Literary Hub

When Trauma Becomes Dominance: An Interview with Sarah Schulman

Sarah Schulman has worked for decades writing novels, plays, articles and books that are, in her words, often received by publishers or producers as “not the kind of thing we do.” When I began reading on Facebook that Schulman had been giving public readings from a new project about the nature of conflict and abuse, I remember reaching out to her to ascertain who would be publishing it, how I could begin reading it. Schulman responded wryly that publishers tend to always want only the last kind of thing she’s done (which they had rejected at that time).

None of this smacked me then or now as an author crying over sour grapes—rather it reflected to me the very different struggles queer women have had to having their creative work produced and received compared to queer men. And one wants to say, there signs of non-mainstream queer women writers entering the cultural conversation with greater amplification: from Eileen Myles, of Schulman’s own generation, to younger iconoclasts like Dawn Lundy Martin and Paul B. Preciado.

In Schulman’s latest book, Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair, the many coordinates of the writer’s life as academic student and teacher, domestic abuse counselor, and AIDS activist come powerfully together in a truly eccentric work of nonfiction and analysis. The book sets out to trace how individuals have internalized the reliance on the police state, both knowingly and unknowingly, to settle their disputes. Conflict and disputation are natural, if uncomfortable occurrences in intimate life, and Schulman argues that we should resist the assumption that violence is inherent to disagreement. The supremacy structures of American society, of which relying on the police is a part, have been shown time and time again to be structurally opposed to the interests of queer, black, and feminist interests. This work does not refute that abuse and violence do happen, nor does it place blame with any group or person who rightfully speaks truth to power. Rather, in the context of conflict and power struggle (structurally distinct from situations of power over), it sounds a clarion call to honor the restorative justice work demonstrated by black feminists and other activists. Last month I sat down to speak with Schulman about her ideas and history.

Adam Fitzgerald: Why did you decide to write about the distinction between Conflict and Abuse now?

Sarah Schulman: This first emerged in my book Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences (New Press, 2009.) There, I look at the homophobic family, this group of people who are uniting and thereby benefiting—because its a beneficial experience to be united with a group—on the idea that the queer family member is the problem and that they should be removed. But actually, the problem is the homophobia of the family itself.

That was a breakthrough. I began to identify the power of negative groups—that there is pleasure being in negative groups, in deflecting blame and pretending that someone who has done nothing is the problem.

Then, when I wrote Israel, Palestine, and the Queer International (Duke, 2010), I applied this analysis to myself, because that was the first time I wrote an entire book about my own position of dominance as a Jewish person. And so I had to be extremely self critical, to address the myths from which my Jewish identity was constructed. What was revealed to me was a lot of them were rooted in the family, which is the ultimate negative group. So I had done a lot of the theoretical work for this book before.

AF: The book is clearly focused on conflict and not necessarily on abuse.

SS: Right. Well, as I explicitly state in the book itself, there are already thousands of volumes about abuse, and we’re currently in a global crisis over the escalation of conflict! We have a president that tells us everyday that he is a victim, that he’s under attack. This is a very frequent construction, where the person with the most power sees literal descriptions of their power as an attack. This is pervasive. We’re seeing it in white supremacy globally, and we also see it in personal relations. At the same time, we’re also seeing people who actually have been abused denied the attention that they need while others use the discourse of “abuse” to hide their own role in escalating the problem.

“This is a very frequent construction, where the person with the most power sees literal descriptions of their power as an attack.”

For example, there are white people in America who have been globalized out of their social role with the closing of factories, mines, etc. But because of racism, instead of confronting the actual force source of their pain, which is the white 1%, they project their anxiety onto people who have nothing to do with causing that pain: immigrants and people of color. It’s a false accusation. In that construction of the dominance—the white policeman who kills a black man for reading a book because he feels threatened—the dominant person that sees himself as under attack. Similarly, people who really truly have been traumatized, often blame the wrong party, whether it’s in an intimate or global context. You could say that’s the description of the Israeli psychosis. This construction is pervasive in our world right now, and that’s why it needs to be unmasked.

AF: You open the book signaling your position as a queer writer, and you place the example of Audre Lorde front and center.

SS: Well you know she was my college professor, at Hunter College. And we also went to the same high school. So yeah, there is a lot of identification there. The class she taught was officially called “US Literature after WWII”, a very benign title. This was in the early 80s. It was a typical crammed CUNY class where there are so many kids that they can’t even fit into the room. And then Audre came in with one breast and beads hanging down the other side of her chest, and she said “We’re changing the name of this class to ‘The Poet as Outsider’.” [Laughs] And the assigned texts were Lesbian Poetry, Understanding New Black Poetry, and Native American Poetry. That was it. Her focus was: we were not allowed to discuss how a poem was written, we could only talk about how a poem made us feel. And for that group of students, it was absolutely appropriate. I’ve used that method with public university students, and it’s very effective.

It was a great class, and she said many things that I’ve carried with me all of my life. She said “Class, take out your notebooks and write this down: That you can’t fight city hall, a rumor being spread by city hall.” I teach her essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” and it works with every single student. No matter how old they are, no matter when they came to this country. That is one of the most effective texts I’ve ever used. Even though she had a degree in library science, she was not an academic. She comes from that school of nonfiction without footnotes, without PhDs, kind of thing. And that is why I trace myself from her, in terms of that tradition.

I recall that once, we were reading Understanding New Black Poetry and  discussing a poem by Don L. Lee, you know, that was Haki R. Madhubuti’s old name. The poem Audre assigned had the n-word in it, multiple times. And she called on me to read it out loud in class. Now this class was Hunter, right? There were not that many white people in the class. And I didn’t want to, but she called on me and I had to do it. She was the authority figure. Now, in my generation, most white people did not have experiences of black authority figures. In my elementary school I had a black woman principal, but most people my age did not have black college professors. So I start reading it, but reading it in a very, very low voice. And she said, “What’s the matter, Sarah?” and I’m said, “Well, I feel uncomfortable reading this.” She said, “ Why? That word has no power for you, does it?”

I would call that great teaching.

AF: Near the beginning of Conflict is Not Abuse, you mention that it’s possible, over time, for oppressed groups to transition into the role of oppressor. And that certainly has become the case with certain white women and white gay men, among others. I think of the white queer subject as occupying a kind of post-war space as oppressed and oppressor.

SS: On the individual and geopolitical level, traumatized people sometimes project their blame onto the wrong parties. And that can happen in intimate relationships; you could have a partner whose father sexually abused her, and yet she blames her anxieties on her partner who loves her and who’s there for her. You see that all the time, this type of projection, right? And the state exploits this. For example, in HIV Criminalization, which I discuss at length in the book, the government asks people who are HIV negative and feel anxiety about sex or HIV to pick up the phone and call the police and denounce their sexual partners that are HIV positive, as in the Canadian example. It’s an exploitation of our shame about sex and the never ending stigma of HIV and and fragility—the channeling of it into blame. That is something that is used by negative cliques, bad families, and by communities that are rooted in an inability to be self-critical, as well as by nations that are bonded on supremacy concepts. You see that kind of action across the board.

A person who was very hurt can do a tremendous amount of damage in somebody else’s life. If you’re on the receiving end of this—whether it’s coming from someone who is a supremacist or someone who hasn’t processed their own trauma—it can be equally damaging to you. There are dramatic cases of transformation. In 1945, Jews were probably the most oppressed people in the world. By 1948 and the founding of the state of Israel, you see a Jewish nation-state subordinating an entire people, the Palestinians. For some individuals or for some entities, you see a transformation from profound trauma and oppression to an unjust dominance.

Certainly with white gay men, who during the AIDS crisis died in enormous numbers and were treated with gross indifference by the state and by their families, today, if they are middle class or above, in many cases enjoy the privilege of the whiteness. And in Europe we’re seeing, for example, more white gay men moving towards the right and voting for right-wing parties. So that’s another example of being transformed into an oppressive entity.

“A person who was very hurt can do a tremendous amount of damage in somebody else’s life.”

AF: Do you think that relates to what is happening, what is described as homonormativity, à la nationalism and conservatism with some white gay men?

SS: Well, these are two concepts from queer theory: Homonormativity and Homonationalism. Homonormativity was coined by Lisa Dugan, an NYU professor. It describes this idea of gay people, predominantly through whiteness, fitting into acceptable heterosexual models, which then in turn, makes them eligible for certain kinds of rewards. For example, here we are in the national calamity of Trump, and the only national law that we have is gay marriage. But we don’t have an anti-discrimination law! The realm in which we resemble the heterosexual construct is when certain types of protections became available. For the realms in which we are different, there is no protection.

Next came Homonationalism, which was articulated by Jasbir Puar in her book Terrorist Assemblages. She shows that again, mostly through whiteness but not exclusively—in the Israeli case, Jewishness—certain kinds of tolerance systems were put into place, and as some gay people could assimilate into the nationally dominant group, they started to identify with the nation-state.

So when gay or trans people go into the US Army, they’re now identifying with the state that is going to use them to kill people around the world in illegal and immoral wars. Part of acceptance, under our current nationalist, capitalist society, means becoming a part of the war machine. These two concepts are very, very helpful for understanding what has happened.

It’s hard to assimilate, especially for someone of my generation who was born into total illegality. First of all, gay sex was not legal in the United States until 2003; let’s not forget that. And here in New York City, you could be denied an apartment, a job, or service in a restaurant until 1986. So my generation was profoundly oppressed, especially in our younger years. Our experiences of familial homophobia were terrible. To internalize and assimilate so that we are now in a position of enormous power in relationship to whiteness—there are responsibilities that come with that. You have to undergo a self-critical process to take all that in because the emotional pain of those early times doesn’t go away, even if it’s not happening now.

AF: One of the other things in your book that strikes me is that the rhetoric around victimhood and victimology has been so sedimented and typecast across conservative and neoliberal discourses. It’s become a descriptor for social justice warriors, special snowflakes, millennials—basically minorities in university spaces that demand change.

SS: I ask the question in Chapter Three, “How did we get here?” What is the history of producing this moment- where even the counter-culture is obsessed with fingering the one-and-only perpetrator so that they can be punished, and we can therefore prove and retain our purity and innocence? What I see is that, in 1958, when I was born in New York City, if a woman was raped she could only get a conviction if she had a witness. She could not win on her own testimony alone because the courts did not believe women. The state was literally the enemy of women at that time, and there was no way that we could get justice. It was in that context, in the 1960s, when the feminist movement against violence emerged. Going to the state was absurd, for many women. And it also emerged at a time of global, radical, visionary movements looking for dramatic changes in how people related to each other. And so the feminist movement against violence, was more focused on empowering women than it was on punishing men, because it wasn’t engaged with the punishment apparatus. They understood violence as being caused by patriarchy, poverty, and racism. They had a structural analysis, and they did what we now call “restorative justice”—although that concept didn’t exist at the time—which was to develop these grassroots non-carceral systems like Rape Crisis Centers. So if you were raped you could call a hotline and a woman who had been raped, or had been trained, would talk to you. There’s no state, there’s no police, right? Or battered women shelters, or self-defense classes for women, or illegal abortion; solutions that were rooted in the grassroots relationships.

In the 70s, there was program called CETA, where the government would fund the staff of grassroots community organizations. When Reagan was elected in 1980, he eliminated CETA, and a lot of these organizations collapsed. Then you start to see—and this is the ideological shift—that in the 80s, during the Reagan period, the government becomes the entity that is in charge of “ending violence.” Which is a crisis in meaning, because the US government is one of the most violent forces in the world. And so the services became dependent on government funding, you have to have government credentials to work for them, and the mode of enforcement is the police. And not only do we know what is wrong with the police—that they’re violent and racist and that they escalate—but that “police officer” is the occupation in America that has the highest rate of domestic violence associated with any occupation, including NFL players. The focus then goes away from patriarchy, poverty, and racism, and focuses on figuring out who’s the perpetrator so that they can be punished, which usually means incarceration.

“If we recognize that we are contributing to the conflict, and therefore have the power to resolve it, we’re no longer eligible for compassion.”

At that point we start to see propaganda emerging in the cultural zeitgeist, like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, for example. These types of shows where there is one evil predator and one totally innocent victim, and the answer is . . . the police. They argue that the proper arbiter of conflict, in relationships, is not the community and not grassroots solutions, and not self-criticism, but the State. That is the ideological construction that we are now operating under. This construction means that we have to be the truly innocent victim in order to be eligible for compassion. If we recognize that we are contributing to the conflict, and therefore have the power to resolve it, we’re no longer eligible for compassion. And these negative groups: cliques—cliques are very important in this— negative family groups, negative relationships, couples, groups that are based on deflecting blame onto outsiders, that cannot help each other be self critical, magnify this false construction. That’s why we have this concept that it’s better to be a victim, who is helpless, than it is to be a person who has the power to actually transform a situation, because then you lose your social support. So I see this as a historical phenomena. 

AF: A profound moment in the book occurs when you recount an experience where you have a student who you describe as being from an oppressed group who writes about you online, and your colleagues say, “He’s stalking you!” The anecdote is so powerful because it demonstrates there are many options to respond.

SS: One option is, that when you’re at in conflict with a person, before you start bonding with other people to hurt them, to ask them what they think is happening. I’m amazed at how often I’m asked to hurt people. Why did you invite her? Why are you working with them? Why did you go to their party? etc. We’re often asked to shun or socially isolate other people without ever talking to them. And people do this all the time. Your girlfriend broke up with someone, so you’re going to be cruel to that other person for the rest of their life? It’s unethical. Pick up the phone and call the person you’re being asked to hurt, and instead say, “Why is this happening?” The answer to that one question can be so illuminating. A whole series of brutal attacks that could drastically change someone’s life in a negative way can be avoided actually discussing the conflict.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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