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Healing trauma that 'dared not speak its name'The ongoing effects of the Sasam trauma
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승인 2011.04.10  19:33:46
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▲ Creative performances based on the April 3rd Massacre constitute a great part of Noripae Hallasan Theatre Company's repertoire. Photo courtesy Noripae Hallasan Theatre Company

This is part 2 in a 2-part series. You can read part 1 here.

Trauma comes in three forms: for those who experience it directly, those who are witnesses, and those who hear the stories repeatedly – such as family members, healthcare providers, researchers, activists, and humanitarian aid workers.

The effects of trauma can last a very long time.

Some say that “Sasam,” or the massacre 63 years ago, is an event best forgotten. For the young its name holds little meaning beyond a school history lesson. For more than 50 years, until the year 2000, this was also the official and legal stance in Korea.

It was the trauma that dared not speak its name.

One common method for dealing with trauma is to minimize its effects and relegate it to the far recesses of the mind – a phenomenon typically referred to as ‘repression.’

A typical outcome of the repression of trauma, however, is somatization – the expression of the emotional trauma in physical symptoms, according to Dr. Kwak Young Sook, psychiatrist and dean of Jeju National University’s School of Medicine.

Jeju exhibits stress in notably high degrees of alcoholism and domestic violence and the highest suicide rate in Korea, a country which already holds the second-highest rate globally (2009 statistics).

If and when the veil is finally removed, if a time comes when a person – or a culture – can finally “speak the name” of the trauma and attempt to examine it directly, it becomes almost as real as if it happened yesterday.

This is what is still occurring in Jeju today.

There have been earlier attempts at healing. According to social critic Kim Yu Jeong, secret shamanic ceremonies and Confucian ancestral rites have been kept all along by those who survived the 1948 massacre and the subsequent 6-year period of violence. Buddhist and Christian equivalent rites have also been maintained for both victims and survivors.

The need for secrecy, however, coupled with a high degree of confusion, distrust, and shame brought upon families by false accusations of communism now legally discharged, precluded the full expression of mourning.

Mourning, in its complete experience, can only now take place. Since the year 2000, when speaking about this tragedy was finally decriminalized, numerous public rituals of mourning and events of remembrance have been held all over Jeju Island every year at this time.

There have been many subtler ways of mourning – and, ultimately, of healing – which have occurred during the past two decades.

As discussed more fully in part 1 of this series (‘Sasam Art’: The artists’ way), artists of Jeju have taken the lead in providing venues for Jeju’s people to experience and express a full range of emotions concerning the events of Sasam.

Hyun Ki Young published the first novel about Sasam in 1979, though more than a decade would pass before other such literature was to emerge, notably Han Rimhwa’s 3-volume novel on the topic in 1991.

Kang Yo Bae and Park Gyung Hoon held provocative Sasam art exhibits in the early 1990s, with Koh Gill Chun and others joined in soon thereafter.

Perhaps one of the most obvious uses of art for healing the minds of the Jeju people can be seen in the Noribae Hallasan performance group.

In existence since 1987 and performing from village to village, the troupe presents politically charged themes including the 1948 massacre and encourages audience response. Thus, in a safe environment of “fiction,” audience members have been able to give voice to their emotions surrounding this trauma.

“Jeju has indigenous ways to heal,” according to longtime Noribae Hallasan member Yoon Miran.

The traditional religion of Jeju, typically referred to as shamanism but known locally as ‘mu’, has also provided rituals for comfort and mourning. In this context, rites are performed to exorcise spirits which are either ‘evil’ or not at rest due to traumatic or unresolved death.

In psychological terms, this type of exorcism ritual allows participants not only to give expression to their emotions but also to safeguard their own psyches from further harm by providing a protective element and recreating a sense of security.

The deliberate healing function of mu is no longer in use on Jeju, however, according to Yoon, who would like to see it revived. Presumably, this is deemed to be in conflict with the dominant medical system.

Nevertheless, the shamanic rites of remembrance, the “lamentations of the dead” as termed by Seoul anthropologist Kim Seong-nae, serve to heal the minds of the living.

One of the significant characteristics of Jeju is found in the bonds of community. In psychology, community is an important element in resilience, or the ability to recover from major adversity.

However, while the ‘kwendang’ system of familial and village connection is still relevant and a powerful feature of Jeju’s society, it suffered massive disruption at the time of the 1948 massacres and following 6-year period of violence.

As neighbors and even family members were pitted against one another, Jeju’s traditional culture suffered a mortal wound, according to Oh Seung-kook of the Jeju April 3rd Peace Park.

“Before that time,” Oh explained, “Jeju had a bonded culture, based on overcoming adversity through communal effort. Afterward, those who survived lived in fear or fled Jeju, and the families of those deemed ‘guilty’ were also persecuted by the government and ostracized by the community.”

Communities of Jeju are still struggling to come to terms with and heal from the effects of this trauma of so long ago. According to London scholar Heonik Kwon, new communal ancestral shrines have been erected in many villages, shrines which include not only victims of the police and military aggression but members of the local police force and their families who died as well.

Villages across Jeju are working to repair community bonds. Researchers are making every effort to uncover the truth about the events of that time so long ago. Activists are determined to achieve justice. Shamans, or ‘simbang,’ and other religious leaders are helping Jeju’s people to achieve peace of mind and heart.

Jeju is still struggling to heal from the trauma that dared not – until now – speak its name.

Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist with a background in trauma therapy.

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