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Knife by Salman Rushdie

 A psychologist’s view of a very personal account of trauma - 

by Dr Yvonne Waft

I am a Clinical Psychologist and trauma therapist in the UK. I have recently read Salman Rushdie’s account of a knife attack against him where he was seriously injured and blinded in one eye. For those too young to be aware, Rushdie, a committed atheist of Indian heritage, who had made his home in London, wrote a book in 1988 called The Satanic Verses, which caused significant upset in Islamic religious quarters around the world. This led to the fundamentalist Islamic leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeni, declaring a Fatwa, a death order, on Rushdie and his publishers. Rushdie went into hiding for many years with the protection of the British Security Service.  The Fatwa effectively ordered devout Muslims to seek out and kill Rushdie and his publishers. Over the course of a decade or so the threat level was deemed to have lessened and Rushdie gradually began resuming normal activities and eventually moved to New York. He began attending literary events and giving talks, going out socially. He remarried and was living very much as though the Fatwa had been mostly forgotten about.

I was a young adult at the time of the Ayatollah’s Fatwa against Rushdie. I have yet to read the Satanic Verses, it’s still on my endless “must read” list, but I did read Midnight’s Children by Rushdie a few years ago. I would hardly describe myself, therefore, as his greatest fan having only read one of his many books, but I do recognise him as a very well regarded literary talent of our age. So, I was deeply shocked and disturbed to hear of a serious knife attack on this 75 year old (at the time) Indian-British author on 12th August 2022. As a Clinical Psychologist and trauma specialist I was curious to read his account of the attack and his recovery process when I saw it had been published just recently.

The Fatwa itself would have been traumatic. In the sense that a threat to life or limb is part of the diagnostic criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a literal death threat very much meets that criteria.  Living with that fear for many years, unable to resume normal activity, must take a toll on anyone, but particularly someone who was well known in the public eye and accustomed to attending literary events around the world.  Rushdie does not talk much in his recent book about the impact of the Fatwa on him, other than to say that his new-found freedom as he re-entered normal life, was very welcome. He had never expected to fall in love again, and meeting his new wife was like a new beginning.

In his latest book, Knife, Rushdie also refers to difficulties in his relationship with his father. He hints at episodes of excessive alcohol consumption and aggression from his father. He describes periods of estrangement from his father as he entered adulthood and a closeness with his sister who also moved to live in London, away from the family home in India.  In Psychology we are always interested in those early attachment relationships as they set a template for how we go into the world as adults, what we believe about ourselves and how we expect others to relate to us. A parent who drinks to excess and engages in aggressive acts can leave a child feeling vulnerable and unsafe, angry and hurt. Often people with this sort of background manage to leave home, set up a life away from it and can function well for many years, as appears to be the case for Rushdie.  However, this sense of vulnerability can be reawakened much later, when further trauma happens. Some would argue that this sort of background instills a sort of resilience, a “take no shit” kind of persona can develop. It can go either way, but what I tend to see clinically is that everyone has their breaking point and a series of traumatic events can build up in a person’s system and eventually even a relatively small event can ultimately tip someone over into a full PTSD reaction. The knife attack was no small event by any means, the assailant, or “The A” as Rushdie calls him in the book, intended to cause serious harm at the very least. I was curious to see what the impact was on Rushdie, and how he had managed the fall out from the attack.

There was a curious irony to this attack. Rushdie was speaking at an event in upstate New York, in Chautauqua, about the need to protect writers from harm. We know that under some regimes around the world, free speech is dangerous. People are imprisoned, tortured and killed for expressing their beliefs. People flee their own countries to seek refuge in hopefully safer lands. However, safety is never certain. Even before the internet shrank the world, Rushdie was placed under a death order from a ruler in a different continent.  He describes having a sort of premonition of the August 2022 attack, a dream a few nights before, where he saw himself attacked by a Roman gladiator with a spear. He did not want to go to Chautauqua and said as much to his wife. 

When describing the attack, Rushdie seems perplexed that he did not try to fight or flee the assault. He described just standing there, “I just stood there like a piñata and let him smash me. Am I so feeble that I couldn’t make the slightest attempt to defend myself? Was I so fatalistic that I was prepared simply to surrender to my murderer?” People have tried to rationalise with him that he was three times the age of “The A” and was unarmed, and yet he appears to be left with a belief that he is weak for not fighting back.  He describes shame and embarrassment at this. What Rushdie does not seem to have realised at the time is that Freeze is as much a part of the normal trauma response as Fight or Flight. When faced with overwhelming threat it is natural to zone out, especially when the odds are so clearly stacked against us. In psychology we call this dissociation, time seems to slow down, things around us can feel surreal and distorted, or we can black out completely and surrender to our fate.

There can be survival value in the freeze response. Prey animals will drop to the ground and feign death in the hope that the predator, not wanting dead meat, will move on to a fresher catch. During a robbery or sexual assault, survival may be more likely if you don’t fight back and you give the perpetrator what they want. Unfortunately, we do not have control over which strategy we employ in the moment. If we took the time to think about it, we would be too late anyway. Our survival instincts take over. Our thinking brain goes offline while our emergency response systems kick in. A hasty assessment of the risks and benefits of Fight/Flight/Freeze takes place deep in our brain and we act initially without conscious knowledge or control. It is not weakness to freeze, it is a normal response.

Rushdie sustained life changing injuries in the attack and could easily have died. He lost the vision in one eye and had permanent damage to his left hand, which he instinctively put up to protect his face in the initial moments of the attack. He had stab wounds to his abdomen, liver, chest, and face, but thankfully none were ultimately fatal. After 6 weeks of multiple surgeries and rehabilitation, Rushdie was allowed home and continued treatment for his injuries as an outpatient.  Physically he had been patched up as well as can be expected after such a vicious attack. Time and exercise would help him to recover more of the use of his hand and regain his general fitness. But what about the emotional impact of such a trauma?

One of the most important aspects of his emotional recovery seems to be the support and love of those around him.  Rushdie writes very affectionately about his wife, Eliza.  She flew to his bedside immediately on hearing the dreadful news of the attack, and stayed there pretty much throughout the six weeks in hospital. His sons and sister were also able to travel from the UK to spend time with him. One of his sons has a fear of flying and so travelled across the Atlantic by passenger ship to be with him.  We know from psychological research that having a supportive network around us at times of trauma facilitates healing. Having people to whom we can express our rage, our fear, our sadness, and feel supported and loved, is crucial to our mental health and recovery in the face of trauma.  Rushdie was lucky to have that network already in place, ready to leap into action to comfort and support him. Writing of his son, Milan’s visit he says, “I had loved having him with me for such a long stretch.  Feeling his love had helped me find my equilibrium again.”

Another important aspect of recovery from trauma seems to be the ability to make meaning from it. This came up in my own research on post-Traumatic Growth 20 years ago and Rushdie refers to this too. “I had beaten the odds. So the question now was: When you are given a second opportunity, what do you do with it? How do you use it? What should you do the same way, what might you do differently?”.  He describes choosing to live in the moment more, “Eliza and I decided we would not think in the long term. We would be grateful for each day of gravy and live it as fully as we could. We would ask ourselves each day: How are we today? Where do things stand right now? What would be good to do today, okay to do again, and if so how would we go about doing it and with whom? What sort of thing should we hold off doing until our instincts said otherwise? Short-term-ism became our philosophy”. Learning to live more mindfully is a cornerstone of many modern psychological therapies as well as ancient philosophies such as Buddhism. I like to think of this as taking a deep breath whenever we feel stressed or challenged and just thinking: What’s my next best step? Nothing more, nothing less, just my next best step.

Rushdie goes further than simply adopting a more mindful approach to life in his attempts to make meaning from the awful events of 2022. He wanted to avoid the obvious cliché of writing a book about his experiences, but as a writer, he ultimately could not make sense of it any other way and he states that until he could get this book out of the way, his other writing projects just could not be fulfilled.  He says of it, “This book is that reckoning. I tell myself it’s my way of taking ownership of what happened, making it mine - making it my work. Which is a thing I know how to do. Dealing with a murder attack is not a thing I know how to do. A book about an attempted murder might be a way for the almost-murderee to come to grips with the event.”   He found it hard to write about what happened for many reasons. First of all, it is challenging to process what actually happened as it requires the author to go back an re-look at the worst of it. Writing and journalling can be great therapy as it does require the writer to look at and reprocess what happened, but that is also what makes it so hard to do. Physically too, it was difficult for Rushdie, having lost the sight of one eye and half the use of one hand, his attempts to write were a constant reminder of his loss of functions. His raw, honest account here normalises the struggles that people go through in their attempts to recover and make meaning from traumatic events.

In conclusion, Rushdie argues that three main things helped in his healing journey. The passage of time, therapy, and writing his book. I would add to that that crucially he had the love and support of his friends and family throughout the recovery process and that is invaluable.  There is much more in the book and I would highly recommend reading it.  It is a far more eloquent account than I can give here. He is clear that time does not heal all things, but it does help one to move on and distance oneself from the horror. He does not go into detail on his therapy, and rightly so, therapy should be a private space to explore and unravel the trauma. Great healing can come from good therapy and I am pleased to see that he had access to this and was able to benefit from it. Sadly, not everyone can access good therapy, but reading accounts from others who have been there can be deeply healing too. Learning that you are not alone, that your reactions were normal, and that healing can come in time, gives hope to all of us. In writing this book, Rushdie provides a mostly  optimistic account of surviving a terrible attack, but is also honest and open about the struggles along the way. By reclaiming the narrative and giving his own account, he takes back his power from The A and is left feeling more in control of the story of his life.


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