On Wounding and Healing Among Activists, Part I
From All-Creatures.org Animal Rights Activism Articles Archive


Gracia Fay Ellwood, Editor, The Peaceable Table
September 2017

Why on earth would a person who was so passionately devoted to peace and justice that she risked and endured prison, later act in a way so incompatible with her deepest commitment, without even noticing it?

angry activist


In the 1980s our Quaker Meeting joined the Second Underground Railway, becoming a Sanctuary. In private homes we housed two families fleeing state terrorism in Central America (e.g., kidnappings followed by the appearance of the victims’ horribly mutilated bodies dumped on the streets) who were facing probable deportation back to such scenes; we also ransomed a refugee from detention and helped him on his way to Canada. I was clerk (chair) of the small Central America steering committee that oversaw day-to-day affairs of the project. One of the other members was a Friend (call her Sara) I greatly admired for her past service to the cause of Peace; she had committed civil disobedience protesting some unjust government policy, and spent time in prison for her pains.

On one occasion I decided the committee needed to have a hasty meeting, and with little advance notice I phoned the other members to see if they would be available. When I called Sara, she went into an enormous, blistering rage at this violation of proper Quaker order. She continued shouting at me over the phone, while I shook with the trauma of the attack. As far as I can remember, I made no attempt to reply, and the committee met (and afterwards continued) without her. That her verbal battering of me might itself be a violation of Quaker commitment to nonviolence/ Peace apparently did not occur to her; there was no apology, and in fact in a later unrelated discussion group she stoutly defended her stance of rejecting Quaker “tolerantism,” as she called it. My uncharitable thought was “Yes, much better to stomp with hobnailed boots on the faces of fellow-Friends who bend proper procedures a little than to be guilty of tolerating them.” A few years later she and her spouse left the Friends and became Roman Catholics. I confess that I did not grieve for the loss.

Why on earth would a person who was so passionately devoted to peace and justice that she risked and endured prison, later act in a way so incompatible with her deepest commitment, without even noticing it? I was puzzled as well as badly hurt and angry. After her departure, the only answer I could think of was that her personality was perhaps one needing firm spiritual boundaries, and that the relatively unstructured Quaker way, and my failure to follow one rule precisely, had made her anxious.

There the matter remained for decades. Two years ago at a FARM conference I heard a lecture by psychologist/activist Melanie Joy about the importance of self-care for activists.

Melanie Joy
Melanie Joy

Among other things, she pointed out that being witnesses (including exposure to pictures and narratives) to the horrible cruelties regularly visited on animals can cause Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder (STSD), which in some cases can be as serious as PTSD.

According to published and online sources I consulted, these conditions can have a number of symptoms: exaggerated startle responses, asthma, depression, substance abuse, withdrawal, suicidal thoughts, insomnia, weight loss or gain, intrusive, painful mental images, feelings that one (and/or one’s family) is never safe, feelings of disconnection from coworkers and/or loved ones, shame, chronic irritability, angry outbursts. Without appropriate support and therapy, the affected person may do major damage to relationships and to her /his cause, may harm or even destroy herself.

I thought of two people. One, of course, was Sara. Might her inappropriate blast of rage have been a manifestation of untreated PTSD? I doubt I will ever know for certain; she was later reported to have a heart condition, and that was nearly thirty years ago. But physical and verbal violence in prisons can do terrible damage. The possibility aroused my compassion, and enabled me fully to forgive.

anxious activist


The other person was Faith Bowman (pen name), whose poetry has occasionally appeared in PT, and whose mystical experience of God as all-nurturing mother is recounted in “Wound Round with Mercy,” PT 49 . Faith was born to working-class parents who for years struggled with poverty, despite being hard workers. Her mother was a warm, loving person, but often deeply unhappy--anxious about spending money, feeling humiliated when they had to depend on credit from other church members, sometimes even for food. Faith’s father (who may have been an abused child himself) was probably anxious too, judging from his frequent rages, sometimes over trivial matters. These seemed to happen mostly at mealtimes, and to target her mother. Faith felt her mother was her only source of love, and the attacks were terrifying. She was chronically anxious and tense, especially at the table; her stomach would knot up and food was hard to swallow. Consequently, she was thin and undergrown. She lacked self- confidence, had trouble making friends at school; she would find herself mentally reliving painful scenes on the frequent nights when she couldn’t sleep. She would startle disproportionately at sudden noises, and freeze in any confrontive situation, even as a bystander. Most frightening of all, on rare occasions, when she was severely stressed, her windpipe would close like a vise, and she couldn’t breathe at all for a time. After a former classmate was killed in a traffic accident when she was ten, Faith envied her and became preoccupied with thoughts of suicide; but she knew that would increase her mother’s pain still further, so she never attempted it. In high school she remained withdrawn, was wary yet wistful in regard to boys;, had no real friends, and only one or two dates in four years’ time. She lived in a cloud of shame, loneliness, and depression, taking a thin solace in wide reading, getting high grades, and writing nature poetry.

Her parents were determined to send all four of their children to college so they could make something of their lives and escape from the trap of poverty. Eventually their financial situation improved substantially, and they succeeded in this; happily, it had the effect they intended. In college Faith gained fifteen or twenty much-needed pounds and found she had grown to normal height. Therapy provided partial help. Some of her symptoms diminished; some still persist today, years later. Although her condition was never formally diagnosed as STSD, I think it likely that this was what she had; or it might be called PTSD.

See I See You. I Love You: On Wounding and Healing Among Activists, Part II

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