Because 18-year-old Payton Gendron provided in his 180-page diatribe a motive for shooting 10 people in Buffalo, NY, on Saturday night, police didn’t need to search for one, as they often have other in mass shootings. But using motive to prevent mass shootings will just get you a useless answer to the wrong question.
The right question is: What happened to this person? What happened to a beautiful baby boy to turn him into an 18-year-old killer spouting racist screed?
In those questions—and looking at the answers through the lens of positive and adverse childhood experiences—lie our solutions.
The ACE Study showed a remarkable link between 10 types of childhood trauma and being violent or a victim of violence, as well as experiencing the adult onset of chronic disease and mental illness. The ten types of childhood trauma include experiencing physical and emotional abuse, neglect, living with a family member who is addicted to alcohol or who is mentally ill, and witnessing domestic violence. (For more information, see PACEs Science 101 and What ACEs/PCEs Do You Have?) Subsequent ACE surveys include experiencing bullying, racism, the foster care system, living in a dangerous community, losing a family member to deportation and being a war refugee, among other traumatic experiences.
The point is — and the science is irrefutable now — just as a bullet rips through flesh and bone, a child experiencing ongoing encounters that cause toxic stress, without positive intervention to help the child, will suffer damage to the structure and function of their brain.
As a Weinstein survivor, I’ve noticed that journalists love to explore the presumed solidarity among “sister survivors” – in our case, the over 100 women who came forward about Weinstein’s sexual predation. But what journalists don’t write about are the challenges in preventing any group of trauma survivors from imploding. Only when we survivors understand the impact of trauma can we overcome the underlying forces that threaten to pull us apart and stand together against injustice and abuse.
Journalists often look for a “feel good” element to a story, particularly when reporting on distressing subjects. It makes sense. Why not try for a little positivity when there is enough bad news nowadays to sink us into overwhelming despair? As a Weinstein survivor, I’ve noticed that one positive spin journalists love to explore is a presumed solidarity among “sister survivors” – in our case, over 100 women who came forward publicly to recount our personal experience of Weinstein’s long reign of sexual predation.
Solidarity among survivors is a value I happily embraced, the idea of us coming together to support each other as more and more victims of high-profile abusers courageously stepped forward to join the ranks of those who cried, “Me too!” For my part, I have spent the last four years talking with survivors and connecting individuals to create a network of mutual support. It felt like an act of sedition in the face of powerful men and an at-times indifferent establishment. Still, I should have known that this camaraderie would develop stress points and, in some cases, fall apart. Interpersonal trauma in particular often results in a distrust of other people and a host of other protective responses that work against cohesiveness. In the refreshingly honest words of one interviewee in an article about community trauma: “…traumatized people interacting with other traumatized people – a community can really run the risk of imploding” (1).
To get to the root of what may seem like self-destructive behavior on the part of survivors, we have to understand the impact of trauma on the body. The physical adaptations that happen in response to trauma and that are designed to protect us from further danger may later prove counterproductive when we are no longer under threat. In particular, they can scupper our best attempts to connect with other people, which in turn deprives us of oxytocin (the “love hormone”) and its calming effect on the sympathetic nervous system, the mediator of the fight-or-flight response. A more in-depth explanation can be found in “Trauma Responses”, a new online course I have developed for Echo, the nonprofit I run.
Here are a few of the most important psychological and physical responses to trauma that help to explain why survivor solidarity is something we aspire to but find so hard to achieve.
TRIGGER ALERT – CONTENT REFERENCING SEXUAL ASSAULT, CHILD SEX TRAFFICKING, PHYSICAL AND EMOTIONAL ABUSE.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I don’t think it matters which month it is—when you feel called to share a portion of your story the calendar is irrelevant. In my case, the calendar serendipitously lined up with a surgery that occurred the same month. I had a full hysterectomy because of a large fibroid tumor in the wall of my uterus and multiple tumors in and on my ovaries. The tumors were located after an MRI and then a follow up CT because I was experiencing severe abdominal pain. Doctors could not verify that the pain was due to the tumors, but the tumors needed to come out regardless. My mom had passed away at age 60 from ovarian cancer. Her cancer wasn’t diagnosed until it was stage 4. Three months after her diagnosis, she passed away. I was managing a lot of emotions going into surgery.
Prior to my surgery, I had a few panic attacks about how this surgery was a culmination of the complete lack of power I’ve had over my body, most specifically, the parts of my body that men want to possess, use for their pleasure, or even damage—out of some warped psychological issue they might have.
I’m sharing this most recent turn of events in my journey to process it, or possibly reprocess it. I’ve shared parts before, and I imagine, at different times, I’ve needed to process different parts of my trauma history. I don’t know what will come of this latest information purge, but I feel deeply compelled to do it. I feel like having had this hysterectomy has been the ultimate surrender of my body for others to do as they see fit. And it’s not that I disagree with the path, but I wonder if I’d be in this situation if I could have had a safe, healthy, loving relationship with my body. I’ll never know. Instead, this surgery went wrong, and the surgeon accidentally punctured my colon. This had to be repaired in the middle of the hysterectomy. It meant I dId not have a laparoscopic surgery, that I was under anesthesia for over 5 hours, and my recovery time will be longer.
What I’m finding is that the abdominal pain, the pressure from the staples, the surprise pain when a staple breaks free from the skin it had adhered to, the physical healing, all of this is causing childhood memories to come pouring back. I’ve started waking up screaming at predators to “get out.” I’m crying in my sleep again. Earlier today, I dozed off and thought I was having a conversation with someone about the pedophile ring and how to escape, but as I started to wake up I realized that I was in my room alone with the TV on. I could have sworn the conversation was real.
At 5 years old, possibly 6, on my way to St. Helena’s Catholic School in South Minneapolis, I was wearing a green/navy plaid skirt and white button up top; my hair in long dark pony tails, and white knee high nylon socks with black patent shoes. A man came out of the parking lot, just past the corner on 34th Ave S. and 46th St. Most of the block was residential, but on that corner, there was a bar, with the word Sun in the name. I don’t recall the rest of the name. The guy asked me if I had lost my dog. He told me he had found it and he was keeping it safe on the broken down bus in the corner of the parking lot. I didn’t think my dog was lost, but I did have three dogs. So, I thought I’d better check. He also said he knew my dad and he knew the name of one of my dogs. I wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers, but it was pretty normal for me to talk to my dad’s friends.
[Ed. note: This is a continuing series of articles about people who are involved and contributing in the movement to implement practices and policies based on the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences.]
Growing up as the eldest daughter in a family of three girls and three boys in Nairobi, Kenya, Becky Ndung’u and all her siblings attended school, which is mandatory for children ages six through 14. Her parents—both farmers and her father also a lifelong government accountant—were committed to providing all their children a good education.
Her education began in a public school, followed by a private high school. Our conversation was conducted in English, but Ndung’u is also fluent in her native languages, Kikuyu and Kiswahili.
After graduating from high school, the young scientist earned a “higher diploma”—equivalent to a bachelor’s degree—in analytical chemistry in 2000 at what is now the Technical University of Kenya and then went on to earn a higher diploma in soil science in 2003 at what is now the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.
Not able to find a job in her field, she opted to work in schools as a science lab assistant, organizing and teaching lessons in biology, chemistry, and physics. She also prepared students for the exams they needed to matriculate from secondary schools.
She recounted that during this time, she was often asked to teach biology and chemistry when the teacher was absent. As a result, she says, “I learned a lot about how school systems work, their challenges in terms of teachers being overworked, discipline in learners, poor academic performances, and the struggles of parents to pay school fees.”
From Science Assistant to Educational Psychologist
But she had no desire to become a teacher herself. “I wanted to help the schools but not as a teacher,” she explains. “My focus was helping learners improve their academic performance and acquiring the discipline to avoid dropping out of the school. But in Kenya, there is no provision for educational psychologists in the education system.”
After earning a diploma online in educational psychology and emotional intelligence at the University of Ireland in 2020, she started working on her own as an educational psychologist. She acquired students by word of mouth from parents. “Amazingly,” she said, “I was able to help kids with behavior problems, learning difficulties, poor academic performances, and learners with special needs.”
Before learning about the science of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), Ndung’u’s knowledge about emotional intelligence (EQ) opened her eyes as to why children acted out and misbehaved in the classroom.
She recalls having to remove two sisters, ages six and eight, with severe dyslexia from the classroom because they couldn’t read at their grade levels. She used her EQ skills to get the sisters to open up and talk about their issues. She also involved their parents so that they could understand what their children were experiencing and to explain what needed to be done. She secured the students a special needs teacher, who home-schooled them for eight months. Later, they were both successfully integrated back into the schoolroom.
Learning About ACEs
While working with children, the trauma educator heard a talk by Dr. Angie Yonda-Maina, director of Green String Network, a nonprofit dedicated to peacebuilding through practices related to trauma, justice, spirituality, and security. Ndung’u was struck by a poster presented in the doctor’s talk that included a reference to ACEs.
As a survivor of interpersonal trauma, commitment and intimacy have never been easy, which is why I never did remarry after my first marriage fell apart. That is until last October, when my boyfriend who had been living at a comfortable distance (measured in thousands of miles) suggested I pack up my apartment and ride out the pandemic with him in Hawaii. Thus began an adventure that had me breathing into paper bags and him warranting a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.
I get bent out of shape easily. On days when I haven’t had enough sleep, I’m particularly vulnerable to being disgruntled and snappy, finding everything about my partner annoying, right down to his very existence. I usually seek refuge in elaborate plans of escape. (No doubt on those days my husband is similarly engaged.) I dream of a light-bathed studio giving onto a beach or a small cabin perched by a lake and surrounded by pines. The scene changes, the head count doesn’t. I am on my own.
For many trauma survivors, “avoidance”—a symptom of post-traumatic stress and driver of my escape fantasies—is the only way to make our lives feel manageable.
The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes avoidance as “efforts to avoid distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings” and “external reminders (people, places, conversations, activities, objects, situations)” associated with traumatic events. But what if the source and reminder of the trauma is other people? And what does that mean for our relationships?
The essential dilemma for survivors of interpersonal trauma is that, as Judith Herman has written, “recovery can take place only within the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation.” It makes sense that for those of us who have suffered abusive relationships, safe, stable relationships would be the cure, in the same way someone who has been poisoned might flush out toxins with pure water. However, as survivors of interpersonal trauma, getting close to people also feels inherently unsafe. In many cases, our trauma stems from the fact that the people who were supposed to love and protect us instead hurt us. We learned—sometimes at a young age—to distrust and fear the very thing we need as humans to survive. In The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, Bruce Perry writes:
“Being harmed by the people who are supposed to love you, being abandoned by them, being robbed of the one-on-one relationships that allow you to feel safe and valued and to become humane—these are profoundly destructive experiences. Because humans are inescapably social beings, the worst catastrophes that can befall us inevitably involve relational loss.”
Even more worrying, the inability to tolerate close relationships not only impedes trauma recovery but may even shorten our lifespan. A 2015 Brigham Young study reported that isolation is as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day in terms of the impact on our mental and physical health—and ultimately our longevity. The daily pain of social isolation is very real; it actually registers in the same region of the brain as physical pain. For some trauma survivors, isolation can be “iatrogenic”—meaning, the remedy is worse than the disease.
Some people get around the need for emotional connection with other humans by befriending other large mammals: dogs or horses are regularly used in trauma therapy. For those of us who dare to dip a toe into the potentially tumultuous waters of relationships with other humans, the experience is probably best approached as a kind of exposure therapy, where you face the thing you most dread in small increments until your brain is rewired and you no longer sense a threat. The problem is that marriage—to go back to my own situation—does not work like that. You can’t be married for say, one day a week, until you build up a tolerance. And, quite apart from your own ability to tolerate this unaccustomed state of being close to another person, unless your partner understands trauma well—and, like my husband (thus far), has enduring patience—there is a serious risk that the relationship will end up imploding.
Three relatively recent studies from different parts of the U.S. show that only a tiny percentage of physicians, medical school faculty and other healthcare providers are integrating practices and policies based on the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences (PACEs).
Why it matters: For people in the PACEs community, the following is news that’s 20 years old: Adverse childhood experiences are common, preventable and linked to six out of the top ten leading causes of death in the United States.
As one of the studies noted: “Positive and negative experiences in childhood shape our trajectory of health or illness for our entire lives, and this impact can be attributed to the brain-body physiology that results from our experiences during childhood.”
The science is well established. Thousands of research papers have been published about the long- and short-term health effects. Every U.S. state has done an ACE survey, many more than one. Legislation addressing childhood trauma and PACEs science has been passed in 39 states. Dozens of books have been written about the topic, including two bestsellers; one of those—Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score—has been on the New York Times paperback bestseller list for 178 weeks. Physicians who have been early adopters for more than a decade say they would never go back to not integrating it into their practices.
Who did the studies and why? In Muskegon County, MI, Resilience Muskegon, a community organization created by mental health agency HealthWest, did a survey of county residents that showed a huge disconnect between the healthcare system, which is highly rated, and the health of people in the county. A local ACE survey showed that 31.4 percent of adults have experienced 4 or more ACEs, nearly three times the number in the original CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which showed 12.5 percent had an ACE score of 4 or higher. This prompted researchers to recruit 226 physicians from Mercy Health, a hospital and healthcare system that serves 85% of the county, to participate. They asked if they knew about ACEs science, if they used it in their practice, and if they had a personal history of ACEs.
In Texas, researchers from the University of Texas and the University at Albany, NY, recruited 85 healthcare providers from Central Texas that included physicians, nurses, social workers and other staff who were at least 18 years old and providing care in a medical setting to women or children in Central Texas. Going into the study they thought that most healthcare workers would know about ACEs. They thought that most screened for traditional ACEs such as substance use or mental health issues, more often than ACEs such as bullying or community violence, and they thought that most patients would self-disclose common ACEs. They also thought that healthcare providers familiar with ACEs would implement ACE-informed strategies for patients, such as providing resources for patients or creating an ACE-informed culture in their practice. They were remarkably off target.
In Illinois, a team comprising three medical students and four medical school faculty noticed that “very, very few of our colleagues knew anything about childhood trauma,” says Dr. Audrey Stillerman, one of the authors who is clinical assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago. They were also interested in why this science that has existed for decades hasn’t been integrated into medical education so that it could become a part of clinical practice. What’s the rub? they wondered. Why isn’t medical education just different now? The team developed a survey to explore these questions; 81 faculty members from the University of Illinois College of Medicine and Rush Medical College in Illinois responded.
Examine Vladimir Putin’s childhood and you will see an eerie parallel to the atrocities playing out in Ukraine today. His life is a stark example of how childhood adversity is the root cause of most social, economic and mental health issues, as well as violence and chronic disease, as the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences demonstrates.
And while we can’t change the Russian president, we can encourage and educate people not to create more Putins by recognizing how childhood adversity impacts us throughout our lives and by integrating solutions into our healthcare, education, justice and economic systems.
Born in 1952 Leningrad, Putin was a street kid in a city devastated by a horrific, three-year siege by the Nazis during WWII, a genocide described as the world’s most destructive siege of a city. Most of the population of three million people died, one million starving to death. Putin’s father was badly injured in the war, his mother nearly died of starvation. Living in a rat-infested apartment with two other families, the family had no hot water, no bathtub, a broken-down toilet, little or no heat. His father worked in a factory; his mother did odd jobs she could find. A small child, whose two older siblings are believed to have been lost to war and disease, Putin was left to fend for himself, severely bullied by other children.
From his parents he inherited their wartime trauma personified by Nazi forces threatening their existence, ravaging their city and killing their friends and family. With his parents struggling to survive, they were absent or too traumatized to be attentive to their son. There’s no mention of other family members: no grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Kindness and affection didn’t seem to have been part of the child Putin’s world.
While the experiences of childhood adversity piled up, two positive experiences changed his trajectory: After years of being labeled a troublemaker in school, a sixth-grade teacher helped him realize his potential. He excelled in high school, learned judo to defend himself, got a law degree and was selected to join the KGB. But the damage that led to his current behavior was done. It produced a machismo man, distrustful and unpredictable, and who cultivates disinformation to advance his own agenda at any cost.
In her essay,“The Ignorance or How We Produce the Evil,” psychologist Alice Miller wrote: “Children who are given love, respect, understanding, kindness and warmth will naturally develop different characteristics from those who experience neglect, contempt, violence or abuse and never have anyone they can turn to for kindness and affection. Such absence of trust and love is a common denominator….All the childhood histories of serial killers and dictators I have examined showed them without exception to have been the victims of extreme cruelty, although they themselves steadfastly denied this.”
Research shows that early abuse and neglect damages an infant’s developing brain. If a child suffers abuse and neglect for years without intervention, the consequences can be dire. As Dr. Bruce Perry, co-author with Oprah Winfrey of What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing, says, the more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely they will be to recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.”
But without that love in their childhoods, abused people in power can do serious damage. Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedung all suffered years of merciless beatings and other unconscionable abuse in childhood and went on to be responsible for the deaths of millions of people. In Mao’s case, 35 million people. Of course, dictators can’t become dictators absent an environment that supports their ability to accumulate power. In The Real War, Richard Nixon pointed out that the “Darwinian forces of the Soviet system produce not only ruthless leaders, but clever ones.” Stalin killed nearly a million people each year he was in power; in 1938 he sent Khrushchev to Ukraine where he proved his ruthless ways by eliminating 163 out of 166 members of that country’s Central Committee. Of course, not everyone who has an abusive childhood grows up to abuse others; but it’s safe to say that all abusive dictators and autocrats had a childhood filled with abuse and/or neglect, and not enough love.
So, Putin’s statements on and after Feb. 23, are chilling and revealing: “The purpose of this operation is to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by
In 1964, Dan Press was in his first year of law school and was not liking it; he wanted a way out. He applied for a volunteer spot with AmeriCorps VISTA, the domestic version of the Peace Corps, and was intrigued by a position on an Indian reservation.
“I knew nothing about Indians, but it sounded like a good opportunity,” says Press, who was raised in Flushing, in the Queens borough of New York City. “So, I signed up and the next thing I knew I was on a plane to Montana,” he says.
It was a move that changed the course of his life.
Press, an attorney and now 78 years old, has spent his entire working life fighting on behalf of Indian tribes. He helped found the Tribal Employment Rights Officein 1977, which now has 300 offices around the country. His first legal battles involved pushing for enforcement of laws passed a half a century earlier to give Native Americans preference in hiring for employment on Indian lands brought by outside agencies and firms, but until Press challenged practices and won, those laws were largely ignored.
Through the news media, Americans are served an almost-daily dose of violence caused by guns. This year to date, more than 33,929 people in the United States have been killed and another 30,000+ have been injured by guns. The U.S. homicide rate for firearms is 22 times greater than that of the European Union, even though the European population is 35% larger.
But to Dr. Garen Wintemute, the statistics on injuries and deaths are only one part of the story. To reverse those appalling numbers, he says, the larger focus must be on changing the conditions that foster gun violence. These include the underlying inequities that are baked into the essence of American life.
“Violence has social determinants, such as disparities based on race/ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, place of origin and other characteristics,” says Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California at Davis School of Medicine. He is an expert in the public health crisis of gun violence and a pioneer in injury epidemiology and prevention of firearm violence.
In a recent nightmare, 8-year-old Jovina dreamt that her father got COVID-19. He was getting sicker, but she and her mother weren’t able to get there in time. “There,” in her father’s case, is a cell at the California Correctional Center (CCC) in Susanville, California, nearly 300 miles from where she lives in San Jose.
In Jovina’s mind are a swarm of worries about her father’s welfare, her mother Benee Vejar reports. If an earthquake shakes the Bay Area, Jovina says, “What if the building crushes in on him?” When she sees him on one of their infrequent, short video calls, her worries spike about his well-being. She “flips out” if he removes his mask, repeatedly asks him to wash his hands, and tells him how she longs for his embrace, declaring on a recent call, “Daddy, I want to squeeze you so bad!”
Recently Jovina refused to touch her food, telling her mother, “I don’t want to eat. I’m not feeling so good today. I miss my Dad. When are we going to be able to see him?”
A short while of waiting and torment later, and after 15 months of not being near him, a joyous visit with her father took place in June. However, like other children with incarcerated parents in California and around the country, Jovina has no clear sense of when she will be with her father again.
In the last year and a half, Jovina has had to cope with the added strain of living through a global pandemic, which, until recently, shut down family visits altogether. But she was already contending with the unpredictable and overwhelming stress of being separated from her father because he is incarcerated.
Jovina is among an estimated 5 million children in the United States who have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their childhood, according to Child Trends. Experiencing separation from a parent due to incarceration has long been identified as a childhood trauma in the landmark Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. The study tied this and nine other types of childhood trauma to chronic health conditions in adulthood.
The separation is excruciating for parents as well. Philip Melendez of California, who was formerly incarcerated, echoed the feeling of despair.
“I did not see my family for a year and a half, and I felt myself slipping away,” he said earlier this year at a townhall meeting on family visitation led by California Attorney General and former Assembly member Rob Bonta. Melendez, who has been out of prison for 3 years after serving a 20-year sentence, said that family visitation was a lifeline for him: “[My family] kept me focused on what I needed to do to come home.”