Politics

Trauma Is Defined by the Traumatized

In the wake of the Atlanta shootings, those who debate whether this was really a hate crime are missing the point.

Masked people standing in a park. One man holds a sign that says "Stop Asian Hate."
A “Stop the Hate” rally at Short Pump Park in Henrico County, Virginia, on Tuesday. Eze Amos/Getty Images

It has been hard for me to find words. This is a particular challenge for me because as a trauma therapist, it is my job to help people find the words that go missing when an overwhelmingly painful event happens. Every day, I sit with survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and childhood molestation in their pained silences, and I help them find their voices again. And yet, when a traumatic event overwhelms me, I also lose my ability to speak.

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Last week, as news of Tuesday’s shootings of eight people in Atlanta—six of whom were Asian women—reverberated throughout the U.S., I found myself at a loss. When friends and colleagues reached out to ask me how I was, I blanked, not immediately understanding what they were asking, or why. As my clients, many of whom are people of color, voiced their frustration, concern, and anguish over what has happened, I listened, nodded, and struggled to be coherent. When one survivor lamented, “This is just like George Floyd all over again,” her words hit me like a gut punch. Her observation was full of the meaning I felt, but had not yet had the capacity to articulate.

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Like a cardiologist assessing my own electrocardiogram scans, when I read my own description of what happened to me last week, I can see that I was having a traumatic stress response. What happened was textbook. Harvard trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk cites fMRI scans on the brains of traumatized individuals to conclude that when experiencing an overwhelming event, the speech center of an individual’s brain, called Broca’s area, goes offline. Thus, neurobiologically, trauma literally renders a person speechless. This is the dark twist of trauma’s impact: It can rob us of our words and isolate us just when we need our voices the most. The corrosive consequence is a sense of disempowerment and even self-betrayal. “Why did I not say something when I could have? Why did I not protest?” my clients often ask. I regularly share this research so they can understand the neuroscience, rather than blame themselves, for not being able to speak. Trauma creates inner chaos, and it takes painstaking and meticulous effort to find reason or words in the resulting emotional, psychological, neurological, and physical disarray.

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These are the basics, the ABCs of my work. And, yet, as often happens with cognitive knowledge next to primal feelings of fear and threat, much of it went out the window for me following the shootings in Atlanta. As I sorted through my own riot of reactions, certain voices permeated the noise: a client’s rage at commentary that the shooter was “just having a bad day,” debate on whether Robert Aaron Long’s actions were racially motivated or not, and a comment from a 54-year-old Asian woman about why this event is what finally moved her to march: “I was staying in silence for a while, you know, sweep it away, keep head down, work hard,” she said. “But not this time.”

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Her words snapped me out of my spiral. So did these, from the New York Times: “My difficulty, or reluctance, in speaking about my anger isn’t because I’m not infuriated. For self-preservation, I’ve been trained to suppress my rage, a multigenerational, cross-cultural habit of millions of broken hearts.” I am not alone; there have been myriad responses from fellow Asians and Asian Americans finding their voices to speak and taking to the streets out of anger, fear, and frustration at the threat of racially motivated dehumanization and violence, be it an outcome of current scapegoating or historical sexual exoticism.

This reaction has flooded out even as the police investigating the case have dismissed racism as part of the shooter’s motivation, and certain journalists have nitpicked over how reasonable it is to connect the shooting to all the other anti-Asian racism we’ve experienced over the last year (and more). And, sure, multiple perspectives on an event may, Rashomon-like, expand a vision of the whole and depict a more objective “truth.” Where we center our focus, however, be it on the voices of the harmed or the intentions of the perpetrators—or both—depends on our orientation to the crime. Law enforcement officials and journalists have an ethical mandate to gather and present all the facts, to not over-assume, to proceed with caution. I understand that, even as I believe this crime requires an intersectional lens to fully comprehend.

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But as a trauma therapist, I can do something different. I have my ear tuned to the voices of the harmed. This is my role. And my colleagues and I know that the impact of a trauma is most accurately measured in the reactions of the traumatized. I also know that for anyone who has been traumatized—sexually, politically, or racially—it is crucial for them to ground themselves in their experience of what happened. When this reality is established through words and, eventually, narrative, the resulting meaning made can be shared with others. Understanding is thus more possible and isolation less inevitable. Feeling encouraged and far less alone, a harmed individual can more swiftly move through their pain, unshackled by external doubts about whether their experience is even justified.

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As a trauma therapist and an Asian American woman, the words, narrative, and meanings I took from last Tuesday’s killings will not be the same as for individuals who hold different roles or identities from me. At the same time, my professional view allows me to see the many layers of societal traumas revealed by the events in Atlanta, and the ways they might affect all kinds of people. Last Tuesday forced all Americans again to deal with an unspeakably horrific act, an act that—whether or not it meets any criteria for being a hate crime—added to the fears, frustration, and anger over anti-Asian racism, misogyny, xenophobia, classism, and sexual psychopathology that Asians, Asian Americans, their loved ones, and their allies across the U.S. have had to endure.

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While I and other Americans of Asian descent reel from what feels like a direct hit, the shrapnel from such an explosion of intersecting and all-too-common dehumanizing attitudes leaves few in the country unscathed. That we continue to bear the ongoing emotional and economic strain of a pandemic cannot be obscured, as crises beget other crises. None of this is new—it’s just another reminder of how we have been historically silenced by these difficult, painful, and age-old traumas. And from a trauma-informed perspective, the only way forward toward a sustainable survival is to face these experiences with mindful care, and if we can, to find the words to speak against such silencing and noxious chaos together.

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