From the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma- stories
Why Stories? Catastrophic life experiences such as those associated with the refugee experience, torture, and natural disasters, have long lasting effects on the survivor. Some of these events are linked to the historical memory of an entire nation or a society. Almost everyone throughout the world can associate some historical meaning with the cities of Hiroshima, Pompei; the date of September 11, 2001; the name Nelson Mandela. Other traumatic life experiences caused by human cruelty may remain hidden for centuries; maybe forever. Little is known, for example, of the suffering of those women raped during the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, or the fate of children in Afghanistan left homeless and without parents.
Extreme violence creates a new historical space, where all ordinary experiences and daily activities become transformed into something radically new. Old attitudes and behaviors are re-defined. Up becomes down. Neighbors and friends become enemies; cowards become heroes. This new historical light casts long shadows onto old patterns, changing reality into illusion.
Unfortunately, the rational scientific mind, with all of its modern technology, cannot successfully explain the hidden mysteries of trauma’s aftermath. The scientist says, in effect,”What a horrible unclean human mess. I’ll clean it up with my logical and precise analysis in order to make perfect sense of it.” But this scientific analysis almost always falls flat. A social earthquake has transformed the lives of thousands. This earthquake can never be properly understood through numbers and statistics. The artist is essential for describing the inner experience of the survivor. Only the artist’s methods can penetrate to the deepest levels of the human spirit to discover these invisible wounds caused by violence and to reveal the healing processes that characterize our essential humanity.
Humans are obsessed with their trauma stories. HPRT’s staff have listened to more than 800 trauma stories of mass violence, torture and earthquake over the past 20 years. In spite of the repetitive patterns of human cruelty, every story remains unique and fascinating. It is most likely part of man’s evolutionary nature. Maybe our earliest ancestors on the plains of Africa were fascinated with these stories because they helped them survive: Over there the river currents are deadly; a lion killed a family on the other side of the mountain. The telling of traumatic life experiences may well have became associated with empirical truths in our neural limbic systems. They deal with basic questions of truth: who is the teller of the truth? Where can we find the truth? When does the truth emerge? Finally, what is the truth?
But merely knowing the truth is not enough. The essential question is this: how do we live with the truth?
The arts can help us divine the mysteries of trauma without having us flee from the overwhelming horror and disgust evoked by human cruelty, or the unfair violence perpetrated by nature. Over the past twenty years, HPRT’s involvement with beauty manifested through the arts helped the most damaged patients to recover, (e.g., the joy experienced by a Cambodian torture survivor upon seeing, for the first time since childhood, Cambodian shadow puppets.) The arts have also helped HPRT’s clinical staff survive the pain absorbed from each of their clinical cases.
Every survivor lives in a culture of great traditional and artistic beauty capable of teaching the survivor and healer deep insights into courage and resiliency. Often, however, this beauty has been destroyed purposely by the perpetrator. As the world has come to fully acknowledge, the goal of torture is the complete annihilation of the individual, his/her family, and his/her culture. The embrace of beauty by the survivor and healer restores a sense of inter-connectedness, well-being and meaning. The artist (often but not necessarily a survivor) tells the story, we listen closely and our violated humanity is healed.