The myth of survivor solidarity: Why it’s so hard for us to all just get along

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.

Trauma, anger
Trauma, anger. Photo @Melanie Wasser for Unsplash.

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.

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The Intolerable Cure

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.

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The Hollywood Reporter includes ACEs in coverage of sexual harassment and abuse

Louise Godbold

Following a previous article about my encounter with Harvey Weinstein, The Hollywood Reporter interviewed me for their 2017 Women in Entertainment issue.

I didn’t want to supply salacious details to the already much chewed-over picture we have of the habitual, historical abuse. I wanted to take control of the narrative and use this opportunity to talk about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and the patterns set up by this kind of toxic stress in later life.

It is so important that the science we now have about trauma and resilience reaches a larger audience. At Echo Parenting & Education, we want people to understand that our relationships with one another, and especially our children, will determine whether we continue in these destructive cycles, or whether the trauma and abuse stop now.

Read The Hollywood Reporter interview here.

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My encounter with Harvey Weinstein and what it tells us about trauma

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Harvey Weinstein, 2014/ Photo by Georges Biard

 

I have been watching the scandal about Harvey Weinstein emerge with great interest – in the early ‘90s, I too was one of the young women he preyed upon.

The details of what I have learned was not unique to me are out there now – the office tour that became an occasion to trap me in an empty meeting room, the begging for a massage, his hands on my shoulders as I attempted to beat a retreat… all while not wanting to alienate the most powerful man in Hollywood.

This morning I learned he was fired. His misdeeds are now common knowledge and I don’t see much mileage in adding my name to the list of women he abused, especially since those who were brave enough to come forward in the New York Times article are the ones who had to ride out the inevitable attempts to shame and discredit them in the face of Harvey’s denials, only to emerge vindicated. I salute these women. I would be a footnote to their courage. Thanks to them, this genie will not go back into the bottle.

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Childhood trauma — is it a disability or injustice?

blog-1024x818You may have noticed the recent media attention being paid to the Compton Unified School District lawsuit (NPR and LA Times). The lawsuit has been filed on behalf of eight Compton students and alleges that the school system failed to properly educate students who suffered from repeated violence and other trauma.

Public Counsel, the pro bono law firm that filed the lawsuit (along with Irell & Manella LLP), is asking a Federal judge to grant an injunction that will require the school district to provide training to teachers, administrators and other staff. Echo Parenting & Education is currently in discussion with Public Counsel about what that training might look like, given our experience in conducting trauma-informed nonviolent training for the staff of Sally Ride Elementary, our pilot project for the Whole School Initiative.

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Echo Parenting & Education rides the trauma wave

Changing the Paradigm keynote speakers Dr. Janina Fisher and Ruth Beaglehole, Founder of Echo Parenting & Education

Sometimes we don’t notice when history is being made. We ride a wave of logical progression and don’t even notice when it peaks – that snapshot moment when we are lifted, arms outstretched, into the waiting air and remain suspended for one glorious second before the wave breaks and pushes powerfully to shore.

What the heck am I talking about? Our Changing the Paradigm conference. Last month, 120 participants, 22 speakers and a slew of volunteers gathered at The California Endowment for our two-day conference on developmental trauma. Everything went off perfectly. The evaluations were glowing (apart from the person who wanted avocado on the lunchtime sandwiches – I guess you can’t please everyone). But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what some of the speakers had to say:

“It was a deep honor and a pleasure to be part of such a wonderful and inspiring exchange of hearts, minds

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The trauma of domestic violence: reality v. the classroom

dv1“I need to use a phone.”

I had just arrived home yesterday and was surprised to find my neighbor — I’ll call her Sarah (not her real name) — standing in my drive. Then I realized it was her car that was parked on the other side of the street. She must have been waiting for me.

“Has something happened?” I asked, but not really needing to, given the pallor of her face and the way she staggered as we walked towards my house.

“I’ve been beaten up and I just need to call the police.” That’s when I noticed the hand she held to her temple was hiding a very nasty lump. “I don’t want to stay,” she added quickly.

At work, I am known as the trauma geek – in fact, just yesterday afternoon I was teaching trauma-informed care to our current class of parent educators who are getting their certification in nonviolent parenting. One of the participants is a domestic violence survivor and gave a description of how trauma affected her ability to think and remember after escaping into a shelter.

“It was like there was rain in my ears for a week. You could speak to me and I would see your mouth moving, but I couldn’t understand what you were saying.” She was far more eloquent than my slides on the neurological effects of trauma. And now here was Sarah sitting on my sofa probably in the same state.

A glass of water! I remembered the grounding techniques to soothe the alarm center (amygdala) of the brain. I filled a glass and then sat down and stroked her hand.

“Would you be willing to tell me who has done this to you?”

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