This phrase has woven in and out of my life and thoughts over and over again through the past year. My personal experience of an extreme trauma response taught me the importance of telling my story, in my own words, my own time and my own way, as part of my healing. In my work I hear many trauma stories and I often think about the possible disconnection between the reasons why people chose to tell me their stories and the reasons why I have been sent to listen.
The trauma story is a personal narrative told in the person's own words about the traumatic life events they have experienced and the impact of these events on their social, physical, and emotional well-being. It is not someone else's interpretation of events, although it may contain observations on the reactions of family members and the local community. The storyteller may tell the story to others for many reasons, including to get benefits or medical care. Similarly, the survivor may have many personal and social reasons for keeping the nature and history of their traumatic events a secret (for example, in the case of rape trauma). Richard F. Mollica, MD, Healing Invisible Wounds.
I have a mandate to ask people to share their trauma stories with me in order to document human rights violations and abuses. The purpose of this documentation is several fold and the different objectives may or may not overlap with the reasons why the survivor has chosen to share his or her story with me. The objectives and their possible outcomes for the individual are:
i) to record and report on trends and patterns of violations in order to inform and influence policy making and implementation. This objective aims for long term and systematic change and is unlikely to bring any immediate or direct benefit to the individual telling me their trauma story;
ii) to verify allegations of serious human rights violations to be followed through the justice system for the purpose of holding the State accountable and promoting justice for victims. In some cases this objective will lead to direct (although rarely immediate) benefits for the individual, although not necessarily the benefits which he or she is seeking. The justice system, even when it is working perfectly, can meet only a limited ranges of needs such as having the truth of your experiences validated by an authorative body, seeing the perpetrator of injustice against you held accountable for his/her actions and occassionally, but not often, receiving material compensation for the wrong done to you.
iii) to identify cases were immediate protection is required and to assist individuals to find protection when they need and want it (this might include reference to shelters in the case of women facing ongoing violence or threats of violence, for example).
Because I am part of an integrated mission, I can also sometimes meet other, more material needs of trauma survivors. If someone, in telling me their story, tells me that what she really needs is some food for her children or a tent so that she doesn't have to keep living in the back room of a hostile brother-in-law, I may be able to attract the attention and assistance of humanitarian actors who can provide those kinds of material aid.
In the process of listening to and documenting personal trauma stories I may be contributing to other needs such as the need to be heard, to be taken seriously and to have the seriousness of the wrong done recorded by someone. But I am aware that the people who share their stories with me often have many other reasons for sharing and many of them I will never even understand, let alone be able to meet.
I am trained as a lawyer, and as a human rights monitor, to interview and record trauma stories as legal events, asking direct and indirect questions to try to fix down the factual details required to complete a case report. I often find myself asking people for more details about dates and times and places. These are important for legal verification, but they are often of very little relevance to the storyteller and I often wonder what impact this interrogation for details has on the storyteller.
Conducting an interview that helps patients tell their trauma story is difficult and takes practice ... traumatic life histories can be very elusive. ... Because the trauma story is so loaded with meaning and so closely associated with the essential worldview of the traumatized person, it can only be presented to someone else in an oblique way. The emotions and events that are the most important to you are difficult to tell directly to other people. The trauma story itself remains hidden until the patient finds the opportunity to reveal just a fragment. Maybe this is reluctance exists because the survivor fears rejection, or , worse, because he or she fears the intended listerner has no interest or curiosity in the story. Understanding the trauma story demands a considerable amount of skill from the listener, not just to share the emotional feelings but also to enter into an examination and apprecation of the historical, cultural, and personal meanings of the events. This well-rounded approach allows even the most severe trauma events to be told. Richard F. Mollica, MD, Healing Invisible Wounds.
Um, so you mean I shouldn't just keep asking "when exactly did this happen?", "what was the name of the man who came to the village and killed you children?", "did anyone else see this happen?"? I'm being a little facetious, of course I don't leap on the teller of traumatic stories with those kinds of direct questions. But given limited time and overwhelming workload, I know that I am sometimes impatient to get the kinds of details I will need in order to enter this "case" into our database.
Where is the time to simply listen? To listen to the story as the teller wishes to tell it. To let it be, perhaps, for today, explaining that I would like to document this story as a human rights case but that in order to do that I will need to ask more detailed questions. To ask if I could return to do that another day, once the storyteller has had time to think about what he or she wants to get out of telling the story to me. Where is the time to do that?
I understand that it is my responsibility to make that time. But that can be challenging when you have responsibility for monitoring human rights across four provinces where literally millions of people with millions of stories of trauma and violation live and when on top of that you are responsible for the set up and running of a new office including building relationships with local authorities and coaching staff on work planning and reporting, and when on top of that you are responsible for the research and development phase of a new national project on violence against women and women's access to justice in this country where the UN Special Rapporteur found that "severe violence against women [remains] all-pervasive" and when on top of that you try to maintain relationships with friends and family at home and abroad, to nuture your creative self with personal time for reading and writing and to make time to exercise and to cook, clean house and get the laundry done.
I'm not complaining, I love my job and the privilege of doing this work. But there is so much to think about in order to honour those who chose to tell me their story and I often feel rushed and overwhelmed with work and I worry that I don't give them the time and patience they need and deserve.
Another dimension of listening to trauma stories that I worry about here is the process of translation. As you can probably tell from the extracts above, I've been finding Dr Richard Mollica's book incredibly interesting and soaking up his experience and expertise gained from many years of 'treating' people who have undergone trauma and torture. One of the first and most important lessons he learned about listening to trauma stories was that language matters. The words people chose to use to describe their experiences are very important and that the listener who wants to understand their story must pay very careful attention to the precise words and phrases chosen and to their historical, social and cultural meanings.
Another major breakthrough in our approach was an intentional focus on culture and history as revealed in the words that our patients used to describe their traumatic life experiences. The uncovering process, the seeking of historical origins and meanings of words and phrases that can bring us closer to the actucal world of the storyteller - is a powerful method of interpretation. ... Words, especially those that describe traumatic events, need to be carefully defined in the life of the patient, family and community. Richard F. Mollica, MD, Healing Invisible Wounds.
I conduct all my interviews through a translator. These translators are all fluent in local language and culture, but most of them are far from fluent in English. We often have to accept that there a large gaps in our understanding of each other and I am painfully aware of how much I am missing because of this. As the time which I have spent in Afghanistan slowly grows towards the two year mark I am beginning to recognise key words in Dari and to recognise certain phrases. Little by little I am developing the ability to notice words anf phrases that come up often in interviews and I keep a note of them in the top margin of my notebook. Some are very telling - just this week I hear several different storytellers respond to my question about what they would like to see happen to address the wrong done to them by saying that Afghans can forget all terrible things done to them by praying. It is a phrase that jars when I hear it. I spend enough time listening to trauma stories that date back 30 years to know that many Afghans have not forgotten the wrongs done to them. So I understand that I do not understand what the speaker really means when he or she says this.
Some people might tell me to concentrate on my work as a lawyer and human rights monitor and not to stray to far from what I know into the complex territory of psychological responses to trauma. But I can't see that boundary very clearly. More accurately perhaps, I see the boundary but the reality of work doesn't not respect it. Stories are not always about facts and events, they are often about feelings and responses to those events. The remedies people seek are not always about justice, they are also about the acknowledged need for reconciliation in order to build a peaceful tomorrow. In Afghanistan our human rights work is always going to cross into the territoriy of 'transitional justice' and all the questions that come with that.
I know my limits, I know how very much there is that I do not know or understand, but I am not going to let that stop me trying to understand more. Hence the Amazon order of books on the psychology of trauma and healing. Hence the weekend hours spent reading Richard Mollica and frantically scribbling notes and further questions. Hence the plan to go back to university and study psychology next year.