The last few months have been harrowing. I've been working too hard and this, combined with barely having had a day off since Easter and training for the Bridge to Brisbane, meant that my body made an executive decision for me. While delivering my first ever lecture at uni, I fainted in front of 180 students.
Ironically, the lecture was on trauma and narrative in conjunction with Louise Doughty's Whatever you Love. I was speaking on muscle memory and how the body acts out trauma that it can't consciously articulate. As a fellow tutor said appreciatively, 'Jessica, not only did you deliver a lecture on trauma, you enacted it!'
It wasn't all bad as, when I came to, I found a very nice-looking student holding my hand. I managed to get up and the course convener fetched me a seat. To the students I joked, 'There's nothing like a bit of drama to keep you all awake!' and kept on going, though a number of them told me afterwards they were quite concerned. Or traumatised, rather. However, as a cousin pointed out (amidst a myriad of jokes on Jane Austen and swooning), I wouldn't be a White if there wasn't any drama, and least they will never forget that lecture.
Soon it transpired that I had a flu virus that confined me to the house for more than a week of enforced rest and utter boredom. A few days after toppling, I dragged my carcass into Avid Reader (J1 very kindly dropped me off after stopping by for a cup of tea) to listen to an interview between Radio National's Paul Barclay and Nigel Brennan, Nicole Bonney and Kellie Brennan, authors of The Price of Life. Nigel was an Old Boy of the school at which my parents work, and gave a talk at the valedictory speech day last year. I remembered his name when Avid sent me an invite and decided to go along.
I had to get there early so I could get a seat near the front to hear. I sat very still to conserve energy, got bored, and watched Paul Barclay, who was restless, and the sound technician fiddling with his wires. When Nigel came in there was an immediate energy in the air. He looked like the quintessential tanned Aussie with a white Bonds t-shirt and dark blue jeans. His sister, Nicole Bonney, wore an orange and red kaftan with ruffles, and his sister-in-law, Kellie Brennan, had on cute leopard print ballet flats. They were like the country people I had grown up among, but when they began to speak, the story that unfolded was completely removed from picnic races with champagne or CWA meetings on recipe books.
In 2008, Nigel, a photojournalist, travelled into Somalia with Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout to document the Somalian refugee camps. They had been intending to stay no longer than 10 days due to the country's instability. Instead, they were captured by a gang and held for ransom, and finally got out after the heroic efforts of their families some 462 days later, following beatings, psychological torture, solitary confinement and, for Amanda, sexual assault.
The theme that resonated the most through the book was communication. Nicole and Kellie, two tough country women, battled for months with unhinged and morally dubious Africans with poor English, trying to make it clear that the family didn't have the amount of money they were asking for, and that not every Westerner was automatically wealthy. The Australian government initially came on board to try and get Nigel out, but wouldn't offer the hostage-takers more than a certain amount because this would be seen as setting a precedent for the bailing-out of future hostages. This was fair enough (and was more proactive than the Canadian government, which largely sat on its hands), but it was never made clear to the family that this was their tactic. Nicky and Kellie said in the interview that had they known this was government policy, they would have done something of their own accord sooner, particularly as incidents occured such as Nigel calling home and getting an answering machine because the Australian Federal Police weren't manning the phones 24-7 as expected.
Nigel and Amanda converted to Islam to aid their survival. When they managed to escape, they sprinted for a mosque, where they couldn't be harmed because they were Islamic. Their captors caught up with them and, after the shots of AK47s, dragged them out. The most heartbreaking part of this scene was that in the mosque Amanda was able to communicate, using sign language, to an old woman in a niqab that she was being raped. The woman began to cry. Even though she and Amanda didn't share the same language, there was an unspoken understanding of what Amanda was suffering.
When it became clear to the Australian government that their involvement was becoming too costly, they gradually extricated themselves from the situation, but covered their tracks with bureaucratic language such as that noted by Nicky: 'we have to look at where we are in regards to negotiator strategies with other government agencies' (121). The distancing effect of obscure language is one I've encountered often in academia, and I could understand her frustration. Eventually the family turned to a private agency who got the Nigel and Amanda out in a matter of months, but not before the family members were mortgaged to the hilt and were disintegrating from stress. Dick Smith also offered financial aid, and Bob Brown took out a personal loan and offered that as well. As Nigel noted in the interview, regardless of what one might think of Brown's policies, it's clear he is a good man.
I read the book almost in one sitting as, being ill, I allowed myself the rare luxury of lying in bed in the morning reading, and the story was gripping. When I reached the end, I was struck Nigel's psychological strength, which reminded me of Primo Levy's as he struggled to survive in Auschwitz. In his autobiography, If This is a Man, Levy wrote:
'Nothing belongs to us anymore; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find in ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains' (21).
Nigel struggled to do this — to hold onto his sense of himself — through writing. When his pens died he became very distressed, and when he was kept in solitary confinement he committed his diary to memory. I asked, in the Q&A afterwards, if it had been difficult for him to get his story down once he had returned home, because often for those who had suffered trauma there are simply no words to articulate what has happened. Nigel replied that the writing process had been quite therapeutic, and that I can understand – even Chaucer was writing about this The Book of the Duchess in the 14th Century, where his narrator wrote down a dream of lost love to alleviate his insomnia.
There are also some beautiful moments in Nigel's text which spring from scenes of intense deprivation. There is the shock of touch during a haircut after months of skin hunger, the deliciousness of fresh greens, and the iridescent colours of a gecko's head. Nigel, with Amanda's encouragement, focussed on that which was beautiful in an ugly situation, in order to keep going. There was also, of course, the family's dark humour that helped them through it, and which was evident in the interview they gave at Avid Reader.
As I staggered home on the bus after that interview, my pathetic body weak with the adrenalin that had coursed through it while listening to the interview, I figured that, even if I was overworked and as sick as a dog and had failed abysmally in my first attempt at an illustrious academic career, I had very little to complain about in the light of Nigel and Amanda's ordeal. If you ever need testimony of the courage and ingenuity of the human spirit in its fight to survive, and of the endurance that love fosters, I urge you to read The Price of Life.
As for me, I had lost too much fitness to compete in the Bridge to Brisbane, so I've decided to drag myself up a bloody great hill (Mt Coot-tha) for Movember. I think a post on the hirsute will be in order.