Monday, 24 September 2012

Studying Trauma

Reading this post from Chally over at Zero at the Bone made me think about some of my own harrowing university experiences. In the final year of my undergraduate degree I took a module called Holocaust Fiction. I don't know how anyone else in my class dealt with it - I was hardly in a place to make friends with them - but for me the module might as well have been called 'How to make yourself cry every day for 3 months'.

I am half Jewish on my dad's side, and my paternal grandparents are both Holocaust survivors. My grandma, who came to England from Vienna on one of the last Kindertransport missions in 1939, had died a few weeks before her 82nd birthday, two months before I began studying Holocaust fiction.

Now, you might think that I made a spectacularly bad decision in choosing to study Holocaust fiction at this time. And it was a spectacularly awful experience. But I had chosen my modules months before this point, and anyway, I was never interested in making life easy for myself. I knew Holocaust Fiction wouldn't be an easy module, emotionally, but I also already knew what makes me tick when it comes to literature. I chose my modules because I'm interested in grey areas, and in how history is made - how we create narratives of our pasts, both individual and collective. I adored Writing America in my second year, which focused on how writers play with America's various creation myths, exploring themes of identity, personhood, freedom, community and the 'American Dream'. Many of my second year modules and all of my third year modules (with the exception of Detective Fiction which I took for pure fun) explored similar themes, looking at ideas of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality and identity. Being part Jewish, and interested in the idea of Jewish identity itself, Holocaust Fiction seemed like an obvious choice for me.

So I spent the classes themselves in muscle-clenched, jaw-locked, tight-throated agony, and my individual study time in gasping, tear-drenched misery, trying to numb myself with whiskey and forcing myself to keep reading.

I think it's pretty clear that Holocaust Fiction came at exactly the wrong moment for me. It got tangled up in my grieving for my grandma, and it was unremittingly awful. I hated every second of it, and when I wasn't caught up in hating it, I was panicking over the knowledge that I was screwing up my final year of university. I suffered a punishing few months, berating myself constantly for my weakness whilst simultaneously hating myself for appropriating a trauma that I felt didn't belong to me. I couldn't properly articulate the cruel, nasty mixture of pains to anyone who asked me about it, or indeed myself. The module tutor tried to be kind when I went to him in desperation to ask what I should do. I couldn't complete the work; not even the reading, let alone the writing. When I did manage to write something it felt like it was being ripped out of my flesh word by word, letter by letter. I had no idea if it was any good or if it was even acceptable. I couldn't read it back to myself to check. I couldn't show it to anyone because I was so embarrassed. I threw myself into my other modules, obsessively drafting and redrafting my Detective Fiction work until it was perfect. I took it to a study advisor - something I had never done before and that I had no need of at that point - because I was so committed to dedicating all my time to that essay, mostly so that no part of my brain was ever free to drift to Holocaust Fiction and 'All Holocaust fiction revolves around issues of authority and entitlement. Discuss.'

That was my essay title, and in the end, it was one of the best things I had ever written, which seemed to surprise nobody but me. My personal tutor, a brilliant, terrifying woman, explained patiently to me how emotional investment in a topic can be a gift as often as it is a curse, forcing a deeper connection with and a more rigorous examination of the issues at hand. Of course that's not always fun. Even if your emotional investment isn't bound up in trauma, the thing about emotions is that there is always the potential for pain. Say you're deeply in love with the idea of family as it is portrayed in one novel, and while you research for your essay you discover that that notion of family is a really bad idea - or that you've misunderstood, and the portrayal is not what you thought it was. If you're truly invested in that notion of family, even in a 'happy' or positive way, there is potential for pain when rigorous academic study reveals some other ideas.

If your emotional investment in a topic is complicated and painful, particularly if it tugs at the strands of your own identity (which is very likely) the potential for pain is that much greater. You don't have the emotional distance to take a discovery 'academically' as it were: you can only receive it in your heart, and you've no defences against what that might do to you.

Personally, I'm wondering whether an emotional investment can ever be truly uncomplicated; if it can ever be unpicked from your identity. Generally if I'm deeply invested in something, there are good reasons for it: I feel that it impacts on me in some way. As such, I'm far more likely to be deeply affected by criticism of / engagement with the issues, since they will be personal. If I read a book about queer identities, I am going to be more involved, more critical, more forgiving and more emotional than if I'm reading a book about 19c bridges. Bridges are interesting. But nothing I read about a bridge can make me question the core of myself. For some people, a bridge might make them question the core of themselves. Perhaps if their mother was the one who built the bridge. Or if that bridge leads to their home town. Maybe the bridge connects them with their lover. Any of those things could make you emotionally invested in bridges, and perhaps if you read a book about them and discovered something you didn't know, or something you did know but are in denial about, or simply found that other people see bridges totally differently from how you see bridges - see, there's the pain. Can you be simply, happily invested in something? I don't think so. You can enjoy something simply and happily. But investment is different. There can be joy in it, but the joy is tenuous. Ephemeral. Perilous.

You know how you can be flying high, loving everything in the world, enjoying the cracks in the pavement and the weeds and how the road stretches out tantalising before you, and then someone looks at you or says something or you see an advert or hear a line from a song, and everything tumbles down around you and you're just standing there bemused in the dark - that's emotional investment. You're invested in that moment - enjoying it, yes, but almost too much, almost like you're dependent on it - so when it is compromised it takes everything with it. The joy and the hope and the bright.

That's what it's like to study something you are invested in. It can be beautiful and validating and joyful, but there's always a lurking shadow that can tip you into the black before you know what's happened. In a way that experience is tremendously valuable, but it can also be painful and traumatic in its own right, perhaps adding to trauma you're already carrying. For myself, a lot of the pain came from a feeling of fraudulence: alongside feeling miserable about the issue itself, I was also feeling guilty about feeling miserable, which is down to the nebulous issues of Jewish identity and Holocaust guilt. This kind of double bind could just as easily be related to LGBT identity, racial identity, religious identity etc. It's rather like walking a tightrope, and the tightrope might be that much thinner if your connection to that part of your identity is unstable to start with. If you identify 100% as gay, for example, and you're happy and secure in that identity, then reading an argument that homosexuality is unnatural will almost certainly make you feel anger, sadness or despair. Or it could make you feel superiority to the person who espouses such antiquated, wrongheaded views. Or pity for them. Or a combination of the above. Your emotional reaction might be complicated, sure. But it probably won't be compromised by the little voice which asks you if you've any right to feel that way - if you're gay enough to feel legitimately insulted, if you're gay enough to feel angry about those opinions. I'm not saying that it's any easier to feel that way. Just that it's different, and having experienced both I can see the added layer of complexity that I personally struggle with when it's my ambiguous, unstable identity that is on the line.

I still wouldn't argue against pursuing studies of your personal trauma sites. For some people - for me, I think - it can be useful. Educational, enlightening, possibly even healing. It's an interesting thing to look back on. And despite the misery and the struggle, I'm not sure I would change my experience of it. But perhaps next time I will go into it with my eyes open. Perhaps next time it will be easier.

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