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A recent essay by Vivian Gornick addressed the destructive psychological power of humiliating experience. She invokes Anton Chekov who “ ... once observed that the worst thing life can do to human beings is to inflict humiliation.” (p. 60.) While we all know how painful, and lingeringly so, that humiliation can feel, Chekov’s rating may seem, at least, an overstatement to readers of this column who have worked with trying to understand and ameliorate the effects of such horrors as torture and slavery. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that helping people overcome the damage done by humiliation, regardless of how innocuous an offending event might seem to others, is well within the parameters of a trauma therapist’s work. 

In more recent times such experiences, sometimes referred to as microaggressions, are derided as part of a societal trend toward over-sensitivity. As such, they take a place alongside delayed expression of traumatic symptoms and uncovered memories of trauma as a phenomenon that may benefit from the added credibility provided by non-fiction examples, rather than the fictional representations usually offered in this column.

That is not to say that we have not addressed the traumatic effects of humiliation in this column, however those cases were in the context of the trauma of warfare, such as when we showed the example of the effect of humiliation on the undoing of Aias (Ajax) in the Sophocles play bearing his name. It should also be noted that the effect of humiliation has been masterfully addressed by Shay (1995) in his groundbreaking work Achilles in Vietnam.

Our literary example in the current column is drawn from poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s justly praised memoir/nature appreciation World of Wonders and illustrates that it does not take such an extreme setting as war for humiliation to have a powerful effect. The passage selected includes a childhood example of an experience of cultural/ethnic prejudice and humiliation that affected her deeply, but which some might write off because the near outcome seemed to be a triumph for her. As the field of traumatology consistently reminds us, all is not always well that ends well.

A child of Asian parents, Nezhukumatathil grew up in rural and suburban parts of the United States. Her family often relocated for the sake of employment. She was often the only non-white student in her classes, though not in the classroom where the events in the passage below took place. There she was “…happy to see kids all shades,” but this newfound diversity did not protect her from what unfolds in her narrative.

“I’m eight and I’ve just returned from my first trip to southern India. During that time, I fell completely in love with peacocks—India’s national bird—in spite of the strays in my grandparents’ courtyard that shrieked every morning like cats being dragged over thumbtacks. Memories of those peacocks’ turquoise and jade feathers and bright blue necks curl over my shoulder as I listen to my third-grade teacher announce an animal-drawing contest. My knees bounce at my desk. Of course, I know what I am going to draw….

“My teacher walks up and down the aisles, checking our work. When she stops at my desk, I smell and hear a smokey sigh, and her long maroon nail taps my notebook twice. I don’t know what this means…

“… My teacher continues to stalk through the rows of our desks. Some of us misunderstood the assignment, she says. She reaches the front of the room, and cleared her throat. Some of us will have to start over and draw American animals. We live in Ah-mer-i-kah! Now she looks right at me. My neck flushes. Anyone who is finished can bring your drawing up to my desk and start your math worksheets. Aimee—the class turns to look at me. Looks like you need a do-over!

“I turn my drawing over and blink hard, trying not to let my tears fall onto the page. Does she think peacocks can’t live in this country?...”

Nezhukumatathil goes on to describe her new picture, an exaggerated patriotic version of an eagle with an American flag background.

“When I get home that day, I park myself on the couch and stare at the television. When my dad calls me to dinner, I tell him I’m not hungry. When he walks into the living room to ask me to come to the table anyway, I burst out, Why do we need to have these peacocks all over the house? Wooden peacocks, brass peacocks, a peacock painting—it’s so embarrassing! My dad says nothing…

“The next day all the peacocks in the house are gone…

“Weeks later, after announcements and Pledge of Allegiance, my teacher declares the results of the drawing contest: my ridiculous, overly patriotic eagle drawing has won first place…

“I was a girl who loved to draw. I was a girl who loved color, who loved a fresh box of crayons, who always envied the girls with sixty-four colors but made do with my twenty-four off-brand shades. I was a girl who loved to draw—and yet after that contest, I don’t think I ever drew a bird again, not even a doodle, until well into adulthood.

“This is a story of how I learned to ignore anything from India. The peacock feathers my grandfather had carefully collected for me the day before I left and grew dusty in the back of my closet instead of sitting in a vase on my white dresser. This the story of how, for years, I pretended I hated the color blue. But what the peacock can do is remind you of a home you will run away from and run back to all your life: My favorite color is peacock blue. My favorite color is peacock blue. My favorite color is peacock blue. My favorite color is peacock blue.” (pp 15 – 19)


Nezhukumatathil, Aimee (2020). World of Wonder. Minneapolis: Milkweed.

Gornick, Vivian (October 2021). “Put on the diamonds”: Notes on humiliation. Harpers,
59 – 65

Lipke, H & Kudler, H (March 2015). Combat veterans healing trauma through the Theater of War, StressPoints. https://bit.ly/3H6tcyV
Shay, J (1995). Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Sophocles (2010). Aias [Ajax].  The Complete Sophocles, Vol II. Eds. Peter Burian & Alan Shapiro, Translators Herber Golder and Richard Pevear pp 25-80.