Please be aware that the essays for Writing Gender #2 contain discussions and personal experiences that some readers and trauma survivors may find distressing.
Writing Gender #2 seeks to explore how writing plays a significant role in making visible acts of cultural, physical and gendered violence against women and trans and gender diverse people.
Our broader aim is to explore such writing within contexts of cultural safety and healing, and the vital necessity of articulation, including the power of trauma-informed narratives to engender greater public awareness and instigate social action. Many of our writers also reflect on, and explicitly narrativise, the potential toll of this repeated re-visiting of traumatic experiences through writing, especially in public and private spaces. We repeatedly ask: What happens when trauma is the conduit to writing in the public sphere? What new kinds of violence can occur when trauma is mobilised through writing for public consumption?
Donna Abela will lead a conversation on these themes between Mykaela Saunders, Eloise Brook, Eda Gunaydin and Amani Haydar on Friday 9 September. Please join us for this free online event at 11am. Register here.
I grew up in a violent home. We kept this violence secret. I never told my school friends, we never told the relatives we were allowed to see, and in the cold light of a morning after, we barely mentioned it among ourselves.
However, fifteen-year old me had a counter-life. Re-reading her diary recently, I’d expected to find, along with teenage angst and longing, incapacitating anguish about the violence and control at home. Instead, the voice coming off those pages was that of a girl who was busy living an alternative life, who had places and playgrounds, actual and within, where the violence and control did not reach. She therefore knew for certain that she was creative, loved and loveable, and that what went on at home was unequivocally wrong.
As best she could, she counter-manoeuvred: in her diary, she committed liberating thought crimes; in a second bank account, she deposited secret savings, a freedom fund that the Head of the House would have taken, had he known; at school, she formed lifelong friendships and flourished. As best she could, when she could, she exercised the capacity to choose the direction and execution of her own energies which, Peter Levine tells us, is the source of empowerment.
In that childhood house, violence was a climate. The weather god was totalitarian, but thanks to my school, my fifteen-year-old self could move in and out of that system. The weather god had grown up in a violent home as well, beyond violent actually, and when he was fifteen, he fled. He had been a child migrant from a pulverised country, a bullied street-fighting ‘wog’, a one time state ward, and a monstrously-abused son. His traumatic adaptation, his means of survival, was fight; he controlled to connect, he raged to be safe; and later, as the Head of the House, his maladaptive controlling and raging behaviour was validated and fortified by male power, patriarchal precepts, and a society in which – to give an example from that era – churches argued that a law permitting a husband to rape his was wife upheld the sanctity of marriage. Violence was his ‘nature’, he once told me, without qualm.
When the Head of the House wasn’t home, we sheltered in the safety of our mother. Traumatised and hyper-vigilant, no doubt, she nevertheless gave us kids the run of the place – to play and make and build, to learn and study and dream – and let us range free among the creeks and parks and half-built monkey-bar houses of our then outer suburb. But as I reached puberty, and in the decades since then, I came to realise that the climate of violence in our house was charged, in large part, with a mistrust of and contempt for the feminine, with a rigid and theologically-underpinned belief that women are essentially unruly, fallen madonnas who can’t be trusted with autonomy, their bodies, or their own pay packets; that the violence perpetrated against my mum was seen to be necessary or deserved. Is domestic violence a hate crime? I think it often is.
At her class and gender and religion and socio-economic gridlock, our mother had no means and few opportunities to move in and out of that climate of violence. Her capacity to choose the direction of her own energies, to determine her own courses of action, was frightfully limited. One thing she could do was stay the distance, not leave until the last of her children had finished high school and obtained a better start in life. She stayed in harm’s way because good could come of it; and she stayed because departure was dangerous, and would have incurred a retributive rage which has been described as ‘homicidal’ by Pete Walker for good reason.
Let’s be clear. This is not a mum-bashing exercise. Why on earth would I replicate that? And this is the thing, my writing game plan: non-replication of violence. Counter-manoeuvring. Mobilising attention and movement in an alternative direction. Strategies my fifteen-year-old self had instinctively put in place.
To begin with, I never represent violence in my work, particularly because, in conventional scriptwriting, the punch is the pay-off, the money shot, the conquest, the release that brings reward. Her sobbing is his satisfied drag on a cigarette. For me, dramatising violence, or giving it privileged story placement, legitimises it. I choose not to do this. I choose to place violence out of frame, in the backstory, and instead to make visible its aftermath, the morning after, the shockwaves, the time bombs. Its pernicious bequest. The process of recovery. Post-traumatic growth. His denouement as her inciting incident.
When writing about the aftermath of violence, I feel an imperative to counter the abominations in a character’s backstory by placing them inside a safe frame, an alternative climate that is non-violent and not controlling. One way of doing this is to reach back to before they were damaged, to find their uncrushed prior self, their pristine younger spirit, and write from the desire of that aliveness and recovered freedom. For example, my plays Hearing and Prevail, which are inspired by narratives from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, are written from the uncrushed and younger and pristine points of view of survivors. In Hearing, a story of stolen childhood is told from a reclaimed frame of delight, a cheeky-naughty exuberance which is the birthright of every child. In Prevail, which is about a mother bullied and gaslit into silence by the church that abused her son, I activate the story from the counter-frame of her love for a son who hasn’t yet had his belief in magic and talking animals destroyed. If I can displace the totalitarian weather god in a narrative catalysed by violence, I can hear my character’s soul before it was murdered (Pete Walker’s terms again), and create from love and curiosity, not fear. I am not undone by over-identification with a characters’ oppression and suffering. I can access their wanting, and be energised by their righteous and incandescent fury.
However, bearing witness to traumatic narratives can itself be perceived as endangerment. I have experienced and learned to manage the ‘contagion’ (Cathy Caruth) of vicarious trauma. I have experienced ‘amygdala hijacking’ (Pete Walker) while trying to give voice and written form to stories of abuse: adrenalised dread, ‘time bombs’ of involuntary freeze and flight responses, and the overwhelming feeling that I am driving with the brakes on, have a ‘forceful turbulence’ inside my body that is like a tornado (Peter Levine).
This too requires a counter-manoeuvre that comes from love and curiosity, not fear. Instead of despising my disembodiment – dissociation, numbness, compromised working memory, for example – I’ve learned that my body is doing its neurobiological best to protect me. I understand from the science that this involuntary reaction is a natural and creative process in need of completion; a defensive response to a perceived, inescapable, and overwhelming threat; the activation of an ancient terror, and a valiant effort to protect me by immobilising my pre-frontal cortex. I love the thought that this play dead response is ‘a gift to us from the wild’, as Peter Levine has written, evidence of our evolution into humans, and understand very clearly that it is not ‘characterological’ (Pete Walker), not a Donna defect, not evidence of female weakness or some such.
So, the counter-manoeuvre is towards the body, into the body, with the body because, as the French feminists espoused back then, as trauma specialists understand, embodiment is the baseline condition for creativity and overcoming. I like the term ‘presence work’, used by playwright Ana Candida Carneiro to describe the writer’s work of grounding themselves in their body before they write, so that they can write from their whole personhood. Any practice that mobilises the body, and intentionally connects us to our senses and felt senses and aliveness could come under this term. Such work allows us to cultivate self knowledge and good quality solitude – necessities of the writing life; and just as importantly, as we bear written witness to traumatic narratives, the work of attuning ourselves to an inner awareness of our ourselves as an organism supports the body’s innate ability to heal, and regulate, and coax the hijacking amygdala back from the ledge of alarm and desperation.
Presence work is a vital and revitalising part of my writing practice. It has to be. As mentioned, while working away ‘safe as houses’ at my desk, I can be overwhelmed by an involuntary freeze or flight response that might last for hours, or even for weeks, especially if I am writing about survivors and their quest for freedom and autonomy. This fraught state occurs, I believe, because writing is my quest for freedom and autonomy; and as such, is an act that, in my formative years, could have been viewed as a ‘capital crime’ (Pete Walker). My body keeps this score (Bessel van der Kolk), holds emotional memories of that climate of controlling rage and retribution, is still involuntarily wired to protect me by shutting me down as I write so that I don’t commit high treason.
And so, I counter-manoeuvre from love and curiosity, twice over. I work to reorient out of defensive states and narrative arrangements; and I work to rewrite the inner scripts that keep me on high alert. Much much much more easier said than done.
Firstly, reorienting out of defensiveness? Why? Because it is creative poison. If we are in an activated defence mode, especially if we are being pulled back into an overpowering and life-threatening past, then we could be dragooned into the black hole of a trauma vortex, a state in which our energies, our metabolic resources, are furiously conscripted in our defence (Stephen Porges) – just like blood that is conscripted by our viscera when we are in shock. Our capacity for reasoning and creativity and loving goes offline, and we suffer – most horribly for a writer – from ‘a failure of imagination, and a loss of mental flexibility’ (Bessel van der Kolk).
Trauma expert Peter Levine describes this deeply defensive and static state as ‘soul ache’; and to an author, there are obvious analogies with story architecture – it’s like frozen action, an interrupted plot, an arc without a climax, a disturbance without a real time antagonist, a character without volition, chaos without catharsis, an Aristotelian tragedy without unity, Sisyphean repetition, timeless time, iterating act ones, a ‘permanently unfinished tale’ (Judith Herman), a neverending pattern of defeat (Pete Walker). In my own imaginary, it is like ashes in my mouth.
While I have my kit of strategies for reorienting out of defensive states, reorienting out of defensive narrative arrangements is a much bigger call. As writers such as Luce Irigaray have articulated, there is always the struggle to forge a female subject position in systems of language and representation that are underpinned by a binary logic which relegates non-masculine beings and experience to the box marked ‘who cares?’ When I try to write about the re-empowerment of female survivors, I almost viscerally wrestle with the force field of this negative ‘radical dependency’ (Judith Butler), this kind of war in which death and silencing violence are always at work (Hélène Cixous and Annette Kuhn).
I’ve written enough plays to know that if I set a story inside the climate system of the totalitarian weather god, then my characters and I stay on the defensive, and get nowhere fast. Our struggle against an abuser augments the power and primacy of that abuser. So, like choosing to write from an uncrushed prior place, I chose to work in a storyworld in which the characters have the capacity to choose the direction and execution of their own energies – which usually means developing alternative histories or counter-narratives in which the characters can activate spheres of doing for the purpose of undoing (Elaine Aston). Wildest dreams and virtual memories are two devices I use, and I will explain what these are in a moment.
Then there is the counter-manoeuvre to rewrite the inner scripts that put me on high alert. While I can choose not to represent violence in the scripts I write, the effort required to delete the violent internalised scripts that I have acquired is colossal. It’s the fight of a lifetime, according to Pete Walker. In the depths of the black hole of a trauma vortex, there is a library of shitty scripts penned by the totalitarian weather god. There he is, acting out his vicious, critical attacks. In this deeply defensive state, our creativity actually turns against us.
For a dramatist, being inwardly assaulted by such redundant storylines is quite the indignity; that totalitarian weather god is a plagiarist from way back, and his illusory fictions need to be banished big time and forthwith from that room of my own. But how? What counter-manoeuvres can move me out of that system?
I spit the ashes out of my mouth. I find my feet, return to my body, and empower myself with science. Much information is now thankfully available about practices and experiences that can widen our window of tolerance, build a ‘fierce, unshakeable self-allegiance’, and awaken a ‘fighting spirit to resist the abusive refrains’ (Pete Walker). Stephen Porges’ work on polyvagal theory is just one font of illuminating knowledge which has helped me put my creativity back on constructive track.
Then, back at my desk, after I’ve practiced yoga and meditation and focusing, gone bushwalking or bird watching, cooked and danced up a storm, had an ocean swim and laughed until I cried my heart out … once my body is poised again with the ‘yes’ of creative adventure instead of frozen with the ‘no’ of adrenalised dread, how then do I write about survivors of violence? How then do I make way for characters trapped in a class and gender and religion and socio-economic gridlock?
Well, the main counter-manoeuvre is to become the new weather god; to establish a climate in which characters who have not mattered, matter, and are safe, even if they don’t know it; to interrupt their interrupted plot with fluidity and adaptability, and to listen to their souls before they were stolen, maimed, or murdered.
I write the scenes of transcendence and metamorphosis and enduring love first so that I can call forth and stand in my joy, and lay down my defences, when the time comes to look into the abyss. I set aside pre-fab structures, and cause and effect logic – the ‘logic of physics’ (Tori Haring-Smith) – and look for organising principles and relational patterns and associative causality on the hop. I get busy inventing alternative lives and counter-narratives, places and playgrounds, actual and within, where violence does not reach them; that is, I give my characters the gift of departure (Hélène Cixous), re-equip them with imagination and mental flexibility and the logic of dreams so that they can escape the histories that have ambushed them, and the literalism or realism that would misrepresent them. I let them range free through their timeless psyche, and across categories and levels consciousness, and un-trap their frozen energy and righteous fury so that, at least once, they can bloom with the efficacy of their own imaginative power, and perform purely for themselves an act of narrative redress (Donna Abela).
For example, in my play Stella Started It, Margie and Cath, who helped each other escape their violent marriages, co-create counter-narratives that enact their ‘wildest dreams’, and mend their past, by imagining the kindness they deserved, the kindness their husbands may have had if they too had not been locked into intransigent gender constructs. And in my play Prevail, Nella offers a counter-narrative to her dead son that enacts a ‘virtual memory’, and mends their future, by imagining the ultimate vanquishing of the monsters that trouble his eternal sleep. Here, I am exploring Judith Herman’s understanding that when we elicit the ‘power of the imagination to transform the inner narratives that drive and confine our functioning in the world’, we can re-assemble old information into new packages, and become the ‘author and arbiter’ of our own recovery. Here, the revivifying inner acts of Margie, Cath and Nella are upheld as heroic, or counter-heroic, given that there is no trophy for introspective victories.
In a violent home, unless you are the totalitarian weather god, you know not to commit the ‘mortal sin of wanting’ (Pete Walker). In a story that has been catalysed by violence, I try to counter-acclimatise my characters, move them out of a system of aching and into a system of aching for, and to place their recovery in their own hands. Peter Levine equates the process of recovery with nothing less than ‘soul retrieval’ which, when you really pause to think about it, is perhaps the most elusive denouement of all.
I will end on a speculation. Perhaps the great many of us who live with the task of ‘soul retrieval’, who tumble between trauma and healing vortexes, who are tripped up by intrusions from the past, who don’t always have the luxury of unity… perhaps we are cousins of the kintsugi artist who uses golden joinery to piece together broken pottery. Perhaps we too are working with fragments to restore wholeness and beauty to a creation, and working in ways that feature, rather than mask, our handiwork. Perhaps we are practicing a different type of mastery, have a different literacy, a varied relationship to story creation and structure that also deserves a place in the sun.
Donna Abela, Performing Redress, keynote speech, Society of Women Writers, State Library of New South Wales, 8 December 2021.
Elaine Aston, Feminist Theatre Practice: A Handbook, Routledge, London and New York: 1999.
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, Routledge, New York and London: 2008.
Cathy Caruth, ‘Trauma and experience: Introduction’ in Trauma and Experience, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London: 1995.
—, ‘Recapturing the past: Introduction’ in Trauma and Experience, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London: 1995.
Hélène Cixous and Annette Kuhn, ‘Castration or Decapitation?’, Signs, vol. 7, no. 1, 1981, pp. 41-55.
Tori Haring-Smith, ‘Dramaturging Non-Realism: Creating a New Vocabulary’, Theatre Topics, vol. 13, no. 1, 2003, pp. 45-54.
Judith Herman, Trauma and recovery : The aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror, Basic Books, New York: 2015.
Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the other women, translated by Gillian C. Gill, Cornell University Press, New York: 1985.
Peter A. Levine, Waking the tiger: Healing trauma, North Atlantic Books, California: 1997.
Stephen W. Porges, The pocket guide to the polyvagal theory, W. W. Norton & Company, New York and London: 2017.
Bessel Van der Kolk, The body keeps the score: mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma, Penguin UK: 2015.
Pete Walker, Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving: A guide and map for recovering from childhood trauma, Azure Coyote Publishing: 2013.