Reconstructing ‘Let me be’

In Τhose Υears by Adrienne Rich

In those years, people will say, we lost track
of the meaning of we, of you
we found ourselves
reduced to I
and the whole thing became
silly, ironic, terrible:
we were trying to live a personal life
and yes, that was the only life
we could bear witness to
But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged
into our personal weather
They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove
along the shore, through the rags of fog
where we stood, saying I



Expressions of trauma and loss

Words tell stories

Tonya Alexandri – April, 2014

   The words in the artwork below tell stories of trauma, loss and injustices, and also of courage and determination. The use of ‘solitary’ words and images has allowed me to record many events and tell many stories – in the very small space of this paper. Each word is linked to the other and all together they tell a longer story. Those looking at the images and reading the words can guess the stories contained in each word or image or can create their own stories. One could also write a story using all the words depicted on this piece of paper and probably a different story would emerge each time depending on the person’s perspective and experiences. Apart from their literal meaning words take on the meaning each one of us attributes to them. The same word can have different meanings used by different people at different times. A word may be experienced as neutral by some and may convey profound meaning to others. Even ‘neutral words’ like names of objects can carry profound meanings to some people and can be imbued with emotional significance. Words can contain hurt, anger, fear and pain. In chapter three in Trauma, Dissociation and Multiplicity: Working on Identity and Selves (2013-03-01, Kindle Edition) Valerie Sinason provides an example of how neutral words can express pain or trauma or can tell us a story we perhaps could never have imagined. Sinason writes about Lorna, a young girl, who had been removed from her multi-perpetrating abusive environment and had spent two years in a school for emotionally disturbed children. Lorna found it painful to learn, checking out the meaning of every word said to her. At one point when she was offered a glass of lemonade she smashed the glass to the floor with the liquid spoiling all her schoolwork. It was only after eighteen months of a stable foster placement that Lorna suddenly became consciously aware that the word ‘lemonade’ could have a different meaning for other people. It could, for instance, simply mean a fizzy drink, etc.  Children learn words and languages from those around them, and therefore, in the beginning language is usually co-constructed in early attachment relationships with family and primary caregivers. ‘The infant has had an experience and the mother provides the words or phrase which binds this experience. It contains, encompasses and expresses the meaning. It provides a container for it. The infant can then internalise this word or phrase containing the meaning’ (Segal, 1979, cited in Sinason, 2013-03-01, Kindle Edition), As mentioned above words can carry profoundly different meanings for different people or groups of people. Sinason describes how, for instance, the word amniocentesis for many adults is ‘a neutral word or term that signifies the act of checking whether an unborn baby is carrying any severe chromosomal disorder or has a severe learning disability’, but ‘for someone with a severe intellectual disability, the word covers a meaning that is far more than that. Faced with a hidden societal eugenics’ wish, people with an intellectual disability are very aware of a deeper meaning in the term, signifying their own destruction’ (2013-03-01, Kindle Edition).

    Words tell stories and sometimes these stories are about trauma, fear, pain, discrimination, prejudice, racism, injustice and violence. Language reflects power relations, hierarchy, social class, and gender differences. Racism, inequality, sexism and patriarchic beliefs and practices are all reflected in language, propagated through language, but also challenged and resisted through language. Discourses of dominance can become tools of oppression, but language can also contradict and liberate. Furthermore, language links individual trauma to the collective and allows trauma to be viewed as part of a wider sociopolitical context. Language also becomes important in victims and survivors’ search for healing and restoration because articulating trauma and breaking the silence is critical both to restoration and justice. Survivors’ trauma narratives allow survivors to take back control, to reconstruct their life narrative, to become more empowered, to make connections between events and to achieve deeper understanding. Richard Hoffman (2012-09-13) writes through telling the truth ‘we accomplish not merely relief, but justice. The resistance to amnesia is a political commitment as well as a personal, literary, and spiritual one’. It is true that language may often fail to fully and precisely describe survivors’ experiences of torture, rape and abuse; however, healing and empowerment require a re-description of our experience – a new narrative – they require our telling. Words can provide the vehicle, one means to do so. Trauma demands to be expressed, heard and acknowledged by society. The unsaid or the unsayable needs to be heard. Telling the truth ‘puts things where they belong. It lifts the heavy weight a survivor carries on her back and redistributes it amongst her family and community’ (Michelle Otero, cited in Silverman, (2010-01-25). Richard Hoffman writes ‘words are how we “come to terms” with experience. If the terms we use do not reflect reality, but hide and distort it, then our discourse, the community’s ongoing conversation about itself, will be corrupted’(2012-09-13).


 Hoffman, Richard (2012-09-13),  Half the House, Kindle Edition

 Silverman, Sue William (2010-01-25). Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, University of Georgia  Press, Kindle Edition

 Sinason, Valerie (2013-03-01) Trauma, Dissociation and Multiplicity: Working on Identity and Selves, Taylor & Francis, Kindle Edition

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The stories of words

‘I learned that our creations become creatures, living beings with agency and influence’ (Half the House by Richard Hoffman)

Reconstructing ‘Let me be’ (Tonya Alexandri)

My good people, don’t forget: go and tell,

My good people, write it down!  

(Simon Doubnow, cited in Gautier & Sabatini Scalmati, 2012)

Art making provides the opportunity of expression, recording and reflection. Also, through the creation of art one may often be exposed to material before he/she can fully make sense of what has surfaced. As one is ready to deal with more aspects of the memory, traumatic event or abuse, clarity is increased and deeper understanding is reached. I know from personal experience that returning to drawings or written material, in retrospect, yields further and deeper awareness and insight and allows one to understand and make important links across time and places, and thus, make new meaning of experiences. Furthermore, survivors develop an absence of a continuous thread of memory and my ‘art journal’ or drawings have become a kind of thread that connects the parts of me, who suffered the pain, but also the related emotions and the actual events across time; a visual thread that ties parts of my life story together. Engaging in this long art journal, which has by now become an art project, has provided a stronger sense of continuity among events, places and people and has assisted me in reconstructing my trauma story and creating new meaning of experiences, which according to Herman, is a fundamental stage of recovery (Herman, 1997).  Reconstruction transforms the traumatic memories because through processing and reprocessing the different aspects and fragments of memories become integrated and one’s life story becomes more coherent. The process of reconstruction also allows us to focus on the parts of our story that show our abilities and strengths, as well as our wounds, and we are able to create a more empowered storyline and become ‘committed to stop replaying the destructive messages of the past which render us powerless’ (Van Loon and Kralik, 2005).  Furthermore, reconstructing one’s story is an important part of healing because it facilitates change and allows us to incorporate, as part of our self, aspects of this new changing more powerful self that will not hold us back during the transition that takes place during healing and recovery.

Moreover, although survivors might be aware of gaps in their memory or capacity to dissociate painful experiences and although they may not remember long stretches of their childhood, they often find it difficult to explore the reason, because it is often very scary and painful to bring, to conscious awareness, what one has struggled to keep out of sight in order to survive. Exploring the causes behind this lack of continuity in memory would force one to face what one has through natural defensive mechanisms buried out of sight.Unfortunately, resorting to defensive mechanisms often means that the abuse and victimization is often continued in adulthood. However, because our sense of self is construed around our life history, ‘loss of memory or gaps in our personal history, are often perceived as an assault on our sense of self and identity’ Steinberg and Schnall (2003). Continuity allows one to make connections and attach meaning to events, which enhances safety and freedom from past traumatic experiences and victimization in the present. But, reconstruction of one’s story does not only require remembering and breaking the barriers of amnesia, but the more difficult task of ‘coming face to face with the horrors of the other side of the amnesiac barrier and releasing these experiences into a fully developed life narrative’ (Herman, 1997). This process can be long and ongoing and often requires making sense of the countless fragmented and frozen images, flashbacks, bodily sensations, physical symptoms and emotions, all parts of memories waiting to be connected and integrated. It may involve dealing with related painful and unwanted emotions and working with bodily sensations and physical symptoms, but ‘we have the innate capacity to heal not only ourselves, but our world, from the debilitating effects of trauma’, which ‘need not be a life sentence because with the right resources, support and knowledge trauma can be transformative’ (Levine, 1997). It also involves placing experiences in temporal and spatial context, in order to be able to create new meaning of experience and a more coherent life narrative, as well as, increasing safety and freedom in the ‘here and now’. It involves relearning and unlearning, but fortunately, the human brain is ‘malleable, programmable and reprogrammable and highly responsive to influences’ (Rothschild, 2000), Complex PTSD symptoms can be healed or can be dealt with and survivors are proof of the extraordinary human mind ‘both to defend itself against inhumanity and to recover from the wounds sustained in that life or death battle (Steinberg and Schnall, 2003). This process of experiencing and integrating the feelings, the thoughts, the bodily sensations, the pain or other types of physical discomfort, the images, the smells and the sounds of each memory and trying to place the memory, event or group of experiences in context can also help survivors diffuse triggers and cues by understanding why people, objects, smells, activities, dates, songs, places (literally anything) can trigger discomfort, emotions or physical symptoms and sensations. Through processing memories and life experiences and releasing dissociated fear and anger constructively survivors can understand why certain stimuli can trigger fear, anxiety, anger, despair, dysfunction, fatigue, physical pain or disease processes, simply because they are reminders of the traumatic event or even worse because they have intentionally been paired with pain and threats by the perpetrators to ensure silence and secrecy. By staying with the sensations or emotions that surface we can often understand which particular triggers or cues have caused the discomfort or distress and then by engaging in deeper memory and body work we can explore the associated memories, bodily sensations and emotions, in order to decrease symptoms, physical pain or anxiety that is connected to the abuse, and thus, gradually bring about deeper healing, understanding and freedom from our past and perpetrators.

Additionally, the process of creating a new life narrative requires one to reframe and often view family members, friends and others through a totally different perspective, which is not easy. However, by being able, through integration and healing, to consciously reframe the perpetrators and abusers survivors ‘are actively disarming their perpetrators’ authority over their life and reclaiming the territory of their life’ (Van Loon and Kralik, 2005).  Furthermore, the process of making new meaning of one’s experience allows one to let go of painful material and reach the kind of closure suitable for each survivor. Through shedding our denial, integrating dissociated aspects of the self and dissociated experiences, and through empowerment and new understanding, we can let go and move on.Finally, by creating a new life narrative we can at last break the silence and tell our story. We can narrate our story though writing, creating art and music and speaking. Anna Sabatini Scalmati and Andres Gautier (2012) write ‘narration is the realm for standing up to the vicious circle that would seal their lips, so that the social environment that does not care to know them, does not extinguish their desire to be known and they themselves do not regulate self-expression to the sphere of psychosomatic symptoms and mental illnesses’.


Gautier, A. & Sabatini Scalmati, A. (2012) Bearing Witness: Psychoanalytic Work with People Traumatized by Torture and State Violence, Karnac, Great Britain

Herman, J. (1997) Trauma and Recovery: the Aftermath of Violence-from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, Basic Books, New York

Levine, P. (1997), Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma,

Steinberg, M. and Schnall, M. (2003) The Stranger In The Mirror: Dissociation-The Hidden Epidemic, Quill, New York

 Van Loon, A. & Kralik, D. (2005) Reclaiming Myself after Child Sexual Abuse, Australia


Trespassing  or  Entitled and Lawless