When you think of Paris Hilton what is the first thing that comes to your mind?
I knew almost nothing about her, yet these were the words that popped up in my mind: ‘brat’, ‘rich’, ‘heiress’. She is rich because she comes from the Hilton brand, is her own brand, and she has created an empire out of her brand. ‘Brat’ came from exposure to her via news and social media. The scandals, the night life, the extravagance, the sex tapes, the bling, and the larger-than-life persona: these might make one ask, “Why is she like this?!” What if instead we asked the question, “What happened to her that she is like this?”
As part of a trauma-focused study I am doing, I had to watch the official documentary on her called, “This is Paris” (available on YouTube). It was an eye-opener; watch it if Paris or trauma interests you!
Let me share some insights from this documentary. Paris has nightmares almost every night and struggles with insomnia. She cannot trust people. She is anxious. She fears losing control. She is unable to open up in love and relationships. She is hypervigilant, constantly on the alert, scoping her environment. There is a need for perfection on the outside, and for love and affirmation which she derives from her staggering fanbase.
Any experience that leaves one feeling overwhelmed, helpless, with a sense of loss of control, and with strong negative emotions can be traumatic, even if that experience does not involve physical harm. Well, Paris has experienced physical harm. She has been strangled, and physically, verbally, and emotionally abused—both as a child and in adult romantic relationships. “How is that possible?” one may think. She is rich, powerful, she is almost perfect in many ways: the contrasting narratives are jarring.
What happened to her? One night she was kidnapped from her home, seemingly with her parents’ knowledge, and packed off to a boarding school in Utah called Provo Canyon School. The school was a horrific abuse camp for children and scarred many of them for life. While there, Paris was punished with solitary confinement in starvation and nakedness. She was hit, and emotionally and verbally assaulted. This was true for many girls there; as adults, they narrate their stories in the documentary.
Paris and the other girls never fully recovered from that phase of their early lives. Loss of trust, complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, abandonment issues, insomnia, anxiety, nightmares, shame, self-blame, and normalisation of abusive relationships—these are the legacies of the trauma they endured.
What helped Paris survive? “Who I want to be and what I want to do when I get out of here’’ was the dream that helped her keep her sanity throughout the abuse. She decided that no one would ever control her again. No-one would ever control her because she would become successful and financially independent. She channelled her anger towards her parents into her drive for success. She managed to pull it off, but the nightmares persisted as did the other challenges. The trauma remained.
In the Breaking Code Silence campaign, the former students of Provo Canyon School shared publicly what they had experienced at the hands of the authorities there. For Paris, sharing her story perhaps was the beginning of healing and freedom for her heart and mind. This is a big story because of who Paris Hilton is and what she represents. It is not a unique story, though.
Abusive events; traumatic experience; pervasive, silent dysfunctionality creeping into one’s life invading all and sparing nothing: these are commonly experienced by people regardless of geography and class. You and I may have had such experiences too. We also want to be seen, heard, witnessed—our stories matter! While there is a desire to be seen, ironically there is simultaneously an opposing desire to withdraw, to hide, as well. The contradiction stems from shame. Because of what was done; because somehow it was “my’’ fault. Because of the powerlessness and loss of control experienced.
This shame was rightly rejected by one of Paris’s former classmates in the documentary, “It is not our shame. It is theirs (Provo) and we have been (bleep) carrying it (for them).’’ This is true for you and me too. No matter what happened to you or was done to you, it is not your shame. So drop it where it belongs. It is not a yoke you were ever meant to carry.
Campaigns like Break Code Silence and Me Too are ways of healing, of being witnessed, of telling oneself and the world that one’s story matters. That may not be the path for everyone. Sometimes, an individual’s struggle with trauma can result in healing that produces greater personal strength, better appreciation for life, or spiritual shifts—domains that may not always have a public dimension to them. In my life post trauma, pursuit of therapy as my vocation has a significant spiritual dimension. I believe it is a private affair conducted between me and my client in God’s presence. I can be genuine in my vulnerability due to the unconditional forgiveness and acceptance I have received in Jesus. I can hope to “see’’ my client because I have experienced that “God sees me’’ (El-Roi).
Certain experiences bind us together, regardless of other stark differences, as perhaps with you, me and Paris. We are not so different, after all, in some ways. Our healing journeys will differ, and yours and mine are unlikely to be made into a movie. Yet, there is someone watching your “movie’’—and not passively—He is an active participant in it, shaping it. This all-knowing God knows what happened to you and He doesn’t condemn you with a ‘’Why?’’ He works with you right where you are.
For Paris, there is an element of her healing that has to do with the healing of others. She speaks of never wanting another child to go through the trauma she suffered; because of that, she was willing to come out publicly about her abuse and humiliation. This seems to be one way she is making meaning of her experiences. You too might be trying to make meaning, to find purpose in your experiences. Do not give up. With God intimately in it, your meaning making struggle will break ground.