When a really bad thing happens to children unexpectedly, the event can change them forever. As a child psychologist, I see firsthand what that means. Traumatized children often try to avoid thinking about a terrifying ordeal, but the horrible experience nevertheless replays itself in their minds and, as a consequence, in their lives. Sometimes this happens in immediate, obvious, and direct ways: bad dreams at night, phobias during the day. Other times, the traces of trauma can be delayed, subtle, indirect, and symbolic.
An example: One of my patients, Jeff, repeatedly acted out the same scenario with his action figures. A great battle ensued between the evil warriors and the superheroes. The battle reached the top of a castle where eventually the evil warriors were thrown over the parapet and died.
We might dismiss such play as typical for young boys. Except that for this boy the action, especially the tenacious repetitive nature of it, seemed to have special significance. In July 2001 he dined with his family at Windows on the World, the revolving restaurant atop the World Trade Center. He now struggled to integrate this memory with the horrible reality of the collapse of the very structure where he enjoyed himself on vacation. A place of joy transmogrified into a death trap. The same battle scenario went on for months. Jeff’s dark demeanor during this play was in stark contrast to his pre-traumatic joyful mood during play. His play embodied the three distinct qualities of a symbolic post-traumatic reenactment: It was long-lasting, repetitive, and grim.
Early psychologists who studied trauma were concerned about its negative effects, and not surprisingly that is what they learned about. But more recent studies have searched for positive outcomes of trauma and have learned what novelists and historians have known for generations: Many people draw strength from adversity. They take inspiration from their suffering. They transcend their traumas and become better people.
Reenactments of childhood traumas can benefit the rest of us when they reverberate in creative pursuits that go beyond children’s play, such as in art. Horrors from youth creep into an adult’s artwork in the form of recurring themes, literal re-creations of the original terrifying events, and pervasive dark tones. The result sometimes provides entertainment that appeals to a broad audience. But post-traumatic reenactments speak more personally to audience members who also have experienced trauma.
Years ago I became aware that a particular superhero, who has entertained millions of people, had special appeal to the traumatized children who visited my office. I had a hunch that a trauma had inspired the creation of this superhero. See if you think my hunch was correct.
The Dark Night
His pals nicknamed him “Doodler” because he was constantly drawing pictures. His pals had nicknames, too—they were fellow members of a neighborhood club know as “The Zorros,” an appellation that a young Robert Kahn had chosen, inspired by the cinematic crusader for justice played by Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. The Zorros’ clubhouse was built with wood stolen from the neighborhood lumber yard—a place whose many nooks and crannies made it the location of choice for their games of hide-and-seek.
One night, when he was 15 years old, Kahn—who went by “Robbie” at the time—had a terrifying encounter. Walking home through rough neighborhoods of the Bronx after a music lesson, carrying a violin case, he was followed by “a group of seedy-looking roughnecks from the tough Hunts Point district,” as he wrote in his autobiography 57 years later:
They wore the sweatshirts of the Vultures, and they were known to be a treacherous gang. They were whistling at me and making snide remarks that only “goils” played with violins. I stepped up my pace and so did they. Finally, I started running and they did likewise, until I reached my neighborhood. Unfortunately, my buddies were not hanging around the block at the time.
Kahn’s memoir goes on to give a very lengthy, melodramatic blow-by-blow account of his dash to the familiar lumberyard, the Vultures’s pursuit (“with terrifying menace in their eyes”), and his attempts at self-defense, complete with “Zorro” leaps, grappling hook, and mid-air kicks while swinging on a rope. He fought bravely, he writes, but for naught:
My worst fears came true. Two Vultures pinned both my arms behind my back and held me firm while another beat a staccato rhythm on my belly, knocking the wind out of me. Another bully stepped in and used my face for a punching bag—while he cracked a couple of my front teeth.
I was in a fog, when I felt my right arm crack at the elbow after a gang member deliberately twisted it behind me in order to break it. The pain was excruciating and I screamed in agony.
Before I blacked out and fell to the ground like a limp rag doll, I heard him laugh sardonically, “Just to make sure dat da Fiddler ain’t gonna play his fiddle no more!” Little did he know that it wasn’t playing the violin again that concerned me, but the fact that he had broken my drawing arm.
Then he stepped on the hand of my broken arm! I don’t remember how long I remained in a blanket of darkness before I regained consciousness, but when I came to, I was a beaten, bloody wreck. Somehow I managed to pull myself up and it was then that I noticed my violin on the ground, smashed to pieces. This was the coup de grace!
This whole episode, to this day, remains in my subconscious like a nightmare. I had played Zorro and lost! Had it really been a dream or a movie, I would have emerged victorious. But this real-life drama had almost cost the life of a reckless fifteen-year-old.
Here we have a boy who was attacked by a gang of Vultures in the night. He defended himself by playing Zorro, using a grappling hook to fend off his attackers. He was unsuccessful and was hospitalized, severely injured, with the possibility that he would be unable to pursue his chosen career. In spite of permanent injuries—scars, chipped teeth, and limited mobility in one arm—he went on to become a cartoonist.