- Traumatic States: Gendered Violence, Suffering and Care in Chile by Nia Parson
Traumatic States is an examination of the subjective impact of domestic violence on victims’ lives. Through life history narratives, Parsons explores how three Chilean women cope with the effects of domestic violence. The author comes into these women’s lives in 2003, some 13 years after the transition to democracy in Chile. She meets them because they have sought help at a state-funded feminist NGO that provides support services for victims of domestic violence. They open up to her through many in-depth interviews, and meet with her again in 2009. The space between the two points in time allows the author to explore how these women have coped with their situation over the time between them, how they interpret the suffering they have undergone, how they have sought help from the state (at times successfully and at times not), and the healing that they are constantly and proactively engaging in.
The author seeks to take us beyond numbers and render visible the social and psychological effects of domestic violence, through the subjects’ own narratives and with their own agency. The first step toward healing when it comes to a historically “invisible” problem such as domestic violence, is simply the process of naming: “The ability to express pain requires language for talking about the pain, identification of the origins of the pain, and the willingness and ability of individuals and institutions to hear that pain and address it, to shift power relations in such a way as to rework the sources of the pain” (p. 10). Then Parson shows, through the narratives, “how the failure [of the state] to adequately identify and intervene in these violent entanglements leads state [End Page 678] structures of care to cause further suffering, often becoming part of the suffering of domestic violence” (p. 37).
The latter perspective is, I think, one of the key contributions of the book. These narratives reveal the tremendous cost to these women of the inadequacy of seemingly comprehensive, proactive interventions to protect them from violence and to help them heal. It sensitizes us to the very real, ongoing human cost of inadequate state responses. Despite these costs, there is also a life-affirming thread to the narratives. These women are able to articulate their experiences, on their own terms, and to re-emerge as stronger, more self-confident individuals. The author is a deeply passionate and compassionate interpreter of these life history narratives: as she says, “This book constitutes an act of bearing witness” (p. 36). The analysis is rich in the detail that brings these three women alive for the reader, and in its reflections on and engagement with the anthropological literature. The heart-wrenching introduction especially pulls the reader in.
This said, I do have two comments. First, the central theme in the analysis (as the title indicates) is a discussion of the lack of “care” and the need for more “care.” However, care, which is a notoriously multifaceted concept, is not defined. At times it seems to be referring to the public policies the state should implement to help these women, and at other times to broad ideas of indifference and to the lack of attachment and caring as the everyday labor of sustaining human life. This leads to some lack of clarity in the book’s analysis. For example, it would have been helpful to have a more defined discussion of what “care” policies the author thinks would constitute an adequate state response to domestic violence, and what Chile actually provides regarding domestic violence specifically and social “care” policies more broadly.
The book is also very critical of neoliberalism in Chile and how associated policies have led to entrenched inequalities and ignored the socioeconomic and gendered dimensions of suffering. However, especially after 2000, very real reforms have been implemented, not only regarding divorce and domestic violence but also in health, pension, and care policies. These have had meaningful effects, especially...