Neurons Firing: Meera Atkinson’s Traumata

By Alexandra O’Sullivan

In being given the task of writing a review of Meera Atkinson’s Traumata, an exploration of trauma and its long-lasting effects, I find my thoughts reflected by Atkinson herself on the second page:

I understand you want to know what kind of book this will be and whether you can count on me. I’m thinking about how to respond.

Panic creeps into the spaces around my scribbled notes. I don’t know if I can do this book justice. I don’t know if you can count on me.

Atkinson’s self-reflective style is appealing – she addresses herself and the reader in the same breath, sometimes cheekily, sometimes poignantly, but always challenging the simplistic explanation. When describing her assault by her mother’s ex-boyfriend, she refers to the struggle of writing the experience:

I imagine my surviving aunts and my surviving cousins reading this and dread sets in the gut. I am ashamed for him and yet it is not my shame. It only happened once. I want you to understand (hear the rising panic in my voice?) that I do not believe he would have done it sober.    

Yes, I hear it. I’m drawn to the way she embraces complexity and doubt. I’m drawn to her honesty. She is even honest about her struggle to be honest – to ‘write the truth’. This struggle is not only because the truth is sometimes difficult to voice, but because memory is a slippery beast; it is never the accurate recording many people trust it to be.

Atkinson’s research into neuroscience reveals that trauma causes even greater memory distortion, due to the brain’s coping mechanisms of disassociation and self-blame:

trauma causes a profound split between the language-producing conscious part of the brain and the non-verbal, more primitive regions.

This struggle is not only because the truth is sometimes difficult to voice, but because memory is a slippery beast; it is never the accurate recording many people trust it to be.

The effects of trauma land mostly on the primitive side of this split, in the so-called reptilian brain. Traumatic memories become limbic responses – reactions associated with sensations, smell, touch, taste, which can then become triggers for anxiety or self-destructive behaviour. These responses become stuck even after the traumatic experience has ended, because the neural pathways created during the trauma remain. The victim may have no language to describe the trauma, but ‘the body remembers’.

Except that because it mostly remembers the sensations, not the facts, the remembering is open to misinterpretation. Atkinson discusses the idea of the ‘quasi-narratives’ of self-criticism and self-blame that emerge in the victim’s mind through long-term traumata, because it’s easier to feel more in control in a dangerous situation if you can blame yourself for it. I thought of my own trauma and the self-hatred that developed from it. My panic at the start of this piece was just my neurons firing, the ones that were formed in my abusive relationship, the ones that have no language to pin them down, to make sense of them. They form my writer’s block, my fear, the little negative criticisms that seek to paralyse me.

We cannot separate the self from the outer force that shapes it: patriarchy.

It’s no surprise we seek comfort from this doubling of effect – the abuse and its after-shocks – any way we can, in addictions and other self-destructive behaviour, in repeating the cycles of violence through generations, because there is no straight road to recovery, but a circling as we travel through our lives encountering triggers that force the body to remember again and again.

Traumata’s non-linear narrative spirals around each separate trauma, like a hurricane with her eye in the centre, reflecting the staccato nature of Atkinson’s tainted memory and the alluring pull of traumatic reminiscence. Primal survival instincts ensure that trauma sticks in the brain unlike any other good or neutral experience, and Atkinson returns to different traumata repeatedly throughout the book, in her self-confessed obsession to ‘rewrite the script’, a common obsession for trauma survivors who might struggle to accept the reality of their abuse or the cold brutality of their abuser.

Though memoir is the driving force of this book, it is much more than a simple re-telling. The way traumata connect at the micro level, in the mind of the traumatised individual, and at the macro level, in our traumatised (dare I say misogynistic?) society, forms the broader thesis. Atkinson blends the political with the personal, because there is no separation.

I have to speak from the inside out because patriarchy isn’t ‘out there.’ Our skin is not an impenetrable barrier against its effects. It infiltrates our beings and shapes our lives – first from the outside in, then from the inside out.

We remain entrenched in our personal traumata because we continue to live in the culture that caused them. Traumata makes the case that we cannot separate the self from the outer force that shapes it: patriarchy. My neural pathways are built from my experiences. I am what I have been through. I find this thought strangely comforting. While I can work to slowly restructure my neural network, through therapy and meditation, I am and always will be a creation of the climate around me, personal and political. When I look at it like this, the self-blame and self-criticism drifts to the background, and the cultural climate I share with others becomes a connecting force. I feel less alone.

A similar tentative hopefulness finds its way into the final pages. There’s a sense that change is possible – if the brain is malleable then it can be rewired, re-programmed, even healed to some degree, though not without conscious and long-term effort. The same goes for society. What I’ve come to realise after reading this book is that we really can’t heal one without healing the other.

Traumata is out now through UQP.

Alexandra O’Sullivan lives in Melbourne with her son and a black cat. Her work has appeared in journals such as Meanjin, Tincture, Kill Your Darlings and Verity La. She has been shortlisted for several awards including The Newcastle Short Story Award and The Horne Prize for Creative Nonfiction for which she received a Highly Commended.

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