Trauma & Society

Memorial of the Armenian Genocide, in a public square in France.

Memorial of the Armenian Genocide, in a public square in France.

Famine, dislocation, slavery, immigration, war, holocausts, political oppression, racism, and neighborhood violence affect us all. There is no one in this world that lives in a psychic vacuum. Just because we have not experienced these things personally, does not mean we are not affected by their aftermath. Especially in the age of social media and the internet. In fact, we now know that trauma is transmitted trans-generationally, via attachment, epigenetics, dissociation, affect regulation, and the neurobiology of the mind-body experience (see Salberg, J. & Grand, S. (2017). Wounds of history: Repair and resilience in the trans-generational transmission of trauma. New York, NY: Routledge) to the 3rd, even 4th generation in a family.

So take the "Greatest Generation" (Veterans of WWII), for example, who for the most part are hailed for their heroism. Rightly so: where would the world be without their courageous service? They are also, however, renowned for their relative silence about the whole ordeal. "He never talked about what he witnessed or what he did", one son of a WWII told me. And that, it turns out is a problem. Trauma, whether personally experienced or experienced vicariously needs to be digested, as it were. If not, it gets stored in the unconscious, gets mindlessly reenacted in other ways, and gets transmitted to the next generation.

PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is real, whether we are talking about veterans, or folks living in violent neighborhoods, or refugees, or holocaust survivors. Have you ever wondered why the United Sates is such a violent country? Perhaps it has to do with the fact that we are a nation of immigrants, our ancestors fleeing persecution, war, genocide, and poverty. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that this nation was built on the backs of slaves, the trauma of which is still felt in all of us-- especially, of course, the African American community. And then there was the genocide of the First Peoples of this land. Just a theory of course. But why are we so afraid and full of fear? Why are we so tied to our guns? And what about our blockbuster movies celebrating destructive heroism? Curious.

Judith Herman (1992) in her landmark study Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence-- from domestic abuse to political terror (New York, NY: Basic Books), writes, "the ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social contract are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable (p. 1). Who is not left speechless at the horrors of the Rwandan genocide or the Jewish Holocaust? Or to the Sandy Hook school shootings? Or what about the latest (publicized) instance of police brutality towards brown people? Sure, we want to protest, but as the incidents pile on-- as they have in the last few years-- there is perhaps a paralysis and powerlessness that sets in. And we withdraw. That is a trauma response. And what of those responses by those involved as perpetrators are from trans-generational transmission of past victimization? Things that make you go "mmm"....

Furthermore, there are two kinds of "unspeakable". The first kind is the genuine response of mourning and grief. It is often best to be present, but say nothing in the face of loss and horror. This posture in some ways honors the horror, without somehow unwittingly, with all the best intentions (most often), either blaming the victim(s) or offering some kind of unsolicited advice. No one in grief wants to hear advice. They want empathic kinship. The second kind is not so good. For reasons which cannot be explored here, the perpetrators "appeal to universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil" (Herman, 1992, p. 7). In other words, they play on this "unspeakable" state to remain in power. "All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing", writes Herman (p. 7), and banish the fact of the violations from personal and/or collective consciousness.

The worst part of being traumatized it turns out is not so much that it happened-- even though it's horrific. (And no one would wish any kind of trauma to be repeated, or occur in the first place.) Rather, it is the response of silence, denial, minimization, and even mockery to it. The response to a traumatic event is what sodders its evil into our psyches, personal and collective. The good news (aren't you ready for some?) is that acknowledging it visibly (see), aurally (hear), and orally (speak), releases its venom and allows for the community to begin to heal.

Psychotherapy is one way to begin to dare to see, hear and speak of big and small traumas we have experienced. We also can become curious about the generational traumas in our family's history that we have suffered, though not directly. We can acknowledge the histories both traumatic and redemptive of our communities, allow these to come to mind. Mostly, we can stop being simplistic in our assessment of what we are troubled by. We are embedded in a complex psycho-social web. Ultimately, Psychotherapy then becomes a means by which we can increase kindness towards ourselves and others, without skewing the facts. Ian MacLaren's quote now finds new depth: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about."

The good news is that there is no such thing as an "autonomous, independent, individual." We are complex beings, and our bodies bear our history.

You may also see the communal benefit of memorials and museums. Everything in us wants to forget. But by banishing these traumas from our consciousness, we do more harm than good. We will simply keep repeating and/or reenact them, visiting these traumas on the next generations.


The Legacy of Lynching, Brooklyn Museum

Joe Biden on Harvey Weinstein, AVP Courage Awards


Memorial Images


                                                                Racism's effect on the body, NPR 11/11/17