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.
She 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.
I 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 remember.
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.