3 - Preface
Aftershock: Confronting Trauma in a Violent World: A Guide for Activists and Their Allies
Polar bears are drowning off the coast of Alaska as I write these words. Further south, soldiers terrorize "terrorists" at Guantánamo Bay. Genetically engineered pigs glow green in the dark in Taiwan. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., vendors of gas-guzzling SUVs are seen as civic leaders while anybody daring to destroy a snowmobile or bulldozer is seen as—you guessed it—a terrorist.
More than 13,000 malnourished children died today.
Last month, four of my friends were convicted of domestic terrorism for doing things that I have done. Their alleged crimes included picketing on public sidewalks and sending lots of faxes.
By the time you read this, some detainees will have been released but some unknown number of persons will have disappeared into secret prisons overseas, where nobody bothers to enforce anti-torture treaties. The number of dead children may have gone up or down but will remain unconscionably high. Depending on how many months it has been, some number of species of plants and animals that breathe as I write this will no longer exist by the time you read it.
No matter what time it is when you pick up or put down this book, the seas still will be rising as excess carbon dioxide heats up our biosphere. Five-legged frogs and homeless pigeons and grieving mothers of many species will be wondering what to do next.
I don't know where you will be or what the headline on the front page of your newspaper will be on the day you read this book, but I do know one thing: You won't feel safe. I hope that you will have found or created sanctuary in this dangerous world. But even when you are in your safe place or surrounded by protective people, you will know: There are bombs that can destroy the world. The seas and the skies are dangerously deranged. Someday the people with nothing to lose are going to snap. Someday the people with everything to lose might decide that the enemy is you.
This is a book about the real war against terror, by which I mean the struggle for a world in which nobody—neither Iraqi children nor Iowan chickens—lives in fear of atrocities perpetrated by human beings. Every day, people who push against violence and injustice or pull for peace and freedom face their own fears, whether these be moderate anxiety about public speaking, or outright panic at the prospect of arrest. Many activists also must struggle with what I call aftershock—the physical and emotional reverberations of frightening, horrifying, or otherwise traumatizing experiences endured in the course of their activism.
Standing alone on a stage at Syracuse University, Sarahjane Blum quivers with emotion as she speaks about what she saw inside a foie gras factory. Feeling as well as hearing her words, the audience sees the suffering of the ducks through Sarahjane's eyes. When words fail, Sarahjane shows selections from the videotape Delicacy of Despair. Sitting in the darkened auditorium, scholars and activists flinch from, but force themselves to witness, the visible misery on the screen.
On a literature table just outside the auditorium, a videotape loop broadcasts undercover footage of animal abuse at Huntington Life Sciences (HLS). Over and over again, a screaming man in a white lab coat abuses beagle puppies. One can only imagine the mental machinations necessary for the activists staffing the table to tolerate the constant barrage of human rage and animal pain. And what of the activist who went undercover as an HLS employee in order to bring out the evidence of such abuses? How did she cope with her emotions at the time? What does she feel now?
In the spring of 2005, such questions prompted me to write an article called "Fear of Feeling: Trauma and Recovery in the Animal Liberation Movement" for Satya magazine. Later that summer, Lantern Books publisher Martin Rowe asked me to expand the article into a book.
I didn't want to do it! I was in the middle of writing a very different book and didn't want to drop that to delve into the treacherous topic of trauma. But I don't believe in sneezing at opportunities to do something useful, so as soon as I could, I set aside everything else and came up with this.
This book is for anybody who has faced, is likely to face, or wants to help somebody else who has faced any kind of trauma in the course of progressive activism. It includes practical tips for individuals, organizations, and communities, as well as information about how traumatic events affect our bodies and abilities.
Going beyond the impact of trauma on activists and the groups within which they work, this book also explores the culture of trauma that people have created through our violent exploitation of the earth, other animals, and each other. As long as we continue to perpetrate such violations, I argue, we will never fully heal our own traumatic injuries. Thus, this book is for survivors of all kinds of trauma, therapists who treat trauma, and anybody hoping to reduce the amount of terror in the world.
I laugh derisively whenever I hear some politician, soldier or newscaster blathering about the "war against terror." Sarcasm doesn't do much to disguise the anger and sadness I feel inside. We live in a world defined by terror! And those who most loudly proclaim themselves to be fighting terror are actually doing everything they can to increase the fear.
"Strategic bombing" (air attacks on civilian locations) was first used by U.S. forces in World War II and more recently deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The explicit purpose is to scare civilians into submission. "Stress positions" (types of physical torture) have been used by agents of the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantánamo Bay, as well as by U.S.-trained military officers in Latin America. The explicit purpose is to instill such crippling shame and fear that the will of the victim is broken.
Back at home, "deterrence" (fear of punishment) is the primary crime-prevention policy. Squads of police in intimidating riot gear routinely menace peaceful gatherings of unarmed opponents of trade globalization. People who practice non-violent civil disobedience, or even just voice challenges to accepted hierarchies, are more and more frequently called "terrorists," with the photos from Abu Ghraib making sure that everybody knows what can happen to people so designated.
And yet we are not scared enough. Polar bears are drowning off the coast of Alaska! Islands are disappearing as the tides rise! There's still time—but not much!—to do something about climate change. We can't afford to be too comfortable. We need to act now.
Were you surprised when I mentioned my own anger and sadness? Does the idea that we might need to feel more fear seem crazy? Do you think that we need to suppress such negative feelings if we want to create positive change? Do you worry about being paralyzed by sadness or terror? Do you think it's self-indulgent to dwell on your own emotions when so many others are suffering so much more acutely? After all, as I myself have just pointed out, we're in the middle of an emergency! In such dangerous days, who has the luxury to pay attention to feelings?
I hear you, I really do. But here's the problem: We are who we are. If we can learn anything from the current environmental emergency, it's that it's not a good idea to ignore the facts.
The fact is that people are animals and animals have feelings. Like it or not, our bodies use emotions to provoke our actions and direct our energies. Emotions can ease or inhibit effective activity. They can motivate or impede creative thinking. They can impel or impede mutually supportive relationships. But one thing they won't do is go away.
Expecting yourself not to have certain feelings is like asking your body not to need Vitamin C. You don't get to choose whether or not to have feelings. You may choose to ignore them and may even manage not to experience them. But they will be in your body anyway. Feelings are our friends. They warn us of danger and allow us to enjoy pleasure. They inspire us to correct injustices and repair damaged relationships.
Here's what happens when we repress (don't feel) or suppress (push down) our feelings:
- Instead of motivating purposeful action, emotional energy is wasted on the hard work of keeping the feelings away.
- Because they are not enlivened by emotional energy, the words in our speeches and writing become dull and sluggish.
- Instead of inspiring creative problem solving, the rejected feelings interfere with clear thinking.
Some feelings may be too big to feel all at once. It's true that we sometimes can be overwhelmed by feelings, but here, too, the solution is to feel and express rather than deny and suppress. Often, creative action rather than verbal expression is the best outlet. Sometimes, feelings have to be set aside or re-channeled until there's enough space and safety to deal with them directly. But it's rarely a good idea to ignore them entirely.
Why, then, do we fear feelings and try to repress them? What can we do to make better use of our own most important natural resources, to get back into alignment with ourselves? We fear our feelings because they remind us of our animal selves. In elevating ourselves over other animals and out of the world, we've created schisms within ourselves, as well as between ourselves and the rest of the natural world. These chasms are both cause and consequence of what I call trauma culture, by which I mean a set of beliefs and practices that are rooted in and reproduce unnatural divisions.
You may have noticed that I'm talking to you. I'm not going to hide behind authorial anonymity and I hope you won't pretend to be disinterested either. We're all in this together. We're all living at the precipice of catastrophic climate change with pesticide residues and other poisons streaming through our veins. We all collude, to some degree, with the forces that oppress others, and we all have been harmed by living in a world that is more dangerous than it ought to be.
You've got a right to know who I am. You deserve to know where I'm coming from, literally and figuratively.
I was born in Baltimore, where there were sixteen murders in the first fifteen days of 2006. I now live in rural Maryland, on the Delmarva Peninsula, where agents of the poultry industry kill and cut up more than a million chickens every day. In between, I lived in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan, where I pursued studies in clinical psychology while also engaging in a wide range of adventures in activism.
My clinical training began in a unique undergraduate program jointly administered by Towson State University and the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Psychiatric Hospital. The Clinical Concentration program, then run by Drs. Ruthellen Josselson and Judith Armstrong, was a two-year program that combined intensive coursework with extensive clinical practice under expert supervision. Initially funded by a grant from a left-leaning philanthropist, the point of the program was to produce competent therapists without the extra time and expense of graduate school. I voluntarily performed double the required hours of both group and individual clinical work. My internship in individual psychotherapy was performed at Southeastern Community Mental Health Center in Baltimore, where I saw adults struggling with serious problems in living that inevitably turned out to be related to trauma.
I went on to graduate school at the University of Michigan, where I completed my coursework and clinical practice but did not complete my doctoral dissertation. My clinical work again focused on survivors of trauma who were struggling with often extreme symptoms of distress. I also initiated a support group for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, which I co-facilitated. As a therapist, my orientation was radical, feminist, and existentialist. My clinical training was psychodynamic and I incorporate psychodynamic insights into my thinking. However, my worldview also includes perspectives from the liberation psychology and human ecology movements.
My dissertation began as an investigation into the psychohistory of racism. The idea was to explain how and why white people became so crazy as to believe themselves to be different than and superior to all other people. I used a qualitative approach called grounded theory. In this way of doing research, you let your hypotheses grow out of your data rather than starting out with preconceived notions about what you will find. One of the risks is that you will find very different things than you were looking for. I started out thinking that the story would begin a couple of hundred years before Europeans began calling themselves "white." Three years into my research, I found myself back in prehistory, looking at the intersection of patriarchy (male rule) and pastoralism (animal herding) and trying to explain how and why some people became so crazy as to believe themselves to be different than and superior to all other animals.
With 300 pages written, I was still far from finished and was moving further and further from the content and form of the usual scholarly thesis in my field. Meanwhile, my activism had taken me further and further afield.
My adventures in activism began in 1976, when I took my teenaged self to a gay rights rally in Baltimore. I quit eating meat the same year, although it would be two decades before I would begin to see the connection between those two subversive decisions. I started college a year early to get away from homophobic harassment at my high school. In 1978, at the age of sixteen, I became a co-coordinator of the Gay People's Alliance at Towson State University, where, I am proud to say, we were among the first to use some of the strategies still used by LGBT campus organizations today.
Teenage troubles led me to drop out of school for a while and it ended up taking me ten years to finish college. Because I worked more than full time to pay my way through school, my activism of the early and mid-1980s was limited to participating in events organized by others, occasionally writing letters or speaking out in response to calls to do so, and reading deeply into the literature of social change strategy. In the late 1980s, the relatively light duties of a graduate student teaching assistant left me free to jump back into activism, which I did with a vengeance, throwing myself into local struggles concerning poverty, AIDS, and housing.
Then came one of those chance encounters that change your life, and I ended up teaching a hands-on course on the theory and practice of social change activism. Suddenly, it was my job to learn about different social change movements and to figure out such things as how to explain the intersection of racism and sexism to young people who had never considered such conjunctions. Between bringing in guest speakers and supervising student internships, I ended up in touch with just about every local activist organization.
From there, I was invited to join the Board of Directors of the Ella Baker–Nelson Mandela Center for Anti-Racist Education, where I eventually served a one-year term as Coordinator. The Baker-Mandela Center stressed the intersection of race, sex, and class exploitation, understanding homophobia to be an aspect of sexism. Next for me came a four-year stint as the Coordinator of the Ann Arbor Tenants Union, where I did things like staging rent strikes in public housing and organizing community coalitions against problems like abusive policing.
Since 2000, Miriam Jones and I have operated the Eastern Shore Sanctuary and Education Center in rural Maryland. We offer a haven to chickens and ducks while also working toward the long-term goal of environmentally sustainable and economically equitable restoration of a region currently dominated and despoiled by the poultry industry. I also teach public speaking at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and coordinate the Global Hunger Alliance coalition of organizations opposed to the globalization of industrial animal agriculture.
That's where I'm at and where I've been. You also deserve to know my philosophy. I'm an existentialist at heart. Since most people misunderstand that term, I'd better explain. The term comes from French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's famous assertion that "existence precedes essence." All that means, really, is that you are what you do. You become who you are by making choices rather than because of some preexisting nature. That means that you become a generous person by doing generous things. You become kind by behaving kindly. No, you can't be a peaceful person who happens to act violently.
Life is an ongoing process of becoming yourself. You're never done until it's done. It's never certain who you're going to turn out to be. The beauty part is: You get to decide. Yes, your choices are constrained by the material circumstances in which you find yourself. But you make choices nonetheless. Since your choices not only determine who you are but also help to create the world in which other people live, they ought not be taken lightly. At all times, existentialists strive for authenticity. To me, being authentic means not only being real, in the slang sense of the term, but also facing reality, having integrity, and being who you profess to be. Maybe you were thinking I meant political philosophy. I'll tell you that, too. I'm an anarchist in that I believe that states, with their borders and the guns needed to enforce them, are inherently violent.
It goes without saying that I'm a feminist, yes? Ecofeminist, yes. Anarchafeminist, yes. I could continue piling on labels, but you probably get the picture. Once, describing myself to someone I was about to meet, I said, "I'm just your average lesbian anarchist on a bicycle." And, really, that sums it up.
Did I say vegan?
"All of that is fine," you may be thinking, "but what does she really know about trauma?" I am myself a survivor of trauma. While the traumatic events I have endured as an activist have been mild in comparison to those suffered by others, I have confronted profoundly self-shaking events earlier and elsewhere in my life. I know what it is to feel torn apart, to stagger under stunning and incomprehensible pain, and to dare to speak out on the off-chance that somebody, somewhere, might answer with empathy. I know how hard it is to hope and how necessary it is to make that leap of faith across the gulf that seems to separate you from everybody else.
When I read that the polar bears were drowning, I felt a little bit like drowning myself. I felt like I was slipping under, that it was useless to struggle any longer, that maybe it might be a relief to let go and go down. In other words, I felt both the desperation of helplessness and the seduction of despair. Maybe you know the feeling.
This book has been upsetting to write and will at times be upsetting to read. If you stick with it, I think you will find yourself feeling better over time. If you have to set it down and come back to it, that's okay.
Aftershocked activists and other survivors of trauma often feel very alone. By reading this book, you will know that there is at least one person—me—who cares what is happening to you as a result of your experiences. If you've not already done so, I hope this book will inspire you to talk to others and allow them the opportunity to demonstrate empathy for you.
There are going to be times when you don't agree with me. You might even feel very angry at me. That's okay too, and not just because I'm used to people being angry with me. You have a right to your feelings, whatever they may be. Some of the things I say are very challenging. Others may be upsetting because they remind you of something you'd rather not remember. And it may well be that I've gotten something wrong or misphrased something in a manner that might be angering.
I know that I may be wrong about some things. Just that possibility makes me hesitate to send this book to press. Authors are always saying "I don't have all the answers" and I am always wishing they would admit that they really do think they know it all. But now I keep thinking of all the things I know now that I didn't know when I started an animal sanctuary five years ago. And then there are all the things I now believe that hadn't even crossed my mind when I was organizing rent strikes ten years ago. Heaven only knows what I'll learn tomorrow. Meanwhile, I've done my best to be true here today. That's the best any of us can do.
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