The Trauma of Vulnerability Betrayed

The Trauma of Vulnerability Betrayed

Psychotherapist and performer Bill Harrison’s column on life as an artist.

Here’s what may seem like a stupid question: Why are so many members of the Chicago theater community feeling so overwhelmed by the publication of the Reader piece about alleged abuses at Profiles Theater? After all, there’s been nearly two decades of not-so-subtle understanding that the co-artistic directors were not to be trusted and that Profiles is a potentially dangerous place to work (especially if you’re a young woman). If some people already had a pretty clear idea that this was happening, why the sudden outpouring of shock, fear and rage?

I believe the reason for the powerful reaction we’re witnessing goes to the core of the nature of trauma. When a person is put into circumstances that threaten the self (body, mind and/or spirit), the ability to think and behave rationally becomes seriously impaired. Danger, in the form of verbal abuse, physical harm or exposure to another person’s trauma, causes the reptilian part of the brain to seize control of the body by flooding the system with the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. This is what initiates the almost instantaneous ‘fight, flight or freeze’ reaction that we’re all familiar with. When the lower brain takes over, it puts the executive functions of the neocortex (or upper brain) on ‘hold’ until we perceive that the threat to the organism has passed.

Losing the ability to think clearly has a variety of negative consequences, and the residual harm related to the traumatic experience doesn’t just fade away when the incident ends. Our bodies have long memories when it comes to threatening or painful incidents. (This is a complex evolutionary adaptation that’s largely responsible for the survival of our species, but that’s a story for another day.) Pain (physical and psychological), intense emotional responses (fear, anger, shame) and loss of autonomy are the universal residual effects of trauma. This means that whenever the memory of the traumatic event is evoked, the same autonomic, lizard-brain responses will get triggered and we will again lose the ability to ‘think about what happened’ rationally. This trauma response happens not only to individuals; it happens collectively as well. We’ll return to this point shortly.

Let’s put this trauma cycle in context: Imagine that you’re a young, inexperienced actress who gets cast in her first substantial role in a theater company known for its high-quality productions. You’re talented, hungry and committed to the art. You want to succeed, to make a good impression, to get along with your colleagues, to do excellent work so that you’ll be able to get cast in future roles that will challenge you as an artist. You also know that you must allow yourself to be emotionally open and available in every moment onstage to fully engage in the work of being an actor. As we discussed last time, vulnerability is an absolute must if you’re going to do this work well.

During the rehearsal period you’re excited by the process, but begin to feel unnerved by the behavior of a fellow cast or crew member. This person’s behavior isn’t necessarily overtly aggressive (verbally or physically), but something in your gut tells you that you need to be wary. Your ability to be fully present starts to erode, because you don’t feel safe. What to do? You either have to allow your work to suffer because you don’t feel safe enough to be vulnerable OR you have to take action to address the situation with the person who’s causing your distress.

This is a classic double bind situation, because neither choice seems viable. You don’t want the discomfort you’re feeling to adversely affect the quality of your performance. And the idea of confronting the person with whom you feel unsafe appears to be equally impossible because you fear the professional repercussions. (Remember, when your self feels threatened, you are unable to think rationally.) So the thoughts tumble out one on top of another: if I say something people might think I’m being weak or immature; I may start getting a reputation for being ‘difficult’; I may lose opportunities to work, etc. And…I feel threatened, demeaned and afraid that I will be harmed if I allow myself to continue to be vulnerable in order to do good work in this dangerous situation.

If you saw the Reader article, you know that this cycle of events is exactly what happened, over and over, to a variety of actresses who worked at Profiles. The abuse victims experienced the trauma but were unable to act “rationally” by quitting, reporting the abuse or by doing anything that might have seemed ‘reasonable.’ Their reptile brains took over, causing them to ‘freeze’, because ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ felt impossible, given the tremendously stressful circumstances. To continue to survive under these conditions, these folks had to find ways to tolerate the double bind – something it turns out we humans are very good at. We use denial (“this isn’t really happening”), projective identification (“this is not really abuse, the person is doing this for my own good”), reaction formation (“it’s too dangerous to fight this so I’ll convince myself that this is actually love, not harm”). A person who has trauma as part of her personal history will have a particularly difficult time thinking clearly because her original trauma keeps getting activated by what’s happening in the present.

Indeed, this is how the person responsible for the alleged physical, verbal and sexual abuse was able to wield such power and get so many talented people to work for and with him for so many years. He must have learned that creating a threatening atmosphere allowed him to get his narcissistic needs met while simultaneously preventing his victims from acting in their own best interests (leaving, fighting back, seeking outside assistance).

So why didn’t someone put a stop to this abusive behavior? Surely many people must have observed the perpetrator’s actions over the years. But somehow no one ever called him out to the extent that he was forced to stop. In other words, the community (by this I mean the people who worked at Profiles over the years and those who heard the stories) allowed this abuse to continue. Many people colluded in condoning the sick and violent actions of this individual.

And that’s why we’re so shocked in this moment, as we experience the raw truth in black and white on our screens. This shit happened and the community did nothing to stop it. Even if we, as individuals, were unaware of the goings-on at Profiles, all of us know that there is gender inequality, sexual harassment and other forms of intimidation in our business. Abuse of power happens because we, as a community, allow it to continue. We use some of the same strategies I mentioned above to inure ourselves to these negative aspects of life in the theater: we pretend it’s not real, that it’s a thing of the past, that it’s not that bad.

Despite how it may sound, this is not a condemnation. Trauma has ripple effects into the culture and community. Even if we’ve not been abused or felt deeply threatened in our personal lives (and I’d wager that’s a pretty small minority of us) we’ve all been terrified at one time or another. Everyone has experienced the hijacking of our rational minds by our reptile brains. On some level, it’s much easier to be in denial about intimidation and abuse because just imagining those things fills us with dread. At the same time, theater artists are always striving to do meaningful and authentic work; which means (here we go again) that we have to be willing to be open to accessing our full emotional palette by maintaining our vulnerability. That willingness may be great for us as artists, but, sadly, it can put us in real danger.

If theater is supposed to be, in John Patrick Shanley’s words, “the safe place to do the unsafe things that need to be done”, then safety must come first. As a community, we must collectively shift the culture in the direction of equality and security for everyone who works in the theater. We must all understand that it is our duty to hold ourselves and the production teams we work with accountable for creating a safe work environment that fosters creativity and never condones the abuse of power. Once we commit to protecting one another, we will have a safe place to bring our full selves to this work that we all love.

About author

Bill Harrison MA, LCPC

Bill Harrison is a psychotherapist whose primary interest is working with people in the performing arts. He is also an accomplished musician and an occasional actor. You can find him at