By Isla Anderson
CN: Trauma, PTSD, abuse, rape,
blood, gender dysphoria, dissociation
JACK: [Screaming] I want a different story.
JOY: No. This is the story that you get.
—from ‘Room’ (2015), Dir. Lenny Abrahamson, based on the novel by Emma Donoghue.
Assault. Harassment. Non-consensual. Statutory. Stalking. Intimidation. Entrapment. Rape. In survivors of trauma—or at least those I’ve spoken to in depth—there’s an element of absurdity associated with language. To speak is an act of delineation. We are given words, sometimes before the event and sometimes after, with which we must communicate ‘what happened’ to us.
As a student of English literature, I spend a lot of my time examining the etymologies of different words, and yes, language does have a lot of connotative power when we contextualise it in an academic setting. The issue with trauma is that it doesn’t lie flat on the page. It doesn’t lend itself nicely to syntactical or narrative patterns, and the ‘stories’ of such primal experiences (and their aftermaths) are never linear. The same goes for bodies. How can we squeeze our first-person, animal selves into that second dimension? Humans are obsessed with representation, and dysphoria happens when that fails us, to a greater or lesser extent. This is a key obstacle in how those estranged from the ‘self’—particularly those suffering with PTSD symptoms and gender dysphoria—communicate.
“The issue with trauma is that it doesn’t lie flat on the page.”
This is hard for me to write. I’m using lots of small words to get this piece from A to B and there’s very little space in between them for what I’m actually saying to peek through. In an interview, Anne Carson said that in prose, ‘the meaning is all padded, costumed in normalcy…you’re too busy trying to get from one fact to another by standard methods: and, but, oh, no, then I was in this room, because, that’s Patti.’
When I experience my trauma, it doesn’t take the form of a novel or a screenplay or a police statement. It’s everywhere. Staticky. Pervasive. Phrases rattle around in my head and I spend an awful lot of time rummaging through them, looking for something to hold onto. Over the past few years, I’ve become very good at ‘talking’ without talking. You learn the words designated to your experience and you say them in therapy or to friends, often in the form of an apology, and you try your best to keep things tidy. You get angry. You isolate yourself. Dissociate. Try again.
“When I experience my trauma, it doesn’t take the form of a novel or a screenplay or a police statement. It’s everywhere. Staticky. Pervasive.”
Recently, I’ve stopped trying to communicate within conventional structures. I look back at my old work and can’t fathom how I possibly thought I could say what I meant in couplets, of all things. Couplets! Now, when I set out to write (especially personal work) I do so with a kind of scepticism. I look at language and think, so this is what I have. And don’t get me wrong, I love words. They’re almost geologically beautiful, especially when you start to cut them open. But now I’m making language work for me, and that is where the real narrative lies. In the gaps between things, the networks that language begins to form when we just let it breathe, the space for interpretation and reader occupation that making cracks in things allows. For me, as a survivor, that is home.
To me, this is what a trauma poem looks like. Below are words I selected from a literature exam paper, cut up, rearranged, and re-imagined as a poem about PTSD, abuse, and gender dysphoria.