The setting is gorgeous – a large ancient amphitheatre in Siracusa, Sicily, set back from the sea by just a line of poplars, the sun is going down, and the large sandy stage is prepared for the unfolding of a most terrible drama. I do not need to understand the words of Seneca’s Medea to feel the power of the breathtaking performances, especially the physicality of Medea’s madness. Medea has been spurned by her husband Jason, who has married another wife, and in seeking her revenge for this tyranny Medea murders their two young sons.
I want to be quite clear that I in no way condone such extreme actions, but I neither can I dismiss them. As in all Greek tragedies, the tale holds a truth for us in modern times, which I want to try and unpack a little. I think there is something more commonplace and recognisable in this story. To try to make sense of this I am going to cast Medea in a better light than her actions deserve – unlike Seneca who spares his protagonist no mercy.
The reason for my visit to Siracusa last week was to teach relational and family trauma at the summer school of the Kairos Gestalt Institute, picking up on the themes of betrayal, vengeance, tyranny, and uncontrolled passions represented in Greek tragedies. Whilst there I was interviewed by Italian national television station RAI. One question they asked was about the difference between madness and losing one’s reason, as Medea did. I’m not sure how well I succeeded, but I intended to explain organic illness, in contrast to the response to external events that caused Medea to lose her mind (which can be partly explained as a neurobiological process).
We can see features of relational trauma in Medea’s abandonment, and nowhere is anyone sympathetic to her situation, helping to contain her passion. In her tormented instinct to punish the man who has wounded her so grievously she seeks to regain control of her life. One way of understanding Medea is as a woman rebelling against the subjugation to her husband that has defined her life. Many mothers have moments of resentment, if not of hatred, of their children, and the constraints they place upon her life. This hatred is not the opposite of love, but goes hand in hand with it. In spirit rather than through her actions, she is also a symbol of an empowered woman.
Medea has conformed to the traditional gendered role of many women, in a society which is fundamentally misogynistic. See how sympathetically Seneca casts Jason as the victim of a woman intrinsically ‘evil’. A classic twist of victim-blaming if ever there was one, which we see replayed in stories of abuse and power. But Medea will be put down no longer. In her determination to wreak her revenge she refuses to be a victim. In my experience as a therapist, the more victims are silenced the greater their rage.
Time and again, I hear examples of children being used as pawns to fulfil their parents’ desires or to deal with their frustrations, expectations and unmet needs. Coupled with a mother’s self-absorption, anxiety or depression (often entirely understandable) the effects of these dynamics can represent the psychological killing of the child’s spirit, their authentic self and their capacity for autonomy. The essence of Medea’s story remains unchanged across the centuries. To the extent that elements of this are pretty much ubiquitous, we must dispel the myth of the perfect mother.
As I think so often happens with trauma, inner and outer worlds are mirrors of one another. One way of looking at the whole story of Medea is as a representation of our internal ‘selves’. The chorus is the running commentary that we play throughout our lives, judgemental yet passive; the moments of vengeance represent the fleeting secret passions and fantasies we harbour and speak of only in confidence; the all too familiar inner chaos. Uncomfortably, we cannot deny them for they are part of what it is to be human. The children represent both loss of innocence and of potential, the ‘death’ of growth and of hope.
I don’t want to imply that if relational trauma is something inherent in human nature there is nothing we can do about it. I was talking recently to my friend and colleague Emily Skye (@eskyepoet) who invited me to contribute some thoughts on trauma to her blog (recoveringoursexemilyskyepoet.wordpress.com). We agreed that one ‘solution’ to trauma lies in acknowledging our own darker instincts rather than in putting them ‘out there’ in people we can choose to blame, and another is to stay in dialogue, open to the pain of individuals, to put ourselves on the line and suffer with them. I also expressed the opinion that while we need to do everything in our power to change attitudes, it will take a very long time to put a stop to the enduring and complex problems of abuse. These themes are centuries old and thoroughly contemporary.
I cannot pretend to know the answers to these difficult questions. To deny their complexity is to lose touch with reality. I sit uncomfortably with these issues daily, agonise over them at times. While it is no small undertaking to change the social fabric, it is far easier to help individuals recover their vitality and be true to themselves, perhaps something will ripple outwards, perhaps some small cycles will come to an end.
Fortunately, there is much that we can do, and I will leave some of those thoughts for future blogs.