Trauma is not what happens to you. Trauma is what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you
To “get your Alexander up” was a core phrase of my growing up. Generally it opened with a caution – “Now, don’t get your Alexander up.” Nearly as often it was an observation – “Oh, look, he’s got his Alexander up.” Sometimes these phrases were verbalized, generally they registered internally as whoever was making the observation read a face, and took a breath to regulate their presence in the moment.
To “get your Alexander up” meant three things primarily: something had triggered big feelings in a particular person, their face and voice would reflect those feelings with their brain catching a mix of messages, and their striking out actions were going to hurt more than that one person. In time, that person would register all the hurts – from their past and present, in the erupting moment and those that would follow – and either inflict them anew or begin the work of mending.
At least that’s how I came to understanding the Alexander look- which I should say I only even saw in the faces of my dad, this three brothers, and the one nephew who was more older brother to me than cousin. This look belonged to my specific cadre of Alexander men: While I learned that my grandfather was the master of the look, I never saw it because – well, frankly, I was the only girl child in his life so he worked to regulate, to keep his troubles at bay, away from our time together, and to sometimes share his hurts as part of grandfatherly tending to mine.
Most often anger fueled and followed “going Alexander” moments – with that look on an uncle’s face, people scattered or stepped up to engage the fight. The first response stoked the ego of the one looking upon the others. The second response carried on ugly painful, hideously reckless, and predictably wounding past behaviors, triggers, wounds, rivalries. I was a scatterer, heading to where there were people who’d just let me be quiet, or listen to my bewilderment or anger or unknowingness, then tell me something about what was going on among the boys, and work with me to mend the moment. Only once did I not scatter when combinations of the brothers and nephew “got all Alexander” – I’ll come to that in a bit.
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You know those cartoon moments when a character’s brow line elongates and pops forward from its usual settled-on-the-face position? That sort of movement was the first sign I associated with my dad “getting all Alexander,” then his pupils would constrict, and his left cheek begin to twitch. Then he’d bellow – generally, right up in my face. When it was just us, I didn’t scatter – I dug in, already cued by the look to know something of what was coming my way, and also cued in by my grandparents to know that this thing – this response to something I’d done, said, transgressed, activated by being there – wasn’t mine to own. Sometimes digging in meant leaving the room, slamming doors along the way, and where there wasn’t a door, I’d stomp out my response. He’d encourage me to slam or stomp a little louder, sometimes demonstrating the next level of loudness. If a friend happened to be in that same space, my digging in was visceral and verbal – I threw the look right back, noted that we’d return to this later, and move away with my bewildered friend. (To be honest, I also had seen plenty of my friends’ parents in various states of anger, and noted how we responded in various kinds of ways.)
And, yes, my mom hated this, even as she knew this to be a pattern for how Pops and I interacted throughout the preteen and teen years – it activated a couple three triggers for her, which she didn’t share or name for years. (And blessedly, whatever followed between them as a result of these moments, I didn’t hear in real time, or as sideways remarks at some later time.) She also knew that for Pops and me there were a couple more stages of “getting Alexander.” For Pops, there was the silent reckoning with what had just happened, what he’d just enacted, and then the one where he’d come to me to talk through the hurts and the feels. For me, it was first letting the moment wash away by doing something else – either with the friend unfortunately present, or in music, books, walking, or heading next door to play; the next for me was crying – shifting from angry crying to hurts like the devil crying to can’t we do this another way crying to the penultimate sobbing – the one to mark knowing I couldn’t come out of this moment on my own. At about that same moment, Pops would knock on my bedroom door and ask to talk, both of us crying as he opened the talking with an “acknowlogy.”
Only once did my dad “go Alexander” on me in the company of his brothers and nephew. In their making a ruckus in shenanigans after attempting to lock out the older, meaner of the brothers on coming home after a night drinking “up town” in Tracy, I shooshed them – all of us on the front porch, just steps from my grandmother’s room – recently widowed, sleep had become fitful for her. The uncles were not pleased that this “just started college” girl had chastised them, and their Alexander looks clearly communicated an expectation that Pops correct me. He complied with that slap. I gathered up my own Alexander to look him in the eye, clench my hands into fists that pushed against his chest, and offer one clear sentence: “If you do that again, I disappear.”
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Children don’t get traumatized because they get hurt. Children get traumatized because they’re alone with the hurt.
Across the years I lived with my parents, there was plenty of door slamming with, generally, one sentence from each of us as follow up conversation. The in-my-face shouting happened a handful of times in my teens, and the slap just that once. With the two “bigger scale” interactions, I learned that in the reckoning stage I mentioned, there were two additional “going Alexander” looks, and that they were uniquely in my dad’s repertoire, and they both involved crying – a complex signaling of anger, hurt, shame, and hope: First, the “Damn, I didn’t do this at all well, and I hurt you, and I can’t undo that, and I can own that, and we can do this in another way” look. Second, the “You’re my kid, it’s my job to walk and talk and be with you, to be part of mending the hurts you encounter, whatever their source” look. The night my dad slapped me was the last time I experienced that look, but not the last time we experienced the crying together stages as part of healing.