The rabbit trance
September 27, 2013 by Thomas Wictor
That’s Tim’s elegant phrase for the state of passivity we entered when confronted with a situation we knew was wrong. Tim’s “rabbit trance” refers to the helpless fear of a rabbit. The other rabbit trance—tonic immobility—is a phenomenon well known to pet owners. You put the rabbit on its back, and it freezes. It’s an instinctive form of playing dead to fool a predator.
The rabbit trance that Tim describes is our inability to stand up to assaultive behavior. Richard Adams in Watership Down calls it “going tharn.” Stephen King uses the phrase in The Stand, crediting it to Adams. King describes it as a rabbit crouching in the middle of the road, watching the car fast approaching to run it over.
Driving the freeways of the Northeast in 2000, I saw maroon smears on the concrete that were fifty, sixty, or a hundred feet long. It looked as though a speeding vehicle had dropped buckets of dark purple paint. I thought it was sloppy highway workers.
Finally, at the end of a maroon smear were the white-tailed hindquarters of a deer. They were on the shoulder of the road, pointing skyward as if the animal had mostly burrowed into the cement. The smears were the result of deer standing on the freeways at night, enraptured, not knowing that behind those mesmerizing, growing, otherworldly disks of light were forty tons of metal traveling at ninety miles per hour. Deer and eighteen-wheeler met, and what was left of the creature was dragged down the freeway until it was atomized. All I ever saw of an exploded deer was that one ass.
For most of my life, I was a deer on a Northeastern freeway at night, but unlike the animal, I knew that those were the lights of a big rig. I knew that I was about to be exploded so that only my ass was left. Yet I’d stand there in the rabbit trance, completely tharn.
Tim conquered his rabbit trance by transforming himself. Temperamentally, I wasn’t able to follow his lead. Oh, I can defend myself now. But I’ve seen Tim do things—necessary things—that I still can’t quite process. You have no idea.
When I was seventeen, I was introduced to a man in his thirties. He was an army veteran, and since I’d always been interested in the military, I was told that he and I would get along great. I hated him on sight. He was extremely muscular and hairy, and he had a heavy blond mustache. I almost fainted with terror when I met him. He struck me as a demon.
But I said nothing.
All summer this man picked me up in the evenings and drove me around for hours, telling me about his time in the army. He took me to his home for dinner with his wife, young daughter, and infant son. We’d drink beer at the kitchen table and talk.
One night the baby disassembled a takeout cheeseburger and arranged the parts on the sofa like a tiny buffet. The man quietly got up, went over to the sofa, punched the baby in the stomach, and slapped his back, legs, and arms in a flurry of about twenty blows. Each left a massive, hand-shaped welt. The baby screamed like someone being murdered. His mother took him into another room, and the man sat down at the table with me.
“Kids,” he said, shaking his head.
Another night he said, “Watch this, Tom.” He turned to the baby, made his face completely expressionless, and whispered, “You’ve really done it now, _______. Boy, you’ve really done it now.”
The baby began screaming hysterically, and the man laughed and said, “Aw, I’m just kidding! Stop crying. No, I mean it. Stop fucking crying! Now!”
And the baby stopped, as though switched off. He switched himself off, I now realize. He dissociated and went to a place of safety.
I too dissociated as I watched this. It came to me years later, when I began studying mental illness. I dissociated under two specific circumstances. One was witnessing or experiencing violence. The rabbit trance was dissociation: going away to where they couldn’t get you. It’s a dreamlike state in which you float outside yourself.
The man—people told me he was my mentor—brought me paper grocery bags full of hardcore pornographic magazines. He’d quiz me about them later to make sure I’d read them. When we went out at night to drive around in his car, he’d regale me with his sexual escapades, using terms I didn’t understand. At seventeen I hadn’t even been kissed yet. My mentor said he enjoyed performing oral sex on a woman when she was having her period.
“It leaves a big, red ring around your mouth!” he said. “Salty!” Then he bellowed with laughter and socked me on the arm. It left a bruise.
I was terrified out of my mind for three solid months, but I said nothing to anybody. It didn’t occur to me.
My mentor revealed himself to be a white supremacist and neo-Nazi. He told me that when I turned eighteen and came back to California the next summer, I’d join the army. I didn’t want to join the army. From years of studying the military, I knew I was unfit to serve. Cowardly, socially inept, and unable to bond with men, I’d be the worst soldier in the history of any armed forces. But it wouldn’t even get that far: In Basic Combat Training, the drill sergeants and the men in my unit would torture me until I voluntarily dropped out.
They had to do that, because every man in the unit would depend on every other man for his survival. I was not dependable. In a combat situation, I would dissociate, retreating far into my brain, the way I did when my mentor hit his infant son.
My mentor told me stories about the army. One recruit was extremely overweight. The drill sergeants beat him, made him run miles and miles, and forced him to lift weights. By the end of Basic Combat Training and Advanced Individual Training, he could carry two ammunition boxes for the squad machine gun in each hand, something nobody else could do. He’d become the strongest man in the unit.
Another recruit was gay. Half a dozen men attacked him, knocking him down. The gay man wiped the blood from his mouth, got up, and said, “The only thing I like better than sucking cock is fighting.” Then he beat the hell out of all six men. After that everyone in the unit loved him.
I went back to Norway to finish high school. As my eighteenth birthday approached, I thought that maybe the best thing to do would be to kill myself. I couldn’t stand up to my mentor, but going into the army was beyond idiotic. It was a parody. Instead of laughing, everyone would pound on me until I surrendered and fled in humiliation, a ludicrous failure.
But I didn’t say anything to anyone. It didn’t occur to me.
We came back to California, I turned eighteen, and we had a small party. When Tim cut the chocolate cake with a serrated bread knife, I almost asked him to decapitate me. The next day my mentor came over to drive me to the recruiting station. He’d ordered me to not tell anyone. We’d surprise them with my enlistment. He and I went out on the front porch, and I blurted, “I’m not joining the army.”
He stopped and gazed at me with the expressionless face he wore when he made his baby cry. “What do you mean?” he asked softly.
“I don’t want to join the army. You want me to, but I don’t want to. I never did. I should’ve said something a long time ago. I’m not joining the army. I’m sorry.”
As I stood there with him, I dissociated. The world became fuzzy, soft, and quiet. I floated away to where it was safe. The slamming of a car door prompted my return. My mentor backed out of the driveway, put the car in gear, and drove off without looking at me.
He never spoke to me again.
When I was in Japan six years later, my mother sent me a letter telling me that he’d been killed in a drunken accident. I felt only relief. He’d gotten what he deserved. His baby is now a man; I’m ashamed that I didn’t intervene when his father beat him, but it wasn’t possible.
Seeing that happen in front of me drained me of my volition. I became in all ways a petrified rabbit. Dissociation is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ve overcome my PTSD with medication and talk therapy. At seventeen I would’ve denied that I’m mentally ill. And my mentor was the most frightening person I’ve ever known. He was monstrously evil and capable of great violence.
Even so, I’m ashamed that I didn’t help the baby. I always will be.
Today, I’d have no problem telling my mentor that not only would I not join the army, I didn’t want anything to do with him. I’d tell him to go fuck himself, and I’d call the cops on him for what he did to his baby. My insistence on following my instincts has cost me a lot. I’ve caused rifts that will never heal.
Though I regret those rifts, I don’t regret learning how to avoid going into the rabbit trance. It was easier to dissociate, no question. Every time I’ve not gone into the rabbit trance, it’s cost me. Not being a rabbit is very difficult.
But rabbits are prey. I refuse to be either prey or predator. That makes me some kind of plant, I guess. I manufacture my own nutrients, a sort of photosynthesis that doesn’t require me to participate in the savagery of the jungle.
All I need is sunshine. And I’m drenched in it now.
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