Coronavirus and the Trauma of Captivity

We’d be forgiven for describing 2020 as a Biblical year. It’s only March and we have already seen among other disasters unprecedented apocalyptic bushfire in Australia, vicious storms and wide scale flooding in Europe and plagues of locusts across East Africa, and now a very nasty coronavirus causing Covid 19, a virus at least 2.5 times more contagious than influenza and 30 times more deadly, according to the experts.

Back in February it was Wuhan, China, which went into total lockdown as the reality of a horrendous viral pneumonia began to bite. Up went field hospitals and a rising death toll. The West watched, curious perhaps, but largely indifferent. Then, thanks to our love affair with travel and our international interconnectedness, the virus spread. In a few weeks, it had entered just about every country in the world. The West has been slow to act, not heeding China’s warning, not wanting to take drastic action. Everyone could see what such action in Wuhan was doing to the global economy. Distressed pleas of Westerners trapped in the lockdown filtered in and dramatic plans to evacuate took place, including the quarantining of returnees to Australia in the Christmas Island detention centre. That all feels like ancient history.

Very soon it became apparent the West was not equipped to cope. As  the situation in Italy unfolded, panic took hold and shoppers went nuts. First it was toilet roll and hand sanitiser. Then it was tinned goods. Now fresh produce and meat. Whole aisles have been stripped of food regardless of pleas for shoppers to stop the behaviour and think of those less fortunate, those without cars, those without the ready cash, those with sick children, so many people who cannot hoard.

Reactions to the virus are mixed. There are those who couldn’t care less about it and think it is all a big hype. There are those who believe the virus is a conspiracy to exterminate vast swathes of humanity. There are those not that fussed if they get the virus or not because they are young and healthy. There are those only worried about their jobs, their mortgage repayments, their rent. Then, there are those genuinely worried, anxious and scared. Mature-aged teachers forced to work knowing any day they could get infected. Health care workers knowing they will almost certainly succumb to the disease. The elderly, wondering how they can avoid catching it.

Suddenly, the world is on a war footing, against a virus. Governments are petrified of the damage to national economies, while realising there is such a thing as the social contract and they have a responsibility to honour that. Governments not knowing what to do next.

Society is cleaving into two main groups: those who are required to stay at home in almost total isolation for most likely half a year at least, and those required to go to work to fulfil key roles and keep the wheels turning. Truck drivers, supermarkets and other food outlet employees, garbage collectors, all those working in telecommunications, utilities, farmers, so many services and all those people need get to go out to work, come into direct contact with as few people as possible, and then go home to join the rest of society in isolation. It is hard to decide which group is worse off, the stay-at-homers or the workers who at least enjoy some freedom of movement, although at varying degrees of risk. Many of those workers return home to families, further complicating the situation. This is why in Wuhan everything stopped.

Rumours abound and everyone is after the truth. How long can the virus live on x,y,z surfaces? Can I catch the virus passing an infected person in the street? How long before infected people are contagious? When will there be a vaccine?

Hyper-vigilance and the Covid 19 Threat

There is a heavy psychological burden to all of this and we are still in the very early stages of the pandemic. Imposed captivity to avoid inhaling a microscopic organism is one of those classic set ups of a horror novel/movie. Straight away, our primal instinct of fight/flight is heightened. We are on edge, nervous, alert, hyper-vigilant. There are new habits we need to form, if not for ourselves then for others. Never have we needed to be so clean. Even bringing in the day’s mail from the letterbox involves a lot of care and hand washing. The virus, it turns out, can live on paper for up to 9 days, apparently. If we do go out we need to avoid touching door handles, hand rails, petrol nozzles, our faces, especially our faces. Drink loads of warm water and hot drinks. Nothing cold.

How far do we take this? Who handled that carton of eggs in the supermarket before me? What about all the packaging of all the groceries? It’s enough to make a rational person paranoid. For those already traumatised, those who suffer anxiety or depression, those a bit claustrophobic, those prone to going stir crazy, extroverts unaccustomed to being home alone, those with anger management issues and those doing the isolation stint alone this period of human history is extreme. The effects of this version of captivity will be subtle and slow to bite, and there is no telling the lasting effects it may have on the most sensitive. Anxiety levels are elevated in all of us, especially as the news is everywhere and instant, making it very hard to switch off.

Trauma and Captivity

Of concern to me are those slipping into a trauma response to the crisis. In her groundbreaking work on PTSD Trauma and Recovery, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry Judith Herman writes, “Prolonged captivity undermines or destroys the ordinary sense of a relatively safe sphere of initiative, in which there is some tolerance for trial and error…For the chronically traumatised person, any action has potentially dire consequences.” p91

During the Covid 19 pandemic, we have been reduced to one goal, our own survival. Even going up the street for groceries could have dire consequences.

In order to survive in this strange form of captivity our lives are constricted. “This narrowing applies to every aspect of life – to relationships, activities, thoughts, memories, emotions, and even sensations.” p87 While Herman is writing of concentration camps and hostages and trapped battered wives and children, this same tendency to constrict applies to some degree in situations of prolonged self isolation. As the days turn into weeks and weeks to months, this narrowing becomes our default. Herman’s research found that prolonged captivity profoundly alters the victim’s relational world. I imagine this will all be much worse for those with pre-existing traumas and those trapped in other countries unable to make it home.

There’s another form of captivity which is not physical but existential and applies to health workers and first responders. They are trapped by circumstances with no end likely for a year, the length of time a vaccine is predicted to be widely available. Until then, the trauma many are and will suffer as a consequence of dealing with this pandemic will have its consequences, even among the most resilient.

The captor, Covid 19, is of course a virus. But the effects will be similar to other forms of captivity. After all this is over, people are likely to be more fearful of risk-taking behaviour. Some may avoid touching doorknobs forevermore. There will be many cases of protracted depression, apathy and helplessness. It might take a while for a lot of us to loosen our restricted lives. We will be changed collectively, too, especially if the restrictions endure for months and months. Not all of us, but the majority. Just as humanity was changed by the Second World War. Rationing and making do became so ingrained it is evident in those today in their seventies and eighties, the war babies. At the very least, I imagine health and disease will no longer be taken for granted, and I suspect the effects will be deeper and more enduring than just that.

How Should We Respond?

All we can do is ameliorate the worst of the situation. While panic buying is a fight/flight response, it is selfish and inappropriate. Right now we all need to pull together as a whole and not fragment and descend into a survival of the fittest mentality. Such responses are retrograde. Instead, we must respond with kindness. We must endeavour to keep our spirits up. We must be vigilant and responsible, and also resourceful and creative. Sing on balconies. Support each other at a distance. Reach out. Care. Self care. And remember, resilience is not a given and there will be those who buckle. Those for whom home prison is intolerable, for whom the next gurney wheeling out a corpse is just about the last straw. Let’s care above all for them. And let this be a wake up call to shake off the cavalier, pleasure-seeking, self-centredness endemic in the West.

Humanity, especially in the West, is being tested. Maybe not by an Old Testament God, but tested nonetheless. The sense that we are all in this together must be strong. As we journey through the months ahead, let’s be mindful of our collective responsibility for the physical and mental health and wellbeing of us all.

Isobel Blackthorn is an award-winning author of mysteries, dark psychological thrillers and historical and literary fiction. She holds a PhD in Western Esotericism for her groundbreaking study of the teachings of mother of the New Age Alice Bailey. She is the author of The Unlikely Occultist: A biographical novel of Alice A. Bailey and Alice A.Bailey: Life and Legacy.

A small collection of poems

A friend told me recently I should write poetry. I found these poems tucked away in my files. Some are nearly twenty years old! I make no pretensions when it comes to being a poet, but I do like this little offering. I hope you do too.

 

Dreams

 

In the silence of the night

I dream

Waking dreams

Of whirling

In time so still

A vortex of tense nothingness.  (1998)

 

Wounds

 

We all have our wounds, kind sir

The willows weep

branches billow in fractured sunlight

My mother’s curse

 

Mary in yonder days

Scant eyes upon the widow’s peak

In the icicle cold ways of youth.  (May 1998)

Night

 

Eyes wide as shadows dance

Tantalising is the darkness

Enticing is the unbroken silence

Desirable the sweet chill of fear.

 

Distance Learning

 

He promised her biscuits and a TV

What was wrong with that?

She can watch the fighting at a distance

And feel apart from it

 

Friday saw another explosion

A few more thousand dead

It doesn’t touch her

Lying in her bed

 

Can’t she build a bomb inside the TV and blast it all away?

When heaven meant to call on him tomorrow

And sent him there today

 

She meant to tell him another story

But it got told by him instead

Jason’s burning up

Inside his big head

 

She thought love lived inside a freezer

Mary said she knew

Not much got done about her poor heart

Destiny blue her hue.

 

On spirituality

 

Make the journey safe

Sacrifice, your soul

Invent one crucial space

To murder moulded hands

In heavenly shroud

 

Mellow moods of knowing

Sparks and subtle glows

Never late to fabricate

Bugs in beds horror

 

Sharpen perceiving eyes

Looking both ways

Lover love reflection

Light look undercover

See trembling lies

 

Fellow mover over mountains

Finger to figure form

True to be a fated truth

Open petals fragrant

In thankful promise

 

in these things we treasure most

Resting beneath my breath

Cascades deep, river fresh.   (2003)

 

Trauma

 

Ankle deep in shattered hopes

Their shards dig deep wounds

Leave big holes

Where love should be

A barrier, a shield

 

Blame the dreams

That served to shelter

A tattered heart

That led to waking

To find the nightmare real. (July 2000)

 

 

Me and Bettina Arndt – in conversation with Ann Creber Monday May 15

I’m pleased to announce I’ll be on Ann Creber’s The Good Life, this Monday May 15th, 4-5pm  in conversation with sex therapist and men’s rights movement supporter Bettina Arndt on the topic of controversial documentary The Red Pill and domestic violence.

Bettina takes a very different view of domestic violence to me. We both acknowledge the problem, but with very different takes on the perpetrators and victims, and the statistics. See http://www.bettinaarndt.com.au/news/2479/

My experience of domestic violence, both as a child and as an adult, along with my stays in three women’s shelters, has provided me with first hand experience of this very ugly side of human nature. Here’s one story I wrote, ‘The Refuge,’ first published in American literary magazine Mused, and later in my short story collection, All Because of You.

Although I have also experienced workplace bullying from female perpetrators. https://open.abc.net.au/explore/82764

I won’t deny that both men and women can be abusive. It’s just that men have a greater capacity for domestic terror than women. They tend to be bigger, stronger and more likely to feel a sense of entitlement when it comes to exerting their power over others.

I’m about to start giving creative writing workshops for women survivors of domestic violence. Each participant will be writing a short story, to add to an anthology of survival stories.

All in all, the combination of views should make for a lively and interesting chat!

Tune in to 3MDR 3-5pm Monday 15th May for The Good Life – http://www.3mdr.com/

All Because of You re-released

It’s been a hectic month of moving house and in amongst it all Odyssey Books re-released my short story collection All Because of You: Eleven tales of refuge and hope. 

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It’s an eclectic collection and they’re mostly semi-autobiographical. Two were written from the point of view of my former partner, the late Alex Legg, who ought to be remembered forever as one of the world’s genius songwriters.

The timing of the release is remarkable. I’ve been invited to run a series of writing workshops for survivors of family violence as part of Knox PLEDGE and to perform one of the stories with my daughter pianist Elizabeth Blackthorn. Details to follow.

I’m indebted to Elizabeth and to Alex for helping me compose and revise each of these stories. And to my publisher Michelle Lovi at Odyssey Books for continuing to believe in my work.

Let my tell you about my muse

What is a muse? One of nine goddesses presiding over the arts, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Or a woman, or a force personified as a woman, the source of inspiration for the creative artist.

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Using this latter definition, I can say that my own daughter Liz functions as my muse, as she certainly inspires me. But I prefer to think that she has a direct line into me, or that my muse, Scarlet, has a direct line out to her.

I named my muse Scarlet long ago, back when I had no idea who she was. All I knew was that she existed in my psyche and she was dangerous. Who is she?

I hold with Stephen King’s depiction of the nature of the muse in his memoir, On Writing. He describes his muse as a fat guy in the basement, smoking a cigar. Which all seems stable and almost businesslike, although I think that guy would be a controller. Just like Scarlet.

Here’s the story of Scarlet. I’m a survivor. Back when I was very small things happened that so terrified me that bits of me went into hiding, while other bits of me learned to cope. The first bit of me to flee was my muse, that inner self that lives deep in the unconscious, right in its centre, whose only purpose in life is to create.

The muse is the synthesiser, the one who puts all sorts of things together and comes up with something new. She or he is the bearer of inspiration and enormous joy. Those aha moments belong to the muse.

Without her, I was a creative cripple.

Scarlet fled into a dark corner of my psyche and over the years I locked her in a cage. I locked her in a cage because she could behave like a banshee. She had so much energy and it manifested as blind rage. I couldn’t deal with her. Frankly, she was embarrassing.

Every now and then she’d burst out of me and I’d write something, but I was ashamed of what I wrote. I had no confidence, no self belief, and the feedback I sought from others was not good.

She was persistent. Whenever there was a still moment in my life she’d rattle her cage. I’d feel compelled. I’d pick up a pen. Only to rip up or even burn the outpourings of song lyrics, poetry, stream of consciousness writing or part chapters of a novel.

Of course the life of a survivor is not an easy one. I had a lot to deal with both within myself and with the people I attracted into my life.

I battled with an absence of self worth. I even got a PhD thinking that would help, but it didn’t.

Thankfully I got some good advice along the way. And some of the therapy I underwent to make myself whole again was amazing. Through it I learned to recognise Scarlet and understand her needs. I found her to be a wild voluptuous woman who wore a long red gown as if she’d come straight out of Wuthering Heights. The crown of thorns she insisted on wearing a blatant statement of her suffering. Meek was not in her vocabulary.

Sometimes I visited the cage but the circumstances of my life meant I had to keep her under lock and key. I had no choice but to deal with the vicissitudes that had befallen me. She waited. The years rolled on. Then, in the forty-seventh year of my life, Scarlet had had enough.

On the day she broke out of her cage and roamed free I felt an upsurge of energy. Ideas for a book flooded my mind. I became edgy and impatient for change. She’d begun a revolution.

Before long she took over my decision making. She cleared out all the dross of my life. She demanded my full attention. I found her reckless and obsessive. But I let her have her way.

Now I’m fifty-four. I’ve lived for seven years with Scarlet’s ruthless resolve.

The entire contents of me have realigned themselves around this new creative centre. I feel her energy. She has me up at dawn. She has me writing every day. She has me pushing away everything that does not serve her needs. She sucks me inwards, into her realm, and I have become her slave.

In some ways I live a life out of balance. But in the scheme of my whole existence this extreme, out-of-balance way of life is simply bringing me to equilibrium. I would have it no other way.

Love you Scarlet.

 

Getting acclimatised to horror

6475318-3x2-700x467PHOTO: For a country that values its commitment to human rights as does Australia, the silence in the face of Rohingya suffering is a humiliating moment. (AFP: Christophe Archambault)

Isn’t it wonderful that popular culture provides us with glossy rituals of glamour and celebrity to distract us from the realities of our lives and the lives of others. Like Eurovision. Go Guy Sebastian! – Catchy little song he’s got. But I’d rather sleep than sit through that pap.

Still, it’s easier to shut my ears and eyes to Eurovision and not be affected by it. Whereas hearing the latest spin on those asylum seekers languishing in South Asian waters is something I can’t disengage from.  Julie Bishop has been told by Indonesian officials that the Bangladeshis on those boats are all illegal labourers, or ‘economic migrants’ and not refugees at all. I dare say there will be much debate and speculation about the validity of the claim. Whatever the outcome, I’m deeply troubled.

I awoke this morning thinking that we will no doubt also describe all environmental refugees who leave their land as a result of climate change, ‘economic.’ A sure justification for sending them back. As sea levels rise, and floods and droughts decimate the world’s poorest nations, what are people to do? Sit down and die? That would go against our basic survival instinct.

So now I wonder. Is a stage being set? Has it occurred to anyone else that the harsh attitudes to asylum seekers the world over is less to do with not wanting to home war’s collateral overspill and more to do with the looming horrors of climate change? One that invokes a pointed hardening of attitudes of the citizens of recipient nations. Are we being systematically conditioned into accepting as banal things which should turn our stomachs and see us taking to the streets enraged?

A stage set so that countries like Bangladesh will end up being their own ‘internment camps,’ as their peoples flee only to be dumped back on shore. No gas required. Death assured.

And with those deaths will die our conscience.

No applause.

Asylum seekers: confronting the double face

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There are two faces to Australia’s asylum seeker policy. There is the outward face, all smiles and hooded eyes, that espouses ‘stop the boats’ mantras to indoctrinate the masses. We are to be persuaded of the necessity for harsh, inhumane treatment of asylum seekers journeying by boat. We are to disregard these peoples’ basic human rights and apportion blame for all their suffering on the shoulders of the smugglers. We are thus exonerated from guilt. We need look no further, for our government is right, opportunism is to be condemned. It is only us who gets a fair go.

The outward face is a veil, a mask. It has been constructed to hide what lies within.

The inward face wears a bland expression. Eyes stare in blank denial, mouth set firm. This is the face of systematic brutality, a daily occurrence in detention centres both on and off shore. Not a day goes by without advocates passing on testimony of the violations of normal respect and decency, and of the systematic cruelty, degradation and psychological torture. Not a day goes by bereft of the despair of those incarcerated and their supporters. It makes for harrowing reading. Through these reports, and through such books as Antony Loewenstein’s Profits of Doom I have come to understand the cool, calculated methods used by corporations (Serco, G4S, Transfield) running these ‘facilities,’ the clinical way they go about their business, all manner of unspeakable decisions justified by the profit bottom line. Bloodsucking corporations filled with a cohort of Adolf Eichmanns.

For there is but a whisker of difference between the orders that are issued, and the manner in which they are carried out, in detention centres and in the Holocaust camps.

“I go down to the jetty, where several dozen DIAC, Serco, police and Customs officials, as well as interpreters and ambulance staff, await the arrival of the refugees. A number of CI residents and tourists are there too, and are mostly middle-aged or older. The ones I talk to all express opposition to refugees. They are “illegals” who might come and “take over”, like “what’s happening in parts of Europe”. One person says, “They should be pushed back to Indonesia, where they will be safe. Why are they coming to Australia? What if terrorists are on the boats? We have poverty here and people living in bad conditions on CI, but they come and are treated better than Australians”. I mention Serco and ask whether anyone cares that a private company is making money from greater numbers of refugee arrivals. One older man says he feels uncomfortable about it, while a tourist isn’t aware of the fact.”- Profits of Doom
“Curtin is surrounded by scrubby desert as far as the eye can see. I can’t imagine a more isolated place to be detained. Demountables are scattered beside the road near the car park and high barbed-wire fences surround the detention compound. We can see new houses being constructed nearby, and a freshly laid concrete pathway leads to the main entrance. The last years have seen the construction at the centre of gymnasiums, religious rooms and classrooms…Serco posters and signs advertising the company are ubiquitous in the reception area. They display the smiling faces of happy staff and multicultural imagery that includes a Muslim imam. A colour brochure emblazoned with four grinning faces from various racial backgrounds sits on a small table near some lockers.‘Bringing service to life’ is the company’s motto. The pamphlet says that Serco ‘promotes the inherent dignity of people in detention in line with the Australian government’s new immigration detention values’. A number of other pieces of Serco literature are scattered around reception. ‘Visitor Conditions of Entry’ states that there are three visiting periods every day, including between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., but also says that arrival after 5 p.m. will not be permitted. There are dozens of rules and regulations on the sheet, including: ‘Respect the privacy and dignity of all people in the centre’. It’s a noble goal, but one that staff routinely breach, detainees later tell me.” Profits of Doom
“….We unloaded the motor. It was a heavy Russian benzine engine, at least 200 horsepower. we installed the engine on a concrete foundation and set up the connection between the exhaust and the tube. I then tested the motor. It did not work. I was able to repair the ignition and the valves, and the motor finally started running. The chemist, who I knew from Belzec, entered the gas chamber with measuring instruments to test the concentration of the gas. Following this, a gassing experiment was carried out. If my memory serves me right, about thirty to forty women were gassed in one gas chamber. The Jewish women were forced to undress in an open place close to the gas chamber, and were driven into the gas chamber by the above mentioned SS members and the Ukrainian auxiliaries. when the women were shut up in the gas chamber I and Bolender set the motor in motion. The motor functioned first in neutral. Both of us stood by the motor and switched from “Neutral” (Freiauspuff) to “Cell” (Zelle), so that the gas was conveyed to the chamber. At the suggestion of the chemist, I fixed the motor on a definite speed so that it was unnecessary henceforth to press on the gas. About ten minutes later the thirty to forty women were dead.” – Testimony of SS Scharfuhrer Erich Fuchs, in the Sobibor-Bolender trial, Dusseldorf
“Before the Jews undressed, Oberscharfuehrer Michel made a speech to them. On these occasions, he used to wear a white coat to give the impression that he was a physician. Michel announced to the Jews that they would be sent to work, but before this they would have to take baths and undergo disinfection so as to prevent the spread of diseases… After undressing, the Jews were taken through the so-called Schlauch. They were led to the gas chambers not by the Germans but by the Ukrainians…After the Jews entered the gas chambers, the Ukrainians closed the doors. The motor which supplied the gas was switched on by a Ukrainian named Emil and by a German driver called Erich Bauer from Berlin. After the gassing, the door were opened and the corpses removed….” Testimony of SS-Oberscharfuehrer Kurt Bolender, In the Belzec-Oberhauser trial

The inward face is ugly. It portrays the clinical indifference of the psychopath. There is no empathy and no conscience in the eyes. It is as if we are witnessing the emergence of a plethora of death camps, a many headed Hydra, one that has learned from past mistakes and chosen psychological over physical death of inmates as the path of preference. There is profit, as long as they stay alive.

And a sort of psychological death is the reality especially for children and long-term detainees who must suffer the ordinary mundane tortures of life on Nauru, Manus or Christmas Island, or Curtin, Villawood or any other gulag. Such tortures do not extract blood, do not cause extreme physical pain. Instead, the methods are not dissimilar to those enacted by a perpetrator of domestic violence. They are designed to drive a person mad.