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Take It from Someone Who Has Suffered Real Physical Abuse: Words Aren’t Violence

Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears. — U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (1856-1941)

For the fourth time in the space of 30 minutes, the sound of a cell-phone text alert interrupted my college class. The professor, a gifted educator with an infectious passion for his subject, had made his no-phones policy clear on many occasions. These repeated infractions were too much for him, and he lost his temper.

He shouted at us about maturity, respect and the convenient proximity of our classroom’s two doors, through which anyone more interested in their phone than his lecture was welcome to depart. One of my classmates said later that the professor had activated his “angry-dad mode.”

Back at home, this professor is raising a house full of boys. He’ll talk professional sports with anyone willing to listen. He regularly shows up with a splint, bandage, or brace—always some injury gained by roughhousing with his sons, in whom he takes obvious pride. I’ve enrolled in every class he teaches. I’ve been alone with him a dozen times. I am not afraid of him, because there’s nothing to fear.

None of that mattered in the moment, because my body reacted only to the fact that I was in the presence of an angry adult male. My brain activated its own agitated mode, a mode I know well from 18 years of repeated childhood trauma: surging adrenaline and cortisol, a spiking heart rate, a sense of psychological disassociation in preparation for violence. I felt the same terror I’d endured while making the trek down the hall to fetch my father’s belt, the one with the unusually large buckle, which would be weaponized if I made too much noise. Like when I was a kid, there was a part of my mind that separated from my body and watched and wondered: Would I gather my things and walk out? Would I humiliate myself by crying?

As my professor’s spasm of anger abated, a classmate shot me a strange look. I realized that my teeth were chattering. I forced myself to stop.

Years ago, when my real angry dad was done with me, I’d end up somewhere on a spectrum between two or three days of wincing pain when I sat down—and the emergency room. Childhood left me with burn scars, chronic-pain injuries from repetitive beatings, and a complex form of PTSD.

After class, I cried in the girls’ bathroom and forced myself to eat lunch. Breathing exercises helped. When that same professor had office hours later that same day, I was there.

Some readers may suspect that I went to confront him about what he’d done, to ask for an apology, or to work out some kind of accommodation—some arrangement whereby I could leave the room the next time he went into angry-dad mode, lest I be triggered once again. But that’s not what happened.

My professor’s anger was hardly unjustified. This was a class full of adults. No one past potty-training deserves so many warnings for the same offence. Even in that state of high dudgeon, he was never a threat to me or anyone else. And it would have been selfish for me to ask that he modify his behaviour to placate me. People lose their temper. They get angry. Sometimes they yell. It’s my job to learn to cope with this reality of the world—just as it is everyone’s job to prevent angry words from spilling over into actual physical violence.

I take responsibility for my own fragility despite the fact that none of my childhood abuse was my fault. I was born into the wrong house and lost the parent lottery. This gives me some specific problems I must overcome in order to lead a good life.

After a question about the approaching mid-term gave way to small talk in the professor’s office, I felt myself getting back on the proverbial horse—reminding myself that I could trust my judgment that this man was safe, that proximity to an authority figure who’d shown me his angry-dad side wouldn’t result in bruises or bleeding. I needed to prove to myself anew that I was an adult who could cope with other people having and expressing feelings, even in ways I didn’t like (and which they might later regret).

* * *

The word “triggered” has become a term of sardonic mockery—a byword for “made mildly uncomfortable—and complaining about it.” Just a few years ago, the term referred unironically to the manifestation of real PTSD symptoms—something akin to my experience in class that day. Because I still have a real need to refer to that clinical concept to describe how I respond to the world, I have to use words that haven’t become corrupted through overuse. Or I use my own invented terms, like “triggered-triggered.”

Language is mutable, and definitions change over time. But what we’ve witnessed in recent years—especially on campuses—is a profound form of concept creep that goes beyond mere language and labels. The ordinary challenges of life now are being reinvented as trauma, and words are conflated with violence. It is all part of our ongoing cultural embrace of the “untruth of fragility: what doesn’t kill you, makes you weaker,” as illuminated by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in The Coddling of the American Mind. Debates, lectures and even ordinary conversations now can be brought to an end when one party declares checkmate by asserting that this or that argument serves to “deny their humanity” or makes them feel “unsafe.”

As someone who has experienced nine of the 10 most studied Adverse Childhood Experiences, who lives with chronic physical pain from violence-inflicted injuries, who spends three hours a week with a therapist specializing in trauma, I can attest that such claims strike me as dangerous gibberish. Can words do damage? Of course. But the difference between words and violence is that mentally competent adults nearly always have a choice about how much damage words can inflict, whereas the damage caused by my father’s belt—like all physical abuse—didn’t rise or fall depending on my psychological state at the moment of impact.

Our laws, rooted in a wiser age, recognize that only truly vulnerable—not those who merely assert that they feel vulnerable—must be protected from certain very specific kinds of words. Death threats, extortion and shouting fire in a crowded theatre are illegal not because those words are “violent” in their own right, but because they directly invite or foreshadow real physical violence or financial predation, without any possibility of effective psychological intermediation.

People who work with the elderly or the mentally disabled can be prosecuted for abuse if they berate their patients. Therapists who speak abusively to their clients will find themselves on the wrong side of licensing boards and clinical supervisors. Likewise, a parent can do real damage to a child’s developing brain through sustained and intense verbal abuse. But even a child knows the difference between verbal abuse and real violence. When my parents got angry, and I experienced only a flurry of vicious words, I often felt joyously relieved—because words aren’t violence.

Is the damage from words long-lasting? In the case of adults, that’s usually up to the target. If words cause me a level of harm that I can’t—or won’t—seek to control, then I am implicitly resigning myself to an existence without agency or dignity. I reject this way of living. And I refuse to stand silently by while our culture collectively embraces a spirit of morbid passivity.

Overcoming verbal abuse is hard—like almost everything else worth doing. In moments of failure, frustration or shame, I feel my mother’s or father’s voice ringing in my head, sneering, calling me worthless. But therapy has helped me learn that the power over how much pain these voices can cause is in my hands. I can work to use my rational faculties, reject their post facto assessment of my worth as a human, and move on.

While words are not violence, the media has done a good job blurring the difference. In a 2017 New York Times article, Northeastern University psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett argued that chronic stress can cause physical harm, and so speech should sometimes be regarded as violence in verbal form: “What’s bad for your nervous system, in contrast, are long stretches of simmering stress. If you spend a lot of time in a harsh environment worrying about your safety, that’s the kind of stress that brings on illness and remodels your brain…A culture of constant, casual brutality is toxic to the body, and we suffer for it…But we must also halt speech that bullies and torments. From the perspective of our brain cells, the latter is literally a form of violence.”

The science here isn’t wrong. My parents subjected me to chronic stress. Beyond the physical scars and lingering injury, I’ve endured several health conditions that my doctor believes may be linked to my difficult childhood. A developing brain marinating in cortisol is bad news.

But that’s hardly the sort of long-term experience most people are relating to when they talk about being triggered. Many students have become convinced that ordinary life and the “microaggressions” that come with it are sources of acute psychic pain. It even has become common for students to trace debilitating anxiety to the fact that a person they consider loathsome occupies the White House, or that a building on their campus is named after someone whose once-progressive ideas have fallen into disfavor, or that someone has asserted the scientific reality of biological sex.

Only those with the privilege of having led violence-free lives could make such claims with a straight face. If an otherwise mentally healthy person becomes paralyzed by trauma when someone recites political opinions they disagree with, or describes them with the wrong pronoun, the way they react is their choice. If the ordinary unpleasantness of daily life causes traumatic reactions that cannot be alleviated with a spirit of resilience, that is evidence of a serious mental health problem.

Readers of Quillette will be well aware of all the ways in which safe-space culture threatens free speech and precipitates a spirit of competitive victimhood. But the question of how this culture affects personal psychological health is at least as important. Trauma usually cannot be resolved merely by helping someone feel “safe”—since life is unpredictable, and you can’t live in a cocoon. In my experience, the most effective approach has been for a caring and competent therapist to push me to do things that sometimes can feel terrifying and dangerous, until such point as I have worked through the irrational fears that trauma can cause. This is why I began this essay with the words of Justice Brandeis, which bear repetition, since they show how issues of free speech and psychological self-protection have become intermingled: “Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.”

The sight of a man’s belt used to trigger me. I would avoid the men’s department in clothing stores for this reason. Standing in a line with a man both in front of and behind me would give me physical anxiety symptoms for hours afterward. To resolve this trigger, my therapist told me to buy a man’s belt. I cried in the car and used up a lot of Kleenex in my next therapy session. Then I brought the thing home and hung it on the doorknob of my bedroom door. It hung there like a poisonous viper, giving me nightmares.

Then something beautiful happened. Its power started to fade. After a few weeks, it went from a dark artifact with the power to bring back my traumatic past, to a hunk of leather fashioned to hold up some guy’s pants. The experience made me grateful that my therapist didn’t take his cue from the culture around him. Teaching people to react to words as if they were weapons is teaching them to fetishize their damage—or even to create new damage. How will a generation trained to brew up their own cortisol on any pretext experience life if every off-colour joke knocks the legs out from under them?

When I enrolled at my university as a mature student trying to piece her life back together, I knew there was a chance that I might need some kind of special accommodations. But the university’s disability officer offered me so many accommodations that it was embarrassing. If I wanted to, I could have remained deeply mired in my mental debilitation without even the slightest spur toward recovery.

Self-pity is an addictive drug; and students who come to campus looking for ways to avoid stress, instead of deal with it, will find dealers in every office and classroom.  We can’t force students to fight their demons. But at the very least, we shouldn’t be encouraging a policy of immediate surrender.

 

Alexandra Berryhill is the pseudonym for an over-30 undergraduate student at an American university. She can be reached at alexandra.berryhill@gmail.com.

Featured image: “A Husband Beating his Wife with a Stick,” 1405, Artist unknown.

 

90 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing. Yours is my favorite human interest piece that I’ve read published by Quillette. You should take great pride in having found the strength and resilience within yourself to overcome the kind of horror that you describe. The last paragraph is especially insightful and succinctly demonstrates enviable personal growth, understanding and fortitude. Hopefully some coddled college kids out there read this with the kind of empathy that it deserves and take to heart the valuable and hard-won lessons found herein.

    As my mother would have said: “Root hog, or die!”

    • Angela says

      Alexandra should look into trials using MDMA facilitated psychotherapy to treat PTSD. Apparently early studies have had very promising results.

    • Academy Redux says

      Agree 100%. Every coddled, misguided “safe space” propoent (student or faculty) should read this piece. Of course they would probably twist its intent to suggest that the author is promoting the idea of angry or ranting professors, but they should read it anyway. Maybe one day it will sink in.

      People have forgotten that college has many purposes beyond acquiring a degree, chief among them the ability to constructively deal with many kinds of people and ideas you are not familiar or comfortable with as a kid. It’s as much to get earn your stripes as an adult as it is to learn stuff from books or tailgate. You can’t earn said stripes if you’re constantly demanding protection from every idea or sound that makes you uneasy.

  2. Thank you Alexandra. It’s hard to overcome such a horrible beginning to life. I spent my early teens living on the street or in the state reform school rather than be at home with my physically abusive parents. Then I graduated to alcoholism and prison in my twenties, heroin addiction in my thirties, and only in the past 5 years after therapy and the proper medication have I turned it around. Now I own my own business, home, have a beautiful wife and son, and appreciate the fact that once I claimed responsibility for myself and my choices, my situation started improving almost immediately.

    I cringe when I hear people claim they’d rather endure physical violence than emotional abuse because, “ At least then you can see proof of the suffering.”.

    Having had my face kicked with workboots until I pissed myself at age ten my response is always, “No. You wouldn’t.”.

    Kudos for being resilient. I believe it’s a choice to be otherwise and an especially seductive one in today’s political climate.

    • Ray Andrews says

      It’s voices like yours (you and Alexandra) that need to be heard more often. Real victims have an entirely different view of institutional victimhood than do the professional victimologists.

        • Angela says

          Real victims actually expierenced sexual or physical abuse. As opposed to pretend victims who get upset when people disagree with them.

          • xyz and such says

            There is serious abuse which is not physical or sexual and I think that is something that needs to be recognized; however the fact that things like being disagreed with or mis-labeled or challenged in an argument are now being equated with serious abuse or violence is a problem. One of the problems with this is the very fact that it tends to end up invalidating those who have experienced serious non-physical abuse. The other is allowing people that think that being uncomfortable is abuse to use this as a bludgeon to shut down dialogue or discussions about important issues.

          • The verbal and emotional abuse I experienced in childhood and youth made me unable to understand that I didn’t deserve to be physically and sexually abused.

            Snowflakes who cry “triggered” or who demand “safe spaces” don’t have a clue what abuse is. The words are the rosary beads of their cult.

        • Angela says

          Extreme forms of emotional abuse is also a real issue btw. Didnt mean to leave that out.

          • david of Kirkland says

            @Angela – It’s just that triggering and safe spaces aren’t about extreme forces of emotional abuse, so conflating them once again in the comment shows this extremely obviously distinction is still lost on some.

          • agree. I don’t see throwing ALL the Liberal safe-space stuff out with the bathwater…emotional abuse can be a blinding thing, especially when experienced at the hand of a parent.

        • Academy Redux says

          No, she didn’t declare that at all. She said speech is not violence or should not be equated with physical violence. If you bothered to read all the way through you’d know that. She in fact points out that depending on context dealing with another person’s anger or rage at the verbal level can be damaging. But again that’s not the same thing as being damanged by physical violence, and even beyond that one must distinguish between verbal anger that comes from someone who you have reason to believe is bringing harm to you, and someone who is merely angry at a situation you are both a party to. I know, I know… all these details, right?

          Not sure why it is the grey areas and subtlety are lost on so many people today, but I suspect it has a lot ot do with ferret-like attention spans enabled by years of social media use (and years of not reading long-form material and discussing it in a long-form way). The mind gets lazy… . Read all the way through next time, then, if you disagree, disagree. Otherwise your disagreement is worthless.

        • PompousPilot says

          No, she declared herself to be an expert on being a strong, healthy human being with an insight to share.

          And you declared yourself a knob.

  3. Donald Collins says

    On point and great read.

    As a man, my childhood made me react a different way. I shut off my emotion and got mean, not caring who I hurt. One day during a whipping I may have deserved as by this time I had become uncontrollable, I stood there and stared at my father as he hit me and refused to whelp. I remember that so vividly it used to give me shivers every time I recalled it.

    Later in life my aunt told me how my dad had it as a child, and believe me, made mine look like a walk in the park and it hit me, my dad may actually have thought he was doing a better job than the folks he dealt with and he was right.

    At that moment, talking to my aunt, I literally let it go, but unfortunately to late to make amends with my father as he had passed.

    This is life.

  4. Kevin (former gym class hero) says

    enjoyed the article. Hope you write more, you have good stuff to share. God bless you.

  5. Daath says

    My school years weren’t particularly fun, so I too can compare physical and verbal attacks. What a lot of people don’t get is that physical attacks inflict emotional pain as well. There’s the feeling of helplessness, and humiliation when everyone sees you being broken down. Of course that’s the part you can harden yourself against, and I was lucky enough to have bullies who enjoyed inflicting that, so eventually they went after softer prey.

    I’ve talked about these things with trigger warning types, and a lot of the time they scoff at the idea of not caring being a choice. True enough, it’s not that. Lifting your body weight isn’t one either. But both are capabilities you develop. Preferably, training in emotional fortitude starts when you’re a child, which is why people used to have rhymes like “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me”. Of course a lot of people do the opposite these days. They carefully cultivate their emotional vulnerability, until the sort of emotional papercuts I’d barely even laugh at seem to genuinely traumatize them.

    That level of weakness is pitiable, but if they left it at that, merely their own problem. But they go on to demand the whole world accommodate the weakness. They weaponize it. My emotional responses are irrelevant in the larger picture, but still: While I find public crying pathetic (at least in men), I hate crybullies. I may be a sad excuse of a hater, but I do OK with those people.

    • A C Harper says

      “Weaponizing Weakness” sounds like the title of a worthwhile article about the extravagances of the leftish approach to politics and life.

      And a hat tip to Alexandra Berryhill for a fine article.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @Daath

      My dad used to say that the measure of a man is what it takes to upset him. This was in the days when fragility was not considered a virtue.

  6. John Citizen says

    This is the most inspiring and powerful piece on Quillette — as already voiced by an earlier commentator. I will be taking and using several notes from this to improve my own life. Great work Alexandra.

  7. Markus says

    Good life choices and impressive writiing Alexandra (and also the sharing of some commenters).

    And Kudos for the matter-of-fact general tone. I imagine it’s quite a feat to observer oneself, the abusive father and the soft peers without hate, hysteria and condescension.

    Impressive!

  8. I too want to thank you for this article. I regret saying this, though I think you will understand, it is a breath of fresh air. That is a sort of testimony to you and the hard work you have done to achieve some measure of sovereignty–though it has been and will be a work in progress, I’m sure, at some point, because of your work, you will catch up; and because of your work exceed your peers. That a stunning sort of irony. I’ll share with you this. When I was in college (vastly Liberal Liberal Arts College in the East), I was having a conference with my Literature Don, a squirrelly strange little man–who raged at me because I told him that I thought Anna Karenina, as a character, was kind of an a’hole. I mean raged; he stood up, glowered over his desk, veins in his neck standing out, growling and barking words at me–don’t even know what he said–but obviously I had insulted his lover. Since I did not experience the sort of childhood you did, it never even occured to me that I was in any danger. Despite how humiliating and confusing this was, I continued to meet with him privately. It never occured to me to even complain to someone. I told my friends, but none of them advised me to report the incident–we were all sort of dismissive of the behavior because he was clearly insane on some level but he also had something to teach worth learning. The professor and I never talked about it, and though it was clear he didn’t like me after that–we both knew that our job was different than that and didn’t place a very high priority on our affection for eachother. Mercifully, it was towards the end of the semester. I’ve remembered it and thought about from time to time ever since (decades), obviously. Not with ire but more curiousity about how he experienced it, justified it. How times have changed on campuses, and clearly not for the better. Despite the unpleasantness of that experience–it sounds to me like college campuses have become so rigid as to confound the very purpose they are meant to fulfill and that you have managed to develop the elasticity necessary to actually wrest some actual benefit from the experience and that is marvelous. Don’t know quite why I shared this but hope it makes some sort of sense to you. All Good Will.

  9. Steve says

    “I take responsibility for my own fragility despite the fact that none of my childhood abuse was my fault. I was born into the wrong house and lost the parent lottery. This gives me some specific problems I must overcome in order to lead a good life.”

    The maturity, decency and insight revealed by this statement are breathtaking. To have survived what she did and arrive at this perspective is a testament to human resiliency and grit. Greatness awaits such men and women should they choose it.

    • Donald Collins tells in a comment above about how he came to understand his father’s abuse of him when his aunt told him of how his father had been abused far more severely as a child.
      — The biggest trauma of my life occurred when I was an adult (though I had experienced several circumstances that others may have drawn a trauma from), at the hands of a victim of past child abuse. My take-away from that experience was that victims can be very dangerous people, and that faced with being a victim, the moral thing to do is to ensure that one doesn’t pass it on to others.
      — Lots of us have suffered some serious victimizations, but this doesn’t justify victimizing others. This is a hard moral fact to absorb, because it means that authentic victims, whose coping skills may be impaired, must take on another burden in addition to what they have already suffered. Still, most of the authentic victims I have worked with seem to accept this at least implicitly. That’s a far cry from those individuals who loudly proclaim their victimhood and use it as an excuse to abuse others, as if their hostility preceded and drove the claim to victimhood.

  10. People who are hurt by words are actually suffering from deeply repressed developmental trauma. The offending words are merely triggers that activate the painful memories. Healthy human beings are not offended by mere words, most of which are projections of the latent conflicts and anxieties suffered by those who utter them.

    • And so are too fantasitcally damaged to even presume to function in society much less attend college where the exchange of ideas is fundamental. Honestly they shoud retire to parental basements rather than impose on others with their profound and limiting fragility.

  11. Harland says

    Because censorship totally worked the last hundred times they tried it, and it’s totally not a tactic only evil dictatorial morons ever used, not at all. The test of your commitment to free speech as a general principle is whether you are willing to tolerate the speech of others, especially those with whom you most disagree. If you are using your speech to try to silence speech, you are not in favor of free speech. You are only in favor of yourself.

    Here’s the New York Times providing a platform for their anti-free speech agenda:

    Kate Manne, a philosophy professor who wrote in the Times defending trigger warnings
    https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/opinion/sunday/why-i-use-trigger-warnings.html?_r=0

    Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychology professor who wrote, also in the Times, defending the idea of speech as violence.
    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/14/opinion/sunday/when-is-speech-violence.html

    Words can have a powerful effect on your nervous system. Certain types of adversity, even those involving no physical contact, can make you sick, alter your brain – even kill neurons – and shorten your life.

    Your body’s immune system includes little proteins called proinflammatory cytokines that cause inflammation when you’re physically injured. Under certain conditions, however, these cytokines themselves can cause physical illness. What are those conditions? One of them is chronic stress.

    Your body also contains little packets of genetic material that sit on the ends of your chromosomes. They’re called telomeres. Each time your cells divide, their telomeres get a little shorter, and when they become too short, you die. This is normal aging. But guess what else shrinks your telomeres? Chronic stress.

    If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech – at least certain types of speech – can be a form of violence.
    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/14/opinion/sunday/when-is-speech-violence.html

    Former ACLU legal director and Berkeley law professor John A. Powell recently told a reporter from the New Yorker that absolutist free speech rules in the United States fail to weigh the value of speech against the harms that speech can cause, and argued that we ought to regulate speech that can cause P.T.S.D. and “stereotype threat.”
    https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/07/02/how-social-media-trolls-turned-uc-berkeley-into-a-free-speech-circus

    What Arndt chooses to speak on makes me feel incredibly unsafe, and I am one hundred percent certain that I am not the only one to feel this way. The university is currently allowing this event to go ahead under the pretence of free speech, however I do not think free speech should come at the expense of student safety, health, and wellbeing. As someone who wants to enter the public health sector, and has great interest in sexual health and wellbeing, Arndt’s viewpoints are disgusting and disappointing. Survivors of rape and sexual assault already have lived through enough trauma. I urge you to contact the university in regards to this event and let your feelings known. If you would like help to do so, please feel free to contact me.
    https://www.latrobesu.org.au/bettinaarndtstatement

    • Harland, this is a strange and difficult-to-understand comment. As a clinical psychologist, I am completely opposed to any time of censorship, since avoiding upsetting words from others actually raises fears.

      You see, running away from something that you fear makes the fear stronger, and while we cannot prove, this (lacking randomly assigned studies, which would be impossible, of course), it is likely that the avoidance is what might shorten telomeres, and not the words from others.

      If you have ever practiced Buddhist lovingkindness meditation, every time someone “abuses” you with words, it is a wonderful gift. You now have a person to focus on when the lovingkindness meditation gets to the “difficult person” step.

      I have listened briefly to Bettina Arndt and find nothing to object to in my short exposure.

      Why is this statement in a discussion of an incredibly brave and determined woman who is facing all her fears, until the belt transforms itself from a horrible threat into a simple piece of clothing. She is a hero of the first rank, and your comment disturbs me. Should you then be sanctioned? Of course not. My discomfort is my problem, not yours, and if people verbally attack you, that is a reflection of their own immaturity, and it is unnecessary for you to suffer.

      I think you might be responding to some other article, and carelessly commented in a thread to which you had nothing of value to add. I hope you can see more clearly and find health, happiness, and freedom from inner and outer dangers.

  12. E. Olson says

    A very good and thought provoking article – well done. The very fact that someone needs to write such a story to counter the “words are violence” narrative thrown around by the left just shows how spoiled and soft society has become. Words as violence greatly belittles the true physical adversity many people have and do endure including the millions who suffer from shell-shock, combat wounds, and starvation during war, the further millions who have suffered from systematic genocide for simply for being in the wrong tribe or religion, and the many who suffer from real physical child and spousal abuse. Words can certainly be hurtful, but to compare the “torture” and “pain” of listening to an opinion you don’t like with having to endure real physical torture, pain, and even death is just plain stupid.

    • D-Rex says

      Words can certainly be emotionally hurtful and I’ve been hurt by words that target my insecurities. But those hurtful words, in my opinion, are almost invariably comments directed at an individual and meant to cut, not general phrases or statements directed at a group or no-one in particular.
      What I found particularly disturbing about this article and some of the comments is how a parent could be so brutal towards their own child. I actually thought the author was male right up to this part “After class, I cried in the girls’ bathroom” and even then my initial thought was ” why would a boy cry in the girl’s bathroom?”, until I went back and read her name.
      Then the story became even more amazing, both in the brutality of her treatment and the courage of her efforts to overcome the damage inflicted an strive for success.

      • Andrew Mcguiness says

        That’s curious … you would think it less damaging for a male child to experience the violence described in the article?

        • Amber Schweitzer says

          I am not going to lie, I also thought it was a story of a male child being abused, because the assumption is that when a parent abuses their child a man will sexually abuse his daughter and physically abuse his son, a mother will physically abuse either but more often than not emotionally abuse and manipulate. I didn’t change my opinion of the author but it made me realize how much I have let society and media dictate my assumptions.

  13. I also want to thank you for this brave and thoughtful article, particularly after what you have been through.

    Your comment “The ordinary challenges of life now are being reinvented as trauma, and words are conflated with violence.” made me think about why this might be happening. As these ordinary challenges are really only annoying and not truly traumatic, it may be that the people who are pushing this misuse of language are doing so not because they are truly that fragile, but rather as a source of power through mobbing. And for some, power is the most potent aphrodisiac.

    For a mob of students who are able to prevent a public figure or recognized academic from speaking by pre-judging the message as “hate speech” is a form of power abuse, exciting and rewarding for the abusers.

  14. Amazing piece. It’s wonderful to see so many others here that have also grown from and overcome their experiences. Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning was pivotal in helping me with mine.

  15. Bruno Souza says

    This erases people who suffered emotional abuse but not physical abuse. The fact that some people choose to heal from their emotional abuse, and do it successfully, does not diminish this erasure. Not everything is about campuses and safe spaces.

    • Having read the article and particularly the paragraph following the reference to the New York Times piece do you think the author thinks emotional abuse is trivial and not something that takes significant effort, and perhaps even many unsuccessful efforts as well, to overcome? I think the author intends to differentiate between one off difficult encounters between people and the clinically used term of emotional abuse that the author experienced. I read her effectively making this distinction.

      Can you rephrase your critical opinion of this piece in a way that the author would sign off on? To rephrase, can you represent the author’s opinion in a charitable enough way that she would agree with you that it’s her opinion on emotional abuse as well?

    • Markus says

      It does not “erase” people. It may disagree with them, challenge them, even criticize them.

      But what’s “erase” mean?

    • Stephanie says

      @Bruno, consider looking up the definition of the word “erase.” What you’ll find is that “erasing” someone implies murdering them. Rendering them no longer existant. Do you think it is possible for an article to do that? Do you have any evidence that anyone has ceased to exist because of this article?

      Your incorrect use of words demonstrates a need to exaggerate your case, because on some level you are aware your concerns are trivial. I suggest you take this knowledge you possess into the conscious realm, and examine your core values such that you can cut out the rot.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @Stephanie

        There you go again. You just erased Bruno.

    • “Erases people”? What does that mean? Why the need to use hyperbolic and utterly over-dramatic language? Do you see how this may be a part of the problem?

  16. Farris says

    Excellent article. I especially liked the term “competitive victimhood”.

    This celebration of victimhood is toxic. It fails to distinguish between legitimate victims, like the author, and the status seekers. These faux victims need to be called out and shamed. Today’s victim poseurs are no different from the vermin who acquire medals of valor and masquerade as heroes.

  17. Fred C. Dobbs says

    I too suffered almost unendurable abuse from left-wing liberals who forced me to endure unimaginable pain and to perform unspeakable acts of depravity all in the name of “social justice”.

    Thank God there is finally a website that allows me to tell these “politically incorrect” truths!

  18. James Thomson says

    While it is important to challenge the overuse of the concept of trauma in everyday life, it is also important to point out that trauma is not an absolute. Trauma is an acute disruption of the taken-for-granted conditions of one’s life, and therefore what is violent is relative.

    • jimhaz says

      That is very true and there is lies the problem. How does one create the conditions where micro-aggressions, that end up as unnecessary “acute disruptions”, are seen more realistically and acted on by authorities more appropriately. What we are seeing are “offenses” to the egotistic portion of ones ego, “self-trauma”, not trauma that can overflood the base operating ego, the necessary ego, with negative feedback loops.

      That technology has made Maslow’s physiological needs fairly effortless means that many just do not face the hurdles that form more mature, resilient or tougher skinned people – masculinity itself is dying. It is also in business best interest to promote feminised outcomes as it means more sales.
      Technology also lets us spend far, far more time in our own heads reflecting and reviewing experiences, wherein negative experiences get the most attention. Media and the web make us habitually look for emotional triggers, which has now been bought into the realm of direct interaction with others.

      So relative violence is something we are stuck with. Those with masculine attitudes are going to have fight to limit the irrationality that we see resulting from a feminised or “coddled” populace.

  19. markbul says

    Overall, an impressive essay. But this: “The sight of a man’s belt used to trigger me.” I have no doubt that there is something to be ‘triggered,’ but by buying in to the pop theraputic mindset, one locks oneself in to the need for therapy. The best possible strategy is to renounce the word (and concept) ‘trigger.’ There’s a difference between being a victim and living as a victim. At some point, one needs to give up the ‘right’ to be a victim. I say this out of sympathy, not hostility.

    • D-Rex says

      @markbul

      OK, imagine you are a young girl and one of your parents punished you regularly by burning you with a hair straightener. Do you think that maybe as a teenager you would happily use a hair straightener on your own hair without being triggered and the need for some sort of therapy?
      I thought not.
      And if you think nobody would do that sort of thing, I once knew a young fostered girl who’s mother used to make stand on a stool and stick pins in her arms and legs as punishment.

      • Breakfast Bear says

        This happens every day, in every day life.

        How many kids 50 years ago had to go pull their own switch off of a tree? A lot, and I didn’t see a huge surge in hylophobia. Many were paddled, and somehow went about working with 2×4’s their whole life. Same with belts.

        Trauma is trauma. Someone has always had it worse. Elizabeth Smart is one that comes to mind. Despite what happened to her, she went out and got married and moved on with her life. She had the ultimate opportunity to claim the throne atop the victim hierarchy, and she saw that it was a lonely, bitter lifestyle. The Left likes to ignore her, because she rejected the lifestyle of evangelical victimhood.

        A lot less people need therapy; they need more time away from the City. They need to go out into the wilderness and get lost for a bit. Fear of belts go away pretty quick when you’re lost in the woods.

        Life and Nature is suffering. Existence is suffering. Terrible things happen. I would say 75% of the people in this world have endured something insanely terrible. We’ve got 2 options: to move on and try to survive, or to let it eat us alive and become bitter.

  20. Paul Gerrard says

    Fred, I think you are minimizing the importance of a well articulated and thoughtful article.

      • @Kiala

        I had hoped against hope that comments such as yours would not appear in response to this article.

        I can only surmise that you’ve apparently suffered some type of significant emotional trauma brought on by verbal abuse. If so, then I’m sorry that it happened to you. I don’t seek to minimize the suffering of others when I don’t and can’t really understand what they’ve been through. Have you experienced physical abuse of the severity that the author describes? If not, then you may be minimizing the obvious trauma that it has inflicted upon the author as well as the many other survivors of familial and/or intimate partner violence.

        Also, as another commenter mentioned, physical abuse inflicts emotional trauma on top of bodily harm.

        Your tweet that “this article can eat a whole (bag?) of dicks” would seem to indicate that you don’t feel the author deserves empathy and consideration.

        My hope, if it could be called hope, is that your seeming lack of basic human decency can be attributed to the pain that clouds your mind and keeps you focused on it and the damage it’s caused you – which is perfectly understandable for someone who as experienced intense psychic trauma. I don’t think the author intended to minimize the pain of others who’ve experience abuse but only to distinguish between gradations in intensity and severity of abuse and, in particular, to highlight that verbal abuse and physical abuse don’t constitute an apples-to-apples comparison.

        Your pain is very real for you just as is the authors for him/her. There is no good reason that the two of you could not or should not be able to empathize with and support one another in your respective struggles toward reintegration of the whole persons fragmented by callousness, cruelty and violence.

        For what it’s worth, you have my respect and empathy (in as much as I’m able given that I don’t know your story) and I hope you’ll feel welcomed and included here if you continue to contribute.

  21. Thank you for this excellent piece! I can’t wait to share it. Many years ago, I was on the board of a DV/Rape Crisis center. Our goal was to help victims become strong, independent and stable. Everyone had their unique challenges in that process but they never lost sight of the goal.

    Things have changed and not for the betterment of victims of horrible evils. I fear many virtue signal off victims pain to display moral superiority or some exaggerate abuse to gain notoriety. It’s not PC to even suggest such, I know. But it grates on me. I saw horrible things back then for people to overcome.

    As Booker T Washington taught us in, “Up From Slavery”,

    “I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.”

    I admire your determination.

  22. Japer Jigger says

    While agreeing that the victim label is important for some people – many Jewish people for example – the only ‘cure’ for trauma comes from within. The biggest problem is the belief that many traumatic events ruin a persons life. Victims of rape are perhaps a good example. Ive heard many times the idea that the perpetrator only got 5 years but the victim has a life sentence. I still get flashes from an event that occurred over 30 years ago. A single event. They serve to remind me that I survived. The incident did define my life for a few years and it changed much about me and my life. Turned out ok for me once I healed myself – with some guidance – and focused on the future instead of the past.

  23. Stephanie says

    Thank you for this piece, your perspective is so important.

    Another issue is the endless things that could possibly be triggering, and the futility of screening them all out. Since miscarrying earlier this year, I find parents talking about their children, especially their new babies, horribly painful. If something as objectively wonderful as the birth of a healthy new baby can be the cause of such anguish for me, is there is a single thing in this world that’s “safe” for everyone?

    Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child. And university kids resemble children more every year.

    • Breakfast Bear says

      I think you’re experiencing Nature. Nature is not nice. It kills people, miscarries babies, causes cancer, causes starvation… It’s part of life. Nature kills us.

      While it’s hard for us at the micro level, people have lost perspective of the macro. Our story is not unique and important. Even things like the Holocaust, when extrapolated over the last 10,000 years, are merely a blip on the map of hardship.

      I think society has become so pampered that they have lost the respect for Nature. And many are going to be in a world of helpless psychosis when they finally experience Nature for the first time.

    • Good quote Stephanie. I understand your pain, yet not the same circumstance.

      May you be blessed.

  24. Andy McCallum says

    Beautifully and eloquently written. A good first chapter for a book! I’m really hoping your Degree is in psychology or a related field. I look forward to hearing more about you, thank you.

  25. Bravo, truly empowering!
    Admiration for everyone who decides to follow the path of self-empowerment and transcending suffering.

  26. Aerth says

    Good to know that there are still people in USA that do not consider whole world as their safe-space and demand everyone to tiptoe around them because “I am oppressed!”.

    There is one safe space one can have and it is called home. You can invite whoever you want there and do not invite whoever you want. That’s it. Going outside, both literally and metaphorically (like joining public forum on the Internet), with assumption everyone will be super nice is naivety. Doing the same and demanding only nice things and words from everyone is idiocy.

  27. Alice says

    Some parents use words to shame a child and destroy their self confidence whilst masquerading as loving but worse that that is when a psychopathic parent uses words to orchestrate a campaign of sexual and physical violence against her unaware child ,which unfortunately does happen too. So , in that sense, words can be very violent indeed.

    • Breakfast Bear says

      Words cannot be violent. They can be mean, but they cannot be violent.

      There are times when I could utter the most despicable hateful thing to my children, and it will cause them no harm at all. Because they are off in their own world and aren’t listening. I can stand over my children in their sleep and absolutely become vile if I choose. But they wake up unharmed.

      It’s not violence if someone can easily not pay attention and be oblivious to it. You can’t ignore physical violence, and that’s why they are different.

  28. Graham Hanlon says

    A beautifully written and truly inspiring essay, I thank you for sharing your life experiences. I have nothing but admiration for the strength and courage you have shown to persevere and thrive.

  29. Hannah Lee says

    @Alice
    Toughen Up!! words are words, if they hurt you, that is YOU hurting yourself. This is one of those DUH! ideas? Words are the opposite of Violence | There are Only TWO genders (and no one wants to sleep with a fake woman, or man) |Reality is not subjective |Get Over It

  30. James D says

    I will first qualify this comment with the disclosure that I am an abuse survivor. I have taken my share of beatings. My own father used his “rage voice” perhaps more effectively and viciously than he used his belt.

    I agree most of the author’s assertions regarding people who feel that they have been subject to abuse with regard to the spoken or written word. What troubles me about this article is the apparent notion that people should accept abusive behavior, adjust our own reactions, and excuse the abusive behavior. That the professor was justifiably angry may be true; that his shouting angrily at the class is acceptable behavior may not be true.

    Was the professor abusive? I don’t know–I wasn’t there–but that is tangential to my point. The author reports the physical symptoms she endured as a result of his angry shouting. It was punitive behavior, but I am not sure that it was acceptable, either in a classroom or in a different professional setting. I probably would have left the classroom. I am not obliged to endure such outbursts, however justified they may seem to be.

    Shouting is not necessarily equivalent to physical violence, but it is often a prelude to physical violence. It is a threatening act, no matter the good intentions of the shouter, and will usually induce fear in those to whom it is directed.

    That is not the same as a word or phrase that may or may not be socially acceptable or politically correct. As participants in society we should accept the different opinions and language of others, aside from overt threats. Freedom of speech is essential to a free and open society.

    We are not obliged to accept genuinely abusive behavior. We are not lesser people if we don’t.

  31. Alice says

    Two sexes not genders. That’s one of the problems with genderism it hides female psychopaths and it’s female psychopaths who are probably more likely to use words to orchestrate violence against an innocent other.
    As for your toughen up remark , maybe you’re underestimating the damage verbal abuse can cause to a child’s sense of self.and what a malicious slanderer can do to a child too.

  32. Sergio Bacal says

    Thank you, Alexandra, for your insightful and perceptive article. I hope it will inspire other victims of abuse to folĺow your example.

  33. Jezza says

    Oh, Alice. How right you are! I spent ten years of my life from the age of five living in terror of my psychopathic stepmother. As well as physical beatings she convinced me that my birth caused my mother’s death, and that my father wasn’t my father. As my Dad had to travel for work I was left alone with her. The term emotional abuse sounds quite feeble if you haven’t been subjected to it. I wet the bed until I was thirteen. I was eight years old the first time I ran away from home. Hurting people was her hobby – not just me but other family members and strangers as well. She destroyed all but one of my mother’s photographs so I would never have a clear image her. She presented as upright and middleclass, genial and hospitable all the while searching out her quarry’s vulnerable spots and then the knife would strike leaving the victim bewildered and weeping. Then at age thirteen, the seductive behavior began; exposed breasts, accidental nakedness, nothing overt but unmistakable coat trailing nonetheless. I was tormented with desire but still terrified. I also loved my father. (I have only just now realized that was why she planted the suggestion that he wasn’t my father.) She really screwed me up as far as freely loving relationships are concerned. I just didn’t know how to get along with the opposite sex. I hated her. When I was old enough I left England for Australia to get as far away from her as I possibly could. I have mostly recovered thanks to an angel of a wife. So I have experienced both sides of women. If feminists didn’t concentrate so much on the bad things that men have done to them they might be more aware of the pernicious evil of vicious women in control of little boys.

    • mate that is fucking horrible what happened to you. but again, do not discount the shit that happens to young girls too. some people are shit. they repeat what happens to them and sometimes do shit of their own accord. your wife is an angel it seems. she has gone through years of holding you up using her energy reserves and love. treasure her. and forget the wicked step mother witch.

  34. Have been in situations of verbal and physical abuse. Moved on. Can’t compare one to the other. Or measure them up. Verbal abuse can be degrading someone without cause. It can also be gaslighting, or power plays that leave a person totally unable to defend themselves, same as with physical violence.

    You prob can’t compare the two because one was atrociously severe. but do not discount the fragility of others.

  35. Gentsu Gen says

    I agree with it all except this: “My professor’s anger was hardly unjustified.”

    It was unjustified. We live in a civilized society and the ultimate measure of this is not losing one’s temper and verbally lashing out. Nothing could be more childish, and to think that a professor would do this in a classroom is, I think, unconscionable. The whole point of maturity is that we learn to control our emotions, at least in public. I’m not saying we’re all perfect. I can remember one or two times in my professional life when I’ve said something I shouldn’t have. But I apologised and tried, successfully for years at a time, to mitigate future eruptions. The real issue isn’t ever the “justification,” the real issue is one’s response to being provoked.

  36. allieverwanted says

    See below lyrics from Depeche Mode song – exploring words as violence – heroin addiction might be similar to being into the fashionable social justice self-pity and that uninvited words can shatter a serene detachment from reality. Like having a nice dream or meditation interrupted by

    Words like violence
    Break the silence
    Come crashing in
    Into my little world
    Painful to me
    Pierce right through me
    Can’t you understand?
    Oh my little girl
    All I ever wanted
    All I ever needed
    Is here in my arms
    Words are very unnecessary
    They can only do harm

  37. Pseudonym says

    Mmm well I’d be a LOT more convinced of her genuiness if she didnt use a fake name.
    What irony given the subject.

  38. Beautiful and powerful essay. My thoughts:

    Words aren’t violence. Those are two entirely different things; words as violence is simply a metaphor.

    Words and images do not trigger people. They are inert things; people evaluate and react to them. That’s even true of other people’s actions. “Trigger” is another metaphor.

    To identify as a victim requires one to surrender one’s own moral agency and self responsibility. I note Alexandra did the opposite.

  39. Abu Nudnik says

    The author is wrong about why it’s illegal to shout fire in a crowded theater *when there is no fire.* The charge is criminal mischief because people can sometimes are *injured* in the panic that ensues. Crying fire in a theater when there *is* a fire is not mischief: it’s a moral necessity. There is the same panic and maybe even the same injury but the second case aims to save lives and those saved lives outweigh the damage caused by the panic. In the first case, there is no good result to outweigh the bad. That’s why it’s illegal.

    In the case of death threats and extortion, the perpetrator uses words to gain an unfair advantage over the normal peaceful uncoerced bargaining with the other. It places two people who ought to be on an equal footing on an unequal one. None of the three offences has anything to do with psychological effects.

  40. I am so sorry to hear about your childhood, I am a father of two teenage daughters and I had to hold back tears when I read your story. I am glad your therapy is helping and you appear to me to be a bright and optimistic young woman (I’m in my 50s so to me you are young!) despite your past experiences.

    Although I believe it is commendable on your part not to address the issue with your professor, I do wonder if you could have been helped by having an honest discussion with him. Not as a motive to gain points or shame him but rather as a means of making him aware of what you went through. If he is anything like me, I believe you would gain much compassion from him.

    I wish you all the best in your future and I do hope you have a beautiful life regardless of what lies ahead for you.

  41. Pingback: “Words Aren’t Violence” by Alexandra Berryhill – Miroslav Imbrisevic

  42. As someone who also suffered physical abuse by a parent, and am horrified by the ridiculous things I have been reading about regarding ‘free speech’, or the lack of support of the concept and practice of it on college campuses, I am horrified by the passivity of adults, and teachers in certain situations, and places.

    It is the adults I am blaming for the move towards raising mushy, weak kneed college age students. I keep wondering where are the grown ups? Where are the adults to set these ‘kids’ straight, or at least try too?

    Any ‘answers’?

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