Simmons School for Social Work
Trauma: Paper 1
In reading A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah (2007), my understanding of the different dimensions of trauma expanded, and in observing my own reactions to my reading, I learned a bit about my own ways of trying to manage that which cannot be managed – what we call trauma. In thinking about the nature of trauma I think about an experience that overwhelms our capacity to bear it, and therefore it cannot be assimilated and integrated into our felt sense of self. Trauma divides our inner being, causing fragmentation, and the core symptoms of intrusion, constriction, and hyper-arousal. A Long Way Gone provides a window into both systemic, collective trauma and individual level trauma via the personal account of Ishmael himself.
How was collective trauma described in the book? The fist thing that comes to mind is how people began to look at each other with fear and suspicion (hyper-arousal). This fear and suspicion began to fray the social and communal fabric of shared meanings and shares joy in connecting with others, and as the war escalated, the social fabric was torn and eventually shredded, as seen when Ishmael and his youthful friends were almost killed by villagers fearing that the youth may be child soldiers. Lillian Comas-Diaz (2007) speaks to collective trauma in this context as “post colonial stress disorder,” and warns not to medicalize what is essentially a political phenomenon (Comas-Diaz, 2007, p. 95 citing Becker 1995).
Applying Comas-Diaz’ thinking to Ishmael’s situation in Sierra Leone, the events in that part of Africa are the result of the fallout of colonialism and cultural imperialism. Without belaboring this point about how the sociopolitical landscape came to be the way it is in Sierra Leone, suffice it to say that the country had been under British rule until 1961 and slavery was practiced and legal until 1928, an given these realities Comas-Diaz ideas of “post colonial stress disorder” make a lot of sense in terms of explaining the instability and hemorrhaging of the nation as a whole.
Are there any parallel symptoms between the trauma of to the system of Sierra Leone and the individual symptoms of trauma that Ishmael and many others suffered? Arlene Audergon (2004), in Collective trauma: The nightmare of history, speak to how the defense of splitting can be seen at the systemic level. The author states that it is common for a more privileged group in a society to want to split off from and minimize or even deny actions and historical facts that do not flatter the dominant group (Audergon, 2004, p. 21), and at the individual level Ishmael had to split off from and deny the humanity of the rebels and even civilians so as to be able to carry out the massacres he did. All of Sierra Leone became massively split, siding with other the government forces or the rebels and writing off any redeeming qualities of the other.
Ishmael’s hyper-arousal and inability relax and let his guard down was also mirrored by the entire community. The nation as a whole suffered from hyper-arousal. Audergon speaks colorfully of the parallels between the individual and collective symptom formation thusly, “The replay of trauma in individuals, in nightmares, flashbacks and visceral experience, and the replay of trauma in society in the perpetuation of unacknowledged pain and in cycles of violence…” (p. 19). Sandra Bloom and Brian Farragher (2013), in Restoring sanctuary: A new operating system for trauma-informed systems of care, reflects on how trauma impacts a system and the systemic hyper-arousal that results: “A perceived lack of safety erodes trust, which is the basis for social relationships. As a result… tensions run high” (Bloom & Farragher, 2013, p. 15). The tortured inner landscape of Ishmael, his nightmares, flashbacks (intrusions), and inner deadness (constriction) reflected the carnage, torture, and deadness around him. The