I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a painting by Elisabetta Sirani, painted in 1664, called Portia Wounding her Thigh. It depicts Portia, wife of Brutus, stabbing a small knife repeatedly into her upper leg. It is a recreation of an event in the months leading up to the stabbing of Caesar, as described by Plutus. Portia notices her husband Brutus is brooding, but he refuses to tell her why, on the basis that as a woman, she would likely betray him under torture. To prove him wrong, Portia makes a series of deep, secret wounds on her thighs. She suffers symptoms of infection: pains, chills, and fever. When the pain subsides, she shows her husband the marks. Brutus celebrates her strength in bearing the pain alone. He vows to tell her everything, but they are interrupted — a few days later, Brutus murders Caesar.
In Photographs of Agony, John Berger describes both pain, and the documentation of pain, as moments of discontinuity. In the context of chronic trauma, the traumatised subject exists in the constant awareness of the possibility, even probability, of traumatic occurrences. Nothing exists outside of this awareness, every energy is directed towards its anticipation. The act of documentation is then doubly isolating; it is powerful because in the viewer’s context, the “moment of agony” is fundamentally dislocated from reality. The traumatised subject can’t observe their own pain from this ironic distance, and the fact that is it observed does not make them less alone.
I start reading Traumata, and almost immediately, I start avoiding it. Every note I make is exclamatory (‘oh shit!’ ‘hm’), or academic, as if a review could just be a helpful filling-in of gaps: CF: Herman, CF: Ahmed, CF: C-PTSD/BPD CF: Berger, CF: Lacan. As I read on, Atkinson fills in all these gaps herself, of course, so I’m left with nothing. There are points on class and gender I take umbrage with, or that I might take umbrage with, and I look outside the book for context, and for answers. I would have written it differently. I find so many reasons to put the book down.
After two hours in an interview room, a detective asks me — clarifying that he must, as part of his due diligence — why I didn’t make the report earlier. I laugh, and when he says, gently, it’s okay if you don’t have an answer, I say: Well, if this matters, then it all mattered.
I should have started at the beginning. I’m just not really sure where that is.
Traumata is a work of autotheory by Meera Atkinson. It’s an ambitious work of nonfiction that draws on social theory, memoir, and psychiatry to account for chronic and transgenerational trauma. The project of the book is to establish trauma not just as an event, but as a symptom and structure of a traumatic society. This is Atkinson’s primary research interest as a writer and researcher, and something she has explored academically and creatively over multiple books, most recently, in The Poetics of Transgenerational Trauma. She also co-edited the academic anthology Traumatic Affect with Michael Richardson. Breaking from the strictly academic tone of these titles, Traumata’s through line is Atkinson’s personal history of chronic, complex and transgenerational domestic and sexual violence.
One of the many ways in which Traumata is structured and propelled by chronic trauma is its ambivalent relationship to the trauma itself. I’m struck throughout by Atkinson’s need to confess to and dissect her history of chronic trauma, and her countervailing impulse to discount her testimony. Atkinson begins her account with several graphic accounts of rape, only to withdraw ten pages later; “This is not about me, or only me, or my me-ness.” As if self-assertion for its own end would somehow be insufficient. I relate to her vacillation between taking up and foregoing space: “There’s a reason I’m telling you this.”
Atkinson regularly draws the reader’s attention to the mutability and tenuousness of constructing a trauma narrative through her constant renegotiations of the role of memory in narrative, self and life. Of the many theories and accounts of memory she cites, the one that resonates with me most is early in the book. Paraphrasing neuropsychiatrist Daniel J Siegel, she notes that memory is not a reification of the past, but an ongoing attempt to construct a stable reality with the facts at hand. The past is never the past, it is the context for the present.
Atkinson notes that chronic trauma robs you of your ability to adapt your responses. I relate to this: I respond to everything like it’s a disaster, and then I respond to disaster like it’s nothing. I respond to this book like it’s a disaster, too: I hate reading it, I hate every pithy reference, and every moment of reflection and anecdote. I find myself equally unhappy with my moments of personal identification, and the points of difference. Honestly, I want this book to be my book, not Meera Atkinson’s, which is such an ungenerous and unfair reaction that I feel ashamed to write it down. I am equally resentful of the aching familiarity of this lucid, relentless account, and of the new perspectives it offers me. I hate its insistence on staring down the wound. I hate its project of approaching trauma through language, through theory, through structure, through the body. There are sentences in this book that will seem patently insane to anyone who doesn’t relate to them instinctively; at one point Atkinson writes, “It was, as child sexual assault goes, relatively harmless.” I get it! I hate that I do. I’m playing chicken with this fucking book and I’m chicken, every time. If this matters, then it all mattered. I want this book to be my book, but I also can’t bear it having anything to do with me at all.
Sirani’s Portia is less a moment than a case study, one that works to establish a lineage of structural trauma of which the artist understood herself a part; as in Traumata, “the years come and go. The names change. The violence cycles on, like a virus infecting hosts in each new generation.” Like Sirani’s Portia, Traumata presents a profoundly personal narrative almost defensively alienated from its subject. This only matters because it all matters. In less than two pages she invokes Australia’s illegal offshore detention of asylum seekers and Nazi Germany almost offhandedly. Autotheory can be difficult to critique, and Atkinson’s is particularly unassailable; she frames even the most personal and confessional moments as a service she is offering others, rather than a narrative disclosed for her own purposes. I’m not consistently convinced by this collapse of traumatic hierarchy, but I have no stable point of reference from which to criticise it. As Atkinson rightly points out, trauma as a structure, rather than an event, is not something we have the cultural lexicon to account for.
Sirani’s Portia is serene. In one hand, she holds the dagger raised in preparation for the next strike. Her other hovers over the sheath. This hand looks almost relaxed, though upon closer inspection this is belied by the nervous curl of index and forefinger. She is aware of the pain to come. Through a door left ajar, we see women talking in the next room, unfazed. Portia’s soft, certain gaze is fixed not on the dagger, but the wound. The scar, not the knife, is the weapon.
Portraying trauma in terms of moments that start and finish makes an implicit moral statement; that the right kind of pain ends. Portia’s red dress points to the anachronism of the portrait, making her a noble in the court of seventeenth-century Italy, not Rome in 44 BCE. This piece is usually read as a political commentary, in which Sirani positions Portia’s self-injury as a sign of the lengths women had to go to to be taken seriously in a patriarchal society. Portia’s appeal as a feminist subject in the seventeenth century was her secrecy, and not her pain, and that is the enduring power of the painting now. Her choice, and not her suffering, as if the two are extricable. The year after Caesar’s murder, Brutus and Portia’s son dies. One year after that, according to Plutus, Portia commits suicide by swallowing hot coals. None of this is, or can be, recorded in a painting. Neither can the fact that to ensure she would continue providing for her parents, Sirani’s family forbade her from marrying, or that she died in suspicious circumstances at twenty-seven.
Despite Traumata being a profoundly personal narrative, individual instances of intense violence are oddly foreshortened throughout. After several paragraphs describing months spent flirting with kebab shop owners, drinking, and half-heartedly studying, a short paragraph outlines two deaths. A rape occurs between boozy reminiscence, neuropsychiatry, and family history; just more psychic flotsam washing in with the tide. It collects and recollects itself in the logic of chronic trauma: Does this matter? Does all of it matter? The thing that Traumata elucidates in both structure and content is that the project of understanding trauma is interminable and in constant flux. It is an exhausting read because it needs to be exhausting; it is exhausting having the same predictable-unpredictable fights with yourself, over and over again. It’s just the pop of a Prosecco bottle. It’s just the football crowd. She just put her hand on your shoulder to get your attention. He hit you, but you didn’t die. You’re one of the lucky ones. Atkinson is quick to note that trauma self-replicates, too. She suggests that many of the abusive men she has encountered were themselves survivors of chronic abuse. Some small, reprehensible, part of me: If it all matters, then none of it does.
The appeal of shocking portraits of trauma is that they depict pain in sharp relief to life, but this is not the case in life. In Traumata’s account of — and accounting for — chronic and transgenerational trauma, Atkinson refuses her reader the comfort of dislocation. Here, violence is depicted as it is experienced by a chronic trauma survivor, ambiently, inconsequentially, and without relief. Unlike the observer of Berger’s moment of agony, a reader is not given the privilege of discontinuity. The multiplicity and urgency of this account reveals a truth that many rape narratives fail to convey: that for the traumatised, there is no ‘moment’. I said I didn’t know how or where to begin and I don’t, because chronic and complex trauma exists without the dignity of a discrete narrative, and Traumata responds to its subject in kind by refusing to trade in conventions like hierarchy and narrative. I find it hard to know whether my objection to this hierarchic collapse comes from the discomfort at seeing a relatable trauma writ large, or if there is something unhelpfully single-minded in this approach. Who am I to say what matters?
Concealing trauma isn’t the same as knowing how to live with it. I guess writing about it isn’t either, but it’s something. I don’t know what it would be like to read Traumata and only find it compelling and brilliant, though I’m sure that many people will. It’s an unrelenting, intricate and necessary work. I feel it’s a book written for me, and I don't know how to begin processing that feeling. Portia’s injury was a sign of strength because the survival was visible, but not the pain. In her absolute refusal to need, she crossed the weary line from hysterical to brave. Maybe for Brutus, that’s enough, but not for Sirani, and not for Atkinson, and not for me. Traumata presents a different approach to narratives of trauma, and while I feel compelled by it, I can’t quite parse it; I think I lack the distance required to observe the moment.
Jini Maxwell writes and edits. Her work has recently appeared in The Saturday Paper, Soundescapes, and Cordite Poetry Review.