Traumata, by Meera Atkinson (UQP, 2018), is an informed and passionate critique of patriarchy, woven into a braided narrative, where the author’s life story is the weft woven through the warp (the formative structure) of patriarchal society in all its forms and deformities. Atkinson’s weaving of her life story with theory is powerful, for every experience and incident she relates is material for illuminating the traumatising influence of patriarchy; hence the plural title. Her self-exposure is searching, nakedly honest and compelling, but it is always in service of her intent, which is to create a three-dimensional picture of the society we are born into, deeply and generationally wounded by the institutionalised, polyphonic, medusa-headed curse of patriarchy. Atkinson has achieved this searching picture of the wounded culture into which we are born with great skill and a remarkable command of the many discourses that inform this deconstruction of ‘traumarchy,’ her word for the traumata caused by patriarchy.
Meera, as a little girl of four, was abandoned by her father when he and her mother separated, and from then on, her childhood was beset by a succession of dysfunctional men, foils to her mother’s narcissism, one or two with paedophilic tendencies. The worst setup was when she and her school friend arranged a meeting between their parents, and the result was a blended family, traumatised by violent quarrels between the adults and a very unsafe, chaotic domestic scene. Meera dropped out of school before she was fourteen, and her teen years were a sequence of failed attempts at finding herself, road journeys, underage drinking progressing to poly-drug use, overdoses, detoxes, failed co-dependent relationships, and finally, in her late twenties, shaky steps towards sobriety and tertiary study, and the relatively safe, but still wounded space, that she occupies.
I was about a third of the way through the book before it really took hold of me, and as I read I became more and more engaged. This slight resistance on my part was to what I saw as an eclectic toolbox of psychology, social commentary, psychoanalytic theory, feminist theory, media, neurophysiology, genetics, and more. I found myself skimming some paragraphs. But as the life story tightened its grip on me, I began to see the need to switch back and forward between different lenses, to shine light on this mass, this mess of a life. There are no romantic happy endings in the story of a traumatised life. Atkinson describes herself now as ‘a high-functioning agoraphobe,’ with a fear of flying, a tendency to panic attacks, and OCD-like symptoms of the need for control and order, which was masked by self-medication in her earlier years.
But there are good things. Her relationship with her father is mended, so that she can say ‘I have a father now.’ She understands his failure to be the father she needed, which triggered her desperate search for a man who would love her as she was, in a stable place of safety and intimacy. She is able to say ‘I have never loved him more than I do now.’
Can the traumata of patriarchy be transformed? she asks. Despite ‘bone-deep cracks and bruised vulnerabilities and injurious trauma-bound habits,’ the challenge is to ‘dedicate your life to changing what it is in your power to change… to love life despite the ugliness, the unfairness, the injustice… [to] meet traumata in tenderness.’ And though there are ‘moments of grace,’ most of the time ‘I still struggle towards those elegant hours.’
This is a profound and deeply felt reflection on the issues of our time and their patriarchal roots, arriving at a compassionate, intelligent understanding of self and the challenge of not just surviving, but living intensely, with love and tenderness.
It deserves to be read by all thinking men and women, and to be on late secondary and tertiary reading lists, for its significant contribution to intelligent, informed, compassionate discussion of how we can address the traumata of our civilisation.