Trauma

Surviving All Kinds of Deaths

Trauma-informed reflections in uncertain times.

Posted Jul 02, 2020

When I was in first grade, my teacher told me, “Debbie, turn off the worry machine.” I worry about things that have happened, I worry about things that will happen, I worry about things that might happen, and I worry about things that will never happen. I even worry that I worry too much. 

Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D.
Source: Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D.

As a child, I worried that my parents would get divorced or die. I grew up an only child without other family members in the picture other than two grandparents, one of whom died when I was thirteen, so my worry was about being left in the world with no family. And, if I am perfectly honest, there were times I wanted one or both of my parents to maybe not die but to at least disappear and to take with them the trauma and grief they too often caused.

Over the years, I have done a lot of interior work to befriend my anxiety, and I detail this in my new memoir. I’ve spent so much time—too much of my life really—worried about avoiding illness and death. I am not sure what programmed me to be so obsessed with these issues. Could it be because of my grandfather, a physician who was a germaphobe before we used that word and maniacally washed his hands long before Purell became in vogue? Could it be just part of my personality? Could it be run of the mill neurotic Jewish family dynamics? Could it be growing up in a home with high achieving perfectionist parents and coming to see illness and death as failures? (Because, sadly, yes, I have always seen it that way.) Could it be rooted in surviving family violence?

Living inside the treacherous swirling of a global pandemic these past few months has many people routinely wrestling with fears of illness and death. And even if one somehow isn’t afraid or won’t admit vulnerability, cultural conversations are permeated with conflicting information about illness and death and the myriad reactions to both. And more than that, the conversations are about avoiding illness and death, about surviving the inconveniences and the trauma of this moment in our history. 

The pandemic has challenged most of us to consider and reconsider our routines and rituals and to try to install into our lives some practices and activities that are grounding, meditative, and meaningful and that help give a day shape, purpose, and meaning. Sometimes there is joy in the mundane; sometimes it makes us restless, jumpy, and edgy. Reading provides that chance for world-traveling that we otherwise cannot safely access right now; transported into another world, we can see how another person thinks and behaves. Like many people, I have found myself vacillating between good days and bad, productive hours and distracted ones, bright moments and dark ones. 

Despite how hard it has been to just keep my butt on a seat and focus, books help us feel less alone, like having a friend across a table having coffee with us and telling us a story. The most open, vulnerable authors are unmasked on the page and hold our hands or embrace us with new truths and new ways of thinking about how we inhabit our worlds. 

While I’ve never used this column to review books, one landed on my desk recently that is so perfectly, uncannily, and eerily timed for the moment in which we find ourselves that it is worth exploring here. The brilliant and prolific creative nonfiction writer, Sue William Silverman, has written yet another book, this one titled How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences. Seventeen years ago, I was introduced to her work in a writing workshop; at that time, I read her first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You. If that title doesn’t give you chills throughout your whole body, I don’t know what will. For years, I have taught that book in my sociology and gender classes. Silverman’s second memoir is titled Love Sick. Another book she wrote is titled Fearless Confessions. You can see the pattern here—an unrelenting obsession with trauma, fear, illness, and death. We writers keep writing, with laser focus, to continually uncover how and why things happened the way they did, and in so doing, to discover, resurrect, and even resuscitate lost and fragmented versions of ourselves. To begin again. 

Trauma writing can have the unfortunate effect of burdening the reader with more trauma or making the reader feel only pity and despair, and that is especially true if the survivor-writer has not done the necessary interior work to not offload this onto the audience. This is where Silverman shines; we see she has done the work—and then some—so we trust her. That is a remarkable thing unto itself that a survivor-writer who was groomed to not trust her primary caregivers and to consequently doubt herself could emerge in a way to trust her readers and to have her readers trust her. 

Silverman’s latest book, How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, sounds perfectly and exclusively depressing, and yet it’s just the opposite. It’s actually a tonic in this dark time. Eccentrically written with warmth, humor, and verve, Silverman reveals a sense of loving kindness toward herself. We trauma writers have to; there needs and deserves to be some self-redemption. 

The best memoir, while focused on the particularity of one’s unique life experience, simultaneously transcends that with universality and connectivity. For example, unlike Silverman, I am not an incest survivor yet I experienced other cruel transgressions at the hands of my father. Silverman tells the story of when she was a little girl making a paper house with her father, and they cut out paper figures to represent the family.

“I’m afraid of the paper girl. I don’t know why. I pick her up from her paper bed and make a small rip, a tiny tear in her neck. My father doesn’t notice. My father will never notice the small rips and tears in his nonpaper daughter’s body … Late that night my real father enters the bedroom of his real daughter. I pretend to sleep as he slides under the white cotton sheet and pink quilt comforter … I open my eyes. Even in the dim light I see the outline of the paper house atop my bureau. I expect to see flames roiling out windows, glass cracking, the shingles on the roof melting. The paper people in the house are trapped inside just like the real people … to survive death, I must first survive my father.”

So, I need not be an incest survivor to feel deep in my bones the very mixedness of being raised by this kind of father—one who sits on the floor and plays with his daughter, takes her on trips and to magical lands and also makes her feel stuck, scared, silent and forced to keep secrets.

Witnessing and experiencing violence and coercion gives way to a certain type of hypervigilance. Professor emerita Mary Gilfus describes what she calls a “survivor-centered epistemology,” articulating that survivors have a particular way of knowing, sensing, observing, and living in the world that informs their habits of being in constructive and meaningful ways and from which non-survivors could learn a great deal. Silverman’s book is essentially the creative manifestation of this survivor-centered worldview on every level. 

In response to women’s fears of sexual violence, the singer-songwriter Ani Difranco belts out that “self-preservation is a full-time occupation.” Echoing that in her book, Silverman reveals all of her hypochondriacal tendencies. She has survived by obsessing. She reveals her deepest fears and sense of intrigue, “Death terrifies me. Yet I constantly live or recall miniature forms of it: heartbreak and pain sung to a country-western beat.” Silverman is aware of the girl she missed, the one “ripped in the ruin of childhood.” She identifies the archaeology involved in sorting through it all. But, it’s in the architecture of a new self that Silverman is winning. 

If trauma enters our bodies on a cellular level, as it did with Silverman and with me, it’s no wonder that we would each wind up hypochondriacal, afraid of death, and claustrophobic. And that we’d be consumed with control by others and how to take at least some back for ourselves. That’s how trauma works. That’s what trauma does. For those of us who tend toward these sorts of anxieties, this will resonate: “So of course I’m a sick hypochondriac! Who wouldn’t be? Each body part is subject to numerous and multiple diseases. I don’t know how it’s possible to survive even an hour without full-onslaught tragedy.” 

And, there’s something prophetic in Silverman’s writing. She launched her book in March, the month the pandemic began to place a chokehold on our lives, and she wrote in it about being in a doctor’s waiting room: “I find a seat as far away from everyone as possible, and wish I could move farther still when someone coughs or sneezes, spewing germs. These rooms should be sterile and antiseptic, so going to the doctor doesn’t mean courting disaster.” In essence, the pandemic has become a certain sort of waiting room for those of us who are worried about so much that is so broken in the world. 

The beauty of Silverman’s book—not just this one but all of them, really—is her insistence on life. On resilience. On survivorship. On voice. On rage. On love. On wholeness. 

The path of a trauma survivor is often circuitous and broken and jagged and dry. But with the sort of introspection that some of us have done or guide others to do, the path leads to a newfound sense of home. It’s in the imperfect beauty of it that we will dwell.

References

Gilfus, M.E. (1999). “The Price of the Ticket: A Survivor-Centered Appraisal of Trauma Theory.” Violence Against Women: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal 5, 1238-1257.

Silverman, S.W. (2020) How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.