Friday, 28 June 2013

Just Sing

Last week’s rant blog sparked a lot of response.  A writer loves her audience, sure, but in the long run, it would be preferable if a topic such as the systematic downgrading of women weren’t something that reverberated so well.  Sometimes a writer wishes a topic might not have a receptive audience.  When it does, though, honour it.

Thirty years as a trauma therapist, I’ve heard a lot of stories, sat in the same room with a lot of different fears.  It’s amazing how quickly those fears lose their substance or in some cases, at least become bearable because someone is listening.  Others require ‘treatment’.  Not so much a trauma-ectomy as doing trauma tai chi.  A working through the resistance until what happened is accepted as an irretrievable part of their history, but not something that eradicates them as a person.  That resistance works as a protection in the beginning, but held onto, it interferes with change. 

Hold that thought while I do my Appalachian story boreen thing again.

When I still lived in the US, over fifteen years and inside someone else’s lifetime ago, my large nuclear family congregated for some weekend or another.  My mother asked me to make the bed for my brother’s friend.  I asked why, when my friend had visited, I’d made the bed for her, but my brother wasn’t expected to do the same.  My mother stared like I was a crazy person.  I’d gobsmacked my mother in the days before I knew the word gobsmacked existed.  A bit disconcerting, since my mother was quite the force.  So I said, I’ll make the bed, but I want to understand why.  I didn’t get an answer.

Earlier this year, during rehearsals of my play, Cats in a Pipe, a similar thing happened.  The play takes place on a military base in Afghanistan during an attack, my four main characters stuck in the Prayer Room, like the mummified cat in Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral had been stuck in an organ pipe.  As we rehearsed, the cast and director freely commented on the dialogue, mostly to improve it.  Sometimes, they commented on the content.  Sometimes they said, that’s a horrible thing to have happened.  Sometimes they asked me if such a thing could be possible.

When I said to them, that was based on a true story, five pairs of British eyes looked at the table.  Or the script.  Five British mouths stayed shut.  No one said now, that’s a horrible thing.  When they went silent, the one woman in the room, the one American also looked at her script and said nothing else.  I thought I must be in one of those places where Americans say too much for British ears.

And maybe that’s true.  I am a bit candid, even by American standards.  My lack of social grace makes people uncomfortable at times, but there are a lot of things out there that don’t make sense to me.  So I ask the question.  Like why I had to make the bed or why, as I said last week, Nick Griffen has carte blanche to say what he wants about women while Jinan Younis does not have the same freedom to complain about it. 

So back onto the main path again.  Resistance to the truth takes energy from the places it should be focused on, and puts that energy into stagnation.  We may think of stagnation as inertia rather than an energy sucker, but if you look outside your window at anything that’s alive, it moves.  Against all odds.  Put a rock on a plant and it’ll grow around the rock.  Unwittingly lock a cat in a room and you’ll open the door on chaos.  Put the same cat inside an organ pipe and well . . . most cat lovers don’t even want to think about it.

Which is why some voices are silenced, either by looking down at a script, or asking young women to take their cardboard placards down from an internet site, or battering and raping people until they make the choice themselves to stop speaking.

One of the characters in my play asks why the cat stuck in the pipe wasn’t heard yowling its head off.  The other three each have an answer.  Cats weren’t pets then.  Some people don’t hear distressed sounds.  Some distressed creatures are silent.  Or, minorities aren’t real people.  The hegemony doesn’t listen to its subcultures.  The oppressed have stopped talking.

Don’t let that be you.  Don’t drop your eyes to the script like I did.  Don’t tell yourself that you’re the loud American or are too young or may sound like a whiner, that something about your voice is why it should be silenced.  In Connemara, they have a saying that it isn’t about the singer, but about the song; even someone who can’t carry a tune is allowed to sing.  It gives the song life through expression.  And life is the opposite of stagnation.

Friday, 21 June 2013

My Long Overdue Rant

This has been one of those weeks plagued by a breakout at the idiot asylum.  Stuart Hall gets 15 months for sexual offences spanning 18 years.  Charles Saatchi accepts a caution for assaulting Nigella Lawson, not because he was being anything more than playful with her, but to make all the aggro go away.  Tom Martin wants to explore whether there’s a correlation between gold digging and why women are less funny than men.  And who can forget John Waters’ psychotic planet where Irish women tyrannise their menfolk and don’t really appreciate the inherent bliss which is pregnancy?  A bliss disconnected from the manner of conception or the viability of the foetus. 

After 30 years as a trauma therapist, I am jaded.  Even my husband’s horror at these news items didn’t get through to me.  People are intrinsically stupid and I’m going back to my writing.  Then I read Jinan Younis’ posting, What Happened When I Started a Feminist Society at School. 

What a brave woman.  After an incident of sexual harassment by strangers, she forms an organisation to help herself and her classmates meet the anachronistic challenge of misogyny.  Obviously this brings a backlash of abusive and threatening comments from male peers, because that’s what happens when women speak out.  Jinan’s school does what society always does to women – stops them from expressing that something’s wrong.  Out of concern for their safety, of course.  Yes, that makes a lot of sense.  Let’s not upset the dear misogynists lest they become naughty.

My 17th year, the place where Jinan Younis is now, was done a long time ago, but her article reminds me that it’s just now happening for hundreds of thousands of young women and men.  And so this week, I’m setting aside my writing to share a few things that I’ve learned.  This is not empirical data.  These are anecdotal events from my years as a trauma therapist, that I pass along to those of you who, like my husband, still respond with horror.

First let me say that I am not an activist.  I don’t have the temperament.  Nor does my son.  When he transitioned, he said he wanted to live his life, not spend the rest of it trying to change society.  I told him about my mother, a professional woman with seven children who one day in the 1970s wore a pants suit to church where she was the choir director.  After Mass, several women in the congregation thanked her for breaking the dress code.  My mother said that she’d put on the pants suit without thought to the wider ramifications.  She was living her life, not making a statement.  The point being, I told my son, they’re the same thing.  For me, living my life meant being a writer and trauma therapist.  Which means I've gotten close and personal with victims of domestic and sexual abuse.

Domestic abuse.  This week, people have said more times than I wanted to hear that Nigella Lawson’s experience somehow outs the problem of domestic abuse.  The jaded part of me wonders how society hasn’t noticed before.  In many places such as Glasgow, there are whole courts dedicated to domestic abuse.  There’s not a Murder Court or a Petty Larceny Court, but there is a Domestic Abuse Court.  How marginal can domestic abuse possibly be when we need courts dedicated to it?

Domestic abuse is a complicated thing.  Abusers don’t smack a woman they meet in a bar and so she goes home with him to live a life of physical violence.  It starts very subtly and progresses in an insidious way, like a slow acting disease.  Most of my clients are remarkable women.  The organisers.  The heads of departments.  The gregarious barkeep who tossed drunks out on their ears.  The women first on the dance floor and last off.  The artistic.  The alluring.  The intelligent.  The compassionate.  Great mothers and educators.  The heart of the family.  The object worth attaining and possessing.  Someone so accomplished, as a matter of fact, it’s satisfying to destroy her.

That, in my experience, is the face of the domestic abuse victim.  Women who can survive decades of extreme physical and emotional violence, usually with the aid of some powerful drugs and no external supports, who, given 2 short years of therapy, are often able to resume their lives. 

Unfortunately, funding sources typically expect domestic abuse victims to get past 20 years of terror in 12 short weeks.  We acknowledge that PTSD in soldiers takes longer to address.  We have the research to show the correlation of symptomatology between domestic abuse and victims of war.  We also know that the psychological effects of abusive trauma increases exponentially to the level of intimacy with the abuser.  But hey, someone damaged in the ‘defence’ of our country deserves more support than the women trying to raise the next generation.

And now sexual abuse.  I once worked in a homeless shelter for women with an admission criteria of either a history of abuse or of substance misuse.  In the time I worked there, only one woman didn’t have an addiction but all of the women had a history of abuse.  The majority of them also had a history of childhood sexual abuse.  This can be the future for a sexually abused child.  Her life sucks.  Her whole life.  Not just the incident of sexual intrusion, but her whole, entire life gone in some pervert’s ejaculation.

That was a discrete population of homeless women, so perhaps extreme, you say.  Remember what I wrote above.  The psychological effects of abusive trauma increases exponentially to the level of intimacy with the abuser.  In other words, it hurts more if you know the person.  Most sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by someone the victim knows or respects.  It’s how the predator works.  There is a bond of trust, so the child does what she’s told to do.  The predator has tentacles in the child’s life, can use knowledge about the child to control her or, in the case of celebrity paedophiles, their societal power to subdue her resistance.  Society colludes, hushes the child in the same way Jinan Younis and her classmates have been hushed.

How is that child ever expected to form a healthy relationship?  Sexual abuse objectifies her.  There it goes, self esteem, out the window.  You are nothing but an object.  A sexual object.  You give your body and you get love.  Or intimacy.  Or just physical warmth because let’s face it, without self esteem, what else do you think you're worth receiving?

Not only is the ability to have a normal and intimate relationship, sexual or platonic, permanently impaired by childhood sexual abuse, but often these victims are pathologised by the very institutions meant to treat them.  I have had countless clients with sexual abuse histories, both childhood and adult rape, who could not have their medical issues taken seriously if their sexual abuse history were known.  Headache?  Because of the rape.  Abdominal pain?  Because of the rape.  Antiphylactic reaction?  Because of the rape.

We didn’t listen to them then.  We don’t listen to them now.  We medicate them into silence.

So.  Stuart Hall’s eighteen years of sexual predatory behaviour equates to a 15 month sentence, only half of which will be served.  The poor old fart.  The fathers of Hall’s victims are horrified.  The brothers and uncles and husbands are horrified.  Men are horrified.  Women are horrified.  Why are there not laws to reflect this horror? 

I don’t know.  My poor pea brain can’t wrap itself around the fact that Nick Griffen can utter sexist and sexual things about Nigella Lawson and still have a job as MEP.  But there’s undoubtedly a correlation between people like Nick Griffen being allowed to speak and the silencing of women like Jinan Younis.  And we need to address it, rather worry about inciting the bastards.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Let the Dark In

Last week in the Writing Closet, we listened.  This week, we speak, but not of ordinary things.  This week we speak of our darkness.

What Happened.
Something’s happened.  Something you don’t understand.  You’re not the type of person it should happen to or you’re not the type of person who would do something like that.  It doesn’t make sense. 

People say things like, what were you thinking?  What did you do to make that happen?  Surely it’s not as bad as you say.  Why do you have to be so negative?  Why are you always such a drama queen?  They look at their watch when you speak.  They say that you’re weak.  On and on until you learn to stop speaking about it.  You pretend it didn’t happen and everyone’s happy.

It doesn’t have to be physically violent, although it could be.  It doesn’t have to be monumental, even, except to you.  What is your What Happened?  Can you say it out loud, to yourself, when no one’s in the room, no one’s outside the door?  Can you whisper, This Happened, and still feel yourself safe?

Touched cheated lied hit cut stole betrayed fired punched spied vandalised withdrew slandered provoked seduced abandoned changed you.

If you don’t feel safe, then perhaps today is not the day for you to continuing reading this.  Mark the page.  Come back when you’re ready.  Before you go, let me remind you, although you already know it, that we all have these things in our lives.  All of us.  There is a conspiracy not to speak of these things, yet these are the things a writer must speak.  But before she does, she must feel safe.  Only when you’re safe, should you write.

Not What You Are
One of the ways to help you feel safer is to separate the act from the person.  You are not what you did.  You are not what was done to you.  You may be a person who cheats on her partner but also loves that partner to distraction.  Who you are could explain the Why, but what you do, does not define the Who.  You may be a person being stalked by an ex-lover and you also help the parents of autistic children.  What happens to you is your history, not your talent.  You are more human and more normal than these experiences, held in secret, let you believe.

If you can speak about what happened and still feel safe, you will write it.  This is a given.  The trick is how you write it.  We’ve been taught to follow that sacred dramatic arc, come hell or high water, to reach a resolution.  Popular entertainment teaches us that this resolution should eclipse the What Happened.  Now I’m going to contradict myself.

Rather than eclipse it, think about embracing it.  Okay, didn’t I just write that you need to separate yourself from the What Happened?  Yes.  And if you separate yourself successfully, you won’t have to obliterate it.  You can change it into literature.  The dark, like the right side of your brain or your animus or your psychological shadow is bursting with energy that you can tap into it.  But how?

Play with What Happened
When the EDL went to protest outside a mosque in York, they were invited inside for tea and football.  This is what you have to do.  Invite What Happened in for a cuppa.  Sit with it a while, get to know each other.  And when you are safe, play.  And by play, I mean ground yourself physically in What Happened.  Let your body feel the experience while at the same time, maintaining your own integrity as separate from What Happened, just as you would do when immersing yourself in a character you’re developing.  When you do, it will give things to you.  Some of these things may give you insomnia, but you will learn to use them.

My current manuscript keeps me up at night.  Not because of structure and form, not because of plot and characterisation but because of the question, Is it ever right to kill someone?  Euthanasia.  Abortion.  Death penalty.  War.  Murder.  Is it ever right . . . This story is a blatant sublimation of What Happened in my own life.  Well, blatant to me.  There’s not a lot of killing going on in my life, but the creation of that question did come from What Happened.   And believe me, it’s a lot more interesting than What Happened, because it takes the themes of the personal events and puts them on a universal stage.

Which actually is the basis of most therapeutic approaches to trauma.  Research shows that regardless of the treatment modality, the most important factor to a traumatised person is reconnection to the broader community.  The sooner that happens, the better her chance of recovery. 

We are, after all, social creatures.  What Happened in your life belongs to the society of US.  Get yourself safe.  Invite What Happened in for tea and football.  Embrace it.  Share it.  Say it out loud.

Eva Ensler
For inspiration, read this interview with Eva Ensler. 

Friday, 7 June 2013

Shh, listen . . .

I have a friend who cannot listen.  She’s not deaf; she’s wired in such a way that she cannot listen to someone else’s part of the conversation.  Not that she’s dismissive.  She’s a charming, intelligent, energetic person whose brain flits through synapses like a mouse tossed in the air by a cat.

If I use the phrase, ‘rabbiting on,’ she grabs the conversation out of my mouth by saying, ‘Speaking of rabbits,’ and then proceeds to tell me about how her cousin’s neighbour’s son, Todd whose name means ‘fox’ and that somehow relates to rabbits which is connected to what I was saying by . . . I really don’t know how. 

Three minutes into any conversation and she renders me invisible, even though I can be quite entertaining on occasion.  When she gets a topic between her teeth, there’s no stopping her.  She came to dinner once, homemade dessert in hand and while we were scarfing it down, dissected its failings.  Initially we tried to disagree but she was unstoppable.  As she trashed her contribution, a silent black pall fell over the group.  And then the Butler filled everyone’s glass and we drank deeply.

I’m a former professional listener and ten minutes with her exhausts me.  If you cannot listen, your environment will stop trying to access you.  Which is isolating.  Which builds up the stuff in you that you want to say.  Which makes listening harder, perhaps nearly impossible.

Imagine that.  If you couldn’t listen, imagine how much of your environment you wouldn’t take in.  Imagine how much of your environment would withdraw from you.  Imagine.  As a writer, if you can’t listen, what happens?  It certainly reduces your perspective to one – yours.  So how do you write characters if the only perspective rattling around in your brain is your own?

Well, most of us are made up of parts, but after a while, writing these parts will produce a certain sameness.  And if the only perspective inside your head is the inside of your head, then the only resolution of plot lines will be a reverberation of the same old same old.  Writers, artists, actors cannot grow if we do not perceive the otherness of the world.  Our art comes from the flint spark of what is us, crashing into what is not us. 

But there is another type of listening.  Listening to that old right brain of yours.  Remember, the left side of the brain is the language brain.  It goes forth into the world and because it is language, it tells us it’s the only ME you have.  But it always takes along the right side of the brain, the symbolic brain, the intuitive brain, the creative brain.  The right brain is a communicator, too, but it speaks to us in non-linguistic ways.  We have dreams, urges, intuitions, premonitions, creeped out shivers, anxious moments, inclinations. 

The UK based script writers in the crowd have had a flurry of contest deadlines these last two months.  For most of my writing life, I’ve done long prose, but the last three or four years, I’ve done script as well.  It’s a writing form that insists upon perceiving beyond oneself during the creation.  Scripts require other people in order to come into artistic being; that aspect makes it deliciously addictive.
Please notice me.
As I was driving myself toward these script deadlines, an unfinished prose piece kept intruding into my work.  I would put it off by promising to get to it when these essential, life-preserving deadlines were met, but the damned prose thing was like the Big Nose Dog when he needs to go for a walk – his chin on my knee, those deadly brown eyes boring into my usually impervious conscience.

My right brain was speaking to me and I wasn’t listening.  As a result, writing became an obligation.  I wasn’t having fun and we know how important fun is to a writer.  I sent a script to Papatango and Bruntwood, then pulled out my piece for the Verity Bargate.  I typed.  I deleted.  I took Big Nose for a walk.  I savaged weeds in the garden.  I sat in the hammock, stared into space.  I typed.  I deleted.  My play for the Verity Bargate was going nowhere.

Then I closed the script document.  Opened the prose document.  And wrote.  Hours and hours of highly energised writing which only stopped when the Butler came into my office and announced it was time to eat.  I’d listened to my right brain and I was having fun again.

Spend this week listening.  Listen to the racists who are pissed off over the Cheerio ad.  Listen to the endless commentary on Prince Philip’s private medical situation.  Listen to birds, the sound of motors and wind and the latch on the gate.  Listen to obnoxious children whining that it’s not fair and drunkards who know the meaning of life.  Listen to your mother’s advice, even though she’s given it to you 7032 times already and she’s really, really wrong about that.  Listen to your friend who never listens to you when she talks about Todd.

And when all that listening is done, listen to old right brain.  Or watch for it.  Or let it touch your muscles and skin.  Listen and you’ll know.  You will, I promise you.