In the light – or should I say pitch darkness – of the horrors and tragedies that have been unfolding in Afghanistan as the USA, UK and other countries withdraw, my recent visit to the National Army Museum in London felt strangely apposite. One of its current exhibitions – Foe to Friend: The British Army in Germany since 1945 – covers the final withdrawal of British troops from Germany in 2020. It traces Britain’s 75-year military presence there, first as occupiers and administrators of a destroyed country, then as reluctant but necessary Allies confronted with escalating Cold War tensions, and on to its current relationship as friends.
I can’t stop thinking about what is happening in Afghanistan. It feels beyond catastrophic, beyond imagination, but of course, I am in no position to comment. Except maybe to point out the contrast of our withdrawal from Germany, which passed effortlessly and without incident. Presumably that is the mark of an original mission reaching its intended positive conclusion and outcome, though I have to say I was surprised when I first learned that we even still had a presence there! A second exhibition in the foyer of the museum makes one realise, however, just how alive that period still is in many people’s lives.
Long Shadows of War has been created by the German photographer, Susanne Hakuba. Susanne lives in England and has been a friend ever since she invited me to participate in her brave and on-going examination of how the Third Reich still casts shadows on Germany, its people and her own life. Any person who is familiar with my blogs or talks will be all too aware of how much Germany has already done to deal with its Nazi heritage at a national and political level. But this exhibition shows how the personal level can be another story, quite literally.
Susanne’s haunting photographs, quotes and poems draw on the testaments of others to reveal the differing attitudes between three generations: those who witnessed the times, those who lived in their parent’s and grandparent’s trauma- or guilt-filled silences immediately after the war, and those who carried the heavy contents of that silence with its ensuing emotional absence without realising it.
The third generation – born in the sixties and seventies – have been gradually and carefully breaking through the silence to discover what lies behind familiar narratives that don’t quite add up. It’s no longer about uncovering the facts, many of which will never be known or knowable; it is more about the emotions attached to them. For it is these that coloured and flavoured most German childhoods, often leading to inexplicable symptoms, confusions about identity and self-destructive behaviours as they advanced towards adulthood.
This phenomenon is called inter- or transgenerational trauma. It describes the transmission of unresolved issues from one generation to the next; a form of emotional inheritance seeking resolution. I talk about it in my TEDx talk and it is widely acknowledged in Germany. For all sorts of reasons, however, we don’t know much about this in Britain. But seeing the interest visitors to the exhibition display, Susanne is hopeful – as am I – that her/our work can be a catalyst for people – of any nationality or history – to look at the gaps in their own family stories in order to discover what is lurking there unrecognised, unspoken but potent.
What is happening in Afghanistan will leave many people traumatised and many others guilty. The impact of both so often gets buried in silent withdrawal as people try to cope. But suppressed traumas and wrongdoings can lead to misery, dysfunction and, all too often, to devastating actions and crimes. I sincerely hope that growing coverage of this subject through exhibitions, talks, books and the media will raise our collective awareness of how important it is to acknowledge and treat trauma before it is allowed to fester and pollute the lives of generations to come. As Afghanistan will no doubt teach us, it is in everybody’s interests to do so.
I was going to divert from the usual themes of my blog and write about something light and summery. But then the government published its Beating Crime Plan and, though I can’t face going through all of it, I feel compelled to point out a couple of things. Because its showy, populist, tough-on-crime bluster and glaring ignorance of the real issues is a smack in the face for anyone who dared hope for a different, progressive or even a building-back-better or levelling-up approach.
You can read the full paper here if you really haven’t got better beach or staycation reading. Or just get an idea from the different views on its content in some of the links below. For now, I am just going to take two examples that come straight out of Boris Johnson’s mouth to illustrate my point. Which is basically that little of this is going to work… because it never has.
The first quote is from the foreword:
“None of us can fulfil our potential if we live in fear, none of us can rise up if we’re held down by those who would do us harm. If we as a society, as a country, are to truly flourish then we have to start by beating crime – and I’m proud that this Government has the plan to do just that.”
So, the first sentence, while true, is also an own goal. Living in fear is precisely what so many children and young people are forced to do in their early lives. It’s what drives them to join a gang for supposed safety-in-numbers; to reach for the perceived protection of a knife; to become an aggressor rather than a victim.
The second sentence, also off. ‘Beating crime’ is the not the way for a society and country to truly flourish. Crime, like drugs, is a largely a symptom, not the cause of failure. To thrive as a nation, we need to give the most disadvantaged more of a chance to fulfil their potential; to educate and support them to become the person that deep down they know they could be, but can’t find a way to be. As for the government’s plan Johnson is so proud of…
The second example is what Johnson said to reporters:
“If you are guilty of antisocial behaviour and you are sentenced to unpaid work, as many people are, I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t be out there in one of those fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs visibly paying your debt to society.”
I am kind of assuming that all my readers can see reasons why this might not just be wrong, but also deeply offensive? Is it progressive, or even remotely appropriate to bring back what amounts to little less than medieval public shaming? Basic psychology, the Treaty of Versailles, no doubt your own experience of shame all demonstrate how humiliation, even if ‘justified’ usually leads to counter-productive outcomes. As for ‘chain gangs’… really?
And what ‘debt to society’ is he talking about? The debt of having been failed by the education system, of having lived in poverty due to the absence of a living wage, of having been a victim of systemic disadvantage / racism / drug addict parents / trauma / lack of opportunity? Not all criminals fall into those categories, but a great many do.
The plan continues with ideas that blatantly ignore recommendations, previous experience, the expertise of those on the ground… and even logic. More stop-and-search powers, even though these are known to disproportionately target black people. More prisons, even though their £37,000 per person per year merely results in the £18.1 billion bill for high re-offending rates, usually within 12 months of release. You just have to read the below paragraph and compare with the statistics to see how deluded and detached from reality the reasoning behind these plans are!
If prisons worked you wouldn’t have to embark on the largest prison building programme… you could spend all those millions of pounds on mental health therapies and drug addiction treatment and prevention; on building soft social skills; on support for dyslexia, jobs, housing… Anyway, I could go on, but it is too frustrating and fruitless to. Maybe next month I will find something lighter and more summery to write about… as long as the government don’t publish any more of their plans.
Related links – not all representative of my opinions
What is the difference between ‘I had no idea’ and ‘I didn’t know’?
I ask this question in the wake of what must be one of the best television series in the past year: BBC One’s deeply uncomfortable and disquieting three-parter, Time.
It is described as: ‘Jimmy McGovern’s hard-hitting, brutally honest portrayal of a failed public service which gets everything right about prison life – minus the tedium.’ If you haven’t seen it – and sorry to my readers abroad if you can’t get BBC – I would like to invite you to watch it, even to dip into it for ten minutes. I’ll tell you why.
Having worked in many prisons in England, I feel everybody needs to know what is going on in them. In our name. There was nothing in the series that I didn’t recognise from my years inside. As I am up against a tight writing deadline for my book (and this blog actually!), I am going to allow the three episodes to speak for me and bear witness to the sheer illogic, and all too often, inhumanity of our current system.
This doesn’t apply to all prisoners, but if we recognise that many addictive, violent and destructive behaviours derive from childhood trauma; if we fully comprehend the impact of untreated traumatic incidents, then the cruelty of locking up people, who were first and foremost victims, in what are often little more than hell holes, becomes very clear.
My admittedly provocative opening question stems from a genuine desire to understand the answer.
For decades, the adult-generation of Germans living through the Second World War have not been believed when they say, ‘we didn’t know’ (about the concentration camps). And people around the world often blame them for having looked the other way. I don’t want to get into that debate here. There is a consensus among historians that some would have known, some would have heard about them and not believed it, and others would not have known. Most of the camps were miles away in the east and there was little access to free press. There was also a deadly dictatorship controlling thoughts and actions. Yet not knowing, or knowing and not doing anything, allowed the deadly system to persist for as long as it did.
I have been talking to a wide range of audiences about my experiences of working as an artist in prisons for nearly three decades. The most common thing I hear afterwards is a shocked “I had no idea.” It’s totally valid, I make no judgment. There are loads of things I have no idea about. But why don’t more people know about this? There are prisons in nearly every major town. The shocking statistics of failure, the appalling conditions and the tragic stories of many of the people locked up in them are reported on all the time, in every form of media. How can we not know about them?
There is obviously a wide spectrum from having no idea, to knowing but looking away, to knowing and acting. I would just like to use this month’s blog to encourage you to become more informed, specifically about the system in which we warehouse prisoners. Not just for their sakes, but for all of us who live in the communities into which they are returned… usually worse.
When enough people ‘have an idea’, things can and will change.
Watching this series is a start. It’s tough watching, but the reality is much, much tougher.
I know many people are finding plenty of reasons to slate Prince Harry at the moment: for his open criticism of his upbringing; for hypocrisy in privacy vs. publicity matters; for his ‘therapy speak’.
I also know there is fierce resistance to what he is saying. After all, it flies in the faces of stiff-upper-lip Britishness and the Royal Family’s ‘play-the-game’ rules.
How about we put all judgment aside for a moment, and simply listen to – and hear – what he is trying to do. Because doesn’t it then become clear that he is trying to talk about some of the most important things that can affect us all? Things that haven’t been talked about nearly enough.
And mental health.
No-one can accuse him of not knowing each of them intimately.
According to the leading charity, MIND, mental health issues went up by 20% between 1993 and 2014. Imagine the rate at which they are rising now, especially among the young. You just have to witness, as I recently have, a desperate twenty-something year old trying to access mental health provision in this country in order to see how woefully inadequate it is. And how much needs to be done.
There is nothing new or wrong in recognising the potentially huge role parents and primary carers play in forming or, in some cases unfortunately, de-forming a child’s mental health. It’s not an attack; or blame. It’s just fact. So personally, I welcome Harry’s efforts to get us all talking about these things. And I can only recognise logic, truth and sense when he says:
“There is no blame. I don’t think we should be pointing the finger or blaming anybody, but certainly when it comes to parenting, if I’ve experienced some form of pain or suffering because of the pain or suffering that perhaps my father or my parents had suffered, I’m going to make sure I break that cycle so that I don’t pass it on, basically.“
“It’s a lot of genetic pain and suffering that gets passed on anyway so we as parents should be doing the most we can to try and say: ‘You know what, that happened to me, I’m going to make sure that doesn’t happen to you.’”
People have been asking what ‘genetic pain’ is. I know the scientific fact-checkers at TED would have a lot to say about his use of the word ‘genetic’ in that context – they did about my single mention of it in my TEDx talk, which wasn’t even about genetic inheritance! He possibly means ‘generational’ pain, but, as I mentioned in last month’s blog, science often lags behind lived experience and the insights of other disciplines, so maybe his – and my – experiences will one day be proved to be genetically true as well.
I actually think that if more parents or grandparents learnt to ‘therapy speak’ about the hurt or trauma in their childhoods and lives, many destructive cycles would be broken. Of course it isn’t comfortable at the time. And yes, it can be extremely upsetting, especially if criticism of family members is voiced on a global platform. But feeling a need to talk openly and publicly is often a direct result of having been silenced. And the impact of silence on traumatic experiences is potentially devastating. It pushes raw, unprocessed emotions deeper into the psyche where, unexpressed, they fester like bandaged wounds deprived of the air that will heal them. And then the problems start.
After over two decades of silence… of being silenced… Harry is now giving his wounds some ‘air-time’. And I hope the world will allow him to stumble and cock up royally (…sorry!) from time to time while he does his best to break new ground – just like his mother tried to do – and raise awareness of the insidious killer in our midst.
And what can we do to help the situation?
Maybe the first step is to start talking. And listening. Talking about things that have mattered… with your children and your grandchildren. With your parents and grandparents. With your wife, husband, friends. Because while silence may help you cope with something, it may not help those who come after.
So, talk about it… before it becomes too late.
LINKS (as usual, a variety of viewpoints – some definitely not my opinion)
For just over a year now, the world has been focused on ‘following the science’. And no doubt rightly so in many instances. Science is brilliant, in too many ways to list here. But… when it comes to human experience, its tools are often blunt, clunky or inadequate.
Sometimes, science lags behind human instinct or common sense. Sometimes, its microscopic focus loses sight of the macroscopic whole. Objective rationale overrides simple solutions seen by subjective understanding. Symptoms may be treated in isolation rather than as part of a highly intelligent organism. Other times, a phenomenon is too mind-boggling to be explained by logical process; love, death, black holes… That’s where art or religion, with their different toolset, have a go with varying degrees of success.
My recent TEDx talk – you can watch it here if you haven’t seen it yet – presents my experience of the transgenerational transmission of trauma or guilt. It’s an example of subjective experience gradually making its way to objective explanation. It is not a new idea. Way back, in Exodus Chapter 20, the bible talked of “…visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth generation.” In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Launcelot says, “Yes, truly; for, look you, the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.” And over the past fifty years or so, symptoms of inherited trauma/guilt have been documented in descendents of a wide range of people exposed to traumatic events. However… because science doesn’t have the ability to prove it happens – not yet at least – some dismiss examples of such transmissions as being impossible, coincidental, imagined, nonsense.
But does that mean that it doesn’t happen? Is science right… or simply behind?
Take Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), for example. Traumatic incidents have always been part of the human experience. And no doubt people all over the world have displayed symptoms of PTSD long before it was given a name. Yet the term ‘trauma’ only started to be explored at the end of the nineteenth century when Freud and his fellow pioneers of neurology and psychology considered it a diagnosis worthy of specialised treatment. When thousands of men returned from First World War fronts with psychological symptoms and medical conditions that had never been seen before, let alone explained, the British came up with the diagnosis of “shell shock.” Those who suffered from it were entitled to treatment – often hypnosis – and a disability pension. The sheer numbers, however, led the British General Staff to forbid the use of the term. Instead, “NYDN” (Not Yet Diagnosed, Nervous) was to be used and the afflicted were deemed undisciplined and lacking moral fibre. It wouldn’t be until 1941 with the publication of The traumatic neuroses of war byAbram Kardiner that it was recognised that any man could be affected by the atrocities of war and that traumatic symptoms were a normal response to an unbearable situation.
During the Second World War, psychiatrists continued to use hypnosis as treatment for trauma and veterans were offered improved practical and economic support. Psychological scars, however, were left unrecognised and untreated. From 1947, traumatic neuroses all but disappeared from official psychiatric language.
The interest in trauma reignited in the seventies with the return of Vietnam war veterans who had such incapacitating symptoms that they were incapable of coping and functioning in civilian life. Many behaved violently towards their partners or became homeless and unemployable. But their symptoms continued to be labelled separately: alcoholism, substance misuse, depression, mood disorder or schizophrenia and treated accordingly, frequently without success. It was only when clinicians and mental health professionals working with Holocaust survivors, battered women, abused children and victims of accidents or rape collated their reports and discovered overwhelming similarities in their traumatised clients, that the range of behavioural, emotional and cognitive symptoms were combined into one psychological trauma diagnosis: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In 1980, after several rejections, this term would finally be included in the bible of psychology, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (third edition; DSM-III).
For us today, it probably feels obvious that exposing men and women to abuse, war or anything that evokes extreme fear and helplessness would leave traumatic markers. And to a large degree science can now explain the mechanisms behind the process. That sense of ‘obviousness’ is how I have come to feel about the possibility of unresolved trauma or wrongdoing being passed onto the next generations, even though we don’t know how it happens. As I suggest in my TEDx talk, “our roots don’t just run backwards to our ancestors, but forwards to our children and those who come after. And if those roots are damaged or severed, what we hand on will also be impaired.”
Many people have written to say my talk has resonated with their own experience of their forebears. But none of us can prove anything. And science will need time to develop the tools that can. Which probably means that the legacies of past familial, societal or historical traumas will not be taken into consideration when helping those afflicted by the often debilitating symptoms of depression, addiction, mental health…
I think we need to be careful that this new emphasis on ‘following the science’ doesn’t pervade all areas of life. Even if we don’t yet understand the many complex ways in which transmission can occur, let’s give credence to the insights of people who have an innate or formally trained capacity to feel into a situation and ‘know‘ what’s right in the same way maternal instinct so often does. We have two sides to our brains for good reason. Currently the sceptical-until-proven logic of the left side largely prevails. But the non-verbal, intuitive right side has an equally valuable place, especially when it comes to imparting knowledge about our shared humanity. That’s an area where science often trails far behind.
I’d be interested to hear whether or not you think the experiences and insights I reveal in my TEDx talk – Facing the past to liberate the future – need science to prove they are ‘real’?
The legacy of trauma: An emerging line of research is exploring how historical and cultural traumas affect survivors’ children for generations to come
The news that I had been selected to speak at TEDxStroud came on what can only be called a day from hell. It was August 2020. The brick gable end of my mother’s old garage had just collapsed in a storm leaving live electricity cables strewn across the driveway. She was unadvisedly trying to tidy them away while sinking into a diabetic low when we received the news that my brother-in-law’s father had died of Covid. In the flurry of activity and phone calls that followed, the email plopped into my inbox: CONGRATULATIONS! You are one of nine people selected from 84 applicants to deliver a TEDx talk on the theme of Emergence…
I had totally forgotten I had even applied and my heart simultaneously raced and sank as I realised this was another gauntlet I had to take up. TED is the mecca of public speaking platforms. The iconic red spot on the floor has hosted some of the world’s very best speakers and lured over 3,600 people with a good idea to share. There are strict criteria: No more than 18 minutes per talk. No selling or promotion of a product or business. No profit or pay to speakers or organisers… just a good idea that is worth spreading.
Over the following months, Covid threw curveballs at the original visions for a live event with an audience of 400, sending each one flying like skittles in an alley. Lockdown even forced a postponement from November’20 to March’21. The organising team were undeterred in their commitment. With each new restriction, they adapted, delivering changes of plan with supportive sensitivity and unwaning optimism. Meanwhile, we speakers met in Zoom rooms hosted by other talented volunteers where we would listen and feed back to each other while witnessing amorphous blobs of chosen subjects being honed to their essence. Not ‘just a minute‘ without ‘hesitation, deviation or repetition’ as on BBC Radio 4, but 18 minutes!
Sounds easy? It’s not. The techniques to memorise our talks ranged from falling asleep to a recording of your own voice droning its way into your memory, (nothing has ever sent me to sleep faster, all insomniacs click here if you’d like a copy!) to delivering it in a silly Texan accent. We had to practice talking to the barrel of a camera lens while smiling at some imaginary audience member sitting beyond it. We even had to choose proper clothes to wear as opposed to our baggy lockdown jumpers and leggings.
Kind friends tried to assuage the terror that gained momentum over the final two months until it clenched my chest in a vice and froze my brain. “But you speak so well… it’s no different from the talks you already give… you can do this with your eyes shut.” But a TEDx talk isn’t the same at all. It will be uploaded to YouTube and made available to a global audience… potentially forever. You have no slides or prompts to jog the memory. And what’s more, my ‘great’ Tedx idea isn’t an easy one to talk about, let alone sell as a ‘gift’! Because I am basically asking people to get really uncomfortable; to follow me on a journey that descends into the dark underbelly of human experience, where prisoners, Nazis, unspeakable atrocities or war experiences fester like wounds marinated in silence, pain and shame.
I sometimes feel I should apologise for bringing such things into the light of awareness. But I won’t, because the rewards are too great to ignore. And because it has become clear, not just to me but to neuroscientists, geneticists and psychologists, that we have to go there if we want to break the cycle by which toxic, unresolved past traumas and wrongdoings persistently disrupt the present. Now more than ever, it is important to recognise the link between the past and so many of today’s symptoms of violence, division, discrimination, inequality, addictions, injustices, racism…
It is not easy to face unacknowledged past harm, not least because it will have been buried for a reason, often a good reason such as protection or avoidance of pain. But I promise you, it is ultimately easier than schlepping it around with us, patching it up and handing it on to the next generation to deal with.