What does it take to heal social trauma?
Like a lot of Jews of her generation, my maternal grandmother (may she rest in peace) was so repelled by all things German that she refused even to ride in a Volkswagen. She’d emigrated to this country long before World War II, but when that war was over, the remnant of her family had been erased and for the rest of her life she kept silent about her pain, shunning the entire nation she held responsible.
I thought of her this past weekend, when I attended a program on the history and culture of Japanese Americans in the Santa Clara Valley. Four individuals told the stories of their appalling wartime experiences: being expelled from their own land and livelihood, forced into remote, primitive prison camps far from home, treated as enemy aliens despite citizenship, despite having contributed loyally to their country and community.
During the question period, I made reference to Jews who’d survived concentration camps, how few of them had chosen to return to Germany. I asked if these internment survivors had hesitated about remaining in the United States. All said no. In a way I couldn’t quite comprehend, their feeling of deep connection to this place had trumped (but not expunged) their feeling of betrayal.
The two experiences aren’t identical, of course. The camps of this country were not death camps, but improvised prisons from which nearly every inmate eventually emerged alive. But there are similarities in the way the experience was processed. Japanese Americans of my generation, like most children of Holocaust survivors, report the strongest reluctance on their parents’ part to share their memories of the camps. As children, most knew next to nothing about their parents’ ordeal. In both communities, eventually, the insistent entreaties of survivors’ children finally released the flow of stories. Reaching maturity, our age cohort started many of the study projects and archives and oral history projects that shone light on the dark secrets of our parents’ era.
Was it just that sufficient time had passed, desensitizing the stories enough to be told? Simply that a few decades had to intervene before most people could face and speak their memories?
I have been reading something about individual trauma that suggests that more than time is needed. John Briere is a specialist in the treatment of psychological trauma who teaches in the medical school at the University of Southern California. If you have patience for the formal jargon-clotted style of professional texts, I encourage you click on the last link near the top of this page to download a chapter on treating abuse survivors I found hugely illuminating.
Please don’t blame Briere for my paraphrase and extrapolation as I explain how his ideas led me to think about healing social trauma. His subject is individuals, and in that framework he writes that it can be healing to tell one’s story in fullness and in detail, so long as the telling is received in a way that’s in strong disparity to the original trauma. In other words, the original abuse probably insulted every aspect of the recipient’s personhood: he or she was disrespected, used, harmed, shamed, blamed, made to feel worthless and dispensable. If in retelling the story, anything evoking those insults is again experienced, the result is more likely to be a repetition of the injury than its healing.
For the process of healing to start, the story must be held by the listener with respect and caring. That container of loving witness begins to make it possible for the traumatized person to feel safe enough to examine, question and eventually modify or discard the distorted lessons earlier learned from trauma (such as that no one is to be trusted or that intimacy equals pain). Here’s how Briere frames this for the therapist working with an individual trauma survivor:
The clinician is careful to honor the client’s dignity, rights, and psychological integrity — even if the abuse survivor is unaware of his or her entitlement to such treatment. Over time, the therapist’s consistent respect for the client’s rights to safety and freedom from intrusion can be internalized by the client as evidence of his or her physical and psychological boundaries. Part of this learning process is overtly cognitive — during the client’s recounting of his or her child abuse history and later adult experiences of violation or exploitation, the therapist actively reinforces the survivor’s previous and current entitlement to integrity and self-determinism. Other aspects of this process are intrinsic, and the learning implicit — as he or she is treated with compassion and respect by the therapist, and slowly develops a growing sense of personal identity, the survivor begins to assume or understand that he or she has entitlements and intrinsic validity.
Just so, I have observed, with social trauma. I have seen people squirming with discomfort while listening to tales of oppression that reflect in even the remotest way on the oppressors in their own family trees. I have seen stories of suffering rooted in racism and other invidious, dehumanizing prejudices used to fuel a competition of oppressions. I have heard African Americans tell Jews to shut up about the Holocaust; and Latinos tell African Americans they have heard enough about slavery. I have experienced this tendency in my own mind, observed myself listening to a tale of collective suffering or exile while a nasty voice in my own head interrupts to whisper, “What are they whining about? Look what happened to us!”
Whether in my own mind or out loud in a group setting, this has always seemed petty and repellent. But now I know why: if such sharing is coerced under the wrong conditions, if it falls on a hardened heart and closed ears, if it is merely endured or used to generate a guilty resentment, it reinforces injury rather than healing it.
In contrast, when Holocaust survivors or survivors of the detention camps for Japanese Americans tell their stories to their own children or to others who hold the highest regard for their courage and value, the healing process is set in motion.
This realization has opened a window in my own understanding, light pouring through. When I can listen in loving witness, staying completely present to what I am hearing rather than thinking about what it says about me or my tribe, both speaker and listener begin—however gradually—to be lifted out of pain.
Some groups are showing the way through structured interactions, such as the Compassionate Listening Project and the story circles used by theaters like Roadside to create a situation of equality in sharing and respect. Now I want to practice bringing my own loving witness to accidental encounters across cultural barriers and to random events like community meetings, where we stumble over social trauma on our way to some other destination. To move beyond the pattern of injury and re-injury, loving witness must become our ordinary way of seeing.
I turn again to Thich Nhat Hanh, to bring this same wisdom from a spiritual (rather than a scientific) source:
When you have compassion in your heart, you suffer much less, and you are in a situation to be and to do something to help others to suffer less. This is true. So to practice in such a way that brings compassion into your heart is very important. A person without compassion cannot be a happy person. And compassion is something that is possible only when you have understanding. Understanding brings compassion. Understanding is compassion itself. When you understand the difficulties, the suffering, the despair of the other person, you don’t hate him, you don’t hate her anymore.