Breaking the Silence of Invisible Wounds: A Conversation with Joanne Braxton

May 31, 2016 - Boston, MA

"What I’m thinking about right now is moral injury and invisible wounds - and the way we have been taught to bear our invisible wounds in silence. I’m thinking about how narrative testimony and breaking the silence can be a pathway to healing, especially for people who have experienced invisible wounding."

What Joanne Braxton, Ph.D, thinks about and teaches, in her life-writing classes, in her scholarship, and in her ministry, is not didactic, but experiential. A poet, writer, minister and playwright who has taught and published in academia for decades, Joanne does not limit the words and explorations of herself or her students to just art, just healing, or just politics, and certainly not just literary criticism or theory. 

“Aesthetics does matter,” says Joanne, but it is part of a nexus. “In the tradition of the African American experience, spirituality and aesthetics are closely intertwined. It’s a nexus of the philosophical, the political, the aesthetic and the spiritual. Words have power. It’s not just about uncovering wounds, but if you do autobiographical spiritual writing without uncovering some wounds, you probably still have more work to do.” 

“In the beginning of writing about their lives,” Joanne says, “most people don’t necessarily know where the injury is or the wound is. First they have to develop mind/body confidence and trust that they’re in a safe space. That space has to be constructed by the workshop teacher or leader who establishes guidelines and then holds the space effectively. Trustworthy space enables people to do the work while they find their way through close reading and a kind of call and response engagement with model texts and with other writers in the room. When you have created a safe workshop place, which I learned how to do from my teachers Grace Paley, Billy Finley and Lee Worley, the participants sense that and they cautiously begin to take ownership of the space and venture meaningful aesthetic risks.” 

Joanne was an early advocate for recovering the overlooked narratives of black women and including these narratives into the critical discussion of African American autobiography, which she addressed in her book, Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition Within a Tradition. “It was enormously difficult for black women to have their life stories published, especially in the 18th and 19th century,” says Joanne. “Harriet Jacobs struggled mightily to have her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1861) published. She had an even harder time having her voice recognized, because she could only get published using a pseudonym, due to the boldness of her truth-telling about the system of slavery, which forced thousands if not millions of black women into concubinage."

Just honoring the perspective of one’s own point of view can lead to controversy for marginalized writers. As a gender nonconforming African American woman and the mother of a bi-racial child, Joanne says that one of the ways she has survived is by continuing to write and speak. “In many cases, black women are still writing to save our own lives, as we ourselves know them and to increase our visibility. Other people are still trying to tell us who we are. In current events, you have Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi, the three women who started the Black Lives Matter movement, but you rarely hear who they are or that black women started this movement and many other life-saving movements before. It’s very important that folks don’t get their back up when they hear “Black Lives Matter,” because saying Black Lives Matter is a necessary thing in a society where not everyone knows that black lives matter. Saying Black Lives Matter is a way of saying that the people who are the least valued in this society matter. And with that you bring forth the mattering of humanity everywhere.” 

“Jonathan Shay coined the phrase Moral Injury and Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini developed it further in their book Soul Repair: Recovering From Moral Injury After War. As president of the Braxton Institute, I’m proud to be in partnership with the Soul Repair Center and to have had the opportunity to collaborate with helpers and healers working to bring our veterans all the way home using the techniques of narrative medicine. Beyond that, I’m seeking modes of healing that will address forms of invisible wounding that occur within other closed systems like prisons, corporate life and academic and religious settings where trust gets broken. Oppressive systems depend on silence and silencing, so the actual testimony or bringing of words, the breaking of silence and transforming silences into words and words into action is essential. Audre Lorde’s essay on the ‘Transformation of Silence into Language and Action’ influences my thinking in these areas; lived experience confirms it." 

“Writing the self can also be a source of resiliency for activists because activists need sanctuary, especially those who experience secondary trauma in the course of their work. Activists are trying to heal society, and they have a lot in common with other helpers and healers. The activist as a living being still needs fresh water and rest and sources of renewal--not only for uncovering wounds, but just as importantly, for knowing how to work when we are tired and afraid, which is something else that Audre Lorde taught us."

“The narrative work of ministers and chaplains involves a sacred trust that can be especially helpful for those who need sanctuary to name and reflect upon their experiences. When I was ordained in the United Church of Christ, I took a vow to minister to those who believe as I do, those who believe differently and those who believe nothing at all. Ministers hear the stories of brokenness in a way that the people in the psychiatric unit might not hear because people understand the relationship of a minister to a confidante in a different way. Guidelines and boundaries for narrative ethics are always essential, but in chaplaincy and ministry they are even more important because you are dealing with the care of the soul in this world as well as the care of the body; with spiritual care as well as emotional and psychological care.”

Joanne likens the narrative practice of ministers to that of the narrative medicine movement and the need for doctors and healers to take care of themselves. “Narrative skills can be learned and can increase the resilience and sustainability of people in all of the helping and healing professions, including Law. Inhabiting our own narratives can help us learn how to carry on the work when we are tired and afraid. We don’t see ourselves as controversies and statistics. We have our own stories to tell.” 

Joanne M. Braxton, Ph.D. serves as Frances L. and Edwin L. Cummings Professor of English and the Humanities at the College of William and Mary. Braxton is also adjunct Professor of Family and Community Medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School, where she co-teaches CMEs and Grand Rounds with medical colleagues. She will be joining the Center for Narrative Practice for the August Residency Week of the Low Residency Certificate in Narrative Practice.

Click HERE to learn more about Joanne.