“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.” (Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, by Lewis Carroll, 1872, jabberwocky)
In the last installment of my series about comets and asteroids, I quoted John Lewis of the University of Arizona who said:
Astronomy books and papers far too numerous to cite offer the assurance that “no one has ever been killed by a meteorite.”
We now know, from that article, that this is very far from the truth. We also know that we do stand in some peril at the present time and that our governments seem to be concealing that fact, lying to us, distracting us, and generally making sure that the resources that they collect from the masses are not used on behalf of those masses, but rather to enrich and ensure the survival of that small minority of pathological individuals at the top; in short, we’re all being royally screwed.
In that last article, I also quoted some excerpts from a couple of news items that expose the fact that science is controlled and manipulated by politics. It has, apparently, become something of a scandal during the Bush Administration. Scientific reports have been censored, suppressed and falsified particularly in regards to health and environmental research. Anthony Robbins, professor of medicine at Tufts University and former director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, came right out and said that the White House itself has been directly involved in the suppression and falsification of science. Kurt Gottfried, professor of physics at Cornell University and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists informs us that “the public and Congress have often been deprived of accurate and candid scientific information.” (Top Scientists Want Research Free From Politics)
The problem is not a new one, however. Since most science runs on government money, for a long time now, industry lobbyists have been “all over government agencies, trying to influence research that will impact their corporations.” And, of course, when the corporations and the governments are “in bed together” – as is the case with the Bush Administration – you can imagine that the “beliefs” that the Governmental Corporatocracy wants to promote are what gets the money. And, of course, it is clearly understood by the researchers working on these topics that, if they do not come up with the “right answer,” the answer the funding source wants, they will get no more money. In other words, conforming to the agenda of the government is built into the system of government grants. (Government’s funding framework breeds scientific conformity)
Among the beliefs that the Corporatocracy want you to subscribe to are the following:
- That global warming is caused by humans.
- That AIDS is caused by a virus;
- That radiation, cigarette smoke and other toxins are dangerous in proportion to their strength, no matter how small the dose;
- That heart disease is caused by saturated fats;
- That cancer is caused by mutations.
Interestingly, the Surgeon General’s report that started the modern anti-smoking campaign in the US was released less than two months after JFK’s assassination at which time we suggest the U.S. had been taken over by a coup d’etat and the plotters began their program of preparing the ground for 9-11. It should be noted that the same crowd – even some of the same individuals – that were implicated in the assassination of JFK are implicated in 9-11. Coincidence? We think not!
But, I digress. As I noted previously, based on the evidence we have been collecting for the past ten years or more, we most certainly can see that the issue of meteorite, cometary and asteroid impacts on our planet, and their true potential danger to each and every one of us, is one of the areas of research that is censored, suppressed, or falsified.
Victor Clube points out that his line of research was shut down by the UK scientific establishment, and he was later, of course, funded by the USAF for a brief and shining moment. But once he had delivered his conclusions to them, he was marginalized and forgotten. John S. Lewis of the University of Arizona came along and wrote his books on the topic Rain of Iron and Ice and Comet and Asteroid Impact Hazards, where he tells us in far more roundabout ways that we are screwed, and makes not a single reference to the work of Victor Clube and Bill Napier! It is from Lewis’ book that I obtained the skeleton of the list of Meteorites, Asteroids, and Comets: Damages, Disasters, Injuries, Deaths, and Very Close Calls which I fleshed out with more recent data as well as some data from other sources that Lewis missed. Not only did he miss the data, his numbers are all wrong without it.
Throughout the series of articles, I regularly posed the question: what led to this general and overall blindness on the part of the people we look to for interpretation and explanation of our reality? How can the people who write textbooks, teach in schools, even at the highest level, be so ignorant? The consequences of this ignorance are, after all, detrimental to everyone for many reasons, not the least of which is simple survival in a rather hostile environment.
Well, of course, there is the issue of pathological deviants who rise to positions of power and control the flow of information. But that cannot possibly explain all the blindness we see and experience on a daily basis; that cannot explain all the ignorance or the attitudes toward certain information adopted by many academics who are, generally speaking, honest and sincere.
The events that have been covered so far in this series have led us to understand that there have been many times – even in recent history – when it is highly probable that the earth – or parts thereof – was bombarded with meteorites or exploding aerial cometary fragments. These events often occurred during, and were probably related to, periods of great stress on the environment and humanity as a whole. Climate changes brought floods, droughts, extreme temperatures, crop failures and famine. These pressures may have caused lowered disease resistance for given populations, and it is also conjectured that extra-terrestrial bombardments may have carried disease pathogens. Impacts or crustal disturbances could have placed stresses on the geological structures so that outgassings from fissures, the ocean, or lakes may have poisoned large numbers of people, not to mention the record of tsunamis that is now called into question. And the bottom line is, during this present period when we can see similar stresses building on our planet, we find that we cannot trust either our governments or the news media – or even most of academia who owe their livelihoods to the government – to tell us the truth.
Again: Why do they lie to us? Why do decent, sincere people – not the pathologicals – lie to us?
The answer is, quite simply, because of religion; mainly Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
You see, they don’t think they are lying. And that is the issue I want to touch on today.
In my previous article in the Comet Series I gave a short description of the problem as follows:
…[I]it’s all about control. All of these things, taken together, place intolerable stresses on the human social organism and, as is typical for human beings, this brings on a crisis of faith, demands for answers, demands for protection that governments simply find it too expensive to provide.
When the world shows itself to be a hostile environment, when the environment suggests that there is no god and humanity is cast adrift in an uncaring cosmos, most people cannot tolerate this; they desperately need to restore their belief in something “out there” that is going to save them, and if there is no one to save them, that means that someone has to be blamed for the disasters: a scapegoat. The corrupt governments do not want to be blamed, so they seek to blame someone else and convince the masses that this object of derision is the chief cause of all terrors. And the masses invariably buy into these maneuvers because, of course, if you can find someone or something to blame for calamity, you can continue in your illusion that “God is in his heaven and – but for the evil acts of the chosen scapegoat – all would be right with the world.” Otherwise, the tension and anxiety of having no control (even vicarious, via prayer or ritual) over the hostile environment, would be unbearable. I’m sure that you notice that this also relieves the individual of any responsibility as well, so this approach works in all kinds of situations.
I want to explore the role that cometary bombardment may have played in the creation of religion and then to examine the role religion has played in the fostering of lies and deceptions in our world, but before I can even do that, I think I need to help you, the reader understand just how easy it is for your mind to be taken over and controlled by social and cultural constructs that are not in any way beneficial to you or to society. So, this present essay is going to be devoted to discussing the human mind and how it works in a particular context.
Considering religion as a control system, as Richard Dawkins writes:
Religion is the one field in our culture about which it is absolutely accepted, without question — without even noticing how bizarre it is — that parents have a total and absolute say in what their children are going to be, how their children are going to be raised, what opinions their children are going to have about the cosmos, about life, about existence. Do you see what I mean about mental child abuse?
I don’t agree with Dawkins on everything and I think he often tosses the baby out with the bathwater, but on this point, I am in agreement. Brainwashing a child into a religious “belief” (as opposed to trying to gather and teach about actual facts and observations) is the single most detrimental influence in our world today. Full stop.
Indeed, Ponerology, as explicated by Andrzej Lobaczewski, shows us that, in all times and places there exists a minority of pathological people that are inclined always to seek power over others. That was as true in “Biblical Times” as it is now. In fact, when you understand the percentages in a given population, and you see those percentages mentioned time and time again as being the “ruling elite” down through history, you begin to nod your head in understanding that nothing is new under the sun. It’s the same old story told again and again.
But, many people have great difficulty in understanding exactly how such a small percentage of pathological individuals can gain power and control over the masses of ordinary people; everyone thinks that they are exempt; it could never happen to them; and most certainly, what they think and believe is right and proper and sane and normal.
When you are brought up in a religious household, you are being brainwashed, from a very early age, and there is almost no possibility that you can think or react normally to reality in any way whatsoever. In fact, I’m going to go so far as to say that when you are brought up in the social constructs of Western Civilization, whether your family is overtly religious or not, there is no possibility – without a lot of work – that you can see the twists in your thinking and attitudes, and the ways in which you are easily manipulated and controlled.
Consider the fact that the biblical tradition is the source of all the values that make Western civilization respectable, legitimate and superior. No one bats an eye or thinks it odd if a Congressman or a head of state anywhere in Christendom quotes from the Bible. No one objects when a government official – including a president elect – places his or her hand on the Bible to certify their oath of office. No one even bothers to reflect on the fact that Western Civilization takes its place in history standing on the Bible. Everybody, even atheists, have a vague knowledge of the biblical story, that it begins at the “beginning of the world” with Adam and Eve in a fantastic garden, that they were thrown out because of the weakness of Eve, and all women are tainted ever after by this act.
So, from the beginning in Eden, up through the election of Israel as a “special people,” by some weird tribal god in the Middle East, to the Christians who basically stole the god of the Jews and their history back to the beginning, right on to the Church at Rome, the arbiter of all that was good in Western Civilization for almost 2000 years, right into American popular culture, we find the influence of the Bible. It profoundly influences the way we tell stories, what kinds of stories we tell, how we look for meaning in our lives, how we understand transformation of our lives, how we imagine our future (heaven, hell, resurrection, Armageddon, rapture, etc), our “morality” and how we think problems ought to be solved.
The role of women in our society is governed – however much we might like to deny it – by the standards of the Bible. General social attitudes toward sex and sexual orientation, Jewish-Christian relations, theories of white supremacy, our civilization’s patriarchal institutions, how we think about natural resources, family values, what is and is not acceptable violence, what value other cultures may have (usually very little!), our responsibilities toward other humans and their rights – all these are influenced by the heritage of the Hebrew Bible. The Bible is the “court of last appeal.” A quote from the Bible can stop thinking and reasonable discussion cold. When the Bible is invoked, no one knows how to proceed and that’s the last word.
Our entire civilization is complicit in this bizarre state of affairs where a piece of literature from an obscure Middle Eastern group has become the arbiter of standards and argument for multiplied millions of people for over 2000 years! When you look at it from outside, it’s about the damnedest thing you’ll ever see!
The Bible permeates our culture so thoroughly, that no one ever thinks about it or asks about it.
Ministers, priests, rabbis, teachers, writers, and more, pore over the Bible searching for some hidden meaning or message. Groups form to study it. Enormous intellectual labor is expended on this book in academic circles, and has been for hundreds of years. We swim in an ocean of literature about the Bible and the characters of the Bible. As Burton Mack said, “is it not odd that one needs to consult the Bible, study the Bible, comb through the Bible, or pierce the surface of its enigmatic language in order to discern the hidden truth that gives it the authority it has for our religions?” (Mack, A Myth of Innocence)
One of the main problems with this state of affairs is that, despite the fact that the masses of common people consider the Bible as the measuring stick for just about everything, and despite the enormous investment in biblical studies, there is actually very little public knowledge about the Bible itself. The Bible is an eminence grise in our lives, shaping the ways we think and perceive our world, and this is imposed on us from birth, whether we like it or not, whether we are brought up in religious households or not. Biblical images and themes saturate our art, literature, theater, and architecture.
The Bible was the ostensible inducement for our civilization to conquer other lands, destroy other peoples and their religions and cultures, destroy natural resources, plunder the earth. The Bible was the one book that every Western explorer or settler had in hand. It shaped the way we constructed our institutions, our schools, universities, legal courts, government, and so on.
Now, let’s turn in a slightly different direction. Let’s look at how this urgent compulsion to “make the Bible true” can affect scholarly research. Eminent Israeli sociologist, Nachman Ben-Yehuda, writes about the falsification of history in our own time, and the creation of the Masada Myth in his book Sacrificing Truth.. Several remarks from his introduction serve to illustrate what I am talking about in terms of how easy it is for society to be misled, mis-directed, lied to, and manipulated by the biblical influence, and he also makes important points about our culture in general:
How do we perceive our culture? How do we understand ourselves as beings in need of meaning? We are socialized into and live in complex cultures from which we extract the very essence of our identity, but at the same time we also construct these cultures. How is this process accomplished? …
One interesting way of exploring cultures is to examine some of the myriad contrasts that characteristically make up cultures. These contrasts set boundaries, which in turn define the variety of the symbolic-moral universes of which complex cultures are made. In turn, these symbolic-moral universes give rise to and support both personal and collective identities. There are many such contrasts, some more profound than others. There are physical contrasts, such as black/white, day/night, sea/land, mountains/valley; and there are socially and morally constructed contrasts, such as good/bad, right/wrong, justice/injustice, trust/betrayal. The contrast we shall focus on in this book is a major and significant one: that between truth and falsehood. This contrast cuts across many symbolic-moral universes because it touches a quality to which we attach central importance – that between the genuine and the spurious. Profound feelings we all share resonate to this contrast, feelings which characterize entire cultures and organizations.
Robinson (1996) points out that the demarcating line between that which is truth and that which is not did not leap into existence overnight, but developed gradually in Western philosophical thought over many years. Issues of truth and falsehood have occupied the minds of such eminent scholars as John Dewey and William James, and indeed even phenomenologists such as Jack Douglas.
Until the tempestuous and confusing age of postmodernism was unleashed upon us, the demarcation between truth and falsehood could be established with little difficulty. Some postmodernistic analyses emphasize implosions, narrative analysis, and the concept that no boundaries exist between “real” and “unreal” because all narratives are different but equally “real” versions of reality, no one better than any other. In this situation demarcation lines have become blurred. Such a view makes many of the contrasts we mentioned earlier irrelevant. This most certainly is not my view. Indeed, I agree that a major characteristic of cultures is the existence of a great many versions of reality and numerous narratives. In fact, I believe that the more we have, the merrier, because then the professional challenge for sociologists examining these cultures is genuinely more demanding. However, I cannot possibly accept the claim that all these versions or narratives are equal; they are not, either morally or, much more importantly, empirically. Putting the Nazi version of reality on the same level with those of Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King Jr., or Mahatma Gandhi is to me empirically false and morally impossible, although I do concede that morality is a contestable and negotiable variable.
As scientists we must affirm that there are versions of reality which are inconsistent with, even contradictory to, “facts.”The realities which these false versions create are synthetic and misleading. Browsing through Phillip Knightley’s fascinating 1975 work on media deception and misinformation in times of war provides many illustrations of the apparent and actual gaps between “truth” and “falsehood.” Taking different versions of reality as they are, without contrasting them and trying to find out which one is closer to the observable and known facts, will leave us in a haze of eternal uncertainties, a shadowy “reality” where nothing is true or false.
Living in such a universe cannot be easy. Defining a reality where Earth is perceived to be the center of the universe had some very real and tangible consequences. However, it was based on falsehoods and on an incorrect empirical foundation. If a better and more empirically accurate understanding of the solar system and the universe was to be achieved, the Ptolemaic view of the universe had to be abandoned. Likewise, such empirically incorrect perceptions as the genetic theory promoted by Lysenko or the Phlogistron theory in chemistry had to be abandoned for more informed constructions of reality. Adhering to social realities which are based on incorrect empirical facts and false information is – evidently – possible, but carries a heavy price tag in terms of a genuine understanding of the world in which we live.
A major line of this book argues that the difference between truth and falsehood can, and indeed should, be stated as clearly as possible. [...]
There are several ways of exploring this fascinating contrast between true and false, between appearance and reality. …I have chosen … focusing on one particular aspect of culture – science – and examining the true/false contradiction there. … In the past, different scientific disciplines were examined for cases of deception and falsehood. However, archaeology was somehow left outside most of the literature dealing with that aspect of science. And yet, as we shall see later, the context of archaeological endeavor is such that the tendency to accusations of falsehood is almost built into it.
The method selected here to solve the puzzles raised above is the case study approach. Adhering to it, we shall focus on one specific aspect of our culture and see how it plays a role in constructing meaning. Specifically, we shall look at the scientific discipline of archaeology and examine how in one particular case – the 1963-65 excavations of Masada in the Judean Desert of Israel – it helped to shape a central process of nation-building by helping forge a specific past and hence new national and personal identities. Forging that past required falsifying historical evidence and concealing facts, adapting deceptive techniques and inventing historical realities. [...]
As Kohl points out, “nationalism requires the elaboration of a real or invented past” and thus his superb review focuses on “how archaeological data are manipulated for nationalist purposes” in a cross-cultural and historical perspective. In a very strong sense, nationalist archaeology has no choice but to be political. And in cases of disputed pasts it has to become manipulative as well.Manipulating archaeology to legitimize specific pasts – real or invented – is a potent concoction to use when one wants to forge a national identity and create cohesion by fostering a strong sense of a shared past (and hence future) among nations of immigrants. Using archaeology necessarily means invoking science and consequently ideas of objectivity and honesty.
One riddle which puzzled me at the time, but to which I paid little attention, centered on the main archaeological excavations of Masada in 1963-65. Masada was excavated by professional archaeologists who most certainly believed in the ethos and value of science. Nonetheless, the archaeologists involved in these excavations, most notably Prof. Yigael Yadin, who headed them, solidly supported the mythical version. It was that sponsorship that genuinely puzzled me. It was inconceivable that the archaeologists at the time did not know what they were doing. Why did they choose to ignore scientific and historical evidence in favor of a myth? Much more importantly, how were they able to harness science to support a myth? Were the factual findings subverted? Were the interpretations warped? [...]
That is what prompted me to write this book. Contrary to my study of the myth of Masada, the present one has an altogether different focus. It examines how and why archaeologists were willing to suspend skepticism and good science in favor of a myth. [...]
This book not only presents a discussion of a specific study of ideology, politics, and archeology, but also utilizes that study to say something of a much more general nature about science, deception, and falsehood, and some of the ways we socially construct cultural meanings. (Ben Yehuda, Sacrificing Truth)
Well, of course, we could see the taint of pathology in the creation of the Masada Myth as Ben-Yehuda exposes it in his book. But it is not always that simple. What we can also see is that a minority of individuals in our society that tend to rise to the top, create the systems of understanding that we grow to accept as normal when, in fact, a lot of what we consider “normal” in our world is not: it is pathological, twisted, and distorted.
You see, we are all crazy. Nearly the whole world is mad. We are crazy because most of us – almost ALL of us – believe some of the most outrageous lies ever told as though they were hard facts. And believing lies has a very detrimental effect on the mental and even physical system of the individual who believes them as well as the entire social system of which that individual is a part.
In The Secret History of the World, I took some time to explain how the brain works, how neurochemicals bind to receptors and produce changes in the cells, how drugs that may bind to the same receptors can create havoc in the body because, in the end, the drug is not exactly the same as the body’s naturally produced neurochemicals. The point of the discussion was to bring the reader to a certain understanding of our psychological make-up and how detrimental believing lies can be to our entire organism.
The information that we receive into our organism as a whole – our interaction with our environment – seems to operate on exactly the same principles as those that govern the differences between naturally occurring neurochemicals, the release of which is triggered under precise circumstances, and drugs which, it seems, are not quite the same thing. Information that “enters” the “cell” of our mental-body acts on us in the same way as a ligand acts on the cell when it binds to the receptor. The mind, having received information, transmits it deep into the interior of our consciousness, where the message can change our state of awareness dramatically. A chain reaction of psycho-spiritual events is initiated as the consciousness realigns itself based on the information received. This realignment then affects the entire self, the reality, and all support systems of the consciousness involved. In short, your BEing is determined by your state of awareness which is a function of your knowledge which depends on what “ligands” – or information units – are “bound” to your subconscious, so to say. And just as ligands can produce cascades of cellular events with far reaching effects, so can your state of Being change because increased awareness can initiate major changes in your reality.
Now, suppose that you accept a lie as “truth,” and an attempt is made to transmit this information deep into the interior of your consciousness, only your subconscious mind knows it is a lie, or at least, has made observations over time that suggest strongly that this information is a lie. What happens then? What happens to the individual in such a state of conflict?
Well, we are going to turn to Harvard psychologist and expert on psychopathy, Martha Stout, to explain to us exactly how crazy we all really are and how our mind deals with conflicting realities, how we learn to dissociate and accept lies as truth, and the price we pay for this “small comfort.” This excerpt from The Myth of Sanity is a bit long, but believe me, it is worth reading. In fact, it is worth getting the book and reading it in its entirety.
All of us are exposed to some amount of psychological trauma at some point in our lives, and yet most of us are unaware of the misty spaces in our brains left there by traumatic experience, since for the most part we experience them only indirectly. [...]
But we do feel crazy, and a little silly, when from time to time we cannot remember a simple thing we ought to be able to remember.(“early-onset Alzheimer’s,” people will joke – neither morbidly nor quite lightheartedly.)
And we feel our insanity, and sometimes a near-frantic sense of being out of control of our lives, in the misunderstandings and rifts in our most cherished relationships, in the same emotionally muddled arguments that go on for years and years. The conflicts never quite kill the love that we feel, but they never quite end either. And as a society, we feel incompetent, and sinkingly helpless, when we reflect upon the greater-than-half failure rate of marriages in general.
Too many of us walk on eggshells around our life partners, theoretically the very people whom we should know the best. We do this because we are never certain when that lover or that spouse is going to become aggrieved, or fall silent, or fly into an impenetrable rage at something that happens, or at something that we have said, and become a distant stranger, a different person altogether whom, in all honesty, we do not know at all.
Or we look at our parents as they grow older, and seeing that time is running out, we long to be closer to them, to know them as friends. But when we actually try to think about accomplishing this, our thoughts skitter away from us like frightened deer from an open meadow, and in the next moment, our minds are elsewhere – anywhere else – the rising price of gasoline, a memo at work, a spot on the carpet.
Many of us find it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to stay in one “mode,” to be constant and recognizable, even to ourselves. One of the most universal examples of this is the experience or returning “home” to one’s parents. After a family visit, the commonest revelation, sometimes private and sometimes voiced aloud to friends, is “I turn into a different person. I can’t help it. I just do. All of a sudden I’m thirteen again.” We are completely grown up and may even consider ourselves to be rather sophisticated. We understand how we ought to act, know what we want to say to our mothers and our fathers. We have plans. But when we get there, we cannot follow through – because suddenly we are not really there. Needy, out-of-control children have taken over our bodies, and are acting in our stead. And we are helpless to get our “real” selves back until well after we have departed from our “homes” once again.
Perhaps worst of all, as time passes we often feel that we are growing benumbed, that we have lost something – some element of vitality that used to be there. Without talking about this very much with one another, we grow nostalgic for our own selves. We try to remember the exuberance, and even the joy, we used to feel in things. And we cannot. Mysteriously, and before we realize what is happening, our lives are transfigured from places of imagination and hope into to-do lists, into day after day of just getting through it. Often we are able to envision only a long road of exhausting hurdles, that leads to somewhere we are no longer at all certain we even want to go. Instead of having dreams, we merely protect ourselves. We expend our brief and precious life force in the practice of damage control.
And all because of traumatic events that occurred in the long-ago past, that ended in the long-ago past, and that, in actuality, threaten us with no present danger whatsoever. How does this happen? How do childhood and adolescent terrors that should have been over years ago manage to live on and make us crazy, and alienated from ourselves, in the present?
The answer, paradoxically, lies in a perfectly normal function of the mind known as dissociation, which is the universal human reaction to extreme fear or pain. In traumatic situations, dissociation mercifully allows us to disconnect emotional content – the feeling part of our “selves” – from our conscious awareness. Disconnected from our feelings in this way, we stand a better chance of surviving the ordeal, of doing what we have to do, of getting through a critical moment in which our emotions would only be in the way. Dissociation causes a person to view an ongoing traumatic event almost as if we were a spectator, and this separation of emotion from thought and action, the spectator’s perspective, may well prevent her from being utterly overwhelmed on the spot.
A moderate dissociative reaction – after a car crash, for example – is typically expressed as, “I felt as if I were just watching myself go through it. I wasn’t even scared.”
Dissociation during trauma is extremely adaptive; it is a survival function. The problem comes later – for long after the ordeal is over, the tendency to be disconnected from ourselves may remain. Our old terrors train us to be dissociative, to feel safe by taking little psychological vacations from reality when it is too frightening or painful. But later, these mental vacation may come upon us even when we do not need them, or want them, – or recognize them. For no conspicuous reason, we depart from ourselves, and people we care about depart from themselves, and these unrecognized psychological absences play havoc with our lives and our loves. [...]
[T]rauma changes the brain itself. …[T]he psychologically traumatized brain houses inscrutable eccentricities that cause it to overreact – or more precisely, misreact – to the current realities of life. These neurological misreactions become established because trauma has a profound effect upon the secretion of stress-responsive neurohormones such as norepinephrine, and thus an effect upon various areas of the brain involved in memory, particularly the amygdala and the hippocampus.
The amygdala receives sensory information from the five senses, via the thalamus, attaches emotional significance to the input, and then passes along this emotional “evaluation” to the hippocampus. In accordance with the amygdala’s “evaluation” of importance, the hippocampus is activated to a greater or lesser degree, and functions to organize the new input, and to integrate it with already existing information about similar sensory events. Under a normal range of conditions, this system works efficiently to consolidate memories according to their emotional priority. However, at the extreme upper end of hormonal stimulation, as in traumatic situations, a breakdown occurs. Overwhelming emotional significance registered by the amygdala actually leads to a decrease in hippocampal activation, such that some of the traumatic input is not usefully organized by the hippocampus, or integrated with other memories. The result is that portions of traumatic memory are stored not as parts of a unified whole, but as isolated sensory images and bodily sensations that are not localized in time or even in situation, or integrated with other events.
To make matters still more complex, exposure to trauma may temporarily shut down Broca’s area, the region of the left hemisphere of the brain that translates experience into language, the means by which we most often relate our experience to others, and even to ourselves. [...]
Regular memories are formed through adequate hippocampal and cortical input, are integrated as comprehensible wholes, and are subject to meaning-modification by future events, and through language. In contrast, traumatic memories include chaotic fragments that are sealed off from modulation by subsequent experience. Such memory fragments are wordless, placeless, and eternal, and long after the original trauma has receded into the past, the brain’s record of it may consist only of isolated and thoroughly anonymous bits of emotion, image, and sensation that ring through the individual like a broken alarm.
Worse yet, later in the individual’s life, in situations that are vaguely similar to the trauma – perhaps merely because they are startling, anxiety-provoking, or emotionally arousing – amygdala-mediated memory traces are accessed more readily than are the more complete less shrill memories that have been integrated and modified by the hippocampus and the cerebral cortex. Even though unified and updated memories would be more judicious in the present, the amygdala memories are more accessible, and so trauma may be “remembered” at inappropriate times, when there is no hazard worthy of such alarm. In reaction to relatively trivial stresses, the person traumatized long ago may truly feel that danger is imminent again, be assailed full-force by the emotional, bodily sensations, and perhaps even the images, sounds, smells that once accompanied great threat.
Here is an illustration from everyday life. A woman named Beverly reads a morning newspaper while she sits at a quiet suburban depot and waits for a train. The article, concerning an outrageous local scandal, intrigues her so much that for a few minutes she forgets where she is. Suddenly there is an earsplitting blast from the train as it signals its arrival. Beverly is painfully startled by the noise; her head snaps up, and she catches her breath. She is amazed that she could have been so lacking in vigilance and relaxed in public. Her heart pounds, and in the instant required to fold the newspaper, she is ambushed by bodily feelings and even a smell that have nothing whatever to do with the depot on this uneventful morning. If she could identify the smell, which she never will, she would call it “chlorine.” She feels a sudden rigidity in her chest, as if her lungs had just turned to stone, and has an almost overpowering impulse to get out of there, to run.
In a heartbeat, the present is perceptually and emotionally the past. These fragments of sensation and emotion are the amygdala-mediated memories of an afternoon three decades before, in Beverly’s tenth summer, when, walking home from the public swimming pool, she saw her younger sister skip into the street and meet an immediate death in front of a speeding car. At this moment, thirty years later, Beverly feels that way again.
Her sensations and feelings are not labeled as belonging to memories of the horrible accident. In fact, they are not labeled as anything at all, because they have always been completely without language. They belong to no narrative, no place or time, no story she can tell about her life; they are free-form and ineffable.
Beverly’s brain contains, effectively a broken warning device in its limbic system, an old fuse box in which the fuses tend to melt for no good reason, emphatically declaring an emergency where none now exists.
Surprisingly, she will probably not wonder about or even remember the intense perceptual and emotional “warnings,” because by the next heartbeat, a long-entrenched dissociative reaction to the declared emergency may already have been tripped in her brain, to “protect” her from the “unbearable” childhood memory. She may feel strangely angry, or paranoid, or childishly timid. Or instead she may feel that she has begun to move in an uncomfortably hazy dream world, far away and derealized. Or she may completely depart form her “self” for a while, continue to act, but without self-awareness. Should this last occur in a minor way, her total experience may be something such as, “Today when I was going to work, the train pulled into the station – the blasted thing is so loud! – and the next thing I remember, it was stopping at my stop.” She may even be mildly amused at herself for her spaciness.
Most of us do not notice these experiences very much. They are more or less invisible to us as we go about daily life, and so we do not understand how much of daily life is effectively spent in the past, in reaction to the darkest hours we have known, nor do we comprehend how swampy and vitality-sucking some of our memories really are. Deepening the mire of our divided awareness, in the course of a lifetime such “protective” mental reactions acquire tremendous habit strength. These over-exercised muscles can take us away even when traumatic memory fragments have not been evoked. Sometimes dissociation can occur when we are simply confused or frustrated or nervous, whether we recognize our absences or not.
Typically, only those with the most desperate trauma histories are ever driven to discover and perhaps modify their absences from the present. Only the addictions, major depressions, suicide attempts, and general ruination that attend the most severe trauma disorders can sometimes supply motivation sufficiently fierce to run the gauntlet thrown down by insight and permanent change. On account of our neurological wiring, confronting past traumas requires one to reendure all of their terrors mentally, in their original intensity, to feel as if the worst nightmare had come true and the horrors had returned. All the brain’s authoritative warnings against staying present for the memories and the painful emotions, all the faulty fuses, have to be deliberately ignored, and in cases of extreme or chronic past trauma, this process is nothing short of heroic. [...]
All human beings have the capacity to dissociate psychologically, though most of us are unaware of this, and consider “out of body” episodes to be far beyond the boundaries of our normal experience. In fact, dissociative experiences happen to everyone, and most of these events are quite ordinary.
Consider a perfectly ordinary person as he walks into a perfectly ordinary movie theater to see a popular movie. He is awake, alert, and oriented to his surroundings. He is aware that his wife is with him and that, as they sit down in their aisle seats, she is to his right. He is aware that he has a box of popcorn on his lap. He knows that the movie he has come to see is entitled “The Fugitive,”and that its star is Harrison Ford, an actor. As he waits for the movie to begin, perhaps he worries about a problem he is having at work.
Then the lights in the theater are lowered, and the movie starts. And within twenty-five minutes, he has utterly lost his grasp on reality. Not only is he no longer worried about work, he no longer realized that he has a job. If one could read his thoughts, one would discover that he no longer believes he is sitting in a theater, though in reality, he is. He cannot smell his popcorn; some of it tumbles out of the box he now holds slightly askew, because he has forgotten about his own hands. His wife has vanished, though any observer would see that she is still seated four inches to his right.
And without moving from his own seat, he is running, running, running – not with Harrison Ford, the actor – but with the beleaguered fugitive in the movie, with, in other words, a person who does not exist at all, in this moviegoer’s real world or anyone else’s. His heart races as he dodges a runaway train that does not exist, either.
This perfectly ordinary man is dissociated from reality. Effectively, he is in a trance. We might label his perceptions as psychotic, except for the fact that when the movie is over, he will return to his usual mental status almost instantly. He will see the credits. He will notice that he has spilled some popcorn, although he will not remember doing so. He will look to his right and speak to his wife. More than likely, he will tell her that he liked the movie, as we all tend to enjoy entertainments in which we can become lost. All that really happened is that, for a little while, he took the part of himself that worries about work problems and other “real” things, and separated it from the imaginative part of himself, so that the imaginative part could have dominance. He dissociated one part of his consciousness from another part.
When dissociation is illustrated in this way, most people can acknowledge that they have had such interludes from time to time, at a movie or a play, reading a book or hearing a speech, or even just day-dreaming. And then, the out-of-body may sound a little closer to home. Plainly stated, it is the case that under certain circumstances, ranging from pleasant or unpleasant distraction to fascination to fear to pain to horror, a human being can be psychologically absent from his or her own direct experience. We can go somewhere else. The part of consciousness that we nearly always conceive of as the “self” can be not there for a few moments, for a few hours, and in heinous circumstances, for much longer. [...]
The physiological patterns and the primary behavioral results of distraction, escape, dissociative state, and trance are virtually identical, regardless of method. The differences among them seem to result not so much from how consciousness gets divided as from how often and how long one is forced to keep it divided. [...]
Observe normal children at play, and you will realize that children are especially good at dissociating. In the interest of play, a child can, in a heartbeat, leave himself behind, become someone or something else, or several things at once. Reality is even more plastic in childhood. Pretend games are real and wonderful and consuming. It is clear to anyone who really looks that normal children derive unending joy from their superior ability to leap out of their “selves” and go somewhere else, be other things. The snow is not cold. The body is not tired, even when it is on the verge of collapse.
Because children dissociate readily even in ordinary circumstances, when they encounter traumatic situations, they easily split their consciousness into pieces, often for extended periods of time. The self is put aside and hidden. Of course, this reaction is functional for the traumatized child, necessary, even kind. For the traumatized child, a dissociative state, far from being dysfunctional or crazy, may in fact be lifesaving. [...]
This coping strategy becomes dysfunctional only later, after the child is grown and away from the original trauma. When the original trauma is no longer an ongoing fact of life, prolonged dissociative reactions are no longer necessary. But through the years of intensive use, the self-protective strategy has developed a hair trigger. The adult whom the child has become now experiences dissociative reactions to levels of stress that probably would not cause another person to dissociate. [...]
When our species began, the average newborn human probably had a chance to survive not much greater than that of a hatchling loggerhead turtle racing across a gull-canopied beach to the sea; our primordial past is one of just such fantastic assailability. Our bodies and our brains were forged in a white-hot fire, and even as we enter a new millennium, we remain the product of these ancient beginnings.
Like baby loggerheads, we needed to focus keenly on the task of attaining safe haven. But unlike turtles, we had evolved as complex creatures, cognitively astute, mentally representational, aware of the possibility of injury, pain, and death. We comprehended the actual dangers, and many of the potential ones. We considered, we planned, we dreamed, we dreaded. For all the obvious reasons, our mighty brains were a large advantage when it came to surviving our planet’s hazards; and for their somewhat less conspicuous effects, our complex brains were a disadvantage too. As an analogy, imagine that a hatchling turtle develops an awareness that a seagull might well, within moments, crush its tiny shell and gobble its flesh. What would happen should this abrupt sentience cause the new reptile to freeze up in terror along its path to the sea rather than continuing its oblivious scurry? It would be killed instantly, of course. Never would it have the chance to lay its own turtle eggs.
In this way, sentience is both a blessing and a curse, where survival is concerned. Even nonhuman animals, when they sense predators within striking range, narrow their perceptual field, and have been shown to experience a convenient bodily analgesia when under attack. Human beings have mitigated the curse of their more advanced awareness with a variety of sophisticated dissociative capacities that often allow us to function effectively in terrifying circumstances. [...]
Our mental resiliency in petrifying circumstances is normal. But how normal are the desperate circumstances themselves? As we begin a new century, how common, really, are the monsters that beset human beings? How many of them are there still, in a technological age? Here is the answer, although be warned that it is not a pleasing one:
Often, now, the faces on the monsters are different; but we live in a world that still assaults the consciousness of all its children. That we do not all usually think of ourselves as having been traumatized is in part a tribute to the human spirit.
Child abuse … is but a bare beginning, though according to the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, about forty-seven out of every one thousand American children are reported as victims of child maltreatment, to our various child protective services. In a conservative estimate, reported or not, 38 percent of all girls and 16 percent of all boys are sexually abused before the age of eighteen.
For children to witness violence is an established feature of our lives. In the United States alone, medical expenses from domestic violence total three to five billion dollars a year. Leaving the home for our urban streets – in an American Psychological Association study of first and second-graders in Washington, D.C. – 45 percent said they had witnessed muggings, 31 percent said they had witnessed shootings, and 39 percent said they had seen dead bodies.
But outnumbering even these statistics is the situation of perfectly ordinary children, children from families who are not violent, and who do not live in the inner city. Even the children who are not intentionally abused, even those who are not directly exposed to crime, witness parental rages and arguments at home, and media coverage of the most horrible events in the outside world. In plain fact, the list of consciousness-assailing events that are witnessed or endured by even the most protected children is extremely long: serious accidents, car crashes, the illnesses and deaths of loved ones, the fear or reality of peer ridicule, petrifying medical procedures, devastating custody battles, predictions of nuclear annihilation or environmental collapse, macabre lessons in how to get away from the “stranger” whom protective parents are constantly expecting.
Then one must reflect upon other, more fundamental situations, for example, the essential vulnerability of living in a human body at all – unavoidable physical pain, and, for some, loss of body function or body parts through disease, accident, or genetic glitch. Or as another example, the daily struggles of human families all over the globe who fear for their well-being, emotional and physical, on account of an immutable characteristic such as race or ethnicity.
We live inside fragile bodies in a dangerous world, especially when we are children, and should we stop to take an account of our experiences, we would discover that although only some of us have been abused, no one among us is completely unscathed, not even in our technological age.
But I have been discussing psychological trauma specifically, not danger or hurt in general. What is the definition of psychological trauma? What kinds of situations and events are traumatizing, as opposed to simply painful or frightening?
One of the most widely accepted and helpful definitions is provided by Alexander McFarlane and Giovanni de Girolamo of, respectively, the University of Adelaide, Australia, and the Department of Mental Health, Bologna, Italy. Writing about the distribution and determinants of post-traumatic reactions in human populations, McFarlane and de Girolamo state that, more than just frightening or painful, traumatic situations are “events that violate our existing ways of making sense of our reactions, structuring our perceptions of other people’s behavior, and creating a framework for interacting with the world at large. In part, this is determined by our ability to anticipate, protect, and know ourselves.”
In other words, it is possible for one person to survive a disastrous neighborhood fire and be distraught but not traumatized, because her particular views of the world and of other people are not violated, and because she feels able to cope; and it is equally possible for another person to be traumatized by a space heater fire, because it so confounds her ideas of what can happen to her, and because the fire brings her face-to-face with her own helplessness.
By definition, a traumatic event, whether it be objectively tragic or not, opens in the mind a corridor to the apprehension of our essential helplessness and the possibility of death. A traumatic stressor is overwhelming not because it is colossal – for it may not be so to observers – but because it has a certain meaning for the individual.
Imagine two skydivers. Skydiver A has been practicing her sport for many years. Skydiver B is jumping out of a plane for the first time. At the usual moment, Skydiver A pulls the release to open her parachute. The parachute does not open. She is bemused by this, because she is an experienced parachute-packer, and she thinks that her chute should have operated. She will have to recheck her work when she gets to the ground. But she knows that she has an emergency chute for just such mishaps. She waits for another thirty seconds, enjoying the free fall, and then activates her emergency parachute, which opens immediately.
Skydiver B, at the moment she has been taught to do so, tugs on the release to open her parachute. The parachute does not open. She cannot believe this is happening. She thinks she is about to die. She perceives herself plummeting helplessly through space, and begins to scream, although the air sluicing past her erases the sound. For about thirty seconds, as her life rushes before her eyes, she struggles to find her emergency chute. Finally, she activates the backup device, and it opens immediately.
For Skydiver A, another dive. For Skydiver B, a traumatic event, nightmares and intrusive memories to come, perhaps for years. For an onlooker, two more or less identical scenes. For the participants, two very different meanings.
Meaning is the important thing. It determines whether or not the mental corridor to helplessness and death will open up, or remain shut and disregarded by us, as that channel usually does. And the meaning we ascribe to a threatening event is determined in part by “our ability to anticipate, protect, and know ourselves,” as McFarlane and de Girolamo have put it. The more we can anticipate what is likely to happen next, the more we feel that we can protect ourselves, the more we know ourselves in general, the more inoculated we are against being traumatized by the frightening or the painful.
There is one extremely large group of people who have almost no history of anticipating events, virtually no chance of protecting themselves, and only the most minimal self-knowledge. These are children, of course. Because of their lack of experience in our world, children are traumatized far more frequently than we are. Circumstances that provoke mild anxiety in adults may easily generate life-or-death terror in children, because the very young have not yet created for themselves a usable “framework for interacting with the world at large.” This temporary deficit is one of the most poignant and dangerous connotations of the expression “childhood innocence.” [...]
As adults, we are seldom able to appreciate the full measure of our early naïveté. A tiny person has literally everything to learn: I have ten fingers; water is wet; my toys fall down and not up. And what is this planet like anyway, this one that I have landed on?
A person with so many unanswered questions is tender, and receptive like a flower in the morning. She is also at our mercy, and at risk.
To make matters even more excruciating for the young, the immature cognitive capacities of early childhood make it difficult, often impossible, to create an articulate narrative from a threatening event, after the fact. A young child cannot reflect upon and make sense of a traumatic episode, let alone report it coherently to someone who might help him attach words and meaning to what occurred. Even the unfortunate novice skydiver could understand what had happened to her, put a story together in her mind, and have the relief of telling others, perhaps obsessively for a while, about the most frightening thirty seconds of her life. There is no such relief for a small child, who will likely suffer the aftermath of a trauma in helpless silence, and remember his experience in emotions and bodily reactions, rather than in words.
So the alarming truth is that even good, caring, protective parents can be clueless regarding certain experiences suffered by their children. Also, adults tend to minimize a child’s terror, even when they are aware of its cause, simply because the source may seem innocuous to people with greater worldliness. For a child, it is overwhelming to see a drooling wolf menace Bambi; for an adult, it is just another page in a children’s storybook.
Focusing on children who are not abuse victims (because, thankfully, children who are not abused by their caregivers are the majority), let us consider three ordinary childhood traumas – events that developed into trauma, rather than just fright or hurt. Take a few moments to view things through the eyes of five-year-old Dylan, who gets off the school bus at the wrong stop, three-year-old Amy, who has surgery for a cleft palate, and nine-year-old Matthew, who sees his mother break her own china dishes:
Dylan started kindergarten on Tuesday. Today is Wednesday. He is riding the school bus home for the second time in his life. He feels a little intimidated by the big ten-year-old sitting beside him, he misses his mother, and he is not at all sure that he knows how to be a school bus rider. Nearly everything during the past day and a half has been new, and Dylan is worn out, and eager to get back to the homey sofa in the den, and his Quack Pack videos. His mother promised that she would be waiting for him at the bus stop, just like yesterday. He looks expectantly out the window as the bus travels by places that look dimly familiar.
When the bus finally stops, bunches of loud, laughing, pushing children migrate hastily toward the door. The children disembark in an impenetrable tangle of thrashing heads and arms, Dylan among them, confused but earnestly striving to be a good bus rider. There are some adults by the side of the road. They greet the children, and in a matter of seconds, the bus has departed, and everyone has moved away from the bus stop.
Dylan’s mother is not there. And as people walk out of sight, chattering and swinging each other’s hands, no one notices that one five-year-old boy has been left standing alone.
The boy does not even think about calling after the people. He is too stunned, and besides, he does not know them. He stands right there, for a long time, hoping that his mother will appear. He looks like a tiny statue at the edge of the road, until a monstrous truck, air horn blaring, zooms by just a few feet in front of him, causing him to lurch sideways into some trees. He looks around at the wooded area, and decides he had better hide there until his mother comes.
Dylan sits down under an elm, where he is concealed from the road by a small embankment. He puts his legs out in front of him, and leans back against the tree. His new backpack, which he still has on, cushions him a bit. He stares straight ahead, and begins to tap his new sneakers together. He is scared, but he knows his mother will come soon. He sits that way for about half an hour, the length of one Quack Pack video, and then he thinks the unthinkable: maybe she is not coming. As soon as this thought occurs to him, he feels clammy all over; his stomach feels shaky, and he begins to cry. Soon, the tears have turned to desperate sobs. He cries convulsively for several minutes, until he is gasping for breath. Then, he gets an idea. He inhales as deeply as he can, stands up, and walks cautiously back to the roadside, where he looks around briefly. He calls out, “Mommy!” and then, more emphatically, “Mommy!”
Dylan is about three quarters of a mile from his home, in a nice, safe suburban neighborhood. As long as he stays out of the road, which he knows to do, he is in no physical danger. Serene middle-class houses sit at the ends of the driveways that join the street on both sides. Really, all that Dylan has to do is go up one of the driveways and knock on a door, which in all likelihood will be answered by a sympathetic adult who will quickly contact his mother. But five-year-old Dylan does not know this. In his so-far brief time on earth, he has never knocked on a strange door. He has never even gone all alone to someone else’s house. And in his current panicked state, he does not even put it together that the silent houses contain people at all. The houses are only another aspect of what is impersonal and frightening all around him.
After shouting “Mommy” a few more times, he gives up and returns to his tree behind the embankment. His pants are damp in back, from the ground he sits on. He feels cold in the warm September afternoon, and he shivers. He whispers “Mommy” once, and a few more tears leak onto his cheeks. But then he is quiet. He sits quite still under the tree, as the enormity of his situation engulfs him. He is lost. His mother is gone. He will never get to talk to her again. He is never going home.
In this way, he remains for about another hour. He begins to feel that the world is very far away, and he is just a teeny speck floating somewhere in a fuzzy gray space. He wonders, in a detached sort of way, whether he is going to die now. Finally, he does not feel anything, not even cold and shivery. Still wearing his backpack, he curls up in a fetal position on the ground, and, in his mind, completely disappears from himself and his surroundings.
Another hour passes. Dylan is brought back to himself when his mother dives to her knees by the tree, and grabs him up in her arms. Some other grown-ups are there, also. Without emotion, Dylan says, “Mommy?” His mother is sobbing and jubilant at the same time, and she does not notice that Dylan is neither.
Someone drives Dylan and his mother home. They sit in the backseat, where his mother hugs and kisses him over and over, and tells him that everything is okay. Dylan does not say anything. When they get home, his mother places several emotional phone calls, and then she makes some chicken noodle soup for Dylan. When he does not eat it, she tells him once again that everything is okay. She assures him that from now on, she will pick him up at kindergarten herself. No more school bus. Then, feeling at a loss, she suggests that they sit on the cozy sofa together and watch one of his videos. She holds him close, and he watches the movie. He does not keep up a running commentary, or wiggle away to bounce on the furniture the way he usually does, but she knows that he must be exhausted, and probably still frightened. She is, too.
When the movie is over, she decides that Dylan looks pale. She hopes he has not gotten sick from lying on the damp ground, and she suggests that he go to sleep right now, though it is still early. Without protest, Dylan lets his mother put him to bed, where he resumes his fetal position.
When we imagine this event from inside Dylan’s mind, we see that he is much more than tired and very scared. He is traumatized. His nascent views of the world and the people in it have been violated, and his ability to cope has been utterly overwhelmed. At the age of five, he has imagined the face of death, and has experienced the fact that one can terminate such imaginings by being dissociative. All of this without any objective danger, and though the story had a happy ending.
Now let us visit the mind of another child, three-year-old Amy, who has just had surgery.
Amy’s parents love her dearly. After she was born, when the doctor said she had a cleft palate, they vowed to make the impending medical procedures as comfortable and nontraumatic as possible for their little daughter. It is now two in the morning on the day after Amy has had an operation intended to improve her speech. She is waking fully for the first time since the surgery, in a private hospital room, where both of her parents lie asleep on cots beside her bed. But it is pitch-dark in the room, and Amy does not know her parents are there, nor does she know where she is. Groggily, the last thing she remembers is going with her parents to a scary hospital, and getting a shot. She wonders whether she is now somehow at home in her bed. She starts to lift her head, but when she does, her neck hurts – a lot. She puts her arms out, and they hit hard, cold things close to her on both sides. Frightened, she jerks her arms back, and lies still. The darkness mercifully prevents her from seeing the IV needle in her left forearm.
Then she remembers what they told her about having an operation and staying in the hospital. They told her she would sleep in a bed there. But recalling this information does not help her. She is becoming more scared. Why is it so dark? Is it night? At home she has a night-light. She wants a night-light, and she wants her mother. She tries to call “Mommy,” but all that comes out of her is a small, soft sound, not “Mommy” at all. And for some reason, it hurts to try.
She stops attempting to speak, and lies still again. And then the real pain starts. Quite unknown to Amy, her analgesic medication is running out. In about fifty minutes, a nurse will come into the room and administer some more painkiller; but this is going to be a long fifty minutes for Amy. The pain starts to swell up in her mouth and head so much that she cannot stand it. What is happening? Why does her head hurt so bad? Tears pool in her eyes and overflow in streams to her ears. The room is dark; she cannot see. And she is alone.
She stays as still as she can, and tries to understand. What is wrong with her? What did Mommy and Daddy say was wrong with her? Something about her mouth, her “palate,” they kept saying. What is that? She cannot remember. But she remembers that she is not like other kids. There is something wrong with her. She remembers that there is something really wrong with her.
The pain gets stronger, and Amy wonders whether she is dying, like when they had to put Winston to sleep at the animal hospital. Maybe Mommy and Daddy left her here just the way they left Winston. There was something wrong with him too. She tries to call out again, but no sounds come, just more pain. By now it hurts so much that she can hardly breathe. She crawls inside her head and watches the pain. It is a bright light, and gets brighter and brighter when she looks. After a minute or two, Amy’s body seems to disappear, and the only thing left is the light.
By the time the nurse arrives, right on schedule, to give a pain reliever, Amy’s body temperature has dropped to ninety-six degrees. Thinking that Amy is asleep, because she is so still, the nurse quietly adds another blanket to her coverings. Then, the nurse realizes that Amy’s eyes are open. Having promised Amy’s mother and father that she would alert them, the nurse switches on a dim light, and gently rouses them, where they have been exhausted and asleep on their cots. Amy’s parents jump up immediately. The mother sees that her little girl’s face and hair are damp, and wonders in consternation whether she has been lying there crying.
Amy’s mother squeezes Amy’s hand and whispers in her ear, “Mommy and Daddy are here, sweetie. The operation’s over. You did great. Everything’s okay.”
Another happy ending. Amy’s loving parents soon take her home, where they continue to care for her solicitously.
She will never tell them about her fifty minutes of terror; three-year-old Amy has no words for this. And her mother and father will never coax her to tell them, because from their perspective, nothing happened.
Finally, let us imagine the inner life of nine-year-old Matthew, whose resentful and embattled parents have frequent screaming arguments with each other in their home. The fights are mainly verbal, but Matthew experiences these clashes as extremely frightening, despite the customary lack of physical violence. He worries that his family will fall apart. He wonders what will happen to him. And, as children do, he thinks that, somehow, everything must be his fault.
His mother is especially rageful and impulsive. When she gets mad, she looks like a different person. She screws up her face and clenches her fists, and appears to want to kill someone. And in fact, when she is fighting with her husband, she usually says that someday she will murder him. Each time Matthew overhears this declaration, he feels hollow and numb.
On this particular evening, Matthew’s father has stomped out of the house and driven away in his car, in the middle of another loud, vicious dispute. A tearful Matthew has been hiding in his bedroom, pretending to watch television. When he hears his father leave, he tiptoes down to the kitchen to check on things. His mother is standing there, facing the kitchen sink, her hands clutching its edge. Her shoulders are heaving, and she is muttering profanities. Matthew decides to go back to his bedroom, but before he can withdraw, his mother whirls around and begins to scream the same curses at the top of her lungs. She is shaking all over. She glances around the kitchen for a moment, until her eyes settle on a large china pitcher, one of her prized possessions. While Matthew watches in horror, she grabs the pitcher and hurls it against a wall. The pitcher shatters, spraying its shards all over the floor.
Then, she notices Matthew. She says, “Hello, offspring. Watch this.” And with Matthew as her stupefied witness, she yanks open the glass doors of the hutch that holds her gold-rimmed wedding china, and proceeds to snatch out all the dinner plates, one by one, hurling each against the wall, as if it were a discus. She punctuates each demolition with an epithet, such as “That maggot!” Before long, there is a wide, jagged bank of ruined china on the kitchen floor. When all the plates are gone, she sits down on the marble tiles, beside the mess she has made, and weeps.
Trembling visibly – because his mother, this inescapable adult, seems lethally out of control – Matthew gets a broom and a dust¬pan, and tries to restore some order. He deposits all the broken china into three large paper bags.
After a while, his mother calms down, and thanks him.
The following morning, when Matthew gets out of bed and begins to dress, he remembers unhappily that his parents had another fight last night. He thinks his father left in the middle, but he is not sure. Matthew does not remember going downstairs after he heard his father’s car drive away. He has no memory of the debacle that happened in the kitchen. He believes he spent last night watching TV in his room, but perplexingly, he cannot recall what was on.
Matthew goes to school feeling depressed on account of the fight, but he will never remember the scene that overwhelmed him completely, and caused him to phase out. And his parents will never turn their attention to his psychological well-being, and ask him how he is coping with their tumultuous household. They have too much trouble of their own.
Dylan, Amy, and Matthew have gone through situations that most adults, looking on from the outside, would describe as “awful,” or “so frightening,” or perhaps “ugly.” But for the children, these events were beyond awful; they were traumatizing. These three children were not deliberately abused… but their young meaning systems were violated, and their limited self- protective strategies were tested to the point of failure. However briefly, a corridor to annihilation opened up in each new soul. But neither Dylan nor Amy nor even nine-year-old Matthew will, as adults, have intelligible memories of the traumatic episodes in their lives. When they are grown, should anyone have occasion to ask them whether they were ever traumatized in childhood, they – like most of us – will answer with a confident “No, of course not.”
These are illustrations of primary trauma occurring undetected in the lives of ordinary, nonabused children from nice neighborhoods in the developed world. Disturbing enough. But chillingly, trauma has a second, even more covert mechanism. It can affect children and adults directly, as in primary trauma, or it can function vicariously, make a long, stealthy leap from one person’s mind to another person’s, across space and time. Secondary trauma, the vicarious sort, is a term used most often by psychotherapists, to refer to the fact that a person (such as a psychotherapist) can begin to show significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder merely from hearing repeated stories about the traumatic experiences of other people(such as trauma patients). Secondary trauma quietly and pervasively occurs even in the lives of those who are not psychotherapists and who do not treat trauma patients, for the simple reason that, in a world where too many children have never even slept on a mattress, extreme human misery is not far removed from any of us.
In 1993, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies stated in World Disaster Report that in the quarter century between 1967 and 1991, disasters in various places around the world killed seven million people, and directly affected another three billion. In the same report, the Red Cross estimated that, between the end of World War II and 1991, about forty million people were killed in wars and conflicts, our perennial man-made disasters.
Indeed, viewed in cold objectivity, we are shell-shocked as an entire species.
If we travel a little away from the developed world, we find that more than one fifth of the global population still lives in extreme poverty, and life expectancy in some of the least-developed countries is forty-three years. At least one billion people now living on our planet suffer from chronic hunger, and a human child dies from malnutrition every four seconds. The World Health Organization reports that half of humanity still lacks regular access to the treatment of common diseases, and to the most basic medicines.
In terms of both space and time, we are not very far away from similar levels of human suffering, though we seldom reflect upon the fact. If the history of humanity is compared to an hour, the so-called developed world is but a few seconds old. Many of our great-grandparents, and even some of our grandparents, spent most of their lives in conditions we would consider unbearable.
Commonplace horror is only two or three generations behind us, and in places, not behind us at all. The Holocaust is a living memory. Other projects of ethnic genocide are being pursued even as these words are written And most of us have heard the stories, usually while we were children, and usually from people we cared about. For some, the accounts were only of the walking-to-school-five-miles-through-the-snow variety. But for others, the stories were about surviving daily hunger, or a war, or a death camp.
One of the most poignant examples of secondary trauma that I have ever known involved a woman who had seen various therapists because of a vivid nightmare. This nightmare wrecked her sleep every night, leaving her chronically sleep-deprived and exhausted. Forty-four-year-old Magda was the granddaughter of a Polish physician, whose daughter, Magda’s mother, had emigrated to the United States just after World War II. When she left Europe, Magda’s mother was the only surviving member of a large family that had been decimated in the camps.
Magda’s father was an American physician, whom her mother had met soon after her arrival here, while he was still a student. On account of her father, Magda’s own childhood and adolescence, spent in an idyllic setting in western Massachusetts, had been financially privileged; and because of her mother, she had been a gently treated and obsessively watched-over child.
“Salon appointments were always the big thing. She always had my hair done, even when I was quite little.”
As an adult, Magda kept her brown hair very long, and wore it invariably in an elaborate French braid.
When I asked Magda whether she had ever been traumatized, she replied, in wholly unaccented English, “No, of course not. Nothing like that.” But somehow, even given her considerable intelligence and her distinguished forebears, Magda had not lived up to her family’s ambitions for her. As a child, she had wanted to be a doctor, like her father and her legendary grandfather. Instead, she had dropped out of Harvard University in her junior year, and had spent more than two decades being haunted by her nightmare, suffering intermittently from major depression, and barely getting by as a nurse’s aide.
“It’s the story my mother told me,” she explained, sallow-faced and sad, “except it’s not my mother. Its me.”
“It’s you? You mean it’s you in the dream?”
“Yes. It’s what happened to my mother, only it’s happening to me. Over and over again, every night.”
“Your mother told you a story about what happened to her in the war?”
“Oh yes, many times. Always the same story, about the camp.” “How old were you when she first told you this story?”
“1 don’t know, really. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know it. I must have been really little.”
“And your dream is always the same?”
“Always the same. Always just as bad. I’m with a lot of people, in some kind of a long line. I’m naked, and I’m really, really cold. Someone shoves me down to the ground, and I see that they’re taking away my mother and my father. I scream ‘Mother!’ but someone kicks me hard. I wake up screaming. I wake up screaming every night.”
“Is this exactly what your mother told you about what happened to her?”
“Yes, exactly . . . except, well, except that she was not a tiny child, and in my dream, I’m a tiny child.”
“That’s so terrifying. When you wake up screaming from the dream, what do you do?”
“I get up and walk around my apartment. I turn on all the lights, and I touch things. I touch my big couch and the soft draperies. I touch the numbers on my kitchen phone, all like that. I need things to bring me back to the here and now, or something. The dream is so real. And after I’ve done that for a while, I think I start to get really numb. Not frightened by the dream anymore – instead I get, well, kind of feeling-less. I wake up on the couch a lot in the mornings.”
Magda was tormented by this dream every night of her life, and our progress in therapy was extremely slow.
While she was still quite young, she had made a vow never to become a mother herself. During one session, when I asked her why, she answered without hesitation that the world was just too dangerous for children.
“But you live in New England,” I said, “and World War II was so long ago.”
“You’re right, of course,” she replied. But then she looked away, and stared in silence at an empty chair across the room. (Martha Stout, The Myth of Sanity)
I hope that reading the above excerpt has given you a lot of food for thought. I think we can assume, from the examples given above, that probably every human being on the planet has some “trauma triggers.” What is, of course, most worrisome is the fact that dissociation can become habit-forming, so to say. If you do it once, it is easier to do the next time, and after you’ve done it a few times, it can become a habit to dissociate at the least sign of a stressful situation. Notice also that it is not an issue, necessarily, of anything noticeable. The little boy whose mother broke all the china was down there “putting on a brave face” and trying to be helpful. Any onlooker would have noticed nothing wrong at all. How many children have difficult or painful family situations and learn to cope in exactly this way? They shut off that creative, inspired, loving, emotional part of the self and some sort of caretaker personality is established that will sweep up the china and forget about the fight between the parents the next day at school.
The next thing that occurs to me is “what about the child raised in the religious household”? Did they dissociate into thoughts about an all-powerful god when they were traumatized as children? And then, as this became a habit, when adult, do they dissociate into their religious teachings at the least sign of stress? And does this religious self become the dominant persona at the cost of the real, authentic self that otherwise would be able to see facts and empirical data, but because there is some feeling of threat, the only thing that happens is that the real self retreats and the dutiful, religious self takes over? And then, in the course of their religious teachings, are they traumatized by graphic and dramatic portrayals of hell-fire and damnation if they do or think this or that? And then, at the least hint of the approach of a reasonable fact or bit of data – the very thing they have been warned will carry them straight to hell – do they dissociate and become a Bible thumping crusader?
There are certainly other kinds of stress that can permanently damage the psyche and even the physical brain of an individual. Just have a look at the article on Transmarginal Inhibition.
Ivan Pavlov was able to bring about what he called a “rupture in higher nervous activity” by utilizing four main types of imposed stresses.
1) The first type of stress was simply an increase in the intensity of the signal to which the dog was initially conditioned. If this was gradually increased, at a certain point, when the signal was too strong for its system, the dog would begin to break down.
2) The second way of achieving the ultraboundary event was to increase the time between the giving of the signal and the arrival of food. If a dog was conditioned to receive food five seconds after the warning signal, and this period was then prolonged, signs of restlessness and abnormal behavior would become evident in the less stable dogs. Pavlov discovered that the dog’s brains revolted against any abnormally long waiting period while under stress. Breakdown would occur when the dog had to either exert very strong, or very prolonged, inhibition. (Human beings also find protracted waiting while under stress to be debilitating: worse than the event that produces the anxiety.)
3) The third way of inducing a breakdown was to confuse the dogs by anomalies in the conditioning signal. If positive and negative signals were given one after the other, (yes, no, yes, no, etc), the hungry dog would become uncertain as to what would happen next and this disrupted the normal nerve stability. This is also true with human beings.
4) The fourth way of inducing a breakdown in a dog was to destabilize the dog’s physical condition in some way, either by subjecting it to long periods of work, inducing gastro-intestinal disorders, fever, disturbing the glandular balance, surgery, etc.
If, in any case, the first three methods would fail to induce a breakdown in a particular dog, it could be achieved by utilizing the same stresses that had failed, but doing so only after initiating the fourth protocol: physical destabilization. Pavlov also discovered that, after physical destabilization, a breakdown might occur even in temperamentally stable dogs and also that any new behavior pattern occurring afterward might become a fixed element of the dog’s personality even long after recovery from the debilitating experience.
As you can see from these examples, that apply to humans as well, any number of things in our environment – and especially in the environment of a child – could induce dissociation. In more severe cases, researchers have recently discovered that abuse can definitely make permanent changes in the brain.
Now, let’s turn to what I think is a similar process, only described somewhat differently: Selection and Substitution of premises as explicated by Andrzej Lobaczewski:
Unconscious psychological processes outstrip conscious reasoning, both in time and in scope, which makes many psychological phenomena possible: including those generally described as conversive, such as subconscious blocking out of conclusions, the selection, and, also, substitution of seemingly uncomfortable premises.
We speak of blocking out conclusions if the inferential process was proper in principle and has almost arrived at a conclusion and final comprehension within the act of internal projection, but becomes stymied by a preceding directive from the subconscious, which considered it inexpedient or disturbing. This is primitive prevention of personality disintegration, which may seem advantageous; however, it also prevents all the advantages which could be derived from consciously elaborated conclusion and reintegration. A conclusion thus rejected remains in our subconscious and in a more unconscious way causes the next blocking and selection of this kind. This can be totally harmful, progressively enslaving a person to his own subconscious, and is often accompanied by a feeling of tension and bitterness.
We speak of selection of premises whenever the feedback goes deeper into the resulting reasoning and from its database thus deletes and represses into the subconscious just that piece of information which was responsible for arriving at the uncomfortable conclusion. Our subconscious then permits further logical reasoning, except that the outcome will be erroneous in direct proportion to the actual significance of the repressed data. An ever-greater number of such repressed information is collected in our subconscious memory. Finally, a kind of habit seems to take over: similar material is treated the same way even if reasoning would have reached an outcome quite advantageous to the person. (Lobaczewski, Political Ponerology)
We can see that this is closely associated with dissociation. If there is stress, the individual can dissociate into either a “fantasy” or into a persona that is utilitarian and survivalist in nature; a narrowing of focus in order to stop feeling, exactly as Stout described above in her little example of the turtles. What is most interesting is when this becomes a normal, social expedient – when a group of people all do the same thing:
The most complex process of this type is substitution of premises thus eliminated by other data, ensuring an ostensibly more comfortable conclusion. Our associative ability rapidly elaborates a new item to replace the removed one, but it is one leading to a comfortable conclusion. This operation takes the most time, and it is unlikely to be exclusively subconscious. Such substitutions are often effected collectively, in certain groups of people, through the use of verbal communication. That is why they best qualify for the moralizing epithet “hypocrisy” than either of the above-mentioned processes. [...]
Our subconscious may carry the roots of human genius within, but its operation is not perfect; sometimes it is reminiscent of a blind computer, especially whenever we allow it to be cluttered with anxiously rejected material. This explains why conscious monitoring, even at the price of courageously accepting disintegrative states, is likewise necessary to our nature, not to mention our individual and social good.
There is no such thing as a person whose perfect self-knowledge allows him to eliminate all tendencies toward conversive thinking, but some people are relatively close to this state, while others remain slaves to these processes. Those people who use conversive operations too often for the purpose of finding convenient conclusions, or constructing some cunning para-logistic or para-moralistic statements, in time undertake such behavior for ever more trivial reasons, losing the capacity for conscious control over their thought process. This necessarily leads to behavior errors which must be paid for by others as well as themselves. [...]
Unconscious elimination of data which are or appear to be inexpedient gradually turns to habit, then becomes a custom accepted by society at large. Any thought process based on such truncated information cannot possibly give rise to correct conclusions; it further leads to subconscious substitution of inconvenient premises by more convenient ones, thereby approaching the boundaries of phenomena which should be viewed as psychopathological.
…subconscious selection and substitution of data lead to chronic avoidance of the crux of the matter. (Lobaczewski, Political Ponerology)
These are the processes by which normal people become “half-wits” which is the only way I can think of to describe an individual who thinks that God appeared on a mountain to talk to some guy named Moses who led hundreds of thousands of people around in circles in a desert for forty years, or that a man, 2000 years ago, died on a cross and rose from the dead a few days later, and because of that, you don’t have to worry about a thing!
Speaking of which, can you imagine the trauma of a very young child hearing the story of Jesus and being told that dying on a cross is a GOOD thing? I’ll never forget my daughter (who, thankfully, was old enough to not be scarred by the incident) telling me about her visit to church with family members and how she was totally revolted when they began singing “Are you Washed in the Blood of the Lamb?” Seriously! In a sense, that is just as bizarre as the creators of the Myth of Masada making the suicide of a gang of miscreants appear to be a positive expression of Jewish heroics and leading treks up the mountain so Jewish young people could get the “full experience” by being where it happened.
I could go on, but I think that the reader can sit back with this information and begin to think about their own childhood, their own possible triggers, their depressions, anxiety attacks and so on, as well as contemplating the same situations – or worse – in the lives of multiplied millions of other people.
Just keep in mind that a traumatized child dissociates into a ‘child’ part that doesn’t grow up, and also a ‘custodian’ part that has the job of protecting the child. The dissociation mechanism isn’t just a trip-fuse, it actually turns into its own personality fragment, which changes from ‘life preserving’ in the case of the initiating trauma, and grows into an internal ‘tyrant’, a violently overprotective paranoid guardian, that will pre-emptively burst into action, to shut down any situation which threatens to put the ‘child’ in any kind of situation that carries so much as the slightest (perceived) risk of the original trauma to the child, and basically “locks that child in the basement”.
That’s about everybody on the planet: living with an emotional child inside, and an external persona looking for someone to submit to, to make things safe, to feel good.
Now, maybe you begin to see why Western Civilization is sick – sick right down to the shifting sands of the religious concepts our social structures – everything we see, read, experience, eat, drink, breathe – are built on. And maybe you begin to see why pathological types can so easily rise to the top and take control. They don’t have these little glitches in their natures… and they know very well how to push our buttons and cause us to freeze and dissociate like a deer in the headlights.
So, when comets come and go, when disasters occur, it is so easy to get us to forget, to get us to buy into the next fantasy of how we are safe and protected and God is in his heaven and all is right with the world. For all intents and purposes, normal humans aren’t much different from the oysters taken for a walk by the Walrus and the Carpenter. And certainly, unless we wise up, our fate will be the same.
The Walrus and The Carpenter
The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright–
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.
The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done–
“It’s very rude of him,” she said,
“To come and spoil the fun!”
The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead–
There were no birds to fly.
The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
“If this were only cleared away,”
They said, “it would be grand!”
“If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year.
Do you suppose,” the Walrus said,
“That they could get it clear?”
“I doubt it,” said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.
“O Oysters, come and walk with us!”
The Walrus did beseech.
“A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each.”
The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head–
Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed.
But four young Oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat–
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn’t any feet.
Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more–
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.
The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”
“But wait a bit,” the Oysters cried,
“Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!”
“No hurry!” said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.
“A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,
“Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed–
Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.”
“But not on us!” the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
“After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!”
“The night is fine,” the Walrus said.
“Do you admire the view?
“It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf–
I’ve had to ask you twice!”
“It seems a shame,” the Walrus said,
“To play them such a trick,
After we’ve brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“The butter’s spread too thick!”
“I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
“I deeply sympathize.”
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.
“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.
Lewis Carroll, from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872
Originally Published 2008_05_13