footprints from past lives
creep into mine.
I look, and see things
around me differently.
Relating to the people I love
is sometimes hard.
Swelling rage, pain, and fear
I see the stories written
on the bodies of the ones I love.
The stories of others, past and present.
Abu Ghraib. Rwanda. Guatemala. El Salvador.
Ferguson. Baltimore. Cleveland. Louisiana.
The stories of the dead still alive, lurking.
How to carry these stories?
How to carry this knowledge?
How to carry this history?
Is it possible to be free?
Holding in my hands,
where do I put them?
Notes on “Carrying Stories” [UPDATE: Also see “Carrying Stories 2”]
Secondary traumatic stress, or vicarious trauma, “describe effects of working with traumatized persons on therapists” which can exhibit in symptoms of distress and sometimes PTSD . Most of the literature is about therapists and social workers who work with people who have suffered trauma. But it also happens to people who study mass atrocity, genocide, and human rights violations. Four years ago there was a conference about it, and there’s a book too. It is definitely something I have experienced before. I’ve studied human rights, genocide, and mass atrocity for the past 10 years academically and professionally. As a kid, I read every book on the Holocaust in the children’s section of the library. More recently, I don’t like watching violent movies. I can’t stand it. Jokes and pranks about people getting hurt aren’t funny to me. I can’t stand it when people are mean to each other. I’m not sure how much of all of it is related, but I think it might be.
It’s also hard to talk about this, because I don’t want to detract from the trauma and suffering of survivors. I don’t want to equate it or compare even remotely. But I think it is still important to talk about, and I hope I do so respectfully, while also acknowledging the suffering of survivors and their communities.
I have read many survivors accounts, seen photographs, and heard many horrific stories. I specialize in researching and analyzing declassified documents. For one of the recent projects I worked on, we were focusing on international decision-making and response to genocide. I spent most of my time reading through high-level US government, and United Nations documents. I read through situation reports from Gen. Romeo Dallaire on the ground in Rwanda back to the UN in New York leading up to the genocide and during. I spent months combing through documents to understand how the United States agreed to pull United Nations (UNAMIR) peacekeepers out of Rwanda as the genocide ravaged around them. One of the most horrifying documents is the one from the Department of Defense that makes the determination that it is cheaper to give Rwanda aid in the relief effort than to spend money to bomb the radio stations that were fueling the genocidal killings. A single page. Three paragraphs. Is this who we want to be? Is this what we do?
It was the documents about these foreign policy decisions that were so difficult to read. The one time that I remember actually having to get up from my desk and go for a walk, was reading about Cambodia. The document is somewhere buried in the Digital National Security Archive, but it was one of the Kissinger transcripts and Kissinger was speaking with other world leaders (at this moment I don’t remember who), talking about the bombing in Laos and Cambodia, and I got this horrible sudden, sick feeling, realizing that this tiny group of people were essentially playing the game Risk with the lives of millions of people. Moving game pieces around a board.
Recently, I’ve been struggling on writing a paper about Rwanda. But I’m taking breaks, writing poetry, listening to my heart, going on walks, drinking tea, and painting.
Earlier this evening, I wrote another poem, before the one above. It is much more heavy and dark, describing the scenes that leap out before me, often seemingly out of nowhere. I don’t want to share it though, because I don’t know that it would be helpful and it might bring pain and suffering to others. It IS helpful to share these thoughts though like my poem “Teaching Torture.” So, thank you for listening.
 Jenkins, Sharon, and Rae Baird. “Secondary Traumatic Stress and Vicarious Trauma: A Validational Study.” Journal of Traumatic Stress 15, no. 5 (2002): 423-32.