In the first car accident, a car turned wrongly and too fast into a box junction I was crossing and hit my Fiesta, crumpling the front passenger side. I heard a big bang, instinctively braked, then saw the other driver, a tall man, on the road ahead of me hitting his car bonnet over and over with his fist like Basil Fawlty in that scene where he hits his car with a branch. I was outwardly calm, but I couldn’t tell people who came over what had happened, though two witnesses told me, and luckily were able to tell the Police. My then-boyfriend was upset that I didn’t ring him, just a garage who came and got the car, then dropped me off at home. Trauma had frozen my memory and my reactions. I am convinced it wasn’t just the accident, but the way the other driver had lost his reason (Even if that was because of his own trauma). I was brought up by a man who might possibly have reacted to a similar incident by hitting his car. In the face of such scary anger I had never won and didn’t imagine I would now. Bits of my brain stopped in an old pattern. It took me ages to fill in the insurance claim form because I kept imagining that man punching his car and me having to confront him in court- but in the end I wrote it, and the written-off car was reimbursed in full.
In the second car accident, my Stepmum was blinded by the sunlight and went into another car just after we had exited a roundabout. Another flash and bang. I herded her and me and my husband (all of us uninjured) out of the car and onto the pavement, checked the other car passengers were okay, rang the Police and the breakdown services and comforted my StepMum. The coping bits of my brain sparked into action. Emotions on hold, as in the first accident, but I wasn’t helpless, I was helpful. Powerful, even.
Two similar situations, two very different reactions from me. As psychiatrist and trauma-specialist Bessel Van Der Kolk (Interview) says- trauma is something produced in a social context; “If you’re not allowed to feel what you feel, know what you know, your mind cannot integrate what goes on and you get stuck on the situation…”. Trauma interferes with the brain’s ability to tell a story about something, with the ability to re-member it. It is re-lived (by your body) rather than consciously remembered, because it has never been integrated into your story of your self in the first place. I couldn’t ever tell a useful (or any) story about what happened in the first car accident, I think because in the temporary shock of the shunt, seeing an irrational, aggressive man reminded me of growing up with one and the many traumas that led to. My brain elastic-banded back to the past and the parts that organised memories and planned things shut down.
This is not a post about car accidents. It is primarily meant to be a post about #Metoo and its aftermath. Many, many women, and men, will have had visceral, bodily stuff stirred up because of what they have read, written, thought about and talked about since the deluge of stories about sexual abuse and harassment. The media is mostly carrying coherent narratives. Things like “Women have told their stories, now powerful men are falling”. But in reality, there are so many fragments flying around like cars hitting each other. Some of these are being assembled into other narratives. News moves fast, faster than memories though they can feel as present, as urgent as news.
The blog post I wrote about my experience with an abusive poet has resulted in some other stories being revealed. I had written about Philomela speaking and being stopped from speaking. I want to characterise some of the exchanges since then as stuttering. Other women have got in touch, handing me more pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Perhaps making a picture is a better analogy. Or at least, it is quicker, than attempting to tell a story, though that is happening too. Sometimes emails have flown back and forth quickly. Sometimes there have been gaps, delays. This work can be overwhelming. Revelations, news bulletins; it turns out, to my shock, that the poet had similarly abused power in other relationships in the poetry community. He had been convicted of domestic violence against his partner. Lots of people hold and held bits of a full picture, a full story, but so many things have prevented us putting it together. In this instance, the trauma of others is helpful to an abuser. This contagion (also, often of their own trauma) stops social memories and stories forming. There has been a crash, a bang, but the fragments are still flying apart from each other. It is helpful when witnesses who are not likely to be freezing, flighting or fighting trauma share what they know, tell and re-tell narratives.
We can only ask what is next, or what is to be done about it, when we know what has happened. Another reason there are so relatively few rape convictions. My reaction to traumatic events has had a lifetime of being established as “Freeze and forget” or “Freeze, act, immediately move on”. It is much easier to write about cars than about how those patterns were set down. What should happen now? I don’t know what can or should be done about a past that sometimes feels so present and sometimes feels so buried. I know only that it must not happen to other women in future. I hear fragments from other people (speaking about him, or to him) which suggest that building up the narratives is going to help that.