ANZAC silence: why we don’t talk about inter-generational trauma

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On the 25th of April every year, Australians and New Zealanders gather to remember those lost in the world wars. It is a solemn commemoration. Red poppies adorn lapels, heads are bowed, wreaths are ceremonially placed, trumpets sound and shots are fired. Tribute is paid to those who died and those who survived. Some of these ancestors had no choice; they were conscripted. Duty was compulsory, and it is far easier to tell stories about just wars than to consider the political power-struggles over territory and resources that are always involved. Realities are always more complicated.

Some criticise the glorification of war and the narrative of historic bravery, courage and justice, but what we don’t tend to talk about is that our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers (as well as the women who are hardly ever mentioned) often returned from war traumatised, with PTSD, unable to function emotionally. We don’t talk about how many of them became violent alcoholics and raised generations of boys (and girls) to be tough, rather than to feel.

With no tools for processing difficult emotions and healing from trauma, what else can we expect but a society where violence is normalised? We sweep our vulnerability and emotional scars under the rug. Our shared cultural legacy lurks in the dark, painfully silent. We loved these people who hurt us. They didn’t know any different – any other way. We internalise their trauma and take to our own children with that same painful tension. The trauma is obvious, despite the silence.

Sure, not everyone who went to war came back traumatised, but this is more than just a private issue. Almost everyone countries who fought these wars has is a descendant of someone who was badly affected. These personal wounds are political. Violence is not a private matter, it is a deeply social concern… So why don’t we talk about it? Perhaps it is more respectful, or just easier, to glorify these heroes – just as we omit many speckled realities from funeral eulogies. But when will we get the chance to actually deal with it? When we’re drunk and prone to outbursts? Maybe this is just humanity. Maybe we have always had wars and resulting traumas to deal with, but isn’t it time to start to talk about it?

It is hard to talk about sensitive things. It is easier to create perfect fictions of heroes than see their failings, weakness, vulnerability and the suffering they caused. But maybe if we stop just seeing the dark stuff as personal, we can really start to deal with it – and begin to heal this inter-generational trauma. We are living in a society where everyone has felt the after-shocks of this trauma, and what we do know about violence is that it tends to create vicious cycles – unless we can break out of them. Awareness is the first step.

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growing up feminist

Sometimes my childhood seems like some sort of strange social experiment. I wasn’t allowed to draw stick-figures or colour in colouring books. I most definitely wasn’t allowed Barbie dolls. Care Bears and Jem and the Holograms were strictly forbidden. My mother shuddered at anything pink and frilly. I wasn’t allowed to become a gender-stereotype, even when I wanted to be. I was given Lego and blocks to play with. I was told to be creative – to colour in the whole sky in the pictures I drew, rather than just the thin line at the top.

When I was two or three I told my mum the Smurfs were sexist because there was only one girl. She stopped letting me watch it after that (little did I know that Smurfs are actually asexual, and Smurfette was created by Gargamel in one of his failed evil plans). I stopped telling her shows were sexist after that. At primary school, the word “sexist” didn’t go down very well. The other kids thought I was being naughty when I called them on their bigoted behavior: oooh, you said sex!

sexism

I’m allowed to draw stick-figures now

When I was about five I drew a picture of sexism, as I understood it. On one side of the paper I drew a girl wearing shorts and on the other side a girl wearing a skirt. The day I drew it I was at the University with mum because I was too sick to go to school. Mum was so proud she printed the picture onto an OHT and showed her students in class. I had to explain to the class that sexism was saying that girls couldn’t wear shorts and that they had to wear skirts. I was getting the hang of being a good feminist. I went to a talk about violent toys with my mother and grandmother one night and pointed out to the speaker that the Power-Rangers were sexist, because there were only two girls and their costumes were yellow and pink.

There was one situation where my own understanding of symbolic gender ambiguity got me into trouble, however. When I was about six, there was some event on at school. I was desperate to pee so I went into the office block and wandered down the unfamiliar hall-way looking for the toilet. The only one I could see had a picture of someone wearing pants. Women can wear pants too, I reasoned. This would have been fine if I wasn’t interrupted, half-way through, by kids who were outraged that I was in the men’s toilet. The humiliation was devastating. It’s hard to be a good feminist child when other people don’t grasp your sharp social critique.

It wasn’t until I got older that I realised some people didn’t like the word “feminist”, that it made them think of man-hating or other things they didn’t like, or that it is no-longer needed now that women can vote and do other things they couldn’t do before. The negative stereotypes around feminism are evidence that it is still needed. When I was teaching first year sociology I would ask the tutorial class “who here thinks women should be able to vote?” and when everyone raised their hands I would say “Oh good, so we’re all feminists here.” Sociologists like to mess with people’s conceptions of the world and shake things up a bit. Feminism is in the water, in that we take all the things it has worked to achieve for granted, but there is still so much more work to do. The difficult thing is that gender-discrimination is often covert nowadays. It comes out in rape-culture and the sexual objectification of women (and sometimes men), it is hidden behind those sleazy remarks that make us uncomfortable, it is still evident in horizontal and vertical gender segregation in paid work, it is compounded by poverty and racial discrimination, and it is global, in the two-billion women living below the poverty line. Identifying as a feminist is making a statement that things aren’t just fine and dandy. There is still more work to be done.

The feminism of submission: food, sex and blogging

A friend recently told me that she has been taking a submissive role in her relationship with a man, not just sexually, but in-general. Normally she would want to be in-charge of everything, but lately she has chosen to concentrate on certain things, which happen to be ‘traditionally’ feminine things – cooking etc. On a camping trip she was able to let go of a lot of the decision making. She let him decide where to put the tent and focused instead on what foods they were going to eat on the trip. She sometimes liked to kneel next to him as he sat in a chair and felt comfortable and safe.  She said she felt good but was worried that what she was doing was anti-feminist or that other people might think she was in some kind of abusive relationship. I wasn’t worried. I wouldn’t be phased if the gender roles were reversed in this situation either, although that might be far less common.  Cooking isn’t necessarily submissive, but there is a feeling among some women that we always have to be in control, that we have to do everything and that we have to be responsible: we must be dominant in order to accommodate for the oppression of our gender.  In my friend’s case, letting go was possible because she felt safe and empowered enough to do so.

Perhaps submission is the wrong word here, but I want to acknowledge the power of giving up responsibility in the same way that Hegel’s master-slave dialectic argues that the slave has power because without the slave the master would not be a master. Although, I’m also not talking about slavery, just the power-dynamic of dominance and submission. This Penny Red post is an interesting read, exploring gender sexuality and submission. She makes some good points:

At no point, however, has anyone implied that men who want to be sexually dominated by women also want to be dominated by them socially and economically. Quite the opposite, if the long history of powerful men paying poor women to beat them up in backrooms is anything to go by. Apparently, though, a few smutty books about naughty professors wielding handcuffs are meant to prove that modern ‘working women’ (sic.) aren’t really as into all this liberation schtick as we make out.

She is talking, of course, about the media frenzy around the popularity of Shades of Grey and Twilight – books that have dominant, controlling male characters and female characters who are insatiably, irrevocably in-love with them.  Penny scorns the notion that these books are a reflection of modern woman’s secret desire to surrender the burden of their responsibilities. I’m unconvinced. But then again, I would believe that men with sub kinks are also escaping into a fantasy land where they don’t need to be responsible all the time. Being responsible is hard work.  They don’t really want women to control their lives (and neither do psychologically-healthy women really want a Christian Grey or Edward Cullen to decide what they’re going to wear) but a fantasy is a fantasy. Escape is escape.

Another friend of mine who is into BDSM type stuff argued that kink is something that can and should be relegated to the bedroom. She is particularly freaked out by dom-sub relationships that extend past sex games and into day-to-day relationships, particularly by her ex boyfriend who is in his thirties and has an eighteen year old sub with a learning disability who has to ask permission to leave the house. Ick!

To me the difference seems obvious between healthy relationships with secure attachments where submission in particular areas (from either party) is an active choice, and push-pull manipulative relationships where one partner is clearly in control of the other one.  For the record, I’m not especially kinky (hence having to ask other people about it) but I think woman and men can both healthily express their submission and dominance in various areas of life, taking into account the feelings of the other people they’re affecting and communicating effectively. Maybe I’m naive. I think it’s possible, I believe in a feminism of submission as well as one of dominance because I need to let go sometimes.  Letting go is a luxury and maybe it’s a privilege reserved for those who are already empowered in their lives.

A couple of years ago I was doing my Masters looking at the Weston A. Price Foundation and food blogs. The research sparked interesting discussions on my research blog and Sandra’s blog Letters from Wetville surrounding the gendered politics of food blogging. Almost all food blogs are run by women and there are also countless other craft blogs etc focused on ‘traditionally’ feminine past-times. The question was raised: are we food-blogging because of some underlying socialisation or is it a coincidence that the things we happen to be interested in are girly-type things? It’s a question that we never really could answer but it did raise a whole lot of other questions around social pressures, femininity and blogging.

Despite the first friend I mentioned taking on the ‘traditional’ task of cooking, food isn’t exclusively a feminine domain.  In the higher echelons it’s almost entirely male-dominated. Watching NZ Masterchef last night (my yoga teacher’s husband is in the top two) I noticed that the ten top New Zealand Chefs invited to lunch were all men, as are the three judges of the show, although many contestants are women. There’s an example of vertical gender occupational segregation if ever I saw one – food bloggers are generally unpaid, although some manage to etch out a living through ads or score a cook book deal like our locally raised Emma Galloway of My Darling Lemon Thyme.  It is worse than unfortunate that the kinds of food-work that women do are largely unpaid and it is a clear demonstration of why we still need feminism.

I don’t mean to get Utopian but it would be nice to live in a world where healthy submission was always possible because everyone is equal enough and empowered enough to feel safe in letting go of responsibilities sometimes. It would be nice if we didn’t even have to talk about whether cooking and food-blogging is undermining feminism.  It would be nice to see female sexuality portrayed as belonging to women and not represented almost entirely in relation to men.  To quote Penny again (because she’s so quotable):

Female sexual autonomy itself is what’s really unorthodox today. Agency and self-determination, the right to own our own desire – those are the kind of forbidden fantasies women across the world still pant over in private, unable to pronounce for fear of being slut-shamed. As Rousseau might put it : “Whether the woman shares the man’s desires or not, whether or not she is willing to satisfy them…the appearance of correct behavior must be among women’s duties.”

Avoiding the romance narrative trap

Are you wondering why your love life isn’t quite what it’s supposed to be? Why doesn’t your partner bring you roses, arrange surprise weekends away and find all your flaws lovable? Why doesn’t that hot guy or girl you have a crush on accidentally find your phone/wallet/umbrella, track you down then ask you out for a coffee at that cute cafe you’ve been wanting to go to? Why doesn’t the person you’re seeing reply to your texts straight away and always know the exact right thing to say to make you feel good about yourself? Well, my dear, it seems you are stuck in a romance narrative trap.

A what? 

Well, narratives are the stories we tell ourselves about our lives: our values, our pasts, our future ambitions, our identities.  Romance narratives are those that get all gooey and, well, romantic, like when you start to turn that girl/guy you’ve been hooking up with into a possible modern-day-fairy tale before you’ve even discussed politics with them.  Before you get all slushy and defend romance, just realise I’m not attacking all romance, just the romance narratives that are traps…

Whether you’ve been in a long term relationship that doesn’t quite measure up to rom/com standards or you meet someone who gives you butterflies, your brain chemistry goes out of control and all of a sudden you’re a love-zombie, checking your phone every other minute and day-dreaming about your shared future together, you’re in trouble.  Does this sound familiar?  Some people don’t seem to fall into the trap and some fall into the trap so well because it suits them so much that it isn’t even a trap, but I have been falling in and out of this trap for a long time and in the past few years I have been trying to figure out how to avoid it.  Part of the problem with avoiding it is that all those brain chemicals are highly addictive and neptunian-delusional. The other part of the problem is that the romance narrative is just so fucking pervasive.

They read ya Cinderella…

…you hoped it would come true, and one day your prince charming would come rescue you… Anyone remember that song from the 90s? It’s what I think of when I think of romance narrative examples – and IT’S A TRAP! Well, maybe not always, or maybe some traps are quite nice, but we’ve all grown up with unrealistic and unhealthy, bland and thoroughly hetero-normative narratives around romance – Disney is the easiest to blame, but really, it’s everywhere. Hey look, it’s a…

What’s wrong with Aladdin? 

Let’s not go into the insidious racism and sexism, let’s stick to the romance issue here.  So there’s this princess right, and she’s been sheltered and protected all her life and dresses like the genie in I Dream of Genie – and she’s just waiting for her hero, who is this nice, poor kid, with cool monkey who is very fit from running away from the police but, overall, a character with a good alignment (chaotic). You know how the story goes, even if you haven’t seen the movie, because it’s how all these stories go – there’s a bad guy, the hero saves the day with the princess helping out as his sidekick and they sail off into the sunset on their magic carpet: happily ever after.

This is what is supposed to happen, right? 

You’re supposed to meet someone, go through a few trials and tribulations, and then after the plot climax everything’s peachy. I was raised not to believe in happily-ever-afters but my cynicism hasn’t saved me – if anything, it’s only made things worse, putting me at cross-purposes with my brain chemistry addiction.

So what brain chemicals are involved? 

Dopamine: the reward pathway also associated with substances like cocaine and heroin. Dopamine is also known to affect your serotonin levels which can bring on low moods and further the motivation for more dopamine.  So when you don’t get the response you want, or you haven’t had any positive attention for a while the withdrawals kick in… love zombie attack! Yuck. If you’re wondering if he/she is your soul-mate, watching rom/coms imagining yourself and x as the leading characters, altering your appearance in accordance with what x might like… you’re in serious trouble.  Brain chemistry isn’t the only way of looking at this thing… there is all that aforementioned unhealthy-social-programming to deconstruct, “bad” habits to break out of and psychological issues to consider like insecure attachment.

Is it always a trap?

Yes and no. I have come to realise everything is a trap. Some traps are nice, some traps are comfortable, some traps help you feel like you’ve achieved something… saying everything is a trap detracts from the meaningfulness of the word ‘trap’, so we’ll just say it’s a trap when it’s dysfunctional. How does that sound? Is your romance narrative causing you grievous emotional harm? Are you wasting energy waiting for a text of continuously hassling your partner to be more romantic? Are you moping because there’s no one who loves you in ‘that’ way? Well, there you go… TRAP!

But what if x is my soulmate?

If you believe in soul-mates and that reincarnation shiz then take into consideration that a soulmate isn’t someone to give you happily-ever-afters, it’s someone who is here to give you major karmic lessons: lots and lots of pain and suffering, until you figure out how to learn from it and get out of the trap. The more you worry about whether it’s ‘meant to be’, the worse you are making it.  Focus on learning your lessons rather than controlling uncontrollable variables. If something is meant to be it’s not worth worrying about, anyway, is it? It will just happen, whether you like it or not. Don’t get your free-will tied up in your determinism, it’s not sexy.

Okay, I’m in the trap, what can I do?

I don’t have all the answers, but I have read too many self-help books, so here’s some helpful advice:

1. Get some perspective
Step back from the drama of the romance, to stop sinking my energy into crazy fantasies. Don’t turn into a psi-vamp, you’re too good for that, and after a while your friends will stop wanting to hear about x and how awesome or horrible they are. Maybe x is your soulmate, but that’s neither here nor there. In your present life you have other more important shit you could be doing. Do it.

2. Bring it back.
Bring your focus and your energy back to you.  You have been leaching it all over the place and it’s making a mess on the carpet.  I have this mantra which also resembles this 90s song, which ironically has extremely love zombie lyrics if you read the rest of it. Play this song and try to dance like in the music video. Go on.

3. Balance. 
Balance everything – food, sleep, exercise, entertainment, meditation… be calm.

4. Get fulfilling creative interests. 
There’s nothing better than fulfilling creative interests. Do something, make something, build on something. This will get your dopamine pathway functioning more healthily because you are being awesome and getting rewarded for it.

5. Meet ownemotional needs.
Easier said than done, but you really are the most qualified person for the job. Be sensitive to your own feelings and figure out what needs aren’t being met – then find more awesome ways to meet those needs.

6. Stop talking about x all the time, 
Just stop it. stop thinking about it so much, think about cats, cats are nice.