Trauma is the big "monster under the bed" (as I wrote here in 2004). It's the elephant in the room that nobody wants to acknowledge. Nobody wants to talk about trauma.
I've been writing and singing about trauma since I started writing and singing in the early 1970's. I performed my early songs at clubs in NYC (Folk City, The Bitter End) and in Santa Cruz, California. Those songs were far less explicit than my later songs. I stopped writing songs (for 20 years) shortly after doing the 1978 recordings.
I think this is an important question, not just for me but for us all. The reason I stopped was because I thought nobody wanted to hear what I was saying. I thought something was wrong with me that I wanted to talk about these things -- about pain, sorrow, sadness, suffering, loneliness, darkness.
Note, this was before the time of Alanis, Anni DeFranco, Paula Cole, or Tori Amos - female singers who spoke the truth about what it is really like to be a woman. (I should also mention Joni Mitchell, who of course long preceded (and influenced) my music, was way ahead of her time in this regard, and also highly original musically and vocally.)
These artists certainly made it more acceptable for women to speak up. But they didn't change the landscape for us. Women who want to talk about trauma are still frowned upon.
Well, honestly, anyone who talks about trauma from a personal perspective is shunned in our society. Instead of looking upon that person as a courageous truth-teller, people tend to view those who speak about traumatic experiences as sick, emotionally troubled, hypochondriacs, or "hysterics" (to use the Freudian term).
Trauma. What do I mean by it and why do I care to speak about it?
By trauma I mean anything that is more or less permanently hurtful, injurious, or damaging to a person's psyche. I include physical trauma, but I'm mostly speaking about the psychological element.
I speak about trauma for the same reason I spoke out against the PATRIOT Act, the violations of the Geneva Conventions and laws of war, the abuse of human and civil rights after 9/11, and the abuses of presidential power (like the signing statements), etc.
Because nobody else does so.
I feel compelled to speak up for those who are voiceless.
And I know the isolation and loneliness that trauma causes. More often than not, victims (not perpetrators) are blamed. Every time I have tried to introduce my own experiences or understandings of trauma, I've lost jobs or hurt my reputation. This doesn't speak very well of our society. Even liberals and progressives are frightened of it. I was booted out of the ACLU because a "friend" betrayed my confidence and told someone else on the board that I was dissociative.
Okay, there's a big word. Here is a good list of dissociative symptoms. Contrary to popular myth, dissociative disorder -- particularly in its severest form: multiple personality disorder -- is not a mental illness; it's an adaptive condition in response to severe trauma which eventually ceases being adaptive. "Dissociative" means you've been through trauma, usually repeated, prolonged trauma very early in life. It means you've lived on "the coasts of life," * you've looked right into the eyes of the abyss, and you've survived and returned.
Being dissociative should be a badge of honor, because it means you've been through a lot, had the courage and endurance to survive and continue to function. It also usually means you are highly intelligent and often gifted in many ways.
In my opinion, a trauma survivor is a hero. Not only that, but trauma survivors understand a far wider range of human issues and states than just about anyone else. They've been through the whole range of human experience. They should be sought after for their insight and wisdom rather than shunned. In an aboriginal culture, they would be shamans and medicine men and women. A healthy culture doesn't reject the wisdom of those who've been over the rainbow and back; it seeks out and utilizes that wisdom.
So, why are we so afraid of people who talk about trauma?
Is it because we fear that by discussing it, we might conjur it, might cause it to happen? Funny that. As firmly grounded as we are today in rationality, you'd think that such superstitutions would have no place. The New Age ideas about "laws of attraction" and positive thinking don't help much. The result is that we in America are in continual avoidance and denial of many realities. As Joni Mitchell once wrote: "it made most people nervous; they just didn't want to know, what I was seeing..."**
If there is a moral to my story here, it is that you cannot grapple with the dark if you don't look into it. And the dark will come to you, sooner or later, if you don't take time to go to it first. I paraphrase Yoda, who says to young Luke Skywalker at the entrance to the cave at Dagobah: you must learn to face the Dark Side.
Facing the Dark Side
Okay. Learn to face the Dark Side.
But what about Nietzche's aphorism, "When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you"? Isn't it dangerous to look into the darkness? Isn't this what Christianity teaches and why it warns against the practice of "witchcraft" - even when it's only white magic being practiced? Don't we open the door to Satan if we look into the darkness? Won't demons come in and take possession of us?
There are many quotes which warn about looking into the darkness. Thomas Gray's "Where ignorance is bliss, 'Tis folly to be wise." Alexander Pope's "Fools Rush In Where Angels Fear to Tread."
Both the Old and the New Testaments talk about darkness: "Then Jesus said unto them, Yet a little while is the light with you. Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you: for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth" (John 12:35). "But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!" (Matthew 6:23). "Who leave the paths of uprightness, to walk in the ways of darkness" (Proverbs 2:13). "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places" (Ephesians 6:12).
My answer is that looking into the darkness does not mean going over to the other side.
It does not mean allowing yourself to be used by dark forces (whatever those might be).
Trauma survivors know very well about this. They know that (to give another great quote): "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." ***
Liberty is not just for civil libertarians. Liberty also means freedom from dark forces. Looking into the darkness is not for the faint of heart. If you want to look through that door, you must be prepared to be vigilant.
What does this mean?
Vigilance is a state of hyper-awareness. Vigilance about dark forces is a state of emotional and perceptual hyper-awareness. It is a constant habit of checking and rechecking with one's inner barometer, asking "Does this feel right? Should I do this? Can I go this way? What will happen if I do this, or if I let that happen?" And so on. It is eternal questioning of the self and of one's surroundings.
In a word, it's exhausting.
This may be another reason why few people are able to exist in that place, to look into the dark and learn from it, rather than being sucked into it.
But trauma survivors are already vigilant. They have to be. Therefore, they can be guides for the rest of us. Like Yoda, they know the darkness and they can help us negotiate through it.
In this is also a lesson for writers and other artists. Marcel Proust wrote:
"As for the inner book of unknown symbols (symbols carved in relief they might have been, which my attention, as it explored my unconscious groped for and stumbled against and followed the contours of, like a diver exploring the ocean bed), if I tried to read them no one could help me with any rules, for to read them was an act of creation in which no can do our work for us or even collaborate with us. How many for this reason turn aside from writing!" (The Past Recaptured).
Proust was, I think, right about the process of going into the darkness, exploring the unconscious, but this process is exactly where trauma survivors can be of help and it is also one reason why we need to start listening to them.
In America, we are living empty lives because we have never learned how to look into the abyss. The abyss is, after all, just ourselves -- as Luke Skywalker discovers in the cave, when he kills Darth Vader and sees his own face under the mask.
* "Coasts of Life"
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh (excerpt):
I, writing thus, am still what men call young;
I have not so far left the coasts of life
To travel inland, that I cannot hear
That murmur of the outer Infinite
Which unweaned babies smile at in their sleep
When wondered at for smiling.
See also Dorothy Parker's play "The Coast of Illyria," which is about the madness of literary icon Mary Lamb, sister of Charles Lamb, whose "Tales from Shakespeare" is still in print.
** "They just didn't want to know"
Joni Mitchell, "Refuge of the Roads" excerpt:
It was all so light and easy
Till I started analyzing
And I brought on my old ways
A thunderhead of judgment was
Gathering in my gaze
And it made most people nervous
They just didn't want to know
What I was seeing in the refuge of the roads.
*** "Eternal vigilance"
Jefferson Library, Misattributed Quotes
John Philpot Curran, in a speech before the Privy Council on July 10, 1790, said "The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance..." (see The Speeches of the Right Honorable John Philpot Curran, ed. Thomas Davis, pp. 94–95 (1847)). But the quote exactly as it appears above is also attributed to Wendell Phillips, from an 1852 speech. See discussions of this quote, attributed to both Curran and Phillips, in Respectfully Quoted, at Bartleby.com.