No More Drama: Critical Distance or Emergency Stop?

I haven’t spoken about The Event in Kabul. Not publicly. Not yet. Despite a few encouragements prodding me to tell the truth and to not be disingenuous in my portrayal of Afghanistan, and to be less cerebral and cognitive about my experience from the last blog (see “Real Ethical Dilemmas From A Horrific Event In Kabul“), in addition to a very provocative article by Sophie Tamas in “Writing and Righting Trauma: Troubling the Autoethnographic Voice“, I find myself pulled in even more opposing directions. Tamas cited Helene Cixous in the aforementioned article, in which she wrote:

the only book that is worth writing is the one we don’t have the courage or strength to write. The book that hurts us … Writing is writing what you cannot know before you have written it … a book stronger than the author. (1993, cited in Patti LATHER’s “Getting lost: Feminist efforts toward a double(d) science”, 2007, p.4)

As an artist, I could, I should, and I want to immerse myself in the experience and give a creative response. But that would mean re-living Trauma, re-visiting Pain, remembering Horror.

And yes, to some clinical psychologists, it would mean embracing the burden and moving on. To some creative arts practitioners and therapists, it would mean getting into the mire of rich, generative material for artistic expression, something academics have to forego in order to write coherently. In fact, Tamas goes on to state:

When we talk about loss and trauma in scholarly discourses, even when we describe our own suffering, what we are generally doing is not, in these terms, testimony. Testimony is affective and embodied, and often doesn’t make sense. It is that messy text that we talk about in our tidy ways. As scholars, we generally get the gold stars for producing knowledge. However, testimony appeals to us because, particularly in these postmodern times, producing truthful knowledge seems increasingly impossible or unethical. Since we can’t credibly valorize our work by claiming to authoritatively represent external realities, we throw in empathy as the reader’s gift-with-purchase, and design research methods as tools for cultivating and extracting it. [14]

In so doing, we may presume that the pursuit of knowledge and empathy is mutually reinforcing, but I am not convinced that they are entirely compatible. Knowing more about, say, my partner, does not automatically increase my empathy for him. It may, in fact, decrease it: do I actually want to know how much time he spends downloading movies, or how messy his car is, or whether he stuck to his diet today, or what he’s really thinking when he’s angry? Whether or not it is true, what is the impact of that knowledge? My empathy comes from feeling with and for him, loving him, and arbitrarily deciding that what I like about him matters more than what I dislike. It is based on belief, on a choice to appreciate, which may be only tenuously associated with the facts. [15]

In therapeutic contexts, testimony without affect doesn’t get us anywhere. Indeed, it can be a sign of melancholic attachment to the lost object, a refusal of mourning. In academic contexts, I can sell it as autoethnography. The process of sociological introspection that Carolyn ELLIS (1991) describes seems to depend on studying and presenting your own emotional experiences as knowable and meaningful events. But I cannot be beside myself, standing there with a notepad, and inside myself at the same time, without some sort of splitting. If I am, for example, at a birthday party, participant observation seems like a viable subject position, but as soon as the experience becomes more intensely emotional or demanding—if I am fighting or making love—the position becomes unsustainable. I cannot be both fully present and fully observing. (emphasis mine, see source here: link)

Honestly, all these things sound good theoretically — but as I type and recount my experience in oblique ways, I see the tiny shake in my body, I feel the clamminess of my hands and the stop of blood through my fingers. What do I do with these involuntary kinesthetic, affective responses? Aren’t they already performing a knee-jerk response to trauma? Aren’t sleepless nights, or an onslaught of weariness, conclusive evidence of an embodied knowledge? Should I be “observing” or should I be “fully present” (in Tamas’ terms)? Am I seeking empathy? If so, why? If not, what else am I seeking?

Why do I need you, my dear reader, to understand what I had experienced? It is not as if your response is going to be any different from the Afghan friends who had already expressed shock and sadness, so what is in it for you, and for me? How is your display of compassion, sympathy or empathy going to ameliorate, alleviate or obliterate the deep-seated trauma that I will carry for the rest of my life? What else is going to change, except that now, you can sadistically gloat at my situation (“Didn’t I tell you not to go to Afghanistan?”) and/or vicariously share in my pain (“I am so sorry to hear this.”)?

I am reminded of Anne Hathaway’s heartwrenching version of “I Dreamed A Dream” (movie adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, to the musical composition by Claude-Michel Schönberg), specifically these words [1:27-2:37]:

Then I was young
And unafraid
And dreams were made
And used
And wasted
There was no ransom to be paid
No song unsung
No wine untasted

But the tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder
As they tear your hope apart
As they turn your dream to shame

Indeed, they have turned my dream to shreds.

Recently, Paul Bloom writes in The New Yorker:

The key to engaging empathy is what has been called “the identifiable victim effect.” As the economist Thomas Schelling, writing forty-five years ago, mordantly observed, “Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths—not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks.”

The number of victims hardly matters—there is little psychological difference between hearing about the suffering of five thousand and that of five hundred thousand. Imagine reading that two thousand people just died in an earthquake in a remote country, and then discovering that the actual number of deaths was twenty thousand. Do you now feel ten times worse? To the extent that we can recognize the numbers as significant, it’s because of reason, not empathy.

In the broader context of humanitarianism, as critics like Linda Polman have pointed out, the empathetic reflex can lead us astray. When the perpetrators of violence profit from aid—as in the “taxes” that warlords often demand from international relief agencies—they are actually given an incentive to commit further atrocities. It is similar to the practice of some parents in India who mutilate their children at birth in order to make them more effective beggars. The children’s debilities tug at our hearts, but a more dispassionate analysis of the situation is necessary if we are going to do anything meaningful to prevent them. (emphasis mine, see source: link)

Perhaps to some extent, my reader is not the right audience for the telling of my story. Because if Bloom were right, then there is no way you can “do anything meaningful to prevent” the violence that was enacted, performed, and executed from 9 to 4. Seven  gruelling hours, followed by a twenty-four-hour reaction to flee the country.

A well-intentioned friend asked if I wanted to attend a psychodrama workshop. If that invitation was given in all neutral accounts, I would have agreed. People who know me know that I am an advocate of drama therapy, psychodrama and all the associated forms of healing through arts. But I need to stay away. As of today, I want to stay far, far away from drama, therapy, and community-engaged theatres. I recognise the therapeutic effects of these modalities but I also understand that not all modalities work for me in a post-traumatic situation right now. Ask me the same question one year from now, and I might have a different emotional response. Psychosocial interventions according to specific schools of thought — be it in Jacob Moreno’s psychodrama, Augusto Boal’s theatre of the oppressed, Jonathan Fox’s playback theatre — cannot be textbook answers to real world problems. There is something larger out there that cannot be pigeonholed by “what I should do” or “what I should not do”.

Right now, I need a complete break from theatre, drama, performance, drama therapy and the like. And yes, even a break from Afghanistan. I cannot return to where I had come from. The path has been altered and no longer will I see things in the same light, with the same rose-coloured lenses.

I am not worried that this distancing will take me in newer (academic) directions even though it sounds extremely daunting. I don’t exactly know what I need, but I know what I don’t need: more drama.