The Trauma Inside the Story

The teacher had us on our feet. I mentally prepared for a group hug. Hugs are not exactly frowned on at the Jung Center in New York City, where every attendee seemed wary of his or her shadow side. But, no worries, this was a false alarm. We were simply stretching our muscles before a day-long discussion of the trauma inside our stories.

The instructor, a psychologist, gets to the obvious early. Yes, there is horror inside those tales from the weird brains of Brothers Grimm, a fact every sleepy child knows. And we know deep down that the dish really didn’t run away with the spoon. This is a way to get to the fantastic and the mud-luscious world of childhood in a few short, barking, disruptive moments.

We are told that this is a two-million-year-old tale, uttered since man started walking erect and meddling in that object and meaning dance. The teacher shows us a photo of the Vietnam Memorial and a veteran from that war leaning into this monument. There is a world of stories between those two objects. That’s the teacher talking. I’m near tears leaning into that scene because I was part of that war and still weep when I see familiar names on this Washington DC Wailing Wall.

The instructor moves on, but I can’t. I think of my grandchildren and promise myself I will write a story about this for them. I don’t yet know how I will manage the horror and the sorrow for the young. But there’s more. Stories are tied at the hip to time and as we age, we hurry to get them out. I’m hearing the poet Andrew Marvell: “But at my back I always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”

I am listening to the instructor say that trauma sharpens, deepens and distances an experience. Of course nursery rhymes don’t make sense. The meaning resides in that upside-down, nonsense world. The person who is in possession of her life is in possession of her story. On the face of it, this claim seems archetypally true.

Somehow the instructor manages to find a folk song on his iPhone and struggles to bring it up. I prepare myself by humming a tune about a “tumbling tumbleweed,” that seemed to set the stage for a thigh-slapping song about an eye-candy maiden, a handsome young man, her fall and his suicide. It took a few minutes for me to push the writer in me back into my traveling bag. Of course this was bathos, thank you very much. But give the guy a chance. He’s actually talking about how we witness, record and shape an event. After all, the fairy tale model has long found a comfortable home in the human psyche.

Someone in the front row interrupts the transition to adolescent stories and tribal story telling by complaining that Justin Bieber simply rubs his ear and a stream of stories come forth, as if the young man had lived a thousand years. The median age of those in attendance at the Jung Center seemed to increase in an instance with wisdom and a little disdain circulating freely in the air.

The child who was certain the moon followed him was equally certain that it didn’t follow his father. Nursery rhymes, cowboy songs, and other life stories have staying power because they are archetypal and foundational. That is why we hand our young daughters magic brooms to sweep away the monsters that reside under their beds.

For most of the morning, the instructor has been tip-toeing through a range of foundational stories on his way to trauma. The group breaks into twos to tell our stories, each taking a turn as Witness and Recorder. You tell me your tale and I’ll tell you mine.

The story suggestions from the instructor could be right from a writing class: first childhood memory, story of your birth, a family story about you, your first memory and so on. There is nothing remarkable in this. What was remarkable to me was how much and how quickly my partner and I shared, even though we had never spoken before this class. There was talk of being born during World War II, blackout curtains, air raid sirens, and hiding in the coal cellar and under a rickety wooden table. There was talk of abuse, abandonment, and treachery. And there was much talk of tenacity, survival and redemption.

A person in the class expressed surprise at how easily she and her partner had shared information and wondered whether she had listened closely enough to honor the exchange. She saw this as more of a gift than a burden.

The instructor said that trauma resides just below the surface and waits eagerly for the telling.

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