Neurons Firing: Meera Atkinson’s Traumata

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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.

Fighting Back: The daily activism of a school librarian

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By Karys McEwen

A few years ago, I was working as the librarian at a private girls’ school in Melbourne. During Book Week, YA author Fiona Wood gave a presentation at the school assembly. Towards the end of her speech, she asked the audience of young girls and their teachers who among them considered themselves a feminist. A meagre scattering of hands appeared. Wood looked out in disbelief and asked again. This time a couple more hands crept up, the confessors shyly looking around at their peers. In total, no more than 15 feminists among a sea of 500. In my front row seat, I felt nauseous. As the librarian, I considered fostering equality as part of my role, whether through promoting books with a positive message, or providing a safe space for progressive ideas to flourish. Had I been doing enough?

More Human: Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic

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By Sonia Nair

In classic philosophy, an axiom is seen as a statement that is so obvious or well-established it’s routinely accepted without controversy or question. But in modern logic, an axiom is simply a premise or starting point for reasoning.

With her structurally impressive fourth nonfiction work – which tackles familiar themes from the physical and emotional significance of places that have withstood significant trauma, to the shifting conceptions of home, identity and belonging – Maria Tumarkin both demolishes this first definition and underscores the second. Blurring the lines between memoir, essay and reportage, the book’s chapters unspool from Tumarkin’s encounters with certain people, to encapsulate that ‘nothing is more human than the experience of feeling trapped’.

Turning well-worn axioms on their head in each of the five distinct chapters, Tumarkin dismantles commonly-held but rarely interrogated truisms that reveal both everything and nothing about the way we live. With each letter in lowercase and their endings at times omitted, these axioms are stripped of their inherited meanings.

The first chapter ‘time heals all wounds’ centres on a woman called Frances who lost her 16-year-old sister Katie to suicide. Frances’s fractured sense of self is first rendered through a series of essays she writes about her sister throughout Year 12 and university. The way Tumarkin arranges these recollections in amongst her own reflections about grief, death and loss imbues this chapter with a feel not unlike the start of a novel, although we soon learn that the after-effects of Katie’s death are too real to be contained within any novel – they ripple outwards to affect family, teachers, friends.

Tumarkin dismantles commonly-held but rarely interrogated truisms that reveal both everything and nothing about the way we live.

By contextualising the deaths of young people, Tumarkin examines how schools are irrevocably damaged, and how teachers are often the best placed, yet the most ill-resourced, to navigate the aftermath. The reason Tumarkin has decided to turn her eye to teenage suicide may have something to do with the fact that her daughter ‘has not been well in her soul (her body too) for a while now’. It forces Tumarkin, and by extension her readers, to reckon with the inherent unknowability that accompanies any suicide, and the failure of the framework to account for the deep sorrow and pain young people feel about the geo-political state of the world:

Your life may be privileged, safe, white but that won’t make you immune from despair at the world. Doesn’t mean you don’t feel things with an intensity that turns being in the everyday – to-do lists, plans – excruciating at least some of the time.

In the chapter ‘those who forget the past are condemned to re–’, Tumarkin cleverly delves behind the sensationalist headlines of the time to reveal an astonishing miscarriage of justice that saw a Polish grandmother jailed for acting out of well-placed concern for her grandson, who she purportedly kidnaps and hides away for four months. The writer ties together the unravelling threads that preceded the act, all the while refusing to draw neat parallels between the first year of her life spent in hiding from the Nazis and the effort she took, several decades later, to hide her grandson from his negligent mother. By recognising in the grandmother the autonomy and humanity the justice system robbed her of, Tumarkin rids her from the burden of having to relive her trauma day after day – in other words, the grandmother is saying: ‘don’t use my tragedy to mask your moral failure.’

Tumarkin’s voice is urgent and excoriating as it is tender and wry. Though much of what Tumarkin turns her eye to in the book is grave and distressing, moments of levity and hope punctuate the narrative when least expected, proving that though she specialises in portraying the splintered human condition, Tumarkin’s ultimately optimistic quest lies in piecing together meaning where meaning has been forsaken, and moving forward. The subject matters themselves may be familiar – suicide, intergenerational trauma, misogyny in the legal system, displacement – but everything is as if cast anew when Tumarkin writes about it. Startling new connections between what was and what is are revealed, seizing the reader with moments of lucidity and stark realisations.

The relative brevity of the chapters, so rich in exposition they’re each worthy of a standalone book, belies the slow, gentle way Tumarkin draws each person out, and the generosity and compassion she affords them. Some of the most sharply-rendered portrayals are that of Polish émigré-cum-media personality and socialite Vera Wasowski (one of the few people within the book to be accorded their real unabridged name), and tireless community lawyer Vanda.

Many of Vanda’s clients are entrenched in endless cycles of poverty, abuse and addiction, living their lives on ‘a highway where they are repeatedly hit by passing trucks’. It’s Tumarkin’s summation of Vanda’s selfless dedication that comes closest to exemplifying the weight and moral imperatives contained in her writing, even if she is talking about someone else:

Many who advocate on behalf of others don’t want a connection with those they’re advocating for. Aren’t interested in talking politics. Twists and turns of human fate are not up for discussion. Whereas a smart lawyer who gets you, fights well for you, is like a doctor, the provider of an essential service.

Though she specialises in portraying the splintered human condition, Tumarkin’s ultimately optimistic quest lies in piecing together meaning where meaning has been forsaken, and moving forward.

By inhabiting and embodying the spectrum of human pain and suffering, Tumarkin fights for every person encapsulated in Axiomatic, and in doing so has created something deeply original and essential to understanding the core of the human experience. Perhaps it lies in her exemplification of pity – although pity when practised by Tumarkin is contrary to what we’ve been taught, much like the axioms she so adroitly deconstructs, and more like Raimond Gaita’s description in After Romulus:

For the Greeks pity did not carry the connotations of condescension that it often does for us. It referred to a sorrowing compassion that is marked through and through by awe at our vulnerability to misfortune.

Axiomatic is out now through Brow Books.

Sonia Nair is a Melbourne-based writer and critic who has been published by The Wheeler Centre, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings and Metro. She blogs about how she never follows her food intolerances at and tweets @son_nair.

Maria Tumarkin appeared at FWF2018 on It’s Personal: Feminism and Narrative Nonfiction.

Say Hello: Doing Disability Activism My Own Way

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By Carly Findlay

Photo: Camille Condon

Around a year ago, I got a book deal to write a memoir. Due out early next year, Say Hello will tell my story of life with the rare, severe skin condition ichthyosis. Writing this book has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but not just because of the length or the subject matter. It’s because in the process of writing this book, my disability activism has been questioned.

Family, Language, Love, Dance, Land: Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia

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By Nayuka Gorrie

Black Australia is a patchwork – there is no homogenous black culture or experience. Adequately capturing the essence of hundreds of nations is no easy feat, but Anita Heiss has pulled together an incredible bunch of voices that reflect the humour, intelligence, strength and diversity of Aboriginal people in Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia.

It’s no industry secret that readers are largely white women – the white gaze is often unavoidable. But this book wasn’t created for white dinner party fodder; it is concerned with telling the truth or many truths with nuance.

As an anthology, it is not structured uniformly or neatly for the white reader to easily disseminate lessons to make them better allies. Each of the 51 contributors – spanning different ages and experiences, with some household names and others still in high school – has been given creative license, which for the black writer is a rare delight.

I am hopeful that white readers will be left mulling over some stories – but more importantly, that many black people will read it and see bits of themselves reflected back at them, as I did. I saw my late night messages with my younger brother in the conversation between Alice and Susie Anderson. I saw Christmas holidays with the cousins in Natalie Cromb’s yarn. I saw my queerness in Allison Whittaker. Tony Birch made me ache for Fitzroy.

I am hopeful that white readers will be left mulling over some stories – but more importantly, that many black people will read it and see bits of themselves reflected back at them, as I did.

We are given generous glimpses into some deeply personal annals and vulnerabilities. Evelyn Araluen tells us about her childhood ratty face and teeth; Terri Janke tells us about her skin; Deborah Cheetham admits that she feels she is still growing up Aboriginal. Birch without hesitation tells the reader there were no tribes or totems growing up; this is honest and in some part vulnerable. Aboriginal authority can be bound in connection to land, but Birch, staunch and confident in his own Aboriginality, reminds us that not knowing because of circumstances forced on us is Aboriginal too, and that is okay.

The question is, what ties these stories together? Which is to ask, what is the black experience in Australia? One thread woven throughout the book is colonisation and whiteness. Almost every second story spoke of being asked how “much” Aboriginal they are. How often they are or were forced to explain themselves to white people. Perhaps the only thing all contributors have in common is the extent to which colonisation has shaped their lives. This has left me pondering – what is blackness without whiteness? What are we when we aren’t responding to trauma, to colonisation, to white supremacy?

There are moments in the book when there are no white people, or where there is no whiteness. It is family, it is language, it is love, it is dance, it is land. These are all so precious because of the pressure placed on the writers by white supremacy and colonisation, so once again I ask myself, what is blackness without whiteness? This book helps us to get closer to the answer.

What is blackness without whiteness? What are we when we aren’t responding to trauma, to colonisation, to white supremacy?

The other day I was discussing with a friend whether or not things are getting worse. We have national broadcasters spreading dangerous myths about us. If it were not for black protest, the right of reply would never have been carried out. We need black voices and black truths. It seems more pertinent than ever that this book exists; it is one I will revisit over and over again.

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia is out now through Black Inc.

Nayuka Gorrie is a Kurnai/Gunai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta woman. She is passionate about self-determination and culture.

Generation Gap: How feminists of different ages are connecting to #MeToo

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By Matilda Dixon-Smith

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Recently, while speaking with a senior manager of a crisis support centre, I felt the uncomfortable twang of a generation clash.

We were discussing the changing language of consent and the manager, an older, self-described “Germaine Greer era” feminist, recalled hearing stories from clients about “bad sex” (discomfiting sexual experiences that may not qualify as sexual assault) and thinking: “Welcome to the club, darling.”