The Elevator Test

I grew up in poverty, chaos, and profound violence.

I spent so much of my childhood convinced I wouldn’t actually survive it, it still often surprises me that I did. More than surviving, I’ve even built a love-filled adult life with a gentle partner and kids who know what I experienced without, blessedly, “knowing” it as I did.

Why put quotation marks around “knowing”? The answer is often clearer, in my experience, to people who’ve already endured life-shattering violence than those who have not, yet:

There are different ways of knowing.

In security expert Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear, he writes at length about the power of intuition to enhance safety. Far from being silly and spun from misguided fancy, “when it comes to danger, intuition is always right in at least two important ways:

  1. It is always in response to something.
  2. It always has your best interest at heart.”

Unfortunately, for people without close personal exposure to violence, these words can seem abstract. Trivial. That intuition could provide meaningful data that thought-filled analysis alone cannot often runs counter to their personal experience of the world.

Not having seen the beast up close even once, let alone spent years in its presence, they misunderstand where it lives, how it moves, and what it looks like.

Their thinking brains are thus situated to believe it’s only the thinking brain that matters exists.

Sometimes, even I, with all I endured, can fall into this trap.

Sometimes, even I can forget.

de Becker writes about how gazelles know better than to get too close to lions. Humans, by contrast, often willingly put themselves in close quarters with lions’ human equivalents, suppressing or ignoring the voice within them that shouts, “Don’t go there.”

It is this very willingness to override that keen, quiet voice of intuition that places us in harm’s way. As de Becker writes,

Every day, people engaged in the clever defiance of their own intuition become, in mid-thought, victims of violence and accidents. So when we wonder why we are victims so often, the answer is clear: It is because we are so good at it. A woman could offer no greater cooperation to her soon-to-be attacker than to spend her time telling herself, “But he seems like such a nice man.” Yet this is exactly what many people do. A woman is waiting for an elevator, and when the doors open she sees a man inside who causes her apprehension. Since she is not usually afraid, it may be the late hour, his size, the way he looks at her, the rate of attacks in the neighborhood, an article she read a year ago—it doesn’t matter why. The point is, she gets a feeling of fear. How does she respond to nature’s strongest survival signal? She suppresses it, telling herself: “I’m not going to live like that, I’m not going to insult this guy by letting the door close in his face.” When the fear doesn’t go away, she tells herself not to be so silly, and she gets into the elevator. Now, which is sillier: waiting a moment for the next elevator, or getting into a soundproofed steel chamber with a stranger she is afraid of?

Even knowing intimately how violence often comes bearing a nice-man face, I too often choose to get on both wrong literal and metaphorical elevators. As recently as last month, I felt a powerful surge of, “Don’t go there with him!” in the company of a nice man.

As if I never had cause to know better, I asked myself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” I went anyway.

While all turned out well in this case, that is far from always the case when women override intuition.

In 2015, I wrote briefly about each of the nine sex predators whose paths my siblings and I were unfortunate to cross in childhood.

As I explained it then, I “wanted to demonstrate that sexual predators aren’t pointy-horned men knowable by their grotesque physical appearance and blatant lechery.” I wanted those who hadn’t grown up immersed in violence to have a chance to benefit from my experience.

If someone benefited from hearing my story, then all the suffering I endured wouldn’t end up being without purpose. Something good would have come from it:

someone else’s improved safety.

Because I only wrote about sex predators in that post, I didn’t write about the non-sex predators–both men and women–I’d known. Nor did I write about the wounded look one of these predators wore as my elementary school-aged sister and I testified against him, or how his wounded look enhanced my understanding that the pity play is indeed one of a predator’s most successful tactics.

Neither did I write about the acquaintance who committed murder-suicide. While both me and my sister above saw darkness in him and tried to speak that darkness to our friends, our friends saw only his charming demeanor.

Our friends thought we were “too hard” on him, not understanding how the violence we’d told them we’d experienced had endowed us with wisdom in addition to pain. I adored those friends then, and I still do, but:

I know better than to look to them for guidance on how to live a safer life.

Their brief encounter with overt violence didn’t teach them the same way our own prolonged exposure to violence taught us.

I was recently asked, “But do you feel unsafe?”

That seemingly innocuous question was actually a loaded one. I’d literally, more than once, used the word “unsafe” to describe how I felt.

In the moment after the asking, I saw the vast space between what intuition and the thinking brain perceive. I saw my friends and their reliance on only such knowledge as the thinking brain can confer.

I assessed the possibility that the asker could even possibly be led to understand the difference as I saw it in a few words.

I looked back on all the times I saw such questioners discount the unquantifiable as meaningless, not from malice but from, simply, not having the experience to know how absolutely meaningful it can be. How absolutely lack of deference to it can rock individual lives and communities for decades.

Sighing, I mumbled something other than the truth, which experience had taught me could not then be understood by the asker. The context for understanding simply was not there.

I changed my answer then based on the question-asker’s ability to hear, fully, and left the conversation frustrated. With myself.

Thus it is I write this post: to answer honestly, if a little belatedly.

Yes, I feel unsafe, and yes, it is in response to many somethings.

No, you don’t have to understand for that to be true, and real.

How does one who knows from experience begin to explain that for which a language’s ordinary words, and concepts, are inadequate?

How does one who knows from experience find words capable of expressing that experience in a way that can be heard by those without it?

As fate would have it, I found the words I sought thanks to a random book-glancing at a bookstore.

Some months ago, I read Bessel van der Kolk’s  beautiful book on PTSD,The Body Keeps the Score. As a lifelong bookworm, I’d just come up against the jarring revelation that there are places in the human mind that can’t be reached by words. I wanted to understand more about this, and how I could possibly begin to heal in those places words can’t reach.

I’ve never felt more understood than I did while reading van der Kolk. I picked up some great tips from him, and additionally worked with a therapist specializing in PTSD–in reaching, in other words, those places where words cannot.

A few weeks ago, I happened across the new-to-me book Widen the Window in the bookstore. I would’ve walked right on by it, but something on the cover caught my eye: the words “FOREWORD BY BESSEL VAN DER KOLK, M.D.”

I bought Elizabeth Stanley’s book on that basis alone, and almost immediately found myself glad. While most my gladness is irrelevant to this post, there’s one part highly relevant here: the words it gave me for explaining at least two different, important ways of knowing.

Stanley writes about the source of what’s most uniformly understood as knowledge in the U.S. today that the “thinking brain” (centered in the neocortex, and our newest, evolutionarily speaking)

engages in top-down processing–our mostly voluntary and conscious cognitive responses to our experiences. The thinking brain is responsible for our conscious decision making; ethical choices; and reasoning, abstraction, and analytical capabilities. It allows us to focus; recall, keep in mind, and update relevant information; and make decisions. To support these functions, the thinking brain has an explicit learning and memory system, situating information within space and time, which we can access intentionally.

The thinking brain is known and revered far and wide.

The knowing of the “survival brain,” on the other hand, is virtually absent from discourse, which is unfortunate given how crucial it is to our literal, individual survival. It, writes Stanley,

comprises the evolutionarily older limbic system, brain stem, and cerebellum. These brain regions play key roles with our emotions, relationships, stress arousal, habits, and basic survival functions. The survival brain engages in bottom-up processing–our involuntary emotional and physiological responses to our experiences, including emotions, physical sensations, vocalizations, and action tendencies in the body. One of the survival brain’s most important functions is neuroception, an unconscious process of rapidly scanning the internal and external environment for opportunities/safety/pleasure and threats/danger/pain. In turn, the survival brain’s protection plan is quite simple: Approach the former (opportunities) and avoid the latter (threats). To support neuroception, the survival brain has an implicit learning and memory system–fast, automatic, and unconscious, bypassing the thinking brain.

Replacing the squishy word “intuition” with the harder “survival brain” (complete with its own specific brain regions!) makes “intuition” something more capable of being understood by the thinking brain.

There’s a tragedy in all this: Without proper deference to survival-knowing, thinking-knowing may be extinguished by a very consequential (but often invisible) failure to know.

In recent conversation with a friend who’s also known enduring violence, I said, “It’s almost like … trauma is my superpower?!”

Far from laughing, she agreed. Through what we learned from our respective experiences with violence, we have access to profoundly relevant, profoundly important data that is invisible to many with less such experience.

Through experiencing traumatic events, and everything I’m learning by facing the impacts of that, I am coming to understand both implicitly and explicitly that I have an invaluable knowing deep in my bones.

That it is a knowing discounted by many people far and wide doesn’t change the fact that I celebrate it for how it has kept me alive, several times over.

Other people don’t need to understand its power for it to be powerful.

They don’t need to know, but I sure wish they’d try knowing, for what they don’t know can hurt them.

Recently, before I even had the words “survival brain” in my vocabulary, I  gave myself explicit permission to heed results from “the elevator test.”

Specifically, I thought back to the moment when I asked myself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and went anyway. A few days later, I stood in my living room telling myself I’d been silly to worry. I then remembered de Becker’s words about getting on the elevator anyway.

Wait, I told myself. I’m literally doing what de Becker cautions against! I’m talking myself out of my intuition and onto the elevator! The point isn’t that no harm befell me that day, but that I knew it could--a kind of knowing I almost never encounter, which is why it so stood out. In that moment, my intuition was telling me that this person might not have the internal controls that keep most people from hurting each other. That it might only be external controls doing that, so that going into spaces with fewer external controls really could represent an existential threat. My intuition told me not to go there, not to enter spaces where external controls are weaker, and it did so with deep knowing. In the future, I’d better listen. If my body is screaming not to get on the damn elevator, I’m not going to get on the damn elevator.

Today, and every day forward, I give myself this permission: In the ever-so-rare case where my body survival brain screams, “Don’t!” … I won’t.

This choice doesn’t have to make sense to my thinking brain, or to anyone else’s thinking brain.

My survival brain knows better, and it is only through having so many times acted on this knowing that I am here to type these words at all.

So now, when my survival brain says I ought wait for the next elevator, literal or metaphorical, that’s exactly what I’ll do.

That’s how I can best improve my chances of living to write ever so many more of the multitudinous words conjured by my thinking brain:

By not getting on the damn elevator.

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