Part of a bigger whole and situated in context

Part of a bigger whole and an ongoing process towards increased clarity

‘To take children from their families and their countries was an abuse; to strip them of their identity was an abuse; to forget them and deny them their loss was an abuse… Few tragedies can compare’ (Margaret Humphreys)

 ‘I suffer an absence, an ever-present absence, like an orphan not entirely certain of what he has missed or gained through his unchosen loss’ (Hisham Matar)

 This post is dedicated to my family

Those embarking on the less travelled and yet empowering journey of recovering from trauma and re-examining their lives, as well as neuroscientists and all those working with trauma survivors, know that as new layers or aspects of any particular memory or cluster of memories are processed and as experiences are revisited, one’s life narrative changes dramatically. Deeper understanding brings people to a new place, where everything is the same and yet nothing is the same anymore. Like in the myth of Ariadne and Theseus’ those exploring the paths of the labyrinth or those in quest of their origins eventually see the secrets and truths that are often protected by lies, traumas, memory distortions, fear and psycho-physiological mechanisms. Professionals in the field, as well as, diverse political and criminal perpetrator groups know that extreme childhood trauma, all forms of abuse, humiliation and torture, accidents and threats, natural disasters, war and conflict, extreme poverty and neglect, surgeries and frequent hospitalisations, bereavement and separation of children from parents can all alter and impact a child’s memory processes, which facilitates later manipulation and victimization. I should note here that the emphasis of the relevant literature on psychological factors alone has overlooked the social contexts of abuse and violence and their significance as social practices. I will also very briefly mention here (there is more about memory processes and trauma in other areas of this site) that when we are traumatized and overwhelmed our attention is divided. Dan Siegel writes that ‘while an attack is underway on the body, for example, the mind will encode implicit memory but block the encoding of explicit memory for the overall event’. Siegel continues ‘divided attention achieves such an outcome because the hippocampus requires focal or conscious attention to create explicit encoding but implicit memory is encoded even without focal attention’ (Siegel, 2012). Also, excessive levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, impede hippocampal functioning, and when this is combined with the chemical impact of adrenaline that increases the implicit encoding of fear by way of the amygdala, we see that trauma can lead to the profile of blocked explicit processing and enhanced implicit processing (Siegel, 2012). The hippocampus ‘plays a central role in flexible forms of memory, in the recall of facts and autobiographical details. It gives the brain a sense of the self in space and in time, regulates the order of perceptual categorizations, and links mental representations to emotional appraisal centers’ (Siegel, 2012). Additionally, when our amygdala is overloaded it allows implicitly processed, unconscious emotional stimuli to slip into consciousness in overwhelming ways. Flashbacks, which often manifest as intrusive bodily sensations, extreme emotions and images of traumatic events are the result of this blocked explicit and enhanced implicit processing and are often accompanied with terror and experienced as happening in the here and now. Practically, this means that trauma survivors have difficulty in making sense of the layers of extremely painful and bizarre at times material that surface. The process of working on painful fragmented memories, flashbacks, bodily sensations, emotions and information that floods them makes the whole process of healing and knowing difficult and lengthy. Ιt takes a very long time to gain deeper understanding and to reach the truths one is seeking, especially if harassment and victimization has not stopped. Making sense of the isolated material, aspects of memories and flashbacks requires time, knowledge and effort. Moreover, the past is not static and as we all age and process memories and past experience we view it from different and shifting angles. It is therefore, important for those doing the lengthy work of re-examining the past and dealing with trauma and violations to re-evaluate and re-processes material they create – art or any other form and product of expression – so that deeper understanding may take place since meaning making always changes as time goes by and context changes. It is also important to bear in mind that all experience, including our writing, art making and meaning making is always situated in time and place. From this view point, returning to one’s work is essential if new understanding is to be reached as contexts and levels of knowing constantly change. Finally, it is important to be patient and to ‘trust the process’, to hang on and persevere until eventually truly deeper understanding starts taking place.

Within the framework that all experience is situated in time, Let me be, a storybook which includes drawings I had made as part of initially processing one layer only of material and extremely painful emotions, must also be viewed within the understanding I had then and that particular phase of my journey. This is also the reason I have used images from that initial level of processing over and over in consequent drawings. Since then I have re- explored and re-examined both the images and the story and have come to fully realize that it can only be viewed as situated in that past context and that it is the result of the place I was at the time and the barriers I was dismantling then. It should also be considered as one inevitable phase in this long process of redefining, understanding and fighting for rights. The artwork I created after 2007 represents multiple attempts at expressing and examining experience and emotions and other aspects and layers of material already tackled – from a new place in life. The series of drawings I made in 2014 depicts yet another aspect and level of the traumatic experiences and essentially all my artwork is part of a bigger whole and an ongoing process towards increased clarity, and it should therefore be viewed as such. My website reflects the same process and is part of the bigger whole. It allows one to take a glimpse of the process as a whole and it is a documentation of my journey. In the end as I have written elsewhere, all my artwork reflects my experience, my struggle for safety and battles against violation of rights, the knowledge and the insight I reach each time, concerning trauma and healing as contexts change. As a whole, it is in some sense a study of memory processes – of how memory stores trauma, how core traumatic memories and truths can be hidden from conscious awareness and knowing and how, by peeling the onion, deeper understanding can finally take place and a new life narrative can emerge. In any case, with the aid of neuroscience we now know that memory systems are expressed in art-making, and also, that art therapy practices contribute to growth and brain plasticity, which is ‘the overall process with which brain connections are changed by experience’ (Daniel Siegel, 2012).

However, although creating art may be an inherently therapeutic and valuable experience, publishing it raises many issues for survivors. On the one hand, publishing may enable one to break the silence in a more indirect and symbolic way, on the other hand, it also contains risks of increased harassment. A lot has been written about breaking the silence and probably all of it is valid depending on the unique circumstances of each individual. All I can add, from experience, is that each survivor needs to consider the pros and cons, their particular circumstances and bear in mind that breaking the silence does come at a price, for it may bring along more stalking and harassment in public places, workplace or educational contexts and more violations, since discrediting tactics may be employed by those threatened by the truths in survivors’ work or views. Organised stalking may involve ongoing, long term annoyances, such as constant noises and rude or abusive behaviour by the neighbours or strangers, which can amount to psychological torment for the victim. Unfortunately, neighbours, colleagues, people with opposite or different political views, racists, etc, may participate in this process. Victims of harassment may suffer slander, threats, vandalism, abusive phone calls, computer hacking, pet victimization, electronic surveillance, accidents, discrimination in educational or work contexts, financial losses, etc. However, breaking the silence and publishing may often be an essential part of a survivor’s journey, depending on how many are invested in silencing the survivor. Breaking the silence may be a prerequisite to feeling safe. Timing is also definitely important. Ultimately, breaking the silence definitely empowers and allows better boundary setting and also sends feelings like shame and fear back to those they belong to – to the perpetrators, to those that have inflicted the injustices and have violated inherent human rights. And in the end, the more the people that stand up for their rights and speak out about rights violations the easier it will become for more people to speak out, seek restoration and stop inhumane practices.

In any case, art provides everyone a means to explore creativity and internal experience because writing and art making are powerful tools and means to both process and document material and processes. Additionally, combining writing and art or creating illustrated storybooks can also be used with traumatized children or in family therapy, with refugees and immigrants, the elderly, people with special needs, etc. Hanney and Kozlowska write that ‘illustrated stories offer a predictable structure to sessions and facilitate engagement and participation of children in therapy. The therapeutic emphasis of storybooks can be adjusted to take into account a child’s life story, verbal capacity, level of anxiety, and traumatic hyperarousal. The creation of storybooks is an active process that embraces important aspects of trauma-specific interventions, including expression of trauma-related feelings; clarification of erroneous beliefs about the self, others, or the traumatic event; and externalization of traumatic stimuli into artwork, allowing for exposure and habituation of the arousal response. A focus on visual images together with narrative takes advantage of children’s developmental capacities and spontaneous pleasure in the creation of art, thus minimizing anxiety and enhancing feelings of mastery, competence, and hope’ (L. Hanney and K. Kozlowska (2002), Family Processes, Spring; 41(1):37-65). To sum up, visual images and symbols are the most accessible and the most natural form of communication of human experience. Through the process of making art and writing, people discover insights about themselves and their lives because art has the power to expand self-understanding, Art products can be viewed as personal narratives conveyed through images and the stories that are attached to these images. Therefore, since art making has the potential to heal and document both our external circumstances and internal experiences, it can become a means or tool that will assist us during our quest for the truth, for healing, restoration and justice. Moreover, a lot of survivors have traumatic experiences concerning their creativity and many speak about how they have been humiliated for their artwork and how their creativity and attempts to express themselves have been stifled, so also within this context, art making can restore and heal. Combined with other activities, like reading and new learning, art making may assist us in reaching whatever each one of us is in search of.

As I wrote in the previous post it is not just art making that reflects our experiences and wounds, our longings, desires and hopes, but also, our choices and the things we invest in, One topic I am interested and invested in is that of child emigration policies and practices of breaking families and forced adoption that took place throughout the 20th century even up until the late sixties in many countries. I have referred to films and books in previous posts, but, I will briefly, make some reference here again. To begin with, like Margaret Humphreys I believe that few tragedies can compare with ‘taking children from their families and their countries and stripping them of their identity and then denying that their loss was an abuse’ because as she says ‘our sense of background or heritage is an important part of our identity’ (Margaret Humphreys, Empty Cradles, 1994). In her book Ellen Boucher writes ‘in the 1980s the silence surrounding the subject of the lost families started to be broken. The decade witnessed a rapid growth of advocacy groups dedicated to raising awareness about the history of child emigration and to seeking redress for men and women who had been hurt by the policy. One of the first was the Child Migrant Friendship Society of Western Australia, founded in 1982 by a group of former migrants who aimed to relieve ‘the suffering, helplessness, distress, misfortune, poverty, destitution and emotional disturbance’ that they believed  the initiative had produced. Five years later Margaret Humphreys, a Nottingham based social worker established the Child Migrants Trust, which campaigned to pressure the emigration charities, as well as the British and Australian governments, to acknowledge the trauma endured by former migrants. Humphreys documented her experience and work in her book Empty Cradles. The Trust was instrumental in the release of a 1989 award winning documentary, Lost Children of the Empire by Joanna Mack (Producer/Director) & Mike Fox (Co-Director), which looks at the fate of some of the 150,000 British orphans, who – often without their parents’ knowledge and consent – were shipped abroad to be brought up in children’s homes and many were exploited and abused. Children are the most vulnerable members of society, and as such, have been victimized and exploited across time. Children have also, across time and especially during the 20th century, been institutionalized, taken away from their mothers and adopted illegally. This then becomes a painful legacy for the adult survivors of these practices. This practice began at the turn of the century, but children were still deported overseas up until 1967! Joanna Mack produced and directed a documentary, uncovering the story of child migration from the UK under which children as young a three were shipped to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the former Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The film’s broadcast in the UK and Australia, and the subsequent book of the same name written by Philip Bean and Joy Melville, helped secure the foundation of the Child Migrants Trust and their work supporting families separated by these practices. The Leaving of Liverpool (John Alsop, Sue Smith, Penny Chapman), an award-winning television mini-series produced by ABC/BBC in 1992, is a dramatized account of unaccompanied child migration from Britain to Australia. It was screened in Britain and in Australia and was mentioned in parliamentary inquiries in both countries .It had a significant impact in putting child migration ‘on the map’ in terms of awareness among the general population and those people who had been sent to Western Australia as child migrants. Gordon Brown apologized in 2010 to the children immigrants that were sent to Australia, a practice that lasted over 40 years right up until the late 1960s. The Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard delivered a national apology to victims of forced adoption in 2013. Kevin Rudd also apologized to the 500, 000 Forgotten Australians and their families. The following small extracts are from his apology “Sorry that as children you were taken from your families and placed in institutions where so often you were abused. Sorry for the physical suffering, the emotional starvation and the cold absence of love, of tenderness, of care. Sorry for the tragedy the absolute tragedy of childhoods lost’…. ‘To those who were told they were orphans but were taken here without their parents consent, we acknowledge the lies you were told, the lies told to your mothers and fathers and the pain the lies caused for a life time’.

In previous posts I have also referred to films and songs about the Stolen Generation in Australia. The film Rabbit-Proof Fence by Christine Olsen, based on the book published by Doris Pilkington, the daughter of the real Molly Craig, has had a great impact on me because like the heroine in the film I think that in the end all my travels and battles may be a long walk back home to my beginnings and origins. As T.S. Elliot writes ‘we shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’ Additionally, a scene of the film gave me the inspiration for the surname I used when I published Let me be. In a nutshell, the film is about an Aborigine girl’s long walk home after she and her sister are taken forcefully from their mother and placed in a camp a thousand miles away, as part of the state policy of removing girls from aboriginal communities and educating them separately, in order to eradicate their aboriginal identity and raise them ‘white’. Thousands of children were forcefully removed from their families and placed in foster families, children’s homes or missions between 1890s and 1970s. In 2008 the Australian government apologised to the Stolen Generation. Of course, apologies alone may not be sufficient to erase or heal years of loss and pain, but at least it is one small step towards the recognition of wrong and unethical practices and it also contributes to breaking social denial and secrecy surrounding practices like this around the world. At least some governments have been forced by survivors’ activism and society’s demand to take responsibility for dark chapters in history and work towards restoring.

 They took the children away (sung by Archie Roach) (with trailer from the film Rabbit-Proof Fence)

Unfortunately, such practices and policies did not take place only in Britain and Australia, but in many countries in the 20th century. For instance, in Greece thousands of children were removed from their families and placed in camps known as Queen Frederica’s ‘children’s towns’ after the civil war. Since 1950 there have been revelations about thousands of illegal adoptions of these children abroad, especially, in the USA. However, in Greece silence has not been broken officially and no government so far has made any attempt to investigate, discuss or apologize. These topics have been taboo subjects because as in most cases they were the result of past government policies and initiatives and a lot of people were involved, including authorities, civil servants, charities and the Church. As I have written in previous posts in Greece one is still constantly aware of the circumstances that developed after the civil war that took place after World War II. Many people have been persecuted, victimized and discriminated against since. After all, as I wrote a few weeks ago Greece is the European country, where people were exiled for their beliefs and were imprisoned up until the 70s. Another significant chapter in Greek history that has definitely impacted contemporary Greece is that of the thousands of refugees (considered Greek in Turkey and Turkish in Greece) that arrived in Greece from Asia Minor in the 1920s. In my most recent posts I have made references to two writers whose life and work, are defined or influenced by both these historical chapters. I am referring to Menelaos Lountemis, who passed away in 1977 and Theodore Kallifatides, a Greek writer living and writing abroad, who explores issues of identity, language, transition, immigration and discrimination based on ideology or class, to some extent in most of his books. His father was a Greek refugee that had fled Turkey in 1924. Later, when he was a child his family was forced to leave the village they had settled in and move to Athens, due to his father’s political views this time. He writes ‘My father had sworn to never set foot in the village. He had two homelands and there was no room for him. A fugitive from Turkey he became a refugee in Greece’. Our understanding of one’s work is always facilitated if we take the historical and social context into consideration. Likewise, our personal traumas should be seen and understood within our social and temporal context.

Tonya Alexandri, April 19th, 2015