created at: 2013-04-16
On Monday the people of Boston faced a collective trauma. We were attacked. We were vulnerable. We were victims. Together, we responded. We remembered our strength. We reignited our compassion. We connected our community.

Trauma: one big word that covers so many different things.

As I mentioned previously, April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. So I had already been thinking about trauma for several weeks now. A very different kind of trauma.

In many ways, these two experiences of trauma have a lot in common. Indeed, events like Monday’s tragedy can be deeply triggering to survivors of sexual violence because of the ways in which subsequent emotional responses mirror their previous ones.

In other ways, these two experiences of trauma are worlds apart. And those stark differences may also be triggering to survivors—heartbreaking—because of the ways in which this coming together in community is so sorely lacking in the daily process that is surviving a sexual assault.

What if the process of coping with the trauma of a sexual assault were as community-supported, open, acceptable, and well-resourced as we are seeing this week following a national tragedy?

One meme circulating my social media today is this quote attributed to Mr. Rogers: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Looking for the helpers, and being the helpers ourselves, has helped a lot of us begin to cope with this attack. But people every day are attacked and don’t find any helpers. The people who could be helping are in denial, turning a blind eye, taking pictures, blaming the victim, threatening the victim, or worrying about the perpetrators’ promising futures.

Too often we have looked for the helpers and not found anyone.

So what can we do about this, my dearly beloved community of Jews and Bostonians? As we come together to support each other, how can we make our community even stronger than we were before, even more resilient in the face of trauma, even more connected to each other in love and trust? How can we, in coping communally with this trauma, build the foundation for coping communally with other types of trauma as well?

One way is to consider the effects of this trauma and of other traumas, and to learn about how we can support each other through other traumas by looking at how we support each other through this one.

We can learn through comparing traumas—not calling one more difficult than the other, just trying to learn from the differences and address them. If we can build a system of immediate and long-term support in response to all traumas, I think we will all do better. Here are some of my thoughts:

On the nature of the trauma…

  • Public and private: The attack at the finish line is public information. We can discuss it publicly. We can discuss it at work. And for each of those discussions you have comfortably, think of how many other traumas and how many other conversations we silence because they are uncomfortable, private, TMI.
  • Visible and invisible: Sitting in a coffee shop on campus, a young man walks in wearing this year’s Boston Marathon jacket. I want to say something to him. To show my support. I can see by this jacket that he’s probably hurting. All too often, there’s no jacket for trauma survivors. We don’t tell you. You don’t know.
  • Communal and individual: We all went through a traumatic event on Monday. Together. And we came together to get through it. Facebook posts. Newspaper articles. Candlelight vigils. What about when trauma only hurts one of us? How many of us have access to immediate and ongoing community healing, and how many of us think our pain is an isolated incident of no common social or political interest?

How we talk about the trauma…

  • Acceptable and unacceptable: I’ve heard so much positive support for how much hard work it takes to finish a marathon, for how important the fans are, cheering on the runners. All of the victims on Monday were hurt while doing totally acceptable things. Honorable, even heroic things. So they don’t hesitate to tell their stories. And yet so many survivors of sexual assault don’t tell us theirs.
  • Blameless and to blame: We call the attackers cowards. We find it impossible to fathom how one human being could do that to another. We put all the blame where it belongs: on the perpetrator of the violence. And yet, in the case of sexual assault, we blame the victims instead and teach the victims to blame themselves. We criticize each aspect of their behavior leading up to and during the assault. Let’s be more offended and horrified that these people can’t run their marathons, celebrate their victories, enjoy their human experiences free from violence, as all of us want to be.
  • Shameful and shameless: Do we think that the city of Boston is now damaged goods, and should never host another marathon? Do we all want to quietly move away from Boston now that the city has been victimized? No. Our pride is louder and more colorful than ever. I can’t even try to tell you what it might look like to survive sexual violence free from shame. I’m coming up against the limitations of my own imagination. I’m sorry. You tell me.

How we think the trauma works…

  • Agency and victimization: After the explosions, we chose to help each other, we chose to cooperate with each other, and we chose to grieve together. We are building power in the wake of tragedy. Many survivors of sexual assault feel that even saying they were forced or pressured or manipulated will somehow discount everything they have ever or will ever do to care for and advocate for themselves. In order to preserve their own sense of personal agency, they write off their own trauma as insignificant. Our discussion of the events on Monday gives us a potential model with which to rewrite these narratives so that even when victimized, we still feel like we have agency.
  • Past and present: This week, we’re responding to recent trauma. Let’s also recognize that the attacks could trigger past traumas; for example, from September 11, 2001. The thing about triggers is that they can come any time to anyone. There might be no such thing as “over it already.” Doesn’t work like that. I got through it and then I got triggered and now I have to get over it all over again. And again. And again.
  • Significant and insignificant: Today I saw a misheberach (healing) prayer posted by InterfaithFamily and written specifically to pray for healing of those injured on Monday. Then I saw that the translation of the prayer referred to God as “He.” I know that’s the common practice in our community locally and globally, but for me, referring to God as masculine by default is just one piece in the puzzle of patriarchy that perpetuates sexual violence. I’m not going to heal from one trauma by perpetuating other traumas. All of us matter, and all of our pain matters.

What else, beloved community? What other similarities and differences have you been feeling and thinking about as we cope with the attacks at the finish line, manage our triggers, and struggle to connect? Let’s learn from the process of coming together to survive these attacks about how we can come together to survive the epidemic of sexual violence that has also left so many of us victimized and traumatized. How can our work supporting survivors of the Boston Marathon attacks help us learn to support all survivors of trauma? How can we build a community informed by the short- and long-term effects of trauma, inclusive of multiple types of trauma, honest about multiple experiences of trauma? How can we survive together?

*Image used under Creative Commons license from Brent Danley

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