Can Trauma Help You Grow?
Studies show that many trauma survivors experience some form of post-traumatic growth—a psychological phenomenon in which trauma deepens life’s meaning.
This story of mine originally appeared in the New Yorker, March 15, 2016.
When I tell people that I had a brother who was kidnapped and murdered, I’m often asked how my parents survived. I was only four when Jon died, so for a long time I had the same question. My family suffered an unfathomable loss. Yet I grew up as free as most kids in the nineteen-seventies: my friends and I biked around town for hours, losing ourselves in the woods, the lakes, the arcades, with no cell phones to find us. When I finally had children of my own, I wondered more than ever how my mom and dad had done it. How had they found the strength not only to survive but to let me go?
A few years ago, I began exploring this question while reporting and writing my memoir, “Alligator Candy,” about the murder and its aftermath. During that research, I found a new way to contextualize my family’s experience: a psychological phenomenon called post-traumatic growth. Psychologists have long studied resilience—the ability to bounce back and move on. But post-traumatic growth, which has been documented in hundreds of studies, is different; it’s what happens when trauma changes and deepens life’s meaning. In his recent book on the phenomenon, “What Doesn’t Kill Us,” Stephen Joseph, a psychologist at the University of Nottingham, describes victims of trauma experiencing enhanced relationships, greater self-acceptance, and a heightened appreciation of life. “To only look at the dark side and negative side is to miss out on something very important,” Joseph told me recently.
Needless to say, no one wants to go through trauma, or suggests it’s a good thing. I’d rather have Jon here with me now—watching Winning Time, eating a bowl of pho, hearing about his kid’s messy room—than be writing this essay. But, as Rabbi Harold Kushner (no relation) wrote after the loss of his son, “I cannot choose.” The existence of post-traumatic growth suggests that, while the pain never vanishes, something new and powerful is likely to come. As my mother once told my other brother, Andy, and me, “It’s like, after a spring gets pushed all the way down, it rises even higher.”
For my family, tragedy came on a Sunday morning in the fall of 1973. We lived in the suburbs of Tampa, where my father chaired the anthropology department at the University of South Florida. Jon, a spry eleven-year-old with wavy red hair, biked to a nearby 7-Eleven for candy and didn’t return. He was missing for a week. Farmers, bikers, hippies, professors, the Air Force, and others from across town joined together to search. This was long before abductions became a national obsession, fueled by the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle. Things like this didn’t seem to happen.
Just as we were giving up hope, a woman told the police that her husband, John Paul Witt, had drunkenly confessed to kidnapping and killing my brother. He and a teen-age accomplice, Gary Tillman, had chosen Jon at random after, as they put it, “hunting” for victims over the course of a few weeks. Witt was executed in 1985, and Tillman is serving a life sentence. “The way some longtime residents remember it,” the St. Petersburg Times wrote, “the murder of 11-year-old Jonathan Kushner was when Tampa seemed to lose its small-town innocence.”
How could such a loss lead to any sort of growth? In the upheaval following my brother’s murder, that possibility was inconceivable. Our focus was on surviving the horror of what had happened. But, eventually, the experience began to shift. Many years later, in a journal entry, my father reflected on the change. “There’s something built-in that enables most human beings, not all, to be sure, but most, to get thru this…. It is built-in to enable us to get thru, force us, to survive, to stay alive,” he wrote. “After you’ve understood that it WILL be different, less raw, that the death can not be undone, that you will continue to live,” he continued, “the question becomes … ‘What shall I do with the rest of my life?’ ”
A few years after Jon’s death, my parents met a man named John Brantner. He was a psychologist from the University of Minnesota Medical School who had been lecturing around the country on what he called “positive approaches to dying.” In the wake of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s pioneering book “On Death and Dying,” published a few years earlier, in 1969, educators such as Brantner were part of a social movement that aimed to challenge the taboos of what he called “our death-denying culture.” “What do we know of the ones who have made a positive approach to separation, catastrophe, and death?” Brantner asked, during a presentation, in 1977. These “splendid people,” as he called them, “have come through great tribulation, are open, lack defensiveness, display intensity, purpose, passion in their lives…. They show wisdom, serenity, a kind of wholeness, a curious lighthearted and optimistic participation.”
He was talking, in essence, about post-traumatic growth—a term that wouldn’t be coined until nearly twenty years later, in 1995, by the University of North Carolina psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun. Tedeschi and Calhoun had spent a decade surveying bereaved parents. Despite their pain and suffering, the couples consistently reported that they had undergone positive personal transformations, too. “One common theme,” Calhoun told me, “is that they say, ‘I still miss my child, I yearn for my child and get depressed, but I’m a different person—more compassionate and empathetic.’ ” That’s what my parents experienced. They launched one of the country’s first chapters of Compassionate Friends, a support group that had begun in England for bereaved parents. They helped start the Tampa area’s first hospice, organized conferences on death and dying, and conferred with Kübler-Ross, Elie Wiesel, and others. In the nineteen-fifties, my parents had been social activists who had participated in sit-ins; my mother had empowered women in childbirth as one of the country’s first Lamaze educators. Now, helping others who were suffering to survive their losses became crucial to helping them through their own.
Before he died, my father alluded in an e-mail to this period of their lives. He suggested that I read Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s memoir about the kidnapping and murder of her baby. “Lindbergh said that suffering alone doesn't make for wisdom,” he wrote. “One has to remain vulnerable, open to more suffering and to more love.” My father drew my attention to a portion of the book where Lindbergh attributes her survival to the support she received from others. She expressed the idea that, as my dad put it, “you gotta have at least one person whom you love and who loves you, and talk to that person and be supported by that person.”
Not everyone experiences growth after trauma. In recent years, psychologists have studied survivors of cancer, war, and terrorist attacks and found that there are certain traits that increase its likelihood, such as optimism, extroversion, and openness to new experience. Clinical treatment can also facilitate progress. In my family, all these factors played a role. The public nature of our saga, moreover, had the effect of convening around us an unusually supportive community.
Studies show that, in the end, somewhere between thirty-five and seventy-five per cent of trauma survivors experience some form of post-traumatic growth. “We say that, if you do experience traumatic events, it is quite possible you will experience one or more elements of growth,” Calhoun told me, before adding, “Our wish for you is that you don’t experience trauma at all.” For my family and me, that wish remains. But we know it’s one that will never be granted—and so we must, as my father wrote, decide every day the manner in which we want to live. My brother Andy and I have been shaped by that way of thinking, too. We’ve always been haunted by Jon’s death, but, perhaps for that reason, we share a drive to get the most out of the lives we have. For Andy, that meant becoming a musician. I pursued my own adventures and, eventually, a career in journalism.
In 1975, three years after my brother died, my mother took to her journal to reflect on what she had found for herself: a way of living with death that brought new meaning to life. “I treasure what I treasure,” she wrote. “I am aware of the temporariness of relationships and life itself. I am aware of what matters and turns me on. Did Jon give me this gift? I believe so. My sweet, sweet, sweetness. I thank you for that. I carry you with me forever unseen now, just as I did when you were snuggling in my uterus … unseen but filling my belly and my mind, part of our family even before you were born, part of our family now after your life. Thank you for this capacity to love and understand. Do you still know that you are loved?”