Elizabeth Rossner writes about the legacy of trauma and the labyrinth of memory in this wide-ranging review of her visits to Auschwitz with her father who came through the camps (she has a chapter on why she does not use the word “survivor” here). She also explores the legacy of trauma for the survivors and their children who experienced the killing fields of Cambodia, the retreat from Hanoi, and the massacre in Rwanda.
Traumatized people don’t feel safe, and parents who feel unsafe create households without a feeling safety, raising children do who not feel safe. The traumatized parents express the unresolved trauma in two main ways:
1. Suppressing all emotion in an effort to suppress the unrelenting, wordless fear trapped in the body. Children can’t play with someone who is numb. Children can’t bond well with someone who is numb. Drugs and alcohol often strengthen the numbness and emotional unavailability.
2. Traumatic rage squirting out uncontrollably in overreactions to upsetting everyday events. Children never know when the traumatized parent is going to beat them for a trivial infraction, or embrace them with understanding. The parent is inconsistent, and blind to the inconsistency.
Rossner quotes Dr. Maria Angeles Morcuenda, “The children of people with unresolved trauma have not learned [yet] to feel safe [even when they are] in a safe environment.”
Esther Perel says “home is the place where you feel safe, seen, appreciated, respected, and wanted.” When trauma in the home is denied, such as physical abuse, emotional abuse (betrayal and the like), or sexual abuse, the dependent child may resort to denial in order to preserve the attachment on the damaged parent upon whom she or she relies.
“Trauma denial is an act of self-preservation,” says Perel. “We employ self-delusion when too much is at stake and we have too much to lose. The mind needs coherence, so it disposes of the inconsistencies (lies) that threaten the structure of our lives. This becomes more pronounced when we are betrayed by those we feel closest to.”
Elizabeth Rossner says, “I hope my book invites readers to consider their own relationship to intergenerational transmutations of grief, trauma and resilience.” In her conversations with Dr. Morcuenda, we learn that healing from trauma is all about getting to feel safe. Dr. Morcuenda’s work focuses on “How do we make this baby, this child, resilient to the inevitable trauma life is going to bring? The work is to give each child what he or she needs, and to recognize what interferes with their ability to do that.”
Healing is seen when the trauma survivor can become fully present in the moment. Resilience can develop when we can interact fully in the moment without numbing out or slipping into the past.
Amazon recommended this book when I was browsing for Esther Perel titles. Emily Nagoski is a Ph.D. teaching at Smith College and this book offers the best science wrapped in very accessible language. The concepts of opening up the range of female experience and self-acceptance are wonderful and freeing. On page 332 she says, “I wrote this book because I am done living in a world where women are lied to about their bodies; where women are objects of sexual desire but not subjects of sexual pleasure; where sex is used as a weapon against women; and where women believe their bodies are broken, simply because those bodies are not male. And I am done living in a world where women are trained fro birth to treat their bodies as the enemy. I want to teach women to live with confidence and joy.”
Descriptions on pages 62-64 of the “lemony-freshness” and “little rat jacket” experiments with the first sexual experiences of healthy young male rats raised by competent mothers who licked them enough.
In a rat’s natural environment, outside the lab, he would never need a jacket in order of feel sexy, and the smell of lemons wouldn’t make him ejaculate. The rats learned these things because humans created an environment where those things sere salient features of their sexual environment. But even things you would assume are innate — fertile female rats — must be learned by experience.
Dealing with Unwanted Feelings
How to deal with unwanted feelings (page 119) and the importance of “going through the tunnel” touching neither the brake nor the accelerator.
My technical description of [the] out-of-control experience is “maladaptive behavior to manage negative affect” — which just means trying to cope with uncomfortable emotions (stress, depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage) by doing things that carry a high risk of unwanted consequences. Compulsive sexual behavior is one example. Other examples include:
using alcohol or other drugs in a risky way
dysfunctional relationships — for instance, trying to deal with your own feelings by dealing with someone else’s
escaping into distractions, like movie binge-watching when you have other things you need to be doing
disordered eating — restricting, binging, or purging
What is the single most effective strategy for completing the stress response cycle? Dr. Nagoski asks, “When you are being chased by a lion, what do you do? You run.” Physical activity recalibrates your central nervous system into a calm state. (p. 122)
She points out on page 118 that stressed people may become more eager for sex but enjoy it less because pleasure is a different component than sexual interest. “To reduct the impace of stresson your sexual pleasure and interest, to have more joyful, pleasurable sex, manage your stress. Yeah, easier said than done.”
Weeding Your Garden, Training Your Brain
Meditation is a sideways strategy for weeding trauma out of your garden. It’s a way of simply noticing a weed and then deciding if you want to water it or not, pull it or not, fertilize it or not. The weed of trauma will gradually disappear as long as at least half of the time you choose not to nurture it. And the more you choose to withdraw your protection from the trauma, the faster it will wither and die. If you change only one thing in your life as a result of reading this book, make it a daily two-minute practice of [following your breath and noticing that your mind has wandered and bringing it back, “mindful” of both your breath and your attention to your breath. You are teaching yourself to be in control of your brain, so that your brain is not in control of you]. This practice will cultivate deep respect for emotions, differentiating their causes from their effects and granting you choice over how you manage them. (p. 130-131)
The regular two-minute practice will will gradually result in peridoc moments throughout the day when you notice what you’re paying attention to and then decide if that’s what you want to pay attention to right now, or if you want to pay attention to something else. What you pay attention to matters less than how you pay attention.
Spontaneous Desire vs. Responsive Desire
“So, what do I do if my desire for sex is only spontaneous in bad relationships?” a student asked Dr. Nagoski. The pervasive standard in our culture is the typical male-default spontaneous desire. The student had been using sex as an attachment behavior in bad relationships (as described in chapter four) and was now perplexed that her desire was behaving differently in a stable, trusting relationship. (p. 297)
Responsive desire arises from the context of feeling safe and loved and lacks the insistent itch of attachment behavior. “Cultivate loving responsive desire. Figure out what contexts give you a fantastic relationship and hot sex. That shift will change your life and is the reason I am writing this book.”
Our meta-emotions — the cultural images described in chapter five — manage how we feel about our feelings. Our judgements about whether something is good or bad. Three questions to develop more positive meta-emotons:
Is this the right goal for me?
Am I putting in the right amount of the right kind of effort?
Are my expectations of how much effort this particular goal requires realistic?
The Map Is Not The Terrain
On page 300 Dr. Nagoski explains that the map is developed through early sexual experiences like “lemony freshness” and “little rat jacket” as well as cultural indoctrination. “The technical term for this process of organizing your experience according to a preexisting template is ‘probabilistic generative model.’ It means that information from your senses goes first to your emotional brain, where prior learning, plus your present brain state (stress, desire) combine to shape the initial decisions your brain makes about whether to move forward or away from that sensory input. Sadly, most people’s sexual maps are unreliable.” Here are the steps to revise the map and create positive meta-emotions.
Trust the terrain. Recognize the difference between the map-goal and what you’re actually experiencing. Two key points: (a) When the map doesn’t seem to fit the terrain, the map is wrong, (b) Evkeryone’s map and everyone’s terrain are different.
Let go of the map. Welcoming your sexuality as it is, without judgment or shame, is the hard part for a lot of women. Non-judging is the key. Emotions are tunnels. You have to go all the way through the darkness to get to the light at the end.
There are three targets for retraining the meta-emotions: the goal, the amount or kind of effort you invest, and the criterion velocity — your assessment of how effortful it should be to achieve this goal. First, re-evaluate what it is going to take to reach the goal. Second strategy: change the kind of effort. She tells of funny poster in her office of a penguin waddling away from the camera with this caption: Until you spread your wings, you’ll have no idea of how far you can walk.
Strategy three: change the goal. Option A is no longer available, let’s rock Option B. “Let go of the goal of spontaneous desire and allow yourself to be responsive or context-sensitive opens up the opportunity of seeking out contexts that maximize your desire style.”
When you notice shame or frustration or grief, allow yourself to direct those feelings away from yourself and instead focus the emotions toward the culture that told you the wrong story. Rage not against yourself but against the culture that lied to you. Grieve not for your discrepancy from a fictitious “ideal” that is at best arbitrary and at worst an act of oppression and violence; grieve for the compassionate world you were born deserving… and did not get.
The purpose of allowing yourself to feel those Feels is not to change something out in the world. Feel your Feels so that they can discharge, release, and create space for something new inside you. When you allow that grief to move through you, you are letting go of the sexual person you were told you “should be,” a phantom self that has taken up space in your mind for too long. And letting go of that phantom creates spaces for the sexual person you are. And when we all practice this, the world does change, person by person.
I read Gabriel Tallent’s book straight through in two days in August. Then I saw the blurb from Stephen King who offered an unsolicited endorsement. “I tore through an advance copy of the 400-plus-page novel in three days. It’s a first novel and he’s got everything working,” Mr. King said. “When I read it the first thing I thought was, I couldn’t do this, and I’ve been doing it for 40 years.”
While it is technically a first novel, it took eight years to write, and Gabriel’s mother is fiction writer Elizabeth Tallent. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Tallent began writing the book during his senior year of college at Willamette University in Salem, Ore. After graduating, he got a job as a waiter at a ski lodge. On days he wasn’t working, he’d write for 12 to 14 hours.
“Three years later, he had 800 pages of a sprawling novel about the Pacific Northwest and the strange characters who live there. He realized the seed of a more arresting story was there, scrapped the draft and wrote a much different novel, one that focused on Turtle’s experience and the physical, psychological and sexual abuse she endures, and her fight to overcome it. It took him five more years and another dozen drafts to finish the book.”
The New York Times says, “Turtle’s story unfolds on the coast of Northern California, in the lush, untamed forests, gulches and tide pools around Mendocino. She lives with her paranoid, survivalist father — a self-taught philosopher and gun nut who teaches her that the world is a treacherous place and humanity is doomed. At 6, she learns how to fire a bolt-action pistol. At 14, she’s become an expert sharpshooter and hunter who can navigate the forests in the dark, identify edible plants, make fire with a bow drill and shoot, skin and roast a rabbit over a fire of dried grass and twigs. She’s at home in the wilderness, but is failing at school and estranged from her peers and teachers. She’s alone except for Martin, a sadistic monster who would sooner kill her than lose control over her.”
The intensity of the book captured me and took me to a place I thought no one else could ever see. It showed that intensity is not the same as connection. Thrill is not the same as pleasure. Arousal is not necessarily good. Excitement is addictive. The paragraph on p.338 that was most compelling for me:
Turtle thinks, pull the trigger. She can imagine no other way forward. She thinks, pull the trigger. But if you do not pull the trigger, walk back up that creek and in through the door and take possession of your mind, because your inaction is killing you. She sits looking out at the beach, and she thinks, I want to survive this. She is surprised by the depth and clarity of her desire. Her throat tightens and she takes the gun out of her mouth and strings of saliva come with it and she brushes them away. She rises and stands looking our at the waves, overcome with the beauty. Her whole mind feels raw and receptive. She experiences a searing, wide-open thankfulness, an unmediated wonder at the world.
The beauty of the Mendocino area is woven into emotional intensity and family violence in an extraordinary way. I agree with the top writers who declared the book a “masterpiece” on par with “Catch-22” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Just one day after Hollywood offered a show of support for the #MeToo movement at the Golden Globes, 100 French women published a public letter cautioning the movement, including its French counterpart, #Balancetonporc (“Rat out your swine”), about going too far. The letter was co-written by five French women: Sarah Chiche (writer/psychoanalyst), Catherine Millet (author/art critic), Catherine Robbe-Grillet (actress/writer), Peggy Sastre (author/journalist) and Abnousse Shalmani (writer/journalist). It was signed by some 100 others, including Catherine Deneuve who has become the most visible target.
I have been reading Esther Perel’s “Mating in Captivity” and the French letter stunned me. While I had been thinking about being treated like property, or like prey, I realize that what works in the boardroom is not the same as what works in the bedroom. Where is there room for flirtation, seduction? What is the difference between seduction and assault? (Answer: salesmanship) But this joke ignores the real power differentials of predators over the naive.
Above all, we are aware that the human being is not a monolith: A woman can, in the same day, lead a professional team and enjoy being a man’s sexual object, without being a “whore” or a vile accomplice of the patriarchy. She can make sure that her wages are equal to a man’s but not feel forever traumatized by a man who rubs himself against her in the subway, even if that is regarded as an offense. She can even consider that act as the expression of a great sexual deprivation, or even as a non-event.
The French women are afraid this witch hunt will backfire, enslaving us in “a status of eternal victim” and prey. They call us Puritans, unwilling to look at the realities of how men and women really are. These are experienced, professional, women “of a certain age” as the French like to say it. They are trying to show a gray area that has been forgotten in the stampede. They are asking for reason and responsibility from women as a whole. They are asking us to look at the bigger picture.
Rape is a crime. But insistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime.
I would argue about “insistent” but I think they are right about “clumsy.” I was most touched as they described how they raise their daughters, and their reference to our Inner Resource where we are already whole, already free. They teach their daughters that trauma is a part of life but it does not have to be a life sentence. Trauma to a woman’s body “does not necessarily affect her dignity and must not, as difficult as they can be, necessarily make her a perpetual victim. Because we are not reducible to our bodies. Our inner freedom is inviolable. And this freedom that we cherish is not without risks and responsibilities.”
The message of the French women is important. It has only been 70 years since French women regained the right to vote, something they lost under Napoleon. The role of women in the workplace is still being shaped, and the #MeToo movement is critical to increasing safety in the office. The French are saying, “don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.” Don’t stamp out flirtation, compliments, gallantry. Recognize the inherently-predatory nature of seduction and that it works in both directions. Recognize that we are animals in clothes. Recognize that men are different from women. In this culture, we women must restrict our behavior or face “slut shaming,” a phrase that has no masculine counterpart. At last, men have a chance to pull back from the paternalistic custom of taking whatever they want, no matter how boorishly or violently. We are trying to chip away at entrenched male privilege; unexamined, unearned “confidence.”
It’s Not Just The French
Founder of the clothing brand Esprit, Susie Tompkins Buell, a prominent donor to the Democratic Party, is considering withdrawing support for senators like Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts who urged their colleague Al Franken to resign after he was accused of sexual misconduct. Ms. Buell told the New York Times, “In my gut, they moved too fast. Mr. Franken was never given a chance to tell his side of the story.”
“For me this is dangerous and wrong,” she added. “I am a big believer in helping more women into the political system but this has given me an opportunity to rethink of how I can best help my party.”
We need to very careful right now. Remember Arab Spring.
Had a great time at the Press Democrat/Sonoa County “Women In Conversation” event at the Sonoma State Campus, compliments of my friend Linda H. who gave me two tickets for the 3:30-6:30 Experience. My favorite was Clo’s company, Clover Dairy, who gave me TWO free bowls of coffee ice cream — a new flavor for them.
My friend Joyce R. took this picture of Clo in her denim dress. Many of the women in attendance were wearing beautiful dresses and shoes. The women motivational speakers were wonderful, including the sensational yoga teacher, Trish Pascual. We had chicken-finger sandwiches, shrimp with mango salsa, small batch chocolate, cold-press coffee, hibiscus tea and some amazing gazpacho from Ramekins.
There were doctors offering free blood pressure tests, interesting to Joyce whose husband is in skilled nursing for a few more days, recovering from double-bypass surgery and the installation of two new pig-valves in his heart. We were gratified to learn there are several post-op services specializing in long-term heart wellness after surgery.
I have been singing with Threshold Choir for more than three years, and have been singing at the bedsides of the dying for about two. Much of my singing is at nursing homes and falls into the category of “visiting the shut-in,” but two recent bedsides have been an important learning experience for me.
The first time I sang at the bedside of Bruce, he was at home, surrounded by his beloved miniature longhair dachshunds and his wife. He did not interact with us, and others from our choir sang at his home in the following weeks. Then he was transferred to ICU for breathing problems. He had been sick for a long time, and I was part of the team that sang for him while he was on breathing support. Breathing support was removed the next day and we sang for him two more times. His room was always filled with friends and someone was always holding his hand. We had been instructed to sing upbeat, gospel-style songs. His wife told us that she had told Bruce that it was okay for him to go, but his vitals had not changed much from when he was on breathing support. He did not interact with us during any of these visits.
On the fourth sing, Bruce’s wife was holding his hand and the mood in the room had changed from the upbeat vibe the day before to something more somber. Our song mother sensed the change and did not sing the gospel songs, instead singing the end-of-life songs that are our true mission. As we sang, the steadfast courage the wife had been displaying slipped away and she began to quietly sob, her tears falling on Bruce’s hand. We continued to sing with lumps in our throats and tears in our eyes until she regained her composure. Bruce passed away that night.
Last Friday, I sang at the bedside of an eight-year-old girl. She was at home with her mother who proudly showed us a video of her daughter singing. It clearly showed that this little girl had been “medically fragile” since birth. The mother expertly infused fluids into the girl’s IV. The girl was on the couch in the living room and was on breathing support, too. We were visited by her older brother, for whom we sang Hollow Bamboo, and her baby sister, in diapers and still nursing. The mother was trying to be brave, but when the other two children were cleared from the room and she was there with us and holding the hand of her dying daughter, she began to weep during “Guide Me Through The Darkness.” We kept singing softly until she regained her composure. Eva died that night.
Both Bruce and Eva were deeply loved by their families, and yet I could see how holding on to what must be released is the source of so much suffering. The people who were on the Threshold seemed to need to be released by those whose prayers held them back. When the bereaved person truly let them go, the communication seemed to flow through holding the hand of the loved one on her tearful face.
We sang at the end of Bruce’s funeral — the gospel song.
“Anger and Mourning on the American Right” is the subtitle of this book by Arlie Russel Hochschild, a Berkeley sociologist. Based mainly on interviews with Tea Party Republicans in Louisiana, she delves into the “why” of poor white votes for Trump and other Republicans. Louisiana is one of the poorest and least-healthy states. It is heavily polluted because weak enforcement of weak regulations make it attractive to oil and chemical plants. Polluting industries seek the “least resistant personality profile” in the residents of the area they plan to poison (page 81):
Longtime residents of small towns in the South or Midwest
High school educated only
Uninvolved in social issues, and without a culture of activism
Involved in “nature exploitative occupations” such as mining, farming, ranching
Advocates of the free market
Hochschild develops a “deep story” to explain their traditional values of loyalty, sacrifice, and endurance. Polluting industries manipulate them into fearing the loss of their income if they don’t turn a blind eye to the secret pollution, the dying trees, the disappearing fish, the increasing illness. Church, state, and politicians tug their loyalty strings to believe in Capitalism at the expense of the environment. They endure the secret spillage into their waterways, staying close to home and their traditional values. They resent Liberals who point to the contamination and tell them they “are not feeling the right feelings.”
These white people work hard and they scorn the shiftless, no ‘count people below them in the social order who live on government handouts and never work. They identify with the white plantation owners, the 1%, and believe that through hard work, luck and family connections, they too will live in the white-columned mansions along the Mississippi River. But they don’t go to college and they don’t learn new technology or new ways of thinking.
They are resentful of affirmative-action types (women, blacks, refugees) who “cut in front of them in line” for the good jobs. They believe the government paid for Obama’s education, and for Michelle’s Harvard education, too. Because they never bought and read his books, they don’t realize that their education loans were paid for with the book royalties. They believe the government subsidizes this “line-cutting” that has stagnated their wages and lives.
They don’t want to feel like downtrodden victims like blacks, women and gays. They want to feel like the white 1%. Their endurance is a matter of honor. Honor is sacrifice. With their tight communities and limited education, their feedback loop is small and fed by Fox News.
Trump cashed in on Identity Politics for white men who felt trapped in 1950s ethics and values. The ones holding the KKK signs in Atchafalaya. Read David Brooks review of the book in his Fourth of July column.
When I lived in San Francisco, I shared a house with Charlie who had a pet cichlid fish in an aquarium in the kitchen. The fish was as big as my hand.
When Charlie came downstairs in the morning, the fish would squirt him with water and Charlie would laugh and feed the fish.
When I came downstairs in the morning, wearing my silk blouse for a day in television sales, and the fish squirted me, I would shriek, upset that now I would have to find another blouse to wear, iron it, and be late for work. I was furious. I learned to enter the kitchen each morning saying, “Hello, Mr. Fishy. Please don’t squirt me.” Instead, he would do a little dance to greet me.
One time, Charlie and I went on vacation and Charlie had his younger sister come over daily to feed the fish. When we returned, the aquarium was murky with excess food, and the fish was sulking.
Even though Charlie promptly cleaned the tank and went back to his old schedule, the fish would not “speak” to him for a couple of weeks.
Rick Hanson Ph.D., author of Buddha’s Brain, teaches at UC Berkeley. His Positive Neuroplasticity trains your brain to turn passing experiences — like self-compassion, mindfulness, grit, gratitude, and self-worth — into lasting inner resources that are encoded in your nervous system.
His Just One Thing weekly newsletter suggests a simple practice for more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind. Today, the message was to PAUSE.
When the mind is running fast, it can feel like a juggernaut with no brakes. When in a heated discussion, it is important to be able to PAUSE the flow of words so we may consider better responses. Know to take a break. Rick Hansen says:
If need be, PAUSE the interaction altogether by suggesting you talk later, calling time out, or (last resort) telling the other person you’re done for now and hanging up the phone.
Before doing something that could be problematic — like getting high, putting a big purchase on a credit card, firing off an irritated e-mail, or talking about person A to person B — stop and forecast the consequences. Try to imagine them in living color: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Then make your choice.
He recommends that we stop for a few seconds before starting a new activity and tune in to what’s going on, especially our physical feelings, so that we can briefly touch what Richard Miller calls our “inner resource.” To know breaks give us a chance to regain our center, to calculate the consequences of actions, to compose ourselves, and to know peace.
Training Your Brain
Wendy Sullivan, LMSW, a licensed social worker, developed a set of Just One Thing downloadable cue sheets to help people to structure their efforts to train their brains to feel more peace and joy. Find out more about the Just One Thing book.