By: Ruth Cohn, original posting – https://ruthcohnmft.com/on-my-mind/justice-justice/
(Warning: this story may contain content that is disturbing to some readers.)
As the world reels from the recent death of a young Iranian woman at the hands of the “morality police,” I heard a recent interview with another young woman who was stopped, but thankfully not detained, for the “incorrect” wearing of the hijab, the controversial mandatory head covering required for women in Iran. Her breathy recounting of the story, her experience of the event, and its aftermath was like reading the checklist of PTSD symptoms from the DSM. She could check every box: flashbacks, nightmares, terror of even leaving the house, and fearful aversion to even the thought of the street corner where the trauma occurred. Listening to her sent a chill from my belly and up through my whole body.
It was a familiar chill, taking me back to my Aleph class, the first grade of Hebrew School, which corresponded to third-grade regular school, making me about seven or eight years old. I remember watching the grainy black and white newsreels of the Nazi concentration camps, seeing the naked skeleton-like bodies, some of them very small, being kids like me, or too emaciated to tell if they were young or if they were shrunken by starvation and suffering. Clearly, they were almost or soon to be dead.
The chill, the same sensation I was feeling once again, even then, resonated with something as yet unremembered in my own life; that kept me awake or awakened by nightmares and horror. Why they were showing those films to such young kids and without helping to make sense out of them, if there was any sense to be made, continues to be beyond me. The rallying cry of the then-radical Jewish Defense League was “Never Again!” But still, seven- and eight-year-olds?
That same chill, like an intractable ghost, revisited my belly and nightmare-ridden nights in my first year of college. It was another September 11th milestone that became a haunting anniversary in my annual date book: September 11th, 1973, when the bloody Pinochet dictatorship overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile. Thousands were rounded up, brutally tortured, raped, murdered, and/or disappeared during a reign of terror which spread over much of the Latin American continent. Having grown up on a diet of such stories, I was both riveted and haunted. Many of the torture stories were hideous and graphic, often involving genitals, that lingered in particular in my horror-ridden mind and body.
I have often been curious about the vast menu of symptoms the dysregulated psyche and body land on to both calm the hyper-aroused system down or metaphorically enact the trauma story.
As a therapist, I have often been curious about the vast menu of symptoms the dysregulated psyche and body land on to both calm the hyper-aroused system down or metaphorically enact the trauma story. In our home, we grew up with a steady diet of the, to my mind, nonsensical admonition to “clean your plate, because children are starving in Europe!” (I never understood how my eating unwanted food would help them!) Our dad never let us forget his years of hunger and deprivation, and I felt a similar chill in my body hearing his tirade about “bread and worms,” with which he not infrequently seemed almost to threaten me. I was a decidedly “bad eater.”
Frequently gripped by the hideous and scary image of squirming creatures burrowing in and out of dry old bread heels, I guess it was no surprise when my “symptom of choice” was a near-lethal run with the then virtually unknown, certainly unstudied anorexia, which nearly took me down. But since it was starvation at my own hand, rather than at the hands of some vicious social or political power that be, it was my own “fault,” and certainly did not earn me the badge of courage that our dad wore. I was a “bad girl” and not a martyr.
The play of social forces, of history, left its indelible mark on both of our parents – indelible because neither of them had the impulse or the privilege of healing that I have had. The intergenerational transmission took many forms, both in actions taken and not taken on us kids and also in these less obvious psychological, somatic, and other forms of dysregulation, but also in the more complex and more difficult-to-discern re-enactment and unspoken messages. Somehow, I came to believe that martyrdom was redeeming, suffering noble, and being killed for it the highest possible merit of honor. I suppose on some level, I came to believe that to go up in smoke, to die a tragic or at least some sort of hero’s death, was the way to win our dad’s approval and love. That became my life script, although, of course, I did not realize it. I ultimately set about making my life path to, like Che Guevara, be a selfless internationalist fighter, and go down in fiery glory for the cause. That would also, of course, solve the problem of ending my miserable and unworthy life. Oy vey! That is another story for another day…
My point is that social and political violence in all its forms – racism, homelessness, wild economic, educational, and power disparities – are all the ultimate perpetrators of dysregulation and trauma in their myriad manifestations. How can we dream of addressing one without the other? It is the endless chicken and egg, cycling ever faster like a bicycle wheel careening down a steep, bumpy hill.
My point is that social and political violence in all its forms – racism, homelessness, wild economic, educational, and power disparities – are all the ultimate perpetrators of dysregulation and trauma in their myriad manifestations.
A Baby Girl
Our parents did get involved in Post-Holocaust healing efforts. Our mom was a high school teacher, and together they participated in taking “friendship” delegations of Jewish kids to Germany to have educational and healing conversations about the wreckage wrought by and upon their parents. It was perhaps healing for our parents. Our dad’s bitterness softened some. However, when it came to Arabs and Israelis, not so much. His rage at Arabs never seemed to abate, and he even was prone to ranting, at least for a time (until Donald Trump sent him into flashbacks about Hitler?) about “Obama being a Muslim.” Thank god he got over that one. I remember shortly after I met my now husband, loud, red-faced arguments they had about Zionism. I was so embarrassed in front of my new boyfriend. Those feelings went with him to the grave. How can Arabs and Israelis, essentially cousins, dig their heels in so endlessly, with an unending, tragic waste of life, decade after decade? It is beyond me.
So, it warmed my heart to hear a story the other morning on the BBC, an interview with a man just slightly older than me. He also was a child of Holocaust survivors, but his father died when he was a child. His family migrated to Israel, and he grew up there. Like all young Israeli men and women, he had to serve his time in the Army, and ended up participating in the now-historical Six-Day War.
In this story, he was about 19 years old, somewhere on a noisy battlefield, when he heard the voice of a little boy crying in Arabic, “Doctor, Doctor!” It was a loud wail. Turning to see what the child was calling about, he saw the little guy gesturing toward a woman who was bloody – but not by injury. She was having a baby and needed help. The youth had no clue how to deliver a baby, but he figured clean water was needed and sent the boy in search of it, which he quickly found and brought back. By some sort of natural emergency intuition, he figured out how to assist the baby’s arrival into this crazy world. Arab? Israeli? Who cared? The baby emerged loudly crying. That’s good – it means she’s alive. A baby girl. The mother, the daughter, and the young soldier never saw each other again. Paths crossing in humanity.
How can we treat one without the other? Trauma and social justice? Two wings of the same bird.
Kudos to TRF for weaving the two skillfully together into a powerful learning event: The Social Justice Summit. See Trauma Research Foundation’s website for details.
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.