[Warning – this does contain mild spoilers for GOT season 8 episode 4 which aired this week. Nothing which will give away the plot but if you don’t want to hear any information before watching it then come back later.]
Sandor Clegane: Used to be you couldn’t look at me.Game of Thrones Season 08 Episode 04: The Last Of The Starks, written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss,
Sansa Stark: That was a long time ago. I’ve seen much worse than you since then.
Sandor Clegane: Yes, I’ve heard. Heard you were broken in. Heard you were broken in rough. And he got what he deserved.
Sansa Stark: I gave it to him.
Sandor Clegane: How?
Sansa Stark: Hounds.
Sandor Clegane: You’ve changed, Little Bird. None of it would have happened if you’d left King’s Landing with me. No Littlefinger, no Ramsay none of it.
Sansa Stark: Without Littlefinger, and Ramsay and the rest, I would have stayed a Little Bird all my life.
So this scene is a bit clunky and I have seen a lot of online commentary about how insensitive the conversation is and how it is an unfair representation of trauma and sexual assault. I have seen some argue that Sansa is strong in-spite of the trauma not because of it and that she needed that strength to survive in the first place; all good points. But I think there is something within this dialogue about post traumatic growth which is worth unpicking a little.
As a show, Game of Thrones does not give many of it’s characters an easy ride, both of these characters have experienced physical abuse, bereavement and being essentially sold into slavery, Sansa has also been raped. Let me be clear – these are horrific experiences. Rape is not a milestone on someone’s personal development. Being burnt or beaten are not experiences designed to develop character. Slavery of any kind is not a road to personal fulfilment. Trauma and abuse can profoundly affect someone not just in the short term, but also in the long term. There is not a “positive side” which can be aspired to or talked up.
However, there is a phenomenon called Post Traumatic Growth which many people do experience. It can look like different things for different people.
Strength and resiliance
For some people, surviving trauma does lead them to become stronger. Like the Kelly Clarkson songs says:
What doesn’t kill you makes you strongerKelly Clarkson – Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)
Stand a little taller
Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone
What doesn’t kill you makes a fighter
Footsteps even lighter
Doesn’t mean I’m over ’cause you’re gone
This strength will be different for different people. It could look like someone who becomes physically strong – buffing up their body or learning self defence so it can not happen again. For other people it might be strength in numbers – finding supportive communities and people who can uplift, inspire, protect and encourage them. For others it may be a strength of belief – I have survived worse than this, I can do this.
Inspiration, Empathy and Advocacy
For some people, experiencing trauma motivates them to go on to help others who may be experiencing something similar. I know this is a motivation for many people to enter the helping professions and teaching “I experienced… and I was then motivated to…”
Last year, “Scary Spice ” Melanie B released an autobiography about her experience of domestic violence, emotional abuse and being manipulated and shamed by her now ex husband. Her book ends:
I believe the truth sets you free. If my honesty enables another woman to share her story or feel less shame then I am happy.
My story has yet to endBrutally Honest by Melanie Brown, 2018
Living for now
Post traumatic growth can also take the form of living for now. If someone has experienced truama or abuse then sometimes once they have escaped that situation there can be a feeling of freedom, potential, creativity and hope for the future. A commitment to live each day to the full and to appreciate what you have. This may also involve seeing things in a more philosophical way as being a survivor can give you a different perspective.
In Japan, there is something called Kintsugi where when a pot or bowl is broken it can be mended with gold, creating something more beautiful and sometimes more valuable than the original article.
What does this mean?
Post traumatic growth does not mean that there is a good side to the trauma experience. It does not mean you must be grateful or pleased that there is sometimes beauty from ashes. It does not guarantee that everyone will experience the growth in the same way or to a particular schedule, some people may need much greater distance from the trauma before they have the safety to reflect and possibly grow. Some may not grow after trauma; that is OK too, sometimes when life gives you lemons you should not be expected to turn it into lemonade, sometimes you just need to sit with the bitterness for a while. Sometimes a trauma is not a lesson, it is just a bad thing you experienced. A journey towards healing will always be individual. But perhaps at some point, there will be an unexpected silver lining or the path to healing may take you somewhere new or open a new door.
In this 3 minute Ted Talk, Stacey Kramer talks about an unwanted “gift” she received, what it gave her and the price she paid to have it. “I wouldn’t wish this gift for you. I’m not sure you’d want it. But I wouldn’t change my experience. It profoundly altered my life in ways I didn’t expect in all the ways I just shared with you.”