Category Archives: 23.10. non-fiction

Aftershock: The Untold Story of Surviving Peace: Matthew Green

4pm
Portobello Books Ltd, £16.59

There was a respectful hush in the room. An image of a soldier handling a mortar shell on the screen gave a hint of what was to come. Stuart Kelly began the session by confessing that he didn’t enjoy Aftershock. He found it difficult, harrowing and humbling and said that if it achieves one thing, it should effect political change.

Matthew began with a 90 second video. Technical glitches ruined the effect, but already the hairs on the back of my neck were beginning to stand on end.

There are two things, explained Matthew, which prevent discussion about this difficult subject of ex-soldiers re-adjusting to civilian life when they return home from war. One is the stigma of mental health problems and the other is our reluctance to talk about them.

To research the book Matthew embedded himself with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those who came forward wanted to be helped and to help others to heal by sharing their stories.
Features of PTSD are inability to control anger, anxiety and panic attacks. Small triggers in everyday situations can cause flashbacks which the person believes to be real. Memories play out again and again in the person’s mind. This is a complex subject which is explored further in the book. Many ex-soldiers seek comfort in alcohol or drugs to numb their pain. However, health authorities are reluctant to treat them until they are free of their addiction.

Matthew told us a harrowing story of a fit young man of 22 who came back from Afghanistan after witnessing his friend being killed. The council gave him a house which had been occupied by an old man and fitted with ramps and rails. The young man killed himself seven months after moving into the house. Adequate housing is usually only provided after much lobbying by the ex-soldiers’ families.

Despite this, says Matthew, Scotland is on the whole better at providing help for PTSD sufferers than England. NHS Tayside is developing a fascinating new therapy where the patient is asked to choose a powerful animal as a companion to help them deal with difficult situations. But simple talking therapy doesn’t help. These soldiers are a danger to themselves and others. One traumatised young man tried to cut off his own hand.

There was a question from the floor about whether ex-soldiers were more likely to commit crime. The answer was that there is a relationship between serving in combat and committing an offence, but what is shocking is that no figures exist to show exactly how many ex-soldiers are in prison.

What legacy did Matthew want the book to leave? He wants to paint an accurate picture of the suffering. He sees it as a manifesto – our current system for helping victims of post-war trauma is not fit for purpose. He hopes it will kick-start conversations and be a catalyst for change.

Why do some suffer and others not? Soldiers who have had trauma in the past are more likely to suffer PTSD. Matthew believes that the Government uses past trauma as an excuse, where actually they have a greater duty of care to these men.

Stuart closed the session by suggesting that Matthew sends a copy of the book to MPs to start conversations about this very difficult and complex subject.

Joanne Morley-Hill

Do it like a Woman: Caroline Criado-Perez

Friday 2 pm

Speaking to a predominantly gendered audience (one man for every fifteen women or so), Caroline opens rather controversially by stating that she has been an “anti-feminist longer than a feminist,” believing women to be “useless underachievers.” Fighting with the screeching microphone, she decides to “go natural” as Zoe Venditozzi (who chaired the event) puts it. “I bet a man designed that” retorts Caroline much to the amusement of the audience. Carrying on with talking about her previous anti-feminist beliefs, she tells us that she was first challenged by Deborah Cameron’s novel: Feminism and Linguistic Theory. Studying English Literature at the time, it was Cameron’s focus on grammar which fascinated her. Thinking about how language shapes our world, Caroline was struck by Cameron’s discussion on grammar as being gendered. Now, this was an idea she was not unfamiliar with, the default pronoun always being male e.g. mankind and he, but what struck a chord with Caroline were the studies mentioned, which showed that when people heard this default ‘he’ or ‘mankind’, they pictured men. It was then that Caroline started looking into feminism and how women were represented.

The next section of the presentation involves Caroline reciting statistics which highlight the underrepresentation of women in society. One mentioned is that women in Hollywood films make up 28% of all speaking roles and 17% of all crowd scenes. “Why is it that the stories we tell ourselves shouldn’t be gender equal?” Caroline asks us. But she doesn’t just throw these statistics at us to shame without reason, she evaluates these results and looks into the theory behind them. She tells us that in a study of mixed gender groups composed of 17% female and 83% male, the male participants perceived the ratio as 50/50. It is studies like this which have highlighted why sexism is still very much apparent in society if 17/83 is regarded by males as gender equal.

It is reasons like this, Caroline tells us, that she was so anti-feminist in the past since she “never saw women in any position of power [she] felt like she could not achieve anything without pretending to be a man.”
She then talks about stereotype threats and role models, explaining that in another survey, it was shown that women who were made to tick a box stating that they were female before sitting a mathematics test statistically did worse. Another, showed that women who gave speeches in rooms with portraits of powerful women (e.g. Angela Merkel), were judged better by themselves and the audience, highlighting the self-belief evident in their gender. Looking at marketing, male is again set to default as Walmart advertises ‘Deodorant and Female Deodorant.’ Similarly, BIC pens were thought to be gender neutral until the female version was released, a new hot pink colour being the only difference. (It is at this time that I look down to my hand, holding a similarly pink ballpoint and horror floods me until I realise that I stole this pen from my boyfriend several days ago.) Yes, this marketing, while infuriating, does seem relatively harmless on the scale of sexism – at least until Caroline later comments on the symptoms for heart attacks. Pain in the left chest and shooting pain down the left arm, right? Yes, something we all know from television dramas and health warnings to look out for and beware of. However, Caroline tells us, shockingly, that these are the male symptoms and countless women have been misdiagnosed, their symptoms appearing as heart burn and indigestion. This is another example of men as default, but in this case it can result, horrifically, in female death.

Ending her presentation with the story of Sheryl Sandberg’s pregnancy at Google, Caroline told us how the walk from the car park became too strenuous for Sheryl in her condition, and so she asked for a car park closer to the building for pregnant women. The idea was instantly taken up by head office, who had never thought of it and Sandberg confessed it had never occurred to her before she was pregnant. In telling this story, Caroline ended her presentation, not with hate towards or shaming of sexism, but an understanding of it. She understands that it’s hard to see the world from another perspective, which is often learned only from experience.

Kate McAuliffe