Post Traumatic Masculinity:  text


Post-traumatic Masculinity: Toxic Virility and Daring Vulnerability

-Bill Burmester, MFT (draft 4: 7-14-18)

CIR: Underserved Populations: Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse
Ask-the-Expert Session
July 24 2018

[bracketed numbers = PowerPoint slide #]
(numbers in parentheses = web links referenced in accompanying resource sheet -pending)

Much of what I hope to accomplish in this presentation and later discussion is to introduce you to abuse survivor stories -in books, articles, films, and especially online videos- to facilitate a conversation about how men living with the experience of being victimized move from feeling broken to redefining masculinity as a full, emotionally rich, and mature gender identity. I encourage you to view some of the online videos included in the appended resource sheet for a more immediate, online experience of this issue.
In Berkeley and Chicago in 2012, Dale Orlandersmith (1) performed a one-woman play she also wrote: Black and Blue Boys, Broken Men about male victims of abuse and neglect. This play is a fearless and moving expose ́ of the costs and consequences of the physical, emotional and sexual abuse of boys and challenges the simplistic assumption that real boys and men don’t get victimized or can quickly avoid injury and re-appropriate strength by putting it all behind them. Since then, Western and perhaps World culture has been challenging and redefining masculinity as it enters a state of crisis, evident in the relative failure of American boys to thrive in education and as men in the workplace, through dramatic, disproportionate increases in death from opioid and other substance  abuses and addictions, and through increased rates of suicide. Even FoxNews recently aired a look at “Men in America,” (2) worth watching if only for its symptomatic double-speak. This recent attention to the fate of masculinity here and abroad was inaugurated by speakers such as ex-NFL player and life coach, Joe Erhman in his 2013 TEDx talk in Baltimore (3) , and filmmaker, Jennifer Seibel Newsom in her 2014 film, “The Mask you Live In.” (4)

Ehrman asserts that the three most damaging words a boy hears growing up are ‘Be a man.” Seibel-Newsom’s documentary opens with a litany of toxic injunctions about being male in traditional American culture: “Man up” ( meaning ”don’t be a baby or even a boy”); “Stop with the tears;” “Pick yourself up;” “Stop with the emotions,” Don’t be a pussy.” “Be cool and kind of a dick;” “Don’t be a tattletale;” “Don’t be a mama’s boy.” “Don’t be a girl.” “Don’t be a sissy;”“What a fag;” “Get laid.” “Grow some.” I am struck by how many of these gender directives are sex derogatory, which is further paralled by the misogynistic porn that boys are now exposed to on average by age 11.

This is the fertile ground in which the gender protests of the MeToo Movement have taken root. Erhman and Siebel-Newsom have been followed by numerous authors writing about men and vulnerability (11), many of them out- spoken survivors of sexual abuse. They are setting strong precedent for breaking silence as an act of strength rather than some shamed admission of victimhood and presumed weakness. Discussion of non-binary and gender-neutral sexual identities are further commentary on the excesses of toxic virility that lie behind the sexual abuses of children -including boys- and assaults on adults of both sexes. And many of these toxic gender messages have been promoted by men and women alike. 

[5] Trauma, Vulnerability & Gender
By definition trauma introduces vulnerability into the life of anyone it

touches, but for boys and men, it further challenges us with the gender injunction that to be acceptablly masculine one must be invulnerable and impenetrable.
This means that when boys or men are violated -sexually abused in particular- they typically attempt to salvage control by blaming themselves, but then lose standing as real men, often a fate worse than the physical aspects of the abuse, since this shame leads to withdrawal, isolation, depression, addictions and disability, all forms of disempowerment that only worsen the so-called ‘weakness’ condemned by traditional masculine standards. Much of the problem for male survivors, and everyone else, lies with an exclusively binary definition of masculinity. When being masculine means not being feminine, gender identity becomes a null category. It is an identity grounded in what one cannot and better not be, which therefore risks being empty and brittle behind it’s veneer of impenetrability and violence: if I am primarily male by virtue of not being feminine in any way, I have to fight the feminine to feel masculine and so am negatively ruled by it. But becoming the feminized male that toxic virility fears is not the only alternative.

Our current discussion asks what a healthy, non-binary, or at least non- exclusive masculine identity looks like. The core point I have to make is that character qualities traditionally associated with masculinity such as courage, willingness to take risks, and being strong and steadfast can just as readily apply to a man’s relationship with his own vulnerable and overwhelming emotions as to projecting them as ‘weakness’ onto others. As Brene ́ Brown (5) and others have insisted, it takes strength and courage for a man to inhabit emotional intensity beyond just lust and anger. In fact, researchers such as Niobe Way and Judy Chu (6) confirm that boys naturally possess this emotional presence and strength before it is pressured out of them. It takes a coupling of gender qualities to balance and heal what I am calling ‘toxic virility.’

[6] Terms and Etymologies: (‘PTSI’ vs. ‘PTSD’)
I use this term in place of the more familiar buzzword ‘toxic masculinity’

because virility already implies some degree of exaggeration and most of those who speak of ‘toxic masculinity’ define it as a condition of extremes. A ‘vulnerable masculinity’ by contrast starts as a challenging oxymoron but delivers a healing paradox.

The root of ‘vulnerability’ -now also a buzzword at risk of losing it’s meaning from overuse- is ‘vulnus,’ Latin for ‘wound.’ And the Greek root of the word ‘trauma’ likewise means ‘wound’ and ‘hurt.’ So one might say the challenge of a trauma-aware and vulnerable masculinity is to admit, accept, and remain steadfastly connected when we have been wounded in relationship.
[7] When clinicians speak of trauma we are generally referring to PTSD, Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder in the DSM. In keeping with a suggestion made by military audiences being trained in the treatment of male sexual trauma, my colleagues and I like to use the acronym PTSI instead -Post traumatic Stress Injury- whose chief characteristics like PTSD can be summarized as:

  1. 1.traumatic events persistently re-experienced through involuntary, distressing memories, emotional and/or somatic flashbacks and/or nightmares.

  2. 2.attempts to avoid these intrusive recollections through denial, numbing and dissociation.

  3. 3.increased irritability or aggression, self-destructive risk-taking, hypervigilance and startle response, and difficulties concentrating and sleeping, all expressions of an overwrought, over-activated nervous system.

[8] Myth: “Vulnerability is Weakness”
Fight against and flight from the more vulnerable emotional experiences

implicated in trauma weakens us and strengthens them, because backing off from PTSI symptoms is itself disempowering. To fight or avoid difficult emotions also avoids and obscures the bravery required to stay with them through their natural cycle of intensification and transformation. The avoidant side of ‘toxic virility’ can be understood as a symptom of PTSI, belonging to its criterion of avoidance behaviors. While few of us want to feel overwhelmed, fighting and fleeing emotional distress complicates it by reinforcing men’s already presumed emotional ineptness. And a medical approach to psychological trauma that is dedicated to the eradication of emotional pain reinforces men’s emotional illiteracy . Our opioid epidemic is also showing us how deadly that avoidance can be.

PTG (Post-trumatic Growth) / Brene Brown
In counterpoint to PTSD as a DSM ‘disorder’, PTG (Post-Traumatic Growth)

(7) has arisen as a complementary understanding of healthy responses to trauma based on resilience and emotional strength, which involves a willingness to experience and learn from suffering. Once again, the best model of PTG may be Brene ́ Brown’s work (5) on embracing rather than shaming vulnerability and on still ‘daring greatly’ in the pursuit of emotional aliveness, honesty, and integrity.

Her message is mirrored by one of the preeminent male spokesmen for the Me Too movement, Terry Crews (8), one-time NFL football star, turned actor, and commentator on toxic masculinity in his autobiography, Manhood. He recently testified to Congress that men too are sexually assaulted, as he was, and in so doing broke the taboo against speaking out about it publicly, alongside his courageous female counterparts.

[10] Military Trauma
I hope our discussion will question how boys and men react and respond to

the contrast, contradictions, and also potential relationship between traumatic psychological injury and growth. The trauma I have in mind is primarily relational trauma, as in physical, emotional and sexual abuse, but military trauma, which disproportionally affects men as soldiers, also has its relational impact, as soldiers struggle with the potentially overwhelming experience of killing others, sometimes including children, and the agony and grief of witnessing comrades they care about injured and killed, in addition to being the target of enemy violence. In fact, I begin my discussion of cases with brief reference to two soldiers, one from recent history and one from WWI.

Clay Hunt (9), was a young Marine from Texas who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and as a rescue worker in Haiti after the earthquake there in 2010. His story of suffering from PTSI and ultimate suicide was featured on 60 Minutes in March of 2013 and later led to legislation for the prevention of military suicide.

[11] Wilfred Bion,(10) on the other hand, was one of the most influential psychoanalytic thinkers and writers of the 20th century after Freud but claimed to have died on the battlefield of WWI as a 19 y.o. officer. His military trauma and the dissociation that followed deeply inform his understanding of the unconscious.

[12] Three Post-Traumatic Identities:
Masculine attempts to cope with and survive abuse trauma and the vulnerability it entails fall into 3 broad categories, that can overlap and interweave.

1. In the first, the victim identifies with his aggressor in becoming a perpetrator himself. He imitates his abuser in rejecting victimhood and instead transferring that role to the person or people he victimizes. This tendency is a core feature of ‘toxic virility,’ when being (or rather feeling) tough requires making others the proxy for one’s own victimhood and vulnerability. In this context, it is important to emphasize that almost all sexually abused boys do not go on to abuse others: Research suggests on average 12% make this choice (UK study). The fact that the proportion is still more than from the general population of men, suggests that prior victimization can be a risk factor for later abusing even when not the primary cause. Boys more generally who respond to abuse with violence may be further conditioned by the models of murderous masculinity that pervade action movies and video games, in which violence is the masculine solution to conflict.

2. In the second post-traumatic option, the male victim still identifies with his aggressor, but in perpetuating abuse against himself. A part of him identifies with his aggressor by attacking other parts of himself, often his body, for instance through destructive risk-taking behaviors like drug and alcohol abuse and addiction and through neglect of self-care and well-being. This behavior can include cutting and suicidality, although both these reactions deserve attention as attempts to cope with real problems (J. Fisher, 2018). One of the more recent and tragic victims of this response to abuse is LinkIn Park singer Chester Bennington, who in spite of extreme drug use after years of escalating sexual abuse at the hands of an older boy, developed phenomenal skill and expressive force as a songwriter and performer, with a worldwide fan-base that imagined him living an ideal life with wealth, wife, and children. And yet he abruptly and unexpectedly ended his life in a moment of isolation and relapse (12b), following soon after the similar fate of his close friend and fellow musician, Chris Cornell.

3. In the third pattern of response, the abused child taps into an inherent and often unconscious capacity to dissociate, thereby not only sequestering his abuse into largely ‘unconscious’ somatic and sensory memory, but often bypassing the full experience of it in the first place. The affective memory of trauma is put on holdandthevictimmaynotseemseriouslyaffectedbyit. Thechildvictimoften carries on without retaliating physically against others or himself while going on to develop the life skills, strengths, and resources he’ll need later to withstand and survive the emotional chaos that ensues when something triggers his as yet unformulated and unresolved memories into awareness. This response pattern to trauma may look like the weakest or least consequential of all three, since the boy and man forego the use of force as means of control and retaliation. In contrast to the perpetrator’s fight-flight reactions, this response may rely more on the instinctual survival strategies of freezing and/or submitting at the time of the abuse. These survivors often appear to fare the best because they have not identified primarily as victim or perpetrataor for most of their lives. The shock of re-entering a state of crisis with the onset of delayed PTSI symptoms can be severe, life-altering, and even life-threatening, but these survivors often find the determination to recover and deepen both their sense of who they are through empathy for themselves and compassion for others who have also suffered victimization.

[13] Keyon Dooling
Keyon Dooling (11) was a professional basketball player in the NBA between 2000 and 2013. His memoir, What’s Driving You?, chronicles his life after sexual abuse at the age of 7 and then after a breakdown from another random sexual assault 25 years later. Today he is a life coach and leads a program that promotes mental health among players in the NBA. Although he feels his childhood ended after a 14 y.o. friend of his brother’s called him in from the rain one day, showed him porn and persuaded him to get him off, Keyon appeared to shelve the experience, told no one -like most boys- and gradually made his way into NBA fame, even though he never went outside without a knife after that incident.

Then one day in 2013 at the age of 32 while dining with friends and using the restroom, he was confronted by a large drunk white stranger peeing indiscriminately cross multiple urinals. Keyon retreated to a stall but left the door open and the guy grabbed him from behind, with the alibi that it was just a joke he played on all his friends. With hands his on either side of his assailant’s head Keyon said as fiercely as he could: ‘Do you know that I can kill you right now, with my bare hands?’ And then he struggles with a subtle form of self-blame: ‘What is it in me you see that you feel you can do this to me???.... What makes me so inferior to you that you can treat me as a man like that?” Needless to say, the racial implications of this assault must have just intensified it. Back at the table with friends he told them openly what had happened. He did all the right things, from mustering the force to protect himself that kids can rarely draw on, to speaking out while still controlling his rage. But he couldn’t calm down. When he finished eating and left his companions to walk off the agitation, he ran into his assailant again outside:

I basically blacked out—I couldn’t control myself. I just remember grabbing him and picking him up in the air off the sidewalk. As I held him there, I grabbed him by the windpipe. I wanted to kill him, to be honest. The Hulk was in charge and I felt like an unstoppable beast. I don’t remember ever feeling like that before, so charged with negative energy.” Loc 127

A friend who followed him out pulled him off and spent the night with him for his safety, but Keyon still couldn’t shake the feelings:

I actually felt as though I was in a battle with something bad and out to get me. [This is the second, less conscious rauma reaction of internalizing the aggressor to turn against oneself] I couldn’t sleep, I was tossing and turning, and my mind was flooded with weird, dark flashbacks that I desperately wanted to go away. Flashbacks of gunshots I saw when I was a child. My Pop in his casket at his funeral. Lots of other hurtful, disturbing images that were all coming at me at once—especially from the time when I was molested as a kid.” Loc. 141

What followed was a very public psychotic break for which he was hospitalized, and further traumatized, before he was gradually able to recover. Eventually, with the help of therapy, which he thereafter very publicly endorsed, he was able to claim:

I quote from Keyon’s story at some length, in part because what has challenged and seriously delayed the recovery for some of my most accomplished clients is a terror of their own locked iron box of rage. Keyon’s story illustrates this internal threat, but his journey is as good an example as any of the triumph of healthy, vulnerable masculinity over toxic virility. There are numerous other survivors who have mustered the courage and strength to share their stories. (11)

Trauma & Suicide

As I was writing these lines, my son texted me a link to the evening’s Daily Show, where Trevor Noah interviews Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park on the release of his first solo album, Post Traumatic. Shinoda refers to this album as a diary of the grief he passed through after the July 2017 suicide of bandmate Chester Bennington. Chester’s suicide in the midst of phenomenal artistic and personal success raises many questions about the trajectory of PTSI. Did he not seek or find the human connections he needed in order to survive, in spite of or even because of his fame? Did his extreme post-abuse drug use leave him vulnerable to flashbacks, or contribute to a suicidally vulnerable condition like Bi-Polar Disorder? Or did he succumb to a relapse or the suicide-inducing side-effects of prescription medications as many suspect Chris Cornell did? (12c) In any case, his life and death push us to rethink our assumptions about destiny and the meaning of a life and whether suicide can ever be meaningful? Many of the Linkin Park lyrics Chester had a hand in writing can be read as an extended suicide note. When he felt some of his musical creativity take him beyond LinkIn Park’s style, he founded, wrote for, and sang in another band, Dead by Sunrise. If you listen closely to his late interviews (12,12b) in which he is most disclosing about his state of mind, it is clear his interviewers and others resist meeting him there, and he appears radically alone. At one point he says to a puzzled interviewer: “There is another Chester in there that wants to take me down.” This may not just be a figure of speech but a dissociative reality. At his point I believe he left because he could not find the empathic lifeline that few of us learn how to offer because it calls for co-suffering without collapse.

Chester shows us some of his emotional connection to death through the loss of Chris Cornell in a performance of the title song of LinkIn Park’s last album, ‘One More Light,’ offered as a tribute to Cornell shortly after he too abruptly and unexpectedly killed himself - only 2 months before Chester’s suicide. This tribute performance will be my last slide and I encourage you to attend to his range and depth of emotion. Shinoda speaks of the many rehearsals after Cornell’s death in which Chester could not make it through a song, suggesting an intensity of feeling desperate to be met yet reluctant to speak. Part of Chester’s destiny, as I see it, was to deliver a profound message about the struggle abuse survivors face to suffer rather than inflict personal pain on others, even though his death brought pain to many. Whatever the cause, his suicide urged those who were touched by him to experience some of his daring vulnerability in their own grief over losing him. In founding his widow Talinda, like Keyon Dooling, has subsequently dedicated herself to the mental health of others who struggle with trauma and depression, urging us to turn toward rather than away from or against those in psychological pain. It is the same mission that Mike Shinoda carries forward as an artist in ‘Post Traumatic.’

I end with paradox: the very experience of vulnerability that toxic virility strains to avoid and tends to project outward onto others is the way into healing relational trauma, even, at times, when the outcome is fatal. Once we embody the courage and strength it takes to attend to the pain of unresolved abuse and loss, which I take to be the mission of trauma therapy, rather than maneuver to get rid of it, the pain can transform itself and us. Conditioned to deny and minimize abuse and vulnerability, a more traditional masculinity foregrounds the fear of so-called internal ‘weakness,’ and thereby misses how much bravery, determination, and stamina it takes to live and deepen thru the emotional cycles of PTSI.

Once identified as memories -body memories and flashbacks as well as narrative memories- and met with support through the right kind of witnessing, incidents of extreme vulnerability can often be tolerated and metabolized. We can heal in ways that do not eliminate our capacity to experience emotional pain but strengthen us to connect with and speak out about these experiences on behalf of others who still suffer them in silence, often under toxic gender constraints. This emotional openness to vulnerability and grief is exactly what renders fathers available to nurture and protect their children through the traumas and vulnerabilities of childhood. Actively caring for them is one of the pathways beyond the fear and toxic avoidance of the feminine that otherwise leaves us men weak and unwhole.

Thank-you for listening and please visit my website for a list of resources for our upcoming discussion (7-24-18) about the relationship between trauma and masculinity.

[14] (YouTube video of ‘One More Light.’)