The unspeakable trauma and obsession with the truth



During the interviews we collected, we were struck by a specific way of telling one's story: whether some aspects of the migratory journey - such as dates, places, routes - are narrated with highly detailed precision, others are entirely subtracted from the story. Frequently, in the words of the people interviewed, the expression “what can I tell” occurs, as if to indicate something unspoken that it is not possible to communicate. Inside this expression, there is much more hidden than it seems at first glance and this recurrence, together with those painful silences, led us to turn to the Franz Fanon center for a training workshop on traumatic memories.


“As I told you my story is a very sad and very ... long story but… As we say, the most important things are… that's what we can tell. So the rest doesn't matter, because life goes on and we have to go on too. [...] I spent a year on the road, I had some difficulties, of prison, of aggression, of suffering ... But I have always believed in what I want because life is like this: you must always believe. Since I entered Libya I have been imprisoned for two months then there is a person, a man, who helped me, gave me the opportunity to cross the Mediterranean. Then I had an accident from there because we did a week on the water. We were 130 people. 104 dead, 26 alive. I was one of them, one of those who survived ... Then ... for what since I arrived here I made the decision to forget all the suffering to go on but it is difficult because when you go through some difficulties, sometimes it is normal that your thoughts come especially when you are alone, you have no one next to you ... So very complicated, it seems to me that it is something that is difficult to forget [...] "

(Diaoune Muhamad, 1999. Arrived in Italy in 2016)


Each path of a life lived by asylum seekers brings with it traumatic memories of the violence suffered. The experiences that determine the structuring of these memories (and as many repressed) can be various: the departure from the country of origin, the journey undertaken, the sense of the precariousness of one's existence, the torture, the suffering that is not alleviated even in the landing country, due to the bureaucracy linked to obtaining asylum.


From the psychotherapeutic experience of the Fanon center we have learned that the narration of one's own migration experience can in some cases be a therapeutic form of overcoming pain; however, the act of telling - in a precise and detailed way - is also the main evidence required by the institutions. In fact, to obtain international protection it is inevitable to testify one's own experience in the face of the asymmetry of power of the judicial institutions. It is subjected to the scrutiny of a commission in order to certify its truth since, according to international regulations, only those who can certify their history of violence have the right to documents. To be considered "true", the narrative capital of one's story must meet criteria of reliability, consistency, and plausibility, and sometimes the request to "provide tangible evidence" of the violence suffered, goes so far as to show physical signs on the body, which can support the incontrovertible reality of the story being told.


As expected, this demand for truth by the authorities collides in a disastrous way with the traumatic memories these people carry. Preparation for the hearing with the judging commission subjects asylum seekers to the forced experience of reliving their memories, generating at least stress, forms of anxiety, and other kinds of psychophysical manifestations of uneasiness. Trauma, by its definition, manifests itself through memories of the lived experience that have blurred outlines, similar in some ways to a dream. For the person who has experienced the trauma, memories are as if "damaged" by violence, therefore it is not so easy to define precisely the events, which often remain shrouded in doubt and crossed by questions such as: "What really happened to me do I remember?”, or even “Did what I remember really happen?”. In our experience, the trauma suffered emerged through that expression, "what can I tell", which embodies all the unspeakably of one's own experience, as if to indicate what seems to me to have happened and what I can express with words.


For this reason, the ethical approach in the collection of traumatic memories should be driven by great caution, eventually accepting all the discrepancies and incoherences of a narrative steeped in suffering, to avoid the involuntary reproduction of the same dialogical schemes of court hearings. The different contexts in which those people land should take into consideration the psychological consequences and the potential damages that the institutions responsible for judging asylum applications with their circumstantial approach have in the process of obtaining international protection documents.



This article was written by Lapsus.

Photos by Leander Ryan Bernard Rego and Paola Barretta.