Catherine McCall MS, LMFT

Overcoming Child Abuse

The Shock We Share

Bearing witness to the murder of our nation's schoolchildren.

Posted Feb 18, 2018

I had reserved this weekend on my calendar so that I could begin working on a few speaking engagements I’m scheduled for. The topics are related to healing the childhood trauma of sexual abuse, and I often point out when giving such talks, that sexual abuse is the worst violation of personal boundaries imaginable. I question that now, because ever since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida I see murder as the worst violation. Cold-blooded, and in this case, pre-meditated murder.

I was ambivalent about watching the news on TV after the tragedy was announced the other day. On the one hand I wanted to see what happened because I cared, but at the same time I didn’t want to see what happened because I cared. Truth is that when it came down to it I couldn’t bear to get up close and personal. As one of my friends said, “I can’t look at the TV. It’s too scary; they all look like my grandchildren.” Her perspective resonated with me. However, staying away from the news is nearly impossible these days. Yesterday, on my way to pick up groceries, I turned my car radio on and heard gunshots and teenagers screaming. The announcer said she thought that we couldn’t really understand what had gone on unless we’d heard it like the victims had. I felt violated by her choice, and knew that I didn’t need to be taking in that horrifying information while driving, so turned the radio off, said a prayer, and popped in a CD of music I liked.

During my career as a family therapist I had the good fortune to learn from, either through their writings or training, some extraordinary people. One of them is Kaethe Weingarten, Ph.D. who has been on the faculty of Harvard Medical School for many years. Her book, Common Shock: Witnessing Violence Every Day, which won the Nautilus Book Award for Social Change, is one of my favorites. Weingarten defines “common shock” as the biological and physiological feeling that “is triggered by our being witness to an event or an interaction that we appraise as disturbing.” It’s common because “ it happens all the time, to everyone in any community.  It is a shock because, regardless of our response—spaciness, distress, bravado—it affects our mind, body, and spirit.” These events can range from watching a parent hit a child in the playground to watch a television news report about a terrorist bombing, to a news bulletin coming across the TV about the massacre of children at a local school. It’s important for us to become aware of their effects on us and on our children, because they impact our thoughts and feelings, sometimes overwhelming us; sometimes shutting us down, gradually rendering us numb. Either of these extremes halts our ability to comfort those in need and ourselves and to take appropriate action regarding the perpetrators of the violence we’re witnessing. In her book, Dr. Weingarten provides thorough explanations and suggestions about how to foster compassionate witnessing which contributes to the transformation of violence on every level, from the individual to the societal.

We’re living in a particularly perilous time. Millions of people throughout the world are suffering. Here in the United States it’s a time of high anxiety, anger, confusion and fear. Michael Lerner, in A Politics of Meaning, writes that “We need to be engaged, both individually and collectively, in the process of healing and transforming the world, and we need to reject all those feelings and ideas that tell us that such change is impossible.” It’s difficult to direct our attention to what needs to be done however, if we’re fearful. And the more the media magnifies our anxiety back to us, the more fearful we become and regress to lower levels of functioning.

For example, last night I noticed that a picture of a tweet was getting lots of traction on Facebook. The tweet was announcing a walk-out of all high school students determined to stay out of school until Congress takes action in creating common sense gun laws. On the one hand, I felt jubilant. Our youth are taking the situation into their own hands. More power to them! But on the other hand, it’s a reminder that their parents’ and grandparents’ generations are letting them down in serious ways. Just as parentified children in dysfunctional families experience a form of role reversal in which the child is inappropriately given the role of meeting the emotional and/or physical needs of the parents and other children in the family, these kids are organizing to do what adults should have been doing all along in order to protect them.

The shock we share challenges us to enter into learning more about what common shock is, the ways we are harmed by it, and the ways we can heal. Here’s how to start:

* Acknowledge what we’ve learned from the event and the ways in which this new knowledge has an impact on our subjective experience.
* Combine our capacity for empathy with a commitment to personal insight, mindfulness, and self-care.
* Decide to share reactions with friends and then do so.
* Create a community of compassionate witnessing with a schedule of regular meeting times for members to process their reactions and set goals.
* Turn our fear into action, i.e., urge the “parents” of our society—our politicians—to create gun laws and mental health treatment policies that will abate this violence. Telephone apps like Countable, Capital Call, and Stance enable us to easily contact our Senators and members of the House of Representatives.

Acts of compassionate witnessing unhook us from the paralysis of helplessness and often include expressions of anguish and/or commitment through art. Pinwheels of Prevention is a good example of this. The national symbol of child abuse prevention is the pinwheel. Towns that plant a pinwheel garden by city hall, or by its schools, churches, parks, etc. reflect the community’s support for the prevention of child abuse every day, as citizens are reminded over and over again of its importance.

Another outstanding act of compassionate witnessing is The Clothesline Project, a visual display dedicated to raising awareness about the reality of violence in our society. It’s composed of t-shirts created by survivors of violence in honor of someone who has experienced violence. Each shirt reflects the experience of its creator. The website for the Clothesline Project has penetrating audio along with a wealth of information. There's a gong, indicating that someone has been battered; a whistle, indicating a reported rape; and a bell, indicating that a woman has been killed in a violent attack.

Let's remember that we're all in this together. Let's extend a hand in comfort and toward peace. Let's do a much better job of protecting our youth.


This blog is written in honor of those who lost their lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018, and their parents, families, friends, teachers, and community.

(In addition to the two books mentioned in this blog the author recommends TRAUMA STEWARDSHIP by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky & Jon Conte)

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