Return to the dark tunnel: the writing cure

Sonja Linden
18 December 2003

It was the searing experience of Auschwitz that drove the young Primo Levi to write his first book If this is a man. He wrote it directly on his return to his native Italy in 1946, fuelled by the need to bear witness. Whilst still in the laager, he writes in his preface, he and his fellow inmates were propelled by “a violent and immediate impulse to tell our story … to make the world participate in it.” Only through writing about it, would he achieve “an inner liberation”.

These sentiments are echoed by clients of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture with whom I work as a writing facilitator and playwright in the Write to Life project. Like Levi, they have looked into the abyss. They come to me for help and support in the painful act of documenting it. Writing holds out for them the dual promise of vindication and relief. One may seem to take precedence over the other, for some. That the two are inextricably linked is something they discover along their writing journey.

Writing genocide

One of the first clients to report the beneficial effect of writing was Lea Chantal, a young woman from Rwanda, whose ‘impulse’ to write occurred to her in a refugee camp, shortly after the murder of her entire family in the genocide of 1994. What started out as a testimonial act, the writing out of her family’s experience, also became an act of healing. She reported that she felt ‘clean’ and that her nightmares and headaches had ceased.

For two and a half years she had worked on this book on her own, writing in her mother tongue and wrestling day after day with her enormously painful story, often tearing up the previous day’s work at 5 am, when she started her daily writing. Even while she was immersed in the process of writing her book, she recognised its therapeutic value, talking about writing in order to take the pain “away from my heart”.

The healing she achieved was done at enormous cost, since it meant confronting and expressing with full force the negative emotions that overwhelmed her in the years following the genocide. Hence the following extract from an early draft:

“When the genocide started on the 6th April 1994, I was sixteen and therefore, old enough to see and record the atrocities committed. Even after my miraculous survival, I have psychological wounds that will never heal. I cannot remember a day that I do not have headache coupled with insomnia. While I thank God for my survival, I regret that I was conceived and subsequently born. I would probably have been better off dead in my mother’s womb.

I regret that I lay on my mother’s lap, sucked her breasts and grew up to experience what I went through. If I had perished together with my family, I would probably be in an eternal resting place and at peace with myself. Here I am God, without family, without friends. I am surrounded by people who are in the same predicament and I keep hearing voices telling me that I, too, should go. Please God, let me go where I think I will find peace.

I was in this state of mind when I decided to take an overdose of tablets. When I survived this I decided I owed my people a service. I had to write my book.”

Lea Chantal wrote this in 1997. Six years later, she has come a long way from the feelings of desperation here expressed. She is now very happily married to a gentle Rwandan and they have a new family of two small sons. A remarkable transformation has occurred in her because of her enormous determination to relive the horrors of her experience, to talk and write about it. She feels purged by the writing of her book and affirms life with a remarkably positive spirit, still motivated by the need to work for her people.

Writing as an act of witness

I joined the London-based Medical Foundation as their writer in residence in 1997 with a contract for a year. Six years later I find I am still there! These six years have been transformative for me too.

One of the first clients I met was an Iranian woman who for a long time had been trying to write about her experience as a political prisoner in some of Ayatollah Khomeini’s notorious jails. She had resolved to write whilst still in prison, but on release found it enormously difficult, and ended up feeling she was writing in a prison cell. Her psychotherapist at the Foundation referred her to me as someone who was desperate to write but who was emotionally blocked in the act.

Working with a writing facilitator in a supportive atmosphere was an important breakthrough, but it came with a new challenge – writing in English. I suggested that she confine herself to the present tense. This would make the writing more immediate and help “the world participate in it” while protecting her from the peculiarities of the English tense system. Her limited lexicon and her natural inclination to brevity, led to a stark rendering of her experience which was enormously powerful: what had been a weakness became a strength.

Another incidental plus was the liberation implicit in the distancing effect of writing in a foreign language. The floodgates were released and soon writing was pouring out of her. What started out as discrete units of her experience that we identified and worked on in our sessions began to be knitted together, culminating in a 200-page book. About a year into this intensive writing work, she reported that the headaches and nightmares that had plagued her for fifteen years had come to an end.

Writing as release

For another client, an Iranian woman doctor, it was not testimony that was her avowed aim but therapeutic release. She was the very first person that I attempted to work with in exercises that were consciously therapeutic. Weeks of sessions were primarily given over to talking about her six years as a political prisoner. Finally, I suggested a writing exercise that might address her profound sense of loss of self. I asked her to identify a split in herself – and to characterise it as two different people with distinct names, appearances, habits, likes and dislikes.

We were sidetracked for weeks, as she identified not two but twelve different selves – different stages in her life. The depression that had been with her for years would momentarily lift as she got in touch with an earlier, undamaged, energetic, popular, successful self. Her enjoyment at this rediscovery was palpable.

We worked together in these sessions; collecting adjectives on large pieces of paper headed variously “Prison Self”, “Shadow Self” or “Released Self”. This culminated in a story in which two of her personas met and exchanged something of value.

What worked here was the introduction of fantasy into the writing. For the most part, clients assume the need to write purely factual accounts of their lives. However, studies have shown that ‘autofiction’ can be even more therapeutic than autobiography, containing a narrative truth that has greater validity and power than historical truth. A certain degree of fiction is unavoidable in any autobiographical writing. There is a theory, however, that the demands of fiction to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ can bring in its wake a deeper emotional penetration of events in one’s life: and that the opportunity to get inside the heads of one’s characters, can lead to a transformative shift in our feelings, rather in the same way that fiction can change endings or say things to someone that was not possible in real life.

Telling stories

The healing power of writing is the subject of Writing as a way of healing: how telling our stories transforms our lives by American writer and writing tutor Louise DeSalvo. She teaches a memoir writing class at Hunter College in New York. What she stresses is the need to make a constant connection between feelings and events for a healing process to take place. Her “healing narrative” must contain a balance of negative and positive words and, crucially, a richness of detail. This is analogous to Sigmund Freud’s conclusion that the vivid dreams of the victims of shell shock in the first world war represented an unconscious attempt at healing through revisiting the experience in all its complexity.

To re-visit the experience of torture and degradation is to re-enter the darkest tunnels of memory

For the clients I work with at the Medical Foundation, to revisit the experience of torture and degradation is to re-enter the darkest tunnels of memory. It needs not just courage and determination but faith – faith that there will be light at the other end. The hope of being read is one such light; the hope of healing is another.

As Primo Levi indicated, the two are inextricably linked. Shining a torch along the way are such writers as Alice Walker, Brian Keenan, Virginia Woolf, Isabel Allende, Maya Angelou, Elie Wiesel, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and D.H. Lawrence. Strange bedfellows maybe, but all of them have written out their lives, as autobiography or autofiction, as testimony and as an act of self-healing. Some have been conscious of this in the act of writing, others only with hindsight. Many of them have written about the transformational power of the writing. Amongst these, Isabel Allende and Alice Walker have consciously equated their roles as writers with that of witnesses.

Interestingly Louise DeSalvo favours the term “witness” over that of “survivor” for those who write up their experiences for others to read. Survivor is no longer an adequate term for them, she maintains. Survivors just continue to survive. These writers are witnesses, since a witness offers testimony to a truth that is generally unrecognised.

A young lady of Rwanda

So inspired was I by Lea Chantal’s story, that when I came to write something of my own, as part of my writing residency, it was infused with her spirit and her struggle to write. My play I have before me a remarkable document given to me by a young lady from Rwanda was produced at the Finborough Theatre in London in June-July 2003.

The play tells the story of an uneasy relationship between Simon, a struggling British poet in his mid-40s and Juliette, a young survivor of the Rwandan genocide, who comes to him for help with her book. Only at the culmination of the play do we actually hear her terrible personal history, for the play also focuses on Juliette’s difficulties in resettling in an alien culture, with a head full of nightmarish memories and a body unable to sleep or eat because of her trauma.

A story like this, inspired by the real-life stories of clients I met at the Medical Foundation, owes its strength to the authenticity and horror of the individual experience. Humour, perhaps surprisingly, became an important component, to create a sense of balance and draw the audience in. In this case, humour was largely drawn from the cultural divide between the Englishman and the young African woman. Here’s an extract from the rehearsal script:

Juliette: Did you read my book?

Simon: Absolutely. We’ll talk about it. But first let’s have a look at the homework.

Juliette: I didn’t bring it.

Simon: Oh. Any particular reason?

Juliette: I left it on the bus

Simon: Dog didn’t eat it then?

Juliette: Why you say that?

Simon: Just a silly schoolboy excuse, you know: “Sorry teacher, couldn’t bring my homework, I left it on the bus.” or “Sorry sir, the dog ate it.”

Juliette: Why you talk to me about dogs?

Simon: Just teasing. I don’t suppose you have a thing about dogs like we do over here. The British love their dogs! Anyway…

Juliette: We used to have dogs, Simon, many, many.

Simon: What happened to them?

Juliette: They were all killed.

Simon: Why? That’s terrible.

Juliette: There were dead bodies everywhere and the dogs were eating them. Even the UN soldiers started to shoot them in the end. And they were good. One shot and pow! We knew they had these excellent weapons, but we didn’t think we would ever see them use them. They didn’t use them once to stop us being murdered. They just stood and they watched. Those were their orders. Only afterwards they used them to shoot dogs, to stop them eating our dead.

The writing cure

We put much store by the ‘talking cure’ in the west but my work at the Medical Foundation has convinced me that ‘the writing cure’ can hold its place alongside as a means of discharging painful experiences, despite the fact that talking to a stranger about your most intimate experiences is an alien concept to most cultures.

It is particularly alien to Rwandan culture where to expose your vulnerability in this way may be interpreted as a sign of weakness; at least this is what my friend Lea Chantal has told me. For months she would remain silent in her sessions with her ‘stranger’ psychotherapist at the Medical Foundation, a puzzled, hostile silence – until the breakthrough and subsequent releasing of the floodgates of her tears and her story.

Psychotherapy is expensive and not readily available. Writing, by contrast, is cheap. And it requires no mediation, no appointments – apart from with yourself

She wishes more of her fellow Rwandans could be persuaded to avail themselves of this ‘cure’. However psychotherapy is expensive and not readily available to many Rwandan survivors. Writing, by contrast, is cheap. And it requires no mediation, no appointments – apart from with yourself. All that is required are pen and paper and strength of commitment.

In countries like Rwanda, haunted by terrible past experiences, there is a huge challenge in translating concepts of truth and reconciliation into practice. We should not overlook what theatre and writing can do. They have the power to purge, not least in that crucial staging-post along the way to reconciliation: reconciliation with oneself.

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