Blue Bloods: Victims and Retraumatization

Some may call it a guilty pleasure. However, I don’t experience guilt about this and as for pleasure, well, it’s something that I enjoy because it’s kind of a mindless activity. Each week, I record a few different police dramas on TV. I watch the shows when I get to them. Typically, when I’m too tired to read before going to bed but want to help my mind turn off in order to sleep, my preference is to watch one of these shows. Among the shows I record is Blue Bloods.

To be honest, I don’t find Blue Bloods very engaging or the plots very deep. Every episode is predictable. In this family of police, one or two members get into some unlikely complicated mess related to a criminal incident that in real life would probably be a front page story. Ultimately, the characters masterfully work out problems and the cast comprised of an Irish Catholic family gathers for Sunday dinner and reflects on life lessons learned from these entangled stories. I suppose you could say that it’s something of a modern fairy tale.

While watching a recent episode called “Bad Company,” a subplot depicted the family patriarch Frank Reagan accompanying a woman who visited an inmate in prison. The inmate had brutally murdered her family when she was six years old. The woman, now in her 20’s, made the visit at the invitation of the inmate as part of a restorative justice program.

Restorative justice, which has long historic roots, became common in the United States about twenty years ago. Restorative justice attempts to repair the harm done to a person by a perpetrator. Various programs have developed guidelines for processes on how this can occur.

The Blue Bloods episode, “Bad Company,” depicted the woman whose family had been murdered in a prison meeting room with a mediator and Frank Reagan. The inmate explained that he had suffered for years with undiagnosed schizophrenia and, through the course of treatment, realized what horror he had committed. He wanted to take responsibility for his actions and express his regret. He talked of past suicide attempts. He grew from that low point in life to helping other inmates accept their own guilt. Now he had to take full responsibility and admit his guilt to this woman. In response, the woman whose family had been brutally murdered, who was stoic as he spoke, broke out in rage, insisting that nothing could be done to make up for her loss and telling the man that he should kill himself….and to “do it right next time.”

While the scene made sensational drama, what the writers of Blue Bloods did was to demonstrate an emotional outburst that was probably pathological in nature and presented it as normal and appropriate. If the scene itself was not sufficiently disturbing, the woman appears the next day in a church with Frank Reagan as the bride in a wedding. The image conveys that sense that everything that just occurred in meeting with the inmate was not just appropriate but was somehow right with God.

Yes, there are intense and complicated emotions that follow tragedy. Particular for survivors of murder, the future is difficult and often marked by symptoms of depression, anxiety, and anger. Indeed, the grief from such losses is usually never fully resolved. That said, if a person continues to experience raw emotional distress that is difficult to contain twenty or more years after a traumatic event, something is seriously wrong.

What Blue Bloods did for the sake of drama was present a woman who was experiencing the raw impact of trauma decades after the trauma occurred. Without further diagnostic information, this is probably a form of Post Traumatic Stress and may have other mental health implications.

Blue Bloods depicted a myth: that people who have been victimized should remain angry and unforgiving for the rest of their lives. In the context of this story, the message was that such victims have a right to remain enraged forever. In other words, they should be permitted to re-traumatize themselves and victimize others in the process. I find this myth very dangerous physically, spiritually, and psychologically.

While no grief is ever fully resolved, if we fail to move past deep hurts, resentments, angers, and traumas in life, the result is a widening list of disorders that impact our physical health, mental well-being, and spiritual wholeness. Such heighten emotional states that are not resolved contribute to anxiety disorders and clinical depression as well as a variety of physical diseases.

There are many platitudes about the process of forgiveness: that forgiveness benefits the person doing the forgiving. This is indeed true. Taking proper steps to release the emotions that results from significant trauma is of critical importance to a person. It’s part of what leads a person from being a victim to being a survivor. Such a release of the past does not imply that the traumatic event didn’t occur or that someone wasn’t responsible. Instead, the release of the traumatic pain causes the kind of change within a person to prevent the past from being a source of pain in the future.

In the show, Blue Bloods, the character Frank Reagan did a horrible thing: he convinced the women that it was good to remain a victim, to hold onto the pain, and to never let it go. Perhaps if the woman would have taken time to realize that the inmate who killed her family understood that he was taking full responsibility for his actions and admitted that he was horribly wrong, then she’d be able to let go of some of the emotions that continued to haunt and harm her.

People need time to heal from trauma. People also need to support from others. There is a time when it’s appropriate to be emotionally raw and express the pain.

While I watch shows like Blue Bloods as a way to unwind before going to bed, I find it difficult to tune out how poorly personal growth toward wholeness is depicted. I believe it’s critically important to support the process of recovery among those who have experienced trauma rather than encouraging them to retraumatize themselves regularly over the course of a life time.

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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5 Responses to Blue Bloods: Victims and Retraumatization

  1. Gail Williams says:

    Lou…great article! Thank you for your insights.

  2. Lou:

    It just so happens I now have “Blue Bloods” on in the background (different episode) as I catch up on some Linked-in correspondence. For some reason my instinct tells me to post here rather than the forum proper.

    I vividly remember the particular episode to which you refer and had a similar reaction at first. There was an ugliness about the whole affair that was difficult to wash off, and I concur with your basic diagnosis and phenomenology.

    However, in Buddhism there is a saying: “Anger is the Union of Clarity and Emptiness.” Essentially, we do not always have to replace anger with forgiveness in order to heal after a trauma. Transmutation of negative emotions into usable energy lies at the foundation of many tantric techniques, and some of us are psychologically well-suited to maintaining a focal point of anger without its destructive effects—assuming we know how to do it. Clearly this was not the case with the “Blue Bloods” protagonist.

    As I am sure you are aware, there is also a danger in premature forgiveness not rooted in a clear understanding of how deep trauma can go, and how long it can last.

    Thanks for reminding me of that episode and letting me know someone else had a similar reaction. And its OK to watch TV just for the hell of it! Remember, the more complex the mind the greater need for frivolous activity.

    Sincerely,
    Michael

  3. Bill Percy says:

    Lou,

    Thanks for the article. As you know, I worked with profoundly wounded trauma survivors for thirty-five years, and the questions you raise in your post are indeed critical for us to think through. Michael’s comment about forgiveness not being a necessary condition of healing is one I can second; still, though I don’t follow “Blue Bloods” and have not seen the episode, your reaction seems to me one that I’d have had too.

    I never found it useful. therapeutically or spiritually, for survivors to confront their perpetrators with their rage. In fact, it never seemed particularly useful for any confrontation to take place before the sufferer had reached some degree of healing and actually desired a better relationship (as with a family member, for instance). But that’s just one therapist’s perspective. Thanks for bringing my thoughts back to an important issue . . .

    Bill Percy

  4. Lou says:

    Bill:

    Thanks for your comments. Clearly, we share a similar perspective. Survivors of trauma are not helped by being led into situations that retraumatize them. Instead, the releasing of the traumatic pain and inner wounds must be done with care.

    Lou

  5. Lou says:

    Michael:

    Thanks for your comment. I have not heard that saying about anger, but it truly is spot on!

    Best wishes.

    Lou

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