My father, a survivor of brutal abuse during his childhood (merciless physical and psychological beatings which started in infancy), was not one to examine his own pain, beyond an occasional reference to the personal demons we all must fight. He took positions I now see were predictable for someone holding in so much pain from the unspeakable trauma he’d endured. People can’t change, shrinks are the craziest people in society, therapy is a waste of time, since people can’t really change, and since we can’t change, talking about it is a big waste of time and energy.
“Look at my brother,” he would say, by way of resting his case about the futility of therapy. His brother, who had been in psychoanalysis for years, was arguably even crazier than he was. My father would never concede that he needed help, because people couldn’t be helped, goddamn it! You take people as you find them, with their faults, warts, tics as well as their good points — we are all in each other’s lives on a take it or leave it basis. I am what I am, I’m not going to change, if you have a problem with that, I’m sorry you have a problem.
It was useless to point out that we make accommodations to people we are care about all the time, important changes if you will. I love my dog and you’re terrified of dogs, I don’t let my dog happily greet you by leaping to lick your face when you come to visit. You find yourself trapped in a situation you don’t want to talk about, no matter what — we don’t need to talk about it. You are offended by coarse language, I don’t need to argue that you are being a needlessly squeamish fuck — “exhibiting a prudish readiness to be nauseated” (in my favorite dictionary phrase of all-time). There are countless examples of things we adjust in ourselves to get along with people.
But that we can all sometimes exert ourselves to get along with others is not really the point. We are traumatized in various ways, and the trauma we’ve experienced colors our world, influences how we see things and how we react. If the trauma is experienced early in life, and repeated consistently, it exerts ongoing influence on our personalities, our choices in life. It is painful to address and difficult to try to resolve.
Trauma is a subtle thing sometimes — it can be something as deniably neutral as remaining stoically silent when someone is pouring their heart out to us. No matter how you try to move me, I will simply not be moved, waiting for you to make the next move, doing nothing you can really blame me for, unless you’re just trying to blame me for your own pathetic problems. The consistent withholding of sympathy is a great way to traumatize a young person and it has the additional advantage of making it seem like the little bastard’s own fault, it will cause the kid to question everything about herself.
I can see the sometimes crippling effects of my father’s often abusive behavior on others in the family more easily than I can see them in myself. Still, I realize that I’ve had to overcome senseless pain that more fortunate people, people whose parents weren’t themselves traumatized, did not have to experience. I think of that great lyric from Albert King “I can’t read, I can hardly write, my whole life’s been one long fight.” I spent decades fighting, for reasons I could barely understand. I understand those reasons much better now, though the reactions I had to struggle against cost me virtually every job I’ve ever had. There came a time when a boss would tell me “this is not a discussion, you do not get a say” and I’d be compelled to be witty.
“Not even ‘fuck you’, sir?”
You can take every mass shooter, like the several in recent days, any police officer who shoots a seventh grader with his hands up, complying with his orders, Derek Chauvin, hands in pockets as he slowly chokes a man to death, or the now indicted officer who trained other officers in the use of force who yelled “taser! taser!” as she shot a man to death after they found out he had an outstanding warrant for a misdemeanor arrest. Take any of these folks and examine their life, and I’d pretty much guarantee they were survivors of some kind of life-altering trauma. It doesn’t excuse their depraved indifference to human life, of course, but it explains how they could act so callously toward others.
I’ve spent time in therapy at various points in my life. I believe it helped me more than it helped my uncle (though, of course, it could hardly have helped less). One breakthrough I had was letting go of much of my anger toward my father when I understood he had done the best he could, based on how he was shaped by his own trauma.
I was far from being able to forgive him, of course, for being such a relentlessly destructive dick, but I came to an emotional understanding that was very important to my belated growth as a person. Once I realized it hadn’t strictly been his choice to be such an abusive parent, once I learned of his abuse and grasped how the whippings he’d taken as a two year-old had warped his world, I was able to let go of a certain amount of anger. If he’d apologized, I could actually have forgiven him, but his position remained as un-nuanced as it always had been — take it or leave it, I am what I am, you got a problem with that it’s your problem.
When I got the sudden news that he was dying, of end-stage liver cancer that had not been diagnosed until he had six days to live, I got on a plane and went to his Florida hospital room. I was in a position that nobody else in the family was in — I’d had important understandings about my father’s life and how it affected my own. I was present in a way nobody else there could be. My father told me, moments after I arrived, “you’re the only one who knows what’s going on.”
I understood that this was about my father’s rapidly approaching death, not about my fear of losing my father, settling a score with him or anything else. He was the one who was dying, not me. I don’t know that I’d have grasped this so clearly if I’d still held so much anger against him, if I hadn’t achieved a level of empathy for the abuse he’d survived.
It is easy enough to scoff at what I’m going to tell next, and, of course, you’re free to. Because I was not standing in judgment of my difficult father, or in denial about his rapidly approaching death (his brother buttonholed his doctor in the hall and asked about a liver transplant for his 80 year-old older brother), or still trying to prosecute my grievances, my father and I were finally able to have a real conversation. I mostly listened.
When I arrived at his deathbed at one a.m. on what turned out to be the last night of his life, he was waiting for me, his thoughts all in order, as he’d promised they would be. He began by alluding to the demon he’d been avoiding his whole life, the childhood abuse he’d suffered at the hands of his violent little mother. “Everything Eli told you about my childhood was true,” he said, referring to the many discussions I’d had with his seventeen years older first cousin, “but he probably spared you the worst of it.”
This was a striking way to begin, it got my attention and summarized hours of discussion into a few words. He’d always insisted that Eli was full of shit, an unreliable historian who distorted everything to his own crazy ends. Now, in a few words, Eli had been truthful, and thoughtful too, in not painting the horrific picture as brutally as it had actually occurred. It got my attention, and required no response from me.
“My life was pretty much over by the time I was two,” my father said.
Again, this was something I knew to be the case. I’d often thought of him as emotionally trapped as a two year-old. Though he was brilliant in many areas, his emotional reactions, within the family, particularly his wildly uncontrolled temper, were those of a two-year old. There was no reason to say anything about this either.
He went on to acknowledge how wrong he’d been to place obstacles in front of my sister and me, life being hard enough without a father making it harder still by being a “horse’s ass”. I’d never heard him use this phrase, but he described himself as a horse’s ass at least twice in the course of apologizing for having behaved badly, in a misguided attempt to feel “in control” that placed gratuitous burdens on my sister and me. It was the only time I can ever remember my father apologizing for anything. I had only one comment, as he berated himself.
“You can’t kick yourself now, you did the best you could do, at the time.” I believed this was true, I understood why he’d acted the way he did, recognized that he could also have done worse — nothing but some kind of innate restraint kept him from beating me and my sister as he’d been beaten.
The point of this little piece is how brutally the hidden effects of unaddressed trauma can act upon us, as individuals and as a society. The 87,000 desperate American souls who killed themselves with drug overdoses last year, every single one of them, was wrestling with traumas that they felt they could only deal with by numbing themselves to death. As a society we ignore trauma — we are not an empathetic society, we spend a million times more on state violence than on addressing the causes of violence. As a culture we extoll the mythical rugged individual, the largely imaginary hero who, without any help or advantage, overcomes all adversity and defeats every challenge to “win.” In a falsely black and white world of winners and losers, it is not necessary to address the pressing problems of “losers.”
Our society is an over-boiling caldron of trauma. Is the constant danger of death from an invisible air-borne virus not traumatic? Is the very real prospect of irreversible destruction of our biosphere not traumatic? Are the fears of millions, probably billions worldwide, that cause masses to cling to insane, often violent, beliefs not born in trauma? People react as they must.
When Robert Evans called Naziism “at its heart a conspiracist theology” he was putting his finger on something very deep and horrifying.
You can look at a conspiracist religion as a predictable reaction to trauma, terror, humiliation. What are the tenets of this kind of religion? You are hurt, and absolutely right to feel hurt, you’re a victim, and the people who hurt you are going to fucking suffer and die.
Here’s what you have to do — sign up to this theory, this theology. Now you can join us in painting the world in good and evil, ascribe all good to your fight for revenge against the evil ones, and all evil to … duh! The evil ones! The godless inner-city thugs who want to rape your wives, mistresses, mothers, daughters, grandmothers. Etc. And best of all, no personal pain need be felt when you externalize it onto a hated enemy who is completely to blame while you are totally innocent.
A religion of conspiracy, a faith that explains everything you cannot understand and provides a simple, clear answer, to the burning question of why you feel so traumatized, why you are in so much pain. If you subscribe to our muscular, proactive theology, and march with the rest of us, you will soon be joyously trampling the evil enemies who brought all this hurt on you. And we will love you for it, and all live happily ever after, amen.