Sunday, February 27, 2005

Traumatic Reverberation, Part I

With the passage of the 13th amendment in 1865, 250 years of slavery on American soil came to an end. In the intervening 140 years, approximately 5 generations have come into existence never directly experiencing America's original sin. There are perhaps a handful of individuals alive today who have ever met a living former slave or slaveholder. The institution is as dead as something can be, a discarded relic of our distant past.

But, in the immortal words of William Faulkner, "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."

As much as we wish it was not the case, the legacy of slavery lives on today in many different forms. The economic and educational disadvantages faced by the newly released slaves in 1865 have yet to be fully erased. Certain laws enacted during this period, done with the intention of preserving the marginalization of the African-American community, remain on the books today (most notably the Florida statute barring convicted felons from voting). Of course, the racism that became culturally entrenched during this period still exists. It may be less intense and less overt than it once was, but it continues to percolate beneath the surface. And more often then we would like to admit, it boils over.

But what of the psychological legacy? Is it possible that, after all these years, the descendents continue to bear the emotional scars of their bonded ancestors? Again, we might cling to the notion that time heals all wounds. But to do so would be to ignore our large body of evidence demonstrating the persistence of trauma across generations. That cliché might provide us with a small measure of comfort, but it would merely be turning a blind eye to the reality that we face today.


In the last quarter century or so, the field of psychology has come to recognize the persistent long-term effects of trauma exposure. It was originally a condition associated with the battlefield and was referred to as "shell-shock." More recently we've come to understand the genesis of PTSD to be far more expansive. Victims of kidnapping and violent sexual or physical assaults frequently display PTSD symptomology. Even witnessing violence can trigger the onset of PTSD. In short, nearly any exposure of violence has the potential to leave a lasting mark on the victim or witness.

While it remains difficult to predict which experiences will lead to PTSD in which individuals, some correlations have been noted. For example, individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions (such as borderline personality disorder) or who have low self-esteem tend to exhibit PTSD symptomology at higher rates than the population mean. Exposure to previous traumatic events also appears to increase the incidence of the disorder. The quality and competency of one's social support structure plays a role both in onset and in ultimate recovery. And, naturally, the nature and severity of the triggering event is a significant determining factor. That said, PTSD can emerge in individuals who lack all of the previously mentioned risk factors. Ultimately, there's no telling.

The range of symptoms is quite wide and can be dramatically affected by the nature of the triggering event and the environment in which it occurs. These symptoms can be broken down into three general categories: intrusive, avoidant, and hyperarousal. Within these categories, the symptoms break down in the following manner.
  • Intrusive
      Dissociative states
      Intrusive emotions and memories
      Nightmares and night terrors
  • Avoidant
      Avoiding emotions
      Avoiding relationships
      Avoiding responsibility for others
      Avoiding situations that are reminiscent of the traumatic event
  • Hyperarousal
      Exaggerated startle reaction
      Explosive outbursts
      Extreme vigilance
      Panic symptoms
      Sleep disturbance
  • Typically the symptoms are compounded by the following complications.

    Alcohol and drug abuse or dependence
    Chronic anxiety
    Depression and increased risk for suicide
    Divorce and separation
    Low self-esteem
    Panic attacks
    While we have come a long way in our understanding of this disorder, treatment remains as much an art as it is a science. Various psychotherapeutic modalities in conjunction with medication (including antidepressants, antipsychotics, anti-anxiety agents, and mood stabilizers) have had some success in ameliorating some of the more serious symptoms. Yet, a true cure remains elusive even in this modern age. And those of a preceding era would have been forced to rely on nothing more than community support and their internal constitution. Ultimately, for them, the condition would remain largely unresolved.


    Too often, I think, we blithely acknowledge the brutality of the peculiar institution without consciously facing it. But for reasons that will soon be clear (if they are not already), we can't ignore the details in the course of this discussion.

    Those entering bondage during the early history of American slavery largely did so as prisoners of war. Whether they were captured by a warring tribal faction or directly by slave traders, the ultimate result was the same: a forced relocation that almost universally obliterated all familial and social ties. The process of relocation was quite barbaric in and of itself. Potential slaves were packed into tiny compartments for the transatlantic voyage. The ceilings in these compartments were often so low that the Africans could not stand erect. Ventilation was poor, mobility severely truncated, and sanitation nonexistent. These were the conditions they were forced to endure for a journey that lasted between 90 and 120 days. The mortality rates on these voyages were shocking, with some estimates ranging as high as 30%. Finally, efforts to segregate the diseased and the dead from the living and healthy were lax at best, which often meant that the prisoners spent long periods of time crowded up against seriously ill individuals and corpses.

    The experience upon reaching American shores improved slightly if at all. Once slavery had devolved into its most virulent form, extremely draconian methods were employed to retain control over the slave population. Whippings, maiming and mutilation, branding, and castration were common behavior management techniques. Uncontrollably rebellious slaves were murdered by decapitation, hanging, or outright torture. Their bodies were often publicly displayed as a warning to other potential malcontents.

    However, within this environment, familial structures began to reemerge. Slaves married and bore children. Yet, this created little stability. Considered property of the slaveowner, family members were frequently sold to distant plantations. All families lived in constant fear of such forced removals.

    Female slaves faced an additional threat within their life of bondage: rape. Sexual assault perpetrated by white slave owners was extremely common. All too often these encounters produced mulatto offspring. When this happened, these children were accepted into the slave families. However, they also served as a constant reminder of the traumatic method of their conception.

    Finally, everything that the slave experienced they experienced more or less in the open. This meant that everyone (white, black, slave, free, adult, child) was a witness. Since the laws of man and God at the time supported the institution, there was no need to conceal the methodology of its maintenance. Nothing was hidden.


    In one sense, I'm making a fairly obvious argument today: slaves were treated poorly and suffered for it psychologically. I'm not exactly going out on a limb on this one. But, I am trying to take the argument a little further and suggest that the type of trauma that they endured would have led to a high incidence of a very specific psychological disorder. And I think that if you look at the triggering mechanisms and risk factors for post-traumatic stress disorder and compare them against the experience of an American slave, the population's predisposition for the disorder becomes clear.

    Kidnapping and exposure to violence (as a victim or as a witness) frequently induces PTSD. The forced relocation from Africa and the common practice of selling slaves are essentially nothing more than a form of kidnapping. Violence (physical and sexual) was often directed at slaves, and those who were not the object of this violence were regularly witness to it. The inhumanity of the transatlantic voyage was surely a traumatizing experience. Likewise, the displayed remains of rebellious slaves would have left a deep mark on any exposed to them.

    But even more significant than the actual trauma was the susceptibility of the population. The chronic nature of violence in the slave experience meant that any exposure was preceded by previous traumatic events. Familial and social structures were constantly being deconstructed, thus depriving slaves of the support structures that might reduce the negative consequences of any traumatic experience. Low self-esteem, a recognized risk factor for PTSD, was undoubtedly rampant in slave populations. And many common slave experiences (physical/sexual abuse, neglect, parental loss or separation) presupposed individuals for developing borderline personality disorder, yet another PTSD risk factor.

    In short, if you were attempting to induce PTSD in a large population, you would design a system not unlike the American institution of slavery.

    At this point, my conclusions are speculative. No psychologist would ever attempt to diagnose an individual sight unseen. Moreover, at this point I know of no historical sources that describe symptoms commonly associated with PTSD. Therefore, it is impossible to know with any certainty how this disorder manifested in the population in question. However, the confluence of trauma and risk factors suggest that its incidence could have been extremely high. If that were the case, the consequences for the community at large would have been devastating.

    This entry is turning into quite a monstrosity, so I'm going to stop here and continue this argument in a new post. At that time, I will investigate the potential ramifications of widespread trauma disorder for the slaves, for their descendents, and ultimately for us all.

    Proceed to Traumatic Reverberations, Part II.

    Return to Slavery and History Index.
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