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“If it bleeds, it leads” has always been a rule of thumb in news reportage, but the past few years have offered up so much trauma, keeping up with current events can seem tantamount to self-harm. Exposure to everyday tragedies such as school shootings, the influx of sexual harassment and assault reportage, and the rising tide of hate crimes, provides a constant reminder of just how many lives are touched, and how many families wounded – each left to their own devices in coping with their new normal.
And we empathize, because many of us are in various states of recovery from our own personal trauma. As author and psychologist Gretchen L. Schmelzer pointed out recently, our healing is often marred by setbacks which may actually pave the way toward progress.
You’re in good company when contemplating the difficulty of overcoming the past – more has been written on this subject than perhaps any other, and many of the following authors write from the kind of personal experience that’s impossible to bear alone. News headlines may not get any easier to read in the foreseeable future, but in the meantime there’s plenty we can do to make sure we’re strong enough to withstand them.
Andrea Gibson, The Madness Vase, 2011
“The trauma said, ‘Don’t write these poems.
Nobody wants to hear you cry about the grief inside your bones.‘”
Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner, 2003
“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.”
Rose McGowan, Brave, 2018
“It is a scientific fact that memory changes every time we bring it up, but the body has memory that is even more accurate than the mind. Women know when they have been violated emotionally, physically, or verbally. And no man has the right to tell us otherwise. Our bodies shake, they burn, they do all kinds of things when they remember. Our muscles remember. We know by the way we feel when we have been violated. Even when we are drunk we know the difference between welcome and unwelcome – the body always feels it during and after.”
John Steinbeck, East of Eden, 1952
“And as a few strokes on the nose will make a puppy head shy, so a few rebuffs will make a boy shy all over. But whereas a puppy will cringe away or roll on its back, groveling, a little boy may cover his shyness with nonchalance, with bravado, or with secrecy. And once a boy has suffered rejection, he will find rejection even where it does not exist—or, worse, will draw it forth from people simply by expecting it.”
Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence, 1997
“The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.”
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, 1923
“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives?”
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 1930
“We are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our body, which is doomed to decay…, from the external world which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless force of destruction, and finally from our relations with other men… This last source is perhaps more painful to use than any other.”
Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, 2011
“All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech. The thing is stuck. We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words. I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself.”
Maya Angelou, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, 1976
“There is a shock that comes so quickly and strikes so deep that the blow is internalized even before then skin feels it. The strike must first reach bone marrow, then ascend slowly to the brain where the slowpoke intellect records the deed.”
Stephen King, IT, 1986
“Ben Hanscom… feels the wall of time grow suddenly thin; some terrible/wonderful peristalsis has begun to take place. He thinks: My God, I am being digested by my own past.”
Carson McCullers, Reflections in a Golden Eye, 1941
“Afterward the Captain was to tell himself that in this one instant he knew everything. Actually, in a moment when a great but unknown shock is expected, the mind instinctively prepares itself by abandoning momentarily the faculty of surprise. In that vulnerable instant a kaleidoscope of half-guessed possibilities project themselves, and when the disaster has defined itself there is the feeling of having understood beforehand in some supernatural way.”
Louise Erdrich, Four Souls, 2001
“I shared with Fleur the mysterious self-contempt of the survivor. There were times we hated who we were, and who we had to become, in order not to follow those we loved into the next world. We grew hard. We became impenetrable, sparing of our pity. Sorrows that leveled other people were small to us. We made no move to avoid pain. Sometimes we even welcomed it – we were clumsy with knives, fire, boiling water, steel traps. Pain took our minds off the greater pain that was the mistake that we still existed.”
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1985
“Whatever it was, she knew she would not be blamed for it, she was blameless. But what use had that been to her in the past, to be blameless? So at the same time she felt guilty, and as if she was about to be punished.”
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 1940
“The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say ‘My tooth is aching’ than to say ‘My heart is broken’. Yet if the cause is accepted and faced, the conflict will strengthen and purify the character and in time the pain will usually pass.”