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Question and answer session from Understanding and representing trauma

Dr Joanna Sassoon, Dr Adele Chynoweth, Dr Jay Arthur, Dr Geoffrey Megargee and Dr Mike Pickering, 5 October 2010

MIKE PICKERING: The first question will come from me. Clearly our Museum is an unusual place half way between both the academy and the general community. Our role is to tell stories to the wider communities and not just to necessary select interest groups. Once we go to those wider audiences, we engage everybody of all ages and of all disciplines, skills and interests, ranging from children to the elderly right across the board. A lot of the stories that we will encounter in our experiences are really very traumatic. Someone will tell you everything down to in precise detail about the horrors of their experiences. Some of those stories themselves have the capacity to introduce a trauma into the mind of the listener, especially a listener or viewer who is perhaps untrained in evaluation of materials, which again is a lot of our audiences. As a result of this we have to edit or sometimes not edit materials. The question is: How do we moderate stories? Should we be moderating stories? When does our mediation to make something readable to our audiences become censorship or when does it become advocacy? I will throw that to all of you.

Dr JOANNA SASSOON: I will start because the Library comes at it, I think, from a slightly different perspective. I won’t take it down to the interview level; I will take it to the level of crafting a selection of interviews, which is what we are doing. By selecting people and selecting stories that are going to be recorded and preserved, that necessarily means a process of editing through not selecting certain people. The Library is very well aware that, in order to shape or select people to interview, we are necessarily shaping the types of stories that people might read or listen to in the longer term. We have in our project a very strong underlying methodology of understanding a variety of factors about the stories - not necessarily about the people but the stories that people have told us and where they are coming from, how they have structured those memories before coming and telling the stories to us, as well as the stories that they choose to tell us.

It’s not editing and it’s not censorship, it’s a process of selecting that every collecting institution does. We have a very strong framework that we can account for why we are selecting the people that we do choose to interview and we have yet to go through a process of saying to someone, ‘You are not in this game, you are not going to be interviewed.’ In the end, if we simply cannot interview everybody, which is highly likely, we are providing people with other opportunities to tell their story through writing their story; if they have published their autobiographies then they can come to the collection; or if they have other materials that relate to their life experiences that they want to give us, they can give them to us. So we have other ways that people will be part of the project if they are not selected for interview. That’s a much bigger type of selection than you are talking about; it’s a much bigger concept of editing, if that is how you want to look at it.

But when you are a historian, historians tend not to think about cultural institutions or collecting institutions as actually part of that process of shaping the historical record. So what I am saying to you is that, in a sense, all libraries and all archives in particular – the Museum staff can speak for the Museum - to some extent shape the historical record through the activities of collecting, selecting and rejecting.

Dr JAY ARTHUR: I am sure Adele will have a comment as well. For us it’s even a harder process because it’s quite a small exhibition and you can only tell so many stories in an exhibition. I think we are both quite clear that we need to make people who were in institutions trust that we have gone to the edges as it were. How we tell the story of child rape in an exhibition is obviously something quite difficult, but we must have a responsibility to let people know that child rape did happen in institutions which the Australian government was ultimately responsible for in the end. How we present that is something we will have to work out very carefully. But I think the trust that has been given to us by our stakeholders is such that many of them believe, we hope, that we will tell the story how it was or how they see it was in this moment.

As we have all been saying, we understand a story in our time as it was. With the stolen generations’ story people were saying, ‘I get it now,’ and they got it - that was maybe ten or 15 years ago. Now is the time of the forgotten Australians story for people to say, ‘I get it, I can take it in, I can make it part of my understanding of my nation’s history.’ So an exhibition is a moment in time but we need to include all the things that in that time mattered to the stakeholders who are telling us their stories.

Dr ADELE CHYNOWETH: I was interested in this issue so I went to Brisbane to meet with the senior curator of the Museum of Brisbane, Jo Besley, who completed her Churchill scholarship in studying the representation of trauma in a museum, to talk with her about specific representational methodology. We are at the early stages of this - Jay and I are still selecting the stories - so we have been yet to determine the mode of representation. Some of the techniques she talks about are juxtaposition. Rather than turning down the volume on a particular story, rather than rendering it pastel, if you like, it’s about using different colour. To put it very crudely and it’s not as simple as this: you put a good story next to a bad story so that the modification is in the juxtaposition and not in adjusting the individual stories. That is one technique. I am not saying that we will go that way, but this is just because we are talking about it.

Another technique is that you have a quiet space within the exhibition space where there are resources available, where people can sit, a box of tissues or whatever. There is a place within the space for them to contemplate or de-role before exiting the space. Another technique which she talks about, and a technique that has come from the forgotten Australians themselves, is the idea of resilience, the notion of the courage of the survivor. Without diminishing the need for services or the issues that they have that need addressing now, alongside with that is that they are survivors, they are community leaders, they are business people - the full breadth of participation in society – so to focus on that as well. A good question - we are still working on that but whether it’s about plurality and juxtaposition.

Dr JAY ARTHUR: Mediation, censorship, advocacy - we are trying to keep a balance but it’s not easy.

Dr GEOFFREY MEGARGEE: Again, I deal with this at somewhat more of a remove. Most of the entries that come in to me for editing don’t involve personal stories that can be pinned to any one person and even more seldom any one living person. Some of them have been extremely graphic, extremely brutal. I pretty much accept whatever the author of the essay sends to me. I have yet to strike a section because I felt it was not appropriate.

The sense that I have from the survivors with whom I have spoken is that they want this kind of material in there. Again, I have never come across a story where I was able to go to someone and say, ‘Here’s your story, is this okay to put in here?’ Or even to one of their family members. Their sense is that they are just so thankful that their experiences are being documented.

We had a presentation after our first volume came out to a group of survivor volunteers in the Museum, and it really opened my eyes to their perspectives on the importance of our work. We were seeing it as an important reference work but basically something that goes in a library and people go there to learn about these different places. For the survivors, this was finally documentation of all the unknown places where they had suffered. Everybody has heard of Auschwitz, most people have heard of the Warsaw ghetto and that sort of thing. But there were thousands of more places that no-one has ever heard of that were in danger of disappearing from the record. So the survivors are very happy that those places are being discussed and that the range of experiences at their most horrible are being discussed within them.

I think the only victim group for whom this might be an issue would be homosexuals, because there was a stigma before, during and after the Second World War to being a homosexual. There were laws in Germany against homosexuality long after World War II ended and there have been questions in regard to other projects in the Museum about whether or not to identify particular individuals who might have been put into a camp because they were homosexuals. Again, for us this has not been an issue because they were one fairly small group within the concentration camp system and we haven’t talked about them as individuals in there. For other projects, this has been more of an issue. We have done a special exhibition on homosexuals and have had panel discussions and that sort of thing. So it does come up. But for me it was not an issue.

MIKE PICKERING: Thank you very much to all of you. Now I will throw you to the mercy of our audience.

QUESTION: Vickie Greaves from the National Film and Sound Archive. I just wonder about the idea of telling stories about a period of history that represents something like a Holocaust. Personal individual stories are really valuable as a record - there is no doubt about that. By the way, Adele, I was very glad that you said this was the beginning of a conversation, that you were learning all the time and that you also have good psychological assistance for people that are you interviewing if they feel they need it. I think that is extremely important.

What I am getting at is one thing we really need to consider is why - why are we doing this? Why are we uncovering the stories of individuals? I think particularly in Australia when we have a very acute reticence to come to terms with what I see as a connection between our history here and the history of Nazi Germany, seeing a film like The Reader and seeing how people were brought to task for their role in what happened in Germany; whereas in Australia there still seems to be this idea, ‘They thought they were doing the best thing for the children,’ when in fact it was a movement, it was fashionable, it was part of eugenics that was all over the world. In Australia somehow there are people still walking around - and I know this because I have worked with Kinchela Boys Home survivors, and Kinchela boys home survivors know these people and know where they are. Why? Because they will never forget the horrendous things they did to them, and that is trauma, having those people still walking around the community without having to account for their behaviour.

When I saw the film The Reader and reading The Reader to me asks me about fascism in Australia. The reason why we have these exhibitions and why we are unmasking the trauma - is this because it’s a personal story of whether people are resilient or not or is it a story that is actually going to teach us something about what can happen when these sorts of politics get out of control?

Dr ADELE CHYNOWETH: I don’t think we are using the discourse of individualism, of liberal humanism here. This certainly is an understanding of a social history not of who scores the best marks in the resilience test or not. Jay, you speak a lot about the system.

Dr JAY ARTHUR: We are using personal stories because, given that visitors to museums engage with a personal story better, they will understand the bigger picture if you take them through a personal story. But I certainly hope that when people come to our exhibition at the end, they see what have we done as a society to children? We are a country that allowed a system to treat children this way. We are a country that allowed medical experimentation on children. We are a country that allowed children to be starved and beaten. What does it say about us and what does it say about our responsibility? I often say that in South Africa you have truth in reconciliation, in Australia we tend to have reconciliation without the truth - we just skip that bit and move on saying ‘I am so sorry,’ but we never say what we are sorry for. I think in this time we really want people to know - this exhibition is only a tiny thing in the whole big picture; I am not trying to make it more important than it is.

Dr ADELE CHYNOWETH: In section one of our proposed exhibition - we are still deciding on objects and narratives but we have collected objects from the Children’s Magistrates Court of New South Wales. So the objects are not just related to the survivors but to the systemic objects, if you like, the mechanics that brought children into the home. We are aware. We do have a quote from Robert Menzies which alludes to eugenics - whether we use it or not but we have done that research.

Dr GEOFFREY MEGARGEE: Can I just add briefly, one of the things that I really appreciate about working at the Holocaust Museum is that it is not simply a museum of the Holocaust. There is part of the Museum called The Committee on Conscience that tries to draw the attention of the world and of our government to genocides and potential genocides around the world. It’s something that I think most of the staff are imbued with that we look upon our Museum as almost a safe way for Americans to start to deal with these kinds of issues - safe in the sense that this is something that happened to people that they don’t really know, far away, a long time ago. It’s impressive enough and it’s emotional enough that it will get to them. We try at various points throughout the exhibit and throughout the Museum to direct their thoughts toward other similar crimes that have happened in our society and in other societies around the world.

At this point there is in a sense a sort of a motto for the Museum: think about what you saw the next time you see genocide, the next time you see inhumanity, think about what you saw here. The United States has its own history with eugenics. I am sure that most of the people who come to our Museum have no idea that the last sterilisation took place in the United States in the 1970s or even that this sort of thing went on at all. It’s something that we try to get at, and I hope that our forum is a good one for it.

Dr JOANNA SASSOON: I will give you a different sort of answer. Some of the origins for the reasons why personal stories are being told so strongly is because that is what people who were in care wanted. In terms of the record sets, the information that is out there, there is a vast amount of information about the frameworks for care, the ideology behind why these institutions were set up. I am not saying it’s right or wrong; the records are there. So there is a whole lot of frameworks there. There are a lot of records that talk about the system’s interaction with the children: the court records, the personal files, the attitudes towards children, the system’s attitudes towards the individual child - all of that is there. But what has been missing in the record set, which was called for in the Senate inquiry, was the people who went through the experience, their right to tell their story. That was what they asked for. What you then do with shaping the collective stories out of the individual stories is a separate issue, but the people who went through those experiences asked for it.

The question that I have also goes back to your comment about advocacy, which is that we have all been given the label to use Forgotten Australians and we also have former Child Migrants. Who is actually being forgotten in all these projects that we are now looking at and thinking through? That is the other flip side of the coin that the people who see that they have been forgotten up until now may not be all of those who have been forgotten, and that the stories that are being told now may not be the only ones that need to be remembered. That is my challenge as someone who is collecting for the much longer term and creating a set of records whose origins are in the right of reply but whose purpose may actually be something slightly different.

QUESTION: I was also going to ask about why you were doing it and I think you have covered that very well. What I did follow on with my thinking on that: the conversations that are difficult are the kinds that you have described where the curators and staff are talking to people who have very difficult, painful and often terrorised-type traumas that they have gone through - and that is a very difficult conversation. But we also have difficulty in these conversations, as at least the Museum experienced during parts of the 1990s, when the mere fact of some of these issues being raised - people didn’t want to hear them; or they knew of them and didn’t want other people to particularly be hearing of them so that it didn’t become a focus. How do you deal with that aspect of the difficult conversation in putting it out there so that people can learn from them?

Dr JAY ARTHUR: Do you mean people who don’t want their story told?

QUESTION: No, people like a former Prime Minister who didn’t want to hear the stories that the Museum was putting out because he thought it was unbalanced. There are others who say: why are you doing this? They want those stories buried. How do you deal with that?

Dr JAY ARTHUR: I guess in this case we are lucky in that the government has asked us to tell this difficult story. You can’t make people come to the exhibition. Speaking as someone who has also been involved in telling stolen generation stories, you just have to tell them. If you have the fortune of being in a national institution like I have and telling a significant story, you just have to tell it in the best way you can. People will sometimes reject it or say it’s not true or you’re making it up. People like Andrew Bolt are still having a go at the stolen generation saying it didn’t happen or it’s for their own good and other things like that. I am not answering this very clearly -

Dr ADELE CHYNOWETH: That is exactly what we are doing. And also rather than the response we are getting that alludes to the area you have insightfully articulated, what we will get is actually a refusal of help. For example, for some former child homes that have a collection, they may not allow us to access it if they think that we are only going to tell the story from the forgotten Australians’ experiences. So rather than being forbidden, if you like, our challenge is engaging all stakeholders. How we do that is through saying that we are reflecting all experiences, that we are not being monologic and that there is a range of experiences that will be told. But in keeping with what the former Prime Minister said, the emphasis is on the experience of the survivors and not of the staff - but again we are still determining that.

Dr JAY ARTHUR: Because it’s such raw history, as we were saying, so many people have told the story for the very first time. So it’s history but it hasn’t even become part of our accepted national narrative. I agree there will be resistance where people don’t want it to have happened; they don’t want it to have been like that; they wished they didn’t know.

Dr ADELE CHYNOWETH: A survivor of a child’s home took me on a tour of the home that she was in, and that home is now an administration building for after care services for a particular church. I detected that the staff felt uncomfortable with former residents coming into what was their home, even though after care services have said they are allowed to and she had made formal arrangements. She had done all the right things. This is quite a prominent leader within a community. She has had years and years of counselling. She is a really together woman and a very dignified lady. She was taking me through, and one staff member at her desk turned around and shouted at her for being in her office when she had received permission. Of course she was incredibly dignified and dealt with it very well. She said afterwards, ‘Thank you very much for letting me show you around,’ and I said, ‘Why don’t you have a coffee?’ I was aware that even though she was dignified she needed some nurturing time after that - not that I was counselling. I wasn’t doing anything unprofessional, just coffee and cake. But what you are saying is that yes, there are people in the community that are very uncomfortable with this - and we do see it. I don’t know if I have dealt with the how properly.

Dr JOANNA SASSOON: One of the things - it is just a different perspective and I am trying to give you a different perspective in a different cultural institution - is that you have always got the capacity to collect stories, whether they are politically in tune with what the dominant paradigm is or not. The Library has been collecting stories from former Child Migrants particularly for a long time. When we were reviewing our collections this time last year to put a website together for the apology, we suddenly started to listen to interviews and we found all sorts of people who had been interviewed already who come under the label that we now ascribe to being a Forgotten Australian but whose experiences of being in care had already been collected - so the collecting goes on independent of where the radar is. It is only when someone chooses to engage with that material and make it public that the radar becomes an issue.

MIKE PICKERING: To that issue of how we tell our stories, in this Museum under the last government - or the previous prime minister a few years back, no names - yes, we had strong people with strong opinions about what we should and should not be showing, including some of our council members. Nonetheless, we still managed to do exhibitions on the stolen generations without interference. We have done one module on resistance, on frontier conflict and other conflicts as well. If the history is honest, it will speak for itself.

The other thing is curators are really cunning and have an interesting way of slipping something in to say it without being explicit. The message for everyone is even if we can’t do something - it hasn’t actually happened that we can’t do something, except we don’t have the money for our ideas - it is not just Australia that had this black armband view of history. I got RSI writing history so therefore I have the black armband, people who try to put their fingers in their ears and hum - the rest of the world isn’t doing the same thing. So as much as you might try to compress or hide a history, the rest of the world, the rest of Australia, everybody knows it’s there. You are not fooling everyone. I think the message throughout the whole history wars which was lost: don’t try to hide it, address it, and we do a good job of that.

QUESTION: A quick question arising out of opening up that history for discussion, I am getting a real sense of the complexity of the ethical concerns in telling these stories. I was just wondering about ethical considerations in regard to potential perpetrators of these incidents and this traumatic history, and if that is something that you have come across in the collecting process. Do you have a way that you are managing that or developing that? Is there a responsibility to potentially protect those who may be responsible from potential repercussions if they are named in a public forum?

Dr ADELE CHYNOWETH: We don’t allow any individual to be named. I am trying to think of all my list - whenever I speak with anybody, the first thing I say is: ‘If you are considering taking legal action, please consult a lawyer before telling me your story, because apparently that can harm your case if you have exposed it outside the legal process.’ So we advise them on that. Some forgotten Australians come back to me and said, ‘Thank you very much for telling me that,’ because now I don’t want you to put that thing on the website. So that’s been important.

My understanding from legal advice both from here and from another government department is that if you mention an organisation and as long as ten or more gathered in one’s name, it’s less likely that any individuals can be identified so you can mention it. But we are widening the telescope even more and being more cautious and being careful about even naming dates so that anyone can say, ‘I know someone who worked there then.’ That’s a very general shopping list. It’s actually on a case-by-case basis where you go over it with a fine toothcomb - yes, there are huge ethical considerations.

Dr JAY ARTHUR: Something that’s an ethical consideration - not ethical - but a consideration the other way that, if we focus on the perpetrators, it cleanses us of responsibility. It was that bad nun or that child abusing priest or whatever who were responsible - obviously they were immediately, but sitting back it was a society that allowed it to happen. Obviously the legal reasons we never mention any names ever. But it’s also important not to because then people can focus anger on that person and think ‘look what they did’ instead of ‘look what we did’.

MIKE PICKERING: If any of our panel would like to make a summation or anything else you would like to add. I will ask one last question that I am curious about relating to the history of telling stories. With the experiences of the Holocaust we are looking at the 1940s and prior and with these experiences we are looking at the experience of people who are my age. One of the stories I read was surprisingly - or not surprisingly – where the experiences of that individual took place in a house 500 metres from where I grew up so this was effectively a neighbour’s experiences. So that could have been mine or could have been anyone within that generation. The more we get removed from the event in the retelling, do the histories get moderated and more moderated - do they get more filtered? Are you finding that the stories that you are receiving now have a lot of the horrors written out or are they there and not just being communicated publicly?

Dr GEOFFREY MEGARGEE: No, in the case of the Holocaust I am not finding that anything is being written out. Of course that generation is passing, but there is a great deal of effort going into getting the testimony of those who remain. I think it’s safe to say that any volunteer or survivor who is associated with the Museum has had the chance to tell his or her story. Obviously what is included in that or not is up to them but I am not aware of anyone, unless they do it for purely internal ones, writing anything out or being concerned that they shouldn’t go into the horrors.

I think if anything with the stories of the Holocaust survivors they have become more open over the years to talking about these things. There is some debate over to what extent the Holocaust was a closed subject for the first few decades after the 1940s. It may not have been quite as closed as a lot of people believe. But it is true that a lot of survivors say, ‘For a lot of years I just didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t want to talk about it. I had a life to lead and only later did I want to open up about it.’ I don’t think that’s been a huge issue for us.

MAT TRINCA: Just a follow-up question or reflection on it: part of what I was thinking about as I heard all the speakers talking about this issue was about when the narrative is a contestable narrative and then when the narrative is in a kind of social context - I am talking about the narrative in the abstract now – and is at a point where it has become a kind of social convention. Notwithstanding the great difficulties that still attend to the stories of the Holocaust, I suppose by and large in our societies now - notwithstanding the apologists for the Nazi regime that still exist and the David Irving sort of world - that largely there is a kind of consensus.

I was interested in how consensus works with the experience of trauma and even generational trauma, which I think is something we haven’t spoken about a lot today but clearly which attends to both cases - the idea that the trauma is just not in lived experience but is in the lived experience of each generation that succeeds it. There is something important clearly about social consensus and the management of trauma in those events which is very different from the forgotten Australians, which is with the work that both the Library and the Museum are doing there will be people who will find this highly contestable. We know that from what happened around the stolen generations. I was trying to work out what then made that essentially different in terms of how you approach that work. I am not convinced that I have nailed this in my mind about what it means to be working in an area of documenting and representing trauma which is still highly contestable as opposed to documenting and representing trauma that has become to all intents and purposes part of a social convention. Maybe the panel has some comments on that.

Dr GEOFFREY MEGARGEE: I think it is something for us, and this relates directly to what I was just saying about the survivors opening up over the years. It may be a chicken and egg kind of situation as to which came first, but I think part of what helped the survivors to open up about this was greater interest, greater acceptance - leaving aside, as you say, the whackos and the racists who want to deny that it happened - I think in American society there have been stages usually accompanied by some sort of media event. There was a television series called The Holocaust in the 1970s that got a lot of people interested in this. You combine that with the growing to adulthood of the next generation or the generation after that who will turn to their parents and grandparents and say, ‘Tell me, what’s going on? What happened to you?’ I think there was a sense among many survivors not only that they didn’t want to deal with it but also that nobody else really wanted to hear about it either - who wants to hear about my troubles? As that interest grew over the years, it became more and more acceptable, almost demanded, that people open up about this and share their stories. I suspect that that process is not as far along in Australia.

Dr JOANNA SASSOON: I look at it slightly differently. I don’t only think that we are documenting trauma, I also think we are documenting how people remember. Another layer above the experience is the memory. How the collective memory of the experience, as expressed through things like the apology, through the Senate inquiries and through the media reports, shapes how individuals feel that their story is validated or not. Quite a lot of the people who have contacted the Library who have not heard about this story through stakeholder organisations, the first thing they will say to me when they ring up is, ‘I have a different story to tell,’ and they have an entirely different story to the dominant story that is out in the media.

I think we have to be very careful about making judgments about what the experience is, how people remember and who is being forgotten in all of this. I think that the process of trauma is about one set of small experiences in a much broader set of stories and memories. It’s not to diminish anybody’s experience of trauma whatsoever; it is just to say that not only are we looking at the impact of trauma - not just trauma itself but the lifelong impact of the experiences of being in care - but we are looking at how people then choose to remember and choose to associate with groups for whom remembering is a really important part of their activity. So I think I am coming from a slightly different angle.

Dr JAY ARTHUR: It’s kind of strange when you are telling a history that hasn’t been told before in a sense. You realise how often when you are looking at histories that have been told before you are kind of following the pattern unconsciously. When you haven’t got a pattern to follow, you become aware of your previous actions and how, as you say, you are creating this history, you are constructing a story and you are part of making the pattern, which is a very strange feeling.

Dr ADELE CHYNOWETH: It’s interesting that you talk about media. We had The Leaving of Liverpool here on the ABC and we have the movie The Rabbit Proof Fence but, unless I have missed it, I don’t know of any major media event on non-Indigenous wards of the state within Australia. So within consensus history there is an understanding of the kids that got on the boat and the stolen generation but yes our challenge is -

QUESTION: Just to make a comment on the discussion that we were just having, I grew up in North America in the third quarter of the twentieth century as part of a migrant family. The expectation then was very much that, a generation and a half after first migration, you would basically have cut all your ties with where you came from, and that changed in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Geoff mentioned from the 1970s onwards there was an expectation that telling those stories was actually important as opposed to not telling them was important. What we are talking about here and seeing is actually quite different from what has happened for a long time before that. You mentioned that you had a structure before and you read older histories as to what was there and you see patterns, but you are now telling the story and you don’t have a pattern to follow. It is actually something that has a long time, and the pattern used to be: This is the only story to tell and these others you simply were expected to forget.

MIKE PICKERING: It’s 2 o’clock and probably time we wrapped up. If you would all join me in thanking our guests. [applause]

Date published: 12 November 2010