Trauma and its aftermath

The experience of sexual or physical trauma is bad enough but its aftermath has an even crueller dimension. Trauma doesn’t happen once, it repeats, it comes back. Its major psychological after-effect is that it forces us, often against our will, to remember it, to rethink it, replay it, over and over again. Sometimes it even forces us, without us realising what we are doing, to restage and re-enact it. It is, as Freud called it, a compulsion to repeat. And it compels us to repeat because it wants us to master the traumatizing situation we were unable to master when it happened, to make us the agent instead of the passive recipient of that traumatic experience and to put meaning on something we were never able to put meaning on when it happened. And if that wasn’t enough, the cruellest twist of all is that none of this repetition brings us closure so that we can move on with our lives.  It only makes things worse.

It might come as a surprise to learn that those who perpetrate trauma on others can become traumatized by their own actions too. Some can, but not all. The ending of The Act of Killing (2012), a documentary on the violence carried out by Government-supporting criminal gangs in Indonesia is, according to its own publicity information, a surprise to people. The surprise is the effect that the violence carried out by the central character, Anwar Congo – a tough politically-sanctioned killer of ‘communists’ 40 years ago and a leading criminal gang member – has on him. It happens gradually throughout the documentary. At the start he is unrepentant but through telling the story of his atrocities things begin to change. Without realising it, he follows the classic path of someone suffering from the aftermath of trauma, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

A clue to his condition is found in the fact that he has traumatic dreams, or nightmares as we know them. The people he killed return in them. The dreams were repetitive, consistent and from I could see were very often the same dream of the same victim. He has another key diagnostic marker for PTSD in the form of intrusive waking imagery, or intrusive ideas. He cannot get the open eyes of a victim he murdered, brutally, out of his mind. He is, to put it plainly, a man haunted by his past.

At the start, his explains his curious decision to be interviewed for this documentary as a desire to let current and future generations of fellow Indonesians  – who seem to love him – know what a great gangster he was. He actually calls himself a gangster and is proud of this status. He continually refers in the movie to the word gangster coming from the English for ‘free man’, which it quite obviously doesn’t, but this is also an incorrect opinion which many of the political and paramilitary leaders also share. According to Wikipedia, the similarly sounding word ‘preman’, is Indonesian slang for a member of an organized gang, so this might be where the confusion comes from.

Whatever about Anwar Congo’s conscious reason for agreeing to be interviewed, we could argue that his unconscious is driving him to revisit the things he did in order to diffuse his anxiety and guilt, and quell his conscience by putting some frame of graspable meaning around them. But talking about his crimes isn’t enough and he decides very quickly not to tell the story but show the story in a crudely put together movie. Unconsciously, he has now shifted gear into another key marker of PTSD in deciding to restage and re-enact the traumatic events, even though he is unaware that this is what he is actually doing. 

Most offenders who have committed a crime that has caused massive trauma to their victims is a repetition of an earlier trauma they, the offender, had suffered. They display PTSD symptoms a result of the crime they go on to commit, and some of their crime bear uncanny similarities to what they went through in their early lives.  A safe example might be the movie American Sniper, particularly the scene at the children’s party where the Chris Kyle character played by Bradley Cooper attacks the pet dog because he believes it is a threat to the children. An immediate assumption would be that he is reliving the trauma of his wartime experiences due to PTSD. But the scene he has ‘chosen’ in which to re-enact has no overtly threatening, combat-zone triggers in it. The nearest comparison to this ‘family scene’ actually comes from an earlier scene in the movie where as a child his Bible quoting father is taking off his belt to administer a hard lesson about ‘defending’ one’s family and, by extension, one’s country.

This allows us broaden our understanding as to why trauma affects some people more than others. Its ultimate effect is due to a layering of traumas that culminate in an overwhelming of the person’s internal defences when major trauma occurs. Not all PTSD sufferers take it out on others. Looking at US combat personnel, a high risk group for PTSD and related depressive disorders, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs released a study in 2013 showing that suicides in the period from 1999 to 2010 were on average 22 veterans per day, or one every 65 minutes.

For the central character in The Act of Killing documentary, even though the re-enacting of his atrocities appears initially to have the desired effect, ultimately it doesn’t work. It is merely a repetition of the same narrative which, certainly in his attempt at making a movie of his gangster exploits, continues to clumsily glorify the grotesque nature of what he did. But he continues to find no meaning in it and he comes to no understanding of why it still haunts him. And it will remain that way until he gets help to put meaning – his own and nobody else’s – on what he did. He has been fundamentally affected to his very core by his own actions which he seemed to greatly enjoy once upon a time and maybe that’s why the ending is so impactful. In the scene where he shows the camera the place where he committed vile murders, he begins to spontaneously retch but does not actually vomit. Here we get to see his own body’s reaction to the trauma. It is trying to expel something bad from its very core but it can’t.

This is like Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, the character played by Marlon Brando in the Francis Ford Coppola movie Apocalypse Now. He is confronted with the horror of what he did in the name of military expediency. Like Kurtz, Anwar Congo also has to consider the horror of what he did. And as part of that process he has to consider the enjoyment he once derived from that horror. This crucial aspect of enjoyment, or the amount of pleasure derived, is the defining element that centrally implicates us in the very thing that constitutes horror. Once we enjoy, horror is no longer something outside of ourselves, something we can safely distance ourselves from.

Unfortunately, the same element so often works in reverse against victims of trauma. Sexual abusers in particular are experts at planting the idea in their victims’ minds that they (the victims) might have actually enjoyed what happened to them. And this is what constitutes the crucial differentiating point between a post-traumatic effect for victims that is either short-lived or one that can last indefinitely.

In Anwar Congo’s case, as the perpetrator, the question of pleasure takes on an equal but slightly different significance.  To kill for a belief or principle or an ideal is just about bearable but to kill for pleasure is beyond morality. It puts us outside the human bond and very often that is a place we feel there is no coming back from. It is no coincidence that the fictional character (based on a real life person, by all accounts) of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now is geographically situated in a place beyond civilization, in a primitive setting deep in the jungle somewhere on the Vietnam-Cambodia border. In fact, Kurtz actually says in one of his letters in the movie: “I am beyond morality. I am beyond caring.” And, like him, Anwar Congo, the so-called gangster ‘free man’ is obsessed with ‘the horror’ of what he has done. The ending of this documentary – and this is why it is so surprising – shows us this ‘free man’ who, even though he lives in a society where his actions were sanctioned and encouraged by those in power, and where he is still considered a hero to be feared and venerated, is anything but free. Instead he inhabits his own personal hell where he circles unendingly.

*This was a talk given at “Cinematic Encounters with Violent Trauma and Its Aftermath: A Public Screening and Discussion of The Act of Killing (2012)”, part of Trinity College Dublin’s TRAUMA Exhibition. The event was organised by The Irish Forum for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, in association with the Science Gallery Dublin’s TRAUMA Exhibition and Psychoanalysis +.