On Leaving

written by AMANDA K GROSS

I started making Trauma Containers soon after purchasing a home in a city still new to me. I wasn’t actually residing in my relatively new home at the moment of their first construction. Instead, I was taking my first Restorative Justice course at my undergraduate alma mater and was feeling overwhelmed by the stories of violence that had led the family members of murdered loved ones to sit down with those who had committed the violent acts in an effort to reconcile, possibly forgive, and restore — or maybe more accurately, transform — what had become harmful relationship.

But this post is more about divergence than conjoinment. And at the time, I was motivated by my own personal overwhelm from hearing other people’s traumas, not from experiencing my own.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

I needed a way to hold their stories respectfully, but I also wanted a container external to myself, with a lid so I could write down the bits and images of their stories, which kept following me across wakefulness into my dreams.

My first Trauma Container was small and soft and green with a button and string. She fit cozily in the palm of my hand. After a heavy case study was shared, I would write the stickiest of details down, whisper a prayer for the people involved, and neatly roll up their traumas so I wouldn’t internalize stuff that wasn’t mine.

Thus began a decade of me and Trauma Containers. They took on many forms over the years and evolved as gifts for friends embarking on hard journeys, as a collective activity for White Women’s Group in initiation of our anti-racist family history projects, as a personal tool for processing my internalized dualism, and as a vessel for healing intentions. My most profound experience with Trauma Containers has been in using them to acknowledge, process, and (usually) release specific relationships… with myself, with other people, with communities, and with places. These relational Trauma Containers eventually leave me. (Maybe you’ve had a glimpse of one at a public park or found one alongside the road.)

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

Last year I turned thirty six and decided it was time to uproot and leave the City of Gray. This was a decision I might have made sooner, which, in retrospect, I probably should have realized sooner, but I was comfortable (enough) in my solitary space, distracted by a self-imposed excessive workload of VERY IMPORTANT and PURPOSEFUL anti-racist lifework, and affixed by something I’ve now come to understand as depression. (Seasonal Affective Disorder is real, folks.) In fact, I only came to clarity and commitment around leaving due to some major disruptions and upheaval in my home, work, and social life.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

But even after I knew I was ready to leave, knew I wanted to leave (for my mental health, I may have even needed to leave), I still spent most of the last year holding on, weighing myself down by obligation, a sense of responsibility, and a fear that the deepest desires of Amanda Katherine’s heart would reveal themselves to be racist, individualized actions driven by access to privilege and not-at-all in alignment with collective liberation. Most of all, I feared repeating a multi-generational trauma pattern of fleeing, which both historically reinforced my ancestors contributions to white settler colonialism and, in return, enabled them to repeat it.

Instead, I chose another family-iar pattern (so many patterns to choose from!). From the dropdown virtual menu of inherited multigenerational coping mechanisms, I went with the classic martyr-freeze response. I chose in my daily routines and in my relationships mostly not to fight for myself. I chose mostly to endure. I chose mostly to follow the lead of a handful of Black women and repress/suppress/ignore the discomfort in my gut and tightness in my right rhomboid.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

This time around, the depth of my perfectionism has surprised me. There are layers there that I didn’t notice before: a whole driving-force layer of perfectionism, which has been steering a lot of my work with Mistress Syndrome over the past six years. I have preached that there is no one right way, but I have been practicing a few hard-and-fast rules. For example, I have been so committed to the idea that the right way to do anti-racism work for a white person is to have accountability to and follow the lead of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color that I have created an unhealthy (and unsustainable) power dynamic in some of my closest relationships. I have nurtured distrust of my ability to see, know, and understand my own whiteness — especially to know which is my Self and which is my very sneaky false white self. I have been at times very confused about which parts of me are ME and not just white violence in disguise to the point of shutting myself down and limiting a full range of self-expression.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

I feel angry at the way these anti-racist rules for white people were taught to me and at how I chose to learn them. I feel hurt by how I feel harmed within these relationships. I struggle to direct my hurt and rage at the abstracted systems and cultures which led to the interconnected playing out of our harmful coping mechanisms and not attribute my pain exclusively to the individuals with whom I have shared such intimate spaces. But mostly, I feel angry at myself for not fighting harder for me in those moments when I invoked self-sacrifice instead.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

Leaving town, as I have come to accept, is, of course, like my ancestors, facilitated by my privilege. Not staying to fight the local fight alongside my Pittsburgh community is, in many ways, a manifestation of individualism. And, also I am increasingly okay with that.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

Leaving, is the most compassionate act I have done for myself in a long long while. I am finding joy and agency and energy and excitement in this liberating practice of self-compassion. It does not necessarily surprise me that in selling my home, scaling down my work responsibilities, and letting go of relationships, I feel freer. What is currently a most delightful surprise, is that through accepting it all, I am experiencing a deep and buoyant joy.

I am also experiencing a paradigm shift. Some of the rules I attached to are getting transformed in surprising ways; where once there were pedestals (for myself and others) now there are only bubbly, hot tubs.* A healing container of a different sort.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

In the month leading up to my departure, I began an outdoor installation of Trauma Containers, to honor the joys, triumphs, challenges, failures, and growth which have marked my time here and also as a parting gift to the land, creatures, and people.

Maybe you’ll notice them when you’re out for a walk some day.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

*Thanks to a dear friend for the suggestion to replace pedestals with a visualization of everyone in jacuzzis!

Blogging with the Mennonites

written by Amanda Gross

Last month, I was honored to be invited to write for the Menno Snapshot Blog of Mennonite Church USA.

Having dreamt of being invited to address a vast audience of Mennonite white folks, I wanted to say so much. It took me several drafts to find words that resonated with how I was thinking and feeling at that July 2020 moment, especially about how I’m feeling about and grappling with my inner oppressor. The theme of befriending the parts of our selves we don’t love and which are also connected to oppression has also been present in our recent work in White Women’s Groups (you can read their blog here).

Ultimately, here’s  how I decided to approach the opportunity of examining my white Anabaptist identity in a society where racism is infused at every level, including inside of me.

Read the blog post!

Loving the Enemy Within: Grounding in the trauma-healing work of anti-racism

Victim, Villain, Heroine

WRITTEN BY Amanda Gross

While calling on our victim identity is a comfortable position for white women from the perspective of white feminism and while the popular white savior complex justifies our helping, fixing, and saving others, rarely do we honestly examine contemporary and historical white ladies’ contributions to upholding and dismantling intersectional oppression through the lens of racism. We all have the capacity to occupy aspects of all three – Victim, Villain, and Heroine – usually at the same time.

VVH Cousin Lydia Combined; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

In our anti-racist affinity space, White Women’s Group 3 asked these 3 questions about 3 white ladies: self, a family member, and a historical figure:

  • How are we victims of systems of oppression?
  • How do we perpetuate and uphold systems of oppression?
  • How do we resist systems of oppression?

And in challenging the myth of individualism in the archetypes of Victim, Villain, Heroine, we also investigated the historical and contemporary context of systemic oppression and social movements surrounding the white ladies in question.

Queen Elizabeth I

Victim – Born the daughter of the King of England, she endured a traumatic childhood based on the patriarchy and misogynistic culture of the time. When she was 2 ½ years of age her mother was murdered by her father, who repeatedly tried to disown her. As an adolescent, she was imprisoned by her half-sister. She had several step mothers and her half-siblings, cousins, and their families were in constant often violent competition with her for the throne. She began fending off suitors at the age of 13, which was considered a marriageable age for girls at the time. She spent a lot of her life ill, had almost total hair loss at a young age, and suffered from many harmful physical beauty standards put upon women including the toxicity of her make-up and girdles that reconfigured her vital organs.

VVH Queen Liz I Victim; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Villain – She was responsible for England’s initial colonizing endeavors and paved the way for centuries of colonization, imperialism, the transatlantic slave trade, and militaristic global violence. She granted stolen land of what is now called the Eastern U.S. to her favorite rich English merchants, never acknowledging the rights of Indigenous peoples to that land. Because of this patronage and legacy of displacement, Virginia is named for her. She established the groundwork for the equivalent of modern day corporations, the East India Company and the Virginia Company. She pursued scorched-earth tactics in Ireland, during which tens of thousands of people starved to death and many more people died of the violence. At home, she led land enclosures which forced peasants off of commonly held land resulting in skyrocketing homelessness and poverty at the advent of a capitalist economic system.

VVH Queen Liz I Villain; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Heroine – At a time when women were marginalized in religious institutions, she became head of the Church of England. She resisted patriarchal expectations by never marrying nor having children and exercising bodily autonomy, which was rare for women of the day. As an adult she had many suitors and intellectual, emotional, and most likely sexual affairs. Due to wealth and status, she was extremely well-educated unlike most of her contemporaries.

VVH Queen Liz I Heroine; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Historical Context – The 16th Century was the start of European colonization, global militarism, and capitalism. At the same time that Europe was violently suppressing peasant resistance movements, the heretic’s challenge to religious authority and power, and women for their role in nurturing common society, European monarchs were supporting wealthy merchants to explore, pillage, conquer, and claim other parts of the world and its people for their crowns. Under Elizabeth’s rule, England rose to prominence as a dominating dominator, leading the way in greed and violence. While not technically white (race was not yet invented), Britishness was used as a standard to define whiteness for generations to come.

VVH Cousin Lydia; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Cousin Lydia

Victim – Born into Mennonite Patriarchy in Pennsylvania, Cousin Lydia had few life options outside of getting married, having children, and nurturing a Christian household. Family power flowed through her father and her brothers, one of whom accompanied her to India.

VVH Cousin Lydia Victim; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Villain – She was born into Settler Colonizer society in Pennsylvania in the mid 1800s and continued that colonizer culture through perpetuating imperialistic norms as a missionary in East India where she taught at a girl’s school for East Indian students. In a photo of family genealogy she is seated above and surrounded by East Indian teachers of the school (who are not named), summoning a narrative of white savorism. The same family history book features photos of homestead after homestead built on the stolen land of Native people, the legacy into which Cousin Lydia was born.

VVH Cousin Lydia Villain; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Heroine – By living in India and pursuing a career in Education, she challenged expectations of white womanhood including the idea that white women were inherently frail and unfit to travel to certain parts of the world and also the idea that white women should marry and devote their lives to the reproductive labor of white families. She worked in the field of girls education which was not accessible for many girls at that time, not just in Pennsylvania or Indian but all over the world.

VVH Cousin Lydia Heroine; Mixed Media on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Personal Note – Cousin Lydia’s example inspired my maternal grandfather to leave the Amish Mennonite farming community and pursue further education in medicine which he practiced in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. Her example is also pointed to as reference for our family values of travel and education.

Historical ContextThe Post-Civil War era was a time of affirmative action for white women who had previously been confined to their homes. After the Civil War, careers opened for white women in missionary work, education, and nursing and white women began to be valorized for their role as cultural purveyors of the whiteness. Along with being given the duty of helping to assimilate poor white women and children and save recent Europeans immigrants from their slovenly ways, middle class white ladies were entrusted with the paternalistic responsibility of educating Native Americans, recently emancipated Black folks, and non-European people around the world whose cultures, languages, and religions were viewed as savage, backwards, and heathen. Cousin Lydia’s ancestors helped settle the colony of Pennsylvania a century before her birth, which meant several preceding generations had benefited off of the stolen land and attempted genocide of Native peoples who were forced to given up their homes to European farmers. This accumulated privilege granted Cousin Lydia access to education at a time when it was still forbidden (if not in law then in practice) for Black Americans to read and at a time when education was used as a tool of violence to strip Native Americans and other Colonized global communities of their indigenous cultures and ways of being.

VVH Amanda Katherine; Acrylic on Transparency by Amanda K Gross

Amanda Katherine Gross

Victim – As a white woman in Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy, I endured childhood spiritual trauma and ongoing sexism resulting in abuse, sexual assaults, self-harm, economic dependence on men, the spiritual void of materialism, isolation from authentic connection to other human beings, and the internalization of gendered inferiority, not-enoughness, self-doubt, and the repeated suppression of my intuitive and spiritual self.

VVH Victim AKG; Mixed Media on Transparency

Villain – I have repeatedly accessed institutional privileges at the cost and impact of other human beings and especially People of Color and people living in poverty. Examples include receiving As when graded on a curve, receiving academic scholarship monies and other forms of affirmative action, moving into communities and neighborhoods without relationship or knowledge of local context and history while ultimately taking away jobs and housing from local residents, contributing to gentrification, contributing to environmental degradation and economic exploitation by participating in capitalism and consumerism, micro-aggressing strangers, colleagues, friends, and family, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees from studying structural violence and poverty, and earning a salary off of the backs of poor people.

VVH Villain AKG; Mixed Media on Transparency

Heroine – I have questioned and challenged the status quo in order to uproot systems of oppression by studying history and honing and re-honing my analysis. I have built authentic relationships and developed systems of accountability towards growth. I’ve leveraged my role as a gatekeeper to center perspectives of People of Color who share anti-racist analyses and practice an economic justice model of compensation for work and energy. I have organized other white ladies for mutual liberation and modeled vulnerability through creating art and writing to challenge the status quo and envision alternatives. I’ve worked to undo Internalized Racial Superiority within myself by reclaiming my spiritual intuition, by practicing the release of control and expectations, and by honoring my Self and needs in alignment with mutual liberation.

VVH Heroine AKG; Mixed Media on Transparency

Historical Context – Dubbed a “Post-Racial Era” by some, the time period after the Civil Rights Movement saw its peak in racial equity outcomes in the 1970s followed by rapid increases in racial disparities in education, housing, wealth, health, employment, political representation, and incarceration. With the election of Trump in 2016, many white women in the U.S. began to realize that the narrative of American progress – especially related to gender – is far from realized. Consistent with previous movements by and for white women, most mainstream women’s movements continue to center and uphold white supremacy and operate within a capitalist framework. By 2018, Amanda Katherine’s ancestry had accumulated almost 400 years of white social and economic privileges especially impacted by access to land/home ownership and education – land which was explicitly stolen from indigenous peoples and education that was withheld from people of African descent and used as a weapon against people of Native communities.