Narrating Our Healing: Perspectives on Working through Trauma - a profoundly admirable achievement

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Click here for more on this titleNarrating Our Healing: Perspectives on Working through Trauma

Written by Chris N van der Merwe and Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

Published by Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007

ISBN 9781847182081
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Narrating Our Healing is a good book in the widest sense of that adjective: it is well constructed, meticulously researched, and likely to deepen understanding of the difficult but profoundly important subject of trauma and how to address it. It is something like a handbook for living with suffering – both one’s own and that of others. To have constructed a text that can serve such a purpose is a profoundly admirable achievement.

Van der Merwe and Gobodo-Madikizela’s book engages with trauma theory and actual narratives (especially those of holocaust survivors). Yet this is a distinctly South African text in which most of the examples are from the recent past as well as the present of this country. The authors show how the claw marks of that history continue, for many, to fester, yet attempt to draw us towards the arduous imperatives of either administering healing to or achieving healing from those wounds.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is the author of A Human Being Died that Night: A Story of Forgiveness (concerning her encounters with the Vlakplaas operative Eugène de Kock) and was a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; she is an academic and a psychologist. Chris van der Merwe is an Associate Professor of Afrikaans and Dutch Literature and author of several literary studies. Both of them teach at the University of Cape Town. They set out in this text to combine their perspectives and skills. In the preface the authors tell readers that the impulse to write their book had its inspiration in many conversations they had with each other, discussions which intensified and extended when they co-taught a UCT 2004 Summer School course on “Narrative, Trauma, and Forgiveness”. This course refused to end on the designated day, because its participants “were bearing witness to the memory that people carried about the past and their struggle with it” (vii).

In drawing on the TRC and South Africans’ accounts of experiencing atrocities under apartheid, the text shows (as Hilary Mantel writes in a different context) how at this time “life was so fractured, so dehumanising and precarious, that the state’s ideology impacted on the most personal and intimate negotiations […] Now as then, the body has no frontiers where politics stops” (6).

The insistent and sometimes unassuagable demand that traumatic experience makes at both individual and collective level is wonderfully well caught in an image that the authors cite from Cathy Caruth’s Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (1995), where Caruth writes that trauma is “always a story of a wound that cries out” (4; cited 30). Elsewhere the same author’s words are again invoked to make the point that trauma is and causes “a crisis that is marked, not by a simple knowledge, but by the ways it simultaneously defies and demands our witness” (Caruth 1996: 5, cited 66). In other words, trauma involves a pain so profoundly awesome, terrifying, shaming, confusing or overwhelming that it is inexpressible and hence constantly requires repression, while recurrently and irresistibly demanding expression. The authors write: “Trauma has been described as the ‘undoing of the self’, and as loss; loss of control, loss of one’s identity, loss of the ability to remember, and loss of language to describe the horrific event” (vii). Not any loss or pain, but that originating in an atrocity and of extreme intensity; the kind of pain or loss that utterly destabilises the personality, that can be termed trauma.

As is well known, the word trauma is originally Greek and means “wound”. Used as a term to describe a severe psychological condition we can take it to mean "woundedness"; a traumatised person might hence be described as someone living with an "unhealing wound". Gobodo-Madikizela and Van der Merwe emphasise the by now fairly widely known "recurrence" or "re-experience" of horror that trauma causes: the “repetitive intrusion of traumatic memory into the lives of survivors renders victims and survivors powerless”, they write, stressing that “healing of trauma […] requires transformation of traumatic memory into narrative memory” (viii).

Turning traumatic experience into narrative is imperative to recovery, but this “process of telling” that faces the sufferer is “daunting, even terrifying” (29), as such a person feels that their last vestiges of (self-) protection are ripped off in the process. Hence the authors’ foregrounding of the role of an “audience” or of appropriate listening by those “with a desire to understand what has happened” to the sufferer – a desire that can be no idle curiosity or vulgar prurience. They cite Apfelbaum’s statement that only those able to “face” the full implications of the “grim and frightful reality” of atrocity and its effect can be adequate listeners to a trauma narrative, since “true listening requires courage” (Apfelbaum 13, cited 27). The imaginative effort to listen understandingly had needs be an act of courageous empathy and encouragement, for (as the writers remind us) “when people are traumatised, it is an experience of humiliation; they are powerless and they need a sense of control” (35).

I admire the way in which Gobodo-Madikizela and Van der Merwe remind us of the duty all of us who live amidst traumatised compatriots have towards assisting their healing; even if we have not had specialised training in counselling we are simply obliged to make the imaginative effort that unsentimental, courageous and compassionate listening requires.

To me the most moving chapter of this text, in which this kind of listening to a heartrending “crying voice” is demonstrated, is chapter three: “Searching for Closure: The Crying Voice” (38-51). It is a chapter that acknowledges that sometimes a pain is unassuageable and a crying voice cannot – but also should not – be stilled. This chapter is concerned with the suffering of a mother whose daughter’s body has not been found, nor have the circumstances of her death been clarified. It is not always possible, in other words, to turn trauma into narrative. Even so, Nokuthula Simelane’s unexplained disappearance and the relics of her life preserved by her mother hint at and demand a story that yet needs to be told. Otherwise it remains in the realm of “intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks and hallucinations” (39) – not only for her immediate family, but also, in some way, for the entire society.

In a review of this length I cannot touch on the range of the authors’ examples of the catastrophic recurrence of trauma, or of healing through narration – as a children’s game; as dream; as a written account; or as art. Given their foregrounding of narrative, it is particularly literary art on which the authors focus here. Early in the text they cite Denise Ackermann’s beautiful account of that form of expression (of pain) that we call a lament. Ackermann writes that lament "is a coil of suffering and hope, awareness and memory, anger and relief, a desire for vengeance, forgiveness, and healing that beats against the heart of God. It is our way of bearing the unbearable (…) It is, in essence, supremely human" (Ackermann 111, cited 10).

In the fourth chapter, on “Literary Narratives and Trauma”, the authors make good use of a translated text by a Frenchwoman who had been in Auschwitz, Charlotte Delbo; an account to which they were (it seems) alerted by Caruth, who suggests that because trauma narratives rely so much on imagery, the language employed becomes “somehow literary” and “defies, even as it claims, our understanding” (Caruth 5, cited 68). The citations from Delbo’s writing are very moving, even as she describes the terrifying nightmares in which her Auschwitz memories erupt, interrupting and destabilising her present, "normal" life. Delbo writes how the “skin” of memory has hardened into an inaccessible container of dreadful recollections from which these memories emerge occasionally, unpredictably and devastatingly – beyond her control.

The above accounts, and several others I have not had space to mention, convey something of the awesomeness of trauma, while the generally unflinching but compassionate and instructive writing style of the authors conveys a sense of adequacy to their topic (as far as this is possible). It is in this light that I find their fifth and final chapter (which, despite its generalising title, is an engagement with one text, viz JM Coetzee’s 1999 novel Disgrace) disappointing. My own response to this famous text is – among literati – a distinctly minority position (the authors indeed cite some of my own and others’ critical responses in order to refute them), but I am strongly convinced that making Disgrace the text of their choice (in what is presumably intended to be their culminating chapter) is inappropriate in being inadequate to their own topic. Their choice of the Coetzee novel seems to be determined by their finding in the character Lucy’s choices, particularly, an instructive example of forgiveness. The problem here is that the “forgiveness” extended by Lucy does not grow appropriately out of a depiction of fully faced trauma and is hence not a convincing example; Lucy “forgives” the perpetrators of an atrocity committed on her own body because they were in her view avenging a huge accumulation of historical guilt. Can a person who comes to terms with trauma in the role of an “innocent scapegoat” (Van der Merwe and Gobodo-Madikizela’s term for Lucy) for the assumed guilt of her race by means of such a huge, vague generalisation be equated with one who "personally" forgives a perpetrator? Is this forgiveness, or is it rather something more like accommodation or even rationalisation? Is Lucy shown achieving a narrative from her traumatic experience, or shown claiming a glib and unconvincing, evasive amelioration of it? Baldly, the authors seem to me to allow their hitherto admirably honest facing of the arduous struggle towards narrative from the profoundly inarticulate state of trauma to become facile, sentimental and vague as they invoke “the great archetypes of the mind, especially beauty, goodness and love” (98). I cannot imagine anyone counselling a trauma sufferer in these terms, or such sufferers finding in David (or even Lucy) Lurie a model for dealing with their own anguish.

There are literary texts to hand that would make better examples of works contributing meaningfully to the understanding of traumatic suffering and its sources in southern Africa – novels such as Yvonne Vera’s The Stone Virgins (which addresses the experience of rape and the katabolism of war and a tentative healing afterwards); Bessie Head’s A Question of Power (where the recurrent, nightmare visions of trauma drive a woman to insanity, yet allow her to emerge with wisdom and a detailed account from this battering); or South African texts like Ngcobo’s And They Didn’t Die, Bloom’s Transvaal Episode, Serote’s To Every Birth its Blood (and his earlier poetry), or post-apartheid writing such as Behr’s The Smell of Apples, Kagiso Molope’s Dancing in the Dust and Inyoka’s I Speak to the Silent. There are many others! In general, the recognition that literary texts evoking trauma have much to teach us is incontestable and timely – as much as it is an ancient realisation. Chinua Achebe emphasises that “art is, and was always, in the service of man” (“Africa”, 19). More recently he made up the mantra “stories create people create stories” (Achebe’s italics); he calls the latter statement “the universal creative rondo” (“What Has Literature”, 162) - in recognition of the interdependence of human existence and the narratives on which we rely and to which we contribute.

To restore balance, I end this review with one of the many wise and compassionate statements in which Gobodo-Madikizela and Van der Merwe’s text (despite my criticism above) abounds:

Nokuthula’s history is an example of the difficulties faced by a family in attempting to reach closure; but in a broader context, it could also be seen as a metaphor for the painful legacy of South Africa’s past – a past full of voices crying to be heard, of unfinished business crying for closure. Although it is impossible to reach full knowledge of the past, and although final closure will always be out of reach, these crying voices urge us towards the ideals of knowing and working through the past. The voices pose a challenge for oral and literary historians, for narrative therapists and creative writers – ultimately for all of us – to hear and to tell the stories of those unheard, to give a voice to those who have been silenced. (47)


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Works Cited


Achebe, Chinua. “Africa and her Writers.” In Morning Yet On Creation Day: Essays. London: Heinemann, 1975. 19-29.

—. “What Has Literature Got to Do with It?” In Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays. New York: Doubleday, 1989. 154-170.

Ackerman, Denise. “On the Language of Lament”. In After the Locusts: Letters from a Landscape of Faith. Cambridge, UK: WB Eerdmans, 2003. 98-128.

Apfelbaum, Erika. “Restoring Lives Shattered by Collective Violence.” In Van der Merwe, CN and R Wolfswinkel (eds), Telling Wounds: Narrative, Trauma and Memory – Working through the South African Armed Conflicts of the 20th Century. Stellenbosch: Van Schaik, 2002. 9-20.

Behr, Mark. The Smell of Apples. London: Abacus, 1996.

Bloom, Harry. Transvaal Episode. Cape Town: David Philip, 1982.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Delbo, Charlotte. Days and Memory (orig La mémoire et les jours, 1985). Translated by Lamont, R. Marlboro, Vermont: Marboro Press, 1990.

Gobodo-Madikizela, Pumla. A Human Being Died That Night. Cape Town: David Philip, 2003.

Head, Bessie. A Question of Power. Oxford: Heinemann, 1974.

Nyoka, Mtutuzeli. I Speak to the Silent. Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2004.

Mantel, Hilary. “Saartjie Baartman’s Ghost.” London Review of Books 29.18 (September 20, 2007): 6-9.

Molope, Kagiso Lesego. Dancing in the Dust. Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Ngcobo, Lauretta. And They Didn’t Die. London: Virago, 1990.

Serote, Mongane W. To Every Birth Its Blood. Johannesburg: Ravan, 1981.

Vera, Yvonne. The Stone Virgins. Cape Town: Oshun, 2005.

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