Introduction – A Meditation on Trauma, Misogyny, and the Cultural Moment
by Kerry McElroy, PhD, Contributing Editor
I finished my PhD last year. The first post-PhD months are notorious for bringing about a kind of crash– identity crisis, ennui, dire things of that sort. I happened to be stuck across a border, dealing with COVID visa restrictions, border complications, personal life upheaval. Suffice it to say, I was not having a good time. Things had taken a wrong turn in my plans. So, in my case, I was definitely not operating from a place of depression or ennui. Rather, a kind of manic need to fix things.
At the same time, I had– for the first time in years– something graduate students rarely have: time. Waiting for a break in my border-crossing case, I went back into my thesis notes. Thousands of pages. There I found an idea that I had begun to think about years before, a meta-question that had seemingly been sleeping there the whole time. Or waiting.
My PhD experience was, for lack of a better word, traumatizing. The life I lived throughout it was traumatizing– for many years, for many reasons. Then, too, the subject matter in which I worked was itself– coincidentally or not– traumatizing. The further I dug, the more distressing material I found. I didn’t quit, either the work or the program. Even when, at times, it seemed as though the subject matter of my research and the events of my own life were dovetailing in far too unpleasant ways. At times it seemed like kind of an interconnected dance that was too real and too uncomfortable– reading and writing about the pain and suffering of others, while reckoning with one’s own pain and suffering, and so on.
Specifically, I had written a PhD on the treatment of women in Hollywood. Years and years, to end with a final product of nearly 400 pages. It got dark. One whole chapter evolved to be about “the casting couch”– which really, when you think about it, or when I write about it, means nothing less than an entire, globally renowned entertainment system built on sanctioned and institutionalized sexual assault.
Researching Hollywood history, I learned more and more about the disappearance and banishment of abused and assaulted women. Poverty, addiction, suicides. The lionization of the powerful men who did what they wanted. Got away with all their crimes, to finally die peacefully in their beds, wildly wealthy and celebrated.
The more I learned, the more my project became less a mere academic hurdle to pass to obtain a degree, and more of a moral obligation. Putting abused women’s voices back in the historical record. Challenging the trope of “history is written by the winners”. Rejecting the old “separate the art from the artist” axiom, suggesting it instead as one that has enabled ages of rape and violence. It’s one that has existed forever– that has allowed people (generally, men) to listen to music and read books and watch movies by monsters, and not to feel very badly about it. Not to think about it at all, in fact. To reject the responsibility of thinking about it at all. There is no such responsibility, this axiom soothes.
In the later years of this massive project, MeToo exploded: first as cultural moment, then into a full movement. No one was more surprised than me, and this was my field. I had spent a summer interviewing women in Hollywood just three years before. I had not encountered a system I felt was about to undergo much change, let alone any sort of reckoning with its sexual behaviours, its abuses of power, its inherent misogyny. But then, Weinstein. Cosby. MeToo spilled out from Hollywood to other film industries around the world, and then on to other industries, too. Theatre, sports, finance, politics. Epstein. And so on.
So, through all of this, the personal and the scholarly were kind of constantly interweaving for me. Histories of misogyny, of rape, of male power and women’s abuse — how to find the beginning of the story? Where to end it?
And so that meta-question I found back in my notes last year was: why? Why do some of us writers, scholars, activists, do what we do? Write about what we write about? When we could do much happier things, write about happier things?
Why does a woman feel compelled to write an industrial history of a system of institutional rape? Because we owe something to the victims of the past, who couldn’t speak then and can’t speak now? Some compulsion to speak? Or is it, in part and somehow, to heal oneself as the researcher, too? What had I been doing all those years, and why had I been doing it?
This is what I have considered, for this interview series, traumawork. People who do the work of dealing with society’s most difficult and heavy subjects. Painful, horrible things, from genocide and racial violence to child and animal abuse. When life is already hard enough, why are some people drawn to do such traumawork? Why do some scholars seek out the most uncomfortable histories? Feminist scholars of rape, Black scholars of medical torture, Jewish scholars of concentration camps. Why study genocides to get a degree, when you could study baroque chamber music, or the history of soccer, or anime?
And the above, that’s on the scholarly level. What about those walking among us who choose to work not in the archives, but in the realest of the real world, on the most painful, horrific, soul-splitting subjects? The people who really contend with the worst of the worst, who allow society to sleepwalk forward in a haze of the cheerfully basic and banal. A world of favorite reality TV shows, man caves, gender reveal parties. Who really looks behind the curtain, at the things our society condones, at how we are able to obtain our guilty or unconsidered pleasures?
At any moment on this planet, there are investigators of child sexual abuse working overtime on the most heinous of cases. Web content moderators paid little in far-away countries to watch beheading videos all day and to flag them, to develop PTSD so that the rest of us don’t. People who’ve seen things on the dark web that they can never unsee.
When Jodie Foster made Silence of the Lambs, she said the best people to talk with were the FBI agent experts on serial killers. Of her best trainer for her role, she recalled, “when other people sit back in their armchair and say, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to think about that’, he is the person who is obsessed with it enough to change it”.
And so, I set out to interview some of the most brilliant and interesting people I could find, both academics and professionals, who do such work. On histories that aren’t just academic to them and aren’t just jobs, but sometimes personal, generational: lynchings, rapes, the worst crimes. To ask them, why do you do this? Is it a kind of martyrdom, a compulsion to misery? What’s wrong with you, with us? How does delving into such depths, looking into the worst of human behaviour, or studying historical traumas when “history hurts”, feel for the people who do it? How did they start doing such work? And how do they carry on? What compels them?
And I did find them, and I did interview them. Thirteen of them. And I found I had been, in some major ways, in some of my central assumptions, wrong. When I began the series search, its title was “Night Shift in the Graveyards”. It was, at that time, attempting to prove a premise. It unexpectedly proved a different one. Now the series title is “A Light in the Mineshaft”. Allow me to explain.
Do you know the Ursula LeGuin story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”? This interview series began as one grounded in some of what I would call Omelas questions.
It’s a philosophical thought experiment of a science fiction story, written in 1973: quite short, yet deeply troubling and disturbing, brilliant. Very briefly, it presents the reader with a hideous moral dilemma. The story paints a portrait of a happy, prosperous kingdom. But the reader comes to learn, the entire wellbeing of the kingdom is based on its underpinning in one deeply abused and tortured child. That one child’s suffering, in a hidden away basement, is the motor that powers the cheerful and comfortable society. The story goes on to explain the different types of people therein. Those who choose not to know. Those who know and are sickened but learn not to care, to justify. And the rarest ones, those who become so sick at heart that they must flee, to opt out—to leave behind everything they know and cherish. Once they have seen what’s behind the scenes of their perfect society, they cannot stay. They go off into a poor and unknown future, but they are free.
It’s a story that has stuck with me since the first time I read it. It’s made me reconsider all sorts of aspects of life and culture, in fact. I put myself through my PhD working as a private tutor throughout, with students from all around the world. I have always loved to teach this story, to raise its moral questions with my brighter students, to see their reactions.
If you had to spend a day in a slaughterhouse watching, could you still eat meat? So, you like to eat it, it tastes good to you– but you don’t want to see it, right? Who wants to think of how the system by which animals are slaughtered to get you your food each day actually works, in practice? What are the implications of putting torture into your body for nourishment?
To the ones from the wealthiest families. What if you had to go down into the mines with kids your age in the poorest countries– kids who are thirteen or fourteen years old, just like you– and watch them do backbreaking work to obtain the parts for your Apple watch? Would you demand the newest iPhone again so quickly and easily?
To the university-aged ones, the young men, who could not meet my gaze when the subject was broached: what if you knew that a porn scene you watched was not consensual, but actually a scene of rape or trafficking? Of pain, fear, coercion. Would you be able to consume porn in the same way?
These are Omelas questions. The central dilemma of Omelas in our actual world is that, to some degree, we all live on the suffering child in the cellar. There are things we prefer not to know, or at least not to think about, so that the world can keep spinning. What am I supposed to do? I can’t save everyone. I can’t save anyone, really. I have to look out for myself, my family.
As I write this, it’s a Sunday night in February. It’s the Super Bowl. Everyone loves the Super Bowl. Superstar athletes. Cheerleaders. Wings. (White supremacy. Plantation-style trading around of Black male bodies by old white man owners. Banishment of Black activists. League coverup of widespread brain injury. The side effects of brain injury. Domestic violence. Spousal murder. Suicide.)
One of the memoirs I read for my PhD work was a somewhat obscure—and macabrely iconic– one by a Hollywood star of the 1930s called Frances Farmer. It’s called Will There Ever Be A Morning?. It details Farmer’s quite shocking, horrific descent from the Hollywood star firmament to nearly a decade locked up in a Seattle insane asylum. The scenes in the book that detail Farmer’s life during her institutionalization are stomach-churning. If you’ve ever read something like American Psycho and had a visceral reaction to the kind of gore and violence that seem beyond belief, think that.
It’s a somewhat legendary cult classic and story of a life, one that translates well to themes of feminist rage about the institutionalization of women, the hidden tortures of the mentally ill in modern culture, rape. It’s even inspired a punk reckoning, too– Nirvana, famously from Farmer’s hometown, wrote one of their lesser-known songs about the actress’ case in the 1990s: “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle”.
Parts of the memoir are considered problematic, written by others maybe. There is some scholarly debate. Still, it’s a frightening tale, compelling and horrifying to read. If such a thing could happen to a Hollywood star, imagine what happened to all the women or mentally ill men who were “nobodies”: institutionalized, thrown away, abused, raped, tortured, forgotten?
Anyway, in between all the stories of orderly rape, doctor rape, men smuggled in from the outside to have thrill sex with “madwomen” rape, Farmer tells an offhand anecdote that I (as a decades-long vegetarian) remember experiencing as if it leapt off the page at me from the bowels of hell. She mentions that on the male ward for the “criminally insane”, the most hardened cases of violent and untreatable men– murderers, men who’d beaten people to death, and so forth– were put to work slaughtering animals. Not given work killing them in a factory-like way for “produce”. Let loose in a yard to chase, murder, and slaughter running and screaming pigs and chickens. A kind of murder phantasmagoria, of blood and screams. To let the murderers murder, to get their aggressions out.
Could you eat that meat?
Is this story true? Maybe. Probably. While parts of Farmer’s book have been questioned, why would that passing anecdote from the 1940s be unlikely to be accurate? How many layers of hidden hells have humans really constructed over the centuries, without consequence? Have you ever read the history of the Belgian Congo under King Leopold? What does the line “the horror, the horror” really stand in for in Heart of Darkness? As Kurtz reminds in Apocalypse Now, “horror has a face”. How many people open their eyes to look at it?
Do most of us have any concept of how many children have been abused and molested in this world? If we don’t even register the mass mistreatment of children, do you think people can begin to understand the amount of animal torture carried out by humans, forever? And so much more.
As Cathy Caruth, the first interviewee of this series and one of the world’s progenitors of trauma theory and trauma studies, has written, “Psychic trauma… involves the recognition of realities most of us have not begun to face”. Deep down, a lot of us are trying hard not to think about that child in the cellar.
In 1971, the feminist writer Susan Brownmiller attended a New York conference on rape. She recounted later that she knew right away that the work she would produce from this moment would “change everything”. Specifically, she intended to change the world’s mind about rape. I knew I was going to give rape a history, she said. Living off small grants and loans from friends, she spent four years writing in the New York Public Library. When Brownmiller began her research, she found that there were more encyclopedia entries on rapeseed than on rape. When women finally speak about issues on which men have controlled the narrative for centuries, she explained, a very different story begins to emerge.
Against Our Will was an instant bestseller. It was reprinted in a dozen languages. It’s been called one of the 100 most influential books of the twentieth century. Brownmiller made it to the cover of Time as a Woman of the Year.
Jodie Foster was once asked in an interview about playing so many rape victims in her career. One thing about it, she said. It’s amazing. As soon as you say you’re playing a rape victim, every woman has a story for you. They just start telling you things. It’s not hard to get anyone to, it just happens.
Cathy Caruth has written that “when the mouth may not speak, the body sometimes reveals: silent testimony”. Maya Angelou was mute for five years after she was raped, at age seven. One prosecutor of child sex abuse crimes I contacted for this series recounted in interview having to watch child pornography as part of her job. What is most notable about it, she recounts, is the silence of the children. The silent suffering. “Who, if I cried out, would hear me”: the opening of the famous elegies of Rilke.
Recently, actress Viola Davis gave an interview in which she noted bluntly that every woman she knows has been sexually assaulted, and that it’s been this way since the beginning of time. Davis has made a deliberate choice not to be silent anymore about this fact, on principle: as a matter of the health of women and the sickness of society. “I’m done with it! I really am. I’m done pretending. Done looking at all these women who lead their lives with body dysmorphic issues, suicide, depression, drug addiction, and everyone’s like, ‘Oh, what’s wrong with them? What’s wrong with them?’ And it’s rooted in that silence of sexual assault and rape”.
A few men get it, acknowledge. But not so many. It takes courage and some farsightedness. Teju Cole, not unnotably a Black male writer in the US, has said of rape, sexual abuse, and their legacies in terms of trauma, “We men benefit, all of us men benefit, from rape culture. We benefit from the pain it causes women because we sprint ahead obliviously; we benefit from the way it knocks them off circuit and opens space for us”. All the wasted potential of traumatized women, throughout history and now. Time, money, talents, fear of speaking. To put it in the industrial terms I identified in my own doctoral project: what is the economic cost of sexual trauma? What is the wage gap to be found there?
And the flip side of this coin. I know a lot of men— most well-meaning, progressive men even- who would wildly underestimate the numbers of women who have been sexually assaulted or abused. It makes them uncomfortable– with their fellow men, maybe with themselves, their place in society. If they talk about it at all, it often addressed in the manner of some regrettable freak occurrence. “Wow, well if that happened…”. “But that doesn’t happen here, this is a safe city”. These exact words have been spoken to me by male friends who are like family to me. These are the good ones.
So, from my perspective, most men get to live like the happy denizens of Omelas on these issues– on the abuse and assaults of women– on the whole. The feminist writer Rebecca Solnit has written of a relevant term she coined: privelobliviousness. It attempts, she says, to try to describe the way that “being the advantaged one, the represented one, often means being the one who doesn’t need to be aware and, often, isn’t”.
As I write this, I live in what has typically been considered a rather sleepy city for a country’s capital, in what has been nearly universally considered one of the most robust democracies in the world. We are currently under a state of emergency. It’s day 17 of a violent extremist siege. I haven’t gone outside in three days. The semis have drawn the international attention, but actually, it’s mainly men who drive souped-up pickup trucks who have the hate flags blazing, screeching around the normal downtown and residential streets like a triumphant rebel insurgency. Hanging out of each other’s windows, giving the finger to crying homeless women– overwrought from the constant air horns. The horns, they’ve been measured at Geneva Convention levels of torture, in decibels. Sometimes they start before dawn. Sometimes they never stop at night.
Stores are vandalized, closed. At first it was the breaking of windows in small cafes, ones with rainbow flags in the window. Now it’s the closing of whole groceries, malls. More than two weeks. It becomes difficult to obtain basic supplies in a downtown area when the grocery stores have had to close, because occupiers have overrun them in anti-mask flash mobs. This is not a sentence the me– or the you– of two years ago could have comprehended, let’s be honest.
One waits hours for groceries, only to see if the driver will cancel because they can’t get across town. That’s happened to me, in these three weeks. In a downtown under highly unexpected, indeed improbable, extremist occupation. In 2022, in North America, the obtaining of basic needs like food has become a problem. And then, a woman alone, a woman pedestrian in the downtown core. One must think strategically. Certain things simply can’t be done. It gets worse on the weekends, and this one I left myself ill-prepared. No food in the house, couldn’t go out. That meant I didn’t eat for twenty hours. This weekend, I tried to put a cheerful spin on it. Gallows humor. Call it intermittent fasting by fash extremists. The capital’s hottest new diet plan.
Random chance, an accident of fate, for me to be living here. This is the territory of Camus and The Plague, so pandemically apropos, and Randall in Clerks: I’m not even supposed to be here today. And yet now I’m equally, improbably part of living through this siege. One that’s particularly hit women and people of color and the disabled and the elderly and children and the mentally ill and the homeless, in this capital city.
Here inside, I listen to the news, from the US, from Paris, while I can’t go out, while I exercise, while I clean the house. The world perspective on what’s happening here, blocks from me. Everyone is watching to see what happens here. Ottawa and Ukraine, Ukraine and Ottawa. In English, in French, in Italian.
Before we came under occupation here in this capital city—or maybe around the same time, the days blend in Twitter controversies when it’s day 20 in the house– a firestorm du jour on social media has been how a very popular American podcaster with a nine-figure contract spreads pandemic misinformation. People pour through his old episodes, find the vilest instances of racial slurs, racist statements that hardly even pretend at being “funny”. They find new things every day.
Concurrent but lesser have been some of the mining for misogyny in these episodes, too. There one finds the horrific, though people care less. Mountains of casual misogynist language. One where he screams at and mocks a scientist, an older woman with a PhD, a guest who said scientific things he didn’t like. An infamous exchange in which a Hollywood comedy club operator explains in vitriolic detail what he likes to do to women, how he uses sexual assault to gatekeep who’s allowed to perform in his club. I ruin them, he says. You broke me, one told him, he recalls through laughter. When that girl got to Hollywood, she was beautiful. When I was through with her, when she left– after I made her blow me so many times, to work– her fingernails were dirty. They howl with laughter. Uproariously. This podcaster is treated by many as a towering cultural voice. A serious force in US politics today. A money-maker beyond belief.
The men occupying my city. Decades back, I suppose while they worked, they would have listened to music on the radio. Twenty years ago, maybe Limbaugh, Howard Stern. Now maybe Bongino, Hannity, Jordan Peterson. They listen to Rogan. They don’t just listen to the parts about vaccines and tune out the racism. They don’t just slurp up the racism but somehow miss the hatred, the violence towards women.
Swarming around this city right now in the thousands are men who get their “facts” and their conspiracy theories from the internet, from podcasts. Earnest sharing of “patriot truths” comingles with casual and comfortable racism, misogyny, xenophobia, antisemitism. We listen to them talk on their trucker channels.
Now, those of us who study these sorts of things, we know how much neighbors can turn on one another through the manipulation of algorithms. In times past, it would have been radio. In Rwanda, people were called out in the hundreds of thousands to slaughter their neighbors by the radio. Within this interview series, I talked with scholars of the Rwandan genocide, with interpreters who took testimony from victims and perpetrators.
Instead, we’re living the surreal here: the Facebook-fueled, international astroturfed attempt at a coup. These days a “Patriot” Facebook group, full of misspellings, created in Macedonia, reaches someone from Texas, who’s never been to Canada before. And now they’re cheering to hang the prime minister. They’re here from the US too, with anti-Biden flags, with Trump flags, on horses. Just because it’s utterly absurd and a carnival of fools doesn’t mean it isn’t real, frightening, menacing and dangerous. It’s all these things at once. It teeters between them day to day.
“Arousal state determines how animals will react to stimuli. In a state of low arousal, animals tend to be curious and seek novelty. During high arousal they are frightened, avoid novelty, and perseverate in familiar behavior regardless of the outcome. Under ordinary circumstances, an animal will choose the most pleasant of two alternatives. When hyper aroused, it will seek the familiar, regardless of the intrinsic rewards. (Mitchell et al, 1985). Thus, shocked animals returned to the box in which they were originally shocked in preference to less familiar locations not associated with punishment.”
So, this means that traumatized people respond to past threats and not current ones. Realistic people, I guess, people trying to do their best in a crisis, will end up responding to both.
As for me, I was shocked at how I reacted to the siege here in the capital, at least the first week. (By week three, you’re a pro.) A return to old patterns, terrified and numb at the same time.
You will learn strange things about yourself in a siege, locked in your home. The way you sleep, the way you eat, drink. The stress on the body from living through an occupation is different than, say, the stress of a qualifying exam or too many things on a to-do list. It is not typical bourgeois stress. It is different.
This particular siege has been marked, uniquely, by diesel fumes. Bad for asthmatics. Even more notably, by horns for hours and days on end. You may have read about this, or seen it in the news, in your city or country. It’s probably worse than you imagine. It sounds like the horn you hear on a train, from across town. If someone laid on it for hours at a time, outside your window, night and day. The torture-level decibels, measured, as I mentioned. Families with infants live down here. People with PTSD. Pets.
Your ears will play tricks on you. The ringing in your ears becomes auditory hallucination. You can’t tell if the horns are still going or not, because you will hear them either way. The hives that break out on your throat tell you things are not okay even as you try to tell yourself they are.
North Americans have never really been occupied by conquering forces. North Americans have no cultural memory of World War II as something experienced here, just for one example. They’ve never really lived through sieges, never had to think this way– about how a society can break down, quickly. About what happens when the police cannot be found, or when they tell you point blank they will not come, that you are on your own.
Here in this capital, it is not the Nazi occupation of Europe. It is not the Rwandan genocide. It is unpleasant and stressful, and we don’t know how it will end. It is surreal in a most unpleasant way to be living such circumstances in the capital city of Canada in the year 2022. It is indeed traumatic.
Cathy Caruth has written that “many writers about the human response to trauma have observed that a feeling of helplessness, of physical or emotional paralysis, is fundamental to making an experience traumatic”. Here in the capital, it is day 18. When people have called 911 to report crimes, they have been told there is no one to send. When people have called reporting that they’ve been threatened with rape for wearing a mask, they’ve been told best advice is to take it off. We can’t send anyone. Wisest not to antagonize them. The police chief finally resigned today.
So, it could be said that it’s been particularly, uh, unpleasant, living here through this siege as a woman–what with thousands of drunken, misogynist occupiers, who are quite aware that the police have been hamstrung from acting. For weeks. Women have been commenting on this quite a bit, online. It’s not a nice feeling, to be here.
I live downtown, in the thick of it all. I’m not a college girl, I’m an adult woman. I’m a teacher. I tend to take on a role of telling girls and younger women it will be okay. But even I find this to be a scary situation. A lawless city, that’s a new one for me. I find it to be a rather traumatizing situation, as a woman in a new city. I think I’ve already said that.
And since, like Brownmiller, I’m a cultural historian of rape and misogyny— you might say it’s been particularly disturbing and surreal to be here, to live and witness this, in that regard.
Because just to add another, necessary layer: like so many of the women here in this city, the women I know, I’m a survivor of several of the more typical forms of abuse experienced by women– sexual harassment, sexual assault, domestic violence. Now, survivor of an extremist occupation, too. Now, we are all survivors of that. Didn’t see that one coming.
It has been pointed out that the language of the occupiers is the language of domestic violence, of the abuser. Just end the mandates and this will all stop. If you want us to leave, just do what we say. This will all end.
So even more specifically, ever more specifically, in my case: one might say it’s highly ironic to be trying to write the intro to an interview series on trauma and traumawork, while actually, suddenly, unbelievably, randomly, living through a highly traumatic situation. And one which has elements— misogyny, violence, fascism– that are particularly reactive with one’s previous trauma. One might say that it’s one for the books, really.
The rape threats to women pedestrians. What comes after threats, catcalls, men who follow women in their trucks, when a situation deteriorates, when a city becomes lawless? The streets are filled with drunken white men from all over North America, in a kind of large scale right-wing male tantrum. Many with criminal records. They came here to do as they please. Their freedoms. So far, they have been.
And so, living in a city under siege by white men in trucks– white men breaking the law day and night with impunity, white men who make the streets unsafe for women. Most especially women of color, women in hijab, most especially non-feminine presenting women, most especially disabled women, elderly women, women living with mental illness, women living in homeless shelters– women. White men who call “whore” and “slut” and threaten rape upon girls wearing masks from their trucks, who jeer at people on the streets and laugh at the suffering of families they’re causing. It’s been– as we might say, in the overused parlance of our times– triggering. It’s, definitionally speaking, triggering to be a woman, and a survivor of male abuses of any sort, and to live under these conditions for so many days.
It’s further triggering to have strangers on the internet smugly demand that you prove what you’re seeing, what you’re experiencing. Pics or it didn’t happen. Do you have any proof?, type men from other countries, sitting in comfortable chairs, having never set foot in this country in their lives. It’s a peaceful protest. There’s nothing going on there. Liberal lies. I saw the families; I saw the bouncy castles.
But all the women here know what we know, hear, and see what we do. We don’t have time for that particular type of misogynist now. Mosquitoes. Block. We are living it. Like the Talking Heads song, this ain’t no disco, indeed.
Most of the men know now, too– finally. Now the men in this capital city– its well-meaning, progressive, educated, liberal men, its bureaucratic class– know what we as women have always known. That safety is so often only a thin veneer, propped up with “civility”. A great deal has always depended upon white men’s courtesies to one another, respect for each other’s roles.
I’d venture the men of this capital city, these comfortable civil servants, are having a bit of an Omelas moment right now. The city is unprotected. The police look the other way while the occupiers do as they please. This means the city’s women are unprotected. Not in 1822, or 1922, but 2022, in one of the world’s “most advanced countries”. With gangs of young, drunken men roving around lawlessly, vandalizing, breaching property, daughters had better stay in the house, or withdraw from their terms at the university, get back to the suburbs. This isn’t from a history book of the French Revolution or a civil war in some faraway place in the “developing world”. This is right now in Canada. The Super Bowl is on.
I’m a feminist, and a writer with a PhD. Had I lived a more traditional life, I might not see the world in terms of such stark threats for women. But I’ve travelled all over, alone. I’ve seen a lot and experienced a lot. “Sometimes it is better,” said the Holocaust scholar Dori Laub, “not to know too much”.
Last month, the biggest news story from one European country, one that made international news, was of a twenty year-old woman beaten to death while out for a run on a busy river path, in broad daylight. A disturbed stranger. A woman-hating stranger. The whole country went into an outcry. At least the women did, on social media and in the press. We keep telling you that no woman is safe anywhere. We can’t even go out for a run in daylight. And this is considered such a safe country. Some MRA-type pushback. Don’t blame all men for this. This was an isolated incident. The murderer was an immigrant anyway.
In the US, on the other hand, they don’t even go into an outcry. People are always getting murdered in the US. Women, men, children. While visiting family this past year, someone casually remarked to me about the jogging woman who had been raped and murdered in the woods, on the trails, just nearby the quiet suburban golf course. They never found her, my family member said. Don’t use that trail when you go out to run, they advised. Use the other one.
Last night a young Asian-American woman was followed back to her apartment in Chinatown in New York City and murdered by a stranger. There have been so many hate crimes on Asian people, in the big American cities, since the pandemic began. Most especially Asian women. Sometimes the old hate crimes and the new hate crimes form concentric circles.
Even here, in this country, with its honourable self-image, it’s “not the US” image, there have been many years of scant attention for Indigenous women over the years, the missing, the murdered. Let’s be honest. We know this. These men in our capital here, these white supremacists, these misogynists, they are as Canadian as hockey and poutine too, are they not?
It’s all the same, women on the street, women in public. Whether it’s a question of physical fitness, or of needing to simply buy food. There will be fear– if you let your mind go that way. It could be daytime or nighttime. You could be wearing Spandex training gear or a big winter coat. It could be a crowded urban centre or a trail deep in the woods. The result is the same. Jogging in one of the wealthiest, safest countries in the world, as I would in the European country I lived in recently, or walking for desperately needed supplies in the middle of an extremist siege, as I am now– men may threaten to rape you. This is a norm.
But we’re used to the idea of creepy stalkers on the street threatening rape while we exercise. We were used to fearing date rape back when bars and clubs still existed. Cover your drink. Everyone knew. But the threat of misogynist occupier rape. This is a new one, in this country, in this year. We aren’t used to this. This feels like it’s come out of the history books. Not the present.
Back to my PhD for a moment. Academics are nothing if not navel-gazers about their own miseries. You may finally finish studying, it’s still a hard habit to break. This period of my PhD– maddening, stressful, traumatizing, retraumatizing, healing– this meta-question of why always humming in the background. What are you hoping to accomplish with this work? To heal, or to pick at the wound?
I studied a lot of Buddhism through these years, too. It’s always been something that’s both intrigued and comforted me. Basically, the only world religion that one is invited to take up as either a religion or a philosophy, right? Belief in deities or supplications not required.
In this period, I came across a particular branch of Buddhism called chöd. It dates back to 10th century Tibet and was (uniquely) founded by a woman mystic. Eventually, I would come to include a great international teacher and practitioner of chöd as one of the interview subjects in this series.
In Tibetan, chöd means “to cut off” or “to slay”. It amounts to a spiritual and lifestyle practice grounded in fearlessness, in which one both confronts and sacrifices oneself to demons in order to reach enlightenment. It’s often been considered a primeval, slightly mad branch of Buddhism, concerned with darkness, mystery, shamans, exorcisms, and corpses. In practice, one might think of hardcore practitioners of chöd as the goths of their time and place, challenging and inappropriate: known for performing religious rituals in charnel houses, cemeteries, even cutting off parts of their own flesh. Supervising the vultures that feed on corpses, making ritualistic pieces and musical instruments out of bones. Living on the fringes of society, dealing in burial grounds and haunted places. Becoming an acolyte of chöd has always been serious stuff.
In fact, external chöd is typically understood as wandering into fearful places filled with demons. For me, encountering this practice and mindset while I did such heavy feminist work felt apropos.
Let me clarify that, as I think of myself and my research. I’m not a funeral director, and I don’t wear goth makeup. I pretty much hate horror movies. But certainly, my work, and my preoccupations, have been rather heavy and dark and scary. Spending years writing a 385-page book that concluded in the end that one of our most beloved and world and culture-defining institutions— universally known as Hollywood— functioned as centre of industrial rape and abuse. That it amounted to its own traumatic history for the women who lived it- all while selling dreams and culture and nostalgia to the world. That watching a retrospective of some of the most beloved old Hollywood classics is like– when one knows better- watching a kind of who’s who of sexual assault, harassment, and misery. Some of this Dream Factory’s most talented women died alone on the streets, banished and forgotten. And some of those great male geniuses who died rich in their beds, with buildings named after them, were quite literal monsters. In my project’s conclusion, I wrote that Harvey Weinstein’s real fatal error was simply being born a few decades too late to act as he did. And this is the culture we’ve all swum in forever now, largely unaware.
It didn’t surprise me at all to learn that this stream of Buddhism was created by a woman. It’s meditation in gore and death and dismemberment, but not from the perspective of killing. It seems to me like a kind of a slasher story in reverse: a chopping up of one’s own body. I take away your ability to steal it from me. By choosing to go into the darkness, you have no power to send me there. It is a “summoning up what is most dreaded, and openly offering what we usually most want to protect”. It has seemed to me a particularly resonant spiritual/philosophical practice for survivors of assault, abuse, violence. In this world, it cannot help but be noted, these are disproportionately women.
Audrey Hepburn was a particularly sensitive woman for a star actress. Universally beloved, considered one of the most beautiful women in the world on the public stage, privately she remained neurotic and nervous through the entirety of her life. She attributed this and indeed most of her characteristics– her temperament, her eating habits, her body type– to living through years of Nazi occupation and near starvation in the Netherlands in WWII.
Hepburn quite famously spent her later years as a kind of patron saint of UN humanitarianism, going to the world’s most war-torn and famine-ravaged places. As UN ambassador, she saw children with the exact same symptoms she had suffered from herself at the end of the war, having come close to death from malnutrition.
Hepburn kept going the rest of her life, to the war zones that evoked what she had lived through in her own adolescence. She did so, because of her own experiences, despite how it hurt and affected her, tore her up. Later in life, Hepburn confided how she saw what she carried inside of her: “I had the feeling that sooner or later, war kills you”.
When Hepburn returned home from one UN humanitarian mission to Somalia, she had developed PTSD from what she had witnessed. Inability to sleep, nightmares, crying all the time. As one of her friends said of her, “The more she saw, the more rage she had”. As Hepburn herself remarked of this work, “You can be perfectly serene, then you spend two minutes thinking about the Kurds and want to shoot yourself…. Perhaps the only time you can be serene is when you are very small, when you don’t know all these things”. Perhaps this is true.
So, Hepburn was not any typical celebrity, but rather a woman who committed to reliving her own war trauma to extreme personal distress, an attempt to be a force for good in the world. A kind of compulsion for her, even unto her own mental and physical distress. Is this chöd?
If one works in chöd at the level of going out in the world and engaging with bad spirits, that practitioner is said to act as shaman or medium. It doesn’t take hanging around corpses in cemeteries to get that, either. One could in theory get it from choosing to work with dark subjects, with trauma. Really, in terms of my question of who does this work and why, chöd has also seemed to me to connect with these questions in a very graspable way.
So then when I identified others who do difficult work for this series– the Holocaust, slavery, industrial rape, genocide, animal abuse, the dark web, and so on– I wanted to ask: could we not say such people are acting as modern-day practitioners of chöd? Whether they know it or not?
Or, more immediately and unexpectedly in my case, what about the “demons” we are all facing in the capital city, those of us living through this siege? Demons of misinformation and propaganda, weaponized white grievance, ignorance, anti-science. The oldest demons in racism, misogyny, violence, hate, fascism.
There are Nazi flags and Confederate flags all over this normally placid city. There are white supremacists with massive followings who brag on their livestreams about their jail time, about the inevitability of bullets, about the “bear hug” they are giving to the capital city. There is evil here. You can feel it even from up on a higher floor in a downtown condo. There has been a bit of a “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” vibe even in the simple attempt to get groceries. Particularly, of course, as a pedestrian in the face of massive weaponized trucks, designed to be menacing.
At the core of all kinds of misogynies is a type of fascism, and it’s been winning in this city. The women have been afraid.
“and when we speak we are afraid…
but when we are silent/
we are still afraid/
So, it is better to speak”
– “A Litany For Survival”, Audre Lorde, 1978.
As for me, I allow myself to feel afraid when I’m safe in my apartment– of where this all leads, how it all ends. On the street though, no. I do not cower, I do not flinch. I give the finger to the occupiers in their pickup trucks.
I listen to Rage Against the Machine to psych myself up for the one or two vital daily errands, every third day or so. When I do venture out, I wear a couture coat with a big faux fur collar, I stalk the two blocks to the store and back, glaring behind my mask. I make no effort to try to blend in. I know who you are, you know who I am. I look you in the eye, with disgust. Say something. I dare you.
And so, living through a historical moment of crisis, the question becomes both Buddhist and existential: what are you willing to do? How do you put yourself on the line? Now we are back at Camus and The Plague. At de Beauvoir and Sartre and the French existentialists, whose lifelong philosophical questions were forged in the fire of Resistance Paris. What are you willing to do?
This current extremist moment is sustained by ignorance. The exploiting of the not knowing much of anything about anything by a lot of people in the US and Canada. Agnotology is the study of wilful acts to spread confusion and deceit, usually to sell a product or win favour. It comes from agnosis, the Greek word for ignorance: “not knowing”.
Agnotology is the deliberate creation of ignorance. With ignorance as a kind of engine of power. And we have to fight against it. That’s also chöd, that’s also traumawork. We face the liars and propagandists; we tell the truth. The facing of the demons.
So, I write a lot. I use social media to tell the truth about what is happening here, to push back on lies and propaganda from faraway places. Nothing is happening there, they say. The prime minister merely wants to be a dictator.
Yesterday on day 17 of the siege, thirty citizens, some of whom were walking their dogs, said enough. They put their bodies in front of yet another convoy of arriving trucks. They said you will not come into our city, again. No more. Enough. If the police won’t do what needs to be done, we will.
Then neighbours spontaneously arrived. They became thousands. It was Canadian February, -20 degrees. They brought boxes of Tim Horton’s coffee, had pizzas delivered, played music. They noted how uncomfortable the “enemy” seemed, the people trapped in the convoy who had been trying to surge into the city– how they wouldn’t make eye contact, as the crowd of citizens grew and became more joyful. The police took the side of the residents and began to help them disperse the convoy– and while it should surely have been the other way around, it did finally happen. The people drove out a massive line of trucks one by one, from early morning to dusk. And to be allowed to leave— they made the trucks take down their hate flags. They made them scrape off their Patriot Convoy decals. To turn around and be told not to come back, they made them take down their symbols of hate.
They’re calling it the Battle of Billings Bridge, for the highway exit. Seasoned activists in the crowd said they’d never seen anything like it. It triggered that resignation of the police chief a few days ago, which in turn coincided with, finally, the use of the Emergencies Act. Did these regular citizens of the capital face the demons, and in facing them, disperse them? Or am I being too poetic?
So back to this interview series. Back to this introduction. I can again assure I had no way of knowing I’d be writing it locked inside in an extremist occupation. How could one ever know such a thing in North America, in 2022?
I conducted these interviews last year. I did almost all of them while visiting family in the US: on Zoom, all over the world. It was my first-time setting foot in the US in five years, since 2016. And it wasn’t by choice.
While feeling quite adrift and in a stuck state in my own life, things were mostly calm. The usual street harassment found in every country for an exercising woman. Some residual MAGA flags that chilled me as I went for runs. It isn’t over. A few mask kerfuffles. But it seemed things were calming down. And that was in the US, which had just had its insurrection. Canada couldn’t possibly be any safer. I was just biding my time until I could get back.
Here we are, in February 2022. The situation has shifted, rapidly, horrifically. It’s been said that the post-2016 US has come to Canada. Some of the world’s darkest and most deliberate forces have made their way here, for their own aims, through the internet. And so, we wait to see what will happen, like the boiling frog, the Battle of Billings Bridge notwithstanding.
Now it is day 21. It’s snowing heavily and it just got dark, and the police have moved in. For real this time. They’ve set up a cordon. They’ve arrested some of the leaders. Now we wait, for violence or dispersal. Now we find out if it’s nearly over or if it has hardly started.
But the interviews. I wanted their format to be what Joyce Carol Oates has called the interview as art form. A sort of Studs Terkel, oral history approach to traumawork. And to my huge gratitude, I found many people who were willing to talk with me– fascinating and brilliant people, with unique stories, from all over the world. A dream team of interview subjects, really.
In the metaphor with which I began this series, I’ve situated these people I interviewed as the ones who walk away from Omelas. Suiting up and going into society’s metaphorical sewers, where hardly anyone wants to look. Do they see in their work what I did? That they might at times serve as part of a “devil’s bargain” made by comfortable societies– that this is work that some agree to do so that the masses can live in the cheerful or the banal, not required to contend with the evils and injustices that underlie so many of our systems? And my guiding premise that these people are all practitioners of chöd, whether they know it or not. Especially the women.
These are elegant ideas, but now I don’t necessarily think they’re entirely true. They may be for me, to some degree, in my feminist work on trauma and sexual assault. But it turned out they didn’t need to be for everyone. For every scholar or artist or activist or researcher like me, who views their work as doing something dark that must be done, who leans into the pain it causes– there are at least two more who just don’t see it that way, I’ve learned. Happily.
I thought I was coming to these people to ask them, “why you do such depressing work, and how do you fight off the depression it might cause in you? The rage? The madness? The despair?” And I found, it’s not that for everyone. It’s just not.
Today, we have the fascinating and ever-emerging field of epigenetics. After thousands of generations of humanity, today DNA can empirically prove that a person’s depression or addiction issues could have been triggered by a grandparent’s famine, a great-grandparent’s pogrom. A pregnant woman lives through a car accident, and her child is forever changed. Trauma that sits right on the strands of DNA, in the womb, that alters.
Frances Farmer, who was both so eloquent and truthful and so miserable and angry, far more an intellectual than a Hollywood starlet, lived firmly in such a “sins of the fathers” perspective when she reflected on her own mental illnesses: “Man is built genetically, and there is no deviation, nor is there an escape. Environment may alter but it cannot change the inherited nature… I was the result of my parents, and their parents before them, ad infinitum, and my frailties and my defeats, my victories and my conquests were all traceable to that mystic part of my past when I was being formed by those who came before me”. Farmer continued, “but I knew that I would have to force the gate to the past even wider and go beyond my time and even beyond the era of my parents, for my mother and father were also products of a specific heritage and rearing. Here again, I was not a part of it, but it was a part of me”.
Farmer was here, in her memoir, rather remarkably doing epigenetics– writing in a field that didn’t yet exist. But she also lived in a world of the early twentieth century, with electroshock treatments and straitjackets and Thorazine as the methods of choice to try to burn the generational trauma out of her brain, to cure whatever it was that was wrong with her. No wonder she was depressed by our “doomed” natures.
Meanwhile, in this series you can read my interview with a world-renowned epigeneticist living and working today. He doesn’t find horror in realizing just how many of our genetic markers may be passed down by our ancestors’ traumas, but fascination and pride in the promise of his work. Instead of seeing our human life as one long lesson in “we’re doomed before we even begin” — a depressed view, a traumatized view, a pre-genetic view, if you will– he is deeply hopeful. “Because, you see, if we know it, we can fix it”. It’s true, today we can see the genetic code. If we can see it, we can work with it. Change it. Correct the problems. No?
What about the Holocaust scholar who is himself a descendant of survivors? Has he lived his life under a shadow, haunted and tortured? Not at all. He’s cheerful and quite content with the happy and successful life he’s made. In fact, he notes, all of his friends, the generation of survivor’s children are, too, successful, with happy families. He takes this as a marker that they came through it okay, psychologically speaking. A people who couldn’t be destroyed. A triumph of humanity.
So not everyone who does traumawork is heavy about it. Maybe just some are. It does remain true that traumatized people can do amazingly brave work on trauma, that can also serve to help heal themselves along the way. I mentioned earlier Audrey Hepburn’s PTSD in her humanitarian work. But she also found great inner calm and beauty in this work, too. In her later life, she explained, “After looking inside an insane asylum, visiting a leper colony, talking to missionary workers, and watching operations, I felt very enriched. I developed a new kind of inner peacefulness. A calmness. Things that once seemed so important weren’t important any longer”.
Furthermore, I found that not everyone working on traumatic subjects is even themselves traumatized at all. Some are purposeful, cheerful helpers. Some are curious. Whichever type, what I learned from conducting this interview series is that all do profess to finding some kind of peace or joy in the work. Or they wouldn’t do it.
So, in this series, my premise was completely challenged. I found purpose, but not in a plodding and grim way. Not in darkness, but in finding the light IN darkness. Hence, the title change. From “Night Shift In the Graveyards” to “A Light in the Mineshaft”. I found, in conversation with my subjects, pride at being part of effecting change. I found humour. And in a quite awful year for me personally, this unexpected revelation was particularly beautiful.
In doing this work, I went from a painful 2021 to, like many of us, a still traumatized 2022. But also, to a more hopeful perspective– even in, ahem, “these troubled times”. From grim to more open-hearted. From night shifts in graveyards to lights in mineshafts.
And so, I want to thank each and every person I interviewed for this series for sharing that light with me– that fearlessness, that sense of purpose, that clarity, that joy, that lightness in darkness.
“I meant to write about death, but life came breaking in as usual.” -Virginia Woolf
Now as I conclude the series, we are in some unique, even uncharted terrible times. As I keep saying: I don’t know how it will end. None of us do. The artist Matt Johnson explained why he used grotesquerie and satire to mock members of the Trump administration throughout that recent era: “We’re in heavy times, with a global rise in authoritarian regimes; I often feel like I’m choking on my own dread of what may come… I just thought we all needed a little levity”. Satire is needed, to take some of the fear out of the monsters. Satire is resistance. Satire is chöd.
Here in the capital, the citizens have made funny, punny signs and hashtags, memes, and videos. They’ve trolled the occupiers relentlessly– on their trucker channels, on social media. They’ve used vulgar songs and the power of the people in humour and, finally, bodies to face the demons. To not let evil win. This, too, is working with trauma– facing it, and coming out the other side.
Now the conclusions I drew from these interviews seemed to have foreshadowed the best of how we, here in this capital city, have managed to deal with the crisis that surrounds us. I hope we come out of it stronger and having learned some lessons. I hope this interview series provides that same kind of hope– that wisdom and insight can prevail. That we can look into the darkness, see it unafraid, and leave it again. Say begone, banish it away. Heal. And become better.
Today is day 22. Arrests are happening at the end of my block. Battles. The police say they are taking the city back, block by block, for the residents. “Make Ottawa Boring Again”, read the t-shirts they are starting to sell at the shops on Bank Street.
I never thought I’d see the police as urban liberators. I venture most of my neighbours didn’t, either. But here we are. As I said at the beginning, a lot has happened.
I went out this evening to go to the store. Snowy. I could see all the police lights at the end of my block. So many, a blockade, forming checkpoints. But what I noticed, for the first time in twenty-three days, was that it was so beautifully, perfectly quiet. Silent, in fact.