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Friday essay: Svetlana Alexeviech didn’t make it to the Royal Commission

A doll lies in the ghost town of Pripyat, abandoned since the nearby Chernobyl power plant suffered a catastrophic meltdown in 1986. Henrik Ismarker/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Friday essay: Svetlana Alexeviech didn’t make it to the Royal Commission

This is an edited version of a public lecture given at Melbourne University this week.


Just the other day I was sitting in my office here on campus waiting to chair some event I stupidly said yes to, eating a Portuguese tart out of a brown paper bag. I had ten minutes.

I picked up Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl (1997). Started reading the prologue. The prologue has a name: “A Solitary Human Voice”. I’d read it many times before, in Russian and in English, and I taught it too and I loved my students for being devastated by it, for not judging a six-months pregnant woman who touches the husband she is forbidden to touch, hugs him, holds him, kisses him, cuts his hair when clumps start falling out, a husband called to the Chernobyl nuclear reactor when the fire broke and who went as he was, in his short sleeves, and now is dying torturously, it’s a phantasmagoric death, in front of her, and I loved them for not thinking this woman is unethical or a child murderer or deranged by trauma or the victim of a system in which her husband’s life, and hers, and their already dead unborn child’s, are worth nothing. Somehow my students knew this woman’s, Lyusya’s, capacity for love and pity was incredible, too big to witness fully.

The prologue goes –

Someone is saying: ‘You have to understand: This is not your husband anymore, not a beloved person, but a radioactive object with a strong density of poisoning. You’re not suicidal. Get ahold of yourself.’ And I’m like someone who’s lost her mind: ‘But I love him! I love him!’ He’s sleeping, and I’m whispering: ‘I love you!’ Walking in the hospital courtyard, ‘I love you.’ Carrying his sanitary tray, ‘I love you.’

I was in my office with Portuguese crumbs all over my jeans while reading Alexievich. Several of my friends who discovered Alexievich post-Nobel (she got the NP last year) said this to me: “She is something else.” That evening a few days ago, she emptied out my office, in a minute, and refilled it with her air.

More –

None of the doctors knew I was staying with him at night in the bio-chamber. The nurses let me in. At first they pleaded with me: ‘You’re young. Why are you doing this? That’s not a person anymore, that’s a nuclear reactor. You’ll just burn together.’ … In the mornings, just before eight, when the doctors started their rounds, they’d be there on the other side of the film: ‘Run!’

Flowers lies in front of a memorial, dedicated to firefighters and workers who died from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, during a night service in the city of Slavutych, Ukraine. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

I was by the way in the Ukraine when Chernobyl happened. Eleven, clueless, but then the whole country was clueless. We’ll talk about clueless countries again tonight.

I’ve listened to and read most things I can find on Alexievich, every interview Alexievich has given, just about – in English and in Russian – including the one hosted by New York Public Library where Masha Gessen asked about her experience of “extreme fame”. “Oh, Masha, it’s terrible,” Alexievich said so very quickly.

And I haven’t been able to find an explanation of what happens in her books.

She says,

I compose my books out of thousands of voices, destinies, fragments of our life and being.

Alexievich’s people exist on the edge of what is tolerable. Each of their voices is a solitary human voice. And then they come together – Alexievich makes them – into a chorus. And it’s this chorus that is history. The kind of history you write after Chernobyl.

Music, at least in the West, has become the language for talking about the Alexievich method: voices, a choir, symphonic, polyphonic. I am not a musical person. Besides I don’t think taking a mystery and simply transposing it onto another domain, flooding it with another kind of language, is a way of getting close to it.

Of the method, we know Alexievich uses only a small proportion of actual transcripts and picks a hundred or so voices out of sometimes three or five hundred interviews, and of the hundred, ten to twenty will become “pillars”. Alexievich goes back and speaks to her pillars up to twenty times each. She describes it as having “conversations about life” with people, as distinct from conducting interviews, and she says “if the person is older, they are like an older sister or brother to me” and “if they are younger, they are like a younger sister or brother to me”.

Svetlana Alexievich. Margarita Kabakova

That still doesn’t begin to explain what happens on the page.

I think you know by now I don’t want to talk about music tonight.

For me, the idea of common humanity is linked inextricably to witnessing other people’s suffering. And it is unwitnessed human pain that I think of when trying to understand why this idea – common humanity – feels particularly, acutely fragile in today’s world. It is what Primo Levi described all those years ago. “The ever-repeated scene of the unlistened-to story.”

This is the bit I know. What I don’t know, what I believe is becoming harder to know, is what witnessing is.

I do know, I think, what it is not.

It is not taking someone’s pain and putting it in a box with your name or some organisation’s name on it and calling this box a book, or a report, or a recommendation, film script or thesis. It is not an act of taking, or of re-assembly, or of what Nicolas Rothwell has described, in relation to books of Aboriginal history written by non-indigenous historians, often with great intentions, as works of preservation that always get sucked into processes of cultural dispersion.

Primo Levi talked about the story being unlistened-to. But pain doesn’t fall out of most people in the form of a story; more often that kind of personal and shared history comes to us as, in the words of Eva Hoffman, “speech broken under the pressure of pain”. It comes to us as a certain kind of silence. Or as words, but words seemingly about something else. As a glimpse of a human body – the vehicle? the vessel? the temple? the damn prison? – twisting, contorting under the burden of suffering and secrecy.

It was Alexievich who made me ask whether witnessing was more like spending the night with the person in the bio-chamber. The night in which you burn together: this may sound almost obscenely romantic. Burning together! Bio-chamber without the protective gear! But this is what she does, isn’t it? And this thing she does has nothing to do with insisting that vicarious traumatisation is an ethical precondition to witnessing, and it cannot be summed up by Dominick LaCapra’s good term “empathic unsettlement”. It’s just, as my friends say, “something else”.

Until recently I thought taking someone else’s pain and putting it in a box and filling this box with people in wigs and special costumes and calling this box a Tribunal, or a Royal Commission, and giving the people in costumes expressions of sorrowful intensity and the tasks and the tools of naming previously unnamed things, and of bringing to justice those people who are as skilled at hiding in the shadows as they are at torturing other human beings – I’d thought this was one of the main kinds of witnessing available to us. Nuremberg. The Hague. South Africa. Justice. Truth. Criminal prosecution. Public validation of the truths of people’s broken lives. Spade being named a spade in a public square through a loudspeaker.

An Australian ‘survivor’ of sex abuse outside the Quirinale Hotel in Rome, Italy, 28 February 2016. He is wearing a shirt with an image of himself as a child printed on it. Australian Roman Catholic Cardinal George Pell was in Rome at the time to give evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse via video link. EPA/CLAUDIO PERI

All these things must continue, they must be done, but I wonder what price we may be paying for believing that’s pretty much all there is to witnessing. Or perhaps it’s never “we” who pay the price. It’s always those people who testify of their anguish into what might end up feeling like a black hole. Another echoey box with an empty centre.

I ask Nigel Denning and Linda Tilgner, “Have we outsourced the witnessing of child sexual abuse in Australia to the Royal Commission?” Nigel and Linda are psychologists. Nigel is here tonight. They work with survivors of institutional sex abuse. They are not surprised by my question. They say, “Yes, we have outsourced it.”

How does one witness the earth-shattering revelations and testimonies the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse has been eliciting and documenting?

Linda Tilgner says,

there is a perception that those proceedings in themselves have produced something. And they haven’t. Royal Commission – the danger is that people see it as the first and the last step. I think it is an absolutely essential first step. It focuses a large amount of energy, mobilises research, mobilises discussion, has the potential to lead to something very transformative.

Linda says,

There is a window of opportunity around the Royal Commission. If that window closes, it’s gone. The opportunity is to make some kind of meaningful change on a societal level. The danger is that the Royal Commission actually becomes a destructive process because it creates a false perception that we have done something when we haven’t.

Nigel Denning says,

Testifying at the Royal Commission … I can think of a few people who felt relieved, thank God, two years of my life have gone into writing my story. This is literally what people are doing – putting lives on hold for a year, or more, to write their childhoods. There’s relief in vocalising and for a week, two weeks, a month afterwards, they feel that relief but, by and large, there is a collapse back. There is no redress, no social support out there to perpetuate their witnessing. They’ve had that one experience and now they’re back to washing dishes.

“Is there a role for our society in all of this?” I ask.

Linda and Nigel answer in unison, “Totally.”

“What is that role?”

“Witnessing,” says Nigel. “It’s being there and being present. Saying it happened, it was wrong, and as a society we’re doing things for it to stop.”

Justice Jennifer Coates (right) looking on as Chair of Royal Commission into child sex abuse Justice Peter McClellan speaks during the first day of the Royal Commission into the Sexual Abuse of Children at the County Court in Melbourne. Les O'Rourke/AAP

The problem with “being there and being present” is not only us having to reckon with so many stories and lives, a total sickening epidemic, everywhere, whole networks of them supporting each other, covering up for each other – if only this was all we were faced with. It goes beyond that. We need to find a way of witnessing not just the crimes of individuals, the betrayal of institutions, the pain of these children now talking to us from their hurting adult bodies, it’s the betrayal of the whole society, a breaking of the fundamental social contract.

We – I’ve said “we” so many times already tonight; g-d knows I am not a friend of “we” and look at me now – is already a kind of a disaster. We, the social debt, community, the wider society … So easy for that “we” to become polemical, to become nothing. Worse, so easy for that “we” to dilute or dissolve altogether the essence of what is being called to attention. Susan Sontag’s injunction from decades back holds: “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.”

I want you to hear a solitary human voice tonight. I want this voice to talk to you directly about the Royal Commission. I thank profoundly the woman whose voice it is, who spoke to me, she too is “something else” but I will not reveal her name. She will, I hope, use her name for the telling that is hers and hers only. I’ve taken all the specific details out about what happened to her in one of those institutions. That part of the story is not mine to tell.

She says,

I chose to do a statement. My health wasn’t good. It was an almighty time for all of us. So hard to do everything – reliving a lot of things and being ill at the same time. I got a friend to drive me there. My psych. She has been with me for twenty years. I went into the room. There were six or seven people and a glass table. People taking notes.

I was trying to tell of a male officer who abused me. I couldn’t say what he did to me. All my life I have feared retribution. And someone in the room said, ‘The person you are talking about is dead.’ I felt the dead weight lift off me. I was able to talk.

It does something to the body, talking about it. I broke out in sweat. Put my head down. Didn’t touch the glass table. I was not going to leave fingerprints. I told them very clearly that no one should shake my hands. They kept their hands down respectfully. I wondered, if I am telling people something horrible, will they get sick?

Two hours of talking to them, maybe two and a half. Time disappeared. I felt like I told a story that could be turned into a horror movie. They didn’t me ask many questions. Just listened. You travel back, you go back to all the horrible stuff, you re-experience it. My kids didn’t even know.

I came out and the first thing I said to my friend, ‘How did I sound? Did I sound all right?’ Straight away I had no memory about what happened in the room. She said, ‘You did really, really well.’ When I came out I had to sleep. It’s the fear thing. I’ve reached an overload.

When I left that room I walked out with the burden. There isn’t a band-aid big enough to fix abuse. Therapy shifted it to another part, but it’s still inside of me.

Not once in my life did anyone come up to me and say, ‘What’s wrong?’ I always had to scream out.

My children, when I finally told them, had great fear that I would get sick again. I worked hard to be well. I am a government child. I am a government adult. How dare they do it to me? How do I get over it?

I don’t look at monetary things. I just want the respect. The government owes me peace. I don’t want to sign any papers anymore. I just don’t want the government to come anywhere near me ever again. They don’t own any rights to me. They blew their rights when I was ten years old.

I put myself out there. My name is out there. Why aren’t we hearing any more about the Royal Commission? It has served no purpose to many women I know who testified. We have been re-traumatised. We have no result. There is no one to reassure us that it will continue. They will run out of money.

If someone would come to me and say, ‘I am really sorry. I want to take away what you experienced. Let me take the burden off your shoulders. I want to take it away from you,’ it would be amazing. You know, just amazing.

The Commission is still happening, is it? Everything’s taking so long.

How does a society witness itself? Witness itself failing at its most fundamental duty?

When this feels like an impossible task, I read Alexievich. The “we” Alexievich speaks to in her books doesn’t exist, it is created by her address, by the space she makes for the solitary human voice to speak, and be heard, anew.

I was having a chat to my friend Melinda Harvey (Melinda’s here, tonight) about this lecture, I was feeling rather anxious about it, and I said, “Why am I talking about Alexievich in trying to talk about the Royal Commission?” And my smart friend said, “Partially, it’s because institutional sexual abuse is like radiation poisoning.”

And of course it is like radiation poisoning, omnipresent and invisible. It stays in people’s lives like radiation stays in the soil for thousands of years. It stays in families and physical places. It kills people. It makes people sick for generations to come. It is that future that is already here. No colour. No smell. Nothing to tell us it’s here.

I think a lot about invisibility. When I am walking streets of Melbourne, I cannot stop myself from imagining abused children hiding in adult bodies. Could witnessing call on us to make invisible suffering visible?

Former head of the central Queensland diocese of Rockhampton Brian Heenan (right) and Francis Sullivan from the Catholic Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council, leave after giving evidence at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse public hearing in Rockhampton, Friday, April 17, 2015. Miranda Forster/AAP

“There is no social movement,” Nigel Denning says to me, “around systemic child sexual abuse. We are so far off as a society in acknowledging the systemic perpetration.” He says, “It’s almost a public shaming of institutions that’s needed. Like holding a mirror to an institution to say this is what you have done. This is the result of your strategies, your management.”

“But then,” says Linda Tilgner, “if you think about society as a series of systems, or a series of institutions, everything is a form of an institution. Educational institutions. Family is a type of an institution. Workplace. In a sense, it’s like a series of boxes on boxes on boxes.”

Remember Lyusya’s husband, the “human nuclear reactor”, from Voices from Chernobyl? He was buried barefoot – no shoes would fit him – in his formal wear. They took his body and put it in a cellophane bag and tied the bag up. They put the bag with the body in it in a wooden coffin. They tied the coffin with another plastic bag. The plastic bag was “thick like a tablecloth”. Then they put the wooden coffin wrapped in the plastic bag into a zinc coffin. How many boxes does one dead man need?

Some years ago I interviewed psychiatrist Paul Valent and he said,

Some people call child sexual abuse ‘soul murder’. It is a real destruction of a person’s value and dignity … Generationally too … It interferes with love. It is the opposite of loving.

He told me that of all the traumatised populations he had come across in his work, child survivors of sexual abuse, at least some of them, were more traumatised than any other group. Paul Valent is a child survivor of the Holocaust.

The Royal Commission is flawed, disappointing, necessary, vital, too institutional, too diffuse, a massive improvement on everything else, a let-down, a revolution, but it will not matter in the end if we continue relying on it to do the work of public reckoning with the history of systemic sexual abuse of children in this country. Our work.

The Royal Commission has inspired one of the best episodes of Rake, Season 3. In which criminal barrister Cleaver Green, played by Richard Roxburgh, is just out of jail, but still in disgrace, desperate for the shittiest gigs going, he’s practically begging drink-driving offenders to let him represent them, when all of a sudden he has three Royal Commissions to be at in one day because Sydney has run out of lawyers and even Cleaver can now get a Royal Commission gig. Yes, three Royal Commissions in one day: a Royal Commission into institutional child sex abuse, plus one into government corruption, plus another called the Orphanos Royal Commission, investigating unlawful stock market trading.

Three in one afternoon – it cannot be done, smart people tell Cleaver. Yes, it can, he says. He runs between these Royal Commissions like a madman. And his best friend Barney, he’s a solicitor, runs between them too – except Barney is sick as buggery having just finished the latest course of chemo – and in all that slapsticky, desperate running, Cleaver pushes a pram down some steps in a scene that references slyly the Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin.

The Rake baby survives, please be assured. And Cleaver makes it, just.

It’s inspired comedy. Unbelievably good. This may seem frivolous; except I am convinced it’s not. Laughing and crying at the same time. Talking about it as part of our lives, not as something completely separate. Not as something over there. It is over here. Right in the centre. Where the heart is. Where our culture is. We are running to it. We are running away from it. It’s impossible to get there. We’ll get there somehow. What choice do we have?



An expanded version of this lecture was originally given on Wednesday September 7 as part of the series The Wednesday Lectures, held at the University of Melbourne.