All of my expectations for Jordan Peele’s latest film “Us” came true: The movie scared the hell out of me, and impressed me, and made it so that I can never listen to Luniz’s song “I Got 5 On It” the same ever again.
But here’s the part I didn’t expect: In many ways, “Us” gave me guidelines on how to talk about trauma and its lasting impact.
Seeing the movie was a somewhat surprising move on my part, considering that I’m what you might call a total wimp when it comes to horror movies. I’ve been known to say, only half-jokingly, that even the Harry Potter movies are too scary for me to handle.
And yet, I couldn’t ignore the many reasons to go see “Us,” including Jordan Peele’s critical acclaim, the mega-talented cast led by Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, stars of “Black Panther,” and the representation of dark-skinned Black people like me — which is so rare that I couldn’t miss it.
I’m really glad I did see it. As a trauma survivor living with PTSD, I learned some things about myself that I never thought I’d learn from a horror movie.
If you, like me, are on an ongoing journey to understand your trauma, then you might appreciate these lessons, too.
So whether you’ve already seen “Us,” are still planning on seeing it (in which case, beware of spoilers below), or are too scared to see it yourself (in which case, I completely understand), here are some lessons about how trauma works that you can glean from the movie.
1. A traumatic experience can follow you throughout your life
The film’s modern day storyline is about the Wilson family — parents Adelaide and Gabe, daughter Zora, and son Jason — who travel to Santa Cruz for summer vacation and end up having to fight for their lives against The Tethered, the terrifying doubles of themselves.
But it also centers around a moment from the past, when young Adelaide gets separated from her parents at the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk. As a child, Adelaide meets a shadowy version of herself, and when she returns to her parents, she’s silent and traumatized — no longer her old self.
“That was a long time ago,” you might say about how one childhood experience could affect adulthood.
It’s what I sometimes say to myself when I remember that I left my abusive ex-boyfriend about 10 years ago. Sometimes, after a panic attack or a nightmare related to past trauma, I feel ashamed about continuing to feel so anxious and hypervigilant so many years later.
Throughout “Us,” Adelaide would also rather not think about the trauma from her past. But on this family trip, it follows her — first figuratively, through coincidences and her fear of returning to a certain Santa Cruz beach — and then literally, as she’s stalked by the shadow version of herself that she met as a child.
It’s impossible for her to just forget about what happened, and this is
Which means it’s perfectly understandable if you have a hard time moving on, and you don’t have to feel ashamed — even if that moment happened “a long time ago.”
2. It doesn’t matter how insignificant your experience might seem — trauma is trauma, and can even result from a one-time or short-lived event
Concerned that something’s wrong with their little girl, Adelaide’s parents took her to a child psychologist who diagnosed her with PTSD.
Both parents, but especially her father, struggle to understand what their daughter is going through — particularly how Adelaide can be so traumatized after being out of their sight for “only 15 minutes.”
Later, we learn that there’s more to the story of Adelaide’s temporary absence.
But still, as the psychologist tells the family, being gone for a short period of time doesn’t negate the possibility of Adelaide’s PTSD.
For Adelaide’s parents, perhaps rationalizing their daughter’s experience by saying “it couldn’t have been that bad” helps them get through this difficult time. They’d prefer to minimize the damage, rather than face the pain and guilt of knowing Adelaide is suffering.
I’ve spent enough time with other survivors of abuse to know that people often do the same with their own trauma.
We point to how it could’ve been worse, or how others have been through worse, and scold ourselves for being as traumatized as we are.
But trauma experts say that it’s not a matter of how much you experienced something like abuse. It’s more about how it affected you.
For example, if a person is attacked at a young age by someone they trust, then it doesn’t matter if it was a short-lived, one-time attack. It was still a huge violation of trust that can shake up the person’s whole perspective on the world — just like Adelaide’s short-lived encounter with her shadow self changed hers.
3. Trying to ignore my trauma means disregarding a part of myself
When we meet grown-up Adelaide, she’s trying to live her life without acknowledging what happened in her childhood.
She tells her husband Gabe that she doesn’t want to take the children to the beach, but she doesn’t tell him why. Later, after she’s agreed to take them, she loses sight of her son Jason and panics.
We, the audience, know that she’s panicking largely because of her childhood trauma, but she passes it off as an ordinary moment of a mother’s concern for her son’s safety.
Even fighting the other version of herself is more complicated than it seems.
For most of the film, we believe Adelaide’s tethered counterpart, Red, is a resentful “monster” who has emerged from underground to take Adelaide’s above-ground life as her own.
But in the end, we find out that she’s been the “wrong” Adelaide all along. The real Red dragged Adelaide underground and switched places with her when they were children.
This leaves us with a complicated understanding of who the “monsters” in the film really are.
With a traditional understanding of horror, we’d root against the demonic shadows that attack our innocent protagonists.
But in “Us,” it turns out that The Tethered are forgotten clones who live tortured versions of our protagonists’ lives. They are victims of their own circumstances who became “monstrous” only because they weren’t lucky enough to have their counterparts’ opportunities.
In a way, Adelaide and Red are one and the same.
It’s a stunning take on class divides, access, and opportunity in our society. And to me, it also speaks to how I can demonize the parts of myself that are affected by trauma.
I sometimes call myself “weak” or “crazy” for feeling the effects of trauma, and I’m often convinced that I’d be a much stronger, more successful person without PTSD.
“Us” showed me that there could be a more compassionate way of understanding my traumatized self. She may be an anxious, socially awkward insomniac, but she’s still me.
The belief that I have to discard her to survive would only lead me to fight with myself.
4. You know your own trauma best
The idea that only Adelaide really knows what happened in her childhood persists throughout the film.
She never tells anyone exactly what happened when she was away from her parents at the beach boardwalk. And when she finally tries to explain it to her husband Gabe, his response is not what she was hoping for.
“You don’t believe me,” she says, and he reassures her that he’s just trying to process it all.
The struggle to be believed is familiar for too many trauma survivors, especially those of us who have been through domestic abuse and sexual violence.
The effect of that struggle can be dizzying, as skeptics, loved ones, and even abusers try to convince us that what happened isn’t really what we think happened.
We also often hear unhelpful advice that presumes that we don’t know what’s best for us, like the suggestion to “just leave” an abusive partner when it’s difficult to do so.
It can be hard to remember that, like Adelaide, I know what’s best for myself, especially after going through abuse and self-blame. But I’m the only one who lived my experiences.
That means my perspective on what happened to me is the one that matters.
5. Your intimate knowledge of your own trauma gives you a unique power and agency in healing
The Wilson family may work as a team to survive, but eventually, Adelaide goes underground to defeat her counterpart (and The Tethered’s ringleader) as only she can.
In fact, each family member ultimately knows what it takes to defeat their counterpart. Gabe takes his down on his sputtering motorboat that seems to cut out at all the wrong times, Jason recognizes when his doppelganger is trying to burn the family in a trap, and Zora goes against her father’s advice and hits her counterpart with a car at full speed.
But in “Us,” healing doesn’t come in the form of defeating the “monsters.”
For healing, we have to go back to Adelaide’s child psychologist, who told her parents that self-expression through art and dance could help her find her voice again.
Indeed, it was a ballet performance that played a pivotal role in helping Adelaide and Red understand themselves and realize what it would take to survive.
I can’t help but read this as another reminder of how intuition and self-love can play a role in healing from trauma.
We all deserve to not just survive, but to thrive and find joy on our unique healing paths.
The real horror is our real-world violence
I may have faced my fear of horror movies to see “Us,” but that sure doesn’t mean I’m fearless. After seeing the movie, it may be a little while before I can rest easy again.
But I can’t be mad at Jordan Peele for that — not when there’s such an obvious parallel to how I can face my trauma and learn from it, rather than avoiding it out of fear.
I wouldn’t say that my traumatic experiences define me. But the way that I’ve moved through trauma has taught me valuable lessons about myself, my sources of strength, and my resilience through even the most difficult of circumstances.
PTSD may be classified as a disorder, but having it doesn’t mean that something’s “wrong” with me.
What’s wrong is the abuse that created my trauma. The “monsters” in my story are the systematic and cultural issues that allow abuse to occur and prevent survivors from healing from it.
In “Us,” the real monster is the torment and inequality that made The Tethered who they are.
The results that follow may be, at times, terrifying and difficult to face — but when we take a look, it’s impossible to deny that it’s still us.
Maisha Z. Johnson is a writer and advocate for survivors of violence, people of color, and LGBTQ+ communities. She lives with chronic illness and believes in honoring each person’s unique path to healing. Find Maisha on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.