Saturday, May 28, 2016

Trump trauma and grim, repetitive play

In the “comments” section of, I wrote:

I think that all of us who understand, appreciate and abhor the emptiness and vulgarity of Trump are in the Post-Traumatic Stress behavior of "grim, repetitive play," characteristic of children who've been trauma­tized. They are often compelled to face their overwhelm horror by playing it out repeatedly (such as with action figures or in the sandbox) but without the pleasure of normal play. Like other traumas, the Trump phenomenon is impossible to "swallow" but has been forced down our throats and now will not be vomited out. What else can we do, for now, but repeat, repeat and repeat our incredulous observations?

My comment, a conscious instance of the trauma reaction it described, didn’t go into the behavior’s rationale. My own under­standing is that trauma is a primary wrong that redefines the child’s life in an unacceptable way, and therefore takes precedence over everything else. Children express themselves through play. When they are disabled by the kind of lethal, “soul murdering”* overwhelm or crazy logic** of trauma, their play may manifest the constant force of the wrong. Lenore Terr, psychiatrist who researched the notorious Chowchilla kidnappings, wrote:

“. . . the play that follows from trauma is grim and monotonous” (p. 238). “. . . play does not stop easily when it is traumatically inspired. And it may not change much over time. As opposed to ordinary child’s play, post-traumatic play is obsessively repeated. It is grim. Furthermore, it requires a certain set of conditions in order to proceed – a certain place, a certain assortment of dolls, certain playmates, or a certain routine. It may go on for years. It repeats parts of the trauma. It occasionally includes a defense or two or a feeble attempt at a happy ending, but post-traumatic play is able to do very little to relieve anxiety. It can be dangerous, too. The problem is – post-traumatic play may create more terror than was consciously there when the game started. And if it does dissipate some terror, this monotonous play does it so slowly that it might take more than a lifetime before the play would completely dissipate all the anxiety stirred-up by the trauma” (p. 239).***

I am certain that the ascendance of Trump is an actual trauma to many people. We grasp that his character isn’t simply a species of normal human drama or anger or egoistic self-promotion, but is actually a disease aberration. Our trauma, however, does not come from the person sui generis, who is more a caricature of awfulness than awfulness itself, making him small not looming. It comes from the crazy logic of his adoration or acceptance by such a large, sentient swath of the population, where those of us with an empathic nature find ourselves living in a virtual wrong world. A similar unswallowable, unbreathable perplexity would happen were you, a child, to find your parents happily scribbling dinner recipes that featured the family members’ body parts.**** You wouldn’t merely be alarmed by this discrepancy between love and horror – you would be mentally turned, traumatized.

The state of being troubled and stunned, one moment walking in a benign world and the next in a twilight zone or cartoon world, is to be forced to perseverate. The drone of Orange has hegemony. Our leader might be a fascist demagogue who loves himself to the point of solipsism, the world’s entire purpose a stage and spittoon? Our president might be a man without nobility, dignity, subtlety or vocabulary, but possibly a spasm of humanity when being watched? We cannot stop thinking of or imaging him, secondarily his brown smog of followers. I read quite a few online articles. If a piece is not about Trump, something as innocuous as a “Dear Prudence” column, I’m likely to think: Why is Trump not mentioned in this? I have an urge to foist his foul echo into every comment I write – mostly because I’m drawn to articles he headlines. Other commenters have noticed the same. His name, signifying a ludicrous wight, seems to have become a default theme to the times, a brain implant through which we see and feel.

What can we do about living in such an off world, where a carnival barker is thought to be sound, competent, a leader? We may be feeling like Steven Mallory in The Fountainhead:

“Listen, what’s the most horrible experience you can imagine? To me – it’s being left, unarmed, in a sealed cell with a drooling beast of prey or a maniac who’s had some disease that’s eaten his brain out. You’d have nothing then but your voice – your voice and your thought. You’d scream to that creature why it should not touch you, you’d have the most eloquent words, the unanswerable words, you’d become the vessel of the absolute truth. And you’d see living eyes watching you and you’d know that the thing can’t hear you, that it can’t be reached, not reached, not in any way, yet it’s breathing and moving there before you with a purpose of its own. That’s horror. Well, that’s what’s hanging over the world. . . .”*****

What can we do about his followers? What can we do to clean the air which we can’t avoid breathing? Over the years, I’ve described trauma to my clients as being forced to swallow an elephant, which is now stuck, too big to throw up. Little did I know.

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* Soul Murder, Leonard Shengold, M.D.

** By “crazy logic,” I mean a traumatic event that has happened – it is in the real world – but which is impossible to assimilate. Not unlike my father’s saying (fortunately, in jest), “When Tuesday falls on Friday.”

*** Lenore Terr, M.D., Too Scared To Cry – Psychic Trauma in Childhood, Basic Books, 1990. 

**** Idea taken from an old Roald Dahl short story in which (as I dimly remember) post-apocalypse, a starving old man and a little girl resignedly cut off their limbs for food.

***** Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, pdf – Pages unnumbered; search “drooling.”

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Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.