April 25 is our first performance of the Austin production of The Telling Project. I wrote last week about how satisfying and healing it has been to connect with other cast members, to form a circuit of energy, and to have my story be part of a larger one. Today, I want to write about what speaking of trauma exacts.
The Telling Project creates the opportunity for veterans and family members of veterans to share their experiences with their larger community. As a daughter of a WWII veteran, I want to share how my father's unrecognized and untreated PTSD from the war shaped my childhood in traumatic ways. As I came to hear and learn the stories of my fellow cast members, I heard that they, too, have known trauma, that it was the stories of their trauma that they want to share. Trauma is the game changer. It brings the arc of one's story to a screeching halt. It demands complete readjustment, recalibration, revisioning of one's self. It becomes the heart of the story.
So how do we speak our traumas?
Jonathan Wei, the director of The Telling Project, is a smart man. He recognized that someone getting up on a stage and speaking their story in front of an audience of strangers would not be conducive to a positive experience for either the speaker or the audience. The charge of that moment would more often than not hurl the person back into the grip of their trauma, and the pain would prevent speaking. In my over 80 interviews with WWII veterans, I witnessed this happen many, many times. But when a veteran read his or her written account, they were able to manage the emotion.
Jonathan creates a script that merges the cast's stories. As well as creating a story that transcends the individual stories, the script gives each cast member lines to memorize. By turning our own words into lines, the script greatly reduces the chance that the words will put us back in the moment of trauma. We don't have to visualize that moment; we don't have to go back there.
That is a paradox. We are acting the moment out, but we are not going back there in our memory. In using our memory to recall words rather than images, we are travelling a different memory path, one that doesn't take us back to the heart of the beast but to the next word. The script becomes a guardrail, each line another grasp up the railing, allowing us to stay on the path.
So when friends have asked me in the last week how I was doing, if I was nervous, I confidently told them I was doing fine -- no, not nervous. And even when a fellow cast member disintegrated at a rehearsal the weekend before last as she recounted an awful experience, I focused on joining the others in supporting her, reassuring her. We all offered suggestions of how to approach speaking her trauma so that she wouldn't time travel back to that horrific moment. One person suggested seeing her lines as communication rather than re-engagement. Another told her to turn to us, that our presence and love would remind her the past was still past. In the rehearsals since then, she has spoken her lines with fierce intensity and focus, with confidence.
I wish I had had such an external reaction to my telling. Yesterday, I realized that my reaction has been subterranean. For a week I've had a low-grade stomachache. Its intensity increased at night, preventing sound sleep. I chalked it up to some new supplements my chiropractor had given me, but yesterday she said, "Have you considered that maybe the play is stirring things up?" This morning I went to a yoga class, and as the teacher talked about regulating our nervous systems, staying attuned to the shifting ground under us, as the music of Buffalo Springfield singing "Something's happening here" drifted through the room, I began crying. I stopped denying. What I'm doing is hard, damn hard: Speaking my trauma rehearsal after rehearsal and now performance after performance for the next three nights and three more next week.
I am standing with, being present, with my trauma. I am speaking it out in the open. Before an audience. With no barrier of intellectualization or academic purpose.
Narcissism, you might say. Masochism? Neither is correct.
I am doing this so people know. Know that war comes home with the veterans. Know that the aftermath shapes the veterans' children as much as the war changed the veteran. Veterans of WWII, the generation we like to call the "greatest" and not consider their suffering, returned with terrible trauma that has gone unnoticed, unspoken, untreated for almost 70 years. And we, their children, can now testify to the cost. May we attend to our new veterans and their families so that they do not suffer the profound wounds so many families of WWII veterans, Korea War veterans, Vietnam veterans have.
I am doing this so that the public can witness the trauma that follows war. Witness. Because this trauma is as much yours as it is ours. Witness and own it. Witnessing breaks the isolation trauma creates. Witnessing furthers the healing of individuals and of our society.
War, the military, altered the eight of us in different ways. Crushed us. We found the way to move forward, we have healed enough that we can speak our truths. But do not think it is easy. Do not think it comes without a cost. We do this so that all of us, you and I, might have the chance to move forward to a new vital life.
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