When I was 25 years old, I opened a conversation with my parents about the past. Or tried to. I asked my parents some difficult questions. I wanted to hear their own experience of our family history. I wanted to rip off the blood-crusted bandages, so we could all begin to heal.
My family had operated behind thick walls of silence for at least half a century. And it turns out that’s a hard habit to break. I was just beginning to realize that I was the primary carrier of family secrets. But secrets are like the evil serum that comic-book Bad Guys cook up in a lab–and then (unwisely) stash in a glass vial that they carry in their pocket. Bad idea. Because when the vial breaks–as it inevitably will, the poison works through the bloodstream like a virus, attacking and weakening the cells of the carrier.
Secrets, of the darkly life-shattering variety, are just no good for you.
For nearly a year, my parents put me off. Better to pretend nothing was happening than admit I was showing symptoms of serious blood poisoning. The truth was on its way out. But they hoped they could stave it off. They “couldn’t really talk about this right now,” they assured me every few months. Maybe in six months. Maybe a year.
I had fiddled with the locks on the family closet out of a sincere desire to know the other side of the story. I hoped desperately that there were reasons for the violence and emotional abuse and neglect from my parents. I simply wanted to know why.
But as my parents swatted away my requests month after month, another truth began to emerge: I would never know why. They were more committed to the secrets than to the possibility of healing.
Telling the truth about trauma—whether that trauma is Jim Crow or genocide or abuse—peels back the glossy surface and reveals a system of unequal power and coercive violence. It also reveals our own complicity. And so, the public disclosure of trauma—and the anger of survivors—pose unsettling questions of responsibility and identity. It makes our own lives more complex and more uncomfortable.
And who wants that?
Anger is always a difficult emotion. But when it’s rooted in trauma, it’s especially ugly and frightening.
Very few truths expose the rickety structure of society as sharply as trauma. In her classic book Trauma and Recovery, psychologist Judith Herman defines trauma as “an affliction of the powerless. At the moment of trauma, the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force. Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary symptoms of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning.”
Rape, abuse, genocide, and military attacks can only be committed in a society where the disparity in strength or status enables one person or group to violate another.
And then the survivor, for daring to speak this truth, is often shunned.
This is what happened in my story. After eight months of refusals, I decided to write and tell them my own truth of what I remembered. The beating when I was sure my father had decided to kill me. My mother’s regular physical attacks when I left toys in the living room or forgot a chore. The barrage of insults and criticism from the people I most wanted to love me.
They were truthful letters. They were also far too angry.
Eight years later, my parents have never forgiven me for those letters. But I could never have forgiven myself had I remained silent.
The task of healing from trauma is inextricable from telling the truth about it. And the truth exposes the inequities that made the trauma possible.
Such powerful truth inevitably stirs up rage.
But the key to healing is to move through the rage. Whether a vet with PTSD, a rape survivor, a person of color soul-broken by racism, or an abused child all grown up, we have to sit Shiva with the rage. Including the truth about our rage. And the rightness of our rage.
When another human being—or an institution—renders me powerless against another’s violence, anger is what has kept me alive in the rubble. Please understand, trauma shatters basic trust in the world. Trauma means I can never again take for granted my physical safety, the trustworthiness of loved ones, or the social contract. In such darkness, anger is sometimes the only light. The only reason to go on living.
One day, of course, all survivors must emerge from the darkness.
But this is when we need other people most.
As much as survivors are responsible for the truth, society is responsible for hearing it. So have the courage to listen. To really listen. To admit that you don’t know the first thing about what it’s like to be anyone but yourself. In doing so, you can help survivors begin to heal—not only ourselves but our society. Your courageous, vulnerable listening may be the greatest gift you can give someone who has suffered.
“Creating a protected space where survivors can speak their truth is an act of liberation. They remind us that bearing witness, even within the confines of that sanctuary, is an act of solidarity. They remind us also that moral neutrality in the conflict between victim and perpetrator is not an option… [We] are sometimes forced to take sides. Those who stand with the victim will inevitably have to face the perpetrator’s unmasked fury. For many of us, there can be no greater honor” (Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery).
Maybe, if survivors find the courage to start talking and bystanders have the courage to start listening, we can revise the imbalances of power and justice. So that “Never Again” can be more than just a bumper sticker.