(NEW YORK) — Andy Murray, the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years, has, at least until now, talked little about the trauma he suffered as an 8-year-old child — hiding under a desk and sheltering his brother as a gunman slaughtered 16 children and one teacher at his elementary school in Scotland.
Sunday’s men’s singles tennis victory was a step toward healing, according to the celebratory reaction in his small hometown of Dunblane, which suffered the horrific shooting massacre on March 13, 1996.
“It’s just nice being able to do something the town is proud of,” Murray, already the reigning Olympic and U.S. Open champion, told the BBC just before winning the sport’s top prize.
Just last night the BBC aired, Andy Murray: Behind the Racket, which included interviews with Murray and his mother. In it, the tennis star broke down in tears as he cuddled his dog in his lap. “You have no idea how tough something like that is,” he said in the documentary.
Psychologists say that winning the Wimbledon title is remarkable, but surviving trauma is not an anomaly, rather it is more the norm.
“There are some folks who can compartmentalize it and box everything up and put it on a shelf and move on,” said George Everly, associate professor of psychology and behavioral science at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in Baltimore, a leading expert in post-traumatic stress disorder and disasters.
“It’s not to say they forget it — they do not. But they have a unique gift to put it on the shelf and move on.
“They have something else to focus on — a laser-like focus that can be a very healing experience. Some call it compensation. They take the energy and the bad things that happened and focus on making a goal or making life as good as possible. If you have a gift and focus that energy you would have spent mourning and being anxious…you focus on a mission and a goal and it actually can be a productive way of channeling it.”
In a scene that echoed in Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, shooter, Thomas Hamilton, a 43-year-old store owner and former youth club leader, entered the school’s gymnasium with four handguns and fired at a class of 5- and 6-year olds. He later killed himself.
“It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started to actually research it and look into it,” Murray said in the film. His older brother Jamie, 27, is also a tennis player.
His mother, Judy Murray, struggling to keep her composure, recalled the day, saying she knew the shooter.
“Andy’s class were on their way to the gym, his class were the next ones in the gym,” she told the BBC filmmakers. “His class was stopped when somebody went up, when they heard the noise and discovered what had happened.”
“I was one of hundreds of mums that were queuing up at the school gates waiting to find out what had happened, not knowing if your children were alive or not.”
Judy Murray said she still has difficulty visiting the school.
“I actually don’t go near that part of the building,” she said. “When I go up to school now, if I’m doing something, I’ll do it in the playground or I do it in the new gym.”
She said both her sons had many questions after the shooting, but later, particularly Jamie, had trouble talking about it.
Years later the British press painted Murray as a stoic figure, but in the film, he grips his dog for support trying to contain his emotions. But after Sunday’s stunning victory, one Dunblane resident told the Guardian newspaper, “Andy’s exorcised a ghost in Dunblane.”
Psychologist Everly said that the most powerful tool in healing is “understanding” a tragedy. “Those things we fear, we try to understand,” he said. “Sadly, many children who are survivors of trauma, especially abuse, blame themselves. Not just children, but adults do, too. Those who move forward do so either in spite of the trauma or because of the trauma.”
Everly, who has never treated Murray, said that those who have special talent often use them to move forward. “To be good at what you do, you have to be able to reprioritize not only your behavior, but your thoughts and return to focus,” he said.
“It seems to me, regardless of the trauma, to be that good at anything you have to focus with one mind set and practice, practice,” said Everly. “The family not only had the genetics to be good, but it probably helped them deal with the trauma more constructively.”
About 15 percent of all those who experience trauma go on to suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), according to Paul Greene, a professor of psychology at Iona College in New York, who specializes in trauma.
“Why can’t a person go on to be a success?” he said. “Witnessing trauma isn’t some kind of fatal sentence that dooms you. Not at all. Most people go through trauma and don’t develop PTSD. …The default position is recovery.”
“Human beings’ ability to survive traumatic events you can call remarkable, but not unusual,” said George Bonanno, professor of clinical psychology with a specialty in trauma at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “It’s remarkable to win at tennis, but it’s not an unusual thing that most people go on to live happy and healthy lives.”
The human body has a “natural-born ability” to deal well with adversity, according to Bonanno. “We have a highly adaptive stress response system that kicks in.”
“In the past, we have kind of been asking the wrong question,” he said. “There was a resistance to acknowledging psychological trauma. Once we did, we focused exclusively on trauma and got ourselves wondering, why would anyone not be traumatized? But that is the wrong question — why isn’t everybody resilient?”
As photos of Andy Murray and his brother Jamie and mother Judy cover the walls of a tennis clubhouse in Dunblane, they are celebrities who have taken some of the scars away from a town still grieving 17 years after it lost its children to a mass shooting. Murray’s success seems intertwined with that past.
“Did Andy Murray achieve great things in spite of Dunblane or did he do great things because of it?” said Johns’ Hopkins Everly. “Only Andy Murray knows.”
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