Out of Alignment: The Fawn Response   

Chicago native Lisa Forbes’ journey from darkness to light includes overcoming trauma and religious, sexual and emotional abuse. Her book, “I Can Take It from Here,” discusses her history and destiny. She shares how the fawn response is a tool people use to stay safe – and how they can get out.    


Any one of her traumas could have made someone lose their mind.  

Sexual abuse. Religious trauma. Mental torment – murder and a prison sentence.  

Chicago native Lisa Forbes has some stories to tell, and her greatest one yet is still being written – how she found her way out and lived to share how she made it.  

“What helped me to not just survive but to overcome and get to the point where ‘I can take it from here’ was a sense of my own identity,” she told the Michigan Chronicle recently. “I decided that I wanted to be who I was capable of being, and not what my pain had turned me into. That shift in mentality empowered me to not identify as a victim. Identity is everything.”  

Forbes, author of the aptly named new book, “I Can Take It from Here,” details her abuse growing up at the hands of her family, in her marriage, and a battle of her mind, which took a toll in every aspect of her life. “I tell my story in my book and in my public speaking because I want people to know that when I say they can be emotionally free no matter what their current level of trauma, I’m not speaking from theory. I’m speaking from personal experience.”   

As the youngest of six children, Forbes grew up in a Chicago housing project where as a little girl the abuse she survived was unthinkable. While the bibliophile graduated high school at 15, became pregnant at 16, and at 19 she unexpectedly and uncharacteristically committed a violent act, stabbing and killing the father of her daughter, which resulted in a 14-year stint in a maximum-security prison.  

“My level of trauma was immense, and after years of imploding into depression and suicidal thoughts, the pain eventually exploded into a violent crime,” Forbes told the Michigan Chronicle recently. “And yet today, I am not just free from a physical prison, I’m also free from an emotional prison of unprocessed pain. But I want my pain to count for something. I want to help set other people free in the same way that I learned to set myself free.”  

An element of being free includes searching for solutions to trauma responses including fawning.  

Psychology Today reports that the “fawn response” got its name from Therapist Pete Walker who used the term as a way for children to navigate parental abuse.  

The fawn response happens when fight, flight and freeze tactics (all results of trauma) don’t work – so fawning is used to placate, appease or subdue attackers by pleasing them to keep victims safe.  

Webster’s dictionary defines it as: “to act servilely; cringe and flatter.”  

People of color had to use fawn strategies to endure the traumas and dangers of white-related racial violence, Psychology Today noted.  

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom” character may be the predecessor for a person who fawns, which some slaves used to develop relationships with slave owners and reduce violence.  

“Protesting abuse leads to even more frightening parental retaliation, and so [the child] relinquishes the fight response, deleting ‘no’ from her vocabulary and never developing the language skills of healthy assertiveness,” Walker noted in the article.  

Forbes adds that almost all BIPOC people are “collectively in an unconscious state of fawning almost all the time.”   

“Unquestionably we are in a collective state of trauma,” she said. “We fake our personalities and change our appearance to ‘fit in’ with others as a way of being ‘accepted.’ Importantly, fawning can also manifest as a person trying to merge with their abuser in an ill-fated attempt to get their abuser to identify with them, and therefore stop abusing them. And isn’t this what we see collectively with BIPOC people?”  

Forbes also told the Michigan Chronicle that for abused children like herself it was “impossible not to fawn.”   

“I was being abused at home. My abusers were too big for me to fight and I had nowhere to flee. I alternated between freezing and fawning. But fawning is what carried over into all my other abusive relationships as I became an adult,” she said, adding that she learned to change personalities to fit who others wanted her to be. “I continued to have the same types of relationships – it was the same person over and over again, just with a different face and name. Fawning was the story of my life when it came to how I related to other people.”  

Her book details how unhealed trauma has beacons of hope inside that not only detail healing from the fawn response but how as a society more can be done for the abused by providing insights into the “ongoing epidemic of mass re-incarceration” and more.  

In her thirties, she started her own company, Lisa Forbes Inc., to help restore citizens cope with post-prison life. Based in Denver, she has spoken widely and conducted many workshops. Previously the state communications director for the League of Women Voters of Colorado, Forbes now edits her local county League’s monthly newsletter, The Voter.  

Additionally, Forbes is a Colorado co-coordinator of Better Angels, a national citizens’ movement to bring liberals and conservatives together at the grassroots level.  

Across all sectors of society, Forbes is on a mission to not only share her story but encourage through her book an increase in literacy in communities.  

“When I was a child, reading was my refuge,” she said. “It helped me survive … when I couldn’t escape physically from the cruelties I was enduring at home…. Later, when I was in prison, literacy gave me the ability to educate myself.”  

She added that what also carried her through was the redefinition of herself.  

“Through reading, I began to understand that I could redefine myself, just as Malcolm X had done. I began to contemplate that I could be who I said I was, and not who the state’s attorney said I was, or who society said I was — or even who my family said I was,” she said. “I know who I am, I know what I’ve experienced, and I know the difference between the two. With that knowledge, I can take it from here.”  

For more information on Forbes’s book, visit lisaforbesspeaks.com/book.   


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