Speaking Truth to Trauma
by Loren Cobb
This is a very personal letter, on a matter with which I have too much experience.
Forty years ago today, at 4:30 in the morning, I awoke from my bed in a Cornell University dormitory to find the building on fire and filled with smoke. I escaped, but nine of my friends lost their lives. It was the beginning of a series of homicidal arson attacks that Spring, attacks for which no one was ever charged. I was burned out of my living quarters not once but twice, and we lived in a state of constant fear and paranoia. Like most of my friends, I was left with a permanent case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), somewhat helped by years of psychotherapy.
The PTSD that I acquired is little different from that suffered by the targets of child abuse, prison rape, family violence, and military combat. Though I denied it for years, I have common ground with traumatized people everywhere. Our numbers are legion, whether we recognize it or not. Mostly not.
Quakers and other pacifists have long "spoken truth to power," in a brave but unsuccessful attempt to alter public attitudes towards war and the use of violent force. I have a different idea: let's start speaking truth to trauma.
It is time, indeed long past time, for every nation to come to some difficult realizations:
The profound traumas of military combat push some soldiers into complete dissociation, a state in which the world shrinks down to just a soldier's own small unit, surrounded by faceless inhuman enemies, when all moral issues reduce to black or white, life or death. In this primitive psychological state, some soldiers become berserkers, like the crazed but infinitely deadly Norse and Celtic warriors of the Dark Ages, feeding their rage on blood-lust and destruction. Others turn their anger inwards, becoming suicidal, or blind or mute or crippled with no physical cause.
Achilles in Iraq
Dr. Jonathan Shay's book Achilles in Vietnam notes the close parallels between the behavior of the Athenian hero Achilles during the Trojan War, as told by Homer, and the berserk behavior of some traumatized American troops in Vietnam, as told by his soldier patients. This is the stuff of extreme tragedy, of men crazed beyond all limits by the traumas of war and childhood. It is here that we find the true origin of atrocities in warfare.
Even so, the symptoms of PTSD hypervigilance, aggression, dissociation, flashbacks, addictions, depression, insomnia, apocalyptic thinking are just the bare beginning of the story. Every war generates millions of new cases of PTSD, among soldiers and civilians alike. Very few understand their own symptoms, and enormous numbers become addicted to alcohol and opiates while in search of relief.
It is a sad fact that addicted and alcoholic parents are neglectful parents. The children of untreated traumatized adults grow up in difficult households, secondary victims of the original traumas of their parents. Some of these children may suffer beatings and abuse of their own, but many more will live with the consequences of chronic neglect, the attachment disorders: fear of intimacy, lack of trust, chronic feelings of being bad or worthless or shameful or sinful. Some psychiatric social workers have told me that neglect is more damaging to the psyche than abuse, that long-term attachment disorders can be far worse even than PTSD.
Private Stephen Green was diagnosed in 2006 as a homicidal threat by a military mental health team, who were well aware of these psychological dangers. Nevertheless, his commander returned him to duty with instructions to get more sleep. Three months later, according to official charges, he raped and set fire to a 14-year-old Iraqi girl, then slaughtered her family. In between he is reported to have set fire to a puppy a classic warning sign of extremely violent behavior, and an indicator of possible childhood abuse.
In an earlier era people might have said that he was possessed by demons, which must be exorcized. Nowadays many say that people like him are evil, and must be punished. I say that he is merely one in an endless stream of severely traumatized young men and women, lost in a fog of dissociation and paranoia.
For every Private Green there are hundreds of millions less severely afflicted. These are the walking wounded, functioning as best they can while beset by inner terrors and urges they can neither admit to nor seek help for.
Effects on Society
If the psychological effects of war are bad but only dimly recognized, the effects on society as a whole are, I believe, hidden but profound.
Prison psychiatrist James Gilligan has a theory that many badly traumatized and neglected children lose the ability to form any internal sense of self-worth, and therefore come to depend solely on the opinions of others. Their sense of honor and pride is brittle and easily threatened, by real or imagined disrespect from those around them. If, as young adults, they are shamed by others, then they are more likely to react with violence than those who were not traumatized as children.
A nation with more than its share of such adults will, I believe, develop institutions that are quick to see threats to its security, slow to trust other nations, jealous of pride and honor. Its religions will evolve to see the world in black and white, good and evil. Their doctrines may naturally come to emphasize the inherent sinfulness of mankind because these feelings spring from attachment disorders and they may take on a somewhat paranoid and apocalyptic flavor, in parallel with the feelings caused by PTSD.
Most unfortunate of all, a nation with epidemic PTSD and attachment disorders will, I am sure, be armed and ready to go to war at a moment's notice allowing the desperate cycle of war and trauma to turn and return forever... or until we finally wake up and see what is happening. Democracy itself is threatened by this cycle, as observed in this quote from Jonathan Shay:
Is the problem Power or is it Trauma?
When a democratic nation is enmeshed in a vicious cycle of war and trauma, what kind of leaders rise to the top of the power structure?
The answer, I fear, is that the people will vote for leaders who speak in the coded language of trauma. Speeches will ring with words of honor and pride, of good vs. evil, with colors and undertones of hypervigilance, distrust, and apocalyptic thinking. Gentle diplomacy will be abandoned in favor of unilateral gestures of power and strength. Movies like Rambo and The 300 will command our rapt attention. Our leaders will lace their rhetoric with thinly-veiled paranoia, they will be touchy and quick to take offense, preferring to use military force and blunt threats rather than diplomacy and conflict resolution.
What does it really mean, in the final analysis, to confront such leaders and their followers with the truth? Do we address them as rational, ethical human beings who will see the error of their ways when it is displayed in front of them? Can they even see what we are showing them?
If it is true, as I believe, that both the people and the leadership of many nations are struggling under multiple layers of trauma and denial, then something more than calm and rational discourse is required. The rational truth is not sufficient, we must also address the cycle of trauma itself, at its deeper psychological roots.
Speaking truth to a nation whose citizens are largely in denial of their own trauma is more subtle by far than speaking truth to power, and the focus is not on the powerful.
Those are some things we can do, and indeed some pioneers are already engaged in this effort. But more than anything else, we need a revolution in perception rather than hasty corrective action, no matter how well-intentioned. The way ahead will not be clear until we can fully see the profound effects of untreated trauma on society, on history, and on ourselves.
For more information:
Please send comments on this or any TQE, at any time. Selected comments will be appended to the appropriate letter as they are received. Please indicate in the subject line the number of the Letter to which you refer!
I lived in that same dorm one year after the fire, so it was a vicarious tragedy for me, but I'd like to thank you for this article. Today was a special day for me a judge dismissed a felony charge against a close friend of mine who has already served most of his life in prison. He is someone who fits your description of a traumatic childhood actually in far more horendous detail and definitely suffers from all the issues you describe. He has been punished all his life, with no positive results at all. He is emblematic of hundreds of thousands of people in prison, where I met him, and on the streets, where he has lived. He and all of us suffer the effects of a civil system that, just as much as war, traumatizes people for generation after generation. We need change. Thanks, Loren.
Fran Kaye, Nebraska.
Wow, Loren. I was a social worker for 13 years, working in group homes where pretty much my entire clientele had PTSD in some form. Over the years I have watched many friends burn out in service as clinicians, and I believe a lot of this was secondary trauma, something few of us knew how to handle. I have never put all the pieces together like this, but I have had many conversations with my father (a vietnam vet) about what war does to humans, no matter what side of the gun you are on. It was his firm belief that the soldier who lived suffered more than the person he may have killed. He used to say the war made him a peacemonger. Anyway, thank you for this very discerning analysis. I will be thinking of this for a long time to come.
Valerie Ireland, Boulder CO.
I was drafted in World War II. I killed. Whenever we have sinned, however grievously, we must stand tall and admit our guilt. Then we must do everything in our power to mitigate the damage. On a pilgrimage a prayer came to me in my meditation. "Dear God, Father and Mother of us all, those of us who have fought in war have a special need for Thy mercy and Thy forgiveness. Bless and encourage those who would follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King and Gandhi. Amen." I communicated these thoughts to an Iraq veteran who had killed and who was in psychiatric care. He decided to follow this path and he is out speaking against war and he is much better. I am a member of the Louisville, KY meeting. It has been supportive.
Lee B. Thomas, Jr.
Loren, I agree with you 99% of the time, but in the case of Stephen Green I believe you are probably wrong. As a Vietnam veteran with combat experience I know that fear as such does not turn a normal person into a murdering rapist. It can cause a lot of problems but frankly that's not one of them. Green raped and murdered a child because his conscience is missing and more importantly because he thought he could get away with it.
All war is brutal and brings about trauma as you describe. But the brutality is greatly increased if the army is directed by its leaders or their political superiors who think brutality a virtue. We have seen nothing out of Iraq that remotely approaches the German behavior in Poland in the last world war (I spent the academic year 1947-48 in Poland). Those German soldiers were encouraged in their brutality by their superiors, and so up the chain to Hitler. It is not fair to blame all their monstrous crimes on the circumstances of war. We should be sure that nothing like this is involved in our shortcomings, and unfortunately it is not obvious where the truth lies.
Henry Helson, Berkeley, Vine Street Meeting.
Loren, you have touched on a critically important topic when you write so articulately of "the profound effect of untreated trauma on society, on history and on ourselves." It is indeed true that so much of what we do as adults is conditioned by what we experience in childhood and early adult life. I was immediately reminded that our nephew, an Air Force psychiatrist, was shot by a former patient, diagnosed with problems while in the service, but simply discharged from active duty, who later was able to acquire an AK-47 and track him down at Fairchild AFB in Washington, killing both Tom and another psychiatrist in his office.
Another example of human/inhuman capabilities, even without a trauma incident, was dramatized by the 1971 "Stanford Prison Experiment" where a group of 15 "normal" student volunteers (they tried to weed out any who might have psychological problems) were grouped into prisoners and guards. The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks, but the increasingly violent treatment of prisoners by the guards caused the professor, Philip Zimbardo, to terminate the experiment after a little more than a week. Abu Ghraib should have come as no surprise for anyone familiar with that earlier prison experiment.
In addition to trying to understand our own soldiers, we should also worry greatly about the damage done to almost two generations of Muslim children in Wahabi madrassas around the world, financed by Saudi oil money this Saudi use of oil money to teach hate for certain others, and that violence is OK, may threaten the world even more than the way Saddam Hussein was using Iraq's oil money. You are right that we should try to deal with the disease rather than just the symptoms, but it will be hard not to attack symptoms as these children grow into adults, when the disease has already spread far and wide, untreated, among those who threaten our own belief that there is some of God in each of us.
Gordon Johnson, Alexandria, VA.
Holy cow! I am impressed with the candor and courage exhibited in TQE #156. I am sharing this with many of my (F)friends. Thank you, Mr Loren Cobb
Your essay is a singularly brilliant piece. You correctly point out that the issue at hand is a national epidemic.
An anonymous reader from Glen Burnie, MD.
I enjoyed your article, though it disturbed me. It rattled me somewhat, but also gave me hope that maybe in the future with love the world will go the way of Scandinavia.
When my nephew, Zeke, was a five-year-old boy, he was bullied by a group of boys and become tearfully upset. He had told no one about the incident when I came upon him. I asked him why he was so sad, and he related the bullying. He patiently listened to my feelings that there are "mean" people, and that sometimes we cross paths with them. Unfortunately, I used an all-to-common expression, "I hate people like that! Don't you?" He shook his head, disagreeing with what I had asked. He responded, "They're only mean because they didn't get enough love."
I'm glad to know that I am not the only one thinking along these lines. As a recent example, the kid at Virginia Tech was not evil, but clearly mentally ill, no doubt a PTSD victim himself, and he "dealt with it" by traumatizing a community of people before killing himself. Who knows what the costs, big and small, psychological, physical, economic, spiritual, emotional, relational, to countless others will be from that incident? One person's trauma spreads like ripples on a pond to traumatize others. It is so tragic.
And then there is yesterday's Supreme Court ruling, which upholds the ban on the kind of abortion that leaves the baby's body intact, and forces doctors to perform the kind of abortion that dismembers the fetus while removing it. Which sounds more traumatic to you? Why are "right-to-life" extremists so bent on outlawing the more humane option? They invent the term "partial birth abortion," get a lot of religious knickers in a twist, money comes pouring in to "fight the good fight" and voilá, you earn a great living, and get a lot of press for your cause and your name. It is certainly one way to act out one's trauma: traumatize others in the name of Christianity. Speaking of religious zealots there is a traumatized group searching for pain relief!
What a kinder, gentler world this would be if both camps, pro-choice and anti-choice, could focus on what is humane, rather than exacerbating trauma by either downplaying the agony of decision-making or banning options that can have benefit. Even if folks are determined to legislate pregnancy termination, they can still legislate humanely. Doctors must be free to focus on providing options and procedures that are humane for baby and mother.
My personal antidote? I try to do good in the world by soothing the trauma felt by bereaved parents...
Deborah L. Davis, PhD, Denver.
Your piece on Speaking Truth to Trauma moved me considerably. Having been a prison governor for nearly 40 years I have come to understand the impact of trauma on the lives of victims of crime, on those who perpetrate crime and their families and communities of care. Since my retirement working with concepts of restorative justice has led me to help to establish Escaping Victimhood, which provides a programme of an experiential residential workshop to help empower those who come. The work seeks to address the impact of trauma on those bereaved by murder and manslaughter so that they can resume control of their lives in relationship with their families and communities. This has been strongly influenced by Quaker thinking and activity within restorative work.
We have made a start and it appears to meet the need but like most work outside the justice process does not attract much funding. We intend to develop the service as it clearly has a profound impact on those whose lives have been dominated by the trauma of the past. The workshop involves:
There may well be other programmes that are running but we know of none in England. Good wishes in your journey,
Tim Newell, Thames Valley, England.
I found this piece moving and in a (pardon me) technical sense, interesting as well. Loren speaks of the emotional aspects of bounded rationality, including biologically bounded rationality. On a few things that matter (in terms of basic human needs) we need to come closer to unbounded rationality. Mundane things, such as energy, are among these things.
M. Robert Showalter.
I am a child of the holocaust and also a survivor. I was born in a combat zone in Italy before the war ended. I remember being bombed while in my mother's womb. I could feel the fear. I even wrote a poem about it that experience that Robert Bly liked. :-)
The world of untramautized people have very little patience for those of us who are traumatized. Even Quakers want me to be "normal". I think there is a great conspiracy, like in a family of battered children, not to "out" the parent who does so much violence to us as such a young age. Now we see how FGC has traumatized a great healer of ours, George Price, who had brought a powerful healing to the children (and adults) who went to the Quaker Sweat Lodge. Your article helps me to understand how they could stand in the way of all that healing. It sure helped me. Thanks.
If you are beaten by your mom as a baby and child, how could you be lovable? My mom actually would tell the story of our crossing the Atlantic, on the way to the USA in 1946, and how lucky my twin brother and I were that she had not thrown us overboard "Like a Normal Mother would have." This story was last told at Thanksgiving with twenty adults and children at the table, including me (my twin has long since "escaped" the family).
I've sent your article to the Jewish Family and Career Services counselors who work in the holocaust survivors and 2G survivor support groups. I will ask them if our next group meeting can be about this issue.
Thanks for more healing. It is good to know that my mom and our family were not alone.
Found on the Web
"I read every issue of Forbes, in order to get an idea of the world-view of the prototypical 'Rich Person' ... For the same reason, but in search of information about a very different world-view, I read The Quaker Economist, and am often astonished at what I find there. Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don't, but I always learn something. Unlike Forbes, it's free." Ozarque, 8 Jan 2006.
Copyright © 2007 by Loren Cobb. All rights reserved.