“This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind. Men subjected to dehumanizing treatment experience profound wretchedness and loneliness and find that hope is almost impossible to retain. Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, men are defined not by themselves, but by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live.”
My mother was an avid reader and I followed in her footsteps - her and I often swapping books with each other and then comparing notes – our own private book club.
About ten years ago she gave me a book she’d read, gushing about how much it moved her and wanted me to begin it immediately; Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption was the name of the book she slipped in my purse that day, and moving, it was.
The biography of a man I’d not heard of before - Louie Zamperini, nicknamed the Torrance Tornado - a rebel growing up who found an outlet for his rebellion in running track. Standing out in high school for his extraordinary human ability to run a four-minute mile, Louie eventually made his way to the 1936 Olympics, finishing 8th in the 5000m run. Upon returning home, Louie had turned his attention to preparing for the upcoming 1940 Tokyo summer Olympics when WWII broke out. With his foreseeable track future put on hold, Louie decided to join many other men moved by their desire to fight for their country and enlisted in the United States Military – Army Air Corps, specifically – becoming a bombardier.
In 1943 while searching for a downed aircraft, Zamperini’s own aircraft, The Green Hornet, suffered 2 engine failures causing it to crash about 225 miles north of Palmyra Island into the shark infested waters of the Pacific Ocean below. Of eleven onboard, only Zamperini, the pilot, and the tail gunner survived, managing to get themselves aboard a life raft before any razor-sharp teeth could sink into them. They spent the next 47 days floating in water with predators roaming below them, exhausted, living on a couple of tins of water, some chocolate, fishing line, and a flare gun – hope the only thing getting Louie and the pilot through; the tail gunner had succumbed to despair during the 47 days and died of malnourishment, given a final push into the unforgiving sea by his friends.
Presumed dead/lost at sea by the government, those that loved them assumed they had suffered in the chaos of the water as it sucked them down into the abyss of darkness below them, a torturous death. But, as fate does, it had a different path for Louie and the pilot. While their families grieved, Louie and the only other survivor of The Green Hornet’s crash into the Pacific drifted some 2000 miles away from the initial crash, witnessed 47 sunrises, and survived the shark infested waters. Floating close to the Japanese occupied Marshall Islands the two were spotted by the enemy and were inevitably captured, bound and tied to the masts of the enemy’s ship, taunted by the Japanese aboard as they were led to what was considered the worst camp for prisoners of war in Japan.
Mutsuhiro Watanabe was head of the POW camp Louie was taken to, one where quick death was not preferred, rather a slow torturous cycle of humiliation, starvation, and beatings just to the brink of death. This method was Watanabe’s favorite as it slowly broke the psyche of the prisoner’s – their will to live becoming harder each day they lost hope due to the abuse. To sum up how horrendous Watanabe treated the POW’s at his camp - General Douglas MacArthur named him as one of the most wanted war criminals in Japan.
“(Watanabe) took pride in his sadism and would become so carried away with his attacks that saliva would bubble around his mouth.” - Tom Henling Wade, British POW alongside Zamperini
When Japan surrendered in 1945 Watanabe went into hiding and Louie and his fellow prisoners were released. As Louie left the confines of hell, he said a phrase that would later come back to haunt him: I’m free.
Settling back into the “known”, the safety and comfort of “home” back in America, Louie found himself in new restraints, those of his mind – reconciling that while he was free from the dark waters holding predators below him as he floated in the Pacific and the sadistic leader of a camp that tested his will to live, free from the abuse and constant fear, he wasn’t free, after all; his trauma had control of him now. Even in his home country, being hailed a hero by his community, Louie was not free from the abuse he endured over a long period of time; His mind became his worst enemy from the repercussions of the trauma and he was only able to overcome this darkness with the support from his country, community, and those closest to him. It was the compassion, understanding, and support from his peers that he was able to fight through his own personal hell, free himself in every meaning of the word free, and become a positive influence for America’s culture and society.
“Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Hi, I’m Cake. I have C-PTSD from over a decade of psychological, sexual, financial, spiritual and emotional abuse at the hands of my ex-husband and subsequent abuse by the systems designed to protect me. I am much, much more than just the girl that got secretly recorded nude by her husband, which is what I’m mostly known for. There is a depth to the actual horrors I’ve lived through that haven’t been spoken publicly about because I’ve either been muzzled or the memories are too traumatic to speak of. Those of us like Louie, who have complex PTSD (a step above PTSD – occurs from severe abuse/trauma over an extended period and not one single event), have had their entire identity broken down by a perpetrator(s) over a long period of time and it was then reshaped into a new one to fit the perpetrators needs. We have no idea who we are, just that we're very scared, basically.
Late at night I think of this book, of Louie’s story, and I always circle back to the questions: would they gossip about him? Call him crazy? Tell him he deserved what was done to him? Prey on him? Continue to abuse him via the collective?
Not once have I ever concluded that you all would do these things to a man like him and so then that makes me wonder even more… why in the world is this being done to me, to others just like me?
Prisoners of war, people held in captivity, & children who have taken years of abuse from their parents are just a small portion of others that sit with me around the very eclectic “these people have been through some shit” table. We have undergone years of manipulation, gaslighting, stonewalling, withholding of needs, isolation, physical/mental/spiritual/emotional/sexual abuse, all of it, by those we trusted to keep us alive and safe.
As I sit and think about us group of misfits, those suffering the worst – a unique trauma that will never be healed, a life sentence imposed on us at the hands evil, monsters in disguise, their end goal – reconstructing our very identity to fit the one they want for us, to satiate their desire for control (a product of not feeling adequate enough, themselves) I get angry with this world. Those of us that have seen this type of hell and have done so for an extended period, never knowing if/when the light will come, seem to be the only ones walking amongst modern society with any ounce of compassion, hope, and truth in us. Not to hashtag humblebrag, but we are some of the most courageous and wisest humans I have ever met, and it baffles me why we, those trudging the darkest trenches of hell, on our own turf (America), are being silenced, mocked, left behind, all of us wondering in our own ways: would these people do this to Louie Zamperini? because he is the same as me… And we know you wouldn’t, so why, why are our own people causing us our greatest suffering after all we’ve been through and why don’t they understand that this is why so many have lost faith in this country and it’s citizens?
Trauma has a funny way of always hanging around. If you watch this table of misfits long enough, you’ll see some of us with our eyes half closed, head back, drifting in and out of sleep due to the lack of it from the night terrors that keep us awake. To the right are the hypervigilant, the paranoid, their eyes meticulously scanning the room repeatedly for any sign of a threat. You see their eyes finally resting and locking in on one of their own - someone screaming at anything and everything, their anger palpable. You all call us crazy and we might be, but it’s only because our brains have been changed due to the repeated abuse we were subjected to - our limbic system is our biggest enemy for it quite literally had to physically change to protect self from further harm. No cliched feel-good mantra or magic pill can help us with this. What certainly doesn’t help, is continued abuse. What makes it excruciating and unbearable to live with at times – people who minimize, negate, and choose to target us for their own agendas, repeating the same atrocious actions of our previous abuser(s) – manipulation, gaslighting, stonewalling, shame, judging, etc – all of those things that were done to us over a long enough period of time and at such extremity, we can now apply for disability if we wanted.
The thought that I would continue to be used, abused, negated, shamed, made to feel like a defected human AFTER what I’d already gone through never crossed my mind. I suppose I naively gave humanity too much credit. My expectations for this country and its people, too high, it seems.
All I wanted to do after I escaped my own hell was to be a beacon of hope, of guidance, to this world, my country. I wanted to tell my story and show my healing journey as honestly as I could – my belief being it didn’t matter how messy the journey was, if I continued it there would be hope for others. And I have – I have been as raw as one could possibly get, showing the very real side of what horrific trauma can do to a human being, documenting the times I am almost up the mountain but slip, the times I am back in hell looking for any kind of path out, and the times I see the light clearly.
What I’ve received from my peers has not been the support and compassion needed by individuals like me (I won’t negate there have been some amazing humans that have been there for me, I’m talking large picture here). It hasn’t been the safety needed to speak my truth, my story, without vitriol and judgement thrown at me. It hasn’t been everything Louie Zamperini received from his peers, helping him to eventually live a very fulfilling life.
What I’ve received from most, is more abuse.
I can handle myself, my strength knows no bounds, but I am very aware not everyone is made like me. I can only imagine the number of other humans who have been through horrific things at the expense of sick individuals and then go on to be abused, just like me, by the very people that they share blood, community & a country with – America, a place that once sheltered the weak from harm and gave compassion for them to heal/grow. And when I think about all of this, the anger so many of us feel at the way we are treated in modernity, it’s no wonder to me that those abused American citizens no longer care what happens to this country. And this is a real struggle for me because I love my country. I want my country to succeed. I want the people of my country to do things that keep us as the leader of the free world, a place where others dream of coming to and succeeding in, a representation of hope and freedom for those across the globe. But I am not proud of my country. I am not proud of those who represent America as its citizens and leaders.
When you abandon your own, when you enable evil via becoming bystanders, when you focus on the actions and behavior of the victims instead of the perpetrators, when you label those most heinously abused as crazy or some other vile thing, you do absolutely zero good for the country & guess what? You’re seeing the repercussions of those actions. You see the effects of what happens when you severely isolate the people who needed you the most.
This country holds an abundance of the strongest humans you’ll ever meet for surviving things you couldn’t imagine. Why waste the gift of having strong humans on your side? Why tell these people through your words & actions they have no worth in this world? Because let me tell you, this, this is the biggest mistake this entire country keeps making. You're leaving the strongest behind & keeping the abusers next to you, enabling them to keep up the total erasure of everything this country was founded on.
Therefore, you’re failing, America. In every facet. You’ve become a nation of self-serving, Godless creatures chasing all things material. Maybe it’s time you were kinder to your neighbors, maybe start listening to your neighbors. You can get crazy and maybe even treat them as though they are a human being, just as you. I am self admittedly batshit, but I think, and I think I'm right, that these things alone will save our country because your people will want to fight for it.