Ben Tanzer reflects on a traumatic experience brought to the forefront recently after watching Michaela Coel’s series I May Destroy You.
I awoke to a message from an old friend who can only briefly visit with his dying mother because of the pandemic.
I’m texting with my mom.
I’m listening to Phoebe Bridgers.
I’m reading about Michaela Coel, I May Destroy You, and creating one’s own fictions.
I burst into tears.
I’ll come back to that.
Let’s start again.
I’m drinking my first cup of coffee of the day, one hour after getting out of bed to ensure I’m awake before the caffeine hits my brain. There is a splash of cinnamon on top to juice my metabolism, already clumpy and molded to the ice cubes and the side of the cup. I’m journaling. Rested. The skies outside of the window grey. No sun at all. It’s the day after September 11th. My father has been dead for 20 years this fall. I have a son who started college and is on lockdown, fighting COVID and his own fears around this next phase of his life. Another son is starting high school at home and in his room, attending Zoom classes all-day, somehow making friends, I hope. My wife and I watched a movie after work the night before, Class Action Park, it was brutal and surreal, like most everything now. Then we drank, played cards, and went to bed at a decent time. I woke up. I checked my text messages. I put on some music. I’ll soon run despite the rain.
First though, I sit down to read about I May Destroy You and trauma.
I burst into tears.
I’ll come back to that.
It was a good day. Spring. A Friday.
Plans for dinner at Benny’s Burritos in the East Village and live music at some long-forgotten jazz club we had somehow never quite made it to loomed.
It was the early 1990s and not the greatest time to live in New York City. The 1970s were something, Warhol and the Ramones, and I suppose the 1980s too, with Haring and Basquiat, though maybe every era before was the greatest as well, depending on your experiences, proclivities, and privilege.
Maybe given all of the death of New York City pieces lately, the ’90s were actually the last great time to live there?
Though to say that requires acknowledging how poorly people of color were treated, stop and frisk, broken windows, the constant neglect of the underserved, homeless individuals sleeping in parks, HIV/AIDS still largely ignored, the crack epidemic, no conversation about #metoo or anything like it, the stink around the handling of the Central Park Five still redolent in the air.
New York City was still dirty and angry though in the ’90s, and that was part of the allure.
I would have lived in New York City at some point no matter what. My parents were from the city, The Bronx, my grandmother lived in Queens, there was Broadway and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Knicks and Yankees.
We were always there.
It was reading The Basketball Diaries as an adolescent that made the City feel real, necessary, and urgent, however. It was all raw nerve endings and pulsing, and that’s what I wanted to be. Electric and alive in some amazing way.
I’ll come back to that.
It was a good day and that feels important.
I always think about it being the first great spring day that year, sun out, the air fresh, people happy, a bounce to their step, all of our steps, and all of it bouncing, a city reawakening.
I’m certain that’s true.
I also know that we create our own fictions about how we live and once lived. Crafting our personal narratives, writing our lives.
For example, I failed to understand then how much my mood is affected by sunlight, the more searing the better. How much I crave it. I thought of myself as above all that.
It isn’t true.
So, yes, I failed to realize that, correct it, correct myself.
I am interested in my failures now, understanding them, celebrating them, addressing my personal narrative in terms of how things went wrong and how I failed to acknowledge that.
And there is a lot more failure to come, I promise.
For now, though, it is a good day.
Spring. A Friday. It’s really sunny and glorious. I’m happy. And I have a bounce in my step.
I remember that. I know it.
The workday is over. Burritos and movies loom.
I bypass the train station closest to me. That’s against the unwritten rules of home visits in New York City. You always catch the closest train.
I was a caseworker then.
It’s so gorgeous though and there is a Ben & Jerry’s down the way and the idea of a milkshake feels earned and sublime.
But I failed to get there.
I mentioned that this is a story about failure, and that’s true, but it’s also a story about trauma and how we can not only fail to avoid it, but fail to accurately process and manage it.
Which means it’s also about watching I May Destroy You and feeling traumatized all over again. Though, more specifically, it’s about watching the finale. Especially the finale.
Did you watch it? If not, spoilers will now abound.
Michaela Coel, the writer, co-director, and star, plays a writer named Arabella who is ostensibly working on a personal essay collection. Her first book grew out of her ubiquitous and knowing social media presence. She is the voice of her generation. Her fans adore her. She is cool. Glam. Her friends are charming, funny, attractive. They are a reflection of where the world is going. A diverse, multi-cultural, unbound, global universe that exists both online and everywhere at once, and brand, creativity, work, and life all merge into an endless flow of words, images, personas, and ideas. The characters starting with Arabella are magnetic, as is the show, all sound and sight, cuts and flow, live-wire energy dripping into raw energy and the crackle of electricity.
Despite all of this pinging, wild vibrancy, and exuberance, Arabella cannot write that book. She’s stuck.
We all get stuck.
The show, then, is also about the creative process.
Then, Arabella is sexually assaulted.
Not that she immediately recognizes this.
I’ll come back to that.
At Psych Central, there is an article from March 2019 titled, “Trauma: 9 Things We Fail to Understand.” It suggests that, when it comes to trauma, we fail to understand the following things:
- Talk therapy does not always work. Trauma therapies often involve more art than science, especially in the initial stages of treatment.
- Therapy alone is not enough. It may be at some point, but perhaps not now for some people.
- Psychological, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse can have lifelong consequences. Symptoms may never disappear.*
- Trauma is not just “a bad experience.” It is a long road.
- Trauma has neurobiological components we often miss. Trauma critically affects brain structure.
- Every person’s definition of trauma is different, and it is defined as an event deemed traumatic to the sufferer.
*I’ll definitely come back to that.
I feel this presence at my shoulder more than I see anyone. It’s just that I know someone is there. And when I look, someone is right there, and I assume they are going to ask for change. That’s an all-day thing in New York City.
I didn’t feel nervous.
I know that.
I failed to register any fear. No tingly Spidey-sense at all.
I don’t recall ever feeling scared back then.
That’s privilege. It’s also luck.
The guy didn’t say a word, instead he wrapped his arm around my neck, placing me in a head lock. It was fluid, minimal fuss, one motion.
I just as fluidly slipped out of it.
I attribute this to having wrestled in middle school and at the start of high school.
Reflex, instinct, memory.
I stepped away and turned to face my antagonist.
I failed to put any real distance between us, however, much less shout, run away, or swing my messenger bag at him.
I just stood there, shocked, curious, wondering, the world I had inhabited moments before pierced by this new world I didn’t recognize.
The first punch caught the corner of my eyeglasses, my eyebrow, the second my nose.
Or maybe that order was reversed.
Maybe there was even a third blow.
I don’t know, it just feels possible.
I failed to see the punches coming, to duck or block them. To step away. Again. The punches came fast. Everything was blurred. Slow. Confusing. I dropped to one knee.
I failed to form a plan or response.
I didn’t know what might come next.
My assailant yelled, “Get out!” and wandered into the crowd.
I looked for my glasses, abandoned that effort, stood back up and began to walk down the street.
Six months later, I arrived at orientation for graduate school at the University of Chicago, hundreds of miles away, New York City in the review mirror. This was always the plan, even if the timing seems so suspicious now, fresh beginnings and all that. I looked across the room full of people I didn’t know, mostly female, and I decided to look for a male face. That somehow seemed safe, a known known. When I found one, I sat down next to him. He was Jewish, as am I, and had lived in California and worked for several years before applying to graduate school, as had I. There was something else, though. His energy, its frequency and rhythm, I vibed with it. There was a hum, a wavelength I understood. And this wasn’t like falling in love, where you’re certain this is the person you will have to spend the rest of your life with. This was more about seeing someone and knowing they’ll see you. Which is to say, that I knew he had been assaulted as well. I asked him if this was so. “Yes,” he said, “two skinheads in London, how did you know?” I felt it. That’s all.
At WebMD you can read a post titled, “What Are the Treatments for PTSD?” It defines Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as “a type of anxiety disorder [that] can happen after a deeply threatening or scary event.” It goes on to say that “people with PTSD can have insomnia, flashbacks, low self-esteem, and a lot of painful or unpleasant emotions. You might constantly relive the event or lose your memory of it altogether.” The piece also discusses treatment, including:
- Therapy which has three main goals—improve your symptoms, teach you skills to deal with it, restore your self-esteem.
- Much of this therapy falls under the umbrella of Cognitive Processing Therapy, a 12-week course of treatment, where you talk about the traumatic event and your thoughts related to how the event has affected your life. Then you write about what happened, examining how you think about your trauma and figure it out.
- Prolonged Exposure Therapy where you learn among other things, breathing techniques to ease your anxiety when you think about what happened. There is also homework where you list the things you are avoiding.
- There may also be medication because people with PTSD may “process threats differently” and have an easily triggered “fight or flight” response, all because “the balance of chemicals, called neurotransmitters, is out of whack.”
Out of whack.
Arabella is in a bar. She is with a friend. A proposed threesome is being negotiated around her. There are drinks, many, other patrons they don’t know. They do shots with strangers. Then, Arabella doesn’t quite remember what happened next. She is bruised and bloodied. Fragments of memory slicing through her shaky brain. She pieces together that she has been drugged and sexually assaulted and, though most of the details elude her, the police help her confirm it’s all true. Now, she’s somehow supposed to make sense of all that—create, live. Or is she? What are the rules? Time passes. Arabella tries to live in the world. She joins a support group. She cuts off her hair. She misses deadlines for her book. Her friends try to be supportive, while processing their own assaults. She tells her mother about the assault and confronts what she doesn’t want to be the truth about her father’s behavior, past and present. She is assaulted again and gaslighted by a writer tasked with helping her finish her book. As the detailed memories of the night slowly, grudgingly, grindingly return and cohere—and the police close the case, no suspect in sight—she begins to case the bar where her assault occurred, searching for the perpetrator.
I’m in a bar in Chicago a year or so after the assault. It’s crowded, table service is slow. I head to the actual bar, which is also packed, every seat taken, patrons vying for the bartender’s attention. Leaning, waving, raising fingers, jumping up and down. It’s all sweaty and annoying, no space, no way to breathe. But it can work. We can make it work together. It’s doable. It has to be. I look for a spot where the bartender will see me. There is a couple, very Chicago—her with blonde and feathered hair, and him a blockhead with a pornstache—and they are very into each other and whatever they’re talking about. I don’t think they register me at all. I see an opportunity to order and lean in. The guy says to his date, “Don’t you hate it when people disrespect you by interrupting your conversation to order a drink?” I look at him and he squares himself in his seat, staring at me, not speaking. I see the date out the of the corner of my eye silently pleading with me to walk away. She’s been here before. There are a number of things I want to say, though, mainly, “Hey man, we’re all in this together, I’ll be out of your hair in a moment,” but mostly I picture him making an aggressive move towards me and I respond by repeatedly punching him in the face until he falls to the floor where I proceed to kick him until I hear something crack. I am full of bloodlust and glee. None of this happens, however. Instead, I walk out of the bar to get some air, adrenaline surging, shaky, and wondering, not for the first time, if I’d feel better if I could just beat someone to the ground.
Suffice it to say, I failed to get treatment for PTSD, much less knew what PTSD was until years later and I could better acknowledge what followed my experience that day on the street. Which is not to say that I didn’t go to therapy. I was already going. We just failed to discuss what happened.
I failed to discuss it.
Just as I failed to ever talk about the incident in the bar, how often I was triggered by loud noises or sudden movements for years after the assault or that the most minimal of encounters and miscommunications would escalate to violence in my head.
Not that I ever strongly felt the need to eschew violence, either.
For many years before the assault, I reviled in the possibility of getting into a fight, even if I didn’t feel any particular desire to experience the sensation of skin-on-skin contact, the loss of breath, and the mental charge of knowing I’d bested someone, or even hurt them.
I had once felt that way, but that was adolescent me, when I sought out fights and thought of myself as tough.
Check that, I was tough once. And, prior to the assault, I missed that feeling.
After the assault? That faded.
After the assault, I had to ask what else I could have done. And, as I didn’t do anything, why was that the case? Why didn’t I fight back?
Who was I if not someone who could take care of himself?
Trying to make sense of that is pointless; but that’s not the point, it’s all senseless and raw.
The week after the assault, I was home visiting my parents and I went out to a bar we frequented in those days. Home is upstate New York. Small town. Hills. Rivers. Bridges. It’s both blue-collar and moneyed. I grew up in neither camp, landing somewhere in between.
Which is where I am, somewhere in between, in this bar, with my stitched and bandaged brow and black eye for all to see.
Did I fail to mention that? The stitches and the injuries?
As I started my walk to the train, dazed and bloodied, without glasses or any true sense of direction, someone sat me down, the police arrived, an ambulance. Soon, I was in an emergency room, though I don’t remember the ride there, much less the questions the police asked me before I was taken away, or what they said in the hospital as they worked on me. It was a cacophony of words, lights, and movements. Fragments. Swirling memories and brief slivers of reality. Suddenly, my girlfriend is there. How? My face is being stitched up under the brightest of lights. Like an interrogation. Then, I’m leaving. Then, I’m in bed. Then, I’m at work. Twisting and confused.
Days later, I’m back home and drinking as if nothing happened, surrounded by wood paneling, neon beer signs, electronic dart boards, and big hair.
I run into some old friends who ask me what happened.
“I wouldn’t have let that happen to me, not without a fight,” Tom says.
Tom and I weren’t great friends in high school and I never thought of him as tough.
I guess I’m not either, though. Not anymore. How could I be? I failed to protect myself. Nor did I respond in kind.
But that was all a long time ago.
There I was, watching I May Destroy You, equal parts spellbound, exhilarated, and horrified, each week lost in the swirl of Arabella’s life—her struggles, broken memories, triumphs, efforts to create, her resilience and joy—when the finale happened.
Arabella has been surveilling the bar where she believes she met the men who drugged and assaulted her, her memory more whole, creeping back in, forming a linear narrative of the night.
Then, she sees him. The perpetrator. Clearly. Finally.
Arabella has a plan. With the help of her friends, she drugs him, follows him home, things violently escalate, and she beats him on the street.
At first, I react as a viewer, writer, editor, coach.
This is a revenge fantasy, and it’s thrilling, but also comical, bizarre, kind of the easy way out, and not aligned with the previous writing and storytelling.
It seems off.
My heart is pounding, the synapses firing off in my brain. I know the desire to tell this kind of story. To feel it. To want to create it. Even if I can’t recall when I last experienced it.
I know what it’s like to want blood on your hands, the visceral excitement of it; though, also, how pointless and impossible it is to feel this way.
It won’t make me feel better any more than it will Arabella.
Not the feeling nor the fantasy of it.
I feel terrible after these scenes—sad, cold, shook.
I’m not past anything.
Of course, why would I be? I’m out of whack and will always be out of whack, and my failing to recognize this makes no sense at all.
As the scene unfolds, we see that the scene is just that, a scene in Arabella’s head, a fantasy.
Soon, Arabella is replaying the scene. She doesn’t beat her perpetrator. She brings him home, he explores his shame with her, and she offers forgiveness.
No, wait, it’s not that either. They have consensual sex.
No, wait, it’s none of that.
Arabella doesn’t go look for him that night. She’s done with all that.
These scenes are all stories, possibilities, and Arabella is looking at Post-it Notes on her wall. She is writing again, creating, making all of this into something, something she’s been unable to do all season.
Does she know that writing down these details is a tool for finding balance and stability? For regaining power? Maybe. Though, maybe it doesn’t matter. She’s been stuck, was stuck, then derailed.
Time and form have now intervened, as has the writer who later assaulted and gaslighted her, now reappeared in her life to offer her a structure for her work and help her find her way.
She is a creator again and, in the end, she has her book.
It turns out that we’re always healing, transforming, writing our story, and sometimes we fail at all of it.
Did I burst into tears as I sat down to write this because of my mood, 2020, Phoebe Bridgers, my children, my mom or friend, the lack of sun, and because that’s what it is to be human and alive? Or is it lingering trauma, which Michaela Coel reminded me is never so far from the surface?
It may be all of that, the job is to not fail to acknowledge its presence, how it lingers and the hold it has on us.
We are out of whack.
And so, we must create, tell our stories, heal, and push forward.
It’s the only path we have.
Ben Tanzer is the author of several award-winning books, including the science fiction novel Orphans, the essay collection Lost in Space: A Father’s Journey There and Back Again, Be Cool—a memoir (sort of), and Upstate.