What is re-enactment? Before I reach for Dr. Peter Levine book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma to give the official definition, I’ll have a go at it myself. Re-enactment is an unconscious attempt made by someone with unresolved trauma to resolve it. For example, the date of one’s car accident arrives, an accident that resulted in trauma years before that the person never resolved, and so the trauma victim crashes again in an unconscious attempt to bring closure to the trauma of the first crash. He or she hadn’t even remembered the date of the old accident, yet here he is on the same date involved in a crash again. How does this happen?
As I understand it, during trauma, the left side of the brain goes offline. That is to say, the verbal part that usually makes sense of and remembers an event cannot. The right side of the brain, however, records the event in its own language, that of the emotions, the body, and the senses. The story of the trauma is stored there, but not in the way that we usually associate with remembering something. The trauma will not be resolved until the verbal brain integrates the non-verbal clues. Unconsciously then, one often attempts to resolve the trauma by re-creating similar circumstances, a no-win situation.
One way to bring closure to or renegotiate a traumatic event, thereby ending the need to re-enact, is to contact the memories of the right side (perhaps through associative writing, drawing, dancing, moving) and then, use the left side or verbal side of the brain to string these memories together into a chronological, cohesive narrative. In this way, awareness of the trauma will prevent acting out. As I had major stomach surgery without anesthesia or pain control as a one-month-old, I have unresolved trauma. Using associative writing or free writing, I recently tried to understand one of my past attempts to resolve my trauma through re-enactment:
Those horrible masks. Those disembodied beings. I got a chance to fight those surgeons once in the form of a man who came to my door while I was teaching writing in Oakland in the 70s. A knock, I answered–a masked man. I lunged! No, I did not kick. No, I did not do anything smart. I attacked this big man chest-level, but he threw me into the house and onto the floor. Then he positioned himself in front of me and the seven women sitting in a circle in my living room, who had been preparing to write, aiming at us with a supposed gun hidden in a paper bag. He wanted what we had—money, jewels, rings, necklaces. We allowed him to take them. The black belt in karate, Karen, nodded to us to let him be. We knew she was taking care of us. If he got dangerous, Karen would deal with him. After he left without harming anyone physically and I was closing the door, he burst back in and I fought him again even though I knew better. I had to fight that damn surgeon attacking me, killing me. Those mean disembodied eyes, those masks they were wearing, that black turtleneck he’d pulled over his mouth and nose. I had to stop him!
When I think of it, re-enactment has driven a lot of my life. The act of writing about past re-enactments though helps me understand some of the crazy, seemingly illogical, things that I have been involved in. I begin to make sense of myself and my actions. And that’s why I owe my life to writing, really. Without it, I could have re-enacted my trauma and found my way into my grave, but writing unplugged many of those unconscious drives. Writing helped me take charge of my life. No time for Peter Levine’s take on re-enactment. Once I got going……Next post 🙂
Thank you Wendy, for raising again the reality and hazards of re-enactment. People like us who have suffered very early trauma that we don’t remember consciously but which nevertheless affects us carry emotional and mental scars which our body memory cannot forget. The personal example you mention is scary and dangerous: I’m glad you were not alone facing that man. You have given us a powerfully compelling foretaste of your next post! We’ll read on…