TV Trauma: How Much is Enough?

I was surprised to read a post on Instagram by an African American photographer who said he wasn’t up to watching When They See Us, the new series about the Central Park Five. Even more surprising were the 250+ comments voicing the same feeling. In my simplistic thinking, the series would be a must-see event for black audiences.

Personally, I watched the first episode and could barely get through it. It was crushing. I felt guilty about giving up after one episode. I figured I owed African Americans at least that much, the witnessing of this horrible injustice. But I gave myself a pass, on the grounds that I can only take so much trauma before I break.

Now I see that, duh, it’s a million times more traumatic for African Americans to re-experience this event, even though it’s an important story. The Instagram commenters expressed a literal dread of more trauma. It was simply too painful and not worth it. Their hearts were already broken, many wrote. Parents said that it was too awful to imagine their own children suffering like the wrongly accused teenagers. Many had tried to watch but had found it too harrowing.

So here’s what’s been on my mind. TV is not just entertainment. It’s a powerful agent of communication that can have long-lasting consequences. Like the nightly news or movies on the big screen, TV shows transmit messages into your brain. When you Netflix and Chill for hours and hours, you’re inviting stuff into your brain. And the more well-acted and well-produced the input, the more intense are the effects.

But you never know what will fuck you up! I can watch hours of Charles Manson or Ted Bundy crap without getting upset. I can even watch Jim Jones footage without freaking out. Making I’m just used to those stories or maybe the body count is too high to make an impact. But I’ve seen a couple of true crime documentaries that will haunt me forever, or at least until I achieve full dementia.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been watching an Australian TV series about a chaotic but close-knit family called Offspring. I love it so much! It’s a wonderfully written mix of drama and comedy, with great characters and endless plot twists. But I was shocked when a central character was abruptly killed in a fluke accident. Now, I’m a big baby, everyone knows, but even my husband was speechless. I kept saying, “This can’t happen, maybe he’ll come back.”

I waited for him to open his eyes and be alive again but he was gone. It was “just TV” but in my brain and heart, I experienced a deep shock. It triggered my PTSD and my grief in a way I wasn’t ready for. The next day, still thinking about it, I went back to bed in the middle of the day. I wanted that guy back. Why had they taken him away? I needed him back. It was about that guy and about Max. I couldn’t feel the difference. I still can’t. The character was a gentle young man with a darkness around him like a halo, a sweet face and a wounded boyishness. Max. Not Max but Max.

I skipped the funeral episode. Why would I put myself through it?

That’s how you may regard When They See Us, or Holocaust movies, or even Trump interviews. If you’re dreading it, don’t put yourself through it. You are excused. You are not here to suffer for anyone’s sins except your own.

Beware of your TV. It may know what you want, but only you know what you need.

This entry was posted in Art, grief, Horrible Stuff, News and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to TV Trauma: How Much is Enough?

  1. Ali says:

    </3 </3 </3 </3

    I read the book Normal People a few weeks ago and it REALLY REALLY took me to a dark place. About familial and sibling abuse, and the main character seeking out romantic relationships that are physically and sexually abusive because they validate her belief that she deserves it.

    It was strange because there are TONS of articles and reviews about this book (It book of the year, the rupi kaur of fiction, the first great millennial author, barf, etc) (it is really good with marxist criticisms of marketing/ capitalism / elitism in the art and literary world funny enough) but nOBODY DISCUSSED THE ABUSE AT ALL IN ANY OF THESE ARTICLES. Which was shocking because the DV relationships were central to the narrative and emotional growth of the main character. To my mind, the entire book is about childhood abuse and how it manifests in adulthood.

    I realized that people weren't writing about it because it was never labeled in the book! Even though the scenes depicted are crystal clear examples of abuse, and not muddied at all. In these scenes, other characters confused about what they're (second-hand and sometimes first-hand) witnessing, or they ignore it. Since the narrator doesn't label the abuse, people who read the book don't either, or it doesn't jump out at them as anything other than a troubled childhood, or fucked up relationship.

    I did not expect what I found in the book at all. And it took me a week to wade thru everything it brought up. I decided to go back to therapy to formulate a plan for creating strict emotional and physical boundaries with my sister.

    Funny I didn't reach out to you about this. It's what I've been dealing with for the past week or so. Lots of repressed memories coming up.

    And the scenes in the book hurt as if they happened to me, because they had, kinda.

    LOVE YOU. Love Max. Love the sweet boy from the show.


  2. Ali says:

    *** In these same scenes, other characters are confused about what they (second-hand and sometimes first-hand) witness and usually just ignore it.

    [had to fix this sentence :P]

  3. Mark-E says:

    I only made it through the first 45 minutes of “When They See Us.” I felt like shit for the next few days. What happened to those kids was horrifying and made more horrifying by the daily news.

    Fuck that rancid sack of shit in the White House, and fuck all of his supporters.

  4. Mary Beth Panneton says:

    My experience is very different from your loss of your son Max but bad nevertheless. I watched my brother-in-law die a couple of months ago, my kind funny giant member of our family, my sister’s base.
    You wrote “I wanted that guy back. Why had they taken him away? I needed him back.”
    I kept thinking, after he died, keeping watch over his body with my sister and her sons, maybe he’ll come back.
    My sister and nephews and I started watching the Sopranos as comfort tv last year, now every episode seems to feature a death and funeral. TV can provide comfort or distress.
    I remember April 1989, all the publicity about the Central Park 5, but barely a whisper about when they were shown to be innocent.
    Take care, Sister Wolf.

  5. Ck Sexton says:

    Black women here.
    You hit the nail on the head about trauma t.v.

  6. Romeo says:

    I haven’t watched When They See Us either but this morning I saw footage of Phoenix police officers holding a black family at gunpoint because a child allegedly stole a doll from a dollar store.

    RIP Trayvon Martin
    RIP Freddie Gray
    RIP Eric Garner
    RIP Sandra Bland
    RIP Tamir Rice
    RIP Stephon Clark
    RIP Philando Castile

  7. Jane says:

    I stopped watching TV when Trump got elected-far too traumatic for me-and I live in Toronto…

  8. David Duff says:

    Well, maybe, baby, but I just read this:

    “Santana was one of the first boys picked up in the park the night of the attacks, April 19, 1989. While being driven to the precinct house, he blurted out: “I had nothing to do with the rape. All I did was feel the woman’s tits.”

    At this point, the jogger hadn’t been found. The police knew nothing about any rape.

    Richardson rode to the precinct with another boy, who announced to the police that he knew who did “the murder,” naming Antron McCray. Richardson concurred, saying, “Yeah. That’s who did it.”

    Again, the police didn’t know about the jogger yet. (It’s not surprising that the boys thought she was dead: Her doctors didn’t expect her to live through the night.)

    Over the next few days, five teenaged boys gave detailed confessions about the attack on the woman, as well as the other attacks. All five made their confessions in the presence of their parents or guardians.”

    There is more but, alas, it is on the Ann Coulter site so you might need to don your NBC suit!

  9. Mary Broughton says:

    Yeah, that’s right. Put your head in the sand.

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