Tell don't show
An old writing saw, reversed, can heal
"I've decided to waste my life In a new way, to forget whoever Touched a hair on my head, because It doesn't matter what came to pass, Only that it passed, because we repeat Ourselves, we repeat ourselves." from "May Day," by Phillis Levin
Sometime last year, a beloved fellow trauma survivor shared this wisdom with me: that in order to stop the passage of trauma from one generation to the next, one must learn how to tell and not show. My ears perked up, of course, never having heard the familiar formulation inverted.
If you’ve spent any time as a writer at all, you’ll doubtless have heard this most common piece of writing advice this side of “kill your darlings:” Show, don’t tell. This generally fine piece of wisdom states that to create a vivid picture for your reader, you must put them into the scene rather than summarizing events, and portray feelings and responses rather than stating what they are. For example, when you’re writing a mystery story, instead of describing how Susan goes to the store and buys the kitchen knife that will later become the murder weapon, follow the character into the store itself, and record Susan’s observations and feelings as she weighs each blade in her hand.
Now let’s say you’re writing that scene, and Susan sees someone she knows in the store. It’s better not to tell the reader directly, as, “Suddenly, Susan spotted her neighbor Maxine coming down the aisle of Didrick’s. She got scared, and wondered what Maxine would think of her looking at all these kitchen knives.” Leaning more toward showing and not telling might look like, “The bell of the shop door rang and Susan looked up to see her neighbor, Maxine, coming in. Susan felt her face heat up. Silently, she set down the knife she’d been studying and organized her mouth into a smile, stepping toward a display of tea towels.”
Notice how, in both the latter examples, showing rather than telling brings the reader closer to the direct experience of the character? This technique works well because, just as in a film, seeing subtle expressions pass over an actor’s face gives you more information and feels more emotionally immediate than an extra line of dialogue would have. Also, sometimes that extra line of dialogue can feel condescending to the audience, as if the writer didn’t trust them to know what was going on from the performance.
In short, it’s a lot easier to show someone how you feel than to tell them. Show, don’t tell communicates a great deal of emotional material with an immediacy that human minds soak up and relate to. It activates mirror neurons, gets empathy flowing, and can stimulate the nervous system. Think about how genuinely scared you can feel when you watch a horror movie, or how sometimes even a well-wrought commercial can make you cry.
So what does all this have to do with trauma? Well, what happens in real life, where there’s no writer who knows everything and is trying to manipulative an audience’s feelings?
For traumatized folks, there is a powerful need to have their experience understood by someone intimate: their romantic partner, their children, their close friends. But if they themselves do not understand their own experience, they will unconsciously replicate that experience with another person. The cliche “hurt people hurt people” applies here, but the reason for it isn’t just pattern repetition. Traumatized people, especially when triggered, may show what their experience was like, by treating their partners or children the way they were treated. This is the heart of showing and not telling for survivors: if you can’t tell, if you can’t put your own experience into words, if you do not understand what happened to you and how you felt about it, then you’ll show someone you love how it felt to be you.
The most basic example of this is the person who was hit as a child, who then grows up and hits their own children. This happens partly because of what was modeled for that person, what “parenting” was supposed to look like. But it also happens because of this terrible need to be understood. They hit that child because in a subterranean part of themselves, they want that child to understand what they went through.
This direct communication of experience, this making someone else feel what you felt while also not speaking directly about it, is what makes showing and not telling such a terrible feature of intergenerational trauma.
Let me use a more complex example that might illustrate what I mean.
Imagine it. A girl is born in the early 1940s, while her father is serving in the army. Let’s call her Doris. Doris is tall and strong, and cultivates a sense of independence early. Yet her mother (let’s call her Anna) is alternately doting and neglectful, even hateful at times, and when Doris’ sister arrives, the sister becomes the one who can do no wrong. Doris is raised to protect her younger sister at all costs, to be a protector and shield, and to put her own needs and feelings aside. Their father, whom Doris worships, also worships her mother, and quietly takes the brunt of Anna’s abuse for the next sixty or so years.
Doris grows up and, having finally escaped her mother’s house, marries and has a girlchild of her own, even taller and stronger. That girlchild is lonely, and silent, and when she approaches her mother with feelings she has, Doris is a kind of blank. That girlchild watches as her mother repeatedly drops everything to care for her sister’s children. Doris has trouble comforting her own child, even as her legendary babysitting abilities are repeatedly called upon for her sister’s children, even as, eventually, she is hired to care for other people’s babies while they work. The girlchild has no real emotional connection to her mother, who can’t seem to receive her feelings or attune to her needs. The girlchild grows up strange, withdrawing, unable to connect to the world and the people in it.
The girlchild somehow makes it to adulthood, and begins to try and find an identity. Doris, who never really understood this odd daughter of hers, understands her less and less, but doesn’t really make an effort to do so. The girlchild-now-an-adult starts to get into romantic relationships. Sometimes, when those relationships are not as attentive or focused or fulfilling as she hoped, she figures that that’s just her lot in life. Other times, when they are super fulfilling and loving, she finds ways to sabotage them. She cannot believe she deserves such love and attention, and is surprised when her partner is hurt by the ways she neglects or abandons them in favor of something that feels safer.
In case it weren’t obvious: the girlchild is me, and Doris is my mother. As she went from being a child of an abusive parent to being a parent herself, she repeatedly showed that child—me—what it was like for her as a child. Not intentionally, not maliciously. Just: her body learned that she was second-best, that her role was servant and not master. When she had her own child, of course that child became second-best as well.
When I grew up, with somewhat more resources to escape from the vise of intergenerational trauma, I too only had what my body knew. My first boyfriend was extremely kind to me, and very gently introduced me to my own sexuality. But when my mother relegated him to second-best status—not worthy of me—I followed her lead and broke up with him. At just under 14 years old, I showed him what it had been like for me, and rejected his sincere offering.
Even in the past ten years, I’ve found myself repeating these patterns. I meet someone I like and I start testing them, arguing with them. Are they a good enough feminist? I wonder. Will they get this clever reference? Can they see how smart I am? What happens if I’m a little mean to them, if I make them prove they’re worthy? Or rather: that they won’t hurt me, make me feel like an afterthought?
Who knows what childhood was like for my grandmother. My sense is, regardless of how awful my grandmother was to my mother and me, and regardless of how much my mother lionized her own grandmother, that grandmother probably favored her son over her daughter, and passed down the ancient rift that led to my mother treating me like the least important child in her world. Down through the ages, as parents try desperately to connect to their children, they do so unconsciously, in a desperation of love and fear: they show their children what it was like for them.
Show, don’t tell. What happens, what terrible loops perpetuate and echo down the generations, when we live by this writerly maxim in the real world, where there is no omniscient narrator, and no writer-god who knows and understands all? And what happens when we reverse it?
“This is me telling and not showing,” my partner sometimes says to me, as he unpacks something desperate and difficult, rife with knowing, about the ways his body responds to things he wishes were different. The rational mind knows better, knows what must be done. Some part of the emotional self does, too. But in the traumatized body, some part of us is often warring with the others, mistrusting kindness, overwhelmed by the tyranny of the familiar, knowing how this ends. Those parts are so often at risk of showing, of lashing out unconsciously, of demonstrating, devastatingly, what they’ve learned will let them survive.
I try to tell my clients this, too. “This is a chance for you to pause, and breathe, and try to tell rather than show.” Tell your loved ones:
“Hey, whenever I tried to get attention from my mother, she would blow me off and tell me that what I was interested in was stupid. Sometimes, when you show me how interested you are in what I like, I feel like maybe you’re making fun of me. I know you’re not, but I just need you to know that that’s why I get sensitive about it.”
“When I grew up, I was left alone a lot and had to fend for myself. It got to where I was really proud of it. When you try and take care of me, I can feel really defensive and like you’re going to try and control me. I know that’s not what you’re doing, but that’s what my trauma tells me. I’m working on it.”
“Sometimes when we’re close and intimate, I look at you and you’re just so wonderful that part of my brain shuts off and just decides you’re not real, that you’re too good to be true. Then I can’t access how I feel at all, except to feel that I don’t deserve you and that maybe I don’t exist.”
What happens when a trauma survivor can’t tell these sorts of things to their intimate partners, their loved ones, or their children? They’ll show them instead. They’ll grow distant and disappear, or lash out in frightened anger, or say something cruel to pre-empt the blow they believe is coming. If they have kids, they’ll unconsciously communicate to them the terrible things they lived through, even as they tell their kids that they don’t want them to have to go through what they did, or more commonly, that they should be grateful for what they have, because their parents had it much worse.
Look how I suffered, the survivor says. See, and love me. But it doesn’t work, because we’re just transferring that suffering onto those we’re meant to love. What else do we know of how love works, what the word “love” is supposed to even mean?
Tell, don’t show. It’s hard work, and it’s counter-intuitive: our bodies want us to connect with others the way we were connected with, no matter how painfully. Here, look, our bodies say, here is how it felt. Let me show you.
But the sooner we stop doing that, the sooner we can truly touch another in a way that breaks the cycle.