Nostalgia, Virginia Woolf, Trauma, Sex

by Monica Ross

I’ve been riding a very heavy wave of nostalgia recently. I’m not even sure exactly why. What I seem to keep referring back to is my time as a young undergraduate student. Maybe it’s because the city now is swarming again with students as school is back in session. I can remember driving into Austin for the first time to come to college and getting lost on 12th street. I had to pull over at the 7-Eleven downtown, which is still there today.

I pulled over to ask for my aunt to come and pick me up and lead me back to where she was living at the time. She offered to help me with the transition to college and Austin. This was pre-internet and GPS systems.

We had to rely on either verbal instructions or paper maps. I made two friends that semester in the dorms who I’m still friends with today. One pointed out recently that even though two of the three of us left after college and lived on opposite sides of the coast...there was me in San Diego and later San Francisco and my friend in Boston...20 years later we find ourselves back in the same city.

All three of us live now even live in the same zip code—all of which is by chance.  Since I seem to be on the nostalgia kick for some reason, I’ll just stick with it.  When I was a student at UT it was actually my last semester there, I took a class on British Literature.

I’ve taken a few classes on British Lit, some at the graduate level in San Diego. But that particular class I took with Professor Mia Carter. I think she is still teaching at UT.

At the time though, she had just started her career there. In the course, we read a book called Mrs. Dalloway. It’s written by Virginia Woolf.   It has since gone down as one of my very favorites.

The novel takes place within the span of just one day. The main character is Clarissa Dalloway. Woolf uses stream of consciousness writing. She wrote the novel in 1925.

There are many elements of the novel that I really love...the fact that Woolf wrote it in stream of consciousness writing, the fact that it centers around a female lead character, the fact that the whole thing takes place in just one day, yes but also the fact that she touches on so many topics that are still of interest today.

Woolf through her writing was commenting on the emotional toll that World War I had left on British citizens. Some of the characters in the novel went on to lead lives largely unaffected by the war and others like the character named Septimus never recovered from it.

The reason why this novel sticks with me today is because of the way that it was written —arguably experimental for the time period—and also because of the subject matter it touches on as I said. In Septimus we witness someone with PTSD.

He was a poet who went off to war. And when he returned he lost the ability to put his words together. I think this, may be more than anything out of the whole novel, really left an imprint on me.

Maybe it speaks to me so much so because of my love of language.  I can really identify with the character’s loss. But the point is--here was someone who had an inner sensitive and creative side who by going off to war and experiencing and witnessing the atrocities of that, lost that very thing that was so central to his identity and connected to his capacity to be vulnerable.

He survived the war in other words, but at the same time at what cost? It’s been many years since I’ve reread the novel. But I remember empathizing with the devastation this character experienced, which wasn’t so much about what happened to him during the war, but more about his inability to find his way back from tragedy after the war.

It's really a metaphor for anyone who has experienced trauma of any type. We know that mental illness arises out of a combination of genetics, psychological factors, and environmental factors. This is basically the biopsychosocial model.

But it’s those pesky environmental factors...the situations we find ourselves in...the traumatic experiences that people encounter in life...that can be so heart wrenching and lead people away from their true nature.

When I hear about people’s trauma, I experience the feeling of...it didn’t have to happen, it never had to have happened. So, there’s a space for the honoring of the fact that it did happen, whatever that trauma is.

If it’s recent trauma, there are some who are still caught up in the amazement that it happened to begin with, in just the shock of it all.  But then there’s the point of acceptance. It did. It did happen. In the novel, the character Septimus goes on to complete suicide. The message being that some do not develop the capacity for resilience.

Our thoughts about and treatment of PTSD certainly have improved since World War I, which again was the time period for the narrative. And our ideas about how PTSD arises have expanded and now are associated with not just war veterans but literally anyone who has experienced mini traumas throughout life with a little “t” or major trauma with a capital “T.”

I’m trying to kind of reign it all in here and wrap a central theme or idea behind this post. It’s raining outside...hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast and we’re feeling a little bit of the hit here in Austin.

Maybe what I’m trying to say is that as a young student at the time I didn’t know then the direction that life would take me in. I wouldn’t go onto teach English Literature as I thought at one point I might.

But that doesn’t mean that those classes and that course work didn’t leave a life long impact. I would later go on to treat those who have experienced trauma.  The effects of trauma on a person, the way that it can destroy a person’s trust and cause them to become guarded in life, can tap into so many different areas—one’s choice of career and one’s choice of partner among other things.

There’s a youtube clip I often recommend. It demonstrates how the effects of trauma can rear it’s head in other places. I’ve got several of these clips I use for psycho-educational purposes. This one is by Esther Perel.

She ties together at 10:29 the loss of desire in long-term sexual relationships to a person’s experience with trauma. She cites one of the ingredients to sustaining long-term desire in sexual relationships as being the capacity for imagination, which is the capacity to be in touch with oneself, the capacity to be vulnerable, the capacity for play.

It demonstrates what we know to be true as professionals—“t” trauma or “T” rauma(s) affect so many facets of life and relationships.  So maybe today I won’t be able to put a nice and neat conclusion on this post.

That just seems to be how my mind works at times—I tend to make a lot connections between seemingly random things. I’ll just say in closing that literature is a reflection of life. For people who have experienced trauma, there is always hope. There is always the capacity for change, for growth, for recovery, for resilience.