Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 14, 2021

Trauma, Essays on Art and Mental Health (2021), edited by Sam Mills and Thom Cuell

Trauma is an anthology of thirty-two essays by contemporary writers, sharing with remarkable frankness their experience of mental illness caused by, and sometimes causing trauma.  Some of the writers have experienced physical, sexual and emotional abuse; others have lived with drug and/or alcohol addiction.  Their illnesses have been diagnosed (and sometimes misdiagnosed) as depression; schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, gender dysphoria and insomnia.  All of them are survivors, and art of one kind or another has been intrinsic to their sense of having a future.

The book is not one that can be read in a sustained way.  I’ve read it over successive afternoons, just one or sometimes two essays at a time.  It takes time to reflect on, and absorb the story that the contributors have to tell.  Some stand out more than others: I mentioned ‘We Awful, Awful’ by Ian Boutlon in my review of The Morbids because it had such an impact on me.  It made me admire the self-mastery of people who suffer this debilitating condition by developing powerful coping strategies.

Avoid the words, he said.  And repetition.  No Philip Glass.  No Terry Riley.  Earworms lie in wait under all harmony.  Oddly, the more mad-sounding the music, the harder it is for it to attack you when you break.  So embrace discord.  Stockhausen.  Soft Machine.  There’s nothing your head can do to make them sound worse. (p.153)

Momina Masood in ‘We Still Went to the Movies’ writes about the importance of going to the cinema as a distraction and healing—and how this became a covert activity when religious extremists took over in Pakistan.  Going to the movies became something more than seeking entertainment because it was considered un-Islamic and cinemas were often summarily shut down or burnt and destroyed.

[General] Zia had banned all types of collectivisation.  Cinema was the only space where you could be part of a public, without it being a jalsa (protest rally) or a janaza (funeral.) (p.236)

Rowena Macdonald’s essay is a brilliant piece using format to make a powerful point.  In the left hand column the reader sees the anxiety and panic; in the right hand column we see the facade of ‘reality.’

Startle awake heart pounding butterflies            butterflies
butterflies in chest bitter
tension in pit of stomach
butterflies is it starting
again? butterflies is it? is it?
butterflies butterflies oh god
please let it not why am I
feeling this?
5 a.m. She wakes up in bed
next to her boyfriend.  Her
daughter sleeps in a bunk
bed in the same room. The
room is well-proportioned,
high ceilinged and airy
with red velvet curtains and
vintage furniture

She does not look out of place on the tube; she puts in a day at the office.  Is the boss who asks her at the end of the day going to offer support?  or not?

‘Sleep No More’ by Rhiannon L. Cossiett, is about dream therapy, and the possibilities of transforming the nightmares of PTSD.  By writing out nightmares as a narrative, and then editing it to amend the horrific outcome, a new revised dream scenario is then conjured on a daily basis.  This can be successful, for some people.

‘Landing in Poland’ by Tom Tomaszewski is a complex analysis of a dysfunctional father-son relationship.  The father, a dissident in Nazi-occupied Poland who narrowly escaped capture, is convicted of violence and sexual assault against his niece.  She is the daughter of his own sister, who denounced his other sister to the Nazis, which led to her death in Auschwitz.  This father is brought to justice, the collaborator never was.  The son finds it impossible to come to terms with any of it:

None of these scenes ever added up to a story.  Every time I tried to create one it evaporated like the sense of father-and-son […] There was no feeling of a single mind capable of holding onto everything without it potentially being driven crazy. (p.299)

Jude Cook, in ‘Thanks, I’ll Take the Chair’ writes about the value of therapy, but concludes with the importance of art as well.

Therapy was wholly necessary.  I might not be here without it.  But art was essential for dealing with trauma too.  Its alchemy of chaos — its redemption of lost time — its creation of something beautiful where before there was only ugliness, violation and pain, made it eternally valid, whether it reached an audience or not.  (p.315)

Reading ‘Unravelling the Self’ was difficult, because I know the author Joseph Schreiber personally.  We met in Melbourne some years ago, and have recently discovered the pleasure of regular chats with Zoom.  (It took a pandemic to make us realise we could do this!)  I knew a little of Joe’s journey through life, but his essay opens a new level of intimacy.  I can’t help but admire his courage in writing about such difficult things:

Mental illness warps and distorts one self conception.  Prone to periodic ups and downs all my life, I was inclined to own my inconsistencies of mood, taking blame and assuming control when in reality I was riding a wave I could not see for being immersed in it.  Having a diagnosis makes it no easier to actually recognise from within a tunnel of darkness or expanse of light that it is not actually you, but the illness at play.  Ever the frog in the boiling water. [p.321)


Do we ever know who we really are?  What does a diagnosis truly hold?  How much does it form your identity, become something to cling to, define and explain the strange and uneven way your life has unfolded? (p.324)

Reading ‘The Art of Lost Sleep’ by Venetia Welby was risky for me, because like the author, I’m a Recovering Insomniac, and like tinnitus, insomnia recurs if you spend time thinking and talking about it.  But I have to share this paragraph because she conveys exactly my exasperation with people who think there’s some kind of virtue in being able to fall asleep at will:

It’s one of those things that’s quite hard, I think, to explain to those who can sleep.  It’s a fundamental animal thing to do.  The idea that you yourself are responsible is pervasive: if you could just get out of your own way.  Lavender oil, mindfulness, a bedtime ritual.  In the same way that some people think they understand clinical depression because they’ve felt down for a time and managed to snap out of it, so people who’ve had a bad night or two, experienced jet lag or stayed up all night partying think the deleterious effects they feel must be the same, just scaled down. But the complete unravelling of body and soul and the identity crisis that real insomnia entails exists in a different dimension. (p.365)

These essays form an excellent collection, ideal for expanding the general reader’s understanding of mental illness beyond the superficial coverage usually seen in the media.

The book is also reviewed at Never Imitate, where Jackie Law discusses essays different to the ones I’ve chosen.

Highly recommended.

Editors: Sam Mills and Thom Cuell
Title: Trauma, Essays on Art and Mental Health
Artwork by Christina Spens; design by Any Soameson
Publisher: Dodo Ink, 2021
ISBN: 9780993575877
Source: Personal library, purchased from The Book Depository $27.70


  1. Thank you for the generous coverage of this collection and your kind words about my contribution. Talk to you soon. :)


  2. I love the sound of the “art” aspect of this Lisa. Sounds really interesting. And lovely to see Joe included.


    • I think you would find this book as valuable as I did, and it would suit your reading practice at the moment because you can read it spasmodically as time allows.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Sounds both informative and particularly pertinent just at this difficult time. Thanks for posting.


    • Thanks, and thanks for the reblog, the more publicity this book gets the better, I think.


  4. I am tempted, but not just yet. I need to feel a bit more secure in the world first. I am glad, though, to see that others have been courageous enough to write about their mental health issues.


  5. […] facets of trauma, art, and mental health. I plan to write a full review soon, but in the meantime, Lisa at ANZ LitLovers wrote a good […]


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