Trauma doesn’t turn you into a bad person
Why is it easier to take my life out of my own hands and place it into the hands of people and things that would like to see me destroyed?
I say a lot of shit. Before COVID, before my mother-in-law relapsed, before my brother announced his secret baby and before the fall out, before my god sister’s cancer diagnosis, I said that if one more traumatic event happened to me after my mother’s own cancer became untreatable earlier this year, I would fall apart. I didn’t. Or, at least, not completely.
There was a time when I might have blamed this ability to maintain some semblance of form in the face of my weathered body beginning to perform like soft clay under torrential rain on resiliency. I would have embraced some strength trope about being able to take whatever comes my way and—okay, whatever—I am strong sometimes and maybe resiliency isn’t all bullshit even if it isn’t all right. But what is becoming clearer is that trauma is also a weaker foe than I imagined it to be.
It’s not that these traumatic events weren’t devastating and didn’t change my life and world and trajectory. They just didn’t do so as utterly and completely as I wanted to believe they would. And why did I want to believe they would? Why is it almost always easier to take my life out of my own hands and place it into the hands of the people and things that would like to see me destroyed instead?
I recognize a part of it as it is comforting to make proof of the magnitude of my own strength. It is soothing to think that there is something inexplicable about me that allows me to overcome what other people couldn’t, even if that has not been proven, and to make this the only reason I have survived, because then I am special, I am of the talented tenth, I am made respectable. Another reason I find myself wanting to turn my traumas incontestable (except by this inexplicable resilience) is that I haven’t always accounted for the massive damage done to Black people over centuries and centuries, and I now know it is important to challenge the lie that we have gotten past our struggles as a people.
I want to acknowledge the reality that what they did and are doing to us is almost unimaginable in scope and in impact. Naming how our traumas can and have irremediably torn us apart is one attempt to do so.
This is why sometimes I be talking about some of my more troubled cousins and all the shit they put the family through and I say something like, but they went through a lot. I say it out of love. I say it because they did go through a lot. But like I said, I say a lot of bullshit, and I also say it as an excuse and a way to deflect responsibility on their part, and mine too.
It’s clear that trauma limits the options that are available to a person, and that is important to state. It literally rewires your brain. But trauma doesn’t change how a person chooses from the options that are in front of them. When you falsely accept that it does, it will always be proper for those who are traumatized to be denied agency, and it will always be justifiable to see them as mindless monsters at the whims of forces not at all of their own design. As Jacques Lesure wrote in an essay for RaceBaitr on the necessary recognition of the agency of Black men who commit violence within Black communities, “Ultimately, interpreting Black men’s actions as the result of failed political-economic systems ignores the fact that all Black people are capable of acting out of ingenuity and not merely instinct.”
One of the most illuminating responses to calls for police and prison abolition is the question of what social organizing structure will take its place. It is usually asked with baited breath and furrowed brow. It betrays the belief that even if the people in power are bad, those without it are at least as bad, and probably worse. Black people, unpoliced and able to design their own society, will be so troubled by their own traumas that they can only fuck it up when faced with new freedoms and abilities. “It’s not their fault,” the responder might admit, “but until they can deal with their trauma they shouldn’t be given this much power.” In this, it becomes clear how, even if intended in love, but they went through a lot, can quickly become patronizing and self-defeating for Black people especially.
I don’t know how much of the way I view the world is shaped by what I was told about the Stanford Prison Experiment, but I know I was told a lot of things about it. I was told that by demonstrating what happens when some people are given the power of prison guards over others who are made prisoners, most people will always abuse the power they receive. At least every few weeks I hear someone referencing it to explain why people in power do terrible things, why police kill Black folks, why men attack women, when it was all (or at least mostly) based on bullshit.
A recent exposé based on previously unpublished interviews with participants and recordings of Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who ran the Stanford Prison Experiment, shows how the guards in the experiment were coached to be cruel rather than just became so when they were put in positions of power as has been presented. “I took it as a kind of an improv exercise,” one of the guards told Medium reporter Ben Blum. “I believed that I was doing what the researchers wanted me to do.”
I wonder if those who question what comes after abolition have views shaped by propaganda about this faulty experiment. Or by the propaganda that formulated the faulty experiment. This idea that everyone in power will abuse it, that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” is an undercurrent of some of my previous writings. In “‘Believe survivors’ is inadequate for confronting the power dynamics that fuel sexual abuse,” I wrote, “Don’t just believe survivors. Trust that the rich and powerful will likely abuse their power, because abusing one’s power is how you get rich and powerful in a white supremacist patriarchal world.”
I stand by these words, but the understanding that this is only true in a white supremacist patriarchal world must be emphasized. White supremacist patriarchy is Philip Zimbardo, is the prison structure in general, and it is always coaching and coaxing us into abuse and oppressive behaviors that are not innate to us or our traumas.
There are ways to claim power outside of this world that does not rely on abuse and oppression, and that is a power that traumatized people have a right to claim.
It is almost always easier to take my life out of my own hands and place it into the hands of the people and things that would like to see me destroyed instead because this world needs me to believe that. It needs me to have no desire for power over your life. It needs this response from the most traumatized people especially. Black people especially. If we want to be a good person, we should let others have the power, make the decisions, design our communities.
I don’t know if I’m always strong, but I know that every time I have survived trauma it was because I took the power to heal. Healing requires taking the power that has been denied for us. It requires embracing the choices in front of us, and our capacity to make them. I may not always have great choices in front of me, but I can always make the best one. I can always choose to show up for my mother, even though seeing her makes me sad. I can always choose to go to therapy, even when I would rather ignore my problems. I can always apologize for my mistakes and do better by the people I have harmed. And the best choice will almost always increase my choices next time. Rewire the brain in more expansive ways. No trauma can take this ability away from me.
I want traumatized people to be able to make better choices, which means it is incumbent upon me to support them (us) in taking the power to do so. Which means I have to hold them (us) accountable when they (we) don’t make the best decisions available to us. It’s a fine line between acknowledging what those choices are and how we make them and ignoring how much those choices are limited by our experiences, but we can certainly walk it. I can certainly walk it better than I have.
They want us to believe trauma changes our lives utterly and completely so that traumatized people won’t take power. They want us to believe they’ve taken our connection to our past, taken everything that makes us who we are and our capacity to be good people who can create good communities. They want proof they can destroy us, turn us into something we are not. Because then we won’t believe in ourselves and our capacity to choose a world that they don’t run. We blame proof to the contrary on outlier “strengths” and “weaknesses” instead of everyone’s capacity to make choices, however limited, toward healing.
I don’t know if I’m always strong, but I know that I am making the choice to heal. If another traumatizing event happens tomorrow, I will make that choice again, and again and again. I don’t know if my most troubled cousins have always made that choice, but I know that they are capable of making it. And real love is proving that to them.