My Trauma, and Ours: On the Wisdom of Not Getting Over It
The German theologian Gerhardus Vos coined the phrase “Between the Already and the Not Yet” a century ago. Vos used the words in a religious context --to describe the world after the redeeming sacrifice of Christ, but before His triumphant return in glory -- but his phrase is felicitous enough to be deployed in countless other human circumstances. (We are all, for example, in the Already after Joe Biden’s election victory, and Not Yet at his safe swearing-in; “president-elect” is itself an obvious encapsulation of Vos’ idea.)
I’ve been thinking about this phrase a lot in terms of my own life, and my own attempt to find a way forward following the loss of my teaching job in 2013. Even as I type those words, I anticipate the reaction of old friends and family as they read that sentence. Oh God, Hugo, not this again. Please, please move on. I know that that exhaustion is more rooted in compassion than its absence; the people who love you want you to heal, to be happy, to have your eyes fixed only on the horizon ahead, not the turbulent wake receding behind. People want you to be over your trauma, or at least to keep it boxed and compartmentalized so that it becomes the sole province of paid professionals. Why isn’t your therapist helping more? Do you need to up your medication? I thought EMDR was supposed to fix this!
Not all traumas are equal, of course. President-elect Biden’s life is defined in no small part by the feast of losses he has suffered: the deaths of his first wife and infant daughter in a terrible car accident, the passing of a middle-aged son decades later. These tragedies were in no way Joe Biden’s fault, of course, which means that there’s no complexity to our empathy for him. If he wants to visit the cemetery where his first wife and children lie, we do not even dream of saying, “Gosh, you’d think he’d get over this by now.” We know that the death of loved ones, particularly one’s children, are the very definition of things one never “gets over.” Those of us who are parents shudder at Joe’s towering grief, asking to be spared what he was not. We know trauma and tragedy define this man who will be our president soon, and the goodwill and affection we have for him is in part built on knowledge of what we know he’s endured.
If the loss of one’s children is the yardstick to which all other traumas are compared, how selfish to still be tormented by the loss of a teaching job! How petty to be unable to get over the humiliations of a very public fall from grace! You did this to yourself, man; you need to buck up and get over it. You have a lovely fiancée, two healthy and lovely children who need you, a job that pays at least some of the bills. What the hell is your problem? People have said that to me often enough that I’ve internalized it. All trauma response plays on a self-activating loop; I experience grief and shame over what happened in 2013, and the chorus in my brain stirs to life. I don’t need to go on Twitter to search for new scorn, though there is plenty to be found there – I’ve downloaded all I’ll ever need.
The trauma of the complicit poses a different problem than that of the innocent. Grieving the death of a child is as monstrous as it is morally simple: no one dreams of saying Joe Biden is responsible for the deaths of Neila, Naomi, and Beau. It would be a wickedness to suggest it, just as it would be a scandal to wonder if there should be a time limit on that kind of grief. I lost the career I treasured because I repeatedly broke a rule I myself had written; I outed myself in an act of colossal self-destruction; I engineered my entire downfall. That sort of shit requires an expiration date, it seems: often, I am convinced that I owe a complete recovery to those whom I hurt most. If I can’t undo a sordid and painful past, at least I can be decent enough not be haunted by it.
Over seven years on, I can report recovery from trauma doesn’t work that way.
One of Shakespeare’s most quoted lines comes from Lear, where a king goes on the pre-modern version of a Twitter meltdown, and declares himself “more sinned against than sinning.” Those five words capture a basic tension: I’ve done wrong, but now it seems even greater wrong is being done to me. Lear is, in part, about a man trying to sort out whether he’s a victim or a villain in his own drama -- and is driven genuinely mad by the epiphany that he’s very much both. He did wrong, yes, but did he deserve this? Like all tragedies, Lear is a meditation on consequences, and wrestles with the question of whether the cause (hubris, greed, foolishness) really deserves such a terrible effect (usually, everyone dead on the floor.) In tragedies both Greek and Shakespearean, the hero sometimes achieves something of a breakthrough right before he dies, making a kind of peace with how his own actions have brought everyone to calamity.
In real life, the protagonist is often lucky enough not to die, but unlucky in that he endlessly weighs Lear’s question on the storm-tossed moor: how much of this is my fault?
In the early 2000s, I chaired the campus committee that wrote the policy that made consensual romantic relationships between professors and their students into a fireable offense. I wrote it as an act of contrition, as I had had those relationships in the past; I wrote it as a warning to my future self, that there would be devastating consequences if I went back to old patterns. And I know too I wrote it out of pure hubris: part of me knew damn well that someday, someway, the very policy I was writing would be the rope with which I hanged myself. As anyone who has ever loved someone with a personality disorder knows, there’s no glee quite like the glee some of us take in carefully plotting our own self-destruction. Self-loathing is both clever and patient.
In my case, I waited a full decade to spring the trap, but spring it I did. No student ever came forward to complain of my own behavior; the loss of my public life was predicated solely on my own confessions. I do not know of any case similar, and I wish I did: it would make my downfall seem more banal. It might make it easier, too, to process through the grief and shame.
It would be easier, too, if I could decide whether the relationships I had with my students merited the loss of my career. Some days, I’m able to say that yes, sleeping with one of one’s own students, no matter her age or her enthusiasm, is grounds for permanent expulsion from the profession. More often, it seems a grotesque overreaction – worth a warning, but not banishment; worth suspension and then restoration, not a shove into homelessness.
I do not write this to weigh the appropriate administrative response to consensual relationships – I write this because I’ve spent seven years trying to decide if I was a sinner more sinned against than sinning, or a sinner whose sins warranted every damn thing that happened to me. EMDR and talk therapy and meds and time can’t resolve this basic question. Trying to pretend, for the sake of closure, that it was right that I lose my job? That never works for long. My friends and family are nearly unanimous in their declaration that I behaved badly, but torn as to whether the punishment fit the crime. Their uncertainty is mirrored in the broader culture, and in my own consciousness. When I declare myself to have been an abuser who deserved to lose his career, a huge part of me says “no, that’s not true;” when I insist that I was wronged by the college, that they ought to have spared me, an equally compelling voice calls me out on my hubris and self-justification.
How long until I am at peace with my past? I ask. How long until the trauma lifts? How long until I know, in my bones, what punishment was deserved, and what wasn’t? Perhaps the only answer, as my therapist says, is to accept I’ll never decide what was right, and to find peace in the Not Yet.
My internal reckoning has its own odd particulars, but it’s connected to the broader culture. #MeToo has already brought awareness, and the downfall of countless badly behaved men, but it has not yet ended sexual abuse. We already know how to cancel people, but we do not yet have an agreed-upon path for their restoration. We already have defeated Trump (despite his dogged refusal to accept the verdict), but we have not yet figured out to bridge the divide he exposed. We have already decided that those who voted differently should suffer some consequence, at least in terms of the withdrawal of our affection; we have not yet discerned what this means for our life together as citizens of an evenly divided nation.
If there’s one defining characteristic of the era, it’s a contempt for ambivalence and uncertainty. We may not agree on much, but we are all full of passionate intensity; we are united only in the assumption that it is a grave moral failing to lack conviction, or to see truth in more than one side. We may be stuck between the Already and the Not Yet, but we are more impatient than ever to get to the latter. Whether we want President Trump to have four more years in office or go to jail, we are united in our longing for a decisive resolution in our favor, united in our anguish at the absence of clarity. How long until this asshole is gone?, half the nation cries; How long until he is vindicated?, responds the other.
Joe Biden will be president on January 20, but the long reckoning with Trumpism will continue for years. There will be no sudden resolution for any of these moral and philosophical crises, just as my trauma and self-doubt will not magically lift one bright morning. We can and must work towards the Not Yet, but even more importantly, must come to terms, however imperfectly, with the truth that we may never get to where we so long to go. How do we live with ourselves and each other in an Already that will last the rest of our lives?
That’s my question for myself, but I think it’s a question for all of us.