Tag Archives: trauma

building the empathy muscle

graffiti from Jerusalem: black spray-painted words, "We NEED Peace"Good morning, you and you and you. How is the morning singing where you are? Here it’s the Amtrak whistling through Jack London Square, the rush of cars moving toward rush hour, my neighbor warming up their motorcycle, the long build of the teakettle’s steady hum as it comes to a boil. Just a few birds; the feeder’s empty, and so they’re shunning me until I get them more seed.

I’m resting in the comingle of this song this morning, letting it wash over me. Last night’s Write Whole workshop left me both full and emptied out; we wrote about fear (visit the link to hear Joy Harjo performing the poem we used as a prompt), and we wrote about apologizing for things that weren’t our fault. The writing was vivid, layered, complicated, strong, and the stories were painful and gorgeous and necessary. I carry these stories with me; they live in the space I occupy, they live along the skin of my forearms, they live in the cilia just inside my ears. I learn from these stories; I stretch and open; I ache and celebrate. Every one of us in the room during these writes, we have the opportunity to stretch, to experience another someone’s story. Continue reading

(No) good choices: trauma, media madness and survival

(note: there’s talk of sexual violence in this post, and talk about Oscar Grant’s murder…)

De la Fuerza a la Libertad, Javier AzurdiaI have a standing meeting with my friend, Peggy Simmons (of Green Windows Writing Groups) on Thursdays at 4. We talk by phone, sometimes in person, about how our week is going, what’s happening with workshops or recruiting or connecting with organizations about the possibility of offering workshops (Peggy does amazing work with younger writers at The Beat Within, and with an intergenerational group of writers at her monthly writing group at Rock Paper Scissors in Oakland). It’s a time of peer support and “supervision,” for me, when I can be accountable for the work I’ve said I need/want to do with Writing Ourselves Whole, where I can celebrate successes and process what’s rough.

She texted me at about 3:30 to say that the Mehserle verdict was to be read at 4, so we started talking a bit earlier, just to connect, to hear each other. Peggy had followed the trial closer than I had, I think, and she’s still in Oakland, while I spend last night watching the events on TV and via twitter/facebook from my home in the North Bay, instead of being a part of the energy around Lake Merritt. We didn’t talk about work much, of course. We talked about the media’s consistent drum beat over the last week or so about the threat of riots in Oakland when the verdict was read. Over and over you heard it: Please, everyone, be calm. Be calm. Keep the peace. We don’t want any riots. Meanwhile, OPD was, can we say it, circling the wagons, calling in reinforcements, training for riot control. The Oakland government said, at the same time, that it respected the right of folks to gather, and encouraged people to stay home. Organizing messages that got passed along online said that folks should bring earplugs if they came out for the support rally/speakout/protest after the verdict was read: they’d heard there was a sonic control device that OPD was going to “test out.”

I don’t know about you, but when I’m frustrated, sad, disappointed, hurt, angry, and the only thing someone can say to me is, “Calm down, just calm down. Breathe. Just don’t get upset. Are you upset? Calm down. Take a deep breath. No one wants any trouble. Just relax,” over and over and over (when, in point of fact, I may very well be calm at the same time as I am frustrated, sad, disappointed, hurt, angry), I get a little crazy. I have that double-vision that trauma leaves us with, that looking at myself from the outside (wait, am I acting out of order? I’m just feeling angry! Don’t I have the right to be angry?) while also trying to be in my feelings; I feel the need to reassure the person (“No, no, I’m not upset, I’m ok”), to take care of them instead of attending to and dealing with what I’m feeling. So that the loss, the sorrow, the rage, it’s stuck in me while I’m taking care of the person who’s ready for me to fly off the handle — when at no point was I ready to fly off the handle, until they started with their control that looked, on the surface, like concern or worry for my well-being.

This is what I saw last night, have been reading about for many days: how folks locally and nationally were telling the residents of Oakland that, when the verdict came down, people just needed to be peaceful, just stay peaceful, just don’t start any trouble, just relax, whatever the verdict is. Now, first of all, this left me with a terrible sense that a disappointing verdict was almost pre-ordained; why all this preparation for disaster unless there was some expectation that folks would be reasonably furious? And second, that kind of mollifying speech has a crazy-making effect: no one was thinking about violence until you told me not to think about it, and why do I have to reassure you of my peaceful nature right now, when it’s time for me to mourn?

Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter — which means the jury believed (right?) that he was guilty of killing Oscar Grant, but he didn’t do it on purpose, he made a mistake, he mistook his gun for his taser. There was some gratitude that he was found guilty of anything at all, that a white police officer was found to be guilty of killing an unarmed Black man, as so often they are not found to be guilty, found not to be responsible for their clear and obvious actions. But involuntary manslaughter — it feels like a side-step, a slap on the wrist. It’s saying, even though there’s video evidence showing him holding his taser on the platform before he shot Oscar Grant, we the jury think maybe he just mistook his gun for his taser, which he carried on opposite sides of his person. It’s saying, “shit, we have to find him guilty of something, or the folks in Oakland are going to tear the city down, so here’s this little bit.”

What I saw very little of on the news last night, as reporters in and around downtown Oakland went nuts trying to find something to report on as the people gathered, connected with one another, shared their anger and sorrow at the mic (and the reporters said, “nothing is happening yet,” “no violence as of yet,” “nobody’s throwing things at this point,” “the situation here is very tense,” and the like). The reporters asked folks gathering, “Do you want peace here tonight? What do you think, is that going to happen?” They put their mics into prayer circles. They were aching for some riot to report on.

Sometimes, after the afternoons when I had to sexually satisfy my stepfather, he would pick a fight with me later that night, over dinner, about my schoolwork or some chore that I hadn’t done yet, and I had to sit calmly and discuss this fabricated issue while my rage mounted inside, just built and grew like volcanic flow. He’d ask, “Are you feeling angry?” And I’d have to convince him that I wasn’t — that was the game. There was no way for me to express my rage. My mother had no idea, for instance, what he’d demanded that I do that afternoon, and I was never to mention it in front of her. So I had to pretend to be calm, pretend I was all right, and when I showed any signs of anger or deep hurt, he suddenly wanted to talk about my defensiveness, how I couldn’t take criticism, and so on. My very justifiable anger had no outlet; my work, then, was to either press the rage down and go on mollifying him (for my own safety, and at the sake of my sanity) or explode in fury, hitting and digging at him (for the sake of my sanity) until he physically overpowered me (at the expense of my safety). There were no good choices.

There were no good choices last night, either, at least at the sites where the media was focused. They didn’t spend any time at the community gatherings, the open mics, the circles of support all over the city. They spent time putting their mics in the faces of the gathered at 14th and Broadway, wanting to hear only the “we’re here for a peaceful speakout, we just want peace!” and the “you watch, it’s gonna go down tonight” — as soon as someone started with an analysis of racism, started assessing the media’s pre-planned panic over riots as conspiratorial, the reporter dropped the mic, cut the connection. No one asked why literally hundreds of cops in riot gear were necessary, blocking the city streets and containing the ‘protesters.’

I’ve been ‘contained,’ that way, held by force ‘for my own good.’ What I know is how turned on my stepfather got every time he had to use all his physical strength to restrain me, how much he enjoyed the opportunity. The cops in downtown Oakland got what they and the media had been aching and agitating for: a small riot, some protesters who got arrested.

Folks have a right to their rage and sorrow, and have a right to express that loss. Folks have a right to assemble, a right to question our government’s actions, a right not to make others feel more comfortable. We each of us have a right to the full breadth of our emotions — enormous loss, the joy and possibility of connection in community, and then fear and rage. All of it at the same time. Please don’t tell me to shush, to calm down, to be quieter with my feeling.

Please keep speaking out. Get to the open mics and the speakouts, write out what’s happening in your heart and share it with others, if that feels right to you. Turn off the tv and the media madness, unless you’re using it for your own creative ends. If deep breathing before you spit your slam piece at the mic is what you need, then do it. If what you need is the thick noise of a thousand birds crackling their waking at sunrise, then find that.

The folks in power have few answers — and what they want is to control the dialogue. I know you know this as intimately as I do. We can step away from them, form our own circles, begin again.

raw and possible


Initially I see these two wiry bony consecrated hands, sharp-tipped and skinny, long fingers with severely, gorgeously articulated joints, reaching down into a throat, through mouth, beyond lips and teeth and tongue, past the epiglottis, I think, past uvula and gag reflex and there is no hope of vomiting because this is going down. I see them inside, the two hands, the fingers catching hold of a wizened greenish-greying mass, this sticky dripping lump, something squeamish, tender, almost furry or corrugated, entirely encapsulated in slime — something like a hairball or a carcass, the body of an alien life form, but without tendrils or tentacles — something without hope or fever or mental status.

Something incoherent. Or inchoate. Or both.

The hands pull it out of its lodging the way you yank something nearly rotted and festering out of the disposal chamber in your sink — gingerly, quick, with steady pressure, hoping your fist will fit on the way back out with you holding to the pile of not yet decomposed foodstuffs mixed with peach bits or bones or a spoon, all of which is tangling up the blades of your disposal — I mean your throat.

It’s become its own colony, this amalgamation: collecting every loop that got slipped around your neck, every swallowed I said no thank you, every murmured Please stop , every unspoken I wish you would, every clenched teeth mumbled Jesus Christ will you just get the fuck away from me, every Gosh I don’t know that issued from between your lips instead of the facts that gathered boom like metal to magnet         on the other side of the gathering storm in your throat. Numbers, equations, dates, names, places, hopes, longings, dreams: all tangled together, knotted and nearly putrid         but not quite         just like the compost can be. You know it’s all good stuff in there, even if it has been left all on its own to fester and decompose

The fingers begin to pick and pull at the mass, brushing away green slime         saliva and more caught for so many years, what got washed down your gullet — and your throat is bone sore, stretched and aching, wheezing empty with sound         cavernous, open, raw and possible


I wrote this in Monday’s workshop, and it’s the beginning of something longer, I think, about how different words are “charged” differently for each of us… xo, Jen

Yesterday at the bookstore I asked the man behind the counter if they had any books by James Pennebaker.

“I don’t know who that is,” he said.

I waited for him to offer to look the name up, but he didn’t. He was quiet, and for a moment I thought that was going to be the end of the conversation.

Then he said, “What does he write about?”

And so I described how Pennebaker writes about the uses of writing to mitigate the aftereffects of trauma. And the young man behind the counter at this Berkely bookstore said, “Oh, well, I don’t know – but if we had anything like that it would be up in self-help popular psychology – you know, we hear the word ‘trauma’ and we just throw it up there.”

Ok. I’d just spent the last hour scanning all the titles in their relatively (at least by today’s bookstore standards) extensive linguistics, psychology and popular psychology sections, and found no books about the uses of writing as a healing or social change craft or practice or tool. But, here, look – I did find this old standby attitude about trauma: It’s not a terribly serious issue, not really, those whiners, put it there next to the What Color is Your Inner Elephant? and How Your Catbox Can Guide You To Enlightenment. I felt that old internalized shame, to be asking for a book about trauma – just one more white woman looking for the language to my loss? What’s this attitude about the struggle and strain for transformative experience?

I mourn the feeling that these words of my life are the loaded curse words: trauma, incest: not dyke or pornographer. Those latter words have no power over me, carry no tethers to my own shame and still these years later I cringe under the gaze of real academics, real literary pursuers, rel social change workers who aren’t so ‘bound by their past’ or who are able to just ‘let things go, move on.’ This is me, moving on, with these words, sanded against my face always, chapping my lips and cheeks, reminding me where I come from. This boy-man behind the counter worked it out on my bald face, his fear of this word, this one of the many loaded words we all carry, and how the word becomes a crematorium to connection or even meaning if we aren’t truly listening to each other.

Some words that are loaded for me to hear: incestuous, traumatized, raped—especially, I’ll tell you, when those words are not used to refer to people and their actions against the bodies of, or experiences at the hands of, other people, and instead used thus: the women’s community here is so incestuous, you know? Or, The people are just being raped by the banking execs, huh? These images don’t work for me.

A loaded word is one that is too heavy for metaphor.

The loaded words I use that are not triggering or difficult for me any more but might still score an anvil-dropping line across another’s ear are: lesbian, gay, dyke, queer, survivor, rebel, survivor, Black, white, fucking…; I say these words with impunity, I spend them freely, I have earned the right to let them fall off my lips in every day conversation, at the credit union or with my father. The folks I’m talking to are not always so similarly prepared, their ears not exercised or stretched out, their eardrums are tensed still, they are accustomed to these words being laden with anger. But in my world, these words are laden with fear – ok, sometimes, sure – but they are laden also with love.

These are the buckets of cold water we offer one another to drink. Sometimes, we have to say the difficult thing, just because we know there’s another someone nearby, maybe also waiting in that bank line, whose ears are parched from all the silences, from all the years of people not saying the words that are too heavy for some people to hold. True, sometimes those words are going to sound like that cold water just got thrown in our face, our eyes pop open wide and we get that shocked look, like we just woke up – hard.

We wake each other up.