bush hugs teenagerMalcolm Gladwell loves wading into complex and controversial subjects. In the November 8 New Yorker he writes an article called Getting Over It, on the subject of surviving trauma. He uses the success of the protagonist in the 1955 novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit to survive a double trauma, and the failure of the protagonist in the 1994 novel In the Lake of the Woods to cope with a very similar trauma, to advance his thesis that in the past half-century there has been

…a shift in perception so profound that the US Congress could be presented with evidence of the unexpected strength and resilience of the human spirit and reject it without a single dissenting vote.

The evidence he refers to is a study in the Psychological Bulletin of long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse that concluded that, in the large majority of cases, unless it was extreme, very frequent, or accompanied by physical abuse or prolonged neglect, the long-term effect was so small as to be barely statistically significant. The report was so offensive to so many that Congress was pressured to repudiate it, and did.

My readers know I don’t place much stock in psychology, and that I prefer explanations for behaviour that are rooted in real science, or at least Darwinian principles: Actions and behaviours that increase a species’ capability to survive will be selected for, i.e. a propensity to exhibit such actions and behaviours will become more and more prevalent in the population.

I’ve argued before that depression in today’s world may be natural. I’ve also argued that when we are unhappy or grief-stricken we create stories that provide us with solace, so that our vivid imaginings can become so real that they become alternatives out of time, even to the point where ‘what might have been’ becomes to us a regrettable real possibility in the present. This prevents us from seeing this alternative reality as false, achieving closure, and moving on with our lives.

We are all living our own stories, and there is no way to see them objectively as real or unreal, true or imaginary. To us, they are absolutely true. When we suffer trauma, we may put it behind us, wrap up that chapter in our story, or we may not. When that trauma is compound — a physical and sexual and mental trauma, or one that combines actions (like abuse) and inaction to address it (like neglect or passive complicity by others), or one that is chronic or frequent, there is little doubt that it is harder to get past. In nature, a fight or flight instinct kicks in when danger threatens. Most animals in nature face death and witness death often in their lives. They escape, perhaps watching as a mate or community member or child is eaten by a predator. In any case the event is traumatic — adrenaline surges, the body goes into overdrive, some shocking event occurs or doesn’t, and the survivors are left to deal with the result. If the response of a species were to grieve for years over the loss, or over a decision error that may have cost a loved one their life, the species would not survive — it would be incapacitated. In a balanced ecosystem, these traumatic events are regular but not chronic — most species spend most of their time in the joyous activities of eating, exploring, mating, playing, sleeping, and sensing the world around them. Their failure to grieve, at least for long, is in my opinion due not to their small brains but to the fact that there is too much joy and wonder in the world to waste much time grieving over what happened or might have happened. It’s Darwinian — it happens that way because it works, it optimizes the healthy survival of the species.

As Jeffrey Masson has shown, animals with larger brains tend to grieve longer, and return to their grief over a longer period, probably because they have better memories that are triggered by sensations that remind the creature of the traumatic event. Elephants weep each time they return to the site where a loved one lost their life, for their entire lives. That is natural, but not debilitating. The grief, the trauma, does not consume them to the point where they are incapacitated by it. Only humans kill for revenge. Only humans kill large numbers of their own. Such behaviour is, on the surface, anti-Darwinian — it hurts the species rather than helping it to survive and perpetuate it. Misery is anti-Darwinian — those that live in physical or emotional misery tend to withdraw from social activities, fail to defend themselves from predators, die young from stress-related activities, and, if they’re female, become infertile. This is nature’s extreme-stress safety valve. Such misery is the consequence of over-crowding, too many competing for too few resources. As Edward Hall explains, in such circumstances (very rare before the advent of civilization) adrenaline is used to quickly thin the crowd and restore the balance with the rest of the ecosystem.

The world we live in today is horrendously overcrowded, insanely out of balance with the rest of the ecosystem, and our evolved intelligence is allowing us, at least physically for a short time, to offset all of nature’s attempts to reduce our numbers to sustainable levels. Nature evolves new diseases that exploit crowded concentrations of one species, we reply by inventing antibiotics and antiviruses. Nature drives up our levels of adrenaline to levels that provoke war, anti-social behaviour, massive depression, and we reply with technologies that sedate us or cheer us up, that imprison those who can least suppress their violent urges, and which refocus our adrenaline on activities that do not kill.

But nature always bats last in this competition of wills. I would argue that we all live, now, in a state of continuous agitation and constant anxiety, massive stress that has resulted in us all becoming mentally ill. Our whole lives are an incessant trauma — work stress, competitive stress, stress to have ‘enough stuff’, stress to be accepted by others. Our desire to find a way to try to sustain a society that is so obviously unsustainable, and to deny the damage we are doing, to ignore the massive misery that prevails in our world, to believe against overwhelming evidence that we can somehow innovate ourselves out of the horrendous mess we have created, is evidence of utter, adrenaline-crazed insanity. We are only happy in those brief delusional moments when the awareness of the utter horror that civilization has wrought is temporarily suppressed — by constant education of denial of that reality, by drugs, by sexual distraction, by media that suppress the truth, by hiding the worst atrocities behind closed doors and walls where we can try to pretend they aren’t happening.

Today, we are all struggling to survive a life-long trauma, and it is interesting to me that in the last half-century our literature and our political leaders have become much more pessimistic about our ability to do so. It is almost as if, by proclaiming that most victims of post-traumatic stress disorder and childhood sexual abuse cannot be expected to get over those traumas without enormous help and intervention from our society, we are saying to ourselves three things:

  • We instinctively know the world is a mess, and we need someone to blame to avoid taking personal responsibility for it: Sexual predators and abusers and those who commit violent crimes and war criminals and those who neglect children are convenient scapegoats. Obviously they are guilty, so why not exaggerate their impact so we can offload all our personal guilt onto them?
  • We feel better about ourselves when we see others in even worse circumstances than ours, especially when their circumstances aren’t our fault. So let’s make these victims of personal crimes super-victims, so we can feel especially sorry for them.
  • If there is a process that can help these people overcome their trauma, their grief, then perhaps it can work to make us all feel better, make all the mess that weighs so heavily on all our spirits go away.

This is tricky ground, but I think there is a lot of mass psychopathy going on here. Alternative explanations welcome, as always.

The photo above aired as the focus of a commercial for Bush in the last few days of the election campaign. I think it is brilliant, an absolute coup against all the negative advertising that dominated the campaign. It was actually taken by the girl’s father at a Bush rally. The girl’s mother was one of the victims of 9/11, killed in the attack on the twin towers. The girl is a survivor of trauma, and the impulsive hug from Bush on learning of her story is captured in the photo. It’s the only time I have seen Bush without a mask.

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  1. Jon Husband says:

    I agree strongly with this (can one agree more or less strongly ?;-)But nature always bats last in this competition of wills. I would argue that we all live, now, in a state of continuous agitation and constant anxiety, massive stress that has resulted in us all becoming mentally ill. Our whole lives are an incessant trauma — work stress, competitive stress, stress to have ‘enough stuff’, stress to be accepted by othersMe being me, and usually somewhat contrary, I have argued from time to time that all of the projections of people living longer lives will be countered to some significant degree by all the cognitive stress, anxiety and general existential pathology we are all experiencing. It’s as if at some level we all “know” this is not the right or most effective way to live.In the immortal words of Leonard Cohen, whom I quote too often these days … “Everybody Knows … everybody knows the boat is leaking, everybody knows the captain lied” and so on …We are all living in ongoing trauma .. the only times it is maybe possible to escape is when we walk or spend time deep in nature, but even there all too often we are confronted with the scars of we humans’ traumatic effects on nature … which then traumatizes some of us even the next little bit more.

  2. Dave: Thanks for this very thought-provoking post which makes a lot of sense to me.

  3. Leo says:

    Interesting thoughts. Did you read the studies that showed that the brains of victims of childhood abuse developed differently than non-abused people? This is the scariest thing I’ve ever read, and suggests I can never be the same person as the little child I was before I was abused (mentally and physically). Secondly, have you known someone who was the victim of childhood sexual abuse? I do, and they it was clear to me that they were screwed up beyond belief by it. Perhaps their entire lives will be spent in one way or another dealing with the aftermath of those horrendous acts. The depression and suicide attempts spoke volumes about the lasting impact. So I don’t quite go along with the thesis that sexual abuse is not as bad as society makes it out to be. leo

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Leo: I think the situation you describe (where it is sexual combined with other forms of physical or psychological abuse, and repeated or constant) is the exception that Gladwell acknowledges. I’ve known people who were badly abused repeatedly or chronically, and others who were badly neglected (and I’ve read about the ‘wild child’ cases) and in all of these the trauma *was* engrained, severe and permanent. But I also know people who suffered only occasional childhood sexual or physical abuse, often under non-coercive circumstances (e.g. sexual contact initiated by a childhood friend rather than someone with power, or occasional bullying), and those people show no signs of permanent damage — or at least not of damage any worse than the rest of the population exhibits.

  5. Avi Solomon says:

    A true response to abuse is to say NO, and choose a different reality that does not include the abuser. Most victums find it very difficult to get to this point(internally) and the abuse continues. When you can say NO the abuser loses his power over you and you can(if you survive) go on with making your own life.Courage is essential.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Avi: Agree completely. The problem is that usually the abuser has power and authority over the victim, so it becomes very hard, even dangerous, to say no. It’s especially difficult when the victim is a child. We’ve been brought up, most of us, to be cautious in resisting bullying in case resistence inflames even more violence. But passivity can also embolden. Even more important than courage, I think, is knowing where and how to reach out for help. In Canada we are inundated on the media with public service ads that tell victims where to call for help, but on the US media I rarely see such ads. And I’ve never seen them where I would expect to see them most — during kids’ shows.

  7. Richard says:

    For those that don’t have access to the print version of the article Dave cites, it’s available online.

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