Friday, November 17, 2017

Elizabeth Smart's Resilience

When someone has been traumatized a competent psycho professional will want the person to get over the experience, to put it behind him. Incompetent psycho professionals will want him to integrate the experience into his life narrative.

If they are Freudians they believe that when people have difficulty getting over a trauma, the reason must be that they had unconsciously wanted it to happen. Their problems derive from their inability accept that they wanted to be molested, harassed, abused or raped.

Most Freudians will never accept that their grand master believed such things. If so they have failed the most elementary lesson in close reading of the Freudian text.

On various occasions, as our media are filled with stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault, I have remarked that many of the victims have said that they have never gotten over what happened to them. To which I have offered the example of Elizabeth Smart. When Smart was a teenager in Utah she was kidnapped and raped repeatedly for months on end. And she has, as well as we can tell, gotten over the experience and lived her life.

Thus, she shows how someone can overcome trauma and move on with her life. It is a constructive message, one that needs more attention.

Yesterday, Bethany Mandel gave the Smart story more of the attention it deserves. She argued that Smart overcame her experience by showing uncommon resilience. More than that, Mandel explains that Smart chose “joy” over anguish.

We note that Smart did not have the option of keeping her trauma secret. The couple that kidnapped her was put on trial for their crimes. They are currently serving long prison sentences. Once an experience becomes common knowledge, it is that much harder to put behind one, to act as though it never happened. Smart's ability to overcome a trauma that everyone knows about counts as exceptional.

When everyone knows what happens to you they look at you differently. In time this will come to define who you are… as a victim, as someone deserving of pity and sympathy.

I am all for choosing joy and admire Smart’s resilience, but, if we dig a little deeper we note that she was not in it alone. She was surrounded by a strong and moral community, a community that insisted on treating her as though nothing  had happened. It takes a significant effort for a community to rally behind a victim and to act as though nothing happened. Smart also had a strong intact family that acted as though it had not happened.

Surely, strength of character counts, but, family and community attitudes are often decisive in producing such strength of character. Especially when the victim is a child. In another community with a different family Elizabeth Smart might not have believed that she could choose joy.

As for the question of what defines your character, Smart herself stated it well and clearly in a motivational speech:

Every single one of us has had something happen to us in our life… I mean, hopefully it’s not all kidnapping (laughs). It’s not what happens to us that defines who we are. It’s what we decide to do. It’s our choices who define who we are. Whatever it is you’re going through, don’t give up.

Who you are is not everything that happened to you. Who you are is what you chose to do. I will accept that this is not entirely accurate, but, Smart is correct to see that if you did not choose to be traumatized, the trauma did not happen to you.


Jack Fisher said...

"Smart is correct to see that if you did not choose to be traumatized, the trauma did not happen to you."

You might ask a combat veteran if this is so. On second thought, you probably shouldn't.

If this weren't a public board and the story itself notorious and easily searchable, I'd give you a few details of a particularly brutal kidnapping involving cattle prods and multiple rape where family members were victimized over a full week. One night, thirty years after the incident and out of the blue, my wife and I stayed awake all night, saying nothing but with a loaded shotgun at hand because there are monsters out there. Her recovery continues after decades and I suspect this is so with Smart.

whitney said...

She seems extraordinary. Wouldn't it be great if she were normal though

Ares Olympus said...

Smart: It’s not what happens to us that defines who we are. It’s what we decide to do. It’s our choices who define who we are. Whatever it is you’re going through, don’t give up.

This quote reminded of Monica Lewinsky, and her attempts to go beyond a past that made her a global punchline to jokes. A couple years ago she risked coming back into the public to redeem herself in fighting cyberbullying.
------- ENDING
...We talk a lot about our right to freedom of expression, but we need to talk more about our responsibility to freedom of expression. We all want to be heard, but let's acknowledge the difference between speaking up with intention and speaking up for attention.

The Internet is the superhighway for the id, but online, showing empathy to others benefits us all and helps create a safer and better world. We need to communicate online with compassion, consume news with compassion, and click with compassion. Just imagine walking a mile in someone else's headline.

...Anyone who is suffering from shame and public humiliation needs to know one thing: You can survive it. I know it's hard. It may not be painless, quick or easy, but you can insist on a different ending to your story. Have compassion for yourself. We all deserve compassion, and to live both online and off in a more compassionate world.

Anonymous said...

AO: “but let's acknowledge the difference between speaking up with intention and speaking up for attention.”

Only you would find Monica Lewimsky a worthy cause. She wasn’t victimized, she was highly intentional about the physical expression she chose with President Clinton.

It’s crazy that you would preach to us about this, o Olympian one. You understand almost nothing about yourself. You’re too busy pointing at everyone else.

So far as I can tell, no one likes what you write here. Take your psychobabble elsewhere.

Ares Olympus said...

Anon, I was attempting to be supportive to the "don't give up" message, even if people deserve some of their grief, the message ought to be the same.

Certainly Monica is right about something "The Internet is the superhighway for the id."

And we've barely begun this grand experiment of disembodied anonymous voices judging and condemning from a distance. Someone somewhere is always doing something wrong you can disapprove of. I hear Twitter is the real proving grounds for Synthetic Intelligence. And surely many are simply designed to learn like children and mimic what real human have already expressed.

Anonymous said...

Teenager Patricia Hearst was first kidnapped by the SLA and later convicted to long term prison time for bank robberies as an alleged member of the SLA. She did not have the option of keeping the trauma secret - at that time the entire world knew Patty Hearst. She wasn't 'surrounded by a strong and moral community' unless those who put her behind bars count as such. She married policeman Bernard Shaw because she could discuss her traumatic experiences with him (and not with other men). They did not act as if nothing had happened. Her family did not expect that the marriage would last.

Yet Patricia Hearst has done remarkebly well and the marriage was a strong one. Bernard Shaw died in 2013.

Renée said...

The day that Smart's escape from her captors made the news, a particularly loathsome female psychologist being interviewed on NPR about it said that, at Smart's age, the only reason she didn't escape earlier was that she obviously preferred the dangerous thrill of life with her captors rather than the dull suburban family-oriented life she had previously lived. When the shocked interviewer questioned this, her response was, "Just wait and see how she lives her life when she grows up and is independent from her strait laced overbearing parents. That's when her true colors will come out." That interview has bothered me so much over the years. I am happy to know that whatever issues Smart still deals with, she has proven that psychologist wrong, wrong, wrong.