Friday, March 10, 2017

Malignant Memory by Barbara Patterson

Malignant Memory, a new novel that not only tells the tale of the Canadian residential school system and its aftermath, but of trauma, suffering and the redemptive power of forgiveness. The novel was written by Manitoba nurse and researcher Dr. Barbara Paterson. All the stories of abuse at the residential schools and orphanages featured in Malignant Memory are based on real-life experiences patients had shared with Dr. Paterson during her career. Dr. Paterson generously offered to share the source of her inspiration for the novel on this blog.

How the Canadian Residential School System Inspired a Story Full of History, Heart and Forgiveness

My grandmother (whom I called “Nana”) was kind and generous. But she was prone to rages that caused my sister and me to flee in terror.  It was as if she had unleashed a monster living inside her. She screamed and threw things, calling us despicable names. The next day, she acted as if it had never happened.

Nana spoke of her early life only rarely. She altered the details when she relayed a story she had told before about her childhood. The only fact we knew for certain was that Nana’s father had abandoned his wife when Nana was young. He took the oldest child, a boy, with him. No one in the family saw either of them again. Nana’s mother died shortly after her huband left. Some of the older girls were taken in by family members. No family member wanted Nana. 

I was an adult when Nana sent me a letter. Nana wrote that when she was very young, she had desperately wanted a mother figure in her life. She thought her oldest sister could be that person for her. She gave her sister a Mother’s Day card. Her sister had reacted angrily, saying she was not Nana’s mother, Nana’s mother was dead, and Nana should come to peace with her lot in life as an orphan.

It was then that I learned for the first time that Nana had grown up in an orphanage.
In later years, Nana had ways of rebuffing my attempts to learn more about her orphanage experience. She died without us ever having a conversation about this subject.

After Nana died, many First Nations people introduced me to the horrors of residential schools.  Their stories were gruesome. They were about sexual and physical abuse, starvation, forced labour, and the systemic devastation of culture, language and identity. 
I began to draw similarities between what happened in residential schools and what I had read occurred in orphanages at the time (I do not want to imply that the orphanage experience is the same as that in a residential school; the systemic racism that was inherent in the residential school system is a profound difference).

I learned about eight years ago that one of Nana’s friends was a Mohawk woman who most likely had attended a residential school. I began to imagine that in their shared pain and traumatic memory, they were able to discover the pathway to their healing. As wounded healers, they offered each other the redemptive power of love and forgiveness. This speculation was the basis of the book Malignant Memory, a story that deals with an orphanage, the Canadian residential school system and the aftermath of growing up in those difficult environments. It is also a story of trauma, suffering and the redemptive power of forgiveness.

Writing Malignant Memory has helped me to make sense of the terrifying yet loving nature of my grandmother. It has also helped me to wrestle with the aftermath of the residential school system and its manifestation in the destructive behaviors of some survivors, such as addiction and domestic violence. I now understand that memories of profound trauma, such as the experience of abuse in residential schools, are stored in the brain’s limbic system. 

These traumatic memories remain hidden, repressed, until some trigger makes them visible again. When those traumatic memories are triggered by events, anniversaries, or other things, survivors of trauma experience the memory in a flight, freeze, or fight response. They may seek ways of escaping the memory of the trauma. They may be abusive to themselves or others. I believe that Nana’s fits of rage were the result of her trauma in the orphanage.

Barbara Paterson, Ph.D., has an interdisciplinary doctorate in nursing, psychology and education, as well as a master’s degree in post-secondary education. She served as a professor at the University of Manitoba, the University of British Columbia, the University of New Brunswick, and Thompson River University until her retirement in 2013. Dr. Paterson is the recipient of several prestigious awards, such as the 3M Teaching Excellence Award, the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal and Canada’s Most Powerful Women Award for her work as a university educator and her research on chronic illness. Dr. Paterson speaks frequently on topics of education, health and Canada’s aboriginal people, and has been featured on top media outlets like CBC Radio and in more than one hundred scholarly journals. She lives outside Winnipeg, Manitoba. 

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Malignant Memory is available online via Kobo, Amazon and ChaptersIndigo, as well as select local bookstores.

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