If you’re reading this, that probably means you’re feeling it, too. You wake up dreading the morning headlines, to see what noxious 3 AM tweet has been excreted by Putin’s man in the Oval Office, what new American atrocity has been unearthed by journalists of integrity. You vacillate between outrage and numbness; you’re distractible when you should be spending quality time with your family.
And maybe you feel it this way as well: when you have some moments of unalloyed pleasure, you later feel guilty for squandering time that could’ve helped families facing bigotry and separation. As a critic, I wonder if I should watch so many movies. Perhaps, I think, I should be devoting my creative energy to writing against the no-longer-creeping fascism infesting my country and much of the west.
If this thumbnail sketch resonates with you, then you are likely suffering vicarious trauma. I came across this concept early in my career as a psychiatrist, finding it encapsulated my emotions, behaviors, and cognitions after hearing countless narratives of violence when working with a disadvantaged urban population. It became even more relevant when I provided therapy and medical care to combat veterans and victims of military sexual trauma in a specialty PTSD program.
What is Vicarious Trauma?
While I can claim expertise in diagnosing and treating PTSD, I don’t have the same proficiency in describing vicarious trauma. If this subject matter interests you, by all means go to the source material for more information.
In short, vicarious trauma involves the same symptomatology of PTSD. So, the therapist working with rape survivors may have intrusive imagery of sexual violence, even if they themselves did not experience these horrors directly. Or, as I did back when I worked with former combatants in Iraq, you may have nightmares of being wounded on the battlefield.
Just as a refugee may feel emotionally numb, their social worker may become detached from their loved ones and lose interest in formerly pleasurable activities. Those with PTSD typically have an overly sensitive “adrenaline thermostat,” struggling to turn off their racing thoughts when it’s time to settle down for sleep, staying hypervigilant in the safety of their home, or flying off the handle at minor slights. Likewise, their friends and partners who know their history may develop the same difficulties.
The concept of vicarious trauma does not minimize the immense emotional pain of those who have endured the actual violence. Therapists treating PTSD quickly learn that narratives of violence are poorly served by pissing matches; there is empathy to spare for the three-tour combat vet, the mugging victim, and the caregiver with compassion fatigue. (And in the perverse calculus of nature and nurture, those with a personal history of trauma are more vulnerable to the later effects of vicarious trauma.)
Help for Vicarious Trauma; Getting Personal
So how does one treat this condition? A short essay can only offer a thumbnail overview, but as with any disorder, it first needs to be named to be understood. Once it’s named, people with vicarious trauma need to be kind to themselves. Don’t go it alone: talk to empathic friends and family members, and to a therapist if it’s troubling enough. Keep doing good, but take restorative breaks. Make sure you don’t neglect the basics of sleep, exercise, and nutrition. Repeat these steps on a daily, weekly, monthly basis, with self-evaluations as necessary.
What does this mean for me personally? During the past week, I’ve realized that I’m suffering from survivor guilt. Albeit to a far lesser magnitude, as the combat medic grapples with the unanswerable query of why he survived the war while his buddies didn’t, I’m overwhelmed by my family’s random luck compared to the families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. As I did nothing to merit my white, middle class, American status, the Honduran father or El Salvadoran mother did nothing to deserve the cruelty of Trump’s policies. Indeed, these moms and dads are doing what any good parents do, fighting to create a safer, more prosperous existence for their progeny.
In these contemplations, I’m enraged by the sadism of Aryan wannabes Stephen Miller and Kirstjen Nielsen. I’m exhausted by the whiplash-inducing, rapid-fire mendacity of our Psychopath-in-Chief. I’m tempted to cave in to despair and futility, when surrounded by East Tennesseans who gulp down the whataboutisms and womp womps of Fox News, sans batting an eyelash.In my private life, addressing my vicarious traumatization means giving and receiving support from my similarly alarmed wife, hearing the concerns of my kids who are venturing forth into adulthood under such a horrid regime. It means continuing to be an activist, through typing away on my laptop, through phone calls to my elected representatives, through the corporeal politics of actual protest, through my checkbook. It also means stepping away from these activities to recharge regularly.
Though no-one who has suffered trauma would wish their experiences upon anyone (except maybe their worst enemies or unrepentant Trumpists), one of the unasked-for gifts that trauma bestows is a sense of clarity. Having one’s physical or emotional integrity threatened bestows a lucid sense of finitude and priorities that those ignorant of such dangers often lack. For me, this has impacted my film-viewing and writing habits.
American Fascism and the Movies
With a racist in the Oval Office spewing dehumanizing hate speech, embarking on a propagandistic journey that chillingly echoes Nazi Germany, it seems frivolous to spend time on light entertainments.
Please don’t get me wrong, though: in the name of self-care, I think we all need diversion and amusement now and again. For me, this means dipping into early Simpsons episodes, and trash-talking with my older son as we blast each other in multiplayer Halo. For others, it means celebrating the geek culture of the Marvel, DC, or Star Wars universes; and I don’t begrudge them their pleasures. (I also have plenty of respect for those like my friend and fellow critic Sid Blevins, who can expound upon the symbolism and significance of Black Panther and the X-Men.)
Where this becomes problematic is if I’m too busy mastering the complexities of Puzzle & Dragons on my cellphone to notice that Rome is burning around me. We have to escape to Walden now and then, but we can’t live there.
As a critic, recent events have spurred me to interrogate my writing priorities at Secular Cinephile. So you can expect to see even less virtual ink devoted to mass entertainments here. Much as I enjoyed The Incredibles 2, I find it tough to justify using half a day to polish a review for what felt like a bowl of cinematic whipped cream: fun to put your spoon into, but lacking substantial or memorable nourishment.
With the desperate times we’re struggling to get through, I feel I need to devote some energy to current events, wherever my personal experience or clinical knowledge can offer illumination. As such, in the coming weeks, I hope to devote columns to further considerations of Trump’s psyche, plus an interview with a local political candidate whose perspective is a refreshing break from the usual vacuous Bible-waving of our area. I may also be taking a couple of weeks off, to polish an academic article on my profession’s “Goldwater Rule.”
Nonetheless, I need cinematic art. As Voltaire’s Candide had a garden to tend, no matter the dire events he’d witnessed, I need to nourish myself in the wretchedness that is America, 2018.
And great films continue to be made about the timeless human condition in 2018. This has so far been an excellent year at the movies, with Paul Thomas Anderson’s fascinating character studies in The Phantom Thread, the lacerating satire of The Death of Stalin, and the psychologically astute horror of Hereditary. Just as important are the films that address today’s concerns without sacrificing stylistic mastery, such as Maxim Pozdorovkin’s Our New President (my favorite documentary of 2018) or Paul Schrader’s breathtaking First Reformed (the best new film I’ve seen in over a year).
This motivates me to hone my purpose at Secular Cinephile, to introduce readers to films they might otherwise ignore in the bombast of Disney’s dominance of the multiplex, and to (hopefully) deepen their appreciation of these works of art. A secular vocation comes about from meshing one’s skills and passions with the needs of the larger world, and in this precarious moment, we all need art and beauty.
(Photograph by Dorothea Lange: Public Domain, from the National Archives and Records Administration)