/ 1 December 2023

We need to talk about trauma (carefully)

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There’s an infamous and influential Gothic horror movie called The Crow, starring Brandon Lee. It’s infamous because Lee died in an accident on set, and influential in that it affected the makeup and clothing choices of an entire generation; some have never recovered.

In the film, a young couple is violently murdered in a home invasion, and on the anniversary of their deaths, the husband rises from the grave and wreaks spectacularly graphic vengeance on the bad guys responsible, while simultaneously looking incredibly attractive and brooding; such is the plot.

In the final scene, seriously injured after a dramatic sword fight on the roof of a church — at night, in the rain, it’s fantastic — the hero defeats the final boss by grabbing his face and dumping every single memory of his wife that he has into the villain’s mind. 

The horror is so intense that the Bad Guy falls off the roof onto the horn of a conveniently placed gargoyle, and justice is thereby done, kief.

It’s a helluva thing, shoving experiences into a mind that doesn’t want them. It’s depicted in The Crow as an act of violence, which it is, especially if the person receiving them might have to reassess their behaviour afterwards. 

Narratively, I love this idea. Imagine how intense that must be — being suddenly hit with a series of vivid memories that are undeniable because you’re receiving another person’s actual experiences and feelings of all those moments, at the intensity that they felt them at the time.

Star Trek takes an entirely different approach to the idea, through the story of the Vulcan Sarek, his son Spock, and our hero Jean-Luc Picard.

When Sarek appears on Next Generation, he’s suffering from a degenerative mental disorder that’s unmentionable in his culture. It causes him to lose composure in front of other people, making him increasingly incompetent at his work: treaty negotiation. 

A bad end for a person so respected, and hideously embarrassing to Vulcans, whose entire culture is based on rigid control of emotions.

Picard offers to mind meld with Sarek, because in the process of melding, each gains some part of the other. 

Sarek gains Picard’s strength of will for a time; long enough to successfully complete his final task with self control and composure, leaving an astonishing legacy intact. 

But while this is happening, Picard must experience every extreme emotional outburst that Sarek would have been unable to avoid expressing aloud — terrible sorrow, a deep love for his wife he could never articulate, anger beyond reason, merriment and madness.

Patrick Stewart delivers a masterclass performance, chewing up the scenery in a way that has no business being on prime time TV; he is extraordinary. And yes, Picard absorbs all of Sarek’s terrible, unstoppable waves of emotions and memories, but he does so consensually. He is willing to receive them, good and bad.

But this is the good bit: years later in Season 5, after Sarek’s death, Picard encounter’s Sarek’s son, Spock, who had not seen his father in many decades. 

As Picard still retains the memories and experiences of Sarek, he offers Spock the opportunity to meld with him, so that Spock may share them too.

Spock is a Vulcan, and knows full well how awful his father’s decline must have been, especially to someone with such dignity. But he accepts Picard’s offer consensually. 

You get the good stuff with the bad. Apparently face touching is involved in both cases, though, so wash your hands first, please.

Same idea, handled very differently.

It’s a very good analogy for how careful you need to be when talking about trauma: you have to get the consent of the person you’re going to tell the horror story to, because hearing about trauma is itself traumatising.

If you launch into a story about horrific suffering without first establishing in some way that it’s safe to do so, anyone within earshot that hasn’t said “Okay, go” is getting fucked up if the story is darker than they can handle. Everyone processes trauma differently, and there is no set time for doing so, so you could actually be fucking people up for a long time.

That’s only if they didn’t say, “Okay, go.”

So if you don’t have a relationship established, you say, “Hey, I’d like to talk about something difficult; would you be okay hearing about [unpleasant topic]?”

And if they say no, you respect it, because it’s a statement of consent. Of course, it’s entirely possible that you are yourself so fucked up that the story you’re telling doesn’t seem particularly dark to you, but, that’s a learning experience in itself.

But see, that’s if you’re talking to main cast members, and sidequest characters.

How about the villain? What’s the consent situation there? Does Sauron get to talk about his experience of the Pelennor Fields, and how it fundamentally changed his perspective of who he was, or do we get to go, uh, no actually …

Let’s bring it back to the real world. What if it’s someone that’s hurting you?

What if your situation is more like The Crow, and you’re talking to someone who is deliberately refusing to acknowledge the manner in which their behaviour has damaged you, because it’d be inconvenient for their narrative? What if they’re completely aware of what they did, and simply don’t give a shit? 


You’re the villain of their story either way, because they’ve stopped getting what they want from you. 

I suppose it comes down to what kind of person you are, and whether you think it’s necessary to force your version into their heads. Probably not worth the effort. Depends how stabby they are, though, and whether they’ve forced you onto the roof of a church at night, in the rain. 

I think the most important thing is to live your own story, not theirs. It’s definitely a bossfight for them either way. For you, well, there’s that conveniently placed gargoyle, isn’t there?

“Are you willing to hear what I have to say?” or “Come here, let me grip your head a sec.”

David Beukes farms avocados in Limpopo and likes to tell stories.