Apartheid Redux: Re-enactment, Fragmentation, Integration

WARNING: This blog includes graphic content that may be disturbing to some readers.  

I suppose by now it is naive to be shocked by yet another traffic-stop murder of a young Black man. The death of Tyre Nichols, however, flooded me with feelings. We have been virtually barraged by mass shootings here in California, with a tally of 19 dead in the space of 44 hours this month. But in this case, as in the case of George Floyd, the murder was flesh on flesh: knee to neck, flying fists, feet and batons against body – something about how visceral, how undisguisedly vulnerable, human and inhuman it was, is particularly chilling about Nichols’murder. I most intentionally do not watch the videos, but what others tell me is how fiercely, vividly out of control the five officers seemed, like the frenzied scenes in the classic novel Lord of the Flies that haunted me back when I first read it, probably almost 60 years ago. And in this case, it was Black flesh on Black flesh, which makes about as much sense as parents or spouses brutalizing their own flesh and blood or their intimate partners.

There is a legacy, heritage, of centuries of brutal beatings in this country, remembered in the Black body: centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, Rodney King in 1991, so many traumatic generations of transmission. The fact that this murder was perpetrated by African American officers does not make it any less a racist crime. This case shows us how the lack of trauma-informed healing, education and policy morphs into more crime. It is a horrifying reminder of the essential nature of our work. As we know, trauma is not remembered but relived, and tragically often re-enacted. Not always, of course, and thankfully, but often enough – way too much, really.

One of many reasons I have found couples’ therapy with survivors of trauma and neglect so compelling is because of how dramatically and even explicitly the trauma stories make themselves known.


One of many reasons I have found couples’ therapy with survivors of trauma and neglect so compelling is because of how dramatically and even explicitly the trauma stories make themselves known. I always say to my clients (and sometimes my husband!), “Nothing is activating like the intimate partnership!” Perhaps the couple is as “family-like” as any relationship, so we regroup the trauma family in this “new” configuration, and it becomes the stage for the story to unwittingly unfold. Oy vey! So, the couple’s therapist sees dynamics, and often well-hidden aspects of a person, that the individual therapist might never see or imagine. Clients do get angry or shut down with the individual therapist, and to greater or lesser extents, the transference projections appear. But however, regrettably, I do know that my husband has seen the worst of me like no one else has. And as a result, the fact that he is still there makes him a reassuring beacon of safety like I have never known. Those couples who stay the course get to enjoy that outcome too. This is not to say that I never lapse into, usually and hopefully, momentary states of unbidden memory. But I/we become much more able to find our way back to the prefrontal cortex fairly quickly. And yes, long and diligent work is required.

It continues to amaze me how diametrically, stunningly, my perceptions can become distorted, even now. If there is something I am particularly uncertain or insecure about, my lens perceiving judgment and rejection under every rock zooms into the forefront, like when I hit the “zoom in” option on my View menu and the whole screen leaps out at me. Suddenly I am that little godforsaken neglected girl again who can’t trust anyone, whom everyone is “out to get”, as our dad would say. And I am unshakably believing it. Reassuring words annoy me, rolling off like water off a duck’s back. Yeah, but… Perhaps after some gentle and nourishing sleep or a nice long stir of the cheese vat, the whole world looks different. I can see the exaggeration and distortion and find compassion for whomever I may have villainized or projected onto. Of course, usually, there is a kernel of something to pay attention to in real-time. But it is no longer catastrophic as it had seemed when I was activated. Often all that is required is settling the addled nervous system or simple rest. So simple, and yet how messed up the world becomes without… Oy vey!

Yes, even now, I am visited by episodes. But I can generally keep from embarrassing myself, recognize them reasonably quickly and locate the MIA prefrontal cortex, where my self-knowledge, good sense and generosity live. The more work we do, the quicker the turnaround, which is why I am such a stickler for doing the work, and staying the course, whatever that might mean in your lexicon.

Life is infinitely less “dangerous” now, at least in the interpersonal field, which was always the most volatile (and generally is for those with trauma and neglect – at least those of us privileged enough to live in the First World or where there is not a literal war going on…) And now I do, in fact, have the unthinkable: support, places to turn, and even internal resources.

It seems to me in the trauma field, we used to talk about it more: the fragmentation of the self. We described the fractured self: “hyperarousal” and “numbing,” limbic versus prefrontal: dissociation. Maybe it is my imagination, but we don’t seem to use that language much anymore.


Sometimes, it really seems like a mini Apartheid, a polarity between “Me” and “Not Me,” or a split self. One can think I am “crazy,” “schizophrenic”, or who is that? Like the old game show “Truth or Consequences,” where the contestants had to guess who was the “real” one of the three characters in the described story, hidden behind the screen. It seems to me in the trauma field, we used to talk about it more: the fragmentation of the self. We described the fractured self: “hyperarousal” and “numbing,” limbic versus prefrontal: dissociation. Maybe it is my imagination, but we don’t seem to use that language much anymore. In that “other” state, we “turn into someone else.” I wonder who those five Black cops were as children, as spouses, as targeted young Black men themselves, and what inhabited them and took them over to flip into such monsters? This is not to excuse them in any way, but to remind us that it is our duty to the world, as well as ourselves and known loved ones, to do our work, and to help others do theirs, so we don’t continue this hellish chain of trauma, neglect, injustice and insanity.

I date myself as I remember growing up hearing about the “Iron Curtain” and the “Berlin Wall,” dramatic bifurcations on a mass scale. My childhood image was of a larger-than-life chain mail shower curtain encircling the huge amoeba-like shape of Russia on the map. The massive brick wall dividing family from family in Berlin was easier to picture. The fracture of self was in the daily news. It made no sense, but it was familiar. How do we get anywhere if we cannot even knit back together what was once (hopefully) singular? Again, we must, of course, start with ourselves. Then our partners and families, and our communities. Then the world.

Evolutionary biologists remind us that inclusion is a survival need. As mammals, pack animals; without it, we die. When we fear we are, or actually are, “outside,“ we go into the extremes of self-preservation-terror, flee, or fight all too often. And we end up with a messed-up world. I was rattled by the flicker of a long unremembered childhood ditty, “London Bridge is falling down…” I looked up the lyrics and found that after the refrain, “My fair lady…” the verse continues: “Who has stole my watch and chain…”” then, “off to prison you must go…My fair lady…” and finally “- take the key and lock her up… my fair lady…” Do the kids still sing that?

“Not one more!” is the cry both about senseless murders, civil wars, and ravaged, traumatized, neglected selves.

Today’s song: “A Desalambrar! Tear Down the Fences!”

My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.

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