The new wounded

All week long I’ve suffered the
indignity of a cold.  It started
with my lost voice and moved up and down from my nose to my chest.  It’s subsiding now but the urge not to
cough at all the wrong times is excruciating, for instance to break into that
hacking racket in the middle of a lecture is almost as bad as having your
mobile phone go off in the middle of a public talk. 
There’s something awful about trying to stop a cough from starting
through sheer force of will.  It’s
that sneaky little itch that lands mid throat that makes my eyes water and my
nose run and try as I might to ignore it I have to cough it away.  Delicate sips of water are not enough.  
Sometimes my body becomes even more of
an irritant than I’d like.  And
immediately my mother’s  mantra to ‘think of the starving Biafrans’ comes racing through.  After all it could be so much worse.
On Thursday night I took myself off
to a free public lecture at the University of Melbourne.  Ruth Leys talked about a group of people she and others call ‘the new wounded’.  She talked
about the ways in which people suffering from trauma are viewed differently
over time.  
There’s a theorist from
France, Catherine Malabou, who argues essentially that all people who’ve been
traumatised, whether through abuse or torture or war or accident, whether as a
consequence of literal brain trauma such as in brain injury or even folks with
schizophrenia and autism are part of this new category.  Her emphasis is on what she calls ‘cerebrality’.  The brain and affect.  
For these people the consequences are dire indeed.  In Malabou’s terms they lose all
connection to the past before the traumatic event and become almost like
robots, affect-less people unable to make decisions, unable to feel compassion
and so on.  These people, these
victims if you like, are no different in Malabou’s terms from the
perpetrators.  All have been traumatised so badly as to cease
to exist as they once were.  The lack all intentionality.  
has a point.  But it’s one I think
she takes to extremes.  It’s the
sheer physicality of her view, that we are bodies first and foremost and if our
brains get damaged in whatever way, whether literally through injury or
emotionally through trauma, we can change so dramatically as to cease to be
human.  The old us no longer exists.  
Ruth Leys argues against this
extreme view.  She reckons, and I
agree, that we are far more complex. 
What about resilience, as one person in the audience asked, and the fact
that some people cope with trauma differently? Some do well in spite of the
worst and others break down completely.
I find this fascinating, struggling
with these ideas, which I’ve boiled down in far too simple terms.  
My daughter who joined me for the talk
kept digging me in the ribs for my enthusiasm during question time.  She complained that I nodded my head in agreement with the speaker too many times.
‘You’re such a suck’ she said to me
later.  ‘You have to agree with
everything she says.’
 I think about
this now later and wonder.  Am I a
suck or was I merely trying to respond to a talk about which I felt
enthusiastic.  I try hard to engage with talks because if I’m going to sit for a hour listening to someone speak on a topic that’s
dear to their heart and meaningful, a talk I have elected to attend because
it’s on a topic that is also of interest to me, then I
want to make the most of it.  
want to join in the talk as though there’s only the two of us, the speaker and
me and maybe one or two others, in the room.  I hate the distance that can emerge between speaker and
audience.  I want a conversation,
not a monologue.  I find if I
engage with all of me, including my nodding head or furrowed brow at times when
things don’t make sense to me then I’m more likely to take things in and to
Most of the time I’m not conscious of this, until a daughter jabs me in the ribs.  Most of the time I sense I’m like any other member of the audience.  
 My daughter I expect is fearful that I
will embarrass her, after all Melbourne University is her stomping ground.  It was once mine many moons ago but now
it’s her place.  I must not take over her territory.  

A psychological sandwich

I am my mother’s daughter. When I was in my early twenties, when I first began to develop a will of my own, when I first discovered the thrill of rebellion and quietly thumbed my nose at my mother’s religiosity and what I then saw as her prudery, and began to favour the company of men – what I have called my ‘promiscuous’ years – my mother took to writing me letters.

My mother writes letters still even though we live less than twenty kilometers apart. She writes to all her children as a means of stating her case.

My mother’s letters to me are ‘psychological sandwiches’. They begin with protests of her love for me. The middle carries the sting. What do you think you are doing? Who do you think you are? Behaving so loosely with men. Where are your morals?

Then she might end the letter with a short vignette: her memory of me as a little girl in a yellow jumper and tartan skirt, after she had come home from hospital with my new baby sister, when I was less than two years old and had been left in the care of my godparents, the Kaandorps, for over a week.

In her letter my mother remembers me then as the little girl who threw herself into her mother’s arms and wept for the sheer joy of being together again. If only, my mother writes, if only she could give to me now the things I needed then. It is as if she wishes that I had never grown up, that I had never entered into the world of adulthood, of conflict and of challenge. If only I had stayed little, then our bond might be secure.

I have been reading Nancy Miller’s Bequest and Betrayal:memoirs of a parent’s death, a book about adult children who write about their parents after death. Are these memoirs eulogies, songs of praise for parents now gone, or are they betrayals of parental secrets?

I suspect I could not write about my father as I do now were he not dead. Now he is dead, I am safe.

Will the way I write about my mother change after her death? My mother in my mind has undergone so many metamorphoses, from the woman I adored as a small child to the woman I became scornful of, though not in adolescence, even in adolescence I felt protective of her and needy, to the frail old woman she has finally become, of whom I feel protective in a different way. It took a long time before I dared to feel critical of my mother in any way.

It was later in my life, in my twenties and thirties when I had embarked on my analysis, only then did my image of my mother start to crack. Only then did I come to feel critical of her, for her religious intolerance, her manipulative tendencies, and her tendency to pretend that all is well when it is not.

I have my mother’s name, all three names, Elisabeth Margaretha Maria. It is a Dutch tradition to name the second daughter after the mother, and the first daughter after the mother’s mother, a tradition that again alerts us to the significance of mothers in a woman’s life.

I did not name my first daughter after my mother or any of my daughters directly after me, but my husband insisted and I agreed to the idea that they should all have my name as a second name. Equality you might say. Their first names however belong entirely to them.

Even now I can imagine my daughters writing in the future about what it means to them to each share their mother’s name between their first and last names.

In my family of origin, we each bear the name Maria, another tradition, religious this time, a means of asking the Blessed Virgin Mary to look over us all. All except the oldest, who again according to Dutch tradition was given his father’s name in its entirety.

When we were little we laughed at the fact that even the boys carried the name Maria in their collection of personal names, Simon Peter Maria, Franciscus Wiro Maria, Michael George Maria and Gregory Paul Maria. Such odd names they seemed to us growing up in Australia in the fifties and sixties when most people’s names were Celtic and Anglo Saxon with the odd immigrant name from the Mediterranean or Europe thrown in for good measure.

Names matter, they are identifying features, they become part of our sense of ourselves and of our identity.

In the days when I fancied I might write a book in which I had hoped each of my siblings might contribute a chapter, I also imagined a paragraph on each of us, suggesting parallels between our first given name and the way in which our name reflects our personalities.

As usual I am running off into too many ideas, too many ideas to follow. One leads into the other and the track becomes unwieldy. It is difficult to back track to where we have come from. Sorry.