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Trauma, theatre and truth telling; from the political to the personal.

I am currently producing, dramaturg and translating a theatre production called Surat-Suratnya in Melbourne in December.

It is a collaboration between Australian and Indonesian artists about true events which remain largely unacknowledged and silenced in Indonesia and Australia. I am writing about this project in this blog post, because of my own self-realisation about the nature of trauma and the need for truth telling within myself which has arisen during the process of researching for this project. There are similarities between the impact of trauma in large world events and within our intimate lives, and the potential to shine a light with compassion into darkness to heal ourselves and to empower humanity to live from a higher level of consciousness is present in both the micro and macro experiences.

Ellen Marning in ‘Our Last Dinner was Sayur Lodeh’, part of Surat-Suratnya, image by Darren Gill

About the work:


Letters which bear witness to political violence long unacknowledged. A collaboration between Stage of Wawan Sofwan, Sandra Fiona Long and Ria Soemardjo. 

Surat-Suratnya is comprised of two new solo works based on the true experiences of an Australian woman living precariously in Jakarta during the so called ‘communist’ purges between 1965 and 67 with her Indonesian husband, a trade unionist, and their children:

1: ‘Our Last Dinner was Sayur Lodeh’ is a monologue based on the family’s last meal in Jakarta, before fleeing to Australia, conceived and directed by Wawan Sofwan and performed by Ellen Marning.

2: ‘Between the Letters’ is an immersive sound installation by Ria Soemardjo reflecting on the political exile experienced by her family from these events.

This is powerful collaboration between Australian and Indonesian artists about still widely unacknowledged events and bears witness to a still untold story where millions of left leaning ordinary people are estimated to have been massacred in the ‘communist’ purges.

image by Darren Gill

During the research stage of this work, we held interviews with Ibu Helen, the Melbourne based woman who this true story is based on, last year and this year. What emerged through the process, was that once arriving in Australia with her family, the pain and trauma didn’t stop. In fact it was compounded. Because the Australian government was very proactive in supporting the Indonesian government’s anti-communist narrative at the time, and actively hid the fact that the Indonesian military was involved in mass scale human atrocities. Now declassified intelligence documents show that the ABC was given very direct instructions to report events without acknowledging involvement from the Indonesian military, and to demonise the so called ‘communists’, many who were just poor farmers or workers hoping to set up co-ops and unions to support their human rights, yet ended up murdered or imprisoned and their families persecuted for generations to follow. You can read more about the Australian involvement in controlling information about these events here.

What emerged from these interviews for our research, is that once here in Australia, although physically safe, the political exiles were gaslighted about their experiences, because what had happened wasn’t acknowledged here, and when it was reported, it was reported falsely, so that there was prejudice towards ‘leftists’ which also impacted on peoples work options and social networks.  This had a compounding effect on their trauma.  

At the time of researching for this work, I myself was going through the beginning stages of diagnosis and a deeper understanding of my CPTSD. And something resonated very strongly with me about this. In my own personal experience, which involved violence from my mother who was not stable and had trauma and undiagnosed autism, I had a ‘safe’ parent; my father who I loved dearly and saw as the protective one. He would often do activities with me, he would get me out of the house often on the weekends, involved himself in my school projects, and it was always he who took me shopping to buy clothes or anything I needed. I am guessing my mother was not able to do that, and he was very supportive and loving in many ways.

But as much as he was stable and ‘safe’ he also did not protect me from the violence from my mother. In fact, he ignored it, sometimes even actively reading a newspaper while it was happening, and when I tried to speak to him about it he denied it or downplayed it. On a few occasions he said I should ‘keep it in the family’ which is probably the most acknowledgment he ever gave that it was occurring.

Over time, and especially after he passed away, as I came to recognise the depth of trauma I carried and how it impacted my life in so many ways, I started to feel a lot of anger towards him. As I understood my mother more I felt more and more compassion for her. I could understand her anew in relation to her own trauma and her struggles coping with all the expectations on her, unsupported with her neuro-diversity. Especially as I started working as a mentor and support worker with people on the autism spectrum, I could see very strongly the traits and patterns I had previously not recognised as autism traits. My father on the other hand, although he was a stable presence, enabled the abuse as a way to keep the peace and cope with a situation he didn’t understand or didn’t have the skills to manage. It was easier to make me take the brunt of it than for him to intervene in any way.

As I was working through the process of research for this theatre project, and had this insight into how impactful the gaslighting which came from Australia as a ‘safe’ country was to these political exiles, it really hit me, that this ‘gaslighting’ from my ‘safe’ father has had a way bigger impact on me than anything that occurred from my mother. His denial of the truth coupled with him being the ‘safe’ loving parent created a lot of confusion for me in my personal relationships of all kinds. To feel safe to speak up and share my feelings of fear, and to create healthy boundaries has been a huge challenge. To feel worthy to have my boundaries for respectful behaviour honoured, and also to honour the boundaries of others. This complex relationship with myself compounded the trauma so deeply, way beyond the physical impacts of the violence I experienced from my mother as a child and teenager. It also made me act in ways which were not peaceful, which were coming from a place of survival, rather than from love, from knowing I am respected and held.

This is why truth telling is so important, on a large scale and on the personal. To create a world that is safe to live in and peaceful we need to be safe to express our voices. We need to give ourselves and others the freedom and respect to be heard and taken seriously, including children. And also the freedom to silence if we so wish. And we need to acknowledge and mourn where there has been abuse of any kind, in order to forgive and expand and live with open hearts full of compassion. This is how we can reach our depths and live our full potential. Then our trauma can become a gift. It is not possible to fully utlise our gifts for a broader purpose unless we have really faced and made peace with all aspects of ourselves, including those which are painful and uncomfortable.

image by Darren Gill

Any form of truth telling and story telling which allows voices to be heard, not just ‘victims’ but also ‘perpetrators’ is powerful, as we all hold the potential to be either, yet to be in peace, we need to be neither. And we can only be neither by acknowledging, healing and neutralising. True peace is neutral, within ourselves and our societies. Sharing stories is a way to open up the world, not just about specific events, but about the patterns we hold as humans. The shame, the guilt, the keeping things secret and hidden, which enables our cycles of abuse to continue in the shadows. We can see it playing out all over the world in conflicts. But acknowledging violence and trauma has the potential to heal even global conflict. Let’s keep opening up and being honest, and learning to love and accept even our darkest aspects, to forgive ourselves, so that we can shine a light for others.

Written by Wawan Sofwan and Ratna Ayu Budiarti, based on the letters and interviews of Ibu Helen.

Director: Wawan Sofwan

Actor: Ellen Marning

Performer/Creator: Ria Soemardjo

Composer: Kurnia Eka Fajar

Designer: Yudith Christianto

Lighting Designer/Technical Manager: Cole McKenna

Project manager/Stage manager: Nirvana Vania

Producer/Dramaturg/translator: Sandra Fiona Long

Image by Darren Gill

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