Living with the aftermath: trauma, nostalgia and grief in post-war Australia

By Joy Damousi, Cambridge University Press, 2001

Reviewed by Sara L. Knox

© all rights reserved

In this book, as in her earlier works, Joy Damousi’s historical subjects form the ‘other half’ (our better halves?) of figures central to the myth of white Australian nationhood; hers are those first reclaimed by social history: convicts, criminals, the radical left. These disenfranchised hover at the edge of national myth, not the blind spot but the outside flank of history. Marginalised even at the margins, female convicts, criminals and ‘agitators’ have come last on board, and their presence in the historical record – thanks to that great ventriloquist, historical practice – has in the last twenty years enlivened scholarship both inside and outside the academy.

Damousi’s work turns here to a group not so marginalised. War widows have by no means been invisible in this country, having been targeted as early as the Boer war by a developing welfare state as legitimately (that is, respectably) needy. After the First World War the swelling numbers of those requiring support meant tests of means and character that pointedly (as Damousi indicates in her chapters on the advocacy of the War Widows Guild) evicted certain widows from Federal care. Indeed, the business of making and maintaining distinctions between ‘kinds’ of war widows is central to the history of war widowhood. It is everywhere visible in the debate around pensions, and in the contest between rival advocate associations over the definition of the term ‘war widow’.

Such distinctions were less visible, however, in the larger discourses surrounding wartime sacrifice. The sacrifice of wives of servicemen permanently incapacitated by war has been publicly acknowledged, and continues to be. Damousi’s purpose in Living with the Aftermath is not to debate change and continuity in policy responses to the plight of war widows, but to examine the historically dynamic subjective category of war widowhood. Damousi’s primary sources are the open-ended interviews she conducted with women voluntarily responding to her call (all clearly identify themselves as war widows). These oral histories are solidly backed by archival research in newspaper, pamphlet and official documentary sources produced by advocates for the plight of war widows, or by those commenting on their situation. Damousi’s use of secondary sources is careful and scholarly, but it is nevertheless the oral histories that set the tone (and pitch) of her history, and its limits.

Damousi focuses on women whose spouses fought in the Second World War, Korean War or the Vietnam War. While the men these women survived were dignified, lauded and commemorated, their wives were not – if anything, they were made more marginal by the figural centrality of their husbands to national memory. Damousi’s task, therefore, is not merely “to correct the absence of war widows from Australian history” (p. 8), but is to make that correction so that war sacrifice can be conceptually unpacked, from one hierarchy of meaning to another. As Damousi amply demonstrates, much of the sense of loss and betrayal carried by the widows of those who served, and possibly died, during the Korean and Vietnam wars relates to the degree by which those wars failed to rise to the ‘heroic’ stature of the Second World War. Korea and Vietnam were conflicts “forgotten” and disowned, and the experience of both combatants and their dependents mirrors the displacement of those conflicts from popular memory. In this way, the women married to veterans of the latter conflicts suffered a double demotion: from the shadow of their husband’s selfless service, to the shadow of a shadow.

The experience of war widows cannot, then, be flattened in reference to some transhistorical category of war sacrifice. The emotional experience of war widowhood has been historically dynamic; shaped by changing cultural attitudes toward mourning practices and death generally. The widows of men who fought in the Vietnam war vented rage and grief more freely than had their mother’s generation (that freedom a response to a shift in prevailing attitudes toward grief, and the increase in professional and institutional recognition for various kinds of trauma). Women whose husbands were killed during the Second World War, or died due to their service in the decade and a half thereafter contained or hid (even from themselves) their grief, a response shaped by the high modernist denial of death and dissolution of mourning rituals and supports. But even that stoicism was itself imbricated with mourning, acting as a kind of inverse barometer of grief. Damousi tells the story of Joyce Tilley. After Joyce’s first husband died she was under enormous pressure to ‘get on with it’, and when finally she remarried her mother took and destroyed the letters, photographs and telegrams Joyce had saved as markers of that first, stifled loss. (p. 77) Destroyed materially, those keepsakes remained compelling in memory. Damousi’s chapter on the nostalgia and incomplete mourning of the widows of men who died during the Second World War is one of the strongest in the book. Her use of wedding photographs and snapshots sent back by servicemen from wherever they were stationed is pointedly and poignantly right for the context of “nostalgia and regret”. The use of similar material in other chapters is less convincing.

Damousi unravels the different experiences of the women she studies, and their opinions on war widowhood. The most contentious of these differences is that between women whose husbands died during the war, and those who died after. Then there are fine distinctions around mental vs. physical disabilities; the effect on the experience of widowhood of prevailing discourses around grief; and the political popularity of conflicts. But a larger context for these distinctions sometimes seems lacking. This may be a measure of the loyalty of the scholar to her subjects – bound to serve what her subjects know, and what they don’t. Her concerns must be necessarily be theirs, or her history would ring false. But there were times when a broader comparative context would have been useful, as would a more sustained pause over what constitutes war widowhood. “The basic condition for the award of a war widow’s pension” reminds the Hon. Gillian Shephard, “must be that the husband’s death was due to or substantially hastened by service in the armed forces. There must be that causal connection or the rates of the war widow’s pension could not be justified.” (House of Commons Parliamentary Debates, 12 May 1990) That “causal connection” is still centrally important, and not just to policy-makers.

On being asked, my mother and my aunts (of that generation of stoics, daughters of First World War veterans) flat out refused to acknowledge as war widows those women whose husbands died years after the war. Damousi’s history might have been strengthened by an attempt to relate the experience of the women she interviewed with that of others who did not identify as war widows, or those who were not allowed to so identify. Equally, her history might have been enriched by some sense of the comparative value of war sacrifice (and war widowhood) among the ex-colonial, dominion or allied nations. My mother, miffed, told me on the phone from Wellington: “your father’s father came back from 4 years in France with a missing little finger and he got 4 shillings!!! disability from the Australian Government, while Auntie Rose – whose husband died with all the other blind men and amputees thrown into the water after the Warilda sank – got a pittance from the New Zealand government”. The relative rates of veteran and war widow’s pensions is eloquent testimony to the cultural values placed on war sacrifice. New Zealand war widows have been particularly poorly served, while Australian pension rates speak highly of men sacrificed in war, and the women who subsidise that sacrifice. Although the crux of Damousi’s history is the Australian context to the experience of war widowhood, that context is itself dictated by wider discursive struggles over war sacrifice.

This slight glossing by Damousi of differences in the experience of war widowhood might explain why her final chapter, “Death, Solitude and Renewal”, drops the basis for a distinction between war widowhood and widowhood altogether, despite her attempts to specify the distinct conditions of experience for the former group. Her discussion of the impact on women of the loss of a lifetime partner rests too strongly on general sources about the aged, and grief. In this way the relief described by war widows telling of husbands released from suffering by death reads as indistinguishable from the complaint of thousands of Australian women who yearly outlive their husbands.

Despite these analytic drawbacks and the misspelling of a major theorist’s name on page 4 (a fault that reflects more on the parlous state of academic editing than it does on the skill of the author) Joy Damousi has written a richly textured history; one that serves well both the women she interviewed, and the ongoing project of a revisionist social history.


Sara Knox is a senior lecturer in the humanitiesÊ at the University of Western Sydney. She is the author of Murder: a Tale of Modern American Life (Duke University Press, 1998) and, recently, articles in Theory and Event and Postmodern Culture. Her ongoing areas of interest are narratives of violence, and death and narrative more generally in the contemporary West.

Living with the aftermath: trauma, nostalgia and grief in post-war Australia by Joy Damousi was published by Cambridge University Press in September 2001.

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