The Gift: Unpacking Why We Write About Trauma
This is a guest post written and contributed by our current author and client Robyn Thomas.
On their thirteenth birthdays each girl would receive a gift. On these birthday days there were no kids clashing hockey sticks on the pavement or erecting tree forts in backyards. No lawnmowers spitting out chewed green, no cars crunching into driveways. Everyone in the neighborhood would be gathered at the house of the birthday girl, ready to admire her gift and then eat a lot of cake.
Girl #347 was vibrating. She had selected her favorite yellow dress and even stolen some of her mother’s bright red lipstick. It tasted like candle wax and baby powder. Her gift sat on the kitchen counter next to the knives. It was wrapped in shimmering green paper with a white bow. At other birthday days the paper was other colours—orange or blue or pink—but the bow was always white. She knew this because she had been to nine other gift-giving celebrations. Always the gift inside would make everyone cry with happiness. At the very least, everyone would be smiling as they ate their cake. The girl would then be loved and adored forever, because she had received a beautiful gift.
Of course, she had heard stories. But those things happened in other neighborhoods, not this one.
Finally, the guests started arriving. They piled in, young and old. They sat in chairs and on the edges of tables and leaned against walls. Little ones were raised onto shoulders. Adults commented on the weather and the girl’s dress, though really they were just there to see the girl’s gift. And eat cake, of course.
The girl had been good. She had been so good. She knew her gift would be radiant; she knew it all the way down to the soles of her feet.
“Open it!” a little boy blurted out, and the rest of the room murmured in agreement.
The girl beamed and picked up her gift, carefully removing the white bow. She took her time to look around the room: so many faces there to celebrate HER! Her hands trembled as she peeled off the emerald paper and opened the box.
The room was silent. She could feel them craning in around her, like fishhooks, to see.
The gift did not glow like the other girls’ gifts.
She raised her eyes to the room, but no one met her gaze. Not even her friends and family.
Eventually, someone reached behind her for a knife, with which to cut the cake. The guests passed around the cake, commenting on the little marzipan flowers, still not looking at the girl.
The girl quickly shut the box. She looked at her mother, expecting her to laugh—to tell her it was a joke, that her real gift was waiting elsewhere. Her mother did not smile.
“Slug girl!” the young boy who’d grinned so widely at her shouted. His parents shushed him, but only half-heartedly.
Girl #347 looked at her best friend, Girl #346. “Let’s go to our place by the river,” she said, her voice too high. But Girl #346 looked away, ushered out by their friends. “But it’s still me!” cried Girl #347. “It’s me! It’s not my fault!”
But all the guests were leaving, and her family had gone back upstairs.
“It’s not my fault,” she whispered to herself, suddenly feeling foolish for wearing the lipstick that didn’t taste good anyway. She brushed it off with the back of her arm, and it became a streak of red there, marking her.
She looked again at her gift, in rage. She wanted to crush it, vanish it down the garburator, but just then she noticed that it had started to glow. It was very faint, but it was still beautiful.
“Look!” she yelled to the empty room. “Look at my gift!”
But no on was looking, and she realized she was completely alone.
So I started writing a post about the importance of writing about trauma, and this is what came out instead. A weird story about Girl #347.
For me, writing about trauma is necessary and valuable. Necessary because it can be healing for the writer, and valuable because it can liberate the reader to give voice to their own experience. As we’ve seen with the #MeToo movement, the collective voicing of trauma can build powerful momentum, allowing festering silence to loosen its hold and give way to social change.
But I don’t think that sharing the gritty details of traumatic experiences themselves is where the power of change lies. It’s how we are treated after whatever traumatic event occurs—how we are held up and supported, or scorned and buried with our stories—that I find much more interesting. It doesn’t matter so much what was inside Girl #347’s gift box. What matters to her most is the reaction of her community: her family, her friends. Their reaction is what is truly traumatizing and heartbreaking for her. They’re ultimately the ones who will have the greatest influence on her self-worth and her ability to overcome the shock of what her gift was or was not.
Likewise, it’s often the reaction that we receive from society that is just as painful—if not more painful—than the incidents of trauma themselves.
People will always try to bury the voices of survivors—whether of sexual violence or other trauma—because they don’t want to have to confront their own hurt, bias, or participation in the problem.
When I decided to take a workplace sexual harassment complaint to the BC Human Rights Tribunal, I was told on many occasions to let the past lie in the past and to just move on. This, of course, would have allowed what happened to me to happen to somebody else. I was even told by the mediator himself that I should drop the case, for fear for my own safety.
Fear will always be used to silence.
Fear of repercussions, fear of being judged or ostracized, fear of confronting the overwhelming pain of past hurts. These all reside, for a time at least, in silence. Typically in that environment they grow, deeper and darker, even if they seem to be kept out of sight.
We need these stories. Stop telling yourself that they are too indulgent, or that other people have it worse off, so why bother. Stop letting fear win. Those who are brave enough to give voice to their pain allow others to realize that they are not alone. And this is an incredible gift.