Power-Under: Trauma and Nonviolent Social Change

It is Passover, and as a Jew I recite the words, never forget that we were slaves in Egypt, hearing all the ambiguity in the instructions. What does it mean to promise the remembrance of pain? Is it so we never take anyone else's pain lightly? Is it a promise to become so fierce that no-one will ever enslave us again? Exactly how are we to carry a trauma thousands of years old?

It is Passover, and the sixtieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when a small group of young Polish Jews fought back against stormtroopers whose mission was to deport and kill the remaining Jews in Warsaw and bulldoze the Ghetto. Sixty years later, soldiers who might have been their grandchildren are using the same strategies that the SS used in Warsaw: starvation, isolation, denial of medical care, assassination of those who resist and indiscriminate shootings of anyone caught in the streets, the demolition of building after building, sometimes burying the residents in the rubble.

It is not difficult to find a nearly endless supply of such historical repetitions: emancipated slaves turned slaveholders; persecuted religious minorities from England who burned, hanged and crushed heretics and witches; newly independent colonies creating their own internally colonized, their own categories of the economically and culturally suppressed second class.

But what do we do with this information? I watch my relatives reenact the horrors of holocaust, insist they are fighting for their survival against ruthless conspirators, live increasingly militarized lives, believe they have no choices, become more and more like their wounds. What are we to do? It is not enough to feel shame. It is not enough to point out the "ironies" and use them to condemn the atrocities of a new generation of perpetrators.


There are people who believe this is human nature, that all it proves is that we are all equally capable of viciousness. But as people committed to social change, to creating just and peaceful societies, we have a responsibility to understand how the unjust and violent societies we live in sustain and recreate themselves, how brutality reproduces, how the son of a Polish Jewish refugee can become the key strategist of world conquest for the grandson of Prescott Bush, who laundered money for Thysen, Nazi Germany's most prominent steel manufacturer, who used Jewish slave labor in his operations. How the granddaughter of a sharecropper, growing up in segregated Birmingham, hearing the church bomb explosion that killed her schoolmate, could utterly embrace the strategy of being better at white men's power games than they are, and advise the descendant of Virginia landlords on how to recolonize the Middle East. How the Harlem born son of Jamaican immigrants, raised in a city that devoured young Black men, became the man who helped to cover up the My Lai massacre of Vietnamese civilians, the peddler of forged evidence and plagiarized misinformation trying to win support for genocide in Iraq. For that matter, how did English women and men become Massachusetts colonists and give rise to Richard Cheney? How did Prussian immigrants to 1860s Chicago produce Donald Rumsfeld, a man whom Kissinger allegedly described as the most ruthless person he knew?

We have learned about the cycles of abuse within families, about the way a child who is beaten and abused can grow up believing there are only two choices, victim and perpetrator, and can become an adult who feels like a victim while acting like a perpetrator. But, somehow, as activists, we have failed to see the immense implications of that knowledge for the work of social change. Over and over I see movements of liberation get stuck at the same place, the moment when we "other" the agents of our oppression, without trying to understand why they are as they are and how we can prevent more people being that way in the future. If we even begin to ask those questions, we are rapidly drawn to the places where we ourselves have been most deeply wounded. In the exact place where it is most difficult to understand how anyone could do as our enemies have done, and still be human, in the exact moment when they cease to be our kin in our imaginations, is the place of greatest potential illumination.


"If we view the oppressor as an inhuman Other – no matter how understandable this view is from the perspective of the victim and the oppressed – we rule out all possibilities for the kinds of dialogues that can win hearts and minds. If we view the oppressor as invariably acting from a place of subjective dominance, I believe that we will completely miss the deep and typically hidden suffering, the complex histories of violation and trauma, and the subjective experience of profound powerlessness that often go hand in hand with the cruelty and malevolence enacted by oppressors."

-from Power-Under

I first encountered Steve Wineman when he contacted me for support in trying to persuade a progressive small press that the politics of trauma really was a cutting edge issue. He had read my work, and knew that we shared this belief. That both of us saw the ways in which the experience of victimization, and the traumatic rage that accompanies it, were being mobilized toward escalating violence in the world. That both of us saw a gap in the political practices of the left that seemed of the utmost importance. When Steve wrote to me, I was in the thick of questions of my own: How do we reframe our experiences of oppression so that we don't act from a sense of victimhood, and end up recreating what we abhor? Why do oppressors oppress, and how can we win them away from doing it? How do we interrupt the cycles of reenacted pain at the level of nations? How do we stop the self-defeating expressions of traumatic rage between oppressed constituencies that shatter our coalitions?

These are not abstract questions for me. I wrestle daily with the impacts of colonialism, of sexism, of racism and anti-Semitism, of poverty and disability in an economy in which people are dispensable. I am also a survivor of severe and sustained sexual and psychological abuse during my childhood, carried out by a group of adult men that has left me with an intimate knowledge of the dynamics of torture, of the systematic attempts to shatter the spirits of the victimized. These are core issues in my life: How is it that I did not become a torturer? How is it that others do? What is it that allows some of us to choose outside the circle of reenactment?

A few years ago, as part of a study conducted by Staci Haines to develop better policies around child sexual assault, I participated in one of a series of focus groups, organized by constituency. Mine was made up of people who had all experienced severe abuse in group perpetrator situations, involving torture, killings, and nearly unimaginable cruelties. I found it fascinating that we were also the group with by far the clearest and strongest concern for the recovery of abusers.

A friend of mine, another veteran of what we wryly refer to as "special childhoods," describes our common survival strategy as one of abandoning the fields to save the castle. For myself, for my friend, for the members of that focus group, the castle was our refusal to become like our tormenters. In order to remain human, we had to resist the urge to dehumanize those who traumatized us. We chose to hold on, in whatever ways we could find, to a sense of their wounded personhood. The paradox is that in our defiant determination not to resemble them, it was our recognition of their humanity that preserved our own. But how?


That hatred dehumanizes the hater, and makes the victim resemble the perpetrator, is not a new or unique understanding. Or that trauma leaves people with a pull toward repeating what was done to them. Or that oppression leaves masses of traumatized people in its wake. But these understandings have not made their way into the heart of social policy or of political action. What is groundbreaking about Power-Under is the passion and intelligence with which Steve Wineman gathers together stories and insights about the nature of our wounding and the power of our choices and from them attempts to forge a set of strategies for changing the world in which we have all been so brutalized. How shall we carry our wounds? How should we remember? Like the policies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, Wineman seeks first to acknowledge the devastating nature of the wounds, and then to direct the rage of the traumatized, by conscious choice, into an assertion of humanity, into the deliberate decision that the cycle stops with us.

Power-Under is incisive political theory, is a deeply integrated fusion of personal and social healing, is a declaration of principles, and it is also a powerful act of individual practice. To announce that oppression causes deep and lasting pain is in itself a highly subversive act. In fact, the study of trauma has only been tolerated when strong social movements have forced acknowledgement of collective pain. To the extent that we don't think about it, it's because it's hard to think about. As the poet Antonio Machado wrote, "we make the road by walking." We must already be acting against the effects of trauma in order to be capable of thinking about the importance of acting against the effects of trauma. In Power-Under, Steve Wineman is making such a road, by reaching, as a traumatized human being, for a theory of his own humanity, and everyone's. He is probing our wounds for a new way to tell their story, one that releases us from perpetuating them. He is seeking to understand what allows us to stay human when we have been dehumanized, how the impotent fury of victimization can become "constructive rage" for the mending of the world. There is a story that oppression writes upon our lives. It carves itself into our psyches, our bodies, our ways of living, our sense of possibility. Steve Wineman has crafted a kind of handbook for rewriting that story, so that the memory of pain becomes the ground of a new, compassionate and powerful way to be together. As Wineman writes in the final sentence of this book, we need to find "as many ways as we can to tap our unbearable pain and use it to expand the boundaries of what we had imagined to be possible, personally and politically." As far as I can see, learning to transform our collective and individual suffering in this way is the only path out of the narrow place in which we struggle.

When the Hebrew people fled from slavery, they came to a seemingly impassible barrier, a wide sea they could not cross. According to the Passover story, the Red Sea did not open just because of their need. It was not the prayers of Moses, or the consternation and desperate cries of the refugees, seeing Pharaoh's soldiers almost upon them. What we are told to remember is that the sea opened because one ordinary man, Nachsun, decided that what was behind him was intolerable, and that the only way forward was through, so he began to walk, on a path he couldn't see, toward a destination that was nearly impossible for enslaved people to imagine. It was not until the waters had reached his mouth that the sea parted and a way became clear. Power-Under is just such an act of walking forward, of imagining us into a state of wholeness, of opening a way.