Discover more from Long Lead Presents: Depth Perception
"The Body Politic Keeps The Score": Ana Marie Cox on Collective Trauma
Plus: Taylor Lorenz's horror media diet, Remembering Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield, Cat Person on the big screen.
Through our years of friendship, I’d never interviewed Ana Marie Cox. After reading her latest piece for The New Republic, I wanted that to change.
In “We Are Not Just Polarized. We Are Traumatized,” Cox challenges readers to look within themselves and to assess their experience of the past several years through a trauma lens. There is so much to consider — including Trump’s presidency and its aftermath, mass shootings, January 6th, George Floyd’s murder (and the mass movement that grew in response), the pandemic, isolation, loneliness, and division.
Thanks for reading Long Lead Presents: Depth Perception! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Still, my first impression of the headline was, “Is ‘trauma’ the right word to use here?” A little more than 5,000 words later, and I was sold. Yes, “trauma” fits here just fine.
If you haven’t yet read this essay, settle in for an unexpectedly devastating piece of writing that offers a new way of thinking about the United States, our national character, and the traumas that hold us together.
Go read it now, I’ll wait…
Now that you’re done, what follows is an abridged version of our conversation where we discuss Cox’s writing process, her understanding of trauma, and the challenge of writing stories that identify problems in the absence of realistic solutions. —Parker Molloy
The following interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Parker Molloy, Depth Perception: Walk me through the process of writing this piece.
Ana Marie Cox: This is the first long read I've written in a while. Actually, that's not quite true. I wrote a reported piece for Texas Monthly about progressive religious figures who assist women in getting reproductive care. And that was about 4,000 or 5,000 words, maybe a little bit more. But this is the longest essay-type thing I’ve written in a while.
I follow a lot of the “TraumaTok.” I'm sort of on TikTok, but mostly like every old person, I follow TikTok on Instagram.
I follow a lot of trauma meme accounts, which is a sentence that five or ten years ago would have not made any sense at all. But I really enjoy them. The one I cited, @softcore_trauma is a favorite. They're very popular, and it got me thinking about how much people talk about trauma. There are all these accounts that have advice about trauma.
And as a journalist, I've done reading around trauma-informed reporting because that's what we think about these days, right? A lot of journalism has always been trauma, like about trauma — that's what news is, right? Man bites dog. And change, change is often traumatic. So maybe all journalism should be trauma-informed journalism.
So I've just been thinking a lot about trauma, a lot about how much people relate to it. And the ideation is pretty much what I said in the lead, which is that there's part of me that felt like this is too much. And it almost parallels my personal journey. I've had a sexual violence incident in my past, like most women, but also, like a lot of women, I convinced myself it wasn't that bad, right? And for a long time, I never really identified as someone who's been through trauma, personally, because it felt like nothing in my life has been that bad.
I grew up pretty firmly middle class. My mom was an alcoholic, and that was a source of instability. We did have the lights turned out once, which I know not everyone does, but that was more because I think she was also probably undiagnosed bipolar, like I am — I'm diagnosed, but I think she probably also had bipolar disorder. But I always had enough to eat. I went to good schools. I'm white. I'm cis. I'm heterosexual.
But then some things happened in my life, including a really ugly divorce that caused me to take a look at my own life. I was kind of forced to look at why the divorce was so traumatic for me. And I, with the help of, you know, therapists and 12-step programs, I realized that it went back to a deep abandonment wound that has to do with my mom being basically absent. When you're an active alcoholic, it's hard to be present and it is a form of emotional abuse. And also she could be unkind.
My father is a wonderful man, but he did not have the emotional equipment to be much of a source of support. And I had treatment resistant depression. My psychiatrist finally said something like, “You meet the criteria for complex post-traumatic stress disorder.”
And I was like, “That seems fake. That's not a real thing. That's just like a catch-all.”
I think that's part of the issue. You're saying all of this, and I'm just nodding along because I know that while my story is different from yours, we’re traveling a similar path, one shaped by the world around us. This is, again, the crux of this piece: a lot of us end up in the same spot.
Yes, exactly. For my personal journey, we moved every two years, and it turns out changing cities and changing schools for a young person is considered an adverse childhood event. And I had like six of them. I did the research and it was like discovering that everything that I kind of had thought was just either connected to my mental health — I do have bipolar disorder — or connected to my recovery and addiction. And also a lot of those things stem back to trauma. There's a whole school of thought that posits that most mental health disorders, including addiction and possibly other things, stem from trauma.
So that was a real awakening for me and a place where I had to have a lot of grace for myself in allowing myself to accept that diagnosis. And the work I had to do around that is to accept that I have a diagnosis and an experience that is traumatic and it is important.
And other people have had worse experiences and have been more systematically ostracized, oppressed, and had violence done to them. But we can both have pain, and that pain isn't a contest. Wounds aren't a contest. I'll put it this way — a paper cut can hurt just as much as anything else, right?
And paper cuts suck. This is a great metaphor because a paper cut can get infected.
Right. But if you're sitting there comparing it to being stabbed, it’s understandable that you might think, “Well, it's just a paper cut.” There’s a denial aspect to it.
It's not useful, right? It won't help you heal your paper cut, right? And also CPTSD [ed note: Complex post-traumatic stress disorder is a disorder that develops over an extended time period and can involve multiple traumatic events or chronic exposure to traumatic events] could be called like a thousand paper cuts, kind of. There's more serious stuff that happened to me, for instance, including a childhood sexual assault that I had not even allowed myself to tell anyone about because it wasn't that bad. But that’s the story of a lot of people with trauma, especially people who mean well; especially well-meaning liberals, I think.
Wounds aren't a contest. I'll put it this way — a paper cut can hurt just as much as anything else, right?
Oh yeah, I think that's a huge thing. And I've kind of had that same sort of thing: I'm trans and yeah, this sucks or that sucks and this bad thing has happened to me. But I know so many people who have it worse, and I know so many people who've gone through so much worse. Part of it for me has been that those are the stories that I end up seeking out because I find them interesting. And those are the ones that I so often wanna like lift up because, “People need to see this!”
And you know me, Parker. You know that's what I have done professionally, trying to lift up voices of people who have been marginalized and ostracized and had violence done to them. That's been my professional calling, and I believe in that and I want to continue to do that. But it's been the work of years to kind of get to a place where I can acknowledge that my pain and my trauma is worthy of the same kind of attention.
Which means actually raising up other people. It means acknowledging not just where I stand, but also that I have pain. And I did talk with a lot of people who are in those marginalized groups. I talked to a wonderful woman who goes by @dopeblack_socialworker on Instagram. Really good follow.
And she and I talked about whiteness and how, and she's not representing all people of color, obviously, but she had a really good sort of way of talking about it for me, which is, you know, we're not going to heal racism until white people heal too. Like, we as white people have wounds from the violence we have done to others.
That's actually maybe the best way to put it: The system we created puts us in a position to see a lot of violence and to be responsible for it in some way and not attend to that moral injury.
I want to hear your thoughts on this too, because I know you think a lot about this. And I know yours is one of the voices, if we're going to compare privilege, I've wanted to raise up because I know that I have some more cis privilege than you, right? But we can sit here and talk about our shared trauma, and you and I have talked about trauma and the pain of it. And I know it hasn't been an issue between us as friends, obviously, right?
Oh yeah, of course.
And also a good way to think about it is that if you have a friendship with someone who may have more or somehow less privilege than you do, but you're genuine friends, you know you take each other's trauma incredibly seriously. Right?
Yeah, you don't treat it as a contest. You allow yourself, to say, “No, I get it, they're going through this and I am going through that.”
And grace has to go two ways, right? I have to have grace for myself, grace for you. You have to have grace for you and want to have grace for me and grace for yourself. It seems important to me that we all, number one, understand that it's not a trend that all these people are identifying as trauma survivors.
I think we can talk about people who do that and maybe don't see their own privilege as part of the conversation, although their trauma is still real. We can talk about people who might not fully acknowledge the extent of their own trauma, that they identify as a trauma survivor, but are only doing it in this superficial way because it kind of feels right.
It seems important to me that we all, number one, understand that it's not a trend that all these people are identifying as trauma survivors.
But they're not really opening themselves up to what they went through. In a weird way, Mike Pence is a good example of that. I put it in the piece, which is that he's [one] of the people, of their conservatives who went through January 6th. I think he's the only one that thought, “Yeah, that was awful. That was really bad.”
And it's a partial thing. If he fully grappled with the fact that someone who he thought was an ally ordered his death or suggested his death, I think we'd see a different Mike Pence today.
That's yeah, that's true. And as you, as you do say, you do not under any circumstances hand it to Mike Pence. I, too, work dril references into as many things as I can.
And you're still going to have to hand it to him, right? It's always a pleasure to work a dril reference into anything. [laughs]
Yeah, I think acknowledging my own trauma and seeing that it's a part of a larger story — what happened with me and thinking about it in terms of the country, which is okay — so maybe all these people are identifying as traumatized, not at a level that they're over-claiming or misusing, because I do think there's a trendy part to it, right?
Sure. Yeah, I think with anything that goes on social media there's always people either exaggerating or jumping into something as a trend.
Trends I guess can look like real things, but now I believe that most quote-unquote “trends” have some truth behind them. So then I thought of a headline, which they didn't use, which was, “The Body Politic Keeps the Score.” And that was the one line I sent my editor, which as you probably know, as someone who pitches things, sometimes the headline can be enough, because it immediately clicks.
And I maybe even told you, I told a lot of people I was working on it and everyone knew immediately what I was talking about. That was amazing and in its own way traumatic. I really want to use that word and be careful about using that word.
It's interesting, some of the pushback I've gotten is from actual psychologists who are guarding the word, gatekeeping the word “trauma,” which I understand. As someone with a mental illness, I feel pretty strongly about not using words that are diagnoses to describe states of mind.
Like, “psychotic” is an actual diagnosis. Let's not call someone psychotic who is merely behaving erratically. Let's say they're behaving erratically. If someone's behaving in an up-and-down way, don't call it “bipolar.” They're probably not bipolar. Schizophrenia, you know what I mean.
But I think trauma is not a diagnosis, exactly. I think that word encompasses enough. I don't feel bad using it. Like depressed — depression is also a diagnosis, but we all understand that that's a spectrum. So that's the one pushback I kind of understand why I've gotten it.
But so I pitched [the story], and then I just started to do the research. I've lived through what was there. You've lived through what was there. We all have. But getting into the numbers was… I mean, it's hard to find a word. I'm going to get emotional. The numbers… when you see it quantified, what we've been through…
Is there anything you left out of the piece?
I actually don't even go into the stuff that I believe is also traumatic, which are the microaggressions and the everyday racism and the everyday sexism and the everyday violence that all of us get exposed to. I mean, I kept this piece pretty much to stuff that I thought people could agree with. That's fucking bad, you know?
Absolutely. And I think that raises interesting questions about the writing process: what gets left in, what gets left out, and why. For instance, if there's something in a piece where I think, “This one line will piss off way too many people, and they will discount the entire piece because of one line they dislike or because they don't like the wording. I'm gonna leave it out.” I think that sometimes that's the right thing to do.
Right. Picking your battles.
I teach a writing workshop about memoir writing, but something that I talk about there that I think is appropriate here — it is appropriate in all kinds of writing —you have a certain budget with readers, a certain amount of generosity that you can count on. You can choose to spend that budget in many different ways. But if you ask too much of them, they're going to turn [on you] and tune out.
In memoir writing, it can be overly flowery writing or… using a weird syntax or using the second person, whatever, doing some rhetorical tricks. I think in journalism, it's some of the same stuff. You have to get the reader with you. And if you're really, really good, you can break icons and rules, like David Foster Wallace. But he earned all that capital to spend.
So yeah, I made a choice to not really go into some of the microaggression-y stuff. Although I reference the everyday marginalizing, people who just face trauma as part of their existence.
And then I got to thinking about this idea of taking the metaphor a little more literally, which is to think of America as a body. That too was something that I knew would be true and knew I could write. But once I started writing, it felt like, again, I was taken aback by the truth underneath my own observation. I think my favorite line in the piece is about how the phrase “you're on mute” is a symptom of our lack of proprioception — this everyday disconnect that is illustrative of this larger thing. And yeah, I got to thinking about the everyday connections that have been broken.
[I]n all kinds of writing, you have a certain budget with readers, a certain amount of generosity that you can count on.
You can choose to spend that budget in many different ways, right? But if you ask too much of them, they're going to turn [on you] and tune out.
Personally, though as it may not have been as difficult for me as it was for others, the pandemic changed me to be even more introverted and to leave the house even less than I used to. And so maintaining my own bonds to my community has to come with a lot more intent. I'm still working on it. Most of my friends don't live in Austin now — I need to make more friends in Austin.
And then my editor, Michael Tomasky, was very generous about not having to have a solution.
Yes! That’s another aspect I wanted to ask you about. Because reading the whole thing I’m thinking, “Yes, yes, yes.” And then you get down to where you ask what we’re actually supposed to do about all of it. It's really difficult to write a piece where you don't have the answers. It’s a big ask.
I mean, we have to end capitalism. That would be like number one on my agenda. If I could wave a magic wand, it’d be just like, UBI [universal basic income], national healthcare.
One of the notes that I started writing at the very beginning of this piece, before I got to the part where you discussed capitalism was about how much this relates to branding. “Great Resignation,” “quiet quitting.” We now have labels for these thing, whether or not they’re real. Like… “quiet quitting?”
It's a name for alienation that existed before, but it's good to have a name for it, though. “Trans” is something [else] that we didn't have a name for for a long time. Giving it a name limits it in some ways, perhaps, but it also allows us to talk about something that we didn't have words for before.
So my editor was very generous in allowing me not to have a solution. We thirst for solutions once we're given a problem. I thought about these things. I did go to a panel at South by Southwest where a woman suggested group ketamine therapy. And that has fascinated me ever since she said it. I think there's something to it. Because if you go with this kind of extended metaphor, as America is a traumatized patient, and these lack of connections, one of the things that ketamine does in the body is allow for new synapses and new neural connections to be made.
I wish now I'd come up with this metaphor. Because the metaphor is important: Trauma doesn't have solutions, it has treatments. And the question I wind up trying to get my head around or offer up, is how do we treat this?
The ultimate problem is that — and this is where I got stuck and it turned out just to be the end of the piece — there is a group of people in this country who will not acknowledge that they've been traumatized.
And that, for a lot of the rest of us, compounds issues because if we can't acknowledge problems, we can't address the problems a lot of the time, especially when solutions or treatments involve collective action.
Collective vulnerability. I think that’s the hurdle that I don’t know how we overcome. For some people, vulnerability is a punchline, humanity is a punchline.
I am pessimistic about anything changing.
My hope in writing the piece is that people will think about this exact thing we're talking about. I would love for people to have more grace for themselves and to accept that they perhaps have been traumatized. For whatever reason — perhaps masculinity, perhaps white guilt — whatever it is that stood in the way from acknowledging the hurt. I would like people to be able to have grace for themselves.
What grace does for us is it makes us a little bit stronger, and allows us to see the world more clearly and to accept all the things that are happening in it. And I think that grace can allow us to have grace for other people. That's what I mean: The best case scenario, for me, is more grace.
There’s still time to vote for Long Shadow: Rise of the American Far Right in the Signal Awards. The podcast, hosted by Pulitzer finalist Garrett M. Graff, looks at the rise of right-wing extremism over the last 40 years.
It’s up for Best Editing, and the clip below from Episode Four illustrates why.
It helps this important show reach more listeners. We appreciate the support.
Sometimes a random Internet search turns into an obsessive research dive. Here, creative folks reveal their favorite rabbit holes.
Taylor Lorenz’s Spreadsheet of Horror
Writing a book is stressful, even under the best of circumstances. But Taylor Lorenz, a tech reporter at the Washington Post, arguably had a more trying time than most during the two years it took her to write her illuminating new book, Extremely Online: The Untold Story of Fame, Influence, and Power on the Internet.
While Lorenz navigated the thick of the pandemic (she’s immunocompromised) and her day job (she was at the New York Times until March 2022), the high-profile journalist was — like all too many women reporters covering the online world — being pummeled with hate. “Tucker Carlson was doing segments on me constantly,” she recalls. “I had right-wing media, people harassing my family members, my friends. I had to deal with stalkers, I had to deal with physical threats.”
During this period, Lorenz got even deeper into a longtime passion — horror films — watching one a night. “I like the feeling of being scared, which I find very anxiety-reducing,” she says. “I think horror movies kind of got me through that time.”
We recently rang up the Los Angeles–based Lorenz to find out more about her spine-chilling obsession and to get her top picks for horror-related content. Kick off spooky season with these picks. —Mark Yarm
“Taylor’s Horror Movie Graveyard” Google doc by Taylor Lorenz (2021)
“At the Times, we all had to make a Google doc for some reason. So I decided to make this horror movie graveyard [featuring her film picks]. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is always my favorite. Let’s see what else I had on there... I love The Witch. I like a lot of indie horror movies.
“I love found-footage kind of horror — I have V/H/S on there, which is really good. Oh, I love the apocalypse movies: I love 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later. And all the Paranormal Activity movies are so good.”
Otherworld, available on all major podcast outlets
“I’m obsessed with this podcast. I wrote about it for Halloween last year. The host, Jack Wagner [not the Melrose Place and Hallmark romcom star], interviews people about unexplained experiences. Sometimes it’s people who have been the victims of really horrific crime, like this woman who was almost stabbed to death. Other times, they’ve seen a ghost or had a premonition or had really spooky things happen to them. He also investigates terrifying phenomena, like the Hat Man, which is this vision that tons of people have seen across different cultures around the world.”
“Why Are Male Horror Directors So Afraid of Naked Old Women?” by Anna Menta, Decider (Oct. 27, 2022)
“You can understand a lot about our culture and society — our beliefs and biases and stereotypes — through the horror that is produced in our culture. This article was a really good critique, because it's something that I had noticed as well: That these older women are always positioned as horrifying and terrifying. And as a woman, I don’t love that. I don’t appreciate that trope. And I thought that Anna just did a really expert job of critiquing it in a thoughtful way and calling attention to it.”
American Horror Stories Season 1, Episode 4, “The Naughty List” (July 29, 2021), streaming now on FX and Hulu
“As you know, I cover the content house world. I love when horror movies try to tackle internet phenomena. That’s my favorite thing. That’s why I love movies like Unfriended, even though they’re sort of objectively corny, bad movies. This episode of American Horror Stories [centering on the fictional Bro House] was a funny portrayal of the craziness of the content world and how kind of silly influencers can be. I wouldn’t say it’s some groundbreaking piece of television, but I just liked it.”
“Cat Person and Me” by Alexis Nowicki, Slate (July 8, 2021)
Remember “Cat Person,” Kristen Roupenian’s mega-viral, much-debated New Yorker short story from late 2017 about a brief relationship between a 20-year-old college sophomore named Margot and an older man named Robert? (Spoiler alert: It ends bitterly.) Five years later, it’s now a movie, opening in New York and Los Angeles this Friday and nationally on October 13. It stars Emilia Jones (CODA) as Margot and Nicholas Braun (Succession) as Robert.
The film begins with a quote attributed to Margaret Atwood (“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”) and hammers home that theme for its two-hour runtime. I found it occasionally funny and often discomfiting (intentionally so), but the final third of the movie — which takes place after the ending of the source material — is an ill-advised turn into full-on suspense-thriller territory.
More interesting than the film, and perhaps even Roupenian’s work itself, is the story behind the story, published in Slate in 2021. “Some of the most pivotal scenes — the sexual encounter and the hostile text messages — were unfamiliar to me,” writes Alexis Nowicki, a publicist. “But the similarities to my own life were eerie… Could it be a wild coincidence? Or did Roupenian, a person I’d never met, somehow know about me?” I don’t want to give away anything else about Nowicki’s piece and the issues it raises, but it’s well worth the read. —Mark Yarm
Tim Wakefield’s Final Out
Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield, 57, died Oct. 1 of brain cancer. His Boston sports legacy is one of pain and joy: He was on the mound in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS when New York Yankee Aaron Boone homered, destroying Boston’s chance of a trip to the World Series. The next year, the team would win its the first World Series title in 86 years, and Wakefield was an integral part of that 2004 team.
Long Lead founding editor John Patrick Pullen and audience development director Heather Muse are both Massachusetts natives and lifelong Red Sox fans. They shared their favorite pieces about Wakefield and his team.
Knuckleball! (2012), documentary
From Stephen King to Charles Schulz, baseball has long inspired writers. The reasons why aren’t straightforward — the poetic arc of its season, the guarantee of heartbreak, the promise of next spring — but little in life ever is.
And so is the path of the knuckleball, an erratic, butterfly-flight of a pitch best thrown by pitchers who tend to look like they were picked out of a line at the DMV. Tim Wakefield was among the all-time best of the average Joes who threw a knuckler. If you can find it (it’s not currently streaming), the 2012 documentary Knuckleball! chronicles the heights and depths of Wakefield and fellow floater-thrower R.A. Dickey, as they try to master a pitch that only obeys the wind. However you feel about baseball, the film is a great examination of despair and redemption, uncertainty and hope. A gamer if there ever was one, Wakefield passed away on the last day of the season. Not even Updike could’ve penned a better ending. —John Patrick Pullen
“At the End of the Curse, A Blessing: 2004 Red Sox, Sportsmen of the Year” by Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated (Dec. 6, 2004)
Fair warning: If you’re a Yankees fan, you’ll probably scoff at this piece, dismissing it as ridiculously melodramatic and over-the-top. You’d be right, but it does perfectly encapsulate the poignant mood in New England when the 2004 Boston Red Sox won their first World Series title since 1918, ending an 86-year drought.
Verducci’s story isn’t about the team as much as it’s about what the Red Sox mean to the community. He deftly weaves together tales of birth, death, prayer, and superstition. It features fans dropping holy water in Fenway Park before the big win and leaving newspapers on the graves of family members who never got to see the Sox win it all. “Civil religion” is not a misnomer in this case.
“At the End of the Curse…” chronicles the genuine phenomenon that was “Red Sox Nation” before it transformed into a cynical marketing term. Nearly two decades later, I still tear up when I read it. —Heather Muse
Phew, you made it through this monster edition of Depth Perception! If you’re not a subscriber, why not start now? It’s free.