Oscars 2022, A Trauma-Informed Perspective
Updated: Apr 4
The following is conjecture, not knowing the two men involved at all, and is based solely on my experience in working with trauma. This is not an attempt at social commentary or meant to condone anyone's actions. Everyone is talking about the moment Will Smith got up off his chair to physically assault Chris Rock at the 2022 Oscars ceremony. Personally, I didn't like Chris' joke, it was shaming and understandably hit a nerve. However, I also didn't like Will's reaction to it. There has been a lot of talk about why Will hit Chris and a lot of differing opinions about whether or not he should have been allowed to stay, been charged with assault, or given his award back to the academy. I don't however, see much discussion on how Chris Rock is dealing with the assault. Back to that in a minute. In Will Smith's new biography he mentions the fact that, as a child, he was frozen in fear as he watched his father beat his mother. He felt helpless in defending the woman he loved most in his life at the time. His biggest fear as an adult (reportedly expressed in this book), is not being able to protect those he loves. The night at the Oscars saw this played out in actuality. In Somatic Experiencing we talk about incomplete threat responses; This is when the fight or flight response is thwarted and the energy is unable to discharge. This would have been the case for Will as he was unable to fight his father at the time of those attacks as a child. Fast forward to the award ceremony and Will's body was taken back in time when he felt helpless and frozen. Add to that, the pressure of millions of people watching as he sat helpless next to his wife as she was ridiculed on live, internationally broadcast television. Getting up, marching onto the stage and slapping Chris Rock could have been a small completion of a stress response that was 40 years in the making. This is not to excuse the behaviour, but to help us understand it. But if we take our attention off Will Smith for a minute and talk about Chris Rock, we find that he had a similar response that night, to Will as a child. He froze. His arms came out to defend himself but quickly returned to where they were. Something in him told him not to fight, and he was on live TV so he couldn't run. With that in mind his arms went back where they were, he steadied himself and then made a joke; his go-to place when things get tough. That's something we can all relate to on some level. Chris Rock was relentlessly bullied as a child and describes every day at school as a living hell. It's important then to remember that he comes to the Oscar's stage with a lot of his own trauma. As much as it may be helpful to understand Will Smith's reaction to his impotence, we should also understand Chris Rock's re-traumatization at that moment. The literal reliving of physical violence and the shame that will have come afterwards; that he didn't fight back or defend himself. Many will praise him for being professional and not reacting and forget that there may well have been a little boy on that stage that froze because he didn't feel he could do anything else, and may struggle with that reality. He then fell back on his lifelong coping strategy of humour and pretending everything was fine. I hope someone is telling him that this is ok. He did what he needed to do in order to survive that moment, both at school and on the stage that night at the Oscars. I think it's safe to say that both these men need to do some work on themselves so that the trauma visited upon them is not visited upon others. It's also a vital lesson to all of us; Trauma is not just what happens directly to us, but it can also be what happens around us, what we witness and what makes us feel small and helpless in the face of existential threat. Unresolved it can bleed into the rest of our lives and affect those around us.