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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Hysterectomy Triggers Renewal of Childhood Trauma


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.

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How Vladimir Putin’s childhood is affecting us all

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

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Think you know something about historical trauma? PACEs Connection’s ‘Historical Trauma in America’ series promises to be an eye-opener

The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 unleashed hundreds of articles, books, podcasts, film and online documentaries. It’s not that the roots of racism and inequity in historical trauma hadn’t been known about or written about previous to his death (Frederick Douglas, James Baldwin, anyone?), but the pressures of hundreds of years of injustice began a near explosive untangling from the massive twisted and angry knot they’d formed over generations. It’s been like cutting through a gargantuan ball of rubber bands stretched to their limit: layers upon layers of hurt, unfairness, frustration, lives lost, lives constricted into rigid and narrow boundaries, all because of the human bent toward “othering”. (That’s something that PACEs science clearly demonstrates: There is no us and them. Just us.)

Despite all the stories that have been loosened from the grip of our remarkable ability to ignore what’s in front of us, White people are just beginning to learn—to our ongoing dismay, shame and horror—that racism and inequity are baked into everything we do, into all our systems, in every community in the U.S., even though most of us don’t know or want that. Fortunately, we are now in a time of reckoning, and have the potential to make real change. If you haven’t already put together your reading list to educate yourself, the 27 books here range from Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist”, to Cathy Park Hong’s “Minor Feelings”, to Toni Jensen’s “Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land.”

Despite our individual ACEs, the White people among us have been incredibly fortunate to be born into a power structure from which most of us didn’t even realize we benefited. We’ve been swimming in a sea that we didn’t even know was wet. Thus I think it’s our obligation, from the moment we grok the enormity of how our history granted us immeasurable advantages, to spend the rest of our lives educating ourselves and educating as many people as we can to change our systems. That’s a major goal of our work at PACEs Connection, the social network that accompanies ACEs Too High.

Over the last two years, PACEs Connection team members Ingrid Cockhren and Donielle Prince have been leading efforts to educate our organization about racism, inequity, White privilege, and how PACEs science figures into that. Ingrid’s been leading a series of in-depth webinars for our team that have truly challenged our understanding of where we are and how we got here. It’s been sobering, but one thing that being in this PACEs community offers is that we help each other face not only our individual truths, but our society’s truths, because that’s one of our values. (If you aren’t a member of PACEs Connection, please join by going to PACEsConnection.com.)

“I came up with the idea for the series in response to the controversy concerning Critical Race Theory in schools,” says Cockhren, who is PACEs Connection’s director of communities, “or basically the reluctance to discuss America’s true history.” When she suggested that we host a series of webinars on historical trauma in six different regions of the country, the team jumped into action.

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Donald Trump’s ACEs; the mob’s ACEs

Photograph by Craig Ruttle / Redux

As I post this, the U.S. Senate is in the middle of the second trial of former President Donald Trump, after the U.S. House of Representatives impeached him for the second time.

Several people have asked me why I had not written about the events of Wednesday, January 6, 2021, sooner — a traumatizing day that will be seared in our long history of trauma in this country. Basically, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, because this isn’t over.

I was also listening to what people in the ACEs movement were saying about the insurrection on January 6. We were all pretty much saying the same things that most people in the nation and the world were saying. First, about the violence, which was horrendous, terrifying, unreal. And then further disbelief, as well as rage, about why a mob of mostly White rioters was let loose on the U.S. Capitol, the people’s house, for six hours without consequences when just months before Black Lives Matter protestors who were practicing their First Amendment rights and were not violent, were tear-gassed, beaten, and arrested.

Below, I’m re-posting an article published last July about how former President Trump’s childhood adversity shaped his life, based on an amazing book by his niece, Mary Trump. The insurrection of January 6 demonstrated how much he has shaped ours in his run-away four-year screeching, careening metaphorical train wreck. Many people warned of this; Mary Trump could see it coming. At the root of all his actions over the last decades, and especially during his presidency, is his childhood trauma.

Adverse childhood experiences are also at the root of the behavior of people in the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol. People who are happy and healthy, who have a promising future for themselves and their children — i.e., those that have had enough positive childhood experiences to counter the inevitable adverse childhood experiences — those people don’t storm buildings, don’t erect posts with a noose, don’t threaten the Vice-President of the United States and the U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives with a guillotine or hanging.

But we’re stuck in a generational escalation of ACEs. Idaho just did an ACE study and found that an astonishing 23 percent of adults, who are overwhelmingly White, have an ACE score of 4 or more. The original ACE Study showed 12 percent of adults with ACEs. Too many ACEs lead to substantial violence, being a victim of violence, chronic disease and mental illness (more information in the article below). People who have an overabundance of ACEs live out their lives in a number of predictable ways: They endure lives of depression, over-achieving, extreme anger, and/or anxiety. People who use anger to cope with their ACEs will latch onto anything that satisfies the craving for hate, including racism, hate groups, misogyny, etc., just as opiates satisfy the craving for relief from depression and anxiety. Fueling their hate is the belief that the world is a dangerous place, based on the traumatic experiences seared into their tiny bodies and brains when they were babies.

On January 6, 2021, most White people had yet another awakening (after George Floyd last year). Most Blacks and Native Americans did not, because they already knew that this country was not a safe place. They have already experienced this violence, for centuries. Those of us who didn’t understand what Donald Trump represented now realize that we have a very long way to go to create a nation of communities that are self-healing.

At ACEs Connection, and in the ACEs movement, we’re in this for the long haul. We know it will take a long time for the country as a whole to heal. I hope we’ve made a strong start. I hope our efforts come in time…to ameliorate the hurt in this country, to have enough individual and community resilience to survive, and perhaps even thrive, during these next decades of climate change.

Trump’s story is a cautionary tale for all of us. For many people, the January 6 insurrection put the last four years into a different and dangerous light. Ahhh, hindsight. But the basic rule is: Hurt people hurt people, no matter how much or little money or prestige they have. Without significant intervention and healing, people who have significant childhood adversity — and little of the necessary nurturing required as babies and toddlers to grow into healthy adults — are incapable of change. That’s why Mary Trump kept saying her uncle would remain on his destructive path. I hope we put the knowledge to good use in future elections.

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Screening for Childhood Trauma

Dr. Ken Epstein has been in the social services sector for nearly four decades and has witnessed firsthand the long-term effects of trauma. As both the son and father of fellow social workers, the work runs in his blood. He has been frontline staff at a residential facility for youth with severe mental and emotional challenges, a therapist, a family and couples therapy professor and director of the Child, Youth and Family System of Care for the City of San Francisco’s Department of Public Health. Now, he’s helping Bay Area health clinics screen for and address childhood trauma through the Resilient Beginnings Collaborative (RBC), led by Center for Care Innovations (CCI) and made possible by Genentech.

Trauma is pervasive. Studies show that one in seven children in California experience trauma by age five (Children Now, 2018), and research links adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) – incidences of abuse or neglect, household dysfunction, and community violence – to an increased likelihood of negative health outcomes. In youth, trauma can cause behavioral issues, asthma, and infections; as adults, those same individuals are at greater risk of heart, lung, and autoimmune disease, obesity, mood disorders, and substance use disorders. This is magnified when you include income disparities and the impact of systemic and structural inequities.

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Florida State launches professional certification in trauma and resilience

(Getty Images)

Florida State University has launched a new online curriculum for a professional certification in trauma and resilience.

The curriculum was developed by the Clearinghouse on Trauma and Resilience within the Institute for Family Violence Studies at the FSU College of Social Work in conjunction with the FSU Center for Academic and Professional Development.

“This training addresses a gap in the knowledge base of human services professionals,” said Clearinghouse Director Karen Oehme. “Many professionals do not receive training on the impact of how to provide services to someone who is experiencing the harmful effects of trauma.”

The course enables professionals to develop the knowledge and skills they need to understand the impact of adult and childhood trauma, along with the keys to resilience. Participants will learn crucial information to improve service delivery to clients, students, human services recipients, patients and other members of the public.

The self-paced curriculum includes 20 hours of course content and 10 chapters of research-based readings, case scenarios, multimedia materials, assignments and quizzes.

The multidisciplinary course has been approved for continuing education credits for a diverse range of professionals including licensed counselors, social workers, nurses, dentists and lawyers. Participants outside of Florida can submit their certification to their own licensing board to determine credit awarded.

“The course is designed for professionals in a wide variety of fields because individuals in all different environments have exposure to trauma,” Oehme said. “We wanted to provide an economical, evidence-based resource to the public for those who want to enhance their professional knowledge, skills and career potential.”

The curriculum is based on developing an understanding of adverse childhood experiences and the associated long-term negative effects. The training offers a powerful new perspective on trauma-informed approaches to effective service delivery.

“Florida State University recognizes that professionals from all backgrounds have the ability to help individuals build resilience,” said Jim Clark, dean of the College of Social Work. “But first they have to learn about why resilience is so crucial in treating the negative impacts of trauma.” Clark said that FSU realized the need for such a course as it was developing the Student Resilience Proect.

“Our community partners have told us time and time again that they need research-informed resources,” Clark said. “It was a natural next step for the Clearinghouse on Trauma and Resilience to develop such a course.”

Faculty from across Florida State’s campus participated in the review of the new course.

Mimi Graham at the Center for Prevention & Early Intervention Policy, a leader in trauma-informed education, served as a reviewer, along with 10 other faculty members.

“FSU is a leader in trauma and resilience education for the public,” Graham said. “This course ensures that crucial information is available to our community leaders, so they can make trauma-informed decisions.”

Joedrecka Brown Speights at the College of Medicine said, “It’s important for human services professionals to keep up with the new research on brain development so they remember there is always hope for healing after trauma.”

Chapters in the certification cover the mental and physical effects of trauma, cultural considerations in trauma research, skills for addressing trauma and an interdisciplinary approach to building resilience.

Professionals are required to review all of the course material and pass the chapter quizzes and final exam. When professionals complete the training, they will receive their professional certification from the Center for Academic and Professional Development.

Discounts for the 20-hour course are offered for FSU alumni and veterans. For questions about fees and enrollment, contact the FSU Center for Academic & Professional Development at resilience@capd.fsu.edu or (850) 644-7545.

The myth of motive in mass shootings

AElPaso

Photo: Vernon Bryant, Dallas Morning News

Almost the first thing you hear out of the mouths of police after a mass shooting is: “We’re looking for a motive.”

In Gilroy, CA, the FBI is investigating the shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival as domestic terrorism. In El Paso, TX, police are describing the shooting as a possible hate crime and act of domestic terrorism, and focusing on the manifesto written by the shooter. Police in Dayton, OH, are still looking for a motive for why 24-year-old Connor Betts murdered nine people in 30 seconds.

But if we want to prevent shootings, asking about motive will just get you a useless answer to the wrong question. Police might feel as if they have an explanation for why 19-year-old Santino William Legan murdered three people, and why 21-year-old Patrick Crusius murdered 22 people. But motives don’t explain the roots of why those three young men, or any other mass shooters or bombers, foreign or domestic, start their journey as innocent babies and end up on a road to killing people. And in those roots, are our solutions.

If you use the lens of the science of adverse childhood experiences, the answer reveals itself, and usually pretty quickly.

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Talking ACEs and building resilience in prison

WA-Penitentiary_Exterior

They’re the forgotten, the 2.3 million people in US prisons. The overwhelming majority of them have experienced significant childhood trauma. Before you click out of here, this isn’t another boo-hoo story, as some of you might describe it, about the dismal state of our corrections system, for inmates and guards alike. (Oh, yes, it is profoundly dismal.) This is a story about how one tiny part of it isn’t so dismal, and actually addresses head-on the fact that most (91 percent) of the approximately 2.3 million prisoners will finish their sentences and go home. To your neighborhood. So….wouldn’t you want the prisons to help these guys and gals so that they, and by definition, we, come out happier and more well-adjusted than when they went in?

Well, yea-uh.

Ok. Just in case you glossed over it, let’s go back to that sentence about childhood trauma. It is precisely why the 2,300 inmates at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Wash., ended up there. Over the last 20 years some profound, intense research revealed that people who have a lot of childhood adversity have seven times the risk of becoming an alcoholic, 12 times the risk of attempted suicide, twice the risk of cancer and heart attacks. They’re more violent, more likely to be victims of violence, have more broken bones, more marriages, and use prescription drugs more often than people who have no childhood adversity. And those are just the few drops in the bucket of how childhood trauma affects people’s lives.

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The fleeting childhood of U.S. border children

By Darlene Byrne, Judge, 126th Judicial District Court
The comments in this paper are solely the opinions of the writer and no other organization.  

As a judge in Texas who has presided over many hundreds of child abuse and neglect cases since 2003, I have seen firsthand what the trauma of removing a child from a parent can do to the child. The parent-child relationship is one of our most sacred and precious fundamental and constitutional rights, as recognized by many U.S. and Texas Supreme Court cases.

Sentencing innocent children at our U.S. borders, with instant removal from their parents with no notice, no warning, and no due process goes against the moral code of this nation. The events taking place at our southern border are no less traumatic for the affected children than cases in which a child is removed from their parents because of allegations of abuse and neglect.

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