Eliza C. Kane


Vicarious

 

Names of specific people have been changed.

“Look at me!”  The last sip of cider misted from his chapped lips. “I’m America!” 

He raised the empty pint glass high, posing like the Statue of Liberty, then lobbed it across the dim, cobblestone street.  It didn’t hit either of the women—it wasn’t meant to.  It shattered as intended, on the curb, about twenty inches behind their heels.  They shuffled away as quietly as they’d appeared, a bit faster.  If there was any reaction, any feeling of terror, it was well hidden beneath their burkas.

It was 1 a.m. in a small village. I couldn’t yell, so I seethed. “You’re a fucking asshole.” 
 
Stomping out a sloppy jig, he fell back on the alley wall.  “Don’ be’ bitch.”  He patted around for his cigarettes.  “Whadafuck they doin’ in Irelan’ anyway?”

I was also a foreigner in his country, but my presence went relatively unquestioned.  With fair skin, orange hair and Levis, it didn’t make much difference if I was American or Irish—I had the decency to blend in.  That’s exactly what my cousin and I had been trying to do all night, after breaking away from the too-old and too-young members of our family to go pubbing. He had disappeared some minutes before to take pictures of Dingle Pier in the moonlight.  This cad was his substitute: a young local—twenty or so—whom I caught mopping up a spilled gin and tonic with my scarf.

Upon seeing his vicious toss and subsequent victory dance, the charm of the village and the glee of vacation burst as suddenly as his pint glass. Tipsy, adamant protests poured from my fumbling tongue.  They were less for his ears than for the quiet women who, by then, were tiny figures behind him. The shots of Paddy swirled warmly with my second-ever pint of Guinness, while the women just got smaller and smaller, looking to me like black-cloaked fairies ascending his shoulder, shrinking, until they disappeared behind his temple.

The foyer of the now closed pub burped out a mass of teetering patrons.  Some of the sturdier ones came to intervene at the sound of our burgeoning shouting match, which consisted mostly of my stomping and his slurring.  “Stuff it, Mike.  Shut it up.”  His friend lit a cigarette for the boy and one for himself.  “Sorry,” he turned to me, “he’s a well known arse.  He means no harm, he’s just pissed drunk.” 

They slid against the alley wall with others, crouching on their heels, puffing silently. I was desperate to break into their revelry with a cleverly crafted one-liner, but I couldn’t do it.  For all of my shouting, I still hadn’t thought of anything to say.  Butts smoldered between the pavement cracks.  I turned to find my cousin and we walked back to our holiday house.

Well awake with angst and jet lag, the water-stained ceiling held my stare.  My expectations of the world had come around the bend since I sat cross-legged in the basement of my parents’ house, watching Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and swearing sympathy to the rainbow of friends I had not yet met.  (Such are the childhoods of many liberally-raised and utterly insulated children in Vermont.)

But as I passed through the humiliation of puberty, the hormones of teen years, and the uncertainty of my twenties, “grown up” life percolated into my consciousness, bringing more questions than answers, as it always does.  No peace came with it, certainly not world peace.  My generation was not the dragon-slayer I had envisioned. New villains were announced, new heroes were groomed, and the endless, timeless myths played on.  The Statue of Liberty did not hold a light for the world.  The Statue of Liberty was winding up for a hit. 

I watched my own eyelashes sweep across the ceiling like windshield wipers, my vision refocusing at the tail end of every sigh.  The image of glass on the street kept coming into focus as I tried to sift my consciousness from the onset of dreams.  Its shards glittered in the moonlight like the tips of Dingle Bay.  What I remembered of Sidney Poitier’s monologue played on a loop as my mind picked up each piece of the broken pint and put them back together.  Just before the reconstruction was complete, they would scatter again, and the loop would play over.  “Dad, I’m your son.  You’re my father.  I love you, Dad, and I always will, but you’ve got to get off my back…”

What upset me most, what really me kept me awake, was that I had no grandiloquent monologue of my own. The incident itself, and what it implied about my country’s reputation and the plight of women, was disturbing enough—but I had come to expect some regularity of idiot behavior from drunk kids.  I had not, however, expected my reaction, or rather, my lack of reaction.  The blatant act of harassment was meant to put those women in their place, and it had. And instead of coming to their defense, I put myself in my place.

I wasn’t always so sensitive.  Five years ago I may have gone on with those boys to the discothèque, however annoyed, and I certainly wouldn’t have lost any sleep.  But work had worn me down.

To be the administrative support at a torture treatment center is to endure one part tedious, entry-level paper pushing, and one part heroic emotional composure.  I never get far from the Excel sheets, the elaborate navigation shortcuts of dated DOS programs, or the chirp of our shared printer as it summons me to the latest paper jam.  And my lunch breaks are as full of fast food and raunchy gossip as any corporate office—but I also have to be the voice of peace every time the phone rings.  Sometimes it’s a new arrival calling from the detention center, terrified after a dangerous escape and unable to tell their story in English.  Sometimes it’s a tearful longtime client, desperate to share the results of her asylum hearing, for better or worse.  And at least once a day it’s someone looking for Bob Baker’s Toyota—but I still have to be polite.

I was warned about the emotional liabilities of my job during the interview process.  It didn’t worry me then.  Once hired, my superiors outlined coping mechanisms and encouraged me to vent to them if needed.  It seemed very thoughtful but unnecessary counsel—I didn’t work with the clients all too directly, apart from offering them tea and making chitchat—I worked with their files.  But the disturbances did accrue, the onset of their affects delayed, but potent.

My first symptoms surfaced after learning that one cheerful North African client, who always helped me practice my broken French while waiting for his doctor, was actually homeless.  Lacking family in the U.S. and facing bullies at the shelter, he slept on the beach, huddled each night with meth addicts and runaways. “No matter how warm the day,” he confided, “it’s always cold at night.”  I took this in stride while on the clock, but a week later, at my French conversation group, I couldn’t utter a word of the language.  The very accent brought his face to my mind, and the pastries and wine gave new meaning to the term “guilty pleasure.”

That was just the start of my wobbly walk through vicarious trauma.  There were nightmares.  One dream ran on a circle.  I was being held in stress positions by anonymous captors, who allowed my siblings to try to break my restraints.  When my blank-face brothers would almost have them loose, they would be shepherded away into chambers of their own.  The near-rescues happened over and over, the repetition a form of torture in itself.  After a few rounds I dreaded the sight of my own family and begged them not to touch me, but to let me hang there with my wrists pulled up above my shoulder blades. 

After the dreams came waking delusions.  I saw the shine of sweat on a man’s shins as he jogged through the park, and it looked to me like protruding bone—scars from “rolling,” a torture technique I became acquainted with while assisting in a physician’s training.  The slides from that course still click through my mind when I spot any injury on a stranger.  I used to wonder if I would ever see crutches again without hearing a dreadful ‘crack’ in my head.

As my coworkers predicted, I became resensitized to violence and could no longer watch action movies without stress attacks.  When it became clear that the presidential administration was angling to green light forms of torture such as waterboarding, I sank into a new level of depression. I feared, without really believing, that the government was listening to me through my cell phone and logging my online activity.  I decided, in all seriousness, to not have children, because I didn’t want them “targeted” for my dissent in case Americans ever had to turn against their government.

Rationally, I understood I understood these kinds of decisions to be paranoid and melodramatic but playing the offense gave me a much-needed feeling of security, of power over the direction that my life was blown in this storm.  Because for me, work had always been a sphere separate from the larger world, a place that absorbed my attention with the minutia of aligning margins and restocking envelopes.  Until this job, work was a place to focus on something other than myself and get things done.  I could go home and dabble in my hobbies or go to a protest—there was a sense of emotional proportion.  Now, I spend forty-plus hours a week with regular people who have survived the worst kind of crises.  There is no looking away, no time when I am not aware of this reality.  Even when I am home hosting friends, knitting, or otherwise enjoying the privileges of my American life, there is a kernel of self-consciousness about it, a super-ego looking down and wondering when this all might end.

These kinds of anxieties are not unusual side effects of working with high stress material, but there are systems in place to deal with traumatic osmosis. At my office, Monday mornings are all-staff meetings.  Planned absences, deadlines, and policy changes are reviewed.  I take minutes.  If the phone rings, I get up and get it.  But once the business items have been covered, the time is turned over to VTR, or Vicarious Trauma and Resilience—essentially, group therapy.  That’s the time to vent about the stress and strength we absorb by being so close to “toxic” work day after day.

It’s a sacred time for the office; I don’t take notes and I let the voicemail pick up the phone. When catharsis gets kicked off, it can get a lot of momentum.  Someone will bring up an interrogation scene in a film, a grim dream, or an ad that disturbed them. Awkward conversations are shared and analyzed.  (Even casual chats in the checkout line can be tiring if work comes up.  When someone asks me what I do, I give a vague answer more often than not.  I sometimes do reply that I work at a torture treatment center, but if so I keep it frank.  The reaction is always a blank face and a quick subject change, or a waterfall of questions.  I’m still not sure which I prefer. “You don’t have to talk about it,” a coworker told me early on.  “There’s nothing wrong with going out for a drink and telling people you’re a waitress.”)

Since most people experience these staples of culture differently than we do—that is, without daily reminders of the violence and corruption in the world—we talk to the people we can relate to: each other.  But in an office with so much drama, requiring special emotional outlets can be a bit embarrassing.  Next to the physical, psychological and political problems of our clients, I can’t bring myself to articulate my “stress” without recognizing its self-indulgent function.  So at many VTR sessions, no one says anything. We shift in our seats for an uncomfortable stretch until the boss shrugs, we collect our mugs and notepads and get up to start our weeks.  The silence does happen.  The stress can build.  Bottleneck.  Burst.

It was after one of these non-discussions that I dug into the client files for a routine internal audit.  Sadie tapped a pen against her crossword puzzle and sighed.  “I think I’m going to go home now,” she said.  “Not much going on here.”  I heard that every Monday around this time, half-way through her volunteer shift answering phones.  For all the months she had come in and sat at the front desk, the most conversation we’d shared was griping over the missing bathroom key and admiring the new, confetti-cutting shredder.

I shut the file cabinet and, without thinking how she might react, told her about the Irish incident.  She laughed at me.  “Oh, I know how it is.  You work against a faceless villain everyday, and then the first drunk kid to say the first stupid thing is the object of all your rage.” 

“I wanted to tear his face off,” I admitted.  “And it wasn’t even, it wasn’t…”

“That bad?”

“No, it wasn’t.  I mean, it was terrible.  But, I felt almost violent, like international incident violent.”

She tugged on one of her neatly set silver curls, examining the ends of her hair thoughtfully.  “Do you think you were mad as a woman, or as a humanitarian?”  I wasn’t sure exactly what she meant, but I knew it was a departure from her standard “Where are you from?” and “How long have you been in this country?” string of questions directed at new clients.  It felt more like a pass or fail pop quiz, and I was eager to impress.

“What’s the difference?”

That was a good answer, she said, she didn’t know either.  “But when I your age, feminists cared as much about those women’s welfare as their own.  Now it’s just another me-me-me philosophy.”

I choked a little trying to invent a polite response.  “I think you’re thinking of Girl Power.”

The door sensor twittered as the first client strode in.  Habiba, a regular, was late for her physical therapy appointment.  Her daughters, fourteen and six years-old, came in behind her and settled into the second-hand chairs of the waiting room.  “I’m sorry,” she waved a hand at the kids, “no time to take them home.” 

Habiba took her tea to go and showed herself to the examination room where the massage table was waiting.  She had made great progress in the last seven months.  Once a hunched over woman who avoided eye contact and flinched at touch, her sessions had restored her posture, improved her range of motion and allowed her to enjoy the embrace of her children again.  This was a significant threshold in her healing, since it was the forbidden girls’ school Habiba ran that solicited the scars of torture.

Her girls had also made improvements.  They picked up English quickly but were shy to use it.  Whenever they tagged along to their mother’s appointments, we tried to engage them by bringing out games and asking about school.  Sometimes they indulged us and sometimes they just fought over the guest computer.  This week Najela, the younger girl, called dibs on it and had me help her type in D-I-S-N-E-Y-C-H-A-N-N-E-L dot com.

“What are you reading, Matteen?”  The older of the two timidly turned her book around and faced the title to us.  I recognized the cover as a memoir I hadn’t gotten around to reading until college, Angela’s Ashes.

“Wow, honey, that is a grown up book.  Are you reading it for school?”  She nodded her head, eyes fixed on a run in her tights.  “Do you like it?”

“Yes,” she peeped. “It is very sad.”

Sadie and I exchanged looks.  The story of a poor Irish family’s struggles did seem like a mature book, both in language and content, for a traumatized girl to read for an 8th grade book report.  I wondered if her teacher knew of her situation, but guessed against it.

“The father is very sick,” Matteen explained without prompting.

This was not an insight I was expecting; the alcoholic father certainly was sick, but one would think Matteen would identify most with the child narrator.  I must have scrunched my nose in wonder, because she continued, “He hates himself because he is a bad father.  And he drinks to be sick.”  What a sophisticated child, I thought, as I returned to my filing.

About forty minutes later Habiba swept around the corner back into the waiting room, the oil from her massage glowing on her forearms.  “They have been no trouble?” she looked to me while spinning Najela’s chair away from the monitor. 

I replied that they were very well behaved indeed and, cocking my head to Matteen, who was silently underlining some passage, told her she had a very smart girl there.  Habiba’s eyes were intense for a moment as she put a hand on her daughter’s hair.  Then the flutter came back into her throat.

“Of course she is a smart girl!  That is why we are here.  So she can be a smart girl.  But my Matteen dear, your father’s eyes would roll back in his head if he saw you wear a skirt so short!”  Her hand traveled down to the run by Matteen’s ankle.  “You read their books dear; don’t wear their skirts.”