimes she found a pigeon with a broken wing, one that had survived a cat attack, and she brought it home, where it would recuperate under an old armchair, amongt the bags of bread and birdcages.
The reverent treatment of bread in my grandparent’s house had religious connotations.. But in addition, my grandparents knew what it meant not to have bread, what bread represented. Nonno knew from the POW camp, Nonna knew from having to queue for food rations during and after the war.
Cynthia’s attempts too, to bring to light her grandfather’s trauma were not received well by her mother (something I have also experienced as I am sure many of us have), she met with ‘a resistance that initially exasperated and confounded (her)’. Her mother blamed her for breaking the silence and she found it far too painful to listen to the testimonies, something that Cynthia (who also was determined to ‘move on’ very swiftly from her own trauma) felt compelled to endure in order to understand perhaps both her grandfather’s as well as her own suffering.
One piece of writing which Cynthia shares in this chapter by a priest called Poloni who bore witness both to the atrocities and their impact upon victims that her grandfather suffered is particularly moving :
“How many tears do I see falling from the sunken eyes, bathing sunken cheeks….. I also cry, mixing my tears with theirs.”
Trauma that remains unspoken does tend to have an impact. Trauma that is not validated which comes from emotional abuse may literally shatter a victim’s being and reality for many years to come. But we also need to be aware of what lies unspoken in people and of the silent wounds that are carried and never communicated. And silence may be of comfort for those whose pain was so so intense that they felt the need to bury it and perhaps feel unnecessary shame as a result.
Much of what Peter Levine addresses in his book on trauma mentioned above concerns too, the need to find ways to live outside of trauma’s stranglehold, while still be aware of its powerful presence. Trauma that is not acknowledged or addressed can cripple and hold us captive, at the same time going over and over trauma can also keep us stuck if we cannot find a way to move forward into present time. However it pays to honour the very strong link between silence and trauma. Not all wounds are easily spoken of, communicated or addressed and in trauma there needs to be a willingness for the witness to suffer with the victim for a time in order that they may find some kind of liberation while appreciating why silence or avoidance may be chosen to address those wounds so so hard to acknowledge the depth of.