My Grandmother’s Hands
In the very last Q&A of the very last day of my Resilience 2.0 course, a participant held up to the Zoom camera her copy of My Grandmother’s Hands, saying it was the best book ever on healing trauma. I had already heard good things about it from other colleagues, and it went on my August “sabbatical-sort of” reading list.
It is one of the best books ever on healing trauma, for clinicians and regular folks, bridging everything we already know about trauma memories being held in the body (i.e. Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma among so many other excellent resources) with what we’re needing to learn about racial trauma held in the body – black bodies, white bodies, all people of color bodies. Especially the multi-generational transmission of racialized trauma, for blacks, for whites, for any and all of us.
Resmaa Menakem begins the book with his experience of watching TV with his grandmother, rubbing his grandmother’s hands to ease the pain of her arthritis, asking his grandmother why her hands were “so fat” and hearing the catch in her throat when she tells him, “Oh, boy, that’s from picking cotton.” He heard the story; he knew the pain of it had been “de-contextualized” to protect her from that pain.
“Contrary to what many people believe, trauma is not primarily an emotional response. Trauma always happens in the body. It is a spontaneous, protective mechanism used by the body to stop or thwart further (or future) potential damage.
“Trauma is not a flaw or a weakness. It is a highly effective tool of safety and survival. Trauma is also not an event. Trauma is the body’s protective response to an event – or a series of events – that it perceives as potentially dangerous. This perception may be accurate, inaccurate, or entirely imaginary. At lightning speed, our brain embeds a reflexive trauma response in our body.
“We can have a trauma response to anything we perceive as a threat, not only to our physical safety, but to what we do, say, think, care about, believe in, or yearn for. This is why people get murdered for disrespecting other folks’ relatives or their favorite sports teams. It’s also why people get murdered when other folks imagine a relative or favorite team was disrespected. From the body’s viewpoint, safety and danger are neither situational nor based on cognitive feelings. Rather, they are physical, visceral sensations. The body either has a sense of safety or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, it will do almost anything to establish or recover that sense of safety.”
Menakem then deftly, unflinchingly, leads the reader through not only the realities of racialized trauma in black bodies, but the embedding of white supremacy – the instantaneous reactions of fight-flight-freeze in our nervous systems – in white bodies as well.
“White-body supremacy doesn’t live just in our thinking brains. It lives and breathes in our bodies.”
And he offers many, many practical body-based tools to heal the “clean pain” of trauma. One of my favorites…
Soothe Yourself to Quiet Your Mind, Calm Your Heart, and Settle Your Body
In an ideal world, when a conflict starts to boil, you’d be able to leave the room, take ten deep breaths, meditate for five minutes, and walk around the block. But in the real world you almost never have that kind of opportunity. In the heat of a conflict, you need to able to soothe yourself quickly in order to move into next steps.
1. First and foremost, shut up. For a few seconds, don’t’ say anything – no matter how much you might want to, or how much you have to say, or how loudly someone else is yelling. Just breathe.
2. If you’re holding something, let it go or put it down.
3. Sit down. Put your hands in your lap or on your knees.
4. Mentally tell yourself, Stay calm, or Keep it together or (my own favorite) Calm the fuck down.
5. Quickly find an internal resource your body experiences as safe, soothing, or pleasurable. Think of this person, place, or animal, and quickly connect to it. For a few seconds, experience this resource (as a sensation, or image, or emotion, or impulse, or vibration).
6. Go to the bathroom. Seriously. Say, “I need to use the bathroom. I’ll be right back”; then go in and close the door. I know this sounds silly, but in many situations, it’s the best way to get two minutes alone to catch your breath and move into the next moment calmly. If you just walk away or say, “I need to be alone for a minute,” someone might get pissed off or come after you. But they probably won’t follow you into the toilet. (Be sure to return and re-engage after a few minutes.)
7. Do something else to slow things down without dissing anyone or running away. Say, “hang on, it’s hot in here” and take off your sweater; take a long, slow drink from your mug; open or close a window. Reach over and pet the cat.
That is so workable! There are many, many other very practical, helpful suggestions throughout My Grandmother’s Hands. May they be useful to you and yours.