A timely anthology

We’re currently undergoing what most would consider the greatest global trauma of our lifetime. Everyone’s suffered the loss of something, whether it be as devastating and life-altering as a loved one, a job, a home, in-person schooling, childcare, or as trivial as a ritual Friday night dinner with friends, time at the gym, a trip to a faraway place, the ability to walk into a shop.

Our lives have been altered beyond recognition, and we cannot begin to imagine the mental health effects the pandemic and its consequences will have for years to come, making Trauma – Essays on Art and Mental Health a very timely anthology.

This diverse collection contains thirty-two essays that study trauma on both the micro and macro levels. The essays are short (twenty pages or less) but the writers go deep, exploring personal traumas related to family dynamics, romantic relationships, addiction, suicide, pregnancy, intergenerational trauma, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, insomnia, and identity, as well as national and global traumas caused by Trump, capitalism, Covid-19, racism, and historical events such as the Chernobyl Disaster and the Holocaust. None of the authors offers a remedy for trauma, although some propose writing (no surprise given the nature of this collection), reading, printmaking, performing, going to the movies, and meditating as ways of coping with and working through trauma.

The authors’ styles vary greatly, ranging from anecdotal (Georgie Codd’s Hazelnuts) to experimental (Alex Pheby’s How To Write About Things You Can’t Think About), from fragmentary (Saskia Vogel’s Nacre) to stream of consciousness (Neil Griffiths’ Madness as Such), from conversational (Kirsty Logan and Paul McQuade’s As Deep As The Atlantic: On Grief and Writing) to instructional (Naomi Frisby’s A Recipe For Madness). Regardless of approach, every essay in this collection is certainly worth reading; however, several are particularly striking.

Rowena Macdonald’s Quite Collected… Meanwhile… is an essay made up of two columns. The left column relates the narrator’s anxious stream of consciousness and the right gives a linear, third-person description of her daily activities. The juxtaposition of the two distinct accounts of the narrator’s day emphasises that although anxiety is mentally debilitating, it appears that the affected person is perfectly fine and functioning from the outside.

In her moving, funny, and informative essay Hallelujah, Emma Jane Unsworth confronts the widespread idea that pregnancy is exclusively ‘lovely’, drawing attention to the ignored traumatising aspects of childbirth, namely vaginal tearing. After relating several instances of friends’ botched post-natal stitchings, she writes “the injuries and repairs women receive during and after childbirth are talked about even less than childbirth itself” (187). She concludes that it is possible to be overjoyed about having a baby, while also acknowledging the terrifying and traumatic parts of pregnancy and childbirth.

In Tesla, Murdered by Society, Seraphina Madsen recounts being haunted by Nikola Tesla while staying in what the reader assumes to be a mental hospital or rehab center. Madsen narrates the sad story of Tesla’s life, starting with his birth in Serbia, leading us through his complicated childhood, and onto his arrival in the United States, where he first worked for Thomas Edison, but soon ventured off on his own, realising Edison would never take him seriously. Edison and Tesla became competitors, each inventing his own system for distributing electricity. And although Tesla’s AC system was superior, Tesla wasn’t very successful in his lifetime due to, as Madsen details, the atrocious actions of Edison, Westinghouse, and other powerful institutions.

Trauma is not an easy theme, and this is not the kind of collection one finishes in a day or two. Most of the essays are heavy, even if they conclude on a positive note, so are best read over time as each essay demands reflection post-reading.

The essays in Trauma are as moving as they are perceptive. They offer perspective and guidance during this uncertain and distressing time and are a must-read for anyone interested in exploring the vast subject of trauma.

Trauma: Writing About Art and Mental Health; edited by Sam Mills and Thom Cuell; Dodo Ink; paperback; 416 pages

Cover illustration: Christiana Spens