Junot Díaz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, recently wrote an article for The New Yorker magazine entitled The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma where he recounted being raped as a child and the toll it has taken on his life. Here’s an excerpt:
Yes, it happened to me.
I was raped when I was eight years old. By a grownup that I truly trusted.
After he raped me, he told me I had to return the next day or I would be “in trouble.”
And because I was terrified, and confused, I went back the next day and was raped again.
I never told anyone what happened, but today I’m telling you.
And anyone else who cares to listen.
What makes an experience traumatic? When it overwhelms your ability to cope. When it strikes where you are most vulnerable, when you least expect it, and when you are unprepared for it. When the experience changes the way you interact with the world. When it upends your sense of self and identity. Trauma is devastating because its magnitude exceeds your imagination, making it hard to believe.
Depending on a person’s age and stage of development, trauma can be even more debilitating because it can strike before a young person has acquired the coping skills and social support necessary to handle its effects.
We need to better understand trauma for ourselves and for others. Many people limp through life from wounds sustained from unresolved traumatic events. Hurt people hurt people. Unhappy wounded people often use cruelty toward others to compensate and feel better. We need to reduce suffering. As Díaz stated, it wasn’t just the rapes but “the agony, the bitterness, the self-recrimination, the asco, the desperate need to keep it hidden and silent. It fucked up my childhood. It fucked up my adolescence. It fucked up my whole life.” It also fucked up the lives of others and, while I am by now means apologizing for his behavior, I am using his admission to illustrate how trauma affects people.
At eight years old or eighty years old trauma makes you feel like an outsider. Alienation from yourself and alienation from others compounds its misery. We are social animals, hardwired to connect. When we are traumatized by someone we trust it decreases our ability to reach out and trust others. Often we may even find it difficult to trust ourselves and our core beliefs about the world we inhabit thus making it difficult, if not impossible, to form healthy relationships. For some people it can make them withdraw from others, and for others it can compel them to engage in high risk behaviors of various sorts. Trauma interferes with our ability to connect with others when it damages our ability to trust.
Trauma is a fall from grace. Prior to a traumatic experience we reside in a privileged place, an innocent place, and, as a result, we feel special. Trauma happens to other people, not to us. Trauma forces us to face numerous realities. We are not special. We can be hurt. And we can be hurt by people we trust. In Díaz’s case trauma ended his childhood and rendered him unable to fully utilize relationships by forcing him to satisfy a “desperate need to keep it hidden and silent.”
We all have various strategies for managing intimacy—the distance between you and another person. Intimate relationships require vulnerability. Problems will arise in any relationship if you are trying to simultaneously make a connection and avoid being seen. In fact, some people do not derive satisfaction from intimate relationships because the closer they get to another person the more uncomfortable they become. For some they destroy relationships before giving them a chance because of the fear and pain of revealing their secrets and the risk of rejection. Many trauma survivors unable to use relationships with people turn to drugs. Drugs serve as a substitute for relationships and also as a means of numbing the painful effects of trauma.
Anyone can benefit from a more thorough understanding of trauma—both victims and perpetrators. While a victim may not be interested in the psychological motivation of the perpetrator, what should be of interest is how victims can develop into perpetrators themselves. In Díaz’s case, he went on to abuse women. Perpetrators need to be held accountable and offered trauma-informed treatment options to help them change their behavior. Those who are best able to heal from trauma, both victims and perpetrators, are those who are best able to re-enter relationships with others with the awareness that they can both be hurt and hurt others by virtue of those relationships. Those who can face the world with that awareness do better.