Book Review: Trauma

“The older one gets, the more we’re inclined to try to make sense of where we are and how we got here. Looking back we see these lightning traces, these impossible threads that weave our lives together and give them meaning.”

Trauma is an anthology of thirty-two essays from an impressive roster of contemporary writers who publish in the English language. They share their thoughts on a diverse array of mental health issues caused by, to name just a few examples included: physical, sexual and emotional abuse; drug, alcohol and pornography addiction; illness, including depression; sleep deprivation. The essays are deeply personal and skilfully written. They deal with hard-hitting subjects that demand time for reflection. The traumas suffered have been life-changing in myriad ways.

Jenn Ashworth writes in the introduction that she read the essays during the first lockdown of 2020. She suggests:

“It is hard to imagine a more appropriate time for an anthology like this, when even those of us cushioned from illness, bereavement and financial disaster are learning the hard lessons of impermanence and dependence. Of having the truth of our precarity revealed to us suddenly, harshly and relentlessly.”

The wide variety of subjects explored adds strength to a book that could have been dispiriting but somehow comes across as affirming. The authors live daily with the impact of various mental health issues – theirs or a loved one’s – but write of how they have found ways to recognise the damage caused and – mostly, somehow – push through. There are few treatments or cures suggested. Rather, the stories shared are an acknowledgement of how widespread and lingering trauma is. Brushing it under the carpet – a conspiracy of silence that has long been pervasive – results in longer term misery, sometimes across generations.

With so many fine essays included, I will only highlight those few that resonated particularly with me. All in the anthology are worth reading.

James Miller’s The Madness of the Real focuses on the relentlessness of the news cycle and the ubiquity of smartphone connectivity. He starts with social media – particularly as used by Donald Trump – and its assault on:

“truth, decency, tolerance and democratic values. The world’s biggest troll playing the world’s biggest victim, gaslighting supporters and enemies alike.”

Miller writes succinctly of a world on fire, fuelled by toxic leadership. The anger this engenders alongside the impotence many feel at the vastness of damage wreaked eats into our ability to trust the society in which we must live. He suggests that, in such times, literature can reflect back concerns and offer:

“inspiration, strength and solidarity. Old tools to build new weapons, elixirs to cultivate forbidden dreams.”

Where Miller writes plainly, Anna Vaught employs language richly flavoured in her essay, In Order to Live. A childhood characterised by emotional abuse led her to seek sanctuary in books – an escape ‘to new words and worlds.’ Having battled through years of mental health problems caused by toxic parenting, Vaught then suffered two nervous breakdowns while a young mother herself. She unpicked the origins of her illness by writing her autobiography – a cathartic process that enabled her to confront her family’s psychiatric history. She writes that she still reads at a furious pace, ‘in order to live’.

In Madness As Such, Neil Griffiths provides fragments written during a period shadowed by severe and extended episodes of depression. Although not always easy to read, this peals back the veneer of coping to expose a window into his mind at the time. It is raw and visceral.

“Overwhelm. I’m suffering ‘overwhelm’. (There is no more space left in this emptiness)”

In Quite Collected… Meanwhile… Rowena MacDonald employs a narrative presented in two columns to highlight how inner thoughts are masked to the extent that the bearer appears to be holding together despite help being needed. She escapes to private or anonymous spaces rather than risk being seen to break.

Naomi Frisby describes the damage caused by a toxic relationship in A Recipe for Madness. Believing her new partner to be the man of her dreams, she surrenders job and friends to be with him. On attaining control, he then changes tack, manipulating to ensure Frisby blames herself. In the aftermath, she feels humiliated that she was taken in, not recognising his narcissism.

“I prided myself on being independent, educated, strong, but my response to J pushing me away was to cling harder, to give more and more of myself to him. By doing everything I could think of to try and stop J abandoning me, I abandoned myself.
Finding myself again takes time. I have to learn who I’ve become and why.”

The Fish Bowl or, Some Notes on Everyday Sexual Trauma, by Monique Roffey, lays bare the pervasiveness of sexual abuse amongst adolescents and beyond, so much so that any fuss made is discouraged, damage internalised.

Although focusing on her own experiences, the point is made that men suffer too:

“of always being measured against alpha males, of not being able to reach out to other men, of having few male friends, of lonely marriages and of erectile dysfunction, and of wives and partners who didn’t know what they wanted in bed and didn’t seem to want sex from them”

Tamin Sadikali writes of addiction to pornography – how he grew to loath himself but, for many years, couldn’t look away. Azad Ashim Sharma writes of addiction to alcohol and cocaine. After a year of clean sobriety, he then chose to return to his old ways. These essays are eye-opening. The authors understand how their habits will be regarded but also that they are more common than many may think.

“Waste water analysis shows that 1/50 people use [cocaine] every day in London.
In May 2019, Kings College London and the University of Suffolk collaborated and found that 100 per cent of freshwater shrimp tested positive for traces of cocaine.”

There is no advocacy for greater acceptability but rather acknowledgement of self-inflicted damage and the difficulties caused by a culture of denial and condemnation.

In The Art of Lost Sleep, Venetia Welby writes of the problem of severe insomnia, a problem she has battled since her teenage years.

“people who’ve had a bad night or two, experienced jet lag or stayed up all night partying think the deleterious effects they feel must be the same, just scaled down. But the complete unravelling of body and soul and the identity crisis that real insomnia entails exists in a different dimension.”

As with many of these essays, this is a request for recognition of a serious problem that is too often belittled.

Throughout the anthology the writers present fearlessly articulate descriptions of the causes and effects of their mental health issues. These provide educative yet always engaging insight into widespread problems that deserve sympathetic treatment. It is a candid and illuminating read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dodo Ink.

Book Review: UnAmerican Activities

UnAmerican Activities, by James Miller, is a collection of ten interlinked short stories set in contemporary America. They tell of drug users and porn stars, college kids and religious fanatics, vampires and republicans. The dark, beating heart of the book explores the ingrained beliefs that drive so many to behave irrationally. Despite the perversions depicted the stories are somehow highly entertaining. It was an unexpected delight to find this such a captivating read.

The book opens with an ‘UnPrologue’ which explains the origins of the stories that follow. It sets the tone and is a story in itself. The reader is then introduced to the first of a cast of characters who will appear intermittently throughout the collection. Each story stands alone but it is the wider plot arc that kept me so engaged.

The first, Eat My Face, is a tale of drug users and gun toting criminals. Their backstories may garner a degree of sympathy but they do little to help themselves with the choices they make. High on meth, crack and alcohol they stoke their paranoias, sharing stories of vampires invading the higher echelons of influence, decrying those they blame for the sorry state of the world as they perceive it to be.

“Usurping the white man’s power. Taking our place. Overturning the order.”

Hope’s End takes an ex-pat Professor of Ancient American Cultures at Cornell on a road trip alongside a young student with whom he is having an affair. In Iowa they are arrested for indecency, thus preventing the academic from reaching his destination, an archaeological discovery in Dakota where a strange sickness is afflicting those involved in the dig. There are strange goings on at both locations, a pastiche of Midwestern American values and beliefs.

Exploding Zombie Cock completes the trio of introductory stories. It is set among wealthy students in New York playing host to a marine due to leave for a tour of Afghanistan and looking for a good time before he faces life threatening combat. When the protagonist’s ex-girlfriend shows interest in the personable young soldier jealousy rears its head. A potion from a witchdoctor in Haiti that has been gathering dust in a cupboard is deployed, with unexpected effects.

Pour Out The Vials introduces a family of religious extremists who believe the goings on in Dakota signify the coming of Armageddon. This is not the first time they have seen such signs and their teenage daughter has grown inured to the prophecies her mother makes through an alcoholic haze. With her father at church and her mother in a stupor she watches videos posted on a cultish blog, of strange happenings that are not explained.

The Kiss Of The Nephilim brings a vampire into the cast of characters. After everything that has gone before this makes sense, bringing to the fore the dark humour of these tales. The fantastical beings and events appear no more ridiculous than the recognisable actions and prejudices of the more everyday population. Behaviours are disturbingly familiar.

With five stories remaining there are still plenty of characters to get to know: a bounty hunter with a sideline in vampire slaying; an internet porn star convinced she can retain ownership of her body; a hellfire preacher decrying the wider population’s fake churches, determined to drive these false Christians back to what he considers righteous ways, by whatever means.

The final story offers a humorous dig at the author’s own circle and neatly rounds up what has been a¬†clever, incendiary, ludicrous in places but always entertaining wider tale. There is an UnEpilogue which confirms that this was never meant to be of a work of fiction in the style taught in creative writing workshops.

“there’s no clear trajectory from beginning through middle to crisis and then on to acute crisis – you know, the moment in the story when all seems lost and from where things go on to climax and resolution, the five acts”

It is undoubtedly stronger for its originality, clever without being clever for its own sake.

This is a rollicking ride through the hinterlands of America – I suspect the author loves the country whilst recognising its many hypocrisies and failures. As a work of literature it is impressive in its lightly presented depth. A subversive, deliciously indecorous, gratifying read.

UnAmerican Activities is published by Dodo Ink.