When Menakem was a young boy, his grandmother would often ask him to rub her sore hands. One day, he asked why her hands were so different from his, why her fingers were so thick. She replied that she began picking cotton on a sharecroppers farm when she was four years old. She had to reach through the sharp thorns to get the cotton, and each day she would return home with bloodied, scratched hands, until her fingers grew so thick with calluses that she could pick the cotton without bleeding. My Grandmother’s Hands illuminates the many ways that our bodies carry with them the effects of past trauma—carried in the bodies of the inflicters, recipients and witnesses of violence, and in the generations that follow. From the torturous practices of medieval Europe to the genocide of Native Americans, from the slave trade to our current police system, the wounding and the healing are found in the body.
Resmaa Menakem is a therapist with decades of experience in private practice in Minneapolis, specializing in trauma, body-centered psychotherapy and violence prevention. He has appeared on Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil as an expert on conflict and violence. Menakem has studied with psychologist David Schnarch (Passionate Marriage) and psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk (The Body Keeps the Score). He also trained at Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute.
My Grandmother’s Hands weaves together the threads of racism, generational trauma, police brutality, embodiment, and a vision of how we can heal as individuals and as a culture.
A central theme throughout the book is that we will not heal racism, or what he refers to as “white body supremacy” until we recognize and learn to heal the way we hold the generational trauma of racism in our bodies. Menakem looks at the unique ways that racialized trauma is held and expressed in white bodies, black bodies and police bodies, and offers specific chapters and practices for mending the hearts and bodies of each of these groups.
In many ways, this book is a primer on trauma, and how unresolved trauma deeply limits our capacities as human beings and as a culture. Menakem draws on the research showing how epigenetic trauma is passed down though generations and impacts genetic expression far beyond the actual traumatic events. As a trauma therapist, Menakem also offers an extensive toolkit of practices for healing that trauma and learning how to self-regulate our nervous systems and bodies.
Menakem often refers to a distinction he shares with therapy clients between what he calls “clean pain” and “dirty pain,” clean pain being the pain and discomfort that is necessary in any kind of genuine healing work. Clean pain is the pain that mends and leads toward growth. Dirty pain is the pain of avoidance, of denial, of repeating the harmful patterns with no learning or healing.
“A key factor in the perpetuation of white-body supremacy is many people’s refusal to experience clean pain around the myth of race. Instead, usually out of fear, they choose the dirty pain of silence and avoidance and, invariably, prolong the pain,” he writes.
This is a book about practice, not just concepts. Throughout the book there are invitations to notice what is happening in your body as you read certain passages. There are also many guided practices to help the readers grow more aware of what is happening in their bodies, as well as skills for learning how to settle the body. As Menakem often says in interviews “You gotta get your reps in.” The somatic practices he offers are essential skills that can be learned over time, with repetition.
“All of this suggests that one of the best things each of us can do—not only for ourselves, but also for our children and grandchildren—is to metabolize our pain and heal our trauma,” he writes. “When we heal and make more room for growth in our nervous systems, we have a better chance of spreading our emotional health to our descendants, via healthy DNA expression. In contrast, when we don’t address our trauma, we may pass it on to future generations, along with some of our fear, constriction, and dirty pain.”
My Grandmother’s Hands is a beautiful, difficult, potent, and necessary book to read. To take in, viscerally, bodily, the legacy of genocide, slavery and violence that has not been healed and continues to express itself is hard work. Yet this book offers an opportunity for the clean pain of healing that this country desperately needs.
“We will not end white-body supremacy—or any other form of human evil—by trying to tear it to pieces. Instead, we can offer people better ways to belong, and better things to belong to. Instead of belonging to a race, we can belong to a culture. Each of us can also build our own capacity for genuine belonging.”
Carl Rabke is an embodiment teacher, and Feldenkrais and Structural Integration Practitioner living in Salt Lake City. He and his wife, Erin host the Embodiment Matters Podcast. www.embodimentmatters.com