I was in my parents’ living room the first time I tried to watch Magnolia. For as long as I can remember, my family has done this thing when we watch movies together. Right at the most emotional or romantic moment in the film, someone will pat the left part of his or her chest and say, as dramatically as possible, “Gets ya right here.” Then someone else would repeat it and pretty soon no one would be watching the movie anymore. We would even do this when guests were around.
It was not until I read Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score that I began to consciously make some of the connections that had been swirling in my head for years. Van Der Kolk makes the clinical and scientific case that our bodies and our brains are deeply altered by trauma. He goes as far as suggesting that childhood trauma “is “arguably the greatest threat to our national well-being,” an assessment I’ve come to agree with.
In my youth, when I wasn’t in school or playing sports or with one of our extended families, I was usually in church. My mother had been raised Lutheran, while my father came from a Catholic background. They met and married in their thirties after working together at a faith-based teen rehabilitation center in Colorado. A recovering hippie in the 1970s, my dad, especially, had stumbled upon and identified strongly with the Jesus Movement. Dad became what I like to call a drive-by evangelist. What I mean is, he can’t drive away from the tollbooth without telling the worker, “Jesus loves you!” No amount of discouragement from my siblings or me has ever persuaded him that this isn’t a helpful practice. When I have pressed him about things like that, I was apt to hear something about “sowing seeds.”
When I was in the fifth grade, our D.A.R.E. officer – you know, the “just say no to drugs” guy? – used to play basketball with my friends and me at recess. Jim, we’ll call him, was probably in his thirties. Playing with Jim was far beyond his job description, and of course it gave us all a huge thrill to have an adult paying attention to us. One time, though, when he was demonstrating his moves on the court, his cigarettes and can of dip fell out of his pocket.
Elsewhere on this blog, I have told the story of bullying a classmate who had the last laugh in the end. But like many people, I’ve been on both ends of bullying. In early grade school, I had a “best friend” at school who I’ll call Andy. Lest I ever forgot that fact, Andy instructed me to repeat my allegiance to him every day on the playground. Out-loud and for his sake, I would say “We’re best friends forever.” And we were best friends (so long as I did everything he told me to do).