Earlier this year, a video clip went viral. Taken at Comicpalooza in Houston, Texas, it took on topics one wouldn't have expected for such a venue — domestic violence and trauma. And it touched a lot of hearts in the process.
“I went to Comicpalooza this weekend and I was full of nervous energy as I was standing in line to ask Sir Patrick Stewart a question at his panel. I first had to thank him for a speech he had given at amnesty international about domestic violence towards women. I had only seen it a few months ago but I was still dealing with my own personal experience with a similar issue, and I didn’t know what to call it. After seeing Patrick talk so personally about it I finally was able to correctly call it abuse, in my case sexual abuse that was going to quickly turn into physical abuse as well. I didn’t feel guilty or disgusting anymore. I finally didn’t feel responsible for the abuse that was put upon me. I was finally able to start my healing process and to put that part of my life behind me.”
After thanking him for his speech, she went on to ask him, “Besides acting, what are you most proud of that you have done in your life (that you are willing to share with us)?” His response, which detailed his philanthropic work helping those who experience domestic violence and people with PTSD, delved deeply into his own family experiences with domestic violence. After a clip of the video began making the round of the internet, it was picked up by sites such as NPR and Upworthy, whose writer called it, “…one of the most eloquent, passionate responses about domestic violence I've ever seen.”
This encounter between an actor and fan is a demonstration of the power of community – how being vulnerable and sharing our stories can be healing, and drive change. But this world doesn’t always make this type of vulnerability easy. There are a host of different attitudes and reactions that can make it risky. Sometimes, it’s ignorance – when people just don’t understand. Other times, it’s more active, like judgment and victim blaming.
The most intense audience reaction to Sir Patrick’s words came when he described exactly these dynamics, as they played out in his childhood. “As a child I heard in my home doctors and ambulance men say, ‘Mrs. Stewart , you must have done something to provoke him.’ ‘Mrs. Stewart, it take two to make an argument.’ Wrong! Wrong! My mother did nothing to provoke that…and even if she did, violence is never, ever a choice a man should make.”
Victim blaming is so ubiquitous that it appears in many ways. We tend to associate it most closely with experiences such as rape or domestic violence, but I’ve seen it show up in surprising contexts. For example, you wouldn’t think that people would blame a child or young person who’d been hit by a car. Pedestrians have the right of way, right? Yet – I’ve been explicitly told not to tell people that I was hit by a car more than once. “People will judge.” They say.
It made me angry at the time – why should I be judged because I had the bad luck of being on the receiving end of someone else’s negligence? But, they were right. For better or for worse, people dojudge. Without even thinking about it, most people will respond immediately with something like, “Weren’t you paying attention!?” They don’t think about the implication of their words – that I must somehow be at fault. That if I was paying attention, if I was following the rules, then I wouldn’t have been hurt. It doesn’t compute to most people that a person can cross the street in a crosswalk, with the light, and still get hit. Not twice.
“Victim blaming is not just about avoiding culpability – it's also about avoiding vulnerability. The more innocent a victim, the more threatening they are. Victims threaten our sense that the world is a safe and moral place, where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. When bad things happen to good people, it implies that no one is safe, that no matter how good we are, we too could be vulnerable. The idea that misfortune can be random, striking anyone at any time, is a terrifying thought, and yet we are faced every day with evidence that it may be true.”
This was describes exactly my father’s reaction when I called him to tell him about my second accident. Deeply shaken, he burst out, “Lighting isn’t supposed to strike twice!” Somewhere deep down, like many of us, he chose to believe that the traumatic things that happened to him or those he loved were isolated events, “flukes” in a just world. Seeing me get hurt again shook that wordview greatly. It did mine too, something I wrote about last year, after the school shootings Newtown, CT.
Trauma effects all of us differently. Not everyone feels comfortable talking about their own traumatic experiences. In some situations, it’s even damaging, especially if forced. Expressing trauma is also different from talking – you can express trauma through art, drama, or even just taking action. Given that strong emotion and speech are not always compatible for me, art and drama were crucial tools for me. Yet, even those can have problems.
As an actor, you’d think Sir Patrick would find drama a great tool to use to deal with the traumatic feelings from his childhood, yet for him it could be trigger. When interviewed by fellow Star Trek alum William Shatner for the series The Captains: Close Up, he talked about how witnessing violence made him afraid of his own emotions:
Sir Patrick Stewart: “I have that inside me too. I have my father inside me, and I’ve always known it. For years and years and years, I couldn’t act anger, rage, fury, murderousness. Couldn’t. Faked it. I faked it. Well, I know we fake it all, but…”
William Shatner: “But it starts from a place.”
Sir Patrick Stewart: “Yes, it starts from a place of truth. I faked it. Badly. I don’t fake it anymore. I was afraid of going to that set of feelings. I’m not afraid anymore now. I know that I can do it and it’s safe. I can do it as an actor.”
Given the forces that can exist to discourage people dealing with trauma from telling their stories, there can be a temptation for some to overcompensate, pushing them into sharing their traumatic experiences before they are ready or try to force people into triggering situations thinking healing is as simple as just “facing your fears.” This can lead to trauma in and of itself.
So, how do we balance the need for community, with the need to process trauma in our own time, in a way that works for us? How can we reduce stigma so that people can feel free to talk about traumatic experiences, without at the same time applying pressure to those who are not comfortable, or ready to do so?
As we’ve seen with the case of Sir Patrick, sometimes, all it takes is one person speaking out. Another example of this was written about beautifully by fellow PT blogger Cathy Malchiodi. In 1974, one man brought a painting to a TV station which depicted his memories of the day the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. This kicked off a wave of sharing that eventually led to thousands of drawings and paintings from survivors being shared with the station, and the world.
Sometimes, it’s a little bit smaller – just two people with similar experiences connecting. When I think about this, I think about what happened when I first came back to school after my first accident. At risk of worsening my injuries, I had not been able to leave my house for some time. Even within the house, I could not move around without assistance. Eventually, I was cleared to go to school, navigating around on crutches.
My school had multiple stories and there was only one elevator, which was in increased demand because the same building housed the high school as well as junior high. It just so happened, that around the same time I was coming back to school after being injured in an accident, one of the high school students was as well, which presented a challenge. We would both need the elevator in order to get to our classes.
Officials from the school scheduled a time for us to meet, along with our families – ostensibly to allow us to sync our schedules. I later came to believe that there was more to it than that. Junior high and high school are times when our social structure becomes extremely hierarchical. The unique configuration of our school meant that there were a few more rungs on the social ladder – and I occupied the bottom-most rung. What might that mean for me, when I was competing for a crucial resource with someone of much higher status?
By brokering a meeting between us, they hoped to smooth things along – to help us form a relationship and prevent a problem from developing. At the same time, I think they had the idea of community in mind. My elevator-mate and I had both recently been through traumatic experiences which had marked us. We’d both lost mobility and needed assistive devices to get around – me, my crutches and her, a wheelchair. I think that they hoped that we might help one another.
At least in my case, they were right. One of the biggest challenges of coming back to school was dealing with my peers, who had no idea how to interact with a person who’d been through a traumatic experience. Many avoided the topic. Others distanced themselves through objectifying the experience.
For many knowledge about what had happened to me was a status symbol, so they pumped me for information. “Was it a big Mack truck?” They wanted to know. “Is true that your leg was shaped like a Z?” Others asked. Others would tell me the story, as if I hadn’t been there, often focusing on details I’d rather not remember: “My friend was there. They said you were so funny. You kept apologizing. You just kept saying, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’”
With my new companion, things were different. Although we didn’t really talk about our experiences directly, there was something different about our interactions. I knew she wouldn’t ask me thoughtless questions. I knew she didn’t find my pain funny or a source of entertainment. On the few occasions we did come close to talking about the events that had led to each of our injuries, we lapsed into an almost reverent silence. But there was something in that silence that was more comforting than any words we could have said.
I don’t have any firm answers when it comes to how society should respond to trauma, but I can look at my own experiences. And what I have seen is that for some, sharing can help. That sharing can take many forms, even silence. There’s power in knowing that there’s someone who understands. That you’re not alone. But this can only happen in a social environment that makes it safe to share. We need to find a way to break down the shame and stigma that still stands in the way for many.
If you’ve been in similar situations, what makes you feel safe to share your experiences? Has it helped you? How should the community react to a person in pain?