Trigger Warning: Trauma
Edvard Munch, The Dog Attacking the Milk Boy, 1938
From The New Yorker:
How to account for trauma’s creep? Take your corners. Modern life is inherently traumatic. No, we’re just better at spotting it, having become more attentive to human suffering in all its gradations. Unless we’re worse at it—more prone to perceive everything as injury. In a world infatuated with victimhood, has trauma emerged as a passport to status—our red badge of courage? The question itself might offend: perhaps it’s grotesque to argue about the symbolic value attributed to suffering when so little restitution or remedy is available. So many laborious debates, all set aside when it’s time to be entertained.
Trauma survivors and researchers who have testified about experiences or presented evidence that clashes with the preferred narrative often find their own stories denied and dismissed. In the nineties, the psychologist Susan A. Clancy conducted a study of adults who had been sexually abused as children. They described the grievous long-term suffering and harm of P.T.S.D., but, to her surprise, many said that the actual incidents of abuse were not themselves traumatic, characterized by force or fear—if only because so many subjects were too young to fully understand what was happening and because the abuse was disguised as affection, as a game. The anguish came later, with the realization of what had occurred. Merely for presenting these findings, Clancy was labelled an ally of pedophilia, a trauma denialist. During treatment for P.T.S.D. after serving as a war correspondent in Iraq, David Morris was discouraged from asking if his experience might yield any form of wisdom. Clinicians admonished him, he says, “for straying from the strictures of the therapeutic regime.” He was left wondering how the medicalization of trauma prevents veterans from expressing their moral outrage at war, siphoning it, instead, into a set of symptoms to be managed.
And never mind pesky findings that the vast majority of people recover well from traumatic events and that post-traumatic growth is far more common than post-traumatic stress. In a recent Harper’s essay, the novelist Will Self suggests that the biggest beneficiaries of the trauma model are trauma theorists themselves, who are granted a kind of tenure, entrusted with a lifetime’s work of “witnessing” and interpreting. George A. Bonanno, the director of Columbia’s Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab and the author of “The End of Trauma,” has a blunter assessment: “People don’t seem to want to let go of the idea that everybody’s traumatized.”
The trauma plot flattens, distorts, reduces character to symptom, and, in turn, instructs and insists upon its moral authority. The solace of its simplicity comes at no little cost. It disregards what we know and asks that we forget it, too—forget about the pleasures of not knowing, about the unscripted dimensions of suffering, about the odd angularities of personality, and, above all, about the allure and necessity of a well-placed sea urchin.
“The Case Against the Trauma Plot”, Parul Sehgal, The New Yorker