I watched in horror as a little boy of about five was whacked—hard—across his face on the subway. His mother began to berate him, calling him names (“retard” was one of the ones I remember), ridiculing him. He didn’t cry. He just stared straight ahead, as if he wasn’t in his body.
I desperately wanted to do something, but there was only a subway worker in uniform and me on the train and she just looked the other way. Plus, it looked like the mother had some kind of weapon stuck in the top of her jeans.
At the next stop, I got off and asked another woman what to do. She, too, told me it’s not a crime to smack your kid. But this mother didn’t just “smack” him. She put all her force into the blow. I knew I couldn’t identify her (I mainly looked at the little boy and then turned away in case I would incite her anger against him.) I didn’t know what else to do. I felt defeated.
This was quite a while ago. But, if you live in New York, and you take public transportation, this is not all that unusual.
More recently, I was privileged to attend an educational seminar on women and trauma and peer support. The session was informative, and really opened my eyes to the need for trauma-informed care. A significant number of people with mental illness and addiction have had serious trauma in their youth.
I wasn’t surprised to hear that multiple traumatic experiences are, sadly, not uncommon, and for some women, the norm.
Of particular interest in this seminar (as well as reading I’ve been doing on the topic) was information about how women (and men) who’ve been traumatized respond to situations that they perceive as threatening (sight, smell, sound and a host of other cues trigger their response). Their bodies race to react quicker than their minds. Their anxiety levels surge. This is commonly referred to as “fight or flight.”
But if you aren’t aware that these reactions are due to trauma, the person might be perceived as “uncooperative” or “resistant to treatment.”
I sifted through a pile of information on trauma: Some responses to perceived threats might be: to run away, shut down, flashback, verbally attack, scream, cry, hit or punch out, struggle and so on. A person might react with self-harm, might exhibit “psychiatric” symptoms, or seek to medicate their symptoms with alcohol, drugs, risky or dangerous behaviors.
In trauma-informed care, these reactions/behaviors should be viewed as coping mechanisms, rather than symptoms. This is so important; real emotional pain underlies these reactions.
As a woman, I was also very interested in a discussion about the criminalization of women, which is believed to be based on a misunderstanding of women’s responses to trauma. In other words, women who’ve been traumatized do crimes that are expressions of their forced response to trauma. In fact, the crimes they commit might be their way to survive. Therefore, they have been criminalized.
Had I attended these sessions before I had witnessed the little boy being hit on the subway I might not have blinked at this statement. But, we all know the painful fact that each day children, both boys and girls, are harmed and traumatized. We know that boys, too are victims of all kinds of trauma, some different types of trauma to be sure, than girls. That’s why I came away from the meeting wondering: what about boys and men and criminalization? Are men and boys criminalized when the crimes they commit are in reaction to their traumatic injuries?
I feel that it’s important to understand that the ways in which women outwardly respond to trauma are likely to be different than the way men respond (but not always). Many cultures and subcultures in the United States (among many other places) for example, still teach boys that men should be tough, that they should solve problems through extreme assertiveness (which would be considered “pushiness” in girls or women) or even with aggressiveness or violence.
In many places girls are taught to negotiate with bullies or submit to them; yet in some of those very same cultures boys are taught to fight bullies, stand up to them and “show they’re not afraid,” even if they are trembling inside. Boys aren’t always given the option to negotiate. To be fair, there are cultures in the U.S.; some even in my own city, where girls, too, are given no choice but to fight or be hurt.
So, when a traumatized boy grows up and the man he becomes experiences a situation which he perceive as a threat, it might not be surprising that he more quickly resorts to violence, or at least more extreme violence than a woman. He’s been taught that the proper response to threat is violence.
I’m not ashamed to say I’m afraid of violence. And as someone who was attacked many years ago by two male muggers, I’m more likely to be nervous about walking down the street late at night if there are only men around vs. women.
(Does it make sense since the mugging happened in daylight? Also, this time last year, a pair of young women were mugging people near a park in Brooklyn; yes they were caught, but generally my reaction is to fear men on the street at night. Does that make me biased or traumatized or something else?)
And I’m not saying because a person has been traumatized, he or she has the right to attack anyone; trauma isn’t a justification or excuse for violence. I just know that boys, like girls, are being repeatedly traumatized all over the world. They aren’t allowed their fear in many situations, and like the child soldiers I link to in the previous sentence, they live lives of “kill or be killed.” In these situations, boys are forced to commit violent acts and we must remember that this is also very traumatic and soul killing.
Even in the West, both girls and boys are traumatized (like the little boy on the train). Remember “A Child Called It”? Dave Pelzer’s brothers were forced to join in isolating and treating him badly. They, too were traumatized; they too were altered and harmed by this.
What about violent criminals, men and women both? How many of them have been traumatized as children? How many of them will even admit to it?
If crimes men and women who’ve been traumatized commit are reactions to perceived threats or coping mechanisms, does that make them “criminalized?” I don’t know, I have been doing a lot of thinking and have a lot of questions.
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Last reviewed: 10 Jul 2012