Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome by Dr. Joy Degruy
I first heard about this book at one of my many “Trauma Informed Care” conferences. When the speaker mentioned the book, most of the audience seemed to be aware of its existence and responded favorably to it. I pulled out my cell phone and ordered it on Amazon right then and there.
The book is based on the premise of epigenetics. The idea is that when one experiences trauma, it turns off and on certain genes in the DNA. If a woman becomes pregnant after experiencing trauma (or the father or both parents have been exposed to trauma) the altered genetics would then get passed down to her children. This is not new information to me, but I had not applied this knowledge outside of the therapy room. I hadn’t thought to apply this knowledge to African-Americans and the trauma of slavery, or to adoption (trauma of the separation from the mother and the child’s potential racial makeup).
Dr. Degruy discusses the concept of epigenetics and how this predisposes those traumatized and future generations to the symptoms of PTSD. She discusses how children also learn behaviors and beliefs through the modeling of their parent. It is possible for the child to have learned ineffective behaviors from their parents, but also may be predisposed to engage in those behaviors genetically. She goes on to discuss the effects of racist socialization and hypervigilance and their effect on African-American children.
In the summarizing of her book, Dr. Degruy discusses ways for African-Americans to combat the effects of PTSD. She emphasizes the importance of community and family; building one another up instead of tearing one-another down (she discusses the “crabs in a barrel” effect in minority communities and how slavery-related PTSD effect dynamics between couples, individuals with different hair and skin types, and those people of color in power versus those without).
I thought that this book was wonderfully written, and really emphasized some of my blind spots as a white person to the long-term effects of slavery. It also had me considering dynamics that I may need to be aware of and address with our future child and their birth parents. These are very important pieces to consider when planning for a potentially mixed-race adoption.
I did not have much critique of the book. There were only two areas that I felt needed to be addressed or better clarified. The first is Dr. Degruy’s position that relationships that focus on tearing you down should be ended. This is later contradicted when she suggests that no one leave the room until old conflicts are settled, despite how difficult it may be. There may be times where the issue is being discussed is a person that is tearing others down. How would Dr. Degruy suggest that this be handled? Are there some questions one could ask themselves to make an informed decision as to how to handle these sorts of conflicts?
The other issue I had was Dr. Degruy’s suggestion that African-Americans connect through religious institutions. She sited how communities of faith were pivotal in building supports for slaves, combating segregation, and creating safe spaces for African-Americans. I am not arguing this point, but I do become concerned with advocation that everybody seek out this specific support system. I may be especially sensitive to this, as a gay man, but what if an individual seeking these supports is a member of the LGBTQ community? Historically, African-American churches have not been welcoming to those who identify as LGBTQ. Also, what happens if the individual seeking support does not agree with the religious doctrine of the religious communities they have access to, or identify as atheist or agnostic? I get the point that creating community and supporting one another is paramount. I just would have liked more time spent on how to find and create these supportive communities in the event that one is not readily available or identifiable.
I very much recommend this book and think it offers important insights to those who are part of and not part of the African-American community. I will continue to explore how this information could be applied to my therapy practice as well as our future adoption.