Hot Issues in Mental Health

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Time to Listen, Time to Speak
Jolyon Grimwade, Clinical Psychologist, Change Consultations

The State of Victoria has embarked on an endeavor of reconciliation with the First Nations’ Peoples of the region.  It is a truth-telling commission not dissimilar to that which was conducted in South Africa. Truth-telling has a long tradition and has long been sought by Aboriginal Australians: wrongs need acknowledgement, communities need healing, reconciliation needs to be fostered, and further abuses need to be prevented.  These are social goals, but what happens psychologically?

How does truth-telling help?  What is the mechanism by which description of atrocity and abuse lead to reconciliation?  After all, abuse stories are usually accompanied with re-traumatization.

Those who worked with victims of systemic child abuse who gave evidence to private sessions of the recent Royal Commission will know that the circumstances of the truth-telling were very important.  The witness needed to feel safe and needed to feel heard, as this was something that they had endured in silence and in deep shame.   This is part of the answer to the above questions, but re-traumatization did occur and, for my clients who gave evidence, it took quite some months for the witness to recover from the trauma of truth-telling.

The first case before the Yoorrook Justice Commissionwas that of Uncle Jack Charles: actor and celebrity cat burglar.  He was removed (stolen) as a young child and then placed in institutions where he was abused by staff and other residents.  Uncle Jack has made a performance of his autobiography, telling of all sorts of abuse in an inspiring monologue of recovery.  Clearly, he feels safe to tell his story over and over and he feels he will be heard.  But he is a celebrity who has turned his suffering into inspiration for others.  This applies to very few First Nations’ people.  His leadership is meritorious in setting the agenda and providing the tone.  But his is not a general case. 

Victims of abuse feel shame.  There is shame about the events that are unspeakable and beyond hearing for many a listener.  Then there is shame for not speaking up: for lacking in courage and, for not protecting others, when speaking up might have saved others.  Then there is the shame of accusing others and blaming others.  All this needs to be thought about in order to appear before a truth-telling commission.

Behind this are two complementary processes: directing of blame away from the witness and regaining of pride by the witness.  The witness stands up and says what happened.  There is no discrediting of what is said.  As truth flows, the guilt of others and of systems emerges; not by accusation but in the shadow of the truth-telling.

Complementarily, the witness takes heart from speaking.  Shame lifts as pride in what has been achieved in the now, and in the life despite adversity, also emerges. The witness experiences being heard and leaves with the burden of shame lessened and pride in the telling is in its place.  Pride in self that has been lost needs to be re-gained.  This is likely to be an iterative process; it is not an all or none healing event when on speaks finally about the shame.

In one sense, the telling is more important than the truth for the witness.  But in what is said, the society is held accountable for the crimes.  The psychological mechanism is complex, but the process is straightforward and robust to allow for the witness’s distress to be subdued before the public performance of casting out shame and finding pride.

Almost as a side product to the performance is the documentation of past crimes by people and systems; and the creation of the possibility of learning by all members of the society; and the opening up of the society to real compensation and real reconciliation.

Let us all listen to what is said and participate in the much-needed process of reconciliation.

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