In the first edition of this blog, Dreaming Violence into Peace: A 3-Part Series, I shared how in the fall of 2014, I started to have violent dreams, a few of which seemed to presage contemporary events and the potential for the breakout of war in the Middle East. In this second edition of this series, I discuss the collective impact of single traumatic events and draw on research by well-known psychiatrist, Lenore Terr, M.D. on the long-term impact of the 1976 bus kidnapping in Chowchilla, California. To demonstrate in this article how violence can impact our individual and collective consciousness, I explore the famous song, “Mississippi Goddam” penned and performed by Nina Simone in 1964. Every single one of us in the world today is carrying within our psyches. whether consciously or unconsciously, the bloody history of this planet. My dreams demonstrate this, as does credible scientific inquiry. This blog is also relevant to the series on the Shamanic Energy Medicine for Treating Trauma and Other Contemporary Afflictions: Introduction because it lays the groundwork for a discussion of ancestral violence, transgenerational trauma, epigenetics and the transformative power of shamanic energy medicine.
Imagine what the amount of violence in the world for the past 500 years might mean for us individually–even if we do not self-identify as a member of a group which has experienced a known historical trauma such as slavery or genocide and even if we consider our immediate lives to have been lived in relative peace (for instance, we ourselves have not been to war or been a victim of direct violence). While victims of such events could suffer what is called in contemporary psychology P0sttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), others can, as well. In clinical literature, this is often called Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) or “vicarious traumatization”. Definitions vary, but what they share is the understanding that we can be indirectly traumatized simply by the knowledge of another person’s or group’s traumatization. The American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV (DSM IV) puts it this way:
“[T]he essential feature of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is that development of characteristic symptoms following exposure to and extreme traumatic stressor involving direct personal experience of an event that involves threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or other threat to one’s physical integrity; or witnessing an event that involves death, personal injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of another person; or learning about an unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death or injury by a family member or other close associates.”
As Charles R. Figley, an expert on the topic of STS among professionals working on the front lines of violence and trauma, puts it in his article “Compassion Fatigue: Toward a New Understanding of the Costs of Caring” in the book Secondary Traumatic Stress: Self-Care Issues for Clinicians, Researchers, & Educators: “Therefore, people can be traumatized without actually being physically harmed or threatened with harm.” This is also true when violence is threatened or committed based on a person’s gender, race, ethnicity, nationality or other self-identification. This means that if a black man is beaten and killed by police, even a black person across the continent can be secondarily traumatized.
Let me play this out by looking at the statistics of the lynching of black men in the United States. If one black man was lynched in 1952, we can easily assume that it rippled out and affected his family, friends, neighbors, and even all black people who read about it in the newspaper or heard of it by word of mouth. Think of the song by jazz/blues singer song writer, “Mississippi Goddam“by Nina Simone in which she expressed black people’s fear, horror and disbelief at the bombing in 1963 by two white men of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in which 4 black children were killed:
….Alabama’s gotten me so upset Tennessee made me lose my rest And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
Can’t you see it? Can’t you feel it? It’s all in the air I can’t stand the pressure much longer Somebody say a prayer….
Hound dogs on my trail School children sitting in jail Black cat cross my path I think everyday’s gonna be my last
Lord, have mercy on this land of mine We all gonna get it in due time I don’t belong here, I don’t belong there I’ve even stopped believing in prayer….
Her lyrics viscerally describe the direct, immediate effect of a single act of violence on not only a herself, but on all black people–people who clearly in the time of Jim Crow would identify with the victims. The fact that innocent children were killed makes it all the more worse.
While it is true every human being is unique and individual responses vary widely, what we also know from scientific research on the impact of violence on veterans of war is that such scars, when left unhealed, may manifest in an individual in any manner of distorted beliefs, actions, symptoms, and experiences in individuals. Nina is describing in these stanzas the onset of PTSD and STS even though at that time in our history, the terms and symptomology for both were not part of mainstream awareness. The fact that Birmingham was only one event in a long history of violence against enslaved Africans and African Americans and, after slavery was abolished, on African Americans as a whole–a history that continues today–would indeed deepen its impact and significance.
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV provides a detailed understanding of PTSD symptoms: recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections of the event, recurrent dreams related to the event (including hallucinations, dissociative flashbacks, etc.), intense psychological distress and physiological symptoms when exposed to internal externals triggers resembling the event, chronic hyperarousal, sleep difficulties, irritability and outbursts of anger, feelings of detachment and estrangement from others, sense of foreshortened future, and others.
Let me return to Nina once again. You can watch an excellent documentary on her life on Netflix: “What happened, Miss Simone?” The film reveals in stark relief that she was the victim of brutal beatings by her husband and that she herself in later years became violent and beat her daughter. She also talked about suicide in letters to friends. In her older years, she was finally diagnosed with Bi-Polar Disorder. No matter her diagnosis, violence permeated her life–not only as a woman, but as a black person. Nina’s terrible suffering is poignant.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Nina was close friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. and used her music to rally Black people to the cause, to build their self-esteem and foster hope. This stanza in “Mississippi Goddam” demonstrates, as well, the power of truth-telling–calling out the lies and hypocrisy:
….Oh, but this whole country is full of lies You’re all gonna die and die like flies I don’t trust you any more You keep on saying, “Go slow! Go slow!”
But that’s just the trouble, do it slow Desegregation, do it slow Mass participation, do it slow Reunification, do it slow
Do things gradually, do it slow But bring more tragedy, do it slow Why don’t you see it? Why don’t you feel it? I don’t know, I don’t know….
When someone has been a victim of oppression and violence, they lose their hope, trust and faith in other human beings and even in Mother Life. They also lose a belief in natural human goodness–their own and others. Nina Simone used her voice powerfully to express this truth, as well as to continue to challenge the status quo. This is no simple task: she risked her life and limb in singing these songs.
There is also another truth: it was not only blacks who were affected by Birmingham and the lynching of black and even their white supporters. As the great psychiatrist, Judith Lewis Herman, M.D., says, “Perpetrators, as well as victims are subject to the dialectic of violence.” Jesus himself said that anyone who wields the sword will die by the sword.
When we kill, on an intrapsychic level, we kill a part of ourselves. To kill another human being requires numbing or shutting out the part of us that naturally recoils at even the thought. Or it requires fueling the fires of anger and hatred. The Dalai Lama knows this when he says that we will only stop violence in the world if we end the violence within ourselves.
White people not involved in the lynching, too, could have been secondarily affected–and not in the most obvious of ways. For instance, let’s say a white child heard about the lynching from other children whose parents were talking about it around the dinner table. That white child, who did not understand the insanity of racial prejudice and that they were talking about black, not white children, affected in the bombings, could have then become frightened that something bad would happen to her father. And there were also good-hearted white people who abhorred racism and lynching and who feared for their lives because in the racially polarized world of Jim Crow, anyone who sympathized with or helped blacks were suspect.
Based on these facts, let’s expand out from a single lynching in 1952 to the total number of estimated lynchings in the United States. Between 1882-1968, there were 4,743 known lynchings (note that there were likely many more unrecorded and unknown). Of those, 3,446 were black and 1,297 were white. Most of the whites were lynched for assisting blacks. We need to imagine a great web expanding out exponentially from this single lynching to all lynchings in the past and present–as well as into the unknown future. Why the past and present? Because that single lynching in 1952 would be a trigger (using DSM IV concepts) back into the fear, anger and hatred planted in the collective psyche of every single lynching up until that time. Why the present?
Therefore, we can see very concretely that the collective impact of a single lynching–and of Birmingham and other similar events–is huge–potentially in the millions. It doesn’t just affect the direct victim–it affects all of us, no matter how distant that event may be to where we stand in the web of relationship. I understand this very personally because of my experience as a child listening every day on the nightly news the counts of wounded and killed in Vietnam. I remember saying to my father, “Why can’t we end this war? Why are people killing each other?” I was so deeply affected by Vietnam that I currently claim the moniker for myself as a “survivor of war.” All of us in this world today within this frame are “victims” of war. All of us are impacted daily by violence just by watching the daily news.
While I have not been the victim of beatings by a spouse as Nina was, nor am I black and at a high risk of being victimized due to the color of my skin, I know from being a woman who has been sexually harassed and from being sexually, emotionally,physically and spiritually abused by my mentally ill mother, what it is like to carry in my mind and body a fear of violence and the stain of past violence. As I listen to “Mississippi Goddam”, I hear my own fear, anger and pain at the injustice in the world–at all the violence in the world which created the distortion in the maternal line in my family. By virtue of living in these times, I am unwittingly caught in this bloody stream. My mother was, too. And so, her life was distorted by violence and abuse, as, I am sure, her mother’s was, as well.
Imagine for a minute what this might mean. Because of the mostly unconscious way western civilization has addressed the impact of violence (by perpetuating cycles of hatred, revenge and the will to expand territory through war and genocide, rather than stepping back and choosing to end conflict and find constructive and effective means of transformation and resolution), it is likely that many of the individuals involved in this bloody stream lived on without any healing or transformation of these wounds. This lack of resolution is extremely important precisely because it creates the environment and behaviors which then impact current and subsequent generations. Keep in mind that violence experienced in public world can manifest in various forms of domestic abuse in private.
Psychotherapist, Edward Tick, PhD has treated veterans of war for over 30 years and has written a book, War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He is very clear about the fact that we in western civilization have failed to treat the deep wounds of war and have thus left most of our veterans–and anyone else touched by war–to live lives, as he puts it, “trapped in limbo where past and present intermingle without differentiation or continuity.” The same can be said for most traumatic events.
What does it mean to truly “treat” or even heal the wounds of war and other forms of violence? In the practice of shamanic energy medicine, this means, first, acknowledging that when we encounter the darkness of violence in its many forms, we are at high risk of experiencing a kind of soul death. The soul is the essence of a person, that part of us which inhabits and enlivens the physical body. Our soul carries the imprints of all our life experiences and is thus connected to all the experiences of our parents, ancestors and past lives.
When we are ensouled, living from our innate, natural soul force, we are confident in ourselves as we engage with Mother Life. We are connected and integrated–body, mind, emotions. Our lives have meaning and purpose. We know ourselves as fully human while also being more than the physical garment we wear.
When a child is sexually molested by a known adult, a part of him will come in contact with a deep and profound darkness of spirit in the human spirit. The child’s body–his most sacred, beautiful garment–has been violated. What then emerges is confusion, shame and fear. These feelings can be compounded if the adult has threatened the child with bodily harm, public humiliation or with the harm of another loved one. The pain of such manipulation and physical violation might be so hard to bear that he may wish for his own death or he may wish the adult to die.
Since we know that the emotional impact on survivors, witnesses and bystanders of violent events, (war, domestic abuse, rape, authoritarian oppression, racial profiling, kidnapping, slavery, corporate and government destruction of indigenous peoples….the list goes on) were in most cases likely never effectively addressed, then the imprint within the individual psyche would remain. This can have long-term and even disastrous consequences, not only for the victims and their families, but for whole communities and, as we shall see, even for the consciousness of every human being in the world.
For instance, research has shown that if someone has been sexually abused as a child, s/he is statistically more likely to be sexually assaulted as an adult. As Diana E. H. Russell, author of “The Incest Legacy: Why Today’s Abused Children Become Tomorrow’s Victims of Rape”, writes: “my research on incest has uncovered this disturbing finding: most women who are sexually abused as children become victims of rape or attempted rape as adults. Incest seems to make a woman more vulnerable to further sexual exploitation: its victims are almost twice as likely as are other women to be sexually assaulted by nonrelatives later in life.” The statistics she offers from research studies are 68% of incest victims were victims of rape or attempted rape later in life, compared with 38% of other women.
It is perhaps easy to understand how unresolved wounds from war could result in a veteran having problems with depression, anger management, and even addiction which could then spin out into acts of violence against family members and even oneself–which in and of itself could create the conditions for the spouse and children of the veteran to be victmized and traumatized. But how do we explain the fact that someone who has been sexually abused as a child might be more likely to be sexually assaulted as an adult?
Psychiatrist, Lenore Terr, undertook a longitudinal study on the effects on the families and community of Chowchilla, California of the kidnapping of a school bus filled with children and the bus driver in 1976. In her book, Too Sacred to Cry: How Trauma Affects Children…and Ultimately, Us All, she gives the details of what happened. The school bus was overtaken by three armed men. The bus driver and children were transferred into 3 vans and the bus abandoned. The kidnappers then drove for an entire day covering miles. Their captors were kept in the dark: they did not know where they were going or whether they were eventually going to be killed. Then the driver and children were held at gunpoint, interviewed one at a time, and forced to give up one personal item precious to them–a t-shirt or stuffed teddy bear, for instance. Each then was forced to climb down into a hole in the ground. When all were inside, the kidnappers shoveled dirt and rocks over the hole where all inside were left to die of starvation, water-deprivation, suffocation, and/or all of the above. They spent approximately 24 hours in the “hole” until the bus driver and two older, more resourceful of the children, figured a way out. When they emerged at ground level, the kidnappers were nowhere to be seen, the authorities were contacted and after a 48-hour ordeal, the children and driver were reunited with their families. Five months later, Terr was asked to meet with the children and their families. She eventually decided to track them for the next 5 years.
She expressed her conclusions in the following way: “The Chowchilla field study was the first research project on childhood trauma that was controlled, that was prospective (looking at the group forward from near to the beginning), that was directed at a single group that had experienced an identical event, that centered on children (rather than upon parents), and that involved a large number of youngsters at various stages of development, at various levels of educational and economic attainment, and of various kinds of families….It was becoming clear that horrible life experiences could scar the minds of children. Many youngsters were living for years with unrecognized traumatic effects….I began to wonder something else, too. During my trips to Chowchilla, I had met a few brothers and sisters of kidnapped kids who were ‘catching’ some of the fears, behaviors, play, or dreams of their kidnapped siblings….I began to think about very old traumas, the historical ones–the plagues, sieges, and such. Did the classics, myths, and the old childhood games carry along with them traces of these old traumas? As I searched Poe, Virginia Woolf, Ingmar Bergman, and others, I began to find the traces of childhood ordeals in their works. I began to see that old disasters could lead to long-standing superstitions.” In other words, unresolved trauma leads people to develop irrational fears and distorted beliefs about self and the world.
I am here compelled to return to a discussion of my dreams. So far, I have painted a grim picture: we are all living in a web of violence reaching back centuries–even millennia–in which single acts of violence reverberate both forward and backwards in time in unpredictable ways. Most of these traumatic events have not been healed and transformed so that their imprint continues to reverberate in not only those directly affected, but also potentially hundreds, even thousands indirectly affected.
My dreams show viscerally how this imprint of violence lives within us–even if we are not directly affected. If we are not diligent in remaining awake and aware to these bloody imprints on our psyche, then we can unwittingly or even consciously perpetuate on subtle or overt levels the cycle of violence.
My dreams say: It is time to step up and speak, just as Nina Simone spoke. Sing the song of the truth every day that we dream, sleep and wake!
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