I was ashamed to tell this once, but now . . .
He came like a wrestler, magnificent, took me down and breathed his fire through me and – I yielded, then at the climax I recoiled -I deceived Apollo –
Even then I told my people all the grief to come.
Once I betrayed him I could never be believed.
~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia, Agamemnon
The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.
~ Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman, M.D.
Dusk. I stand in a bay window scanning the scenery. It is bucolic; a lake in the foreground, a village nestled between the far shore and the surrounding woodlands and ascending foothills. A small mountain range cuts a jagged line across the sky. The evening light is purple, and I notice, the peaks are backlit, glowing. I know, instinctively, that the far side of the hill is aflame, and that this raging wildfire will spread, climbing toward the crest, and then descend toward the woods, engulfing the village, and surrounding the house I am standing in.
My housemates insist it will be fine. “The flames are miles away. It would take days before it would reach us, if it were even to head this way. The winds could switch, the rains could come. There was no emergency-broadcasting signal; no firefighters had called for evacuation.” I am too alarmed, they say, and prematurely, over a remote possibility.
And although I wanted to act with every fiber of my being, my warnings had fallen on skeptical ears. “Go to sleep” they tell me. “You are overreacting,” they say.
But I know. I feel it in my bones. I have been burned before and I can see exactly how it will all unfold.
The others in the house head off to bed. I won’t preserve myself alone, nor do I want to. I need us all to move to safety.
And because they will not, I cannot either.
I fall asleep with the others.
The smell of smoke and ash wakes me. The hills, the valley, the forest, the village are all on fire. As I stare out the window in horror, hundreds of wild animals, panicked deer, bobcats, bears, coyotes are tearing through the streets, barreling toward us, fleeing the flames. Their eyes roll with terror. They trample anything, anyone in their path.
I wake my housemates: “Move!” I scream. “Go! Now NOW!” The volume and primacy of my scream mobilizes them. As they scramble protect the valuables. I am rooted in place. Watching. Seeing. Screaming.
My labor has all been channeled into seeing, anticipating, and withstanding the mounting fear and horror alone, until it hits an intensity that others can experience.
A canary in a coalmine. A Cassandra.
And as I scream I see the very ground beneath us is glowing hot and orange. Boiling magma. The world itself is on fire.
So many Cassandras.
In my 25 years as a psychotherapist, I don’t think I have experienced a single workday that did not contend with the aftermath of sexual violence, violation, or harassment in some form. Every day of my professional life has involved sitting with another Cassandra who no one else would believe.
Raped, abused, harassed, molested, groomed, threatened, assaulted, stalked, terrorized, groped, forced.
By their fathers, uncles, brothers,
By their parent’s friends, and their friend’s parents,
By teachers, coaches, doctors, priests, and other therapists,
By dates, friends, husbands,
By customers, bosses, co-workers,
By neighbors. By strangers.
And I’ve sat with boys and men who have been abused as well as those who have perpetrated abuse. And so often, these were the same people.
Those who were shamed and ashamed, and those who were proud and unrepentant.
This fire has been burning for centuries, since the beginning of recorded time.
There is nothing new under Apollo’s sun.
And because I cannot share the private stories that women have shared with me, and because I cannot tell the details my of own experience, I will speak through Cassandra’s archetype, for the vast and hidden army of Cassandras.
But I will say this first for myself: of all the varied experiences of sexual violation that I have experienced in my lifetime, from age 12 on, across the continuum from the merely icky to psychologically traumatic: there were none that I could stop, even when I saw them coming. Even when I saw the smoke and knew the fire would follow.
They were all bigger, or older, or stronger, or wealthier, with greater status.
They all held the power to both corner me and render me unbelievable.
I spoke up, when I could, when it seemed prudent and viable.
It changed nothing except this:
It conscripted me into the secret sisterhood of Cassandaras, who no one would believe.
But we believe each other.
And the innocent boys I knew long before they were perpetrators – they were once Cassandras too, who escaped their curse by assuming Apollo’s throne.
Cassandra in her youth was drawn into the service of Apollo, the God of Truth, of Music, Knowledge, Foresight, and Healing. God of Sun and Light.
Zeus’s son, the Patron of Patriarchy.
And young Cassandra caught his eye.
Cassandra, the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, once fell asleep, they say, in the temple of Apollo after growing weary from play. Apollo wanted to ravish her, but she refused him access to her body. So he made it that no one believed her though she prophesied the truth. ~ Apollodorus’ Library and Hyginus’ Fabulae: Two Handbooks of Greek Mythology
And even sun gods have their shadows and Apollo’s father, Zeus, saw sexual dominance as his godly entitlement too.
Apollo is a pervasive cultural archetypal force, the patriarchal principal, which allows any human channeling its energies to momentarily see themselves as a shining god on a golden throne.
CASSANDRA: But the lust for power never dies – men cannot have enough. No one will lift a hand to send it from his door, to give it warning, ‘Power, never come again!’
~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon
It is wise to remember that the gods hold powers that mere mortals cannot sustain, for Nemesis, the goddess of Divine Retribution will, eventually, topple all mortal hubris. The reckless power-drunk, imagining they are as omnipotent as gods, ignite the fuse of tragedy, which burns towards its explosive end – destroying the innocent in its path, and destroys the pseudo-god as well.
CASSANDRA: God of the long road, Apollo my destroyer – you destroy me once, destroy me twice. ~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon
Cassandra is twice destroyed, first by the assault, and then by Apollo’s curse, the curse that she would never be believed.
CASSANDRA: See, Apollo himself, his fiery hands -I feel him again, he’s stripping off my robes, the Seer’s robes! And after he looked down and saw me mocked, even in these, his glories, mortified by friends I loved, and they hated me, they were so blind to their own demise -I went from door to door, I was wild with the god, I heard them call me ‘Beggar! Wretch! Starve for bread in hell!’ And I endured it all… ~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon
Apollo’s ability to control the narrative, to enlist and conscript the community to enforce his curse, speaks to the ways that we collectively defend against the existentially intolerable realities of trauma and abuse.
The knowledge of horrible events periodically protrudes into public awareness but is rarely retained for long. Denial, repression, and dissociation operate on a social as well as an individual level. ~ Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman, M.D.
In Trauma and Recovery, Herman describes the cycles of collective cultural examination and denial of the pervasiveness of abusive trauma, and names three distinct historical-political eras that permitted and withstood a legitimizing study of trauma and its aftermath: The decade when Freud and his mentors undertook the study of hysteria and explored its connection to pervasive sexual abuse, before Freud, (and not Freud alone but the entire medical/neurological/psychological community he was embedded in) “glimpsed this truth and retreated in horror” from its implications. The study and legitimization of “shell-shocked” soldiers, previously defined as cowards or malingerers, culminating in the formalization diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. And the focus of second wave feminism on sexual violence and the emergence of rape and domestic violence crisis centers.
The systematic study of psychological trauma therefore depends on the support of a political movement. ~ Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman, M.D.
We are in such a moment of political potential now as our entire culture contemplates yet again whether or not we will enforce or fight against Apollo’s curse of disbelief.
Trauma is endemic, inherent, natural. Animals are traumatized by wind and weather, by flood and fire – and they experience trauma inflicted upon them by other animals, and by other members of their own species.
Maybe we are designed to survive simple trauma. But abusive trauma is compounded by a culture of stigma and disbelief. We are surely not designed to withstand being scorned, stigmatized, or banished from the troop of human monkeys for stating concrete experiential truths.
And the Curse of Disbelief is damaging in large part because it disrupts the process of meaning making, blocking Cassandra’s ability to use her injury in service of protecting others. It means that Cassandras cannot warn or insulate others who may also be in harms way. Pending disasters, clear and present dangers cannot be averted.
Cassandras are doomed to watch horrors that could have been stopped, unfold. We must watch, speechless, as the harm and the human toll mounts.
Those who do speak up to sound the alarm risk being crushed – depicted as defiled, liars or insane, and may grant their perpetrators even more power and sadistic pleasure. Who can take the risk, of empowering their abuser and harming themselves further while sparing no one else?
I cannot calculate how many hundreds, maybe thousands of women, and girls and boys might have been spared if the curse were lifted in my life alone, if I had the power to stop the cycle and cauterize the damage at each and every instance. If all of the Cassandras could disrupt the tragic cycle from unfolding at the moment of ignition, what new myth might we be living out?
CASSANDRA: Apollo the Prophet introduced me to his gift.
Abusive trauma may leave life-damaging symptoms: dissociation, constriction, intrusive thoughts and memories, hypervigilance, fearful arousal. But traumatic exposure also does something else: It gives us a glimpse of a larger and more terrible truths.
The Sun God you worship may also violate and curse you.
Civilization is a thin veneer.
The wilderness is amoral.
Human beings are also human animals.
Cassandra has been shown the truth about the feral universe – and this truth disrupts the hubris of those who believe in the safety of civilization.
We like to imagine that civilization is a secure proposition.
That safety and fairness are the normal baseline that the walled city cannot fall.
We like to believe that forces larger than us are fair ones, that if we are “good” and our intentions are “good” and we make regular offerings, that the gods will concern themselves with fairness and justice.
Cassandras know that the wilderness exists in our most civilized spaces: the temple, the office, the home, and the public square.
Cassandras have learned: abuse can be as bold as broad daylight.
Stability is temporary, and security is insecure.
Cassandra’s eye was opened and she could never blind herself to that reality again.
CASSANDRA: When all is well a shadow can overturn it. When trouble comes a stroke of the wet sponge, and the picture’s blotted out. And that, I think that breaks the heart ~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon.
To hold traumatic reality in consciousness requires a social context that affirms and protects the victim and joins victims and witnesses in common alliance. For the individual victim, this social context is created by relationships with friends, lovers and family. For the larger society, the social context is created by political movements that give voice to the disempowered. ~ Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman, M.D.
And when the necessary social contexts are not in place, our communities will not heed the visionary warnings of the disempowered, which places the entire collective in harms way. Ultimately the Curse of Disbelief destroys us all: Trojan Horses are accepted as gifts to the gods, despite all the signs and warnings of the danger, the downfall, that lurks hidden and silent inside.
Overjoyed, they dragged the horse in, set it up next to Priam’s palace, and discussed what to do. Cassandra said that there was an armed force inside, so some decided it was best to burn it, and others to hurl it down a cliff. But most decided to leave it alone since it was an offering to a god. They then turned their attention to sacrifice and feasted. ~ Apollodorus’ Library and Hyginus’ Fabulae: Two Handbooks of Greek Mythology Trzaskoma, Stephen M.; Smith, R. Scott
And the kingdom falls. The walls of civilization are breached and the world is revealed to be ruled by wild and feral gods, concerned only with power and not with justice.
As moral as a brush fire.
Captured by the invading king, foreseeing his destruction and her own, her community and kinsman in bondage, Cassandra finally revolts against her god:
CASSANDRA: Before I die I’ll tread you (ripping off her regalia, stamping it into the ground) Down, out, die die die! Now you’re down. I’ve paid you back. Look for another victim -I am free at last -make her rich in all your curse and doom. ~ Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon
Cassandras can become a dangerous force in themselves. Volcanoes may sleep, dormant for hundreds of years in between violent fiery eruptions. And silenced screams become more dangerous and destructive over time as the pressure builds.
Her screams become embodied curses, calling down the unceasing anger of the avenging Furies, who destroy their enemies by shredding them to pieces with a studded scourge.
We have enacted Cassandra’s ancient cycle since the dawn of Western civilization. Can it ever stop? Will the curse be lifted?
The myth leaves us with no solution. Only destruction. Troy falls. The ruling members of both parties – the Greeks and the Trojans are destroyed by The Furies, by each other and by women’s range. And Cassandra is killed by her captor’s wife.
Cassandra predicts this herself, foresees it all, unable to stop or derail the horrific events.
And Apollo is unmoved.
The myth is an inherently tragic one.
Our only hope is to live a different myth entirely:
A myth that values women’s voices exactly as men’s voices are valued.
A myth where children of all genders are cherished and protected.
A myth that transcends punishment and revenge.
A myth that does not require forgiveness or submission.
A myth that allows us to guard and keep each other,
To repent from our cruelties,
And to make meaning from our wounds.