When I discovered the Stigma, a kind of sign on my forehead, telling I am person that has been abused, is damaged, done – in some way. . . When I discovered this feeling, I put it away as being irrational and not connected to reality. „Nobody sees it, and I am worth as much as anyone else“.
Well. Now and then, life reminded me of the fact, that some people are able to sense my damages and weaknesses, and can be tempted to use them. Which is kind of „normal“; you find manipulative people everywhere, and I know how to defend myself.
The feeling of being „different“ remains, though. Strangely, it was a book which is generally supposed to explain us why Trump became president, that shed light on all these confused but persistent feelings, and made clearer to me what they mean: Quite a lot, actually. It’s not a good idea to try to push them aside and dismiss them as „irrational“. On the contrary. And the problem is neither the „sexual“ aspect of the violence (of which this blog is talking), nor the shame. The real problem consists in the enormous difficulties to trust whomever, and to insert into structures, in which trust is the key currency. For traumatized people, trusting someone is a challenge comparable to that of a bumbler wanting to talk. What is evident and easy for the others, costs us a lot of reflection, strategic thinking and – effort. Again and again. The book? J.D. Vance, Hillbilly-Elegy. Say what?! The work of some republican who is friend with that narcissistic Peter Thiels (founder of PayPal, investing a lot of money into research for eternal life, now that he’s getting older)? Yep. In fact, the „Hillbilly-Elegy“ is not a political book. It provoked a huge debate, which rarely touches the issues I am interested in, which are: The very honest but also tender examination of his family history and the damages wreaked by his growing up in it and the relatively closed environment of the „Hillbillies“. Vance’s candour touched me a lot, and also his observations about what growing up with violence – in a hysterical atmosphere and an instable family – did to him (and others).
He describes the Hillbilly environment really well, and I was astounded about how much his descriptions made me discover parallels with my own childhood – a childhood lived far away from the Appalachians (Kentucky or Alabama) where the Hillbillies live. And we weren’t even poor (materially – even if my parents invested as few as possible for their children; I got my first warm winter coat only when I could pay for it myself). But this confirms in fact, what Vance says: That it is not on the first hand the poverty that knocks people out. But the dysfunctional families, the violence and disorientation, and the tendencies for self destructive behaviour.
I don’t even want to engage into the discussion about what is there first, and causes which: Violence or poverty. This would be a kind of „egg or the hen“ discussion; and of course their living conditions do shape people. Anyway, Vance doesn’t write to show off HIS performance, and how smart he was to be able to get a degree from an elite university like Yale, in spite of his offsprings. He says it again and again, that he managed thanks to the support of the persons who were there for him and supported him. His grand-parents e.g. – and I hear that often from people having grown up in families contaminated by violence: That a good relationship to one grand-parent was helpful or even salvation.
Then, Vance really knows how to write (or some helper does): Often, the situations he describes are tragical and comical at the same time – e.g. when his mother begs her teenage son for his urine, because the working-supervision wants to control hers, in order to check it for signs of drug abuse. As she does abuse, her licence for working as a nurse is on stake, and she will lose it, if she can’t provide a clean sample. This is the turning point for teenage Vance: He leaves his home and moves to live with his grandmother. Funny also his description of a visit at a „normal“ family – where there is no permanent hue and cry and screaming (his comment then: „All hypocrites“).
It’s getting even more interesting when he describes his attempts to get accepted at a university; later also when he has to manage his first interviews for jobs. They don’t lack humour: He comes in an army thrower and hoody to his first interview (failure); or in another case: He has to secretly call a friend from the expensive restaurant where it takes place, in order to ask her how to use the different types of cutlery – and whatever difficult situations there can be, when you don’t know the codexes of the wealthier ones.
I didn’t even have this problem. But what is persistently nagging, is the fact, that I often feel uncertain in new working situations and with new persons, which I don’t know well. Of course these are difficult situations for nearly everyone: You have to be considerate, orient yourself, be receptive and adapt to the new situation. Problem is: For me, this activates the WHOLE radar, that I carry around; the radar that also constantly scans for life-threatening situation. Of course this goes with a certain level of stress.
Which over-reactions can result therefrom Vance also vividly depicts. How he had to learn that he does not have to constantly stand up for his honour and rip into anyone by whom he feels it threatened. That he doesn’t have to challenge the traffic-rowdy nor has to beat him up. That he should stay cool in case of conflicts instead of getting violent, run away or entrench himself into silence. All these reflexes of the child or youngster in urgent distress and danger: What can we do with and about them? I give Vance immense credit for having written so honestly about that and the damages he still has to live with. About the nightmare, in which he pursues his dog in order to strangle it, because he is so furious – and just manages to neutralise the impulse, by letting himself be touched by the fearful look of the dog, which activates his compassion and empathy.
Traumatized people in the world of the „normal“, the persons who don’t or barely know extreme situations and emotions, who avoid commotion, rely on their certitude that they will always be treated fair and that nobody wants to hurt them, and that even they will get support: Always I feel worried about possibly overreact, or staying too cold and distant, or not being able to adequately react to being criticised; I find it hart to trust the good will of my counterpart. Then there is the unconscious but constant fear of devaluation; even the expectation of devaluation (as known from childhood and youth).
This is a trench constantly to be surmounted, a permanent challenge. It is not an option to confide myself about the special difficulties I have: Finally, I know much better how to deal with my disposition than most other people; it doesn’t work to expect special regards – or at best this works in a long relationship where there is time to know each other.
For Vance it would be a good thing, if wealthier people could open their minds and hearts to the ones coming from lower classes, and ease their way „up“. He himself also found support. I believe that this doesn’t remotely address the fundamental problem. In fact the problem is trust and the (dis)ability to trust. Trust-disabled, that’s how I feel. I don’t know the implicit rules of communities well, that are based on trust. I know them far better now, but 30 year ago, I wasn’t up to it at all, completely unqualified and disoriented. I just kept outside, or quiet, which I felt was the best thing to do. And this was mainly what made it so hard for me to find a place in society. I did know that I didn’t want to go back to environments where I would be exposed to manipulation and violence again. But I really didn’t know how to insert in the other ones. Nothing to do with money.
Societies which are not based on mutual trust are instable. Any stability they might have is gained by terror and violence and is thus not capable of evolving and adapting. This is valid for smaller group and also for states: How many people in Germany are traumatised by war and totalitarism, e.g. by the experience of having been spied upon and betrayed by persons they thought of as friends? The mass of hatred and violence transported by social media, by the way, is also destructive and undermining our societies. But this is yet a different discourse.
I just try to adapt and to go on learning. Meanwhile I can see quite easily if trust is appropriate in a situations, with a person – or not. Yet, structures in which manipulation and harassment are normal, are familiar to me, I know by instinct how to react. That’s where I come from. Means, I have the competences to avoid them. But structures based on mutual trust stay an intellectual and emotional challenge. Which does not matter that much: I like challenges. Only that 30 years ago, it was just much too big.
What could the „other“ side do so that I could forget my stigma? Perhaps stop to suppress the dark sides of the human condition and existence? I have met it often, a kind of middle-class or bourgeois quiescence and just ignoring whatever uncomfortable or inconvenient there could be to see or hear. Many people live quite cushy with this kind of immaturity, which unfortunately doesn’t help making the world a better place. And we, the traumatised, are the ones who have to deal the destructive, the violent, and have to be up to it. Maybe there is a kind of unconscious division of labor? But this would be the beginning of yet another blog-post: How does violence – also the denied one – structure a society?