Systemic Trauma in our Culture

When living in England briefly after the turn of the century, I had the honor of hearing a distinguished psychoanalyst,  Dr. Juliet Mitchell, speak in London on the subject of trauma.   One point she made etched itself deeply in my heart and mind— that a victim of trauma has suffered “the perforation of a membrane around their soul” which then allows a cascade of old brain fears and anxieties to cascade forth.  And with some trauma, such as sexual abuse, the real psychic pain is spiritual as down in the depths of the child’s heart, he/she is realizing that the person who purported to love him/her is stating with action, “I don’t give a shit about you.  I want what I want and I’m gonna get it regardless of how much damage it does to you.”  This trauma tells the child that he/she has no value to the perpetrator as a person.  And trauma never goes away.  The clinical task in my past life was to facilitate the grieving process and teaching adaptive responses to the anguish which would always lurk in the depths of the client’s heart.

But trauma can also be institutional and cultural.  This systemic traumatization is even more challenging as it teaches its victims on some level, “This is the norm.  Get used to it…and possibly learn to like it.”  Dr. Bruce Perry, the chief of psychiatry at the Texas Children’s Institute in Houston, has spent his career working with trauma victims and in the current edition of the literary journal, The Sun, he is interviewed and shares about the neurological wounds that take place, particularly when the victim is too young to even begin to process what is happening/has happened in “rational” terms.  He also explained how the systemic trauma inflicted upon the lower socio-economic classes is very real and creates a core identity of deprivation, giving them problems like addiction, learned helplessness, and aggressive behavior.

Trauma usually comes at the hands of those in power who are always tempted to be seduced with the prerogatives of their power and the tyranny of their assumptions.  For example, in some families I worked with in my clinical practice, the sexual abuse was multi-generational, in some sense a “family tradition” and men, when but young boys, learned that women were property, “things”, and that by virtue of their masculinity they were entitled to use “things” as desired, even if they were your own children.  And this does not mean these men have no redeeming human values but their sense of prerogative and entitlement is so pervasive that when sexual desire is on the table it over rides little niceties like “the teachings of Jesus” which they are “devoted” to most of the time.  The real issues in life, individually and collectively, are always unconscious.

Entitlement is a core issue in any tribe.  Those who have climbed to the top of the heap, i.e. the “patriarchy” in contemporary vernacular, see the world through the template of their own unexamined values and wishes and feel perfectly comfortable manipulating individuals, and even the whole tribe, to accomplish their end.  And, once again, I’m not going to say these power mongers are necessarily “bad” people but they are unconscious and have a built-in resistance to even considering the phenomena of an unconscious.  It would be too troubling.  And out of the unacknowledged dark recesses of our heart always flows “bad.”

Perry’s observations accentuated for me the importance of the economic divide that is egregiously apparent in my country today.  The wealthy “One per cent” are so trapped in their own narcissism that they cannot see the harm they are doing to the whole country, even to themselves, by not giving due attention to the middle and lower socio economic classes.  And now my country has a president elect who could be the poster boy for Narcissists Anonymous as his disregard for “otherness” and the attending “self-reflectiveness” is sorely lacking.  The trauma has already been inflicted on the dispossessed classes but now an administration is being set up which appears to be designed to further their alienation and hidden despair, leaving them with nothing to do but “cling to their guns and religion.”

So often Bible verses come to my mind at this pivotal time in history.  “Where there is no vision, the people perish” just flashed on my radar.  When I approached life literally, I never really understood the meaning of this though, of course, I thought I did!  The lack of “vision” that the Psalmist had in mind is the dilemma of the narcissist as he/she cannot see beyond the end of his/her nose.  They see things only in terms of their own immediate interests and have no understanding about the long term effects of what they are doing.  And I don’t think Trump has any interest or capacity to ever venture into the “dark” when he is so comfortable in the glorious light of his own narcissistic splendor.  Nor do his devotees.

( Link to Dr. Perry’s interview in The Sun—




5 thoughts on “Systemic Trauma in our Culture

  1. Anne-Marie

    I agree with the above comment! It is very interesting but I have been thinking about narcissism a lot lately, sometimes in relation to myself as I think there is a thread of this in everyone. One site I subscribe to is the site, ‘Adult Children of Alcoholics and other Narcissists’. I think trauma can lead to this trait because of the pain that one has suffered and then it can be inflicted on others, often unknowingly. One thing I learnt recently, which to me makes sense, is that codependency is on the same line as narcissism, the opposite trait, yet codependents can also have this tendency. Another thing that struck me from what I read is that one of the cures for narcissism, at least leading to some kind of healing, is self-compassion.
    For me personally, I am very grateful for my contemplative practice. It doesn’t provide a panacea for pain or solve problems, but I’m noticing that it forms community and grounds one in the present moment, little by little, in the great ‘I am’. As it is Advent, reading the Office, I came across this verse from Isaiah which spoke to me gallons, probably more than it has in the past.
    “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths. For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Isa 2:3 I’ve just noticed the plural ‘us’ for we are all on this journey together. Bless your work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. literarylew Post author

      Thank you my dear friend! Your encouragement is always a blessing. Oh yes, we all have a tad of narcissism and when reality confronts us with this foible, it is important to afford oneself compassion. Loved that verse.


  2. landzek

    Right on point. As usual. The solution to such a situation is what really interests me. My pessimism calls me to notice the ‘whole’, if you will, that steps me back paradigm from paradigm era from era culture from culture colony from colony. And I have to wonder if awareness of this situation really gets us anywhere. For I have a tendency to want to extrapolate problems into their solutions, and the teleology involved in such an awareness of trauma causes and effects extends outward into a sort of Utopia. But we know that utopias our pipe dreams, founded in a particular ethical paradigm which really then amounts to I kind of systemic oppression, for example with trauma.

    I am a philosopher involved with my work and so I tend to want to see this situation as an example of an intrinsic mythological paradigm. Because it’s ethical notifications demand of us that we perpetually be recalled back into the utopian future, axiomatically maintained within The postulate that trauma is a bad thing as it accounts for certain apparent behavior and situations, this noticing then allows this certain applications for understandings towards solutions, such that we either accept the situation that a majority of any human population for anytime is going to be subject to these traumas that unapproachable an unsolvable, or we impose our ethical standard towards the utopian society were all such traumas and their conditionsare removed and alleviated.

    Quite the paradox but keep it up Lew. We are like-minded.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. literarylew Post author

      Stunningly provocative response. Deeply appreciate it. Checked your blog out and immediately subscribed. You offer a treasure trove of critical thought.

      Paradox is inevitable if you are “alive” rather than punching the time clock with your life. And, at times, I almost feel overwhelmed but I then recognize, “Uh oh. Here’s the old literal mind, “literallew” trying to maintain an illusory control.

      Thanks again.



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