The current cold weather reminded me of a story. A few months ago I read about a life-size statue of an ordinary man that was placed on the snowy grounds of a women’s college campus in Wellesley, Massachusetts (Wellesley College). He appeared to be sleepwalking with arms outstretched, eyes closed, and wearing only his underwear. The statue provoked outrage and controversy after its installment last winter.
A local CBS reporter wrote that, “The Sleepwalker went up February 3rd and since then hundreds have called for it to be taken down...Some students say the sculpture makes them uncomfortable and conjures images of sexual assault.”
Many people responded asking, “What is all the fuss about?” Others dismissed the outrage and applauded the controversy saying, “We wanted to encourage discussion and that is what we got!” The sculptor professed his confusion, expecting people to react with empathy towards the guy who was out in the cold wearing only his underwear.
The outrage and the approval are both about the lack of awareness of trauma and its long-term impact on individuals. The sentiments of approval demonstrate a lack of understanding of the devastating impact of trauma. In the absence of awareness of trauma the outrage seems silly or misguided.
The facts are that one of every two adults reports having at least one experience of trauma in their lives. Trauma is an overwhelming event that occurs out of the realm of everyday experience and provokes intense fear, helplessness, and terror in adults. Children experiencing trauma often present with disorganized or agitated behavior (DSMIV-IV_TR, 2000). Traumatic stress impacts every aspect of a person’s life and can have lifelong repercussions including adverse health outcomes. Given these facts, it is highly likely that many Wellesley community members may have had their day disrupted and felt afraid and unsafe by seeing this statue on their campus.
The long-term effects of extensive trauma can leave individuals grappling with debilitating symptoms. When in danger, it’s natural to feel afraid. This fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to prepare the person to defend against the danger or to avoid it; he/she may manifest a “fight, flight, or freeze” response that is often transient. This is a normal response to stress. But in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this reaction is ongoing and the person relives the earlier trauma. People who have PTSD feel stressed or frightened even when they’re no longer in danger. PTSD develops after a terrifying ordeal that involved physical harm or the threat of physical harm. A person who develops PTSD may have been the one who was harmed, the harm may have happened to a loved one, or the person may have witnessed a harmful event that happened to loved ones or strangers. (Visit this page for key facts on trauma).
Trauma-informed officials may have made a different decision or at least engaged in extensive preparation of Wellesley College community members prior to the installation of the Sleepwalker statue. They would have been aware of the potential for re-traumatization. Re-traumatization occurs when a person, place or event causes someone to relive an original traumatic experience.
The controversy about the statue reinforced my commitment to promoting trauma awareness and responses in institutions. The negative fallout from this controversy could have been avoided. Administrators who understood how disruptive this statue would be to many students may have made different decisions. For example, the college could have used a universal precautions approach by putting in place trauma information and response plans to create safety for all parties on campus. Survivors could have been spared potential exacerbation of their trauma symptoms. Finally, other methods of inspiring student discussion might have been devised.
There are many resources that promote understanding of trauma and trauma-informed environments. For example: Judith Herman (1992) developed a three-stage model to outline the process of recovery from trauma that includes the essential tasks of rebuilding safety, remembering the trauma, mourning losses, and reconnecting to a viable self, others, and community.
- Stage One: Creating Safety and Stability involves building skills of personal safety, self-care, and healthy emotional regulation.
- Stage Two: Remembering and Mourning involves discussing memories to lessen their emotional intensity and finding meanings that affirms ones resilience and abilities. Working through grief about good experiences that one did not have reinforces the fact that the person deserves better.
- Stage Three: Reconnecting and Integrating focuses on reconnecting with oneself, other people, and meaningful activities, and establishing a satisfying life.
Trauma-informed environments can assist administrators to create environments where the mantra “Do no harm” can become a reality. Good intentions are not enough.