Transformation and Healing After Trauma, Loss and Grief

My Mythic Garden

A blog by author and trauma expert Gary W. Reece, Ph.D.

Fault Lines/Developmental Vulnerabilities
Gary Reece, Ph.D.

Humans! There is a funny TV commercial which portrays some of our more humorous lapses as we conduct our daily activities. These are a funny portrayal of our failings and peculiarities and our mistakes in judgment. They are funny because they are universal. To err is human. Yet there is a darker, more malevolent side to being human that is too often revealed in the 6 o’clock news. Not all of our activities are accidents due to inattention or lapses in judgment.

These past few weeks have revealed once again the violence which lies within us all and surfaces to do incredible harm. These fault lines, collapses of the implicit self occur when individuals are unable to maintain a coherent, cohesive, stable self. In short their impulses break through their containment–regulatory boundaries. The human personality is a complex mixture of genetic predisposition, early attachment history, losses, environmental stressors, and occasional trauma organized, directed, and held together by something we call the Self. Whenever something happens and a seemingly “normal” person “snaps” we are left to wonder about how and why seemingly normal humans commit such violence that results in unspeakable tragedy.

The cases to which I am referring happened in recent weeks in Los Angeles and neighboring cities. Case 1, a husband shot his wife. Case 2, a mother of three fatally stabbed her young children to death. Case 3, a young man shot and killed his father, mother, sister and himself: the neighbors describe them as the “perfect family. And finally case #4 an affluent young college student went on a shooting rampage in a college campus town ostensible because he was lonely and angry at women, revenge; the stated motive.

Four different but similar types of violence, violence against the family, violence against the self, violence against a spouse, and violence against others. These did not just happen, when these types of violent acts occur they typically have a history which may have been building for a long time. It is only after the fact that we are able to do a post mortem and begin to create a picture of why that particular crime. Why now and not two weeks ago or 6 months from now? What was the trigger? Human behavior is very complex, we seldom do things for just one reason, motivation is multi-determined. The human personality can be likened to tectonic plates which cause earth quakes. These are the fault lines; a family history of mental illness, early trauma, neglect, or ineffective parenting results in a failure to learn how to manage powerful emotions and develop empathy for others. These are the results of both attunement and regulatory failures. Violence is often the result of a process that leads to loss of impulse control: tension and life stressors, loss, frustration, and failure are cumulative. They load up over time, and anger, resentment and rage often go unresolved. The person fails to adjust or accommodate to complex social situations and a breaking point occurs. Critical mass is reached. Much of adult violence has its roots in early childhood trauma: this is often what goes undetected, masked by the seeming normalcy of the adult facade, the persona of normalcy. Allan Schore describes these roots of aggression:

Because trauma in infancy occurs in a critic period of growth of the emotion regulating limbic system, it negatively effects the maturation of the brain systems that modulate stress and regulate affect, including aggressive affective states. In other words, infants who experience abuse and/or neglect and little interactive repair are high-risk for developing aggression dysregulation in later stages of life. An early relational environment of maternal neglect and paternal abuse (insecure maternal and paternal attachments) would be a particularly potent matrix for generating inefficient control systems that would be high-risk for developing later disorders of aggression dysregulation. ( Affect Dysregulation and Disorders of the Self, Pg. 284)

Life is seldom lived without friction and conflict. Learning to repair relationship breeches is part of healthy development which leads to secure attachment. The legacy of attunement failure in a personality often results in vulnerability to loss of control, of a buildup of resentment, and poor stress tolerance. Given the right set of circumstances, the buildup of resentment, a precipitating stressor, the availability of a gun, and poor impulse control and someone dies. These individuals have been functioning apparently semi normally for years. Why on that particular day did they have their psychological catastrophe? Why did they crack?

In the case of spousal murder, there can be a number of factors which go into the final act. I believe these are examples of both a failure of personality and relationship. The couple apparently failed to establish a strong base of intimacy and trust based on good communication (intimacy). Anger, resentment, and blaming builds up and there are often external pressures which serve as mitigating factors. Have we not at one time or another felt anger at our partner? Intimacy fosters very strong often ambivalent feelings, intimacy is difficult to maintain in the onslaught of the daily grind. Resentment, breeches, and communication failures and frustration build up. Some people work it out, others divorce and others resort to domestic violence. Still others manage to have stable dysfunctional relationships where they fight and reconcile continuously. Only an understanding of their personal histories can tell us some of their story which led to murder.

In the case of the young mother, though it is shocking, it is very understandable. Post partum depression and three young children with all their demands and needs place great demands on a parent. Have we not all felt crazy with exhaustion and frantic when the children are crying all at the same time, you haven’t gotten much sleep, and you are at your wits end. She apparently reached her limit and had her psychological collapse: she shockingly stabbed her three children to death. In a similar case a mother tried to drown her children by driving the car into the ocean with her children in it. What were her fault lines? What were her developmental vulnerabilities? Was there a history of mental illness in the family? Did she not have enough support to spread the demands and buffer the stressors of being a young mother? What kind of mothering did she experience? Did she have unmet dependency needs which she had hoped being a mother would fulfill? Was she so flooded with emotion that she was not able to think of other alternatives? In her muddled state she appeared to come to the place where she took the one option: an enormous tragedy.

In the case of the son killing his whole family and himself we have another set of family dynamics gone terribly wrong. Reputedly the perfect family, it clearly had hidden issues, fault lines of an unknown variety: father-son rivalry, husband-wife interactions, sibling rivalry. What happened? These are all quite normal family problems, adolescence stresses all families. Job pressures, financial pressures, the need to maintain this image of a perfect Christian family. The son feeling like he did not belong or agree with the family religion: the classic Oedipal struggle. Was there no outlet for normal frustrations and conflicts? What leads up to such an outbreak of rage?

What were there fault lines? Why that day? Why fratricide and not just suicide? This is a very complicated family tragedy? Everything on the surface appeared super normal. Will there be enough “markers” to be able to put together a cogent explanation?

In the next case we have a young man who apparently had exhibited symptoms of a psychological nature for several years which were being treated by psychotherapy. He posted his grievances on line, bought several hand guns, carefully planned his revenge, and his family knew he was dangerous: he then acted out all his loneliness and rage by random acts of violence, dying in the process after taking 6 individuals with him. His actions devastated a community. Again we are left to wonder and ask all the questions about why, even though he told us his reasons. What were his fault lines, his vulnerabilities? He apparently had little compassion or empathy for all the lives he impacted. He did not control his violence, he did not find a way to build relationships, and he felt isolated and alone blaming others. Failure to regulate emotion, failure to attach to others, failure to empathize, failure to integrate his own internal fractures, failure to use his mind to create a more meaningful identity, a working model of the world which saw others as a threat and violence as the only solution: all are attachment failures which ended in another gun related rampage. Allen Schore describes the results of early attachment trauma and failure:

All traumatized patients seem to have the evolution of their lives checked they are attached to an insurmountable object” unable to integrate traumatic experiences they seem to have lost their capacity to assimilate new experiences as well. It is . . . as if their personality development has stopped at a certain point and cannot enlarge any more by the addition of new elements. (Allan Schore Affect Dysregulation and Disorders of the Self, Pg. 187)

Clearly each of the above incidents are complex and unique examples of the ways human personalities fail to develop and adapt to the environment and stressful demands of life. The actions were violent, shocking, and sudden departures, dramatic tectonic shifts from what previously appeared to be normal individuals. But beneath the façade of normalcy were major fault lines which appeared to yield to multiple unendurable life stressors. Tragically, fatally flawed, individuals who were vulnerable to the same stresses we all experience as humans: humans who create great works of art, enormous acts of kindness and generosity, and also are capable of the most brutal acts of inhumanity and barbarity on the personal as well as the larger global scale. Mere mortals, terribly flawed actors on the grand stage: it is no wonder we are so preoccupied with violence and “super heroes.” Where our fantasies are acted out and we can vicariously save the world. Heroes and bad guys and the good guys always win.

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