International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Trauma and World Literature

Posted 2 January 2015 in StressPoints by By Harold Kudler, MD and Howard Lipke, PhD

CAPITAL-(3).jpgThe novel, Capital, by John Lanchester tells many compelling intertwined stories exploring many segments of London society as investment banking strategies fail and the legal system adjusts to threats of terrorism. As the title suggests, it casts especial light on how people make and use money. 

One of the stories is of Quentina, who has escaped from threats in Zimbabwe to live in a shelter for political refugees. In these passages, Lanchester describes some of the varieties of refugee experience in ways which may be of interest and value to students of psychological trauma:

By now, Quentina had lived there for the best part of two years, and she had a good acquaintance with the range of types who came into contact with the charity. All of them were damaged by their experiences, some grievously, and many of them could barely function. Some were too angry, their rage was on a hair-trigger. These were the likeliest to get into real trouble. A Sudanese woman from the Refuge who kept getting into fights over perceived insults- proper fist fights, like a man- had gone to jail for three months for assault after she punched a woman who she thought had jostled her while they were both sheltered form the rain under a butcher shop’s awning. She would normally have been deported at the end of her sentence, but thanks to the Human Rights Act she couldn’t be because it wasn’t safe for her to go back to Sudan, so when she came out of the prison she had been taken in by another branch of the Refuge, this time in North London. Quentina did not foresee a happy ending for her. Other ‘clients’ were defeated by the burden of their own grievances and could think of very little else. The symptoms of this condition were silence, and then, in the face of kindness or interest or understanding, torrential unburdening. Ragah, the Kurd, was like that. She had no mode in between brooding on her losses and telling all about them, at length, in English which as she got more excited Quentina found impossible to understand, and which in any case she would often drop to lapse into Kurdish, apparently without realizing that she was doing so. Ragah had lost her family, Quentina gathered, that that was all she knew, because beyond that she lost the thread of the story. By now she could hardly ask.

Silence was hard to diagnose because it was such a common symptom. In their heads, some of the refugees were still in whichever country they had left; they hadn’t yet caught up with their own lives. Others were culture –shocked and had no idea what to make of London; they were blank. That was usually OK because it usually wore off with time. Others still were silent because they were depressed. There had been only one suicide recently in the South London refuge, an Afgan had hung herself in the bathroom. That was the week after Quentina had arrived. One suicide in two years was good going. Others were simply possessed by a feeing that they had made a catastrophic error in coming to England, and their lives would never recover-their lives would never again be their lives, but the story of this huge mistake they had made.

Quentina didn’t fit any of these categories. Perhaps what was decisive was that she was fully resolved to take part in her new life in London. She was determined to make a go of it.”
(pp 190- 191)

 As the story continues, things do not go well for Quentina, and, in order to ward off despair,...
“Quentina had found a mental trick to help herself get through her days in the detention center. It was simple in its way. All she did was say to herself, over and over, whenever the need or occasion arose, the same words: this will not last for ever: this is the hardest thing you will ever do. She found herself saying it after she woke up in the morning and had a few seconds of not knowing where she was.”                       
(pp 515- 516)
 
Thanks to Mary Fabri, PsyD for her thoughts on this contribution.