Secondary Traumatic Stress (or: On the Dispersal of Brain Matter in a Kentucky Trailer)

Dan Canon
I Taught the Law
Published in
12 min readAug 20, 2021

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Photo by Scotty Perry. Used with permission.

When a man’s head has been blown off with a shotgun, you’d expect there to be more of a mess. But a 12-gauge to the temple, at close range, can be surgically precise. I was a third-year law student, still in my 20s, when I learned that. Our clinic director gave us a foot-thick, plain-brown expandable file and told us to “turn over every page.” The photo of the victim was stuck in an unmarked manila folder, shuffled into a stack of ordinary-looking paper. At first it looked like an error in printing; like someone had taken a picture of a shirtless man, sitting upright in a wheelchair, but somehow cropped out the top half of his head. Even the bottom of his face, the nostrils, the graying mustache, the mouth still open in surprise, was intact beneath a sharply defined line that divided what was left of his skull from the rest of his trailer.

An image like that is not immediately shocking. You may have made an educated guess that what you’re looking at is horrific, but you don’t know why. By the time you comprehend it, you’re already immersed in it. You can’t pretend you didn’t see it. Nor do you have the luxury of flipping to the next page or slapping the file shut; you must carefully examine every detail of the scene for your client’s sake. When you do, you begin to understand why there is so little visible disarray in such a violent photo. It’s because the force applied to the matter in question was so great, and the matter so willing to yield. What would otherwise be large clumps of organic material have been broken up and dispersed into a barely perceptible red mist that has settled onto surrounding surfaces without betraying what it used to be: hair, eyeballs, an earring, the stored memories of a grandfather caught up in rural Kentucky’s extensive drug trade. Through an accident of physics, the gore is presented in a way that makes it bearable to the casual observer.

Over my career, I’ve seen a lot worse. Murder victims soaked in blood, brains scattered on the floor, eyes bulging out. Countless people twisted up, deconstructed, and otherwise dehumanized by police. Kids with their faces burned off, kids wedged under truck wheels, kids with baseball-sized bullet holes in their chests. Video of diabetic mothers dying, sometimes quickly, sometimes not…

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Dan Canon
I Taught the Law

Civil rights lawyer, law professor, and high school dropout. Writes about the Midwest, class struggle, and the untold horrors of the legal system.