Climate trauma – is it the result of the climate catastrophe or a consequence of our inability to really imagine such a catastrophe, even when it is taking place all around us? Dr Steven Reisner takes a deep dive into the psychology and history of trauma to show how the best way to cope with tragedy is with eyes and heart wide open.
Hello everyone, I’m Steven Reisner, and this is Madness, where psychology and capitalism collide. I am coming to you today from Berlin, a city that, from the 15th century to the 19th century was the center of power and culture in middle Europe. And which, in the 20th century embodied the hope and destruction of every fantasy of western civilization. From Weimar to Hitler to the wall going up and the wall coming down. And today, Berlin is rising again as an international center of youth culture.
This week, as I ate lunch in the Tiergarten, Berlin’s central park, while stylish, sophisticated Berliners sang happy birthday to one another in English, I noticed a beautiful sight out the window: a cherry tree in full boom. It is early February, and cherry trees are blooming in Berlin. They are also blooming in New York City, in Okanawa , and in Washington DC, where newscasters are telling the public not to worry, the blossoming cherry trees are not the ones the tourist come to see in April, and that those cherry trees will only be a few weeks early this year, which shouldn’t hurt the DC economy. Heart broken at the sight of a blossoming cherry tree? Sounds like Madness.
Just two weeks ago I had the privilege of traveling with Michael Moore, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Bernie Sanders on their whirlwind tour of western Iowa. It was the home stretch of Iowa Caucus campaign. Michael Moore and AOC had been asked to stand in for Bernie because he was on the jury at the trial of the century: the world vs Donald Trump. But ever the showman, Trump had the trial suspended on Saturday afternoon because he was unhappy with the television ratings. Bernie flew to join us in Iowa. We know how that ended. We know the trial ended in acquittal, which Trump has called “complete vindication.” We know the caucuses ended in chaos; exposing once again, that the DNC is not prepared for the epic battle ahead.
But that is not what I want to speak about today. Today I want to talk about what I saw when Bernie walked into the packed room of working class voters in Marshalltown, Iowa, population 27, 552. There was something in his gate that felt different from the Bernie I had watched on television. Something in his shoulders. He spoke as if he were carrying the fate of the world of his shoulders: “This is the most consequential election, perhaps, in the history of the united states of America. What we are talking about is whether or not we maintain democracy or move toward autocracy.”
Bernie did not speak with panic in his voice, but with the authority of someone who had spent the week observing how much the rules had changed in Washington; observing how powerful were the voices of denial and rage. He spoke to the people of Marshalltown about the climate emergency, not the way the UN talks about it, not the way Greta Thunberg talks about it – the usual campaigns urging us all to act quickly to avoid catastrophe, to avoid breaching the 1.5 degree threshold. He spoke, in Iowa, as someone who is willing to calmly speak truth to the powerless. “What I will tell you is a little bit scary. People may not even want to hear it. But what the scientists are telling us now is that they have underestimated the severity and the degree to which climate change is ravaging our country and the planet.”
“What I will tell you is scary. People may not want to hear it.” With those words, Bernie identified the biggest threat to the country and to the world. No, it’s not the threat of climate change itself. It’s the threat of what fear does to the American people and what fear is doing to democracy throughout the world.
To understand how fear changed the course of democracy and led directly to the phenomenon of Donald Trump, I have to take a detour and explain the concept of trauma, its meaning and its effects, from a psychoanalytic point of view. As a child of holocaust survivors, a psychoanalyst, and a university professor, I have spent my life trying to make sense of trauma, to understand its treatment, but more importantly to understand its place in culture. And what I’ve come to understand is that individuals and cultures alike develop their character and values based largely on how they respond to the traumas of their history.
What I’ve learned is that there are basically two ways to respond to trauma and to treat trauma – and these two ways can be traced back to the 19th century and the battle between two extraordinary psychologists – Sigmund Freud and Pierre Janet. The two studied together under the tutelage of Jean Martin Charcot, who ran a psychiatric hospital in Paris in the 1880’s and 90’s. Both Freud and Janet rejected the idea that the psychiatric symptoms of the day were caused by dementia, or laziness, or by being female. They each, independently, arrived at the idea that symptoms were caused by traumatic experiences early in life that, because they were too painful, were no longer available to memory. But they had radically different ideas about what to do about this – about how to treat the effects of these repressed memories. Janet believed that the patient was simply incapable of integrating the terrible experience and that true healing required reinstating the pre-traumatic state – the condition of the person before the experience of the trauma. So Janet’s treatment consisted of hypnotizing the patient and offering a post-hypnotic suggestion that would free them of the burden of the terrible experience. Here is Janet describing one of his famous cases, the case of “Marie”: It … occurred to me to put her into a deep somnambulistic condition, a state where (as we have seen) it is possible to bring back seemingly forgotten memories, and thus I was able to find out the exact memory of an incident which had hitherto been only very incompletely known…. The attacks of terror were the repetition of an emotion which this young girl had felt when seeing, at the age of 16, an old woman killing herself by falling down stairs…. Through the same process as before, through bringing the subject back by suggestion to the moment of the accident, I succeeded, not without difficulty, to show her that the old woman had only stumbled but had not killed herself: the attacks of terror did not recur… It turns out to be a lot of work to convince someone that what actually happened, did not in fact happen. Especially if there are reminders of the event in one’s every day life. It required, according to Janet, repeated hypnosis, re-education and mental training, and, I would add, a dependency on the authority of the hypnotist. It requires someone who will speak to the patient the way Chico Marx spoke to Margaret Dumont, in Duck Soup: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”
Sigmund Freud had a very similar belief about the origin of neurotic symptoms. He also believed they were the result of overwhelming traumatic experience – he even went through a period where he thought that all neuroses were caused by repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. But Freud believed that the cure required coming to terms with those memories, remembering them and making them part of conscious memory. Psychoanalysis became a process of remembering what was being repressed, denied, avoided. Freud believed that the aim of psychoanalysis was the freedom to know – to know what you’ve been through, to feel it fully, to mourn the tragic events in your life, and to move forward with all the knowledge, wisdom and courage that facing the truth entails.
We could say that Janet, although he didn’t know it, was the first capitalist psychologist. Instead of helping the girl accept that tragic experiences are a part of life, he promised her a life without tragedy. And he offered, for a fee, a treatment that, if she just became dependent on it, would fulfill that promise. Janet’s way of dealing with trauma was to offer the hypnotic reassurance that the trauma never existed – or if it did exist, that it can be undone completely, so that the patient’s experience can be made great again.
American capitalism and American politics are now fueled by precisely this philosophy – if Americans discover that life brings with it any kind of suffering, American capitalism offers a product or a service or a drug to help Americans forget the suffering, avoid it, resist it, deny it. Aging, fear, sadness, loss, American capitalism offers a hypnotic treatment. And as a result, Americans experience any discomfort – a contradictory idea, a hostile remark, a gender difference or an obscure flirtation, a cultural norm or a political opinion different than their own, as a trauma that must be removed at all costs. And American politics now promises that, if the threat does not disappear, someone will be blamed and punished, someone will be fired or deported, so that the university or the country can be made great again. And this is also the response to climate change on both the left and the right. The right denies the effects of climate change outright, and they have a president hypnotist mesmerizing them and reeducating them into forgetfulness. But the left is in its own hypnotic spell, believing that the threat can be undone. That we can avoid and deny the tragedy that we see every day in front of us, by keeping the temperature rise under 1.5 degrees, by becoming vegetarian, by paying to offset our carbon footprint when we fly and by eating local, we can make the earth great again.
My mother told me that during the war, when her family was living in one room in the Lodz ghetto, they had a visitor. It was a man they knew from before the war. He was from the same town as they were from, Pabianice. But he had escaped the first ghetto and it took the Germans two years to find him and send him to the Lodz ghetto. They sat, drinking tea, and, my mother said, he spoke to them of what he saw before he was captured. “I have come to warn everyone in the ghetto. The Germans are killing Jews. They have set up a giant killing factory and they are sending Jews there by the thousands. Maybe by the tens of thousands.” Her father, my grandfather, sat and listened seriously, drinking his tea. After the man left, the family gathered around him, frightened. “The man is crazy,” my grandfather said. “I was a soldier in the German Army during the last war. The Germans treated me well, with dignity, even though I was a Jew. The Germans I knew would not do this. The man is crazy, or he is just trying to frighten us.” I think about that moment often these days. My grandfather had already seen the Jews in his small town beaten and herded into a ghetto. He had already seen those same Jews beaten again, herded again into a slightly larger ghetto, along with 160,000 others. He had already seen Jews dying of starvation in the street, and deported in cattle cars. And yet, he could not imagine the radical evil that was in front of his eyes.
Philip Gurowitz, in his memoir of post-genocide Rwanda, wrote, “what fascinates me most in existence [is] the peculiar necessity of imagining what is, in fact, real.” Human beings must be able to imagine what is in front of them, must be able to fit the facts in front of them with their conception of the world. The problem, is that in its very nature, overwhelming change is difficult to conceive of. And it occurs faster than most people are able to imagine it. Trauma does not arise only because of the severity of a traumatic event. Trauma is the result of the tearing apart of everything we believe. It is more than a crisis of imagination: it is a crisis of meaning. It is a crisis of trust. Trust that in hard times, people will still act like people. Trust that the President will obey the law. Trust that the cherry blossoms will bloom in April. If overwhelming change is difficult to imagine, overwhelming change that is the result of human evil, is nearly impossible.
Hannah Arendt in her book on totalitarianism, said that because of our natural tendency to believe in the good, we cannot conceive of “radical evil.” … “Therefore,” she said. “we actually have nothing to fall back on in order to understand a phenomenon that nevertheless confronts us with its overpowering reality.” But I don’t agree with Hannah Arendt. I find that even in the face of overwhelming evil and catastrophic change, there are certain people who can recognize what is happening. And those people come through the horrors without trauma. Research shows that such people fall into two categories. There are those who are able to rely on their independent value systems, and who maintain their beliefs in spite of the shock and the horror. They use their religion or their political views, or their capacity for love to guide them, and, when and if the terror ends, these people are likely to come out the other side and integrate what they’ve seen within the larger context of what they believe and what they align with, and what they fight for. I believe that such people have an enormous capacity for love, for mourning and for hope.
Research also shows that there is another kind of person who comes through terrible circumstances without trauma. It turns out, and this really shouldn’t be surprising, that sociopaths have a kind of immunity to trauma. And that’s because sociopaths are able to see every event as an opportunity for personal gain. Sociopaths – and here I am not speaking of a diagnostic category, but of an interpersonal and political strategy – sociopaths thrive in circumstances that are overwhelming to other people, they thrive in environments without humanity – environments of human exploitation and of cruelty. That’s why they rise to the top in prisons, in concentration camps – and, they have an extraordinary capacity to justify their actions, without guilt: In Thaddeusz Borowski’s memoir of Auschwitz, This way to the gas, ladies and gentleman, he reports a conversation with a camp guard, Becker, who had sent his own son to his death. Borowski is shocked at what he here’s from the guard. The guard looks at Borowski “almost with pity” and says: “You know something, Tadek, I think you’re a nice boy,…but you haven’t really known hunger, have you?” “That depends on what you mean by hunger.” “Real hunger,’ said Becker, ‘ is when one man regards another man as something to eat.”
We are facing radical environmental changes affecting all life on earth. Let me correct that; we are seeing radical environmental changes affecting all life on earth. But we are not facing these changes, because we are traumatized – not only by the fact that these are overwhelming changes happening faster than we can conceive of them, but by the fact that these changes have been wrought, and continue to be wrought by oligarchs, corporate executives and political leaders, who regard every living thing on earth, animals, plants and people, as something to eat. And the rest of us are in a kind of shock. That’s why, in spite of the fact that temperatures have risen steadily over the past decade, we still refer to these temperatures as “above normal.” In spite of the fact that the cherry trees have been blossoming regularly in January, we still say, they are coming early. They are not coming early. The temperatures are not above normal. This is the new normal. Early blossoms, early migrations are the new normal – the loss of birds, of insects, of fish, of forests. We just can’t see it, we can’t admit it because we are traumatized by the sheer magnitude and rapidity of what is happening around us. And like children in a thunderstorm, we turn to our elders to signal how we are to perceive what is in front of our eyes. Elders who we hope can stand outside the chaos and explain what is happening; elders who can see the catastrophe and not lose their bearings. Which brings us back to Bernie Sanders, speaking with the fate of the world on his shoulders: “What I have to tell you is scary and you may not want to hear it.”
This election, if we have an election, comes down to this: how will Americans work through the trauma that erupting everywhere? Will Americans look to the hypnotist-President who offers an imaginary fear in the place of the real danger? Or will we turn to the traditional Democrats who promise an imaginary hope, based on denial of the irreversible effects that are already upon us? Because Americans have been trained to identify any discomfort as a trauma we have lost the ability to make use of the experience fear. As if fear, if it were fully experienced, would render us paralyzed and hopeless. But psychoanalysis teaches us that it is only when we face our fears that we know when to fight back, that we know when to make change. It teaches us that acknowledging the reality of our tragic circumstance, looking squarely in the face of what terrifies us, mourning what we have lost, and identifying what is still possible, is ultimately energizing, ultimately allows us to mobilize to save what can be saved and create what must be created to adapt, to change and to persevere.
First the hurricanes came, but I did not speak out because I was not in its path. Then the floods came, but I did not speak out, because I was not in a flood zone. Then the fires came, but my house did not burn. And then the insects began to disappear, but I was not a farmer; I did not need the bees. Then the glaciers began to disappear and the fish and the birds and then I did speak out. And I discovered my power.