It has long been recognized that “history repeats itself”, but never before have we so clearly understood why history does so. Children who have been traumatized cannot heal themselves alone. It is one of the tragedies of human existence, that what begin as life-saving coping skills, end up delivering us into the hands of compulsive repetition. We are destined to reenact what we cannot remember. Freud called it the repetition compulsion and he said, “He reproduces it not as a memory but as an action; he repeats it, without, of course, knowing that he is repeating... He cannot escape from this compulsion to repeat; and in the end we understand that this is his way of remembering.”  (p. 271).
It has become clear that the very nature of traumatic processing determines the reenactment behavior. We must assume that as human beings, we are meant to function at our maximum level of integration and that any barrier to this integration will produce some innate compensatory mechanism that allows us to overcome it. Splitting traumatic memories and feelings off into nonverbal images and sensations is life-saving in the short-term, but prevents full integration in the long-term.
The field of traumatic stress studies could say that it received an initial stimulus to growth from a dramatic reenactment. On May 6, 1972, the Op-ed page of The New York Times, published an essay written by Dr. Chaim Shatan titled, “The Post-Vietnam Syndrome” . In the piece, Shatan described the tragedy of Dwight Johnson and that piece attracted wide spread attention from Vietnam vets involved in rap groups around the country and helped mobilize a response that eventually led to important changes in legislation. Dwight Johnson was a Medal of Honor hero who left the Valley Forge VA medical center on a three-day pass, went home to Detroit, held up a liquor store and was killed by the store clerk at point-blank range in an eerily similar repeat of a Vietnam experience .
Lenore Terr brought the subject of childhood traumatic reenactment to center stage in her book that detailed the results of the 1976 Chowchilla school bus kidnapping. One of the many examples she gives of a behavioral reenactment was that of young Bob Barklay, the children’s hero who had helped them to escape. As Terr tells it,
One Sunday afternoon eighteen months after the kidnapping, the adult Barklays noticed a car parked on the road edging their property. The hood of the strange car was up. “Go see what’s going on, Bob”, one of the Barklays suggested. The fifteen-year old boy banged the door and went outside. A few minutes later shouts and screams in an Oriental language broke the calm of the afternoon. Cookie and Hal Barklay ran out. A tourist from Japan had stopped his rented automobile outside the Barklay’s property. It had been overheating. The tourist had lifted his hood in order to check the radiator. Just then Bob had come charging out of his house. He shot the tourist with his BB gun. It hurt. Stung the man badly. The tourist was both confused and outraged. What was wrong with this boy? These country people must be crazy.
We know what was wrong with Bob Barklay. The Chowchilla kidnapping had started, as far as Bob was concerned, with a van “in trouble” at the side of the road. As Bob’s school bus had slowed down to pass the van, three masked men had jumped onto the bus. Eighteen months after that, Bob spotted another vehicle seemingly in trouble at the side of the road. The start signal for a kidnapping po.pped off in Bob’s mind. The kidnapping was to take place at Bob’s own house. Everybody, his parents, his sister, and himself, were in danger.
Bob came out shooting. Nobody was going to kidnap him again. If Bob had to be a hero, he’d be a hero fast, not after hours of mental anguish. So Bob Barklay shot first and thought later. That’s what I mean by a single behavioral reenactment. It’s dangerous. Crazy. But it makes perfect sense when you think about it  (p. 275)
The study of criminal behavior has much to gain from an understanding of traumatic reenactment. For instance, in 1988, Burgess and her colleagues released a study of serial rapists. In this study they noted that the rapists had a substantially higher rate of sexual abuse as children, other forced sexual encounters as children, and sexual abuse by family members. Their first reenactments of their own abuse began when they forced sex on other neighborhood children or family members as pre-adolescents.
Explanations for traumatic reenactment behavior vary widely. Some believe that the re-experience of traumatic memories is the way the mind has of trying to make sense out of what happened. Others hypothesize that trauma causes people to revert to a more primitive form of information processing and memory retrieval, so that the memories return in the form of images, sensations, and motor reenactments. Others believe that the victimized may identify with the perpetrator in an attempt to overcome the helplessness attendant on a traumatic experience. Alternately, the inability to self-protect may leave the victim as a target for subsequent victimization .
Based on what we know about the split between verbal and nonverbal thought, it may be that the most useful way of understanding traumatic reenactment is through the language of drama. Shakespeare told us that the whole world is our stage, and with behavioral reenactments we see this percept in action. The only way that the nonverbal brain can “speak” is through behavior, since it has no words. If we look at reenactment behavior we can see that the traumatized person is trying to repeatedly “tell their story” in very overt, or highly disguised ways. If only we could still interpret nonverbal messages, perhaps we could respond more adequately to this “ call for help”. For healing to occur, we must give our overwhelming experiences words. In “Macbeth”, Shakespeare urges us to “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break”. But we cannot find the words by ourselves. That is the whole point - the traumatized person is cut off from language, deprived of the power of words, trapped in speechless terror. We need the help, the words, the signals, of caring others, but to get their attention we must find some way to signal them about our distress in a language that has no words. This is the language of behavior, the language of the mime, of the stage. Unfortunately, we have largely lost the capacity for nonverbal interpretation, and so most of these cries fall on deaf ears [6-8].
Traumatized children are playing the role of their damaged selves. On the stage that is the school, they enact their pain, distress, fear, and rage. We are the audience and rarely do we make a meaningful interpretation of their play. We are far more likely to condemn them for trying to get attention, blame them for their negative behavior, and attribute it to effects rather than to causes, because the causes cannot be spoken but can only be seen in their symbolic, disguised behavior. In fact, all of our social systems, including our schools, have become so “trauma-organized” , that we do not even recognize it when we see it. It has become too much a part of our expectations, of all our reality, that we fail to perceive how truly abnormal our systems are, how unresponsive to fundamental human needs. People are constantly reenacting past experiences, often in very destructive ways, but we do not recognize this behavior for what it is. The victim of child sexual abuse becomes a prostitute, the boy who is anally raped becomes a serial rapist, the child punched in the heard for a bad report card grows up to beat his son to death. These are the headlines of our daily newspapers, but we only are willing to hear these as “excuses” that need to be fought against, rather than the explanations for behavior that could be prevented.
The challenge for systems of treatment, and for all systems within which human beings strive to learn and grow, is how do we change our approach? How do we develop a technology in which traumatic reenactment is understood as a fundamental mechanism within all groups and that part of our social responsibility is to help each other break the cycles of traumatic reenactment, the cycles of violence? How do we redesign or alter systems so that they allow for opportunities to redirect the individual’s traumatic reenactment? The traumatized child or adult cannot be expected to be able to do that alone, or even without resistance. Remember that the traumatized person perceives that remembering, feeling, and knowing the truth of his or her own reality is a threat to survival. Hurt children need to be repeatedly convinced that human beings can be trusted, that relationships can be safe, that they can direct their own lives down less self-destructive paths. This can only be done in the context of safe relationships with other people.
Excerpt from Bloom, S. L. and M. Reichert (1998). Bearing witness: Violence and collective responsibility. Binghamton, NY, Haworth Press.
1. van der Kolk, B.A. and C.P. Ducey, The psychological processing of traumatic experience: Rorschach patterns in PTSD. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 1989. 2: p. 259-274.
2. Bloom, S.L., Our Hearts and Our Hopes are Turned to Peace: Origins of the ISTSS, in International Handbook of Human Response Trauma, A. Shalev, R. Yehuda, and A.S. McFarlane, Editors. 2000, Plenum Press: New York. p. 27-50.
3. Terr, L., Too Scared To Cry: Psychic Trauma in Childhood. 1990, New York: Harper and Row.
4. Burgess, A.W., et al., Serial rapists and their victims: reenactment and repetition. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 1988. 528: p. 277-95.
5. Saporta, J. and B.A. Van der Kolk, Psychobiological consequences of severe trauma, in Torture And Its Consequences: Current Treatment Approaches., M. Basoglu, Editor. 1992, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. p. 151-181.
6. Bloom, S.L., Bridging the black hole of trauma: The evolutionary necessity of the arts. Part 2: The Arts and Evolution. What is Art For? Psychotherapy and Politics International, 2011. 9(1): p. 67-82.
7. Bloom, S.L., Bridging the black hole of trauma: the evolutionary significance of the arts. Psychotherapy and Politics International, 2010: p. 198-212.
8. Bloom, S.L., Every Time History Repeats Itself the Price Goes Up: The Social Reenactment of Trauma. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 1996. 3(3): p. 161-194.
9. Bentovim, A., Trauma-Organized Systems: Physical and Sexual Abuse in Families. 1992, London: Karnac Books.