Understanding the psychology of powerlessness is important because it can give us a fuller description of how current social conditions harm people. Trauma expands our critique of the existing society by revealing the ways in which oppression crushes people internally, at the depths of personal experience. In order to give substance to this kind of analysis, it is only a starting point to say that "people are traumatized by oppression"; the more concretely and graphically we can describe the experience of traumatization, the better we can explain the toll of oppression in human terms.
At the level of strategy, if it is true (as I contend in Chapter One) that the rage of oppressed people is inevitably present in social change efforts, then we need to learn whatever we can about rage in all its forms. In particular, we need to identify and understand powerless rage in order to develop strategies to both constrain the destructive face of rage and to mobilize rage politically in the service of humanization and egalitarian social change. This means delving into the psychology of trauma. We need to understand what causes powerless rage, what it feels like on the inside, what it looks like from the outside, and how it affects our social and political landscapes in order to frame realistic and effective strategies for mobilizing rage toward constructive ends.
At the practical level, we encounter trauma and the politics of powerlessness every day in our movement-building efforts, whether or not we recognize them or name them as such. One face of powerlessness presents itself as burnout, disaffection, apathy, and despair among potentially radical constituencies. A more sinister face is reactionary populism, which mobilizes people's experience of victimization into support for right wing policies and the politics of scapegoating and demonization. But power-under also presents itself within progressive/left organizations and movements. We find it in our own tendencies to demonize the oppressor, in our susceptibilities to in-fighting and splintering, and in the imposing difficulties we repeatedly encounter in our efforts to build coalitions and to forge a kind of unity that can house multiple identities and honor the integrity of our experiences of oppression.
We have known for a long time that tendencies toward domination and top-down practices don't just exist in mainstream society, but also within progressive/left movements and organizations - that we internalize these tendencies and carry them with us, no matter how honestly and deeply we believe in egalitarian principles and values. As products of a society organized around domination, the struggle to create equal power relations is always internal as well as external. I am suggesting that the same is true regarding powerlessness, and that we need to pay the same kind of scrupulous attention to power-under within social change movements that is needed to struggle against tendencies toward power-over. In fact domination and powerlessness are two sides of the same coin, and are interrelated not only between individuals but also within individuals in ways that are critical to examine and understand.
We have language and frameworks to identify problems caused by domination, and consequently we have tools that enable us to struggle against it. We need a comparable language and framework to identify problems caused by subjective powerlessness - ways to be able to say that trauma is in the room. This is what I try to develop in this chapter. I believe that articulating the power relations spawned by traumatic rage can help us to work with political allies or potential allies whom we too readily write off as "impossible" to deal with. It can likewise add to our tools for running more productive meetings, for resolving intractable or chronic conflicts, for nurturing constructive dialogues among our diverse constituencies and identities, and other concrete aspects of movement building work.
For any of this to happen, we need to think about the politics of trauma not only in terms of "them" but also in terms of "us." If we add trauma to our set of political understandings, but only apply it to the "impossible" Other who is obstructing meetings or polarizing organizations or standing in the way of coalition-building by acting out powerless rage, then we are unlikely to resolve conflicts or bridge differences. We need to inspect our own experiences of powerlessness and how they affect us in situations of conflict, in-fighting, polarization, and so on. If we are all products of a society organized around domination, then we are also products of a society organized around powerlessness. I believe that most of us internalize both sides of this power equation in significant ways.
Power-under describes one kind of common response to the traumatizing effects of oppression and abuse. It is one of many manifestations of trauma, and it is therefore important to place an analysis of power-under into the larger context of traumatic experience. By the same token, traumatic rage is not the only possible response to oppression and abuse: active resistance is also possible and more common than most of the trauma literature suggests.1 The major reason for exploring traumatic rage and power-under from a political perspective is to use these understandings as bridges toward mobilizing constructive resistance.
Trauma as Overwhelming Experience
A traumatic event incapacitates our normal mechanisms for coping and self-protection. Bessel van der Kolk and his colleagues describe traumatic events as "overwhelming experience."2 Judith Herman writes that "the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force…Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning…they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life."3 The trauma victim consequently resorts to extraordinary measures in order to survive psychically. These emergency responses typically are mechanisms for enduring what would otherwise be unbearable pain and terror.
In the moment of trauma, the victim's psychological task is to maintain some semblance of normalcy, coherence, integrity, meaning, control, value, and equilibrium. This must be done in the face of an overpowering assault which threatens to annihilate the victim psychologically, and in many cases physically as well. Psychological mechanisms which enable the victim to deflect or deny the full force of the assault are therefore indispensable when it is impossible to actively resist. But these traumatic responses persist. They are functional in the moment when we are overpowered from without and lack other options; but frozen in the psyche of the survivor, they lead to the many types of dysfunction associated with post-traumatic stress.
Herman cogently describes the differences between non-traumatic fight or flight responses and traumatic responses which occur when we are rendered powerless by overwhelming force. She writes that the "ordinary human response to danger is a complex, integrated system of reactions, encompassing both body and mind." These reactions include adrenaline rush, concentrated attention, and "intense feelings of fear and anger. These changes in arousal, attention, perception, and emotion are normal, adaptive responses. They mobilize the threatened person for strenuous action, either in battle or flight."4 In the case of the "ordinary human response," the threatened person is able to take action for self-protection through fight or flight.
By contrast, according to Herman, "Traumatic reactions occur when action is of no avail. When neither resistance nor escape is possible, the human system of self-defense becomes overwhelmed and disorganized. Each component of the ordinary response to danger, having lost its utility, tends to persist in an altered and exaggerated state long after the actual danger is over."5 The result can be symptoms of traumatic stress such as severely elevated states of arousal and vigilance, emotional numbing or dissociation, disruptions in memory of traumatic events, and psychological and emotional fragmentation. "Traumatic symptoms have a tendency to become disconnected from their source and to take on a life of their own…[T]rauma tears apart a complex system of self-protection that normally functions in an integrated fashion…"6
Powerlessness stands at the heart of traumatic experience. Bessel van der Kolk and Alexander McFarlane note that "the critical element that makes an event traumatic is the subjective assessment by victims of how threatened and helpless they feel."7 In turn, one of our key responses when we are powerless - when it is subjectively impossible to fight or to flee - is what both Judith Herman and Peter Levine8 describe as constriction and freezing. Herman observes that "[w]hen a person is completely powerless, and any form of resistance is futile, she may go into a state of surrender. The system of self-defense shuts down entirely. The helpless person escapes from her situation not by action in the real world but rather by altering her state of consciousness. Analogous states are observed in animals, who sometimes ‘freeze' when they are attacked."9
Levine elaborates on freezing, which he describes as a basic biological response. He describes this as an instinctive "last option" which occurs "[w]hen fight and flight responses are thwarted… As it constricts, the energy that would have been discharged by executing the fight or flight strategies is amplified and bound up in the nervous system. In this emotional and anxious state, the now-frustrated fight response erupts into rage; the frustrated flight response gives way to helplessness."10 Levine writes that prolonged inability to take action in the face of threat creates a level of constriction which "overwhelms the nervous system. At this point, immobility takes over and the individual will either freeze or collapse. What happens then is that the intense, frozen energy, instead of discharging, gets bound up with the overwhelming, highly activated, emotional states of terror, rage, and helplessness."11
There is a growing body of research indicating that trauma has a significant and damaging biochemical impact on the brain, particularly affecting the brain's capacity to process the traumatic event.12 Daniel Goleman summarizes studies showing that trauma over-stimulates the amygdala, located in the most primitive (or "reptilian") part of the brain.13 The result "appears to be a sweeping alteration in the chemistry of the brain set in motion by a single instance of overwhelming terror."14 Goleman also identifies helplessness as the "wild card" that triggers the biochemical effects associated with traumatic stress.15 Francine Shapiro theorizes that trauma has the specific effect of physiologically blocking the normal processing of information by the brain; "disturbing information" rooted in traumatic experience is then "stored in the nervous system."16
There is good reason to believe that the effects of trauma are likely to be most severe during childhood, when we are most vulnerable to being overpowered and have the fewest physical and psychological resources for self-protection. Sandra Bloom and Michael Reichert observe that "[c]hildren are especially prone to post-traumatic stress because they are helpless in most situations."17 Van der Kolk reports that childhood trauma typically does more psychological damage than trauma experienced later in life; the younger the child, "the longer the trauma, and the less protection, the more pervasive the damage."18 William Pollack notes the malleability of the brain during early childhood in response to the social environment: "Scientists have demonstrated that at birth the human brain is wired to accommodate developmental interactions that further shape the nervous system after birth…[Adult] behavior fundamentally, and at times irrevocably, alters a boy's [sic] neural connections, brain chemistry, and biological functioning."19
Given the extreme prevalence of physical and sexual assaults by adults against children,20 along with an array of other dominating and abusive parenting practices described by Alice Miller as "permeat[ing] so many areas of our life that we hardly notice it anymore,"21 the heightened susceptibility of children to traumatic experience is particularly significant. It is significant not only because of the prevalence of childhood trauma, but also because the effects of traumatic experience persist for so long, in such a variety of forms, and manifest themselves in ways that have such bearing on social conditions and power relations at many levels.
Whether or not trauma occurs during childhood, it is the endurance of traumatization which is probably its most striking feature. Judith Herman observes that "[l]ong after the danger is past, traumatized people relive the event as though it were continually recurring in the present."22 Van der Kolk and McFarlane similarly write that "the past is relived with an immediate sensory and emotional intensity that makes victims feel as if the event were occurring all over again."23 The persistence of traumatic intensity is consistent with, and presumably at least partially caused by, the biochemical effects of trauma on the brain and nervous system. Traumatic experiences become frozen, unprocessed, and wired into our bodies, taking on the quality of raw and festering wounds.
Paradoxically, trauma also typically evokes dissociation or numbing, both in the moment of trauma and in its aftermath. Confronted with the terror and horror of threatened annihilation, with an overwhelming and malicious force that violates us to the core of our being and renders us utterly helpless, dissociation offers a compelling way to protect ourselves by blocking out unbearable pain and the events that cause it. Dusty Miller notes that "dissociation occurs when the mind cannot tolerate a traumatic event and responds by splitting off the experience from consciousness."24 This can involve physical and/or emotional numbing, confusion, or out-of-body states, as well as blocked memories of traumatic events which either entail "disconnected fragments of memory" or total lack of recall.25 Jennifer Freyd argues cogently that forgetting traumatic events is particularly likely when children are traumatized by parents or other trusted caretakers, because children rely on these adults for their psychic survival and therefore cannot psychologically afford to be conscious of their abuse.26
The long term pattern that emerges is what Judith Herman describes as "an oscillating rhythm" between the intense re-experiencing of the traumatic moment and the dissociative responses of numbing, denial and constriction. "This dialectic of opposing psychological states," according to Herman, "is perhaps the most characteristic feature of the post-traumatic syndromes."27 It is common for trauma survivors to alternate between states of hyper-arousal and shutting down; between blocked memory and intrusive memories in the form of both conscious recall and nightmares; between defensive detachment from the overwhelming pain of trauma and outbursts of traumatic reenactment in which that pain becomes vivid and immediate; between healthy functioning and intense states of physical and/or psychological dysfunction. Ronnie Janoff-Bulman observes that "denial/numbing and reexperiencing are generally regarded as the sine qua non of traumatic stress…"28
When trauma remains unresolved, the result is a fragmented and fractured self. The psychic forces set in motion by trauma do not cohere, literally alienating us from ourselves. Herman writes that "the traumatized person…finds herself caught between the extremes of amnesia or of reliving the trauma, between floods of intense, overwhelming feeling and arid states of no feeling at all, between irritable, impulsive action and complete inhibition of action. The instability produced by these alternations further exacerbates the traumatized person's sense of unpredictability and helplessness."29 To the extent that we "split off" the parts of ourselves that have actually experienced the unbearable pain of trauma, we undergo a different and perhaps even more poignant fracturing: the loss of deep and significant aspects of who we are, or what Alice Miller calls "the true self."30 Herman observes that "[l]ong after the event, many traumatized people feel that a part of themselves has died."31
This fracturing of experience manifests itself in a huge range of personal dysfunction and dysfunctional behavior that is linked to trauma. Mike Lew identifies over 60 symptoms related to childhood sexual abuse.32 Common problems include substance abuse, self-injury,33 depression, suicide, violence against others,34 shame, chronic fear, isolation, eating disorders, dysfunctional relationships, traumatic rage, psychotic episodes, sexual dysfunction, multiple personalities and physical illness. Experienced with differing frequency and with widely varying severity, the harms caused by trauma diminish and debilitate countless lives.
At the moment when abuse takes place, the victim's objective powerlessness usually is not absolute. Objectively, there are always choices that can be made about how to respond to overwhelming force; and to the extent that we consciously exercise options, we claim power. Aurora Levins Morales argues that "we always have agency. All our responses to our conditions are strategic, the best we could come up with at the moment. We are always trying to figure out how best to survive and thrive…[W]e are never simply acted upon."35 Alan Wade offers a similar perspective when he focuses on the typically overlooked ways in which the victims of childhood sexual abuse take actions to resist their abuse.36 Nelson Mandela's ability to withstand 27 years of captivity under the most brutally abusive conditions offers an extraordinary example of the human capacity to resist abuse through active strategic responses,37 as I will discuss at length in Chapter Five.
Our capacity or incapacity to actively resist abuse goes to the heart of whether we are traumatized by it. To the extent that we are able to take effective actions to resist, and to the extent that we subjectively experience these actions as conscious choices that give us a degree of control, we are not rendered completely powerless; when we experience ourselves as actors, trauma is contained and its harmful effects reduced.
Consider for example the common scenario in which the perpetrator of a physical or sexual assault orders the victim to be still and silent. If as the victim we believe that it is still up to us whether to try to resist - that we have the option to yell or to physically struggle, and that our task is to quickly come up with the best possible strategy for self-protection and personal integrity - then we maintain subjective agency and power even if we decide that our best option is to be still and silent. By contrast, if as victim our response is that we have no choice but to be still and silent, we have been rendered subjectively powerless; this is a strikingly different subjective reality despite identical objective behavior.
Levins Morales recounts consciously choosing to envision how her abusers were themselves tortured as children, and says that her ability to take this type of mental action "was what enabled me to survive spiritually."38 Peter Levine cites an incident in which, out of a group of 26 children who were kidnapped and spent 30 hours in an underground vault, it was only the one boy who was able to take effective action to lead the group out of the vault who did not suffer severe traumatic stress in the aftermath of the incident.39
As a practical matter, the objective possibilities for active resistance at the moment of abuse vary tremendously with age, size, social support, psychological resources, the degree of the victim's dependence on the perpetrator, and the degree of external force. For very young children, the entire concept of consciously exercising options at the moment of abuse may be meaningless. For victims of any age, there can be a level of sheer brutality which similarly makes their "objective power" theoretical at best. How does a two year old resist rape? How many of us could respond with anything approaching organized strategic resistance to external force at the magnitude of internment in a Nazi concentration camp - even at the level of envisioning some core of abused humanity in our captors? In the face of overwhelming force, and in the absence of the requisite psychological and social resources, active and conscious resistance becomes subjectively impossible.
In the moment of abuse, it is the reality of the victim's subjective response that determines the degree of trauma. It is true that dissociation can be seen as a kind of resistance - but it is not usually a conscious or active choice, and it is not likely to create a subjective sense of power or control. The more passive our resistance, the less it is consciously determined, or the less effective our attempts to actively resist, the greater our experience of subjective powerlessness and the greater the traumatization.
Traumatic rage is an enormous force, emotionally and physiologically, which is directly related to subjective powerlessness when we are abused. As previously noted, Judith Herman and Peter Levine both describe rage as a distortion of the biological fight response which occurs when our experience is that resistance is impossible. The physical imperatives of the level of arousal associated with the fight response, as well as the psychological imperative to resist violation and abuse, demand the most vigorous action and expression. In the moment of trauma, this drive to act in self-defense and to release hyper-aroused energy runs headlong into the brick wall of powerlessness; confronted with an overpowering external force and with subjective powerlessness, neither action nor release is possible. The pairing of rage and powerlessness is thus a pairing of opposite forces - the necessity of taking effective action to protect ourselves countered and stymied by the subjective impossibility of acting to protect ourselves - which causes psychological and physiological disintegration.
It is in the nature of traumatic stress that rage becomes chronic. Judith Herman writes that "[t]he survivor is continually buffeted by terror and rage. These emotions are qualitatively different from ordinary fear and anger. They are outside the range of ordinary emotional experience, and they overwhelm the ordinary capacity to bear feelings."40 Although traumatic rage festers within the survivor as a chronic condition, it rarely manifests itself in a steady state (though certain symptoms, such as physical illness or substance abuse, may take on a steady state). Typically survivors' rage is triggered by events in the present which stimulate and surface our traumatic history.
Triggering events may be internal (such as nightmares, memories, or physical pain), or may involve a physical location or an aspect of the environment which recall the location in which the trauma occurred. But they are also commonly interpersonal and relational. Comments, gestures, or oversights which make us feel disrespected, controlled, pushed around, invaded, or disregarded can evoke the full force of our historical abuse. Unwanted physical touching or contact, or any touching of the parts of our bodies that were violated, can be particularly triggering. Being caught off guard or taken by surprise can re-stimulate the abruptness of an assault when our safety and integrity were swept away without warning.41
My own triggers have included being treated arbitrarily by a boss, being told what to do in many different situations, being tickled or poked in the stomach (where I was physically tortured as a child), any unexpected or jarring physical contact, and being confused. The other person whose actions trigger us may be in a dominant position, such as a boss, but is at least as likely to be a partner, a child, or someone who in a variety of other contexts is an equal or subordinate. The triggering action may be anywhere on a continuum of severity from harsh and callous to mild or utterly benign (at least as it would affect most people); I was once triggered by a joking comment about the size of my feet, and have often been triggered by my son running up to me from behind. Any trigger that makes the survivor feel victimized can result in an unleashing of rage which from the outside may appear hyper-reactive, irrational, and frightening.
The triggering of rage takes place within the context of traumatic reenactment. Herman notes that "[t]raumatized people relive the moment of trauma not only in their thoughts and dreams but also in their actions. The reenactment of traumatic scenes is most apparent in the repetitive play of children…Adults as well as children often feel impelled to re-create the moment of terror, either in literal or disguised form."42 Van der Kolk and McFarlane write that the "core issue" in post-traumatic stress "is the inability to integrate the reality of particular experiences, and the resulting repetitive replaying of the trauma in images, behaviors, feelings, physiological states, and interpersonal relationships."43 Dusty Miller describes the dynamic which underlies women's acts of self-injury as "trauma reenactment syndrome."44
Traumatic reenactment above all involves an eruption of the feelings of helplessness and terror that were experienced in the moment of trauma. There can be a snowballing of subjective powerlessness, rooted in the traumatic events themselves but also in the ways that traumatic stress endures after the moment of trauma. As survivors we are powerless to undo the traumatic event, just as we were without resources to protect ourselves and prevent the violation when it occurred. Typically we are powerless to exact amends, contrition, or even acknowledgment of the abuse from the perpetrator. To the extent that there have been many moments of abuse and trauma in our lives - which is the norm regarding childhood sexual and physical abuse, male battering, and the recurrent assaults on personal integrity constantly generated by racism, homophobia, sexism, and classism - our experience of powerlessness as a core subjective reality has been repeatedly reinforced and exacerbated. To the extent that we are subjected to long term patterns of debilitation related to trauma - such as substance abuse, self-injury, shame, depression, and dysfunctional relationships - there is a real sense in which we continue to be acted upon and victimized by our historical abuse.
We are also powerless in the face of psychological and emotional phenomena that overtake and overwhelm us from within, flooding us with unwanted and unmanageable feelings. At the moment of reenactment, when as survivors we are triggered by an event which makes us feel that yet again we are being acted upon against our will, subjectively we have many reasons to feel trapped in a repetitive and relentless pattern of being violated and overpowered.
Reenactment objectively offers us an opportunity to give voice and form and action to the unbearable feelings and physical energy that could not be expressed or released, and in many cases could not be consciously experienced, in the moment of trauma. It therefore creates possibilities for re-establishing a sense of control and efficacy.45 But these objective possibilities, as well as our deep yearnings for expression and release and self-protection, are often overrun and distorted by the persistence of our subjective experience of powerlessness, which causes the expression of our rage to become desperate, self-defeating, and destructive. What is relived is not only the experience of onslaught from an overwhelming and malicious external force, but also of helplessness and futility internally; not only the experience of being overpowered from without, but of being profoundly powerless from within. This is so despite a current objective reality in which the external force that has triggered us may only be a fraction of our historical abuse, the possibilities for action are enormously greater, and the choices we actually make have real and significant impacts on others.
The result is that during reenactments we are driven to act by the overwhelming force of stored rage and terror; we are able to act in a whole range of ways that provide physical and emotional releases that were not available to us at the moment of trauma; but subjectively we may still feel acted upon at the core of our being. To the extent that we remain trapped in this traumatized state, our actions become chaotic and futile. What we most desperately need - to emerge from a state of helplessness, to be actors in the world, to achieve a sense of control and efficacy, to re-establish personal integrity and safety - remains out of our grasp, because we have no sense of agency. The discrepancy between our objective power and subjective powerlessness, which was minimal or only theoretical at the moment of trauma, mushrooms into a chasm in the moment of reenactment.
The tendencies of traumatized people to vilify and demonize the targets of our rage, which I have touched on in Chapter One, follow a direct path from the psychology of violation and internalized powerlessness. Emotionally we may experience an overpowering need to find someone at hand to blame and hold responsible for the intensity of our suffering. This can take the form of political scapegoating via racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, class contempt, and so on. It is also very commonly played out in personal relationships in which the other becomes a proximate villain at whom we direct all of the immediate intensity and charge of our feelings about our historical perpetrator (or perpetrators in the case of multiple traumas).
It is difficult to overstate the psychological fragmentation of the survivor who remains in the stranglehold of traumatic powerlessness. Typically there are many areas of the survivor's life in which s/he is perfectly aware of having agency and is able to act effectively. Subjective powerlessness remains stored and festering at a deeper and more profound level of psychological and emotional reality. When we are triggered it bursts to the surface, and in the same breath drags us down to that deeper level where we have so painstakingly tried to keep our trauma buried; and then the power and agency we know that we hold in ordinary daily life melts away.
Outbursts of powerless rage can be disconnected from traumatic events - in terms of passage of time, the social context in which the rage occurs, and the conscious awareness of the survivor. But even when we consciously connect rage to traumatic events, it doesn't necessarily mean that we can achieve a sense of subjective power or find constructive forms of expression. What Herman describes as the "driven, tenacious quality" of traumatic reenactments46 applies particularly to the subjective experience of powerlessness. Consciousness is crucial but not by itself enough to resolve trauma, and in the absence of other resources can simply lead to conscious suffering.
When triggered, the survivor can descend with stunning abruptness into a victim state. Consciously or not, we have returned to the moment of trauma. It is a subjective experience of being acted upon maliciously - of being acted upon by an overwhelming force which is entirely outside of our control and which we are powerless to stop. One moment things are normal; the next moment things are out of control, from without and from within. Externally, something is happening to us again that we experience as profoundly unfair, totally wrong, which suddenly makes life feel intolerable. Internally, feelings are suddenly unleashed we may not even be able to name, which come from an unspeakable place inside us - a place of horror. They are feelings that make us want to scream, or smash things, or lash out at the person who has caused this, or hurt ourselves, or disappear.
One moment we were afloat; the next moment we are drowning.
Examples of Power-Under
The expression of powerless rage is like the flailing of someone who is literally drowning. The survivor, who is reenacting the moment (or many moments) of trauma, is caught up in a desperate struggle for psychic survival. Someone in such a state cannot possibly gauge the impact of their actions on others. And to someone who is feeling powerless, acted upon, and profoundly victimized, it is typically inconceivable that we could be posing any threat or danger to others.
Yet the flailing of a drowning person poses a very real danger to anyone who approaches, and so can the expressed rage of a survivor in a traumatic state. The subjective experience of enraged trauma survivors is that we have been deeply wronged and we are desperately attempting to protect ourselves and regain some semblance of equilibrium. But the experience of those affected by the survivor's enraged behavior is often that they are being treated unfairly, that the person is impossible to deal with, and in some cases that the survivor is acting dangerously or abusively. The irony is that someone acting from an internal state of sheer powerlessness can have an enormously powerful impact on anyone in their path. This is the dynamic that I am calling power-under.
I first developed the concept of power-under about 15 years ago, based largely on my encounters in mental health settings with adults labeled as having "borderline personality disorder." From the point of view of the professional service providers these were always the most troublesome clients, not because they were more disturbed than others with major mental health problems, but because of their behavior. They tended to be both self-destructive (in the form of suicide attempts, suicide gestures, and self-mutilation) and explosively angry, especially toward service providers. Their pattern was to split between some service providers whom they identified as good and others identified as bad, to direct their rage against the "bad" treaters, and to attempt to enlist the "good" treaters as allies against the "bad" ones.
I began to notice a stunning contrast between the power position of "borderline" clients and the effect they had on the professionals they encountered. As chronic mental patients, objectively they were in a severely subordinate position relative to their professional treaters. Moreover, the "borderline" clients were predominantly women, further minimizing their objective claim to power. Subjectively, they were entrenched in positions of helplessness, powerlessness, and victimization. Their chronic complaints and explosive anger were almost universally self-defeating. They became locked into power struggles with service providers that they could not possibly win and had no expectation of winning. I worked with one client who week after week would go through litanies of her mistreatment by other service providers and then instructed me that there was nothing I could say or do which could possibly change or improve her situation.
What was remarkable was the effect of these clients on treatment providers. They evoked severe discomfort, fear, helplessness, contempt, and not infrequently counter-rage47 from professionals at all levels. The mere mention of the term "borderline" drew (and continues to draw) a palpable shudder from most clinicians. There is no other psychiatric label I know of which elicits this kind of reaction. The negativity associated with the "borderline" diagnosis is so pronounced that Judith Herman describes its practical use in the field as a "sophisticated insult."48
One of the hallmarks of power-under is that the expression of powerless rage so often renders its target subjectively powerless. In the case of "borderline" clients, mental health professionals are objectively in a dominant position, and almost always have a range of options at their disposal for dealing with the client in a way which may be helpful to at least some degree. But the subjective response that is commonly evoked among professionals is that the "borderline" client is hopeless and the treating professional is helpless - a response which has become encoded in the "borderline" label. Dusty Miller notes that "[m]any mental health professionals believe that the damage done to the borderline's sense of self is irreparable."49 "Borderline" clients, acting from a position of extreme subjective powerlessness, make professional treaters feel profoundly powerless.
At the time that I first made these observations, I had no inkling that there was any connection between the "borderline" diagnosis and trauma. In the last 15 years there has been increasing recognition in the mental health field that severe trauma is a primary antecedent of "borderline personality disorder."50 The need to identify a proximate villain, the splitting of their world into sharply defined figures of benevolence and malevolence, their utter conviction that they are being acted upon and victimized, their patterns of self-abuse, and their chronic expression of powerless rage all are indicators of unhealed trauma.
Nor did I have an understanding 15 years ago of myself as a trauma survivor, or that "power-under" was a concept that might apply to me personally. Since then I have come to recognize and acknowledge my own susceptibility to powerless rage.
One of my responses when triggered is to emotionally withdraw. In the milder form of the pattern, I become cold, abrupt, and distant. In more extreme form I go into a stone-like state in which I stop communicating for an hour or more. This happens almost exclusively within intimate relationships. The triggering event may be part of a pervasive problem in the relationship, but it can also be a seemingly trivial comment or physical gesture that catches me off guard and makes me feel attacked or betrayed.
My subjective experience in these traumatic states is that the situation is impossible and there is nothing I can do to make it better. Nothing I could say would possibly be understood by the other person the way I really mean it; and saying it would not help to resolve the situation anyway, because it would be a statement of despair. There is no way for me to express my feelings, which are unbearable. I have an incredible sense of physical heaviness, which makes any kind of physical action also feel impossible. Meanwhile my mind races with thoughts that circle back upon themselves, leading nowhere. I feel totally weighed down and immobilized by my thoughts, my physical heaviness, and my sense of being utterly alone in the world. All I want is to be left alone; yet I desperately wish for understanding and soothing, which I know to be impossible. I'd like to disappear, which seems the only possible solution to my condition, and in some cases this leads to more focused thoughts and feelings of wishing to die. But since I know I will not act on my suicidal thoughts, this circles back into another layer of futility.
Usually I am not consciously enraged in the midst of these stone-like states. It is only later, after I have managed to emerge from my immobilized condition, that I realize that the triggering event made me incredibly angry, and that my rage, which I have not been able to express or vent in any direct way, has been at the core of my unbearable feelings, my physical heaviness, and my immobility. My condition in these traumatic states is one of implosion.
The effect of my stony withdrawal is to render the other person totally helpless. There is absolutely nothing they can do with me. Questions go unanswered; statements are not responded to; efforts to approach me with kindness and concern are silently rebuffed; expressions of frustration and anger from the other person drive me even further away. My partner, who relies on me for emotional support and connection, is abandoned. None of this is my conscious intention. In the stranglehold of internal forces that are far beyond my control, I am simply unable to do anything other than what I am doing. My helplessness becomes my partner's helplessness.
I now believe that power-under behavior, which is visible in such pronounced form among "borderline" clients, and which I have learned to identify in my own triggered states, is a common and widespread phenomenon. It does not only apply to a sub-category of stigmatized mental patients, but is found in varying forms among all kinds of people who experience powerlessness, as I will try to illustrate with the many examples which follow.
When people in subordinate positions act out powerless rage, as in the case of psychiatric patients, the effects on targets who hold power over them is striking - but is still constrained in many ways by the objective power relations in the room. But power-under in the hands of someone in a dominant position knows no such constraints, and therefore can wreak an extraordinary amount of damage.
Consider the example of a famous Holocaust survivor: Bruno Bettelheim. Nationally known as the head of the University of Chicago's prestigious Orthogenic School, a residential treatment facility for autistic and emotionally disturbed children, Bettelheim wrote several classic books about his treatment program.51 He also wrote about his own experience in two German concentration camps,52 where he spent a combined total of about one year prior to being released from the Buchenwald camp and coming to the U.S. in 1939.
death by suicide in 1990 at the age of 86, former students of the
In Richard Pollak's exhaustive biography of Bettelheim, The Creation of Dr. B,53 he reports on his interviews with 30 former students who were treated at the Orthogenic School during Bettelheim's tenure, as well as interviews with former staff members who worked under Bettelheim.54 The former students describe episode after episode in which Bettelheim hit, punched, slapped, and spanked them, strapped their bare buttocks with his belt, and dragged them by the hair. He also verbally attacked and derogated children. These accounts of Bettelheim's behavior by the ex-students were corroborated by a number of the former staff members Pollak interviewed. Bettelheim was also described as "losing it" and verbally attacking staff who worked under him on a regular basis. Three of the ex-students, all women, reported that Bettelheim sexually abused them.
It is unclear what Bettelheim
really believed about his own conduct.
In his many books about the treatment approach at the
However, Pollak also reports many other instances revealed in his interviews in which Bettelheim privately justified his behavior: telling kids that he hit them because he loved them; telling staff that he was the "superego" of the school; and writing to a friend that slapping children helps them to deal with the antagonism they feel toward their parents.57 It is hard to believe that someone of Bettelheim's intellectual agility could take these justifications seriously as anything more than transparent rationalizations for his out of control behavior. At the very least, it seems clear that Bettelheim's ideas and values about corporal punishment were grossly fragmented.
It seems equally clear that Bettelheim was repeatedly out of control. In his dealings with both children and staff, he is described by Pollak's sources as flying into rages, having tantrums, and "losing it." His behavior was totally out of keeping with his public persona as a brilliant healer. An account by a former staff member is particularly telling.
who had been a teacher under Bettelheim, recounted to
Pollak an incident in which a seven-year-old girl was
upset because an older boy was being sent away from the school after his
treatment there proved unsuccessful. Helstein was sitting with the girl at lunch when Bettelheim came into the room. Helstein told Bettelheim that the girl had been upset for hours about the
boy having to leave the school. "Bettelheim exploded
and, in front of the children and staff in the dining room, began slapping the
child across the face. ‘I'd seen him
lose it with staff members, be absolutely outrageous at staff meetings; but I'd
never seen him hit the kids. It was
shocking, it was terrible.'" At a staff
meeting afterward, Bettelheim asked
This vignette not only captures Bettelheim, probably triggered by his sense of failure about the boy whom the school had been unable to successfully treat, lashing out physically at a little girl and verbally at a young female staff member; it also captures his lack of agency. His disclaimer that it was Nina Helstein who directed him to hit the upset girl, and his fury when Helstein insisted that the assault was his responsibility, reveal a man who was overwhelmed by rage. It is a portrait of subjective powerlessness.
The accounts in Pollak's
biography describe a Holocaust survivor who was chronically subject to fits of
traumatic rage. When Bettelheim
was triggered, which apparently happened frequently, he had temper
tantrums. In those moments he was no
longer the famous psychologist, the renowned educator, the eloquent author, the
driving force behind an innovative and remarkable treatment program: he was small and helpless, a victim who could
not contain his rage and was lashing out at the readily available proximate
targets. This is consistent with other
manifestations of traumatic stress which Pollak
reports Bettelheim suffered during his
It could be objected that Bettelheim was not acting from a position of powerlessness, but from a position of supreme power. Undoubtedly there were times when Bettelheim acted dispassionately as the man in charge, in control and consciously using his power. There is no question that all of the objective measures - age, gender, physical prowess, status as an expert, and his position as head of the school - made Bettelheim a dominant authority. And it is true that Bettelheim's position of authority enabled him to act out his rage on children and staff, and to do so with impunity.
But that does not mean that when
triggered, in his many moments of rage, he was subjectively acting from a place of strength and power, or that
this could remotely be termed empowered behavior. If he had spoken publicly in favor of
corporal punishment, and if he had written that
slapping and spanking and berating kids were part of the
Bettelheim offers a vivid and chilling example of the danger
posed by someone in a position of objective dominance who suffers from chronic
and severe traumatic rage. If Bettelheim had been a patient at the Orthogenic
School, he would have had frequent outbursts of rage which would have
frightened other patients and staff, and at times he probably would have hurt
others physically; but there would have been staff in a position of power over
him who would have placed external restraints on his behavior, hopefully in a
benign and caring way. If Bettelheim had been a counselor at the
Other Holocaust Survivors
In Children of the Holocaust, Helen Epstein chronicles the childhood experiences of adults raised by parents who were Holocaust survivors.60 Epstein provides vivid portraits of her own parents, both survivors of concentration camps. She writes about her father, "His expectations…and our behavior often collided. When he was tired, when his optimism was worn down by worries about money or my mother's health, a terrible anger erupted from him. His face grew dark and when he began to shout, his fury was like a sudden hailstorm."61 Epstein describes her mother as someone beset by chronic medical problems and severe depression. "All the rage my father spent on…other people who did not treat him with appropriate respect, my mother turned inward. It festered inside her…"62
Epstein recounts a typical dinner scene during her childhood when her younger brother was playing with his fork rather than eating his meal. Her father began to yell. "‘Hajzel!' he shouted. ‘Svine!' The words meant ‘toilet' and ‘swine.' He seemed to be in another world, raging at people we could not see. Our misbehavior was just a trigger that released a rage that was there all the time, locked inside like my mother's pain. Once unlocked, it spurted out of him lavalike and furious, impossible to restrain…" Her father goes on yelling at both Helen and her brother, calling them pigs and brats, then exclaiming, "‘Do you know what we would have given for a meal like this! Seven hundred calories a day we were given!…Eat!' he ordered. ‘Or do you want a slap in the face!'"63
Meanwhile Epstein's mother, when upset and depressed, would barricade herself in the bathroom for hours at a time. Epstein describes how she would knock on the closed bathroom door, needing reassurance, and ask her mother if she was all right. Her mother would tell her to leave her alone; then, crying, would say to her daughter through the door, "‘I don't want to go on anymore. I can't stand it.' I listened hard. I thought I could somehow leach the pain from her by listening. It would leave her body, enter mine, and be lessened by sharing. Otherwise, I thought, it would one day kill my mother. She could kill herself easily behind the closed door."64
Epstein's parents could not gauge the effect of their actions on others - in this case, their own children. They were too overwhelmed by trauma and, in particular, by their rage. For Epstein's father, watching his children fail to eat triggered his concentration camp experience so severely that he experienced it as a threat to his own survival; in such a state, he could not possibly see how his "lavalike" rage could terrify Helen Epstein and her younger brother. Nor could Epstein's mother, overwhelmed by her own pain, grasp the terror she evoked in her daughter when she abandoned Helen by locking herself in the bathroom and threatened to abandon her forever when she cried, "I don't want to go on anymore." But from Helen's point of view as a child, she was raised by a father who was a bully and by a mother who any day might kill herself.
Al, another child of survivors, similarly
describes growing up with his parents' traumatic rage: a father who "stared into space" and a mother
who screamed at him and his brother. He recounted to Epstein, "‘When we disobeyed her, she would yell at us: Enemy of
Made to feel powerless by her children's disobedience, this mother became totally immersed in and overwhelmed by her rage at the Nazis. But there were no Nazis at hand - only her son, who absorbed the full force of her rage and who even as a boy understood that he was being treated as a surrogate German. This once again plays out a classic power-under scenario in which the mother, in a state of sheer subjective powerlessness, lashes out in a desperate expression of powerless rage which overwhelms and terrifies her child. Al in turn is rendered powerless and traumatized; he goes on to develop standard symptoms of traumatic stress, alternately dissociating - at nineteen "I was so numb you could have banged nails into me and I wouldn't have felt it"66 - and acting out violently, driven by his own powerless rage.
Children of Holocaust survivors, in addition to bearing the brunt of their parents' traumatized behavior, also experienced the trauma of the Holocaust itself through growing up in families so saturated with its presence. Al told Epstein, "‘Look, when they talk to you about the camps and the torture and they show you pictures of the dead relatives, they don't have to tell you they're angry. You feel it. It's in the air. But at the age of ten, what are you going to do with that?'" All that he could do was to absorb his parents' powerless rage: "‘When they talked about the family I got enraged that they were all dead. That stands out in my mind. The fact that they were all dead, and I couldn't do anything about it.'"67
Another child of survivors
talked to Epstein about traveling to
Even a generation removed, the unspeakable trauma of the Holocaust provokes "impotent rage." It overwhelms "normal circumstances," confronting the child of survivors - in a real sense also a survivor himself - with terrifying feelings for which he has no apparent outlet. Immersed in the experience of massive victimization, powerless to do anything about it, he fantasizes about releasing his rage against some tangible target who could absorb all of the blame for the horror with which he must live.
Examples drawn from the experience of Holocaust survivors vividly illustrate power-under behavior in cases where the traumatic antecedents are unmistakable. But since the Holocaust created the most extreme types of trauma, these examples could be considered as unrepresentative of common experience. "Borderline" clients could similarly be dismissed as severely disturbed people who are too far toward the end of the continuum to indicate that power-under is a typical part of everyday life.
Male battering offers another set of examples which cannot be so easily dismissed in this way. As previously noted, Neil Jacobson and John Gottman in their book When Men Batter Women describe domestic violence against women as "a problem of epidemic proportions."69 Jacobson and Gottman's study offers striking evidence of power-under in the behavior and subjective experience of many men who assault women.
Jacobson and Gottman studied heterosexual couples who reported battering as a regular event in their relationships. The couples were observed having verbal arguments in a laboratory setting; during the arguments their physiological responses were electronically monitored. The men and women were also interviewed individually about their histories and their attitudes and feelings regarding their current relationships.
Eighty percent of the batterers are described as men who perceive themselves as victims even though they are perpetrators. Jacobson and Gottman label these men "Pit Bulls." Many of them also reported childhood trauma, with 51% having grown up in violent homes. Jacobson and Gottman observe that "when Pit Bulls enter into marital conflict, they become physiologically aroused. Their heart rates increase, for example…Pit Bulls do seem to fly into unintended rages."70
A man they call Don is identified as typical of the Pit Bulls in their study. Don reports growing up with a father who would beat him "so severely with a belt that he would beg for mercy," and who also humiliated him verbally.71 As an adult, Don does not recognize himself as a dangerous person, even though he repeatedly and severely beats his wife, Martha, with at least 20 serious battering incidents in the previous year. Jacobson and Gottman note that despite the stunning intensity of Don's temper and violent behavior, "Don also felt emotionally abused by Martha, even though the incidents that produced these feelings in him were not abusive by any reasonable definition of the term. When Martha attempted to cut off a volatile conversation by asking, ‘Can't we just drop it for now?' Don saw her question as abusive…Don would argue that Martha provoked a violent altercation by slapping him after he had slapped her."72
This portrayal of a typical batterer offers another illustration of an extraordinary gap between the objective power position and subjective experience of a traumatized person. Jacobson and Gottman write, "Perhaps the most striking memory of Don and Martha was the contrast between the way Don saw himself and the way he actually behaved in the relationship. Despite his obvious violence and cruelty, which we observed, he acted like a victim of battering, and we believe he really saw himself that way…[Don] felt so helpless in the wake of his explosions that he didn't consider himself responsible for them."73 Another Pit Bull, Dave, is described as being in a state of "childlike helplessness…. A true Pit Bull, he thought of himself as the victim in this marriage."74
It is significant that Jacobson and Gottman view the Pit Bulls' subjective experience of victimization as valid, even though the authors steadfastly do not accept this as objectively accurate or as an excuse for the batterers' behavior. To a degree which is rare among psychologists and social scientists, Jacobson and Gottman openly state their values, sympathies, and political perspective: they view battering as primarily the result of patriarchal power relations, and their sympathies are with battered women. They display no bias which would lead them to draw sympathetic portraits of batterers, and they repeatedly contend that battering is a conscious choice which should be dealt with as criminal activity. Nevertheless, Jacobson and Gottman conclude that when Pit Bulls describe themselves as victims, it is an accurate expression of their subjective experience, not a conscious rationalization or manipulation.
While the sample of batterers was not randomly or scientifically drawn, the fact that a large majority of the men in the study were Pit Bulls strongly suggests that it is not rare for male violence against women to result from power-under dynamics on the part of batterers. The violence of these male batterers is a function of much more than their traumatic histories and powerless rages, which could also be expressed and acted out in many other ways. Patriarchy places men in dominant roles, and there is an enormous amount of socialization which leads men to view violence against women as legitimate or justifiable behavior. What Jacobson and Gottman's study shows is how subjective powerlessness fits into this larger picture.
We tend to readily assume that dominant behavior is matched by subjective or conscious dominance. Pit Bulls illustrate a very different scenario: men who exercise dominance but are subjectively powerless. Their dominance is made more lethal by their subjective powerlessness; because their conscious intent is to defend themselves, and because they lack conscious agency, they have no sense of the effects of their behavior on its targets. In turn, power-under is made lethal by objective dominance. Where the raging of "borderline" clients may cause their treatment providers to experience distress and helplessness, the raging of men at their partners causes enormous physical and emotional harm. The difference is that because Pit Bulls are objectively in dominant positions relative to women, there are far fewer constraints on their expressions of powerless rage, which they act out in the form of abuse.
It is important to note that not all of the men in Jacobson and Gottman's study fit the "Pit Bull" profile. About 20% of the male batterers - labeled by the authors as "Cobras" - were in fact consciously dominant, and these men also reported histories of severe childhood trauma. Later in this chapter I will discuss the relationship between trauma and subjective dominance. For here it will suffice to emphasize that while subjective powerlessness and associated expressions of rage are significant results of traumatic experience, they surely are not the only type of result. And power-under is not the only contributor to lethal dominant behavior.
Other Examples of Male Dominance
Driven by Subjective Powerlessness
The tendency of men to exercise dominance from a position of subjective powerlessness can be found in many other social contexts. I recently nudged the bumper of the car in front of me while maneuvering into a parking space; a man got out of the car, came up to my window and announced that if I touched his car again he would beat me unconscious. One can only imagine the ways in which this man has been violated, particularly as a boy, almost certainly including gross physical brutality. The brutality of his own behavior toward me also betrayed his massive vulnerability. He was responding to his bumper being touched as an intolerable physical violation of his own person. Triggered, acted upon, made to feel powerless to an unbearable degree, he was lashing out with what was perhaps the only means available to him to try to defend himself (which of course does not justify or excuse his behavior). Here, in the midst of everyday life, we find the lethal combination of dominant behavior and subjective powerlessness.
I have heard men complain vehemently about being the victims of restraining orders and divorce decrees, and complain about how much power women have over them. Warren Farrell's book The Myth of Male Power75 is a polemic for the position that men are powerless victims. Based on the core statement that "[i]n this book, I define power as having control over one's own life,"76 Farrell describes men as pervasively powerless (having little control over their own lives) and victimized. Farrell is right when he argues that power over others does not necessarily indicate power over self; and some of his assertions of ways that men lack power over themselves are reasonable, for example that men are subjected to wartime drafts and military combat, or that men are socialized to accept physically hazardous work and to value income over the quality of work.
Other assertions are amazingly distorted, particularly his claims of ways in which women hold advantages over men. Farrell argues that life expectancy is "the best measure of who [has] the power."77 He then cites life expectancy rankings by gender and race which not only show that white women on average live longest, but also that black women have longer life expectancies than white men - which by Farrell's logic would lead to the inexplicable conclusion that African American women have more power than white men. Farrell similarly claims that the intrinsic quality of "women's work" is significantly higher than the quality of "men's work" and that women are paid less because their jobs are more satisfying: "[O]ccupations which employ more than 90 percent women almost always have in common… characteristics mak[ing] the job high in desirability - so high that an employer has more than enough qualified applicants and, therefore, does not need to pay as much."78 Farrell of course would be hard pressed to find this view verified by waitresses, cleaning women, receptionists, and other women holding "desirable" low wage jobs.
The core distortion in Farrell's book is his belief that because men don't have power to control their own lives, whatever power they hold over others simply does not matter. By defining power only as power over self, Farrell either minimizes or makes invisible men's power over others, sometimes waffling between minimization and denial of male dominance on the same page: In one breath "[m]en's victimizer status camouflages men's victim status"; in the next, "the ideology of female-as-victim…blinded us to how the underlying issue between men and women was not the dominance of one sex over the other, but the subservience of both sexes to the real master - the survival needs of the next generation."79 According to Farrell, "murder, rape, and spouse abuse, like suicide and alcoholism, are but a minute's worth of superficial power to compensate for years of underlying powerlessness. They are manifestations of hopelessness committed by the powerless, which is why they are acts committed disproportionately by blacks and by men."80
From this perspective, men's powerlessness is all that really matters; the exercise of dominance is so "superficial" that it hardly counts as power at all. On the other hand, any power that women hold apparently counts a great deal, and thus white women are implicitly seen as so powerful that they do not need to manifest powerlessness by resorting to acts of violent crime. This is power-under driving an analysis of gender relations and male behavior.
Perhaps the most telling statement in Farrell's book is his assertion that sex between people in unequal power positions is problematic because it shifts power to the person in the subordinate position: "When it is consensual, employer-employee sex has one of the same problems of parent-child incest: it undermines the ability of the employer to establish boundaries because the employer often feels needy of the employee. It is this same problem that is at the core of parent-child incest: parental authority becomes undermined because the child senses it has leverage over the parent."81 From the constricted perspective of a victimized man, even incest can be seen as interfering with the perpetrator's authority by giving too much power to the child.
The value of Farrell's book is that it so vividly demonstrates the distortions in our perceptions of power relations that follow when someone in a dominant position sees the world entrenched in subjective powerlessness. He cannot conceive of the power that a perpetrator holds over a child in the act of sexual abuse, or of the power that men hold over women in their many acts of domination. From the point of view of men as victims, it is only the ways that men are acted upon that have substance for Farrell.
While Farrell's statements are the views of a single author, I believe that they resonate with the often unarticulated assumptions of many men, and with the ways that men either rationalize their dominating behavior or excuse themselves from recognizing their own domination. The real powerlessness in men's lives, which I believe is particularly rooted in childhood trauma (as I discuss in Chapter Three), becomes a link in the chain of objective male dominance through the distorted lens of power-under.
Simultaneous Subordinate/Dominant Roles
Many of the examples which I have used so far to illustrate power-under present a sequence of oppression over time in which the historical traumatization of people currently holding dominant roles contributes to their oppressive and abusive behavior in the present through the acting out of powerless rage. In these cases people who were in subordinate roles in the past are in dominant positions in the present, but remain subjectively powerless due to trauma. Thus the situations of male batterers, abused as boys and dominant as men in relation to their female partners; and the situations of Holocaust survivors in positions of authority as parents or, in the example of Bruno Bettelheim, as expert and boss.
But in many other cases trauma survivors occupy both subordinate and dominant roles simultaneously in the present. Consider for example the position of many women who were sexually and/or physically abused as children and/or as adults, who have been oppressed in myriad other ways by patriarchy, and who in the present are in subordinate positions vis-à-vis male partners but assume dominant roles vis-à-vis their children. In these cases trauma may be both historical and the result of contemporary events, such as battering; and a woman's powerless rage may be directed at her children when her historical trauma is triggered, or it may be directed at her children in reaction to her contemporary abuse,82 or her rage may be directed at her male partner but still affect children who are not its intended targets. In this kind of situation the survivor may act out power-under as both a subordinate and a dominant literally in the same breath.
This is illustrated by an example from my own history. One memorable weekend when I was about ten years old, my parents got into an argument while I was sitting at the kitchen table eating lunch. My father was also sitting at the table reading the Sunday New York Times when my mother asked him to help her with some household chore. He put her off and kept reading the paper; she persisted with demands for his help. This quickly escalated into a screaming match, with my parents freely hurling insults and accusations and swearing at each other. All this was taking place directly in front of me, my father still sitting across the table from me and my mother standing a few feet away.
So far the argument was following a familiar pattern, one that by the age of ten I had witnessed probably hundreds of times. But at a certain point my mother stormed over to the table, grabbed the newspaper that my father had been reading and started tearing it to shreds. A screaming argument between my parents was a normal event in my family, but physical aggression of any sort by either of my parents was not. I had never seen my mother behave like this; I was startled, and I was scared.
My mother proceeded to stand in the middle of the kitchen and shred the entire Sunday New York Times. As she did this she was shrieking at my father, saying things like "I'll be goddamned if you're going to treat me like shit and then sit there and read your fucking New York Times." At points she just made wailing noises or grunts that punctuated each motion as she tore up the paper and flung pieces to the floor. She was in a frenzy, a state of uncensored and unrestrained rage. Stymied by my father's insistence on reading his paper, triggered to the core of her being by her inability to control the situation and by her husband's disregard for her needs, she exploded with powerlessness. In her state of extreme traumatization, she reached for the one thing that was literally within her grasp - the newspaper - in a desperate effort to assert some kind of control and to take some kind of action against the person in the room who was the proximate cause of her unbearable pain.
My mother's rage was plainly directed at my father, not at me. As a housewife in the late 1950s, my mother was unequivocally in a subordinate role in relation to my father. Her behavior that Sunday morning surely had a powerful effect on my father - it stopped him cold, ended the argument, and undoubtedly provoked all sorts of emotional distress, including his own feelings of powerlessness. But as the person in the dominant position, objectively my father had a range of options available to him by which he could respond to my mother's outburst to protect himself and to assert counter-control. He could still refuse to do what my mother had asked of him; he could leave the house; he could buy another newspaper; he could drink; he could have an affair; he could threaten divorce. My mother's subordinate position relative to my father placed some limits on the impact of her power-under behavior upon him.
At the same time, my mother was in a dominant position in relation to me. While I was not the target of her rage, I was profoundly affected by it. As a child, I lacked the resources and options available to my father. I relied on my mother as my primary caretaker. For me, seeing her totally out of control was overwhelming and terrifying. I was trapped in the kitchen, in between my warring parents; my conscious experience was that I had no choice but to sit where I was, frozen to my spot at the table, and stay as still and quiet and inconspicuous as possible. It was impossible for me to stop the argument or stop my mother's frenzy, which is what I wanted and needed. It did not occur to me that I might try to leave the room or get out of the house. The one choice that I consciously experienced was to shut off my feelings as quickly and completely as I could - the traumatic response of going numb.
My mother was consciously trying to retaliate against my father, though she was so immersed in subjective powerlessness that she almost certainly could not gauge the actual effects of her behavior upon him. But I believe that she was completely unaware of how her behavior affected me. From a position of overwhelming subjective powerlessness, she could not conceive of herself as having enough power to harm her child; overpowered by her own rage and terror, she could not begin to see the effects of her behavior on her child. In a context which is quite different from battering or from an active assault against a child, power-under once again proves lethal when enacted from a dominant position.
Power-Under in the Struggles of Oppressed People
Power-under inevitably is played out in families and intimate relationships; because these are the settings within which so much abuse takes place and so much trauma is experienced, it is here that subjective powerlessness and traumatic rage are readily reenacted. The privacy of intimate relationships, the yearnings and vulnerabilities that they evoke, and the cultural acceptability of expressing rage and behaving violently at home and in private all conspire to bring power-under to the fore in this arena. These are of course also political events, both in the sense that oppression is enacted and that oppression is socially reproduced from one generation to the next.
But power-under is also a significant force in any number of public political contexts. There are many ways in which traumatic rage can, paradoxically, both spark and undermine the public efforts of oppressed people to achieve social change. Rioting is probably the most dramatic example, and also the one in which power-under is most clearly embodied. I think that rioting can be sensibly viewed as resulting from the mass triggering of collective trauma. It is an unfocused expression of suffering and rage on a mass scale, rooted in the powerlessness that people experience when they are chronically and relentlessly violated and when nonviolent or "legitimate" means of protest are perceived as futile.
Rioting is a collective lashing out in response to unbearable conditions, driven by unbearable pain. But like power-under at the individual level, rioting has no strategic dimension; it therefore is not a viable basis for sustained struggle.83 Lacking a sense of agency, people who engage in rioting lose sight of the destructive impact of their behavior and in the same way lose sight of the humanity of their targets. In turn, unfocused violence cannot serve as a moral basis for social transformations which would expand our capacities to value human life.
Power-under contributes to an array of broader problems which plague social change efforts in ways that go far beyond the psychology of rioting. These include our tendencies to demonize and dehumanize the oppressor; our reluctance or inability as oppressed people to also recognize our own oppressor roles; the competitions in which we chronically get tangled over the validity and relative importance of different oppressions, and the related and daunting problems we encounter attempting to build coalitions among oppressed constituencies; and the polarized conflicts and splintering that repeatedly occur within social change organizations.
Each of these tendencies is either shaped or exacerbated by subjective powerlessness and traumatic rage. When we are entrenched in the identity of victim, acutely aware of the ways that we have been acted upon and violated, it becomes extraordinarily difficult psychologically to recognize the humanity of our oppressors or to acknowledge the possibility that we ourselves could hold the kind of objective power, agency and capacity to do harm associated with oppressor roles.84
In our constricted moments of traumatic powerlessness and reenactment, the world divides into malevolent perpetrators and innocent victims; from that perspective it can become inconceivable that our oppressors may also have been oppressed, or that the suffering of other groups or identities could in any way compare to our own. This in turn creates imposing challenges and obstacles in efforts to forge coalitions between traumatized constituencies who may perceive each other as oppressors. Our need as traumatized people for proximate villains is also one of the factors that can contribute to the kinds of internecine conflicts that too often erupt within our movements and stand in the way of efforts to achieve social change. In Chapter Four I will explore each of these issues at greater length.
Power-under can also challenge and at times completely derail democratically run meetings, which are one of the basic building blocks of progressive social change movements. On the one hand, subjective powerlessness can readily lead us to shut down, withdraw, feel silenced, and perceive that decisions have been imposed upon us without our true participation or consent. On the other hand, subjective powerlessness can lead us to hyper-participate in efforts to make ourselves heard or defend positions which we feel are under attack. While monopolizing air time is objectively a kind of domination, and undoubtedly is in some instances part of a conscious intention to control a meeting, I believe that there are also many instances in which people dominate meetings out of a subjective sense of victimization or helplessness, without any conscious awareness of their effect on others or on the capacity of the meeting to maintain a democratic process.
In its most destructive form, power-under erupts at meetings in the form of personal attacks, blaming, and related kinds of lashing out in which traumatic rage can immobilize an entire group. A striking example of this occurred at a meeting of a social change organization I belonged to when a woman who had attended several previous meetings asked for and received the opportunity to address the group. The woman spoke with intensity and urgency about her situation as the mother of a young child struggling to raise her son, survive on welfare, go to college, and effect meaningful change as a welfare reform activist. Then she complained that our organization was useless. She went on at great length, with palpable anger, about how we accomplished nothing. She gave many examples of our political futility, and while she did not single out anyone in the group for personal attack, her speech to the group was deeply personal in the sense that she always came back to her fundamental complaint: "You people are of no use to me!"
The effect on the group was intense. Some people cried; some responded angrily; many of us were at a loss as to how to respond. After the woman finished speaking, a number of people did try to respond to her from many different perspectives, all of which she argued with or dismissed. The meeting ended in disarray, with nothing accomplished via dialogue and with a palpable sense of futility. The woman, acting from and expressing her own sense of helplessness, had rendered the entire room helpless.
Most of the examples I have used to illustrate power-under so far have focused on the behavior and subjective experience of an individual trauma survivor. While this has been useful to show what power-under means and how it manifests itself, it has also presented a somewhat simplified picture by sidestepping the ways that our powerless rages collide with each other. In practice it is common for traumatized people to interact with each other in all sorts of social and political contexts. This is true first of all because of the prevalence of trauma, which (as I have argued in Chapter One) is almost universally experienced in childhood and is also generic to oppression. In addition, partners of trauma survivors may experience "secondary traumatization" in which they are traumatized by the survivor's behavior. Dennis Balcom notes that "[t]he partner experiences the trauma indirectly or vicariously and comes to share the same, complementary, or parallel traumatic experience and symptoms of distress as the survivor."85
When both partners are traumatized - either because both have trauma histories pre-dating the relationship or because one has been traumatized by the other in the course of their relationship - and both are expressing traumatic rage, each new expression of powerless rage can trigger the other partner's previous traumas and at the same time re-traumatize the partner in the present. This is power-under running amok. It is like a cancerous spreading of the original trauma, which duplicates and re-duplicates itself with each new instance of abuse and counter-abuse. Consider these examples, both drawn from clinical practice:
Todd, an amputee who periodically needs to reenter the
hospital for treatment of his stump, reexperiences
the original loss of his arm, the physical and emotional pain of repeated
surgeries, plus the loss of personal power and privacy as he reenters the patient role. Joan, his wife, berates him and states that
she wishes he had died in
The typical ritual argument for Lyle and Jill begins with an accusation of blame. One accuses the other of intentionally trying to control, harm, or dominate. Lyle immediately slips into his unresolved memory of being physically beaten by his parents. Jill recalls the neglect and abuse by her mother following the divorce of her parents when she was 7 years old. No one protected either of them. In the midst of their argument, Jill responds to Lyle as though he is going to violate or neglect her. Lyle believes that Jill is going to attack him physically. Ironically, their fighting duplicates their family-of-origin experiences. Lyle neglects Jill by storming out of the house, and Jill frightens Lyle by throwing dishes at him.87
In both of these case examples, each partner is deeply entrenched in a victim state. Understandably, each of them can only relate to the ways in which s/he is being acted upon and wronged by the other. For each, their own wound is primary and is so large and so deep that it does not allow recognition of and compassion for the other's wound. Each is doubly wronged: because their partner does not acknowledge and soothe their historical trauma, and because their partner is abusing them in the present. Both partners are trying desperately to protect themselves and to give expression to their intolerable feelings. In the process, each behaves in a deeply uncaring and abusive way toward the other, further provoking the partner's victimization and rage, the expression of which in turn further provokes their own victimization and rage. Both partners are supremely powerless. Mutual power-under guarantees the most vicious lose-lose cycle.
At the level of large scale politics, the
same vicious cycle is played out in chronic unresolved conflicts in which both
sides routinely engage in terrorist acts.
Each fresh atrocity committed by one side serves as the trigger and the
justification for the next atrocity committed by the other side. Each side portrays itself as the victim of a
vicious, dehumanizing enemy; each side claims to be acting in
self-defense. Decades of conflict
between Catholics and Protestants in
I don't mean to suggest that every individual involved in these conflicts has suffered personal trauma or has acted out traumatic rage. I could not possibly know this to be the case. On the other hand I do assume that many people - particularly ordinary people on both sides who are directly and deeply affected by bombings, sniper attacks, and raids which result in the killing and injuring of innocent people with whom they identify - do suffer personal traumas in these situations. In addition there are historical traumas of enormous magnitude: the Holocaust and centuries of anti-Semitism in the case of the Israelis; and for the Palestinians what Edward Said calls "the festering wound of 1948," when the Israeli state drove two-thirds of the Arab population out of historical Palestine, and "the collective punishment of 3 million people" since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967.88 Mass support for organized terror, to the extent that it exists, is almost certainly fueled by traumatic rage among other factors.
The pattern of terror and counter-terror also precisely replicates the pattern of rage and counter-rage that occurs between individuals when power-under prevails. Each side is in a constant, self-perpetuating state of victimization. Each side's terrorist acts constantly reinforce the other side's victimization and in the same breath provoke the other side's terrorist acts, which reinforce its own victimization. To each side, its own victimization is all that matters.
It is important to state emphatically that mutual power-under does not mean that both sides are in equal objective power positions. To the contrary: Israel is in a position of extreme dominance over the Palestinians; Protestants have similarly held enormous power over Catholics historically in Northern Ireland; and, at the level of personal heterosexual relationships, men are in structurally dominant positions vis-à-vis their female partners. But in the midst of these objective power imbalances, there is a bizarre kind of equality or parity of subjective powerlessness. To the extent that power-under holds sway (which is surely not the case of all actors in all circumstances in large-scale political conflicts), the dominants lose sight of their objective power and experience the world as victims; and the subordinates are so entrenched in their victimization that they lash out in ways that are profoundly self-defeating. When both sides are driven by subjective powerlessness, they inevitably become locked in a lose-lose paradigm.
Trauma and Conscious Domination
While power-under is a significant and common consequence of trauma, it is by no means universal among traumatized people. Another outcome which is particularly worth mentioning is its seeming opposite, subjective dominance - unbridled power-over. Neil Jacobson and John Gottman offer clear evidence of this in their book When Men Batter Women, which I have previously cited for their account of traumatized batterers who are subjectively powerless ("Pit Bulls"). Jacobson and Gottman report that one-fifth of the men in their study, who were brutally abused as children, have become consciously and intentionally abusive as adults. These are male batterers who do not perceive themselves as victims and do not feel powerless; they know that they are in positions of power over women and consciously use their power, as brutally as necessary, to achieve their aims.
As already noted, Jacobson and Gottman studied couples who reported battering as a regular event in their relationships. The couples were observed having verbal arguments in a laboratory setting; during the arguments their physiological responses were electronically monitored. Stunningly, Jacobson and Gottman found that 20% of the men identified as batterers had decreased heart rates as they became more verbally aggressive. "These men looked aggressive, they sounded aggressive, and they acted aggressively: yet internally they were calming down."89 Jacobson and Gottman label these men "Cobras." They observe that the Cobras "knew that they were not victims, and they didn't care that [their wives] were."90
Based on interviews with the male batterers in their study, Jacobson and Gottman report that the Cobras "almost invariably came from childhoods that were quite traumatic, with violence manifesting itself in a variety of ways";91 they found that the Cobras' childhoods were more severely traumatic and chaotic than the other batterers they studied. Jacobson and Gottman conclude that the "Cobras had come from backgrounds that more seriously crushed something very fragile that every child begins life with, a kind of implicit trust that despite all their limitations, parents have the child's best interest at heart."92 Grotesquely dominated and severely traumatized during childhood, these men in turn grotesquely and consciously dominate others. In their case trauma has not produced a chronic victim state with outbursts of subjectively powerless rage; instead these men achieve a state of chronic dominance and the conscious enactment of power-over. "Cobras know that they are dangerous. They just don't care."93
Conscious domination as a response to having been dominated and emotionally crushed fits with the well known psychological concept of identification with the aggressor. Bessel van der Kolk writes that when traumatized people "have been victims of interpersonal abuse, they often identify with the aggressor and express hate for people who remind them of their own helplessness…Reenactment of one's own victimization seems to be a major cause of the cycle of violence."94 Alice Miller similarly notes "the effort…to rid ourselves as quickly as possible of the child within us - i.e., the weak, helpless, dependent creature…When we reencounter this creature in our children, we persecute it with the same measures once used on ourselves."95
There are many complexities not taken into account by sweeping statements about identification with the aggressor when it is viewed as a purely psychological question, and not also as a political question. Gender politics are obviously relevant: thus men are socialized to identify with aggressor roles in relation to women, children, and other men; whereas if women identify with the aggressor at all, it is likely to be in the much more circumscribed (but still significant) role of parent. Above all, it is the living presence of structures of oppression that puts us in positions to act as aggressors by conferring the objective power to do so and by legitimizing a wide range of aggressive behavior.
There is further complexity which raises an issue of considerable political significance: false consciousness. When traumatized people defend themselves by becoming consciously dominant, as is palpably the case with Jacobson and Gottman's Cobras, this inescapably leads to the notion of unconscious powerlessness. I think it strains plausibility to assume that people who have been viciously abused and dehumanized are able to resolve their internal experience of powerlessness through their identification with the aggressor. The alternative explanation seems straightforward and sensible: that these are people whose response to trauma does not allow them to tolerate any conscious awareness of helplessness or vulnerability, and that conscious dominance is a mechanism by which they dissociate from or split off profound feelings of powerlessness. The fact that the Cobras were the men in Jacobson and Gottman's study who had the most severely traumatic childhoods supports this explanation.
The concept of unconscious powerlessness is an argument for a type of false consciousness: the Cobras and other aggressors with traumatic histories are not conscious of their own deep feelings of powerlessness, and they use their conscious awareness of power over others to shield themselves from something that is true and basic about their own experience and their own selves. That is an assertion by an outside observer that I know something about these conscious aggressors which they do not know about themselves.
This is the tip of a larger dilemma. Almost every aspect of trauma theory raises issues about conscious awareness and the unconscious processing or storing of traumatic experience. Basic concepts including dissociation (in all of its forms), constriction, freezing, hyper-arousal, and traumatic reenactment all involve the notion that trauma overwhelms our capacities to consciously process or integrate intense suffering and violation, and that a common response to unbearable pain is to block it from consciousness. All of the many issues that arise among trauma survivors involving blocked and recovered memories, as well as common experiences with the triggering and reenactment of traumatic material, offer strong empirical evidence of the tendency to "split off" intolerable suffering. This necessarily raises the concept of unconscious experience.
The difference between Cobras and Pit Bulls, or more broadly between traumatized people who are conscious aggressors and others who are subjectively powerless, is not that one group has unconscious trauma and the other doesn't. The difference is how tightly their unconscious traumatic experience has been sealed. In the case of Pit Bulls and many other survivors who are susceptible to power-under, traumatic powerlessness may be split off or blocked from conscious awareness at many points in time; but this defense against helplessness is not air tight, and when we are triggered helplessness floods our awareness, overwhelming us with subjective powerlessness. In these triggered states, the conscious experience of powerlessness overwhelms conscious agency, leaving us feeling victimized and helpless despite our desperate efforts to assert control and despite the objective power that we actually wield. In the case of Cobras and other traumatized aggressors, conscious domination overwhelms subjective powerlessness, leading them to feel in charge and triumphant.
In this sense, power-under and conscious domination as responses to trauma are variations on the same theme. Both result from efforts to defend oneself against the overwhelming pain of helplessness caused by gross violations. And both involve the use of psychological mechanisms to block that pain from consciousness, with one variant doing so more completely (and at greater human cost) than the other.
The dilemma in my view is that politically, claims of false consciousness - as political theory and as an organizing tool - are profoundly undemocratic. Such claims set up a kind of elite class who assume the knowledge and ability to define other people's needs and interests for them. This involves a type of top-down politics that violates people's integrity and their responsibility to actively define their own interests, which is the starting point for democratic process and egalitarian arrangements of power. As a practical matter, most people don't like being told that someone else knows them better than they know themselves.96 However valid the psychological description of unconscious trauma, and however much it resonates with the experiences of trauma survivors, I think we need to resist the temptation to inform or instruct people about their unconscious experience or needs as part of political organizing.
Ultimately the problem with false consciousness is not that it necessarily describes people inaccurately, but that it is used in ways that make invidious distinctions and stratify power. Some people ("us," organizers, left political theorists) assume the prerogative to describe others ("them," targets of organizing, the working class, trauma survivors) as unaware of their own true interests or feelings - and exempt ourselves from the same analysis, assuming that we know better about "them" and also about ourselves. The more sensible, and certainly more democratic, assumption is that we all have something to learn about ourselves - that "we" are as susceptible to false consciousness and self-deception as "them." We surely are more likely to learn something about ourselves from dialogue than from unilateral instruction.
The value of trauma theory as a political tool is not to instruct, but to be used as a basis for dialogue and common understandings. One of the reasons that the concept of power-under is potentially useful politically is that it does in fact speak to many people's conscious subjective experience. No one needs to instruct Pit Bulls that they feel like victims; they are saying that for themselves. No one would have needed to tell my mother that she felt victimized and powerless as she stood shredding the New York Times in the middle of our kitchen; she was all too aware of her powerlessness, whether or not she would have consciously connected it to traumas she had suffered in the past. People's consciousness of powerlessness is a starting point for dialogue, and I believe it can be an important one.
This of course has been recognized for a long time regarding "the oppressed,"97 but it has hardly been recognized at all regarding people in dominant roles. Power-under is a tool which can be used to challenge our too-easy assumption that people's subjective states match their objective power positions - particularly the assumption that people in dominant roles also feel dominant.
In this regard it is important to note again that 80% of the male batterers in Jacobson and Gottman's study subjectively experienced themselves as victims; and while their sample was not randomly drawn, this suggests that subjective powerlessness and power-under dynamics are far more common among dominating men than we commonly suppose. If we can also recognize that there is generally not a clear distinction between oppressed and oppressors - that when we speak of the subjective powerlessness of many people who have suffered oppression and the subjective powerlessness of many people in dominant roles, we are often talking about the same people - then we may be in a position to engage in dialogues about trauma and powerlessness that embrace the complexities of people's lives. This means not only other people's lives, but also our own.
Other Reasons for Subjective Dominance
There are many reasons for subjective
dominance other than trauma and efforts to defend against unconscious
powerlessness. Lethal dominant behavior
is over-determined in a society organized around values of inequality,
competition, material accumulation, exploitation, and domination itself. It would be grossly inaccurate to claim that
traumatic experience is the sole or primary cause of dominant behavior and
consciousness. For example, when Bill
Clinton ordered the bombing of
There is a long list of factors which
influence dominant behavior. They
include over-arching societal values, cultural norms, institutional structures,
and patterns and practices of socialization, as well as personal histories and
the ways that each individual internalizes or reacts against her or his
societal, cultural and personal history.98
When parents hit their children, they may do so because they believe it
is the right thing to do; because they believe it is what is expected of them
as parents; because they are reenacting their own upbringing; because they are
guided by common parental practices and don't know what else to do; because
they have the size, strength, power, and legal right to do so; because they
feel powerless and lash out; or because they consciously enjoy physically
dominating their children. Many items on
the list may come into play at the same time.
Power-Under in the Aftermath of 9/11
The September 11 terrorist attacks created a mass experience of annihilation among Americans. A number of critical factors conspired to make this a traumatizing event of extraordinary proportions:
The scale of
destruction, in terms of both loss of thousands of lives and the utter
destruction of the gigantic
The vivid and
incessant television images showing planes crashing into the towers, the fiery
explosions, the buildings imploding, smoke billowing over the
· The attacks came without warning. One moment life was normal; the next moment buildings were crumbling and thousands were dead. This created intense vulnerability and terror - what Ronnie Janoff-Bulman has described as the kind of shattering of normal expectations for safety and security in daily life that causes traumatization.99 No one knew what would happen next, and a bone-deep fear of another terrorist attack continues to hang over the American public.
The symbolism of
the buildings attacked further heightened people's experience of
September 11 impacted a public already saturated with traumatic experience, as I have tried to show in Chapter One in my discussion of the prevalence of trauma. Our mass encounter with annihilation was not only traumatizing in itself; it also was intensely triggering for many people who carry layers of festering and often unacknowledged psychic wounds.
Predictably, the result of mass traumatization has been what James Carroll describes as "social panic"100 in the aftermath of September 11. The political and media establishments have framed public discourse in ways that consistently fan the flames of social panic and power-under. George W. Bush's depiction of our response to terrorism as a contest between "good" and "evil" unerringly plays to the tendency of trauma survivors to split the world between malevolent perpetrators and innocent victims, though he and his advisers surely do not consciously understand the relation of their rhetoric to trauma. The incessant focus on larger-than-life demonic figures - first Osama bin Laden, then Saddam Hussein - has constantly reinforced people's sense of themselves as powerless victims at the mercy of an inhuman, malevolent Other. The media's handling of the anthrax scare and sensationalized reporting of potential biological, chemical, and nuclear terrorist threats has helped to sustain the public's sense of vulnerability and traumatic helplessness.
The events of September 11 have brought the micro and macro levels of politics together with unusual clarity. The mass experience that persists is that Americans are victims on the world stage. Intensely personal encounters with violation, helplessness, terror and rage are cancerously feeding the large scale political forces that wreak mass destruction and counter-mass destruction. As Patricia Williams recently noted, "much of the American public's enthusiasm for war" can be attributed to "traumatized emotionalism."101
The sense of victimization and subjective
powerlessness that so many Americans understandably feel in the wake of
September 11 stands in stark contrast to the overwhelming dominance that the
The aftermath of September 11 offers yet another illustration of the lethal pairing of subjective powerlessness and objective dominance, in this case played out on the stage of world politics. "Nothing more dangerous," Ariel Dorfman writes, "[than] a giant who is afraid."102 It's not that most people are now unaware of the United States' position as sole superpower; it's that many people don't feel that power - and, even more to the point, don't feel sufficiently protected by the country's power.
I think that what a large number of people feel is that any day there could be a new terrorist attack, coming in any number of forms (biological, chemical, nuclear, and so on), that it could happen anywhere, and that they or their loved ones could be killed without warning and without any means of defense. That kind of sense of being acted upon, and the levels of terror and rage that it evokes, simply drown out the relevance or significance of American dominance for many people. In turn, the intolerable sense of subjective powerlessness that underlies traumatic terror and rage creates an exceedingly fertile base for popular support of counter-aggression that can be defined as self-protection and self-defense.
This is not to say that everyone is
feeling powerless. Among the major
actors in American politics, I assume that many and probably most are acting
from a position of conscious dominance.
Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and many other
administration and congressional leaders strike me as being perfectly aware of
the kind of power they hold (though I am not so sure about Bush himself). Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, Stephen Cambone,
and several other Bush administration officials were co-authors of "Rebuilding
America's Defenses," a strategy paper written a year before the
September 11 attacks which "reads like a blueprint for current Bush defense
policy" and advocates a
Nor do I believe that subjective powerlessness is the only factor that is shaping or driving public opinion in the aftermath of September 11. What people do with unbearable feelings of helplessness, terror and rage depends on their values, on their psychological and social resources, and above all on the political contexts that shape and legitimize public expressions of traumatic experience. Racism and xenophobia surely have been significant factors in public willingness to support war against Muslim targets. The media plays a major role regarding both access to information and defining the range of "legitimate" views. A slew of values and ideological stances associated with capitalism, acquisitiveness, militarism, patriotism, the importance of "winning" and "being number one," and so on predispose many people to reflexively support war.
On the other hand, there has been
significant opposition to the war response to September 11, first when the
But to the extent that there is
popular support for war, I believe that it cannot be fully understood without
taking power-under into account. This
has critical implications for our efforts to build the new peace movement. The more we are able to speak to people's
experience of vulnerability and powerless rage in the aftermath of the
terrorist attacks - not instead of, but in addition to a critique of American
dominance in the world - the better our chances of reaching people and
persuading them of the wisdom of peaceful responses to terrorism. We need to keep speaking truth to power - but
we also need to learn to attend to the truth of powerlessness, and attend to
the relationship between subjective powerlessness and objective dominance in
Implications of Power-Under for Building
Social Change Movements
The aftermath of September 11 is one of many areas in which power-under is directly relevant to progressive social change efforts. I have argued that the acting out of powerless rage is a common and widespread feature of people's traumatic responses to oppression. This poses a whole range of challenges to our efforts to mount effective social change movements. It affects our ability to mobilize rage toward constructive ends to the extent that power-under drives us toward destructive expressions of our traumatic experience. It challenges our ability to maintain and expand social change organizations and to build progressive coalitions, as power-under exacerbates the many forces which divide oppressed people from one another and leads us to direct our rage at one another. And it challenges our ability to negotiate a maze of interlocking oppressions in which most of us are simultaneously dominant and subordinate, oppressors and oppressed.
How to respond effectively to these challenges has to be worked out in practice, and must emerge from dialogue and, inevitably, from trial and error. But the first step surely is to surface the issue of powerless rage and to raise questions about its political impact. These are some preliminary ideas for movement building suggested by the analysis of power-under I have developed:
· Acknowledge trauma as a political issue. Aurora Levins Morales, drawing on Judith Herman, writes that "it is only in the context of social movements opposing oppression that psychological trauma can really be examined."104 That is because the forces that lead to the minimizing, denial and silencing of trauma - social and political as well as psychological forces - are so strong and relentless. I am suggesting a corollary: examining psychological trauma contributes to the capacities of movements opposing oppression to achieve lasting social change. It is only by unmasking trauma as a major factor affecting social change efforts that we can develop the tools we need to address it on anything like a consistent basis.
The first step, both simple and incredibly daunting, is to name the issue. This means identifying the connections between every kind of oppression and the traumatization of individuals on a mass scale. It means a willingness to recognize trauma in the lives of those we identify as oppressors. It requires the same kind of willingness to examine trauma in our own lives, in whatever configurations "we" are set off against "them." It means recognizing traumatic rage as a force of enormous political magnitude, and the posing of myriad strategic questions about the mobilization of that force. And it means recognizing the destructive face of traumatic rage, its role in the social reproduction of oppression, its impact on our social change efforts, and its place in our own lives.
· Develop a common language and framework for identifying political manifestations of trauma. The concept of "power-under" is a proposal along these lines. But a common language can only develop out of dialogue around an acknowledged issue which large numbers of people view as politically relevant. Until the end of the sixties, "sexism" was not a household word among activists, and there was no common framework for understanding patriarchy as major political issue - much to the detriment of social change movements that were riddled with male dominance. The emergence of the women's movement created a common language which enabled us to begin to address power relations between men and women in society at large and within left organizations. A common language is similarly needed if we are to address the political effects of trauma in any kind of organized and strategic way.
Power relations exist in every social situation. Just as we can only seek to constrain and transform domination if we are able to name it, we will be able to constrain and transform subjective powerlessness and traumatic rage only if we have language to name them. Terms such as dissociation, triggering, power-under, and traumatic rage - or other, better kinds of language that could emerge from dialogue and active grappling with these issues - need to be seen and used by activists as practical political tools.
· Celebrate and support healthy responses to abuse and trauma. The personal dysfunction caused by trauma does not constitute anything close to a full description of trauma survivors. Standing alongside powerless rage and the entire range of debilitating effects of trauma, most survivors display a stunning capacity for healthy functioning.105 Helen Epstein describes her parents getting up each morning, their psychological resources somehow replenished, able to take on the new day with energy and vigor.106 Bruno Bettelheim, in addition to being someone in a position of power who behaved destructively, was also a prolific writer who produced a body of literature that made real contributions to the sensitive treatment of disturbed children. Ellen Bass and Laura Davis in their classic book The Courage To Heal107 offer countless examples of the human capacity to recover from trauma.
Recognition of trauma and of powerless rage as political issues must be balanced by the celebration of our capacities to resist abuse and to achieve constructive expressions of rage if it is to serve as a stepping stone toward taking effective action on our own behalf and in the service of social justice.108 It is for that reason that that last part of this book by focuses on constructive rage as a framework for liberation strategies. Someone like Nelson Mandela, who is rightly regarded as a heroic figure for the integrity and psychological fortitude he displayed in the face of 27 years of brutal imprisonment, exemplifies possibilities for constructive resistance to abuse which I believe are within the grasp of ordinary people (as I discuss at length in Chapter Five).
· Approach trauma strategically. One of the reasons that power-under behavior can have so much impact is that it often seems to come out of nowhere. Traumatic rage can be triggered with astonishing abruptness, catching everyone off guard, including the person who has been triggered. We need to recognize that trauma is a living presence within social change organizations, learn how to anticipate eruptions of powerless rage in various political contexts, and learn how to planfully cope with them. This can happen at many different levels.
As individuals, we can develop personal strategies for recognizing our own triggers and for organizing our psychological resources and the external supports that will enable us to contain destructive expressions of powerless rage. This means that as individuals we actively take responsibility for what we do with our rage in our political work.
At the organizational level, we need strategies for maximizing individual and collective safety within social change organizations and alternative institutions. This can include specific guidelines for tackling the most vigorous disagreements through nonviolent dialogue, without engaging in personal attacks, vilification, or other types of lashing out which are produced by power-under. Linda Stout describes the internal process of the Piedmont Peace Project exactly along these lines (though without explicit reference to power-under): "We have developed guidelines for talking to each other. For example, no one can criticize someone else's work without offering a recommendation. We try to use only ‘I' statements. And we remind people by putting our guidelines down on paper and creating new ones for each group before every meeting."109
The potential impact of trauma underscores the critical importance of having resources for democratic process which are as resilient as possible,110 and of developing our tools and skills for cooperative (or "win-win") conflict resolution.111 Activist support groups, which can be useful for all sorts of reasons, could focus particularly on strategies for mutual support to cope with our moments of triggering, reenactment, and powerless rage.
We need strategies to address the kind of mutual power-under that too often is played out between different oppressed constituencies, each claiming the primacy of their own victim status, at the expense of opportunities to build robust coalitions. Mutual power-under thrives on mutual invisibility of the Other's experience of oppression. We need to create safe spaces to listen to each other's stories of violation and oppression. That means both being able to speak freely and to listen freely. We need to cultivate ways to express suffering, and to link such expressions to an analysis of structural oppression, without personally attacking others who occupy dominant roles, and without treating every person in a dominant role salient to our experience of oppression as if he or she were our personal perpetrator. To exactly the same extent, we need to cultivate ways of listening to personal stories of victimization and oppression in which we recognize and acknowledge our dominant roles and the ways that those dominant roles are structurally related to individual stories of abuse. If our stories need to be told without personal attack, they need to be heard without self-justification or defense.
Finally, we need to develop strategies for mobilizing the wellsprings of traumatic rage in society toward progressive rather than reactionary ends. We need to make personal suffering visible through public testimony, on as many fronts as possible, and to show the links between trauma and structural oppression.112 But we also need to understand the lures of vilification and demonizing as mechanisms that provide ready targets for traumatic rage and thus fuel right wing populism. To craft alternatives to right wing populism, we will have to find ways to talk to people who do not currently identify as "oppressed" about their experiences of powerlessness and rage. And we need to promote constructive expressions of rage, and to explain as clearly as we can why social equality can serve people's interests better than the intertwining of powerlessness and dominance.
· Develop tools for understanding the complexity of oppression. One of the central lessons of the politics of trauma is that the world does not divide neatly between oppressors and the oppressed, between perpetrators and victims. We need to articulate this complexity across a broad spectrum of political issues and social change efforts. Every oppressed constituency other than children includes adults of both genders who hit their kids. Every oppressed group other than women includes men, many of whom are physically or sexually violent and virtually all of whom practice some form of male privilege. Every oppressed constituency that includes white people is rife with racism. Every oppressed grouping that cuts across class lines is internally divided by class oppression.113 Every oppressor category encompasses people who have been oppressed and traumatized as children. "Men" include victims of racism, homophobia, and class brutality. "Whites" include women, children, gay and poor people. We are immersed in complexities that place all of us in simultaneous oppressor and oppressed roles, and which fill our political landscape with traumatized victims and traumatized oppressors.
One of the ways that we can make the complexity of oppression more visible is to tell stories that portray the richness and depth of people who are too easily pigeonholed into a single political category. This for example is what Eli Clare does in her splendid account of white working class loggers, replacing their one-dimensional depiction by some environmentalists as "dumb brutes" with a textured description of their desperate economic position, their love for the very forests they are destroying, as well as their racism, homophobia, and in some cases sexual violence.114
We also need to be able to tell our own stories with depth and complexity - to be able and willing to recognize the multiplicity of oppressor and oppressed roles in our own lives. This requires the creation of safe political spaces for personal exploration and disclosure. It also means finding ways to fit together our judgments of the oppressor and our compassion for the oppressed, since if we look hard enough we will find both within ourselves.
· Put judgment and compassion onto the same page. We need both critical judgment and compassion in order to respond coherently and humanely to the complex intertwining of oppressor and oppressed roles. Neither judgment nor compassion standing alone is adequate. Judgment without compassion can lead us to lose sight of the oppressor's basic humanity, paving the way for further cycles of dehumanization,115 and to ignore or disregard the ways in which many oppressors have also experienced oppression and trauma. Compassion without judgment can lead us to excuse violent or destructive behavior by the victims of oppression, and to deny or disregard the ways in which many oppressed people also occupy dominant roles. It is only by integrating judgment and compassion that we can face the daunting political challenges posed by victims in dominant positions, by traumatized oppressors, and by the lethal combination of subjective powerlessness and objective dominance. This means facing the excruciating reality that an enormous amount of abuse is enacted by people who themselves have suffered profound violations and have been crushed by oppression and trauma.
It does not follow that the abuse of power should be excused or forgiven, or that its political significance should be minimized. It does mean that abuse of power is understandable in human terms. We need to find ways to take clear and unequivocal stands against abuse and domination without demonizing or vilifying human beings who are the proximate agents of oppression. We likewise need to hold in balance our understanding of how people become victims of toxic social environments with the insistence that as individuals we are all responsible for our own actions.
This balancing of judgment and compassion is important not only so that we can frame strategies addressing "others" who are at once oppressors and oppressed, but also so that we can acknowledge our own dominant roles and our own capacities to abuse power. Social change means personal change, not only for "them" but also for "us." If "the oppressor" is a term of utter derogation or vilification, and the notion of "occupying oppressor roles" is construed as an attack, then emotionally we will defend ourselves against complexity. In order to reach critical judgments about ourselves, and to use them in the service of personal change toward equality and shared power, we need compassionate understanding of the roots and sources of our own dominant behavior.
· Recognize the subjective powerlessness of people in dominant roles. Ultimately, successful social change in egalitarian directions requires people to reject privilege in favor of equality on a massive scale and across the multiple continua of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, and the exploitation of the earth itself. Power politics - the mounting of forces and counter-forces which determine social policies based on calculations of narrow self-interest defined in terms of "costs" and "benefits" - necessarily plays a major role in struggles against ruling elites. But in a society in which majorities hold privilege along many individual lines of oppression, and a huge majority holds privilege of one type or another, victories won through the use of political force and coercion cannot possibly achieve fundamental and enduring transformations without corresponding changes in how people in dominant roles understand their own self-interest.
The power-under paradigm suggests that many people, driven by their histories of traumatization, feel powerless when they act out of their dominant identities. I believe that recognizing and addressing the subjective powerlessness of people in dominant roles needs to be an important part of our strategies to convince them to reject privilege in favor of equality. For example, in Chapter Three I will argue that boys and men are emotionally crushed by patriarchy, and that there are untapped possibilities for winning men's support for gender equality that must take into account how men are both traumatized and dominant.
This type of approach also applies to anti-racism organizing among whites, efforts to organize straight support for gay liberation, efforts to persuade people to reject class privilege and excessive accumulations of wealth, and so on. In each case we need to look at how people in dominant positions have been violated and injured by the very system that offers them crumbs (or more than crumbs) of privilege, and try to engage them in reflecting on their own felt experiences of violation and injury. This is not instead of, but in addition to, taking clear stands against the actions of people in positions of dominance that violate and injure others. What we can offer people, in place of a system that creates chronic subjective powerlessness and chain reactions of destructive behavior, is a vision and program for social transformations that promote subjective empowerment (through expanded opportunities to control our own lives) and shared power.
The same set of
considerations applies to the single most critical challenge facing
progressives at this writing: the
building of a peace movement in the face of the war response to 9/11. The grossly inaccurate depiction of the
Use trauma theory as a source of hope. The sheer
volume of traumatic experience in our society creates an enormous potential for
political and social unrest. The rage of
oppressed people cannot indefinitely be kept at bay, and cyclically mass unrest
does break out,116 driven by economic and social dislocations
that bring festering wounds to the surface and evoke public and political
expressions of the unbearable pain that so many people harbor. The traumatic rage of Allen Ginsberg's early
poetry - "
If even a significant fraction of the traumatic rage in our society were mobilized into a politics of resistance and active struggle for egalitarian transformation, it would shake the established order to its foundations. I think that to an extent this is what happened during the sixties. The fact that neither the sixties nor previous periods of mass unrest produced structural or revolutionary change says something about the resilience of the prevailing order, and also says something about the challenge of giving a constructive face to outpourings of unrest. But trauma tells us that the raw material for social upheaval is everywhere. If there is no guarantee that upheaval leads to lasting change, it seems reasonably certain that there will be a next period of mass unrest, and that it will at least create another round of possibilities for radical social change.
It is true that these will only be possibilities, and the destructive force of traumatic rage is one of many factors that can defeat us. That is a central point of this book. It is important to maintain hope and at the same time to assess our prospects realistically. One of our many tasks is to learn what we can about trauma and about rage, and to apply those understandings to the shaping of the new struggles that will emerge.
Notes to Chapter Two
1. See Allan Wade, "Small Acts of Living: Everyday Resistance to Violence and Other Forms of Oppression," Contemporary Family Therapy 19(1): 23-39 (March 1997).
Bessel van der Kolk,
Alexander McFarlane, and Lars Weisaeth, eds., Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on
Mind, Body, and Society (New York:
Guilford Press, 1996). Ronnie Janoff-Bulman
(citing van der Kolk, Psychological Trauma [
3. Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic Books, 1992), p. 33.
4. Herman, Trauma and Recovery, p. 34. See also Sandra Bloom and Michael Reichert, Bearing Witness: Violence and Collective Responsibility (Binghamton, N.Y.: The Haworth Maltreatment and Trauma Press, 1998), "The Fight-or-Flight Response," pp. 108-109.
5. Herman, p. 34.
6. Herman, p. 34.
7. Bessel van der Kolk and Alexander McFarlane, "The Black Hole of Trauma," in van der Kolk, McFarlane, and Weisaeth, eds., Traumatic Stress, p. 6.
8. Peter Levine with Ann Frederick, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1997).
9. Herman, Trauma and Recovery, p. 42.
10. Levine, Waking the Tiger, p. 99.
11. Levine, p. 100.
12. See Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam Books, 1995), Chapter 13. See also Bessel van der Kolk, "The Body Keeps Score: Approaches to the Psychobiology of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder," in van der Kolk, McFarlane, and Weisaeth, eds., Traumatic Stress; and Marilee Strong, A Bright Red Scream: Self-mutilation and the Language of Pain (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), Chapter 5.
13. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, Chapter 13, cites Joseph LeDoux, "Indelibility of Subcortical Emotional Memories," Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 1: 238-243 (1989); Dennis Charney et. al., "Psychobiologic Mechanisms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder," Archives of General Psychiatry, 50: 294-305 (1993); Roger Pitman, "Naloxone-Reversible Analgesic Response to Combat-Related Stimuli in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder," Archives of General Medicine, June 1990; and interviews conducted by Goleman with John Krystal and Charles Nemeroff.
14. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, p. 203.
15. Goleman, p. 204.
16. Francine Shapiro, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (New York: The Guilford Press, 1995), p. 40.
17. Bloom and Reichert, Bearing Witness, p. 109.
18. Bessel van der Kolk, "The Complexity of Adaptation to Trauma," in van der Kolk, McFarlane, and Weisaeth, eds., Traumatic Stress, p. 202.
19. William Pollack, Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood (New York: Random House, 1998), p. 57.
20. See my discussion of "The Prevalence of Trauma" in Chapter One.
21. Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-rearing and The Roots of Violence (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984), p. 58.
22. Herman, Trauma and Recovery, p. 37.
23. Van der Kolk and McFarlane, "The Black Hole of Trauma," in Traumatic Stress, p. 8.
24. Dusty Miller, Women Who Hurt Themselves (New York: Basic Books, 1994), p. 99.
25. See Dusty Miller's discussion of dissociation in Women Who Hurt Themselves, pp. 99-108. See also Bessel van der Kolk, Onno van der Hart, and Charles Marmar, "Dissociation and Information Processing in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder" in Traumatic Stress.
26. Jennifer Freyd, Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).
1. Herman, Trauma and Recovery, p. 47.
2. Janoff-Bulman, Shattered Assumptions, p. 95.
3. Herman, Trauma and Recovery, p. 47.
4. Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self (New York: Basic Books, 1990). C.F. R.D. Laing, The Divided Self: A Study of Sanity and Madness (London: Tavistock Publications, 1960).
5. Herman, Trauma and Recovery, p. 49.
6. Mike Lew, Victims No Longer (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), pp. 14-15.
7. See D. Miller, Women Who Hurt Themselves, and Strong, A Bright Red Scream.
8. Van der Kolk reports, "Numerous studies of family violence have found a direct relationship between the severity of childhood abuse and later tendencies to victimize others." "The Complexity of Adaptation to Trauma," in van der Kolk, McFarlane, and Weisaeth, eds., Traumatic Stress, p. 199. See also A. Miller, For Your Own Good.
9. Aurora Levins Morales, Medicine Stories: History, Culture and the Politics of Integrity (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1998), p. 124.
10. Wade, "Small Acts of Living: Everyday Resistance to Violence and Other Forms of Oppression."
11. See Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1995).
12. Levins Morales, Medicine Stories, p. 112.
13. Levine, Waking the Tiger, pp. 26-27.
14. Herman, Trauma and Recovery, p. 42.
15. Suggested to me by Marilyn Hajer in a personal communication.
16. Herman, Trauma and Recovery, p. 39.
17. Van der Kolk and McFarlane, "The Black Hole of Trauma," in Traumatic Stress, p. 7.
18. D. Miller, Women Who Hurt Themselves.
19. Herman says that "[r]eliving a trauma may offer an opportunity for mastery…" Trauma and Recovery, p. 42.
20. Herman, p. 41.
21. See van der Kolk, "The Complexity of Adaptation to Trauma," who notes that "borderline" patients "generally become the focus of therapists' rage and frustrations." Traumatic Stress, p. 204.
22. Herman, Trauma and Recovery, p. 123.
23. D. Miller, Women Who Hurt Themselves, p. 160.
24. See Herman, Trauma and Recovery; van der Kolk, "The Complexity of Adaptation to Trauma," in Traumatic Stress; D. Miller, Women Who Hurt Themselves; and Janoff-Bulman, Shattered Assumptions.
25. Bruno Bettelheim, Love Is Not Enough (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1950); Truants From Life (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1955); The Empty Fortress (New York: Free Press, 1967); A Home For The Heart (New York: Knopf, 1974).
26. Bruno Bettelheim, "Individual and Mass Behavior In Extreme Situations," Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 38: 417-452 (1943); The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1960); Surviving And Other Essays (New York: Knopf, 1982).
27. Richard Pollak, The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997).
28. Pollak, Chapter 8, "The Big Bad Wolf."
29. Bruno Bettelheim, A Good Enough Parent (New York: Knopf, 1987), pp. 124-125.
30. Pollak, The Creation of Dr. B, p. 191.
31. Pollak, p. 208.
32. Pollak, pp. 196-197; italics added for "why would you have me hit her?".
33. Pollak quotes Jacquelyn Sanders, who worked under Bettelheim for 13 years and then succeeded him as head of the Orthogenic School, as saying that "a lot of what he did could be considered acting out, but I don't think he was aware of it." Pollak, p. 210.
34. Helen Epstein, Children of the Holocaust: Conversations With Sons and Daughters of Survivors (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1979).
35. Epstein, Children of the Holocaust, p. 56.
36. Epstein, p. 59.
37. Epstein, pp. 56-58.
38. Epstein, pp. 59-60.
39. Epstein, p. 226; italics in the original.
40. Epstein, p. 230; italics in the original.
41. Epstein, p. 228; italics in the original.
42. Epstein, p. 31.
43. Neil Jacobson and John Gottman, When Men Batter Women (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998), p. 26.
44. Jacobson and Gottman, When Men Batter Women, p. 121; italics in the original.
45. Jacobson and Gottman, p. 110.
46. Jacobson and Gottman, p. 114.
47. Jacobson and Gottman, pp. 116, 121.
48. Jacobson and Gottman, pp. 127-128.
49. Warren Farrell, The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993)
50. Farrell, The Myth of Male Power, p. 48.
51. Farrell, p. 30.
52. Farrell, p. 117.
53. Farrell, p. 357; italics in the original.
54. Farrell, p. 215.
55. Farrell, p. 298.
56. Regarding reactive violence, c.f. David Gil, "Societal Violence and Violence in Families," in Beyond the Jungle (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman, 1979).
57. It is true that riots sometimes induce concessions from power elites. But the purpose of the concessions is to restore public order, and once it is restored those in power typically roll back whatever has been given as soon as it is politically expedient to do so. See for example Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Regulating the Poor (New York: Pantheon, 1971) regarding the historical cycles by which, over a period of centuries, public assistance has been expanded in response to mass unrest and then rolled back after the unrest has subsided.
58. Levins Morales observes, "The easier place by far [is] the place of rage. The high moral ground of the righteously angry victim is in some ways a comforting place, but a place of far greater power is the willingness to examine and dismantle our own privileges…" Medicine Stories, p. 94.
59. Dennis Balcom, "The Interpersonal Dynamics and Treatment of Dual Trauma Couples," Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 22(4): 431-442 (1996); quoted from p. 434. Balcom also cites Z. Solomon, M. Waysman, G. Levy, B. Fried, M. Mikulincer, R. Benbenishty, V. Florian, and A. Bleich, "From Front Line to Home Front: A Study of Secondary Traumatization," Family Process, 31: 289-302 (1992) describing the same phenomenon.
60. Balcom, "The Interpersonal Dynamics and Treatment of Dual Trauma Couples," p. 434.
61. Balcom, p. 438.
62. David Barsamian, "Intifada 2000: The Palestinian Uprising," Z Magazine (December 2000), pp. 52, 55.
63. Jacobson and Gottman, When Men Batter Women, p. 28.
64. Jacobson and Gottman, p. 74; italics in the original.
65. Jacobson and Gottman, p. 95.
66. Jacobson and Gottman, p. 94.
67. Jacobson and Gottman, p. 110.
68. Van der Kolk, "The Complexity of Adaptation to Trauma," in van der Kolk, McFarlane, and Weisaeth, eds., Traumatic Stress, pp. 197, 199.
69. A. Miller, For Your Own Good, p. 58.
70. C.f. Barbara and John Ehrenreich, "The Professional-Managerial Class," in Pat Walker, ed., Between Labor and Capital (Boston: South End Press, 1979).
71. For example, Frances Fox Piven noted in a 1963 essay, "Low-Income People and the Political Process," that "those who are without power feel and think themselves to be powerless and act accordingly." In Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, The Politics of Turmoil: Essays on Poverty, Race, and the Urban Crisis (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974), p. 78. (This essay was first published in 1974. Italics in the original.)
72. C.f. David Gil, "Holistic Perspective on Child Abuse and its Prevention," in The Challenge of Social Equality (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman, 1976).
73. Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma (New York: The Free Press, 1992).
Carroll, "Threshold of a New Era,"
J. Williams, "But Fear Itself," The Nation 275:13 (
Dorfman, "Letter To
Bookman, "The President's Real Goal in
78. Levins Morales, Medicine Stories, p. 16.
79. According to van der Kolk, "High levels of competence and interpersonal sensitivity often exist side by side with self-hatred, lack of self-care, and interpersonal cruelty." "The Complexity of Adaptation to Trauma" in Traumatic Stress, p. 196.
80. Epstein, Children of the Holocaust.
81. Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, The Courage To Heal (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).
82. C.f. Wade, "Small Acts of Living: Everyday Resistance to Violence and Other Forms of Oppression."
83. Linda Stout, Bridging the Class Divide (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), p. 103.
84. See for example Virginia Coover, Ellen Deacon, Charles Esser, and Christopher Moore, Resource Manual for a Living Revolution: A Handbook of Skills & Tools for Social Change Activists (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1985).
85. See Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981) and Roger Fisher and Scott Brown, Getting Together: Building Relationships as We Negotiate (New York: Penguin Books, 1989).
86. C.f. Margaret Randall's observation that "the invasion of a body and the invasion of a nation are sad reflections of one another." Walking to the Edge: Essays of Resistance (Boston: South End Press, 1991), p. xii.
87. See Stout, Bridging the Class Divide, for a compelling discussion of how classism is played out within progressive movements and organizations.
88. See Eli Clare, Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1999). I discuss this example at more length in Chapter Four.
89. C.f. Levins Morales, "Torturers," in Medicine Stories, pp. 111-114.
90. See Piven and Cloward, Regulating the Poor.