A Century of Trauma
Part One: What We Are Facing

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I am not slamming the Greatest Generation–or anyone else. This is a retrospective on what brought America, and its institutions, to the emotional crisis we are facing today. Click To Tweet

In 1998, the broadcaster Tom Brokaw published one of the most significant cultural books of the 20th century. He called it “The Greatest Generation”. It told the story of a generation of men and women who survived the Great Depression and then immediately went on to fight and win in World War II. There are many things I could quote from that book, but here is one which summarizes his thesis:

“There on the beaches of Normandy I began to reflect on the wonders of these ordinary people whose lives were laced with the markings of greatness….when they returned home,they married in record numbers and gave birth to another distinctive generation, the Baby Boomers. They stayed true to their values of personal responsibility, duty, honor, and faith.”

Brokaw wrote these 464 pages to pay tribute to the bravery, sacrifice, and solid principles lived out by the survivors of that generation. There is one glaring problem with the book though. It only tells one side of the story.

And the other side of the story is dark and ominous.

In this article, I am not slamming the Greatest Generation–or anyone else. This is a retrospective on what brought America, and its institutions, to the emotional crisis we are facing today. We are identifying sexual abuse, sexual assault, leadership abuse, and significant trauma by victims in every corner. Some are asking if the Millennial generations are over-reacting or if things have gotten worse.

The primary thing I want the reader to know by the end of this study is that what we are experiencing now is hopefully the final season of healing for almost 100 years of PTSD as a nation.


Let’s begin again with Brokaw and his own words. In this video, he is remarking on people’s reaction to his book. One grown daughter of a WW2 veteran says this, “As I read your book, I realized that I never really knew or understood my father.”

I have heard this story too often in counseling. It is not just younger generations saying it;  I hear it from baby boomers who grew up with parents of the Greatest Generation. Here are the most common observations of those parents:

  • I never really knew them
  • They seemed distant
  • They were cruel, angry, and hurtful
  • They seemed locked into their own world
  • They weren’t very affectionate.

What caused the Greatest Generation to react this way? 

I contend they are not the only generation that has manifested strange and harmful behavior to their children. I believe that harmful and destructive behavior has been on display in American families for several generations. Where did this all start?

I believe it began with the 1st World War. The soldiers returning home from the war brought devastating post-traumatic stress with them. And this was never diagnosed. And if it was diagnosed, it was called something different. And then it wasn’t treated properly.

Long before the effects of this world war began to wear off, the entire nation entered into a brutal Depression. This Depression caused PTSD through hunger, danger, malnutrition, familial suicide ideation, alcohol abuse and many other reactions. 

Then, before this trauma could be processed and treated, the second World War happened. The effects of this, as I will show, were even more devastating than the first war. Within a generation of the first wave of trauma-recovery, an even bigger double wave came made up of survivors of the Depression and WW2.

Before the country had any chance of recovering from the effects of WW2–which we will describe in the next article–the Korean War happened. Then, before the effects of that war had diminished, the Vietnam War took place. There are many trauma scholars who feel the Vietnam War may have been the most devastating of them all in terms of its effects on the American family.

So now, from WW1 to the end of the Vietnam War, three straight generations of Americans had to cope with the effects of trauma. That is when we had hoped for a lull in the activity. But, by the time the Baby Boomers were entering adulthood, the Vietnam vets had all returned and were affecting their families with all the devastation of the other wars. The Baby Boomers experienced what is known as Secondary PTSD which can be almost as life-threatening as primary PTSD. 

Before a generation passed, the nation endured two Gulf Wars, the nationwide horror of 9-11, and one of the most prolonged recessions in American history. We add a fourth generation of PTSD to the mix. 

Thus, it would be proper to understand how trauma effects a person, that person’s family, and the culture which has to embrace it.


According to the book “Trauma-informed Care in the Behavioral Sciences”, trauma, 

including one-time, multiple, or long-lasting repetitive events, affects everyone differently. Some individuals may clearly display criteria associated with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but many more individuals will exhibit resilient responses or brief subclinical symptoms or consequences that fall outside of diagnostic criteria. The impact of trauma can be subtle, insidious, or outright destructive. How an event affects an individual depends on many factors, including characteristics of the individual, the type and characteristics of the event(s), developmental processes, the meaning of the trauma, and sociocultural factors.

Chapter 3 – Understanding the Impact of Trauma
Before a generation passed, the nation endured two Gulf Wars, the nationwide horror of 9-11, and one of the most prolonged recessions in American history. We add a fourth generation of PTSD to the mix.  Click To Tweet

Literally hundreds of books have been written to chronicle the possible effects of trauma. But, for the sake of this article, I want to highlight some of the most common ones which have affected families in America, and therefore, America as an entire society.

Look at this list, and see if you can figure out how this may have changed the very nature of the American family.

Trauma can cause:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Drug abuse
  • Family violence
  • Sexual violence
  • Emotional dysregulation. This can result in emotional outbursts, completely shut down emotional response (known as Flat Affect), shame, sadness, out-of-control anger, panic attacks, and paranoia.
  • Body reactions, such as autoimmune responses, weakness, proneness to injury, injuries that won’t heal, back pain, migraines, digestive problems, heart problems, sexual dysfunction, neurological disorders, etc.
  • Sleep disorders
  • Schizo-affective reactions
  • General distrust toward people

Scan that list and ask yourself this question: If this trauma is not treated, how would it affect the family of the person who suffers the effects of trauma.

In the next article, we will explore the ways that trauma was perceived and dealt with by the four generations since 1914.

The Six Stages of Deconstruction

(This 2004 article appeared in its original form on the MTPastor blogger site I used to manage. The number of people experiencing Deconstruction has greatly increased since then. I decided it could use an overhaul).


“Tearing things apart is a powerful aspect of human nature.”

–Patti Smith

Greg and I had gone to high school together. We attended the same church and youth group. We graduated Bible College together and were ordained within a few months of each other. We genuinely liked each other.

So why did I want to punch him in the face?

I was just beginning to Deconstruct.

It was 1983 and my wife and I were at the national Congress of our Canadian denomination. The big issue being debated was whether women would be allowed to serve as pastors and elders in churches. For two years I had passionately advocated for full inclusion of women into ministry leadership positions. I had done my homework and was ready with all the theological arguments. I was ready to tear down the arguments of the Complementarians. I was even the person who brought the proposal to the committee which introduced the measure.

I had no idea Greg would make a complete ass of himself. I had no idea it would throw me into such an emotional tailspin.

He didn’t address the doctrinal issues. He didn’t appeal to historical precedent or denominational practices. He simply said: “Everyone here knows if we do this it will tear apart the church and God’s judgment will come on us all.”

With that, he was able to sway enough people to defeat the motion.

At that moment, I wrestled with whether to leave that denomination. They had already refused to ordain my wife at the same time as me the summer before. I had thought I would quit then, but she talked me out of it. When two of my close female friends from college had moved to a different denomination so they would be allowed to preach, I wondered why I was staying. Again, my wife talked me out of leaving.

When Greg used his scare tactic to convince thousands to make this decision, I actually decided to stay. But I was no longer, in my mind, part of the mainstream. I was tearing down the “good old boy, just stick with the majority” approach.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning what it means to deconstruct. Continue reading “The Six Stages of Deconstruction”

The Five Lies that Victims Believe

falsebeliefs

In 1987, I wrote an article telling the story of four sisters who had been molested by their father. Each of them had been molested the same way. Each experienced this at the same age–he moved on from one to the next with maniacal precision. Of course, each of them had been emotionally damaged by the abuse.

I wrote the article for a psychological journal more to point out the differing outcomes of each one. Though they were all affected negatively by the abuse, they all compensated differently to it as adults. They each gave me permission to share their story since I had counseled every one through to health.

But I was intrigued by what they wouldn’t allow. Their father was still alive and still married to their mother. I had talked about the possibility of all four of them confronting him on what he had done. Though they could not have him charged because of a Statute of Limitations, they could have the satisfaction of letting him know how his crime had changed their lives. There is a healing aspect to confrontation.

But all four refused to do it. Curiously, each of them had a different reason:

  • One was afraid it would kill their sick mother
  • One felt she had somehow participated in the abuse and had no moral grounds to confront him.
  • One was sure confronting him would destroy her inside
  • The final one felt she would never be able to get the words out of her mouth.

Their unique responses to confrontation underscores how each victim experiences abuse and assault differently. But it also shows that every victim wrestles with different beliefs emerging out of the abusive situation. Continue reading “The Five Lies that Victims Believe”

Two Doors—Two False Ideas

I grew up in a “cowboy” town in central British Columbia in the 1960s. I say it was a cowboy town because our area was surrounded by 100s of ranches, and everyone in the region attended our rodeo and exhibition which centered around 4H events and ranch life. Our rodeo occupies a place in cowboy lore just a step behind the famous Calgary Stampede.

I hung out with several legit cowboys in high school. After high school, I worked on a cattle ranch and cowboy life became part of my biography.

Most Cowboys like to drink, and the men in our town were exceptional at it. My dad loved to drink beer and play poker, both of which were pasttimes of our town. My dad spent many afternoons and evenings at the saloon near our house. He spoke about it in glowing terms. It was like a mistress he was not ashamed to admit he visited.

One day, Dad, Mom and I were out for a walk. We walked by the bar and Dad pointed out this was the place he told me about. I had seen it before, but now I noticed one of its features. It had two entrances.

On the one door was the word “Men”. On the other door it said “Ladies and Escorts”. (Note: in the 60s, “escort” did not mean prostitute. It referred to a person who escorted another person to a social event. It could refer to either men or women).

I asked Dad why they had two different entrances. “It’s to protect the women”, Dad said. “If a woman goes into the man’s side without a man with her, she is not safe. No woman would want to do that.” I believe he was telling me this: This place is not safe for women without male protection. Continue reading “Two Doors—Two False Ideas”

Why Churches Disbelieve Victims and Believe Pastoral Abusers

He was the principal of the Christian school which met at the church. His dad was the Senior Pastor. He had four years of teacher training and all the obligatory certifications, internships, and education needed. He added a Masters Degree in Theology and another Masters in Educational Administration. He was fully qualified to do the job he was doing.

During the five years he had been principal, his dad’s church had grown from 200 members to almost 1500. In that medium-sized town, the church dwarfed all the others. The main draw for newcomers was the Christian school.

And that’s when the accusations started. Continue reading “Why Churches Disbelieve Victims and Believe Pastoral Abusers”

Matthew 25 Spoken to the Pastors of Today”

sheep-goats

You can read Matthew 25 yourselves.

In the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, the Son of Man, now called the King, accuses the religious leaders of not helping the poor, hospitalized, homeless, hungry, and thirsty. He lets them know when they withhold these things from people, they are really withholding them from Him, their Creator.

We do have other necessary things we are withholding from people today in the Church. Though not all of us do this, enough of us do that it is worth revisiting Matthew 25 to see if it could be re-imagined this way: (Please note: All of these are based on actual court cases from the past two years)

“Depart from me, you who are cursed with trying to get more butts into the seats, and burn with the eternal knowledge that you caused one of my little ones to stumble.

For I was slapped by one of your husbands and you refused to believe he could do such a thing; and then you elected him to the Deacons board.

I was molested in the Sunday school classroom, and you said there was not enough proof.

I was led down a dark road by the youth pastor and forced to have sex, and you covered it up and made it all go away.

I told you that your pastor had an affair with me, and even though the evidence was overwhelming, you said there was nothing you could do.

I was taken advantage of by a narcissistic church leader, and you all ganged up on me and told me if I had dressed more modestly, none of this would have happened.

I was photographed by your children’s pastor and used for child pornography, and only when the fifth victim came forward did you do anything.

I was raped, and even though the law says you must tell the police, you hid behind Matthew 18 and handled it yourself. And he has now raped four women and he is still a member of the church.

And what will you answer?

How Pastor-Abusers Choose their Targets

In her 1998 novel, “Where the Heart Is“, author Billie Letts tells a dark story of two victimized women, Novalee Nation and her friend Lexie Coop. Both of them have suffered hardship and heartache at the hands of the  people closest to them. Novalee has been consistently abandoned by everyone. Lexie has been beat up by the men in her life.

In the climactic scene, Novalee gets a frantic call from Brownie, one of Lexie’s kids. When she arrives, she finds Lexie barely alive with the two older kids huddled in a back bedroom. She had been dating a good-looking man she met at a gas station. One afternoon, she got off work early and went home to be with the kids. She walked in on this man molesting her oldest son and daughter. In protecting them, she was beat into unconsciousness.

Days later, Lexie and Novalee are going over what happened that fateful afternoon. “How did he find me, Novalee?” Lexie gets out between sobs. “How do they always find me? Men like that somehow know that I will just invite them into my life and will let them hurt me and the kids. How do they find me?”

That is the same sort of question every victim of clergy sexual abuse has asked me.

It adds insult to pain when the victim of Clergy Sexual Abuse (CSA) realizes they were not chosen at random. The pastoral-abuser targeted them specifically because of certain characteristics. This thought weighs on the victim’s mind and often leads to anxiety and confusion. In many cases, it produces guilt and shame. “I must have done something wrong to cause this.” “What is wrong with me that he would do that just to me?” It also doesn’t help that other Christians ask the same question: “What did you do to cause this Man of God to commit such a sin?

Those questions are some of the forms of victim-shaming and blaming. It is still victim-shaming when the victim does it to herself. Continue reading “How Pastor-Abusers Choose their Targets”

The Grooming Behavior of Pastoral Predators – Part 2

Opening the Eyes: The Cycle of Abuse

Mike Phillips

with

Julia Dahl, MD

One of American literature’s most enduring characters is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, the lead character in his novel “The Scarlet Letter”. In this book, Hester has an affair with the parish minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. She becomes pregnant with his child and bears a daughter, Pearl. Because she is a widow, the people of this Puritan community quickly surmise she has had an adulterous affair with someone in the town. They cannot convince Hester to name her accomplice, so, her church and community decide to shame her. Her sentence? She must wear a scarlet letter “A” (for Adultery) embroidered on all her clothes.

She wears this emblem designed to shame her for the rest of her life, choosing to place the needs of the community and her abuser above her own and protect the identity of her abuser.  Hester allows her abuser to continue his life without shame since she will not reveal the father, Rev. Dimmesdale. I have read this book several times, and the final time I came to this conclusion:

“Hester has been duped”. Continue reading “The Grooming Behavior of Pastoral Predators – Part 2”

The Grooming Behavior of Pastoral Predators – Part 1

Shattering the Lens.  The Grooming Behavior of Pastor-Predators

Mike Phillips

with

Julia Dahl M.D.

This may be a difficult post for several reasons.

First, this post asks the reader to reflect on what the term “Pastor” means to them. Commonly, pastors are understood to be spiritual overseers.  If what you believe about all pastors is dependent on the image, faith, or charisma of your own pastor, this post asks the reader lay aside the naive ideal that all pastors are divinely-called shepherds.

There are some narcissistic men who lead a church or ministry and use the flock for their own gratification. Often, this will manifest in sexual relations with church attenders.  This behavior by some destroys many decent images of healthy pastors and other church/ministry leaders. I don’t blame anyone for struggling to confront and accept this conclusion.

Here is the reality we deal with:

Pastors can be roughly grouped in three categories:

  1. Divinely called and faithful servants of God.
  2. Divinely called servants, presently tempted, and struggling with personal sin. They deal with their own weaknesses but do not use others for their gratification.
  3. Intentional usurpers of the pulpit and the congregation for the purposes of their own enjoyment and control.4c50b3e8-24ba-4416-b469-b44e0dbd3af8

This third category of pastor are those who most represent pastoral misconduct. In recent days, with the advent of the #metoo, #churchtoo and #silenceisnotspiritual movements, brave victims share their stories of pastors who practice abuse and mayhem.  It will be impossible to ignore this third category of pastor with the growing body of reports of pastoral misconduct on the news and social media.  To clearly understand the problem of sexual abuse by pastors, I encourage you to read the stories of victims in order to accept that some men seek the pulpit with the intention to serve themselves and not to serve God.

Is this just a few men?  Sadly, no. Continue reading “The Grooming Behavior of Pastoral Predators – Part 1”

Jesus Addresses Victim-Shaming

Joleen’s parents marched into my office with their daughter trailing behind. Dad’s hand wrangled her wrist so tightly I could already see the marks forming from his fingers. They flung her down into the chair in front of me.

“Tell Mr. Phillips what you did!” Her mother spat these words at her. Joleen never raised her head or spoke.

“I said tell him!”

Immediately, I got up and came around my desk and stood between the parents and their sixteen-year old daughter. From the intensity of their anger, I guessed she was either pregnant or they had discovered she was sexually active. As I came around to stand beside her, Dad said something under his breath. I realized he had just called her a name associated with shaming someone who is sexually active. I got angry. I asked her parents if they would leave my office and go into the waiting room so I could talk to her.

Hesitant at first, she admitted she and her boyfriend had sex the night before. She was frightened and angry about her experience, so she told her sister who promptly told her mother. Within an hour, they had come to my office.

I sat down beside her and asked her not to give me the details about the sexual experience, but how she felt about it and herself. She began by using the same disgusting label her dad had used. I asked her not to do that. Then, she explained how the sexual encounter happened. I didn’t allow her to give me explicit details, but even without them, I realized something awful.

Her date had raped her. Continue reading “Jesus Addresses Victim-Shaming”