When I think of Silken Laumann, I picture a stunningly powerful woman who rowed her way to an Olympic gold medal. In her autobiography Unsinkable, Silken tells why she was able to ignore pain and push past obstacles that would have stopped another athlete. What was behind her fierce competitive edge? Surprisingly, she credits the pain and shame of childhood trauma with giving her the ability to ignore pain and push past any obstacles coming between her and winning.
Laumann was born to postwar German immigrant parents. Her mother’s destructive, critical nature and narcissistic coldness traumatized Silken. Attempting to survive her mother’s shaming and negativity, she learned to dissociate. By age 16, cutting herself with a razor provided an outlet for her unbearable pain. In an attempt to control her environment, she became anorexic. She obsessed over her athletic body.
Does all of this sound familiar? It’s the pattern of normal human development to abnormal circumstances. As so many of us who are survivors of childhood trauma, she was pressured to view her family as ideal. The need to comply with the family myth was as damaging as the actual abuse. Having her reality negated made her crazy all over again, she says.
Reading her story and appreciating her intelligence and honesty, I felt very warm toward her. I’m so glad her story has a happy ending. She got the good professional help she needed in order to come to terms with her overwhelming childhood. She makes it clear that knowing the truth about her childhood provided the road to sanity and to the healthy life she now shares with her husband, Patch, as together, they parent his children and hers.
Silken Laumann with Sylvia Fraser, Unsinkable: My Untold Story, Harper Collins Publishers Ltd., 2014.
We’ve all been shaken to the core by this seemingly upstanding leader who turns out to be an evil sadist. The question most of us ask ourselves is this: How could this man be that man? How can the same person be a pillar of society and, at the same time, a depraved, heartless killer with a fetish for women’s lingerie?
Russell Williams, we’ve found out, is married to a woman who is respected by her colleagues and friends. On the surface, their lives together looked ideal: two successful adults doing good work for their communities. Read more
For many years I traveled to Germany to teach about psychological trauma at the Focusing Zentrum Karlsruhe. A psychotherapist has a unique window into the society in which she lives. My years of teaching psychotherapy skills in Germany allowed some very special insights into this foreign country’s history.
Germans suffered terribly from both the first and the second world wars. War, however, is not the crux of their suffering. The trauma begins with German child rearing. I believe that traditional German child rearing is responsible for Germany’s history of wartime atrocities.
Germany has a well-documented history of intentional cruelty and shaming of children dating back to the1750’s. Well meaning parents followed the advice of “experts” who told them how to raise an obedient child. What mattered was that the child would grow into a citizen who would obey orders. To this end, crying babies were shaken to scare them into never making their needs known. Children were shamed and beaten to make sure they never followed their own feelings and wishes.
No one who benefited from secure attachment as a child could have carried out the brutal orders German soldiers inflicted on their victims. As a result of their childhoods, they had no access to their own feelings. If you can’t experience your own feelings, how can you empathize with others?
The lesson for all of us is this: If we want to live in a peaceful world, we need to take great care to raise our children with love and caring.
I’m in Germany where I have been teaching the participants at the annual International Focusing Conference how our brains protect us from whatever is too terrible to assimilate into consciousness.
I explained that normal memory, like the memory of being in my workshop, is an explicit memory. That is, it has details. They will remember much of what I said, who was there and so on.
On the other hand, implicit memory, as in traumatic memory, is carried in the body. It lacks a narrative and details.
A normal event is first registered by the thalamus of the brain, then goes to the amygdala and then to the hippocampus for storage. However, if the event is traumatic, the amygdala acts as a watchdog and doesn’t pass it on to the hippocampus for storage. That means that maybe there never was a whole memory. The memory might fragment into pieces that are visual or olfactory, but lack a context.
The mind doesn’t know about the terrible event, but the body does. Fear is the major emotion of trauma. Anxiety and depression result, even though the person cannot attach a reason for the disturbance.
Time does not heal traumatic memory. The feelings are in the present. It seems as if something terrible or threatening is happening in the present – or is about to happen. The task for psychotherapy or any type of healing is to put the past into the past. This means changing the way the brain experiences your existence.
I’m in Germany at the International Focusing Conference. Today I gave a workshop on traumatic memory. The theme was why it’s possible to have no memory of terrifying events.
First, I wanted the participants to be clear on the definition of “traumatic.” Often people use the term to describe a memory that is merely bad or painful. A traumatic event has to be (1) inescapable and (2) intolerable.
Our natural impulse when something threatens us is to go into a state of fight or flight. If we can’t fight and we can’t flee, we freeze or dissociate.
Normal children are capable of dissociating in order to survive. Dissociation is learned at an early age and is a highly developed skill. I tell my clients that yogis go into a cave for years to learn this skill.
What does it feel like to dissociate? Some people describe it as looking at the world through a pane of glass while feeling nothing. Others float on the ceiling and look down at what seems to be happening to somebody else. Yet another common form of dissociation involves simply leaving the body and feeling nothing.
At one time, dissociation spared us from feeling the full impact of a situation we couldn’t tolerate. Otherwise we wouldn’t be capable of this advanced mind/body control. It allowed us to participate in some parts of normal childhood, such as going to school.
In a nutshell, our brains are designed to assure the survival of our species. Dissociation deserves our respect.