It is all about violation of human rights

Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich (excerpt)

I came to explore the wreck.

The words are purposes.

The words are maps.

I came to see the damage that was done

and the treasures that prevail.

I stroke the beam of my lamp

slowly along the flank

of something more permanent

than fish or weed.

Τhe thing I came for:

the wreck and not the story of the wreck

the thing itself and not the myth

18 10 2014‘The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential’ (from the Nuremberg Code)

A journal of collective and complex trauma and injustice

Survivors of complex trauma will very often be victims of gross injustices, and therefore, justice is an issue that they will sooner or later need to address in any way they judge desirable or possible. During this phase of my journey a really worth while reading book about injustice and what it means to be human, written in 1961, by John Howard Griffin, reached my hands quite by chance…

Black like Me: The Definitive Griffin Estate Edition (2006-04-01) by John Howard Griffin, Wings Press, Kindle Edition

‘The reality of human nature has been – and will always be – universal…..  Extrinsic differences separate us instead of the deeper commonalties that should unite us – survival and basic needs, raising families, creating art, desiring peace, risking love, daring to hope, enduring pain, and dying – everything that makes us human’(Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin).

John Howard Griffin’s book, Black like Me, was written in 1959 in the form of a diary, which Griffin kept from October 28 till December 15th, the day he returned home to his family in Texas as a white husband and father. Griffin a white Texan, α student of theology, a musicologist, photographer and novelist, decided with the help of a dermatologist (he ingested pigment-changing medicines, subjected himself to intense ultra-violet rays and shaved his head).to become a ‘Negro’ (The phrase African-American was not part of our vocabulary back then). However, apart from his appearance he did not change anything else about himself, keeping his clothing, his speech patterns and credentials.  His experiment would prove that if it were true that people judged each man by his quality as a human individual, then his life as a black John Howard Griffin would not be greatly changed, since he was that same human individual, altered only in appearance, He wanted to document what it was like to experience discrimination based on skin color alone, something over which we have no control. His intention was to travel and live in the South, and especially, Mississippi. He experienced firsthand that it was sufficient reason for people to deny him ‘rights and freedoms without which life loses its significance and becomes a matter of little more than animal survival’ just because his skin was dark. He wrote ‘I proved that, because as a white man I could go anywhere freely; but as a black man I was restricted by segregation laws and Southern white customs, I was judged entirely by my pigmentation and not by my qualities as a human individual’. When Griffin embarked on this bold and dangerous venture he was aware that any man who advocated justice and equality in those days could be ruined by his white neighbors and would make him and his family the target of hate groups. He also expected economic and other types of reprisal and in his book he writes that perhaps the most damaging reprisal of all was that of ‘the deliberate character assassination that sprang into play the moment a man suggested that there ought to be equality among citizens’. Black Like Me became a bestseller, Griffin lectured widely on civil rights and was invited to many TV programs and shows, but his name was added to hate lists and he was targeted. He and his family received death threats by mail and over the phone in their hometown and he was “lynched in effigy”(his words). As a result, in 1960, his parents resettled in Mexico. Griffin and his wife and children also moved to Mexico where they stayed for almost a year. He wrote the final chapter to Back like Me there, which is told in Light: Exile in Mexico (2008). Years later he was beaten with chains, and left for dead, but he survived the beating and continued to be involved in the human rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. He often ‘lectured while ill or recovering from surgeries, travelling when mobility was reduced to crutches or a wheelchair. But he answered to a higher will that demanded merciful acts in a merciless world’ (from Black like Me). In the mid-1970s his book was censored, but today Black like Me has sold over 12 million copies worldwide and his books are required school and college readings.

Just a few thoughts & ideas on art journaling…..

Experiencing trauma and especially, complex trauma on a long term basis leaves people disempowered and without a coherent sense of self or a continuous life narrative, and most importantly, it shatters our belief in a fair and orderly universe; it shatters our belief in humanity and justice, which can throw us into a crisis of meaning.  Injustice and acts of inhumanity can leave us despairing, because it is by justice that we can authentically measure man’s value or his nullity …. The absence of justice is the absence of what makes him man’ (Plato, cited in Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin)

Creating an art journal of one form or another can help restore our sense of self-worth and can also assist us in unraveling memories, images, thoughts and emotions as they surface in conscious awareness. Creating art facilitates healing, understanding and .releasing remnants of trauma repeatedly as it arises in fragments or in bearable doses. Processing memories through art journaling often helps us discover what pieces are missing. Finally, it also allows us to explore different aspects of memories that may be reoccurring and facilitates transformation of our experiences.

Most importantly within each sheet of paper or page of diary we can contain material and feelings. We can remain with the emotions and process further or put our diary away if emotions become overwhelming. We learn to discriminate how much we can handle at any given moment without overloading ourselves. We can contain difficult aspects of memories and emotions and not be flooded by the material or thrown into despair. Creating art can be used in parallel with other forms of therapy or means of processing. Trauma work and healing always involves grieving and coming to terms with what has been lost or ‘never had’.  Exploring these issues through art is less overwhelming.

Moreover, creating art allows what needs to be healed to surface in layers and in its own wise timing. It allows us to focus and process whatever experience or emotional state is being triggered in the here and now. Visual journaling can allow memories that are intruding into the present moment to be understood.  In some sense, what is urgent is selected by our mind – what we are ready in any particular moment to deal with and see, literally see in the case of visual journaling, surfaces in our art. It may arise in different forms, either in imagery or/ and words.

An art journal helps us create a safe world within to begin with, but as we heal and understand more we can set healthier boundaries, which allow us to feel the safety of our own strength and our new empowerment. Journaling, either through writing or drawing, can help us feel grounded when that is needed, record the stimuli (people, places, sounds, words, smells, tastes and associations) that may trigger fear, which is the first step to diffusing cues and triggers. Also visual journaling allows documentation of our experience and facilitates our ability to re-visit material and view it in a different light and through reprocessing it deepens our narrative work.

Art journaling can help us feel more empowered, understand and make links across experiences, reduce our anxiety and fear, which reduces cortisol levels and other stress hormone levels. Along with physical exercise and bodywork we can help release our life from the often tenacious hold of trauma and heal.

More recently, I’ve been really interested in neuroscience, and as I have mentioned elsewhere, trauma changes and impacts our nervous system; but the good news is that we can facilitate neuroplasticity, which is our brain’s capacity to rewire and heal/ change even in adulthood. Creating art is one way of increasing connectivity and integration within the brain. I read somewhere that it is an exercise for the sensory parts of the brain. Art activities that require focused detailing and concentration like drawing, sculpting, etc., help quiet the mind, a kind of mindfulness or experience of deep concentration.

Neuroscience has also found that basically we are wired to be good and generous because practicing positivity, kindness and compassion facilitates growth and integration. Simply put, helping others and giving to others helps us heal.  Passing on information and experiences of healing or hope (through art or writing, as well) – born from the challenges we have overcome in our life-allows trauma survivors to help others do the same, and thus, give back.

I tend to sit down and create when the urge is very strong or when there is a pressing experience, memory or emotion. I tend to concentrate deeply and usually work in total calm despite the often painful material been processed, explored and presented, and I use both images and brief texts or words. Also, it may take several sittings to complete a  journal page. At other times I work very fast, I use ink or pencil and I scribble or sketch roughly, and focus totally on the process, the intensity of the emotion, for instance, and deeper understanding.  Later, I return to the material over and over for additional processing and understanding. But one can also engage in art activities and exercises to explore and resolve particular issues or deal with specific areas and experiences.

Finally, there are countless art exercises and techniques (more or less structured) that one can use, but that is the topic for a future post.

Tonya Kyriazis-Alexandri          October 9th, 2014

Trauma_Art10-pinkRevisiting or Coming Back Full Circle