Understanding the Problem

If we imagine a long black marble wall or a memorial quilt stretching far into the distance, covered with the names of women and girls who die violent deaths, we can begin to grasp the scope of the many ways women re-enact their violent experiences of trauma and abuse. Although these victims of violence are not remembered as brave casualties of a war or epidemic illness, they should be.

Instead they are often blamed for their own deaths because the fatal wounds were inflicted by their own hands or by their partner’s: “She should have known better; why didn’t she leave him?” (see advice for Couples dealing with trauma and abuse)

These wounds are a consequence of earlier injuries inflicted by parents, other caretakers, and perpetrators. Their wounds from this suffering never healed and, for some, proved deadly.

The reenactment of abuse and trauma can:

  • involve survivors of childhood trauma so that they engage in self-harmful patterns of behavior, including addictions, eating problems, and self-sabotage through abusive relationships
  • involve excessive secrecy: just as the abused child lived with dangerous secrets, so does the girl or woman who is self-harming (see our feature article about Concealing and Revealing a Secret)
  • be paradoxical — choosing to be self-harmful makes sense to the person because it gives her the feeling of being the one who is in control of her own body
  • promote behaviors such as alcoholic drinking, drugging, bingeing & purging, living in abusive relationships — she can begin to believe that these behaviors are her best defense
  • seem to telling the story of being abused and not being protected — not being protected often seems to hurt even more than getting abused.

Thousands of girls and women suffer, and some of them die, because they are caught in the cycle of the trauma reenactment. Prisoners of trauma and abuse tell the deadly story of childhood physical and sexual abuse through acts of self-harm.

For many survivors of childhood trauma and abuse, it seems impossible to stop self-harming patterns. When someone cannot “just say no,” and the cycle of self-harm seems to repeat itself despite help from battered women’s organizations or talking to a counselor (see Possibilities for Change), the deadly struggle with trauma reenactment will continue.

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