In recent news, the Dominican author Junot Diaz wrote a deeply resonant account of his childhood rape and the lifelong effect the trauma had on his thoughts, actions, behaviors, world view, and sense of identity. Not surprisingly, an immediate reaction from many women whom he has hurt came forth. And I presume that many more who have felt hurt by him are remaining silent.
Following that, a Facebook friend and internationally known yoga therapist suggested that, the fact that Mr. Diaz admitted to hurting people is not not equivalent to taking responsibility for his specific actions. Actions which it seems spanned decades and remained unspoken until now. And while I am an advocate for women and outspoken in my efforts to raise the voice of women, I also see this as an opportunity to understand (not excuse) the complexities of trauma in regard to human behavior.
In my work, and in my life, I am fortunate to have come to know trauma survivors in myriad social contexts and communities. Survivors of intimate partner violence, those in substance abuse treatment, those struggling with homelessness, and those in the corrections system. And there are a few things I know to be absolutely true:
Trauma can (and often does) move an individual away from who they really are and toward someone they do not know or recognize.
In his essay, Mr. Diaz states, “I spent more energy running from it than I did living.” This is the trajectory that removes us from any sense of our pre-trauma self. Running includes shrinking away, becoming addicted to substances, developing eating disorders, engaging in violence towards others, engaging in violence toward self, and many other behavioral adaptations. It is the root of psycho-social illness, pathological behavior, danger-courting, health risk behaviors, and many mental illnesses.
The driving force behind these long-term outcomes is the fear of, yet fundamental need for, human connection. In other words, the fear associated with vulnerability needed for true human connection. As Mr. Diaz writes, “It’s hard to have love when you absolutely refuse to show yourself, when you’re locked behind a mask.” And in fact, when that “mask” is pried loose by oneself or by the actions or inquiry of someone else, the survivor will protect it at every cost.
This all happens without the survivor having much notion of what is happening inside of them and why they begin engaging in behaviors of which they are either unaware or find confusing and shameful. Alternatively, they make the behaviors the fault of others, because to face it would be too much to bear on top of the deeply seeded shame that is already running their circuitry. The more they engage in unhealthy behaviors, the more shame and self-loathing they feel — and the more this builds, the closer they get to the two ultimate end-games of trauma: suicide or imprisonment.
2. Trauma survivors often feel unworthy of existing, fundamentally broken, and entirely unfixable.
As an example of this, Mr. Diaz writes, “The Negro who couldn’t sleep with anyone became the Negro who would sleep with everyone.” Survivors of sexual trauma often respond to their trauma this way, taking charge of the very thing that created this unfixable self. Conversely, the path for survivors of sexual trauma can take the opposite direction, starting off with unexplained promiscuity and leading to unexplained terror when faced with any sexual intimacy, no matter how consensual. Either way, a healthy sexuality is sabotaged by the early trauma, and the survivor remains in a state of feeling fundamentally broken, flawed, or unfit for society, and becomes more and more enraged at self, others, and/or society at large.
3. The coping strategies and behaviors of a trauma survivor only work to intensify the symptoms they are trying to avoid.
This is evidenced in Mr. Diaz's words, “Eventually what used to hold back the truth doesn’t work anymore.” Those who have survived traumas, especially traumas that carry with them intense feelings of shame, self-judgment, and silence, develop coping strategies to minimize the feelings or reminders of that trauma.
Many of these “reminders” come in the form of somatic markers, sensory triggers that, over time, may no longer make sense to the survivor. These can include physical body sensations, invasive thoughts, and even—as Mr. Diaz describes--traumatic dreams. Survivors often go to great lengths to mask or escape these often uncomfortable “memories”, and these lengths can and often do take the form of unhealthy behaviors.
This avoidance is very often accompanied by debilitating self-judgement, which can lead to externalized judgment and anger over time. Because these behaviors continue to be ineffective in resolving the inner conflict, the brain continues to seek ways to avoid the traumatic memory (conscious or not); and over time this leads to a complete fracture of the self. It is at this moment that the survivor intuitively knows they must do something differently, or they will likely continue on a self- and/or outwardly-destructive path.
It’s hard to understand why people hurt people, and even harder to forgive them when they don’t actively seek forgiveness. I myself have been hurt in ways that led me to a path of temporary devastation, and the one who hurt me has never taken any responsibility or accountability. He likely never will. I seek to understand the mechanisms at work in his behavior and my pain, not so much to forgive, but to compassionately understand.
My life has been impacted by trauma, and I too have hurt people.
I have hurt my siblings,
I have hurt my college dorm mates,
I have hurt my college room mates,
And I’m sure I have hurt some friends.
This truth will never leave me; I have carried the regret of these actions through decades.
I understand what is behind the hurtful actions of trauma survivors. Everyone’s path is different; but combine silence, secrecy, and shame with decades of ineffective and exponentially damaging coping mechanisms, and you'll end up with a deeply wounded individual who wants nothing but unconditional love, yet can’t tolerate the vulnerability to receive it.
This creates a volcano of resentment and anger, because at the most basic level, human beings need authentic connection to survive—and how can we be authentic when we are carrying a life-long secret and wearing a mask to keep it all hidden?
I do not condone the hurtful actions of any individual. I do not make excuses for my own hurtful actions of the past. But I do understand them. And as someone who works with trauma survivors for a living, I have to understand them — because for those individuals to heal, I must help them to understand themselves, compassionately.
There is one passage in the TIMBo trauma recovery program that has the power to turn a trauma survivor’s experience completely around. It says, “This does not mean you are a bad person, it simply means you did not have the tools to manage the distressing sensation in your body.” We do not need to condemn trauma survivors any further—they do a very good job of that themselves.
After its publication, it has been suggested that Mr. Diaz wrote his piece article in The New Yorker to head any potential sexual misconduct accusations off at the pass — as if to say, "But I was a victim, so you can't hold me responsible," and to exonerate himself in a blanket statement of "I hurt people." ...Who can say? But my expertise tells me that the act of coming out of silence takes an enormous amount of courage (especially, to share a sexual trauma and to do so publicly). I work with women every day who have a difficult time mustering up enough courage to tell their therapists of such things, let alone strangers at large. The risk and vulnerability associated with just speaking the words is enough to incite a sort of paralysis. So, I applaud Mr. Diaz for taking this first step—it is truly courageous.
What more do we want from him, or from any other man or woman who has hurt others?
I don't have the answer to that question. But I do know, that as clear as it is to me that hurt people hurt people, it is also clear that healed people heal people. I have experienced this in my own life, and I see it every day in the trauma survivors I work with who go on to help others. I sincerely hope that Mr. Diaz has every intention of taking an active part in his own healing, and that he will be able to use his entire life experience to positively impact those with whom he comes in contact.