Tag Archives: Trauma

Stories to Tell

By Louise Reynolds, Author

RFHG is very much about sharing research and information, and sharing was the main aim of my book Echoes of Captivity, published last March.  Sharing the unique experience of belonging to the family of a FEPOW.  Most of the FEPOWs didn’t talk about their experiences, indeed they were instructed not to talk, but we, their children, have always been aware of something unspoken and disturbing. Did it affect us? I believed so.  My aim was to gather interviews with the families, the ‘children,’ now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, and to share their stories.  I knew that, sadly, I could only manage a tiny and non-scientifically selected sample, but I felt I was on the right track when one of the contributors said to me “It’s nice to know there are still people in the country wandering around in the same state of mind as me.”

I approached the project with some trepidation.  Would people want to talk?  Was I being intrusive?  I put the word out on some FEPOW websites and I was surprised by the number of people who readily agreed.  Some interviews were conducted over Skype, but the majority were in person which I preferred

I’m a trained counsellor/psychotherapist, but this was something I never revealed because I am too close to the subject to keep a therapeutic distance.  I think people may have trusted me because they knew my own father was a FEPOW.  In fact they were astonishingly honest and the words simply poured out of them. Their testimony was often very poignant and I remember particularly, speaking on Facetime to a contributor in Australia.  It was a struggle  to feel connected because I couldn’t see her face clearly but then I saw tears trickling down her chin and I knew we’d made a connection.

And what did I discover from my small sample?  That many people feel they have been profoundly affected by their fathers’ trauma both positively as well as negatively.  One or two have had breakdowns, many feel haunted by the unspoken horrors and some of them are carrying ‘live’ and unprocessed trauma they have inherited from their fathers.    Recently there’s been a lively response on a FEPOW Facebook site to a BBC World article which was posted there entitled ‘Can the legacy of trauma be passed down the generations.’  It included a reference to the controversial subject of ‘epigenetics’ which is the, as yet unproven (in humans) theory,  that in response to trauma actual chemical changes are made to the surface of the genes which are then passed on in the DNA to the next generation.   Several people remarked on odd characteristics both physical and mental which they felt might have been passed down to them.  All I can say for sure is that there are many more stories waiting to be told, more research to be done, and I’m aware that there is a whole new generation of grandchildren who are interested in research.  My own contribution is just the tip of the iceberg.


email:   louisereynolds99@aol.com

Echoes of Captivity edited by Louise Cordingly,  published March 2020

Survival in Extreme Conditions and Transition to Peacetime

By Edgar Jones, Professor in the History of Medicine & Psychiatry, King’s College London

Much has been written on the physical privations and diseases suffered by Far Eastern prisoners-of-war (FEPOWS) but less has been said of the psychological challenges and the post-traumatic illnesses that they experienced when in civilian life. The resourceful, fortunate and resilient group who survived provide an opportunity to study coping mechanisms and survival techniques in the most extreme circumstances.

Evidence gathered from survivor accounts suggests that there was no single method that worked for all. Prisoners devised coping strategies that fitted with their pre-capture skills and personality traits. Alistair Urquhart, for example, distracted himself through music and song, and a determination to survive:

‘I decided to stay apart from everyone else and focus totally on survival. I lived a day at a time in my own little world, a private cocoon, and adopted the position of self-sufficient loner… If someone spoke to me, I replied but there was no sense of community’.

By contrast others formed themselves into small groups so that if one fell sick or struggled to work, the others would provide cover or find extra food. Crucial for many was a skill or experiences that had prepared them for the challenges of captivity. Lt Arthur Scrimgeour of the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force had medical knowledge acquired in his job as manager of Glaxo’s Far East Company. When suffering from beriberi, he treated this by swallowing the husk polishings of uncooked rice as they contained vitamin B and used banana leaves as dressings for leg ulcers.  Religious faith has been shown in many studies to serve as a protective factor during captivity and torture. Eric Lomax, a member of the Episcopal Church, wrote that his ‘moral conviction of being saved, that I really had found God’ reinforced his determination both during captivity and afterwards. Ashley Prime who had grown up in multi-cultural India was able to identify the good in people from whatever race they came.

Although these coping mechanisms enabled prisoners to survive extended periods of privation and danger, they were not a guarantee of an easy transition to civilian life. Urquhart and Lomax both reported troubling thoughts and enduring symptoms even when settled in civilian life. Recurring dreams of war were often a reminder of the trauma they had suffered. Urquhart wrote, ‘even after I married, life could be hell. To this day I suffer pain, and the nightmares can be so bad that I fight sleep for fear of the dreams that come with it’. Yet Urquhart also demonstrated the skill of being able to take something positive from adversity, adding ‘my sufferings as a prisoner taught me to be resilient, to appreciate life and all, to appreciate life and all it has to offer’.