Utilizing First Person Story with Trauma Survivors in Bosnia and Sri Lanka: Metaphors create a symbolic congruence that is ‘inclusive’ and universal across cultures

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Their stories weave the thread of life. In the last hundred years life on the planet has been rife with continuous wars and natural catastrophes compiling never before told ‘first person’ stories on a horrific scale.

What is a first person story? In essence, it is the ‘unplugged’ version of one’s first hand experience that weaves itself into one’s her/history. Nowhere is this more evident than when one re-counts the traumatic events of their lives. Germaine Greer states that first person is in actuality ‘feminism.’

Books, journals and other media venues have not arrayed a collection on women’s first person stories unless it can be reduced to a ‘sound bite’, 300 hundred word essay or the normal victim role for women bathed in silence.

“We are confronted with the slaughter of Eve, a systematic gendercide of tragic proportions,” expresses author Theodore Winkler of “Women in an Insecure World.”1

We are discovering how trauma is a normal day and fear ridden night for most females globally since there is a reported 200 million shortfall of women as a result of gendercide2 . The research, studies and the carefully calculated numbers do not speak their first person stories. Yet, it is their stories that contain the key to living with trauma and evolving rather than to submit to the voracious violence.

The arbitrary form of trauma studies, research and statistics erases the human being’s life experience. Ironically, the purpose of the trauma studies and research are to heal traumatic events and to understand trauma. Grappling with the ever widening abyss between what is reported in strict scientific measures and genocidal slow justice systems do not partner the truth that trauma is best healed through first person story and witnessing/hearing the trauma survivors’ life experience. It is only in speaking and sharing one’s life experiences to others who can actively listen that commences the healing process.

Frank Ochberg’s Counting Method includes the trauma survivors’ first person story in a psychological science field stuffed with all the arbitrary forms found in studies/research which neuter the first person story content, readdresses the imbalance. Despite the neutering process, the Counting Method ensures its viability in the treatment of trauma. Certainly, when in the field (Africa, Bosnia, India, Sri Lanka) the ‘Counting Method’ confronts denial and allows the stark reality of the trauma survivors’ life experience to become an intensive learning cycle/phase for the individual and for all who bear witness to it.

The Counting Method allows expression of silence and reflection into first person story and narrative. Frank Ochberg stated, “I would point out that the counting method is not really a first person narrative, but the silent experience of trauma, relived by the survivor in the presence of the therapist. Memory “speaks” without words. Then, afterward, the survivor and the therapist together review what has just been experienced.”

It appears the foremost approach is to deny or silence first person stories’ values within the scientific methods and logodial media that are aimed at avoidance to listening and metabolizing first person stories. Often couched as polite backing away or “not the right data” for science methods or rule of law justice systems, the worshipped methodology only serves to enforce the professional distance towards any description of the drama/trauma or first person story through;

  1. the avoidance methods are found in mountains high paper work, proper sterile environment such as having a desk or certifications between the professional and individual or approved vocabulary contained in lectures and rule of law that is not that of the individual with their first person story;
  2. the denial methods that silences first person story and maintains the worthless ranking in our sciences to obscure the potency found in expressing life experiences. All women’s experiences are personal and political so a statement such as – ‘we do not speak politics’ silences women’s first persons’ story sealing their fate.

If Trauma therapists and those who would bear witness to first person stories knew that they were able to manifest a healing culture by understanding how trauma is actually an intensive breakthrough learning cycle/phase, what would our learning approaches and healing practices look like. If approached with the deep knowing that trauma is a wounding that leads to new possibilities and evolving life, the intensive learning instructs through the meaningful and empowering drama/trauma involving four interactive cardinal points often observed as:

  1. guilt
  2. shame
  3. martyrism
  4. fear

The four interactive cardinal points observed in the field work that I have done in- Africa, Bosnia, India and Sri Lanka — if embraced sets up an immediate intensive learning environment where each individual is paying great and acute attention. It does not matter that the appearance of intensive learning occurs without a structured classroom, walls of a building. Instead within the four interactive cardinal points the intensive learning is erected instantly stabbing into the red dust of Africa as the mothers protects their children or in Bosnia after the elderly grandmother stabs her hoe into the field surviving on the harvest.

In describing their trauma in Bosnia and Sri Lanka I have observed how the word trauma cross-culturally can be identified as ‘wounding or wounds.’ Hailing from the Germanic word ‘wunde’ linguistics have traced its origins to the Indo-European base ‘wen’ meaning to stab. As I circle the globe working trauma through first person story I am startled by the realization that trauma does stab us into immediate present moment.

Stabbed into the interconnected nature of trauma’s intensive learning environment my mother tongue- Serb-Croatian understands and has heard in their first person stories the word wound in Bosnian as ‘raniti’ meaning to wound and to stab.

When approaching the trauma’s intensive learning instructions in its’ interactive cardinal points of guilt, shame, martyrism and fear, I have discovered how metaphors and metonymy (specifies both similar and unlike parts in the metaphor) sets up a symbolic congruence that is ‘inclusive’ and universal across cultures. Treating trauma/dramas through first person stories enrolls the individual into a pedagogical model that differentiates while interconnecting the senses, emotions, feelings and the body with the intention to disclose and to activate deep knowing within intensive learning cycles/phases.

First Person Stories that involve guilt, shame, martyrism and fear are universal across the globe. The faces in Africa, Bosnia, India and Sri Lanka all have expressed guilt in their first person stories both spoken and unspoken. In Africa I witnessed the ebony black females bundling their infants on their backs as they walked miles for food or water.

To be resigned to one’s fate is to be a walking victim and target-this is not to lend blame rather it is to identify the places and points of women’s lives that perpetuate the intergenerational trauma. Those miles of walking are intensive learning and development stages for young children exposing them to worthlessness of their mother’s status.

Every night in the deepest of Africa (Chad, Congo, Sudan and Uganda) whole villages have their children escape the murdering raids that kill, maim and enslave youth into the insurgent’s army by walking miles to the safe camps. 3

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The guilt across the faces of the mothers is apparent without a translator as they describe to journalists and helping aid staff how they used to have dinner each night together and how their children are too tired for school if they are fortunate enough to go to one, and if the child can rise early despite a sleeplessness night in the safe camp. Torn and divided the dignified mothers transfigured the trauma/drama by reacting with a nightly march to safe camps wallowing in guilt leading to shame and eventually a martyrism as the mothers go without food or shelter to provide for their children.

Fear-based decisions predominate their traumas to an ever increasing catastrophic level. A healthy fear system operating within individuals moves to caution not fright or flight stages apparent in traumatic stress disorder. By viewing the trauma event as the intensive learning cycle/phase, caution approaches reality with curiosity, wonder and awe. However, the evolving movement found in caution is stymied with many fear based programs and articulation found in policies and approaches in not just the science fields but how violence and conflicts are handled.

It is most likely a very calculated terminology with the recent war efforts by US forces (an all global armed forces in reality) when the military operation titled as “Shock & Awe” paired the healing performance and meaning of awe found in caution with the traumatic stress word of shock. As we see in Africa and other conflict regions across the globe, the relentless trauma cycle is regenerated endlessly within governments, military operations and media. What this describes is how each and everyone one of us is retraumatized or traumatized by world events of conflict, catastrophes and violence simply by how it is reported and how women’s first person stories are handled into proscribed victim roles or erased.

Fear-based decisions and approaches steep all into the systematic traumatic stress disorder becoming intergenerational and often cited as ‘cultural’ or ‘sanctioned approaches’ rather than identified for what it truly is; a form of violence. This is evident in policies/politics that rule women’s lives in war and violent regions across the globe which are not engendered, leaving little room for the women and mothers to navigate through the pitfalls of traumatic distress.

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I came across an intense first person story high in the mountains of Bosnia, Gorni Vauf, with a large elderly round woman who was immersing a dead chicken into scalding hot water.4 She did not want pictures taken of her because she felt shame with each hot tear that like the scalding hot water in her bucket mapped her cheeks and chin.

“Why my two sons, why me?” hushed the elder Croatian Mother. Turning the large white bowl of scalding water until the contents spilled into the green but drought laden land, the Croatian Mother sighs numerous times as she describes how the war killed two of her sons.

I have encountered “Why me” across the globe finding guilt and shame as its house of horrors. It is certainly an archetype of mega proportions for the catastrophic fear and violence that saturates the world today.

Martyrism follows instantly as evidenced with the Croatian Mother who does the major work of the large farm. Her husband sits on the rickety chair with a wobbly table bearing a beer bottle every day and night according to her. Her red gnarled hands and painful gait portrayed the burdens of work across her body and lands in the fashion of the great martyrs.

The stabbing “why me?” questions from traumatized individuals are in actuality unfolding instructions that accompany life events prompting us to be in our truth and in the moment. Instead I have observed how that very question leads to the self-blame and guilt. As in Africa, Bosnia and Sri Lanka, blame and guilt supports the females’ sense of low self worth in their global second class citizenry leading to extreme examples of martyrism to have surviving children.

Conforming to the female devalued status, women think they avoid being the next targets of violence but it is an illusion since their low self-worth and victim stance only invites in more violence and more traumas. And this is not to blame the victim. It is to sort through the inherent bias found in dangerous belief systems that perpetuate trauma and violence.

Recognizing their participation in events is not at all about being responsible for the violent encounters that lead to trauma. When we embrace the instructional nature of trauma we find we are evolving. Rather if the stabbing ‘why me’ was embraced as instructional, we would be facing the truth of “what do we feel about ourselves?” At this point, we can change our perception and look up to see the whole world has changed.

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In Sri Lanka, the lithe young social worker involved in the Kolo (Serbo-Croatian for circle or to dance) trauma and conflict evolution training enacts a drama from her childhood that describes brother and sister incest. Facing twenty-nine of her colleagues, the Sri Lankan social worker spoke of bravely moving past her fears into the only expression that could convey its meaning and impact on her life.

Without a word and only through body movements swirling in the Hindu dance, authentic tears were flung into the audience as she danced past the “why bad things happen to good people.” The Sri Lankan males wrestled with shame evidenced with their hanging heads and refusal to witness her drama/trauma Hindu dance. Afterwards, the Sri Lankan social worker proclaimed liberty and that a heavy burden is no longer for her to shoulder.

Challenging me directly, the young social worker asked how her Hindu dance would be translated into the research and studies. “Tell me what actual number or testing instrument – written words – will have my unique fingerprint or describe my story that I danced?” demanded the Sri Lankan social worker.

My cautious response was to speak of how each fingerprint like snowflakes is non-repeating and how each first person story is expression all in the same league. Science has only a database of fingerprints and perhaps it is time that science has a storehouse of first person stories.

Moving through my guilt that I have not endured what she has and survivor guilt when working catastrophic conflict regions I told her how the impact of each story has left a permanent mark upon me. The Sri Lankan social worker understood at that moment that she was my teacher. And in that exact moment I understood how my role as the therapist/trainer distanced and divorced me away from the intensive learning environment.

I became very alert to two important principles after being immersed in my intensive learning environment such as shame or guilt; understanding and observing play critical role for attaining awareness and consciousness. What I discovered was how observation often came to move the guilt, shame, martyrism and fear into the intensive learning cycle/phase found in each traumatic first person story.

I would encounter meaning in what was tragic, painful and devastating. I found myself enrolled in the intensive learning cycle/phases presented in the trauma survivors’ first person stories and bearing witness to their lives was bearing witness to my life.

Later I learned by reflecting on all the observable, repeated universal responses in my field work, that bearing witness is a life skill that heals trauma within oneself and with others. I observed how traumatic and catastrophic events are the most intensive learning environments more critically important and ever evolving than academia as we know it today.

Slowly, I learned to not judge others for not wanting to enroll into the intensive learning program. Listening and hearing first person stories of women, therapists and helping professionals are fully participating instead of being a spectator to the traumas filling our world. Hearing first persons stories offers a guarantee that we are certainly going to be re-traumatized over and over again simply by bearing witness. Only when we get to a point where we realize how reading the journal research or studies are spectator approaches that barely scratch the surface of traumatized person’s life experiences will we enroll and hunger for the intensive learning environment.

Compiling the truth from what I learned in the field I conclude the following:

  • Bear witness each time you or individuals question ‘why me.’ Use your inquiring presence to ask with great interest ‘what to do with what I have heard, witnessed and learned.’
  • Note when you felt moved and ‘stabbed’ by the first person stories. This signals a movement through fears and tears into caution, curiosity and inquiry healing the traumas through wisdom gathering. The freedom and liberty is indeed a lifting of great burdens that I and others can only arrive at after channeling the energies of guilt, shame, martyrism and fear.
  • Observation has us realizing how we all are traumatized and highlights how we participate (intensive learning environment) or remain the spectator (logodial – avoidance) in the traumatic events.
  • Trauma enrolls us into storied instructions; the most intensive learning environment on the face of the planet whenever we do inquiry and not seek the answers whatsoever. This moves us into profound meaning and truth. Remember truth is first person stories and all of the elements are confronting and ‘stabbing.’
  • Step away from the debilitating need to be the hero, the healer or the protector. Understanding that life is a mystery to be lived and to unfold an ever evolving first person story, we immediately have a deep knowing that it is about hearing first person stories and witnessing our lives so that we can author and manifest peace and healing; we evolve and accept life as a mystery that requires no solving or the need for heroes.

In the end, I discovered that I do not want to be protected from first person stories or trauma found in arbitrary forms, statistics or studies. The safest place is that sense of self and sense of place given in our first person stories.

Danica Borkovich Anderson is a Certified Clinical Criminal Justice Specialist 16713, Fellow in the Academy of Trauma Experts and a Psycho-social Gender Victims Expert for the International Criminal Court in the Hague, The Netherlands. Her non-profit is The Kolo: Women’s Cross Cultural Collaboration- www.kolocollaboration.org


1 Larry Fine, Reuters, “Many women victims of ‘gendercide'”, November 18, 2005
3Kevin Sites, http://hotzone.yahoo.com/
4Danica Anderson, http://www.kolocollaboration.org/Articles/Danica/TheWidowGoddess.htm