Reading as Therapy

So, I’ve finally got around to posting another entry; today, I would like to propose a theory, one that isn’t new, but one that I feel needs attention. This theory is, most simply put, that reading is a viable form of therapy. I have recently embarked upon a new project, giving up an hour of my time per week to visit and read to residents of Oak House, a care home for patients with dementia. My first visit was on Thursday this week, and I emerged from the care home after the hour with an overwhelming number of thoughts, queries and ideas. The environment wasn’t an entirely new one to me; during Sixth Form we would sing carols in a local care home around Christmas time and I used to help my Mum run Bingo sessions at another care home. However, the purpose of my visit was an altogether different one this time – reading poetry – a task very different from singing and games of bingo.

Upon entering the care home, one resident happily uttered ‘Hello!’ to me, but others were a lot less aware of my presence. However, I was led through to one of the main front rooms and over to a couple of ladies who, according to the nurse, really enjoyed poetry. I felt slightly uneasy trying to adjust to the surroundings, but soon managed to gather the poetry books from my bag and introduce myself. I started by giving the title of the first poem I would read to them, “If” by Rudyard Kipling. Immediately, one of the ladies exclaimed that she had heard of Kipling and that she liked this poem; after reading it, she happily gave her thoughts on the poem, mainly that ‘It is incredible how you can get so much out of a simple word like if’. For me, this provided the first sign that poetry could act as form of therapy to Dementia sufferers – I expected silence from my listeners, I expected no response after my readings. How wrong I was! Poem after poem, she responded with poignant expressions, such as “I have a feeling that the older I get, the more I really understand this poetry and the meaning behind it”, giving me ample opportunity for conversation with her about the poem’s themes, the poets and my study of English at University.

Choosing the poetry before attending the care home was no mean feat, as so many poems by famous poets explicitly talk of death, destruction and deprivation, themes I was conscious to stray from in my reading. This decision was a favourable one, as when I read poems by Frost, for example ‘Mending Wall’, a poem with more complex themes and language compared to Pam Ayres-type poetry, the residents remarked that they weren’t as keen on them. Therefore, I concluded from my visit that poetry as therapy at Oak House would only work if they could find some light relief in the poems, some humour, some colour and happiness. Poetry by the classics, Auden, Frost and Emerson, was only weaving a complex web very difficult to unweave in the residents’ minds.

The lady who first welcomed me with a ‘hello’ was eminently interested in my presence; she stood over my shoulder and constantly asked if she could hold the poetry book and look at the words. I finally offered to get her a seat, on which she sat and listened attentively. Now, this may seem normal until I mention that she has an extremely advanced form of Dementia which causes her to constantly want to be on her feet, moving around and interacting with others. The fact that she sat for half-an-hour to listen to my reading really was remarkable; she beamed at the end of each poem, and offered a ‘That was lovely’ or something similar. I truly feel that the poetry was a way of helping her mind to focus on something specific for a period of time instead of it constantly flitting to and fro as she moved around the Home. Her genuine happiness and interactions with my first, very responsive, listener was particularly heart warming, and was the perfect incentive to write this article on the theory of poetry as therapy.

The last fifteen minutes of my stay were just as memorable; a lady was brought into the room as she had expressed a desire to read me some poetry. I happily passed her the baton of books and she launched straight into a perfect reading of Kipling’s If” and “I Like to Bake” by Vivien Wade. Again, I saw this as a way of focusing her mind on the words and the pronunciation of them, of which can only be a positive task for her mind. Her gleeful laughter at the end of Wade’s stanzas brought a huge smile to my face, and the memory of it now motivates me for next week’s visit.

The University’s Care Home Reading Project has been set up by a member of staff from English who is keen to advocate the idea of poetry as therapy, and who will be building a module devoted to it very soon, a venture which I hope to participate in. Projects such as these should be set up more frequently across the country, as they provide a simple platform from which to serve your community through devoting attention and delivering a unique form of therapy to the most neglected members of our society.

Rape: A Weapon of Warfare

Admittedly, my first ever blog article is a little on the heavy side. However, I wanted to begin my blog by writing on the contentious subject of war rape, as it’s a topic of current affairs which never fails to shock my moral conscience and flare up my opinion. Reading Sinead Moriarty’s article in The Belfast Telegraph entitled “Time we all waged war on the normalisation of rape” also gave me an incentive to write the below article. She argues that in our 21st century obsessed with technology, a dangerous trend is emerging; young male artists such as Rick Ross are producing songs with lyrics that normalise rape. I agree with her argument and would add to it that the music industry’s constant production of music videos portraying bikini-clad women ogling over and dancing for the pleasure of male artists overtly sexualises and degrades women. The onslaught of such music videos can only be destructive to wider campaigns fighting against war rape and the consequent augmentation of women’s image worldwide. The proliferation of war rape from the first days of humanity right through to this very minute has often been masked by the media and hence has never been fully addressed. I hope you take the time to read through the below article, and if you have any comments or questions, please post them below. Also, I have put a poll below the article for you to cast your vote if you make it to the end!

Mathilde left the house shortly after the birth of her sixth child to collect the harvest. She saw two men approaching in the distance, wearing what she thought was the uniform of the FDLR, a Rwandan militia. Terrified, she fled, but soon after met another uniformed figure. He beat her with a metal bar; Mathilde lay still on the ground with her baby. The perpetrator, thinking he had killed her, left. Rwandan soldiers found Mathilde, raped her, and left her body for dead.

Rape in war is as old as war itself; the Bible refers to how “the city (Jerusalem) shall be taken, houses plundered, women ravished”, Augustine refers to rape as “an ancient and customary evil” and the ancient Greeks refer to war rape as “socially acceptable behaviour well within the rules of warfare.” Unfortunately, the Greeks’ unquestionably outrageous proclamations ring true across many countries today: in the 21st Century, in The Congo alone, there are reports of one rape per minute: our inaction, and the consequent lack of prosecutions, allows the aggressors to prevail.

greek war rape

Both World Wars were rife with rape and sexual violence, all shockingly concealed under the safety net of “taboo.” The Nuremburg Trials failed to prosecute a single accusation of rape, despite the physical and mental destruction it left in its wake. Unfortunately, society has only made timid progress; prosecutions of rape continue to be riddled with mendacity in troubled Third World countries: we appear nonchalant and vilipend to rape’s effects. Too often, we dismiss the act as regrettable collateral damage in war, instead of a heinous genocidal crime against humanity.

World War II’s explosion of sexual violence has often fallen on deaf ears by countries looking to retain their wartime status and “pride.” The western journalist, George Lynch, claims, “There are things that I must not write, and that may not be printed in England, which would seem to show this western civilisation of ours is merely a veneer over savagery.”

Hardly surprisingly, Red Army rapes have been a ‘taboo’ topic since as late as 1992. The rapes committed by Soviet Red Army troops in their quest to take over Berlin in 1945 are estimated at 2,000,000. The anonymous diary, A Woman in Berlin, highlights the seething Russian invasion; their rampage for revenge reveals the heartbreaking fact that defenceless women and children suffered as victims of acts committed by their male patriots. Amnesty International has argued this in its Lives Blown Apart report: “Women’s lives and their bodies have been the unacknowledged casualties of war for too long.” Natalya Gesse observed the Red Army in action in 1945 as a Soviet war correspondent. She later recounted, “The Russian soldiers were raping every German female from eight to eighty. It was an army of rapists.”

a woman in berlin

3.7% of all children born in Germany in 1945 had Russian fathers; German females were denied abortions for their “Russenbabies”, further humiliating and emasculating the population. Roman Catholics abandoned their beliefs and encouraged abortion on grounds of agape. Unfortunately, no religious code could prevent the atrocities committed by Soviet soldiers: often women were gang raped, mutilated and killed, while their husbands were forced to watch. As for justice, there was none; how could there be, when the leader himself, Stalin, condoned rape, explaining that we must, “…understand if a soldier, who has crossed…through blood and fire and death, has fun with a woman or takes some trifle.” Stalin’s use of the euphemistic but chilling ‘trifle’ reveals the true extent to which male dominance or perceived female weakness can be exploited. A soldier’s life is distressing, but this cannot be an excuse for inflicting a legacy of trauma upon innocents.

In modern conflicts, the strategic use of rape is more complex and deeply disturbing; “rape camps” were constructed during the Bosnian War, aiming to impregnate 50,000 Muslim women and children through systematic rape to create Serbian offspring. The rape of 250,000-500,000 women during the Rwandan Genocide was perpetrated specifically against Tutsi and Hutu women and children; a 1996 report by the United Nation’s Special Reporter on Rwanda, Rene Degni-Segu, harrowingly informs, “Rape was the rule and its absence the exception.” This idea of ethnic cleansing and genocide smacks of fascism and the concept of breeding an Aryan race, begging the question; will we ever learn from history’s abhorrent mistakes?

war rape

The propaganda spread by Hutu extremists in Rwanda presented Tutsi women as “sex objects”, inciting rape and revealing a deep-seated, endemic corruption of governmental systems in Africa. In The Congo, huge practical problems beset the legal system; its 200,000 surviving rape victims are forced to travel 200km to the nearest court, a distance inconceivable for most. In Afghanistan, women can even be imprisoned for being raped, for bringing shame upon their husbands; only societies with democracy and complete infra-structures can help to redress judiciary, governmental and gender issues; but will we?

We often immediately connote rape with female victims – this must stop. Men are, and always have been, subjected to war rape; accounts show that the rape of men has been common across all wars: 76% of male political prisoners in 1980’s El Salvador and 80% of concentration camp inmates in Sarajevo admitted to having been raped. This adds an interesting dimension to the debate, presenting rape as a war tactic aimed at stealing a man’s honour; a victorious soldier emasculates a weakened foe in the belief that, by forcibly penetrating him, the victim loses his manhood. This scarcely publicised, yet controversial truth, forces us to accept that the key to dominance is power and the dystopic exploitation of this power; the victims can be either male or female: gender is irrelevant.

Rape forces men into a conspiracy of silence: “In Africa no man is allowed to be vulnerable,” says Makerere University’s Refugee Law Project’s Gender Officer Salome Atim, “You have to be masculine, strong…a man must be a leader and provide for the whole family.” Article 27 of 1949’s Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits wartime rape and enforced prostitution, and UNICEF has highlighted a link between sexual violence and crumbling society and norms in 2008. Yet, individual accounts of men having been raped show that the micro approach to rape is useless; broader, systemic issues must now be physically addressed. Michael VanRooyen, Director of Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, calls rape “one of the great human crises of our time.” The anarchy and impunity of war are conducive to rape, causing many leaders to sit back and ignore the issue. Libya, Iraq, Nanking, Rwanda, Congo, Liberia, Britain, France, Russia, Bosnia, Darfur, America…the list of countries plagued by war rape continues.


Ethical stances seem to fail; Kant’s universalisation technique crumbles with such a conflicting human race; Utilitarians are left confused at differing pleasures; Aquinas’ Natural Law followers hide their faces when asked to where has our ‘Omnibenevolent’ God disappeared? A pledge to fight war rape is urgently needed worldwide. Rape is undoubtedly a war weapon; we must treat it with the gravity afforded every other weapon. This article may not provide the answer, but humanity’s power can.

If you are interested in reading Moriarty’s article, you can find it here: