Talking About Trauma
Daniel Davis Wood reviews Trauma, edited by Sam Mills and Thom Cuell
1. Corporeal Concerns
Here in Britain, when the Trump presidency came to an end on January 20, it was about five in the evening. A few hours later, as midnight ticked around, January 21 marked the official publication date of Trauma: Essays on Art and Mental Health. The timing, I’m sure, was only a fluke; under the co-editorship of Sam Mills and Thom Cuell, the anthology had long been in the works without any conscious tethering to the American political process. Still, the context being what it is, I’m not sure that readers of Trauma can disentangle it from its conspicuous arrival at the end of the Trump era. In the cultural discourse of the Anglophone world under Trump, and in adjacent discourses elsewhere, the concept and the rhetoric of trauma have jointly functioned as a lightning rod — and they continue to do so in his absence. When Trauma arrived in print, then, with forty-odd writers reflecting on their experiences of mental ill health, it looked very much like a book intending to tell us something important about a core concern of our age. And, indeed, it does exactly that — albeit less directly than one might anticipate.
To get a sense of how the book lands at this point in time, a few weeks post-Trump, it’s helpful to survey the discourse and pick out the route that has led us to where we now stand. When I look back on the last several years, when I consider how their upheavals have elicited cultural responses, I find my eye drawn to certain mutations of a common rhetoric. And not just the insipid declamations of the Trumpists — “tremendous!” — but also the rhetoric of the tribe I tend to stick with. I count myself among those who would, broadly speaking, bring a creative or humanistic bent to their encounters with the issues of the day. How did the Trump presidency impinge on the self-regard of such people? I also count myself among the affected. Especially in my sphere of choice, the literary sphere — that cultural niche dominated by, say, the New York Times Book Review and the TLS —people generally prefer to see themselves as, well, open. Their ultimate concern is with the expansion of human potential. By nature they adopt a stance pitched against anything that might diminish this potential: injustice, censoriousness, anti-intellectualism, political cynicism and malfeasance. They see themselves as generally above the fray — free from the passions of the moment, not susceptible to fads, suspicious of conventional wisdom and received expression — or else they are committed to a cause about which they are uncommonly informed and articulate. They are sceptical of authority; they speak truth to power. They analyse complex societal and psychological phenomena, and develop schemata for potential solutions to problems. They defend activities of uncertain financial value against neoliberal efficiency drives and productivity benchmarks. All right, then: they are, if nothing else, more perceptive and perspicacious, more introspective and insightful, and certainly more rational, than the average Trump supporter and the man himself.
But none of this means that such people aren’t human, can’t err, won’t buckle under the pressure of their opponents. None of it means that we aren’t, in our own ways, reactionary in the shaping of our thoughts, bamboozled by the movements of our herd, and swayed by the in-group language of our corner of the culture. Think back to the early days of the forces that ended up feeding the Trump machine, as the remnants of the Tea Party and the neophytes of 4chan united in opposition to Black Lives Matter. This alchemy of old and new energies posed a clear threat to the ideals of cultural openness, civic equality, social justice. Alongside it, then, a distinct way of speaking about matters of political urgency developed among those who suffered the worst hostilities of the Trumpists.
Consider, first, the waymarkers. March 2014: after addressing a huge crowd at CPAC, stoking the passions of the “birthers”, Trump hinted, via tweet, that he would contest the upcoming Republican primaries. May 2014: the New York Times ran a cover story about the expansion of trigger warnings at colleges across the United States, inciting conservative complaints about liberal “snowflakes” and fuelling similar coverage around the world. July 2014: Barack Obama requested Congressional funding for the first “caravan” of migrants attempting to cross the US-Mexico border — mostly children, about fifty thousand, from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Then, in August, after police in Ferguson, Missouri, killed a man named Michael Brown, the city became the site of the first large-scale protests led by Black Lives Matter since the founding of the organisation a year earlier. Now recall the grotesqueries that came to characterise the Trump era and galvanise Trump’s opposition: the anti-elitism, the nativism, the white supremacy. All of them were clear and present in Trump’s responses to those events and the cheers of the crowds he amassed.
The one outrage not quite so flagrant back then was the unapologetic, often gleeful misogyny, but when it arrived it subsumed the others. Even before the leaking of the Access Hollywood tape in the final weeks of the 2016 election, something was awry in the culture. After all, 2014 and 2015 had been, notoriously, the years of Gamergate. Then, in June 2016, Brock Turner, a one-time competitive swimmer at Stanford University, was convicted on a charge of assault with intent to rape but received just a six-month sentence. Despite the leniency of the ruling against Turner, his father solicited sympathy for him by airing concerns that the trial was punishment enough — that it would destroy Turner’s career as a swimmer — and plenty of conservative commentators parroted that line. Then, a year after Turner’s release, in October 2017, the New York Times and the New Yorker published multiple revelations of the misconduct of Harvey Weinstein, igniting the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. But to what effect, politically? In September 2018, despite facing credible accusations of rape — accusations bolstered by the testimony of his alleged victim — Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court by Donald Trump and confirmed, with unbelievable chutzpah, by Trump’s stablemates in the Senate. Watching his hearing was like watching a replay of the Turner trial, on a national scale, with an outcome that made it seem as if the Weinstein saga had never happened.
Of course, you know all this already. You saw it; you lived through it. But it’s necessary first to periodise — to bracket off a slice of time from early 2014 to the present — in order to look at the language of opposition responses to these events. So let’s talk about how we talk about trauma. The clinical definition can wait. Let’s stick with the cultural discourse. Listen, first, to Chanel Miller, the young woman assaulted by Brock Turner, and the words of her victim impact statement. After receiving medical treatment, she said, she was permitted to take a shower and instantly had an experience of depersonalisation: “I stood there examining my body beneath the stream of water and decided, I don’t want my body anymore. I was terrified of it, I didn’t know what had been in it, if it had been contaminated, who had touched it. I wanted to take off my body like a jacket and leave it at the hospital with everything else.” Miller’s language here — of violated embodiment, of knowing oneself to have been seen as only a body, of dissociating one’s subjectivity from one’s corporeality — is both a typical symptom of trauma and typical of the rhetoric of the opponents of Trumpism. I quote her words because they are pithy and potent, charged with shock and rage, but in fact any number of other testimonies of trauma could equally illustrate how we talk about trauma now. Trauma is, in the cultural sense, an experience of abject objectification: a visceral horror, affrontery, or humiliation, felt upon knowing oneself as objectified — as having become, in the eyes of another, merely a thing devoid of agency — with persistent after-effects that indefinitely disrupt daily life. In simpler terms, in the heat of the traumatic experience, the traumatised person is a person-become-object: not one who does things, but one who has things done to them. To have survived trauma is to have endured a deprivation of personhood, an experience of being nothing more than flesh.
What’s remarkable about this notion of trauma, though, is that it doesn’t owe its cultural prevalence today only to testimonies of trauma. It began there, in the bodily experiences of the traumatised, but has since spilled out into other forms of literature by writers who use similar rhetoric to address distinct types of bodily disturbance. It has trickled down into fiction as well, and non-fiction that isn’t testimonial, especially in the work of writers who identify with groups persecuted by Trumpists. I don’t mean simply that the discourse of trauma has acquired a new emphasis on embodiment; you can find this emphasis in Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein. I mean that what’s new is an inversion of signification, as to write attentively about anomalies of embodied experience is now to co-opt the discursive terms of trauma, no matter that one’s chosen subject may not be trauma in the strict sense. As a result, in addition to testimonies like Miller’s, in which a body is felt as marked by objectification, Trump-era culture has fed a wealth of literature in which the sensation of being so marked no longer requires that objectification be directly experienced. An abstract or systemic bias will serve just as well, or else the sensation can be felt as one transmitted between bodies — by osmosis of a sort, or by a presumption of empathy.
For example, given the misogyny of the Trump era, it’s unsurprising that one of the cultural trends of these years has been literature by women about women who lose agency in some way and end up feeling as if they are merely a body. On the testimonial side of things, the touchstone text is arguably Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (2017), in which Gay identifies the lingering trauma of her rape in childhood as a cause of her obesity. In fiction, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties (2017) reigns supreme as a work that illuminates continuities between the objectification and possession of women by men, and the literal and figurative violence of both. But, given the extended reach of the rhetoric of the body, intimations and claims of trauma can be found elsewhere, further afield. The rhetoric is there in the novels of Emma Cline, Sophie Mackintosh, Sue Rainsford, and Sarah Moss, as well as a long, gruelling section of Sally Rooney’s Normal People (2017). In each case, the infantilisation of a woman by a manipulative father figure is construed as a record of body dysmorphia under objectification: the man skews the woman’s sense of how she should inhabit her own skin. It’s there, too, in memoirs of bodily ailments that have a similar, if impersonal, power to traumatise. In Anne Boyer’s The Undying (2019), the condition is an aggressive breast cancer; in Karen Havelin’s Please Read This Leaflet Carefully (2019), it’s endometriosis; in Kylie Maslen’s Show Me Where It Hurts (2020), it’s both endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome. In Sick: A Memoir (2018) by Porochista Khakpour, it’s Lyme disease rather than a gender-specific condition, but the big picture is comparable. In each case, a woman feels herself become a thing when a breakdown of the body is worsened by male domination of the medical field, so that the experience of illness — not rape, not assault, lacking the intent behind both — is an experience of abject objectification and is rendered traumatic on those grounds. And then, notably, the rhetoric is also there in books that tackle the less exceptional difficulties of menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth. Look, for example, at Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self (2018; “I associate having a female body with suffering”), or Sheila Heti’s Motherhood (2018; “Isn’t it stupid my body did this again? Will it never learn?”), or Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations (2019; “How do you tell the story of a life in a body?”), or even the more existential explorations of Ellena Savage’s Blueberries (2020; “What kind of body makes a memoir?”). All of these books find their authors facing some experience of objectification, tending towards a feeling of marginalisation, with dissociation as a result and trauma as an implication.
What’s the logic behind this rhetoric of the body? The following seem to be the links in the chain. To have a body that is in some sense not normative — because certain functions are taboo or impaired, or because other features mark one out for marginalisation — is to move one’s body through a world that doesn’t accommodate it. To survive in this world therefore requires dissociation, dissociation incited by the will to function on a daily basis; and when this dissociation persists over time — for purposes of sanity and/or self-preservation — it amounts to a form of trauma. Of course, the body may be felt as not normative for the reasons articulated by Chanel Miller: because one has been victimised by another person acting with intent, so that one’s objectification was personalised and targeted. But as above, in other accounts, victimisation with intent isn’t a necessary component of abject objectification: systemic dismissal and discrimination can do the same job, provided they last long enough to traumatise. Put another way, one can claim traumatisation by roundabout means, by association with trauma’s felt effects on the body, independent of exposure to a traumatising event. Trauma, as a clinical condition, is typically attended by other experiences of distress: anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, cognitive malfunction. Crucially, however, any of these distresses can have causes other than trauma, and can be experienced independent of traumatisation. So, it seems, one can experience these attendant distresses and then, as it were, reverse-engineer their impact and significance, feeling them to be traumatising in themselves and taking them as suggestive of trauma. This isn’t to say that any of the authors here would explicitly claim that, for example, the pain of endometriosis is akin to that of rape. Rather, it’s to say that the claim doesn’t need to be made explicitly. By way of adopting recent rhetorical norms, the work of these writers both follows and furthers a discursive trend to frame selected effects of traumatisation as indicative of — if not evidence of — an experience of trauma. By articulating dissociation’s status as a symptom of trauma, conceptualising a dissociative experience as tantamount to trauma, and invoking language that advances this conceptualisation, their work itself, in its discursive context, elicits the comparison.
And although women writers have met with broad acclaim under the cloud of Trumpist misogyny, the norms they’ve adopted actually emerged in the Trump era via writers concerned with racism. In late 2014, Black Lives Matter co-founder Syreeta McFadden spoke of the distress of witnessing “brutal, systemic violence against black bodies that look like mine”. Not long afterward, the BLM manifesto declared that “[t]rauma, violence, and oppression live on and through our bodies, limiting our experience”, and the need for justice “makes care political in a world that harms and dehumanizes Black bodies”. And in 2015, in his best-selling memoir Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates insisted on the body as the traumatised site of systemic racism:
[A]ll our phrasing — race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy — serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. … You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body. … [T]he system makes your body breakable.
Note that it is the potential breakability of all black bodies, not an individual experience of having one’s body broken, which makes even the unbroken body subject to an experience of trauma in the cultural sense of the word. Similar sentiments can be found in the work of other essayists, including Teju Cole and Reni Eddo-Lodge; in novels by Esi Edugyan, Paul Beatty, Jesmyn Ward, and Colson Whitehead; and in many of the contributions to the Good Immigrant anthology in both its British and its American incarnations. They can also be found in the cinema, especially in Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018), the latter of which was hailed as a celebration of “black bodies” and was indebted to the comic book series overseen by Coates and Roxane Gay. And all of this is to say nothing of the other literatures of trauma under Trump — by Latin-American writers, queer writers, trans writers, and disabled writers who have adopted the same norms, invoked the same language, played the same rhetorical game.
“Game”: really? In a manner of speaking, yes. De facto rules came into force in the Trump era, evolving from conventions for which reviewers and readers showed a liking. To seek a platform for public speech, on the liberal side of the cultural discourse, one had to present oneself as, in the first instance, a body, with one’s heart and mind as subsequent concerns. In other words, this presentation, and the rhetoric that constructed it, was what the literary sphere of Anglophone culture selected for esteem. Maybe this was only to be expected; maybe the culture was primed for it early on. After all, it was precisely the experience of unwilled distress to the body that sparked calls for trigger warnings back in 2014, and the same year saw the problem laid bare in Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score. Trigger warnings, in their original form, weren’t instated to protect the sensitivities of mollycoddled millennials; they were tools to avoid setting off panic attacks, or worse, in students who had experienced rape, abuse, displacement, war, proximity to death. The body retains the trauma that the mind would repress, as van der Kolk explains in great detail: it is within the body that trauma re-awakens when cognition isn’t quick enough to filter out a reminder of it. But while there has been no shortage of hand-wringing about mission creep in tertiary literature courses since 2014, and concerns that some students might use trigger warnings simply to avoid material they dislike, mission creep has thrived on the production side of literature as well. Why have writers in search of readerly understanding drawn on the rhetoric of trauma even when conveying experiences at some remove from extremis? On this point, Emilie Pine is instructive. In Notes to Self, as she has said, she sought to write about “having periods and having bodily hair, and basically the day-to-day, boring realities of having a female body”, because
I was trying to participate in an intellectual realm where we had to leave our female-ness at the door — and probably, you could argue, our maleness… as in, in terms of bodies… and come in and have these disembodied conversations. [Notes to Self] has been about coming into my body, and saying, “The body thinks…” not just “feels” and “experiences”, and to validate that as an approach.
Can we pause to consider that desire for validation? What does it mean for writing to emerge from this desire rather than, say, a desire for self-expression, or catharsis, or to generate aesthetic experience? And when a writer is motivated by such a desire, and feels entitled to satisfy it, then by what process of thought, and at what expense, do they settle on their language of choice?
2. Discourse as Minefield
I’m sympathetic to the value of testimonies of trauma in the cultural discourse. If to speak of trauma is to speak of things done to objectified bodies, those bodies are by definition minoritised: therefore generally not male, white, straight, cisgendered, able, and at least middle-class. When people thus traumatised speak out about their trauma, they do important work for those who are similarly traumatised but remain silent. They create channels for dialogue. They build permission structures for the airing of experiences that would otherwise remain suppressed. They destigmatise trauma. They help to diminish the sense of shame that many survivors carry with them. They agitate for a cultural sphere in which those who testify to their trauma are acknowledged — “seen” — and, if victimised with intent, then believed. They prompt reconsiderations of experiences that sufferers may not have previously seen as traumatic. And they establish new bonds of solidarity, as those with no direct experience of trauma may understand it more keenly if they encounter the testimony of someone with whom they can identify in a bodily sense.
But it’s important as well to view the discourse with scepticism. Any system of validation, no matter how informally structured, inevitably creates perverse incentives and often arbitrary hierarchies of value. If, for instance, this discourse encourages the validation of testimonies of trauma, then doesn’t it ask careerists in pursuit of cultural prominence to embellish their testimonies, to exaggerate their claims? Jeanine Cummins is a glaring example of one who has fallen for the lure, but not everyone who seeks a public platform has to go as far as she did. Perhaps, amid fierce competition for the attention of readers, it can be helpful to characterise an experience as traumatic when it is not clinically so; but then, perhaps, to use the term in this way is to dilute a reader’s understanding of what trauma is, what constitutes it. And even though testimonies of trauma do hold clear advantages as loci for attention, that very attention opens up new dilemmas. Time and again, I have seen dialogues on this subject unfolding along lines like these:
Problem: testimonies of trauma substitute broad-based data for personal anecdotes, so they can’t give readers an accurate picture of what trauma looks like on a societal scale.
Advantage: data can’t represent the felt intensity of individual experience, and it favours the generalities of a phenomenon over the particularities of each case.
Problem: a testimony of trauma can’t accurately represent the experience of it, because trauma is by definition a phenomenon that warps one’s state of mind and one’s interpretation of experience. To be traumatised is to be hypervigilant, always at risk of anxiously misapprehending the meanings of events, so the testimony is bound to be slanted, if not botched, before it even begins.
Advantage: those who are not traumatised can’t understand the experience except via the testimonies of survivors, however imperfect they may be — and imperfections can anyway be seen as enactments of a post-traumatic state. This means that those who have traditionally been marginalised or minoritised can now be centred, culturally, rather than being belittled or having their experiences minimised.
Problem: these conditions just give us grounds for the “grievance Olympics”, with survivors trying to outdo one another in the severity of their traumatic experiences.
Advantage: since the recollection of a traumatic experience risks triggering the very bodily responses that survivors seek to avoid — see, for example, Bri Lee’s Eggshell Skull (2017) — readers can trust that the testimony is as sober a recollection as possible.
Problem: the confession of trauma, with its reminder of the risk of re-traumatisation, forecloses the possibility of meaningful critique, functioning as a shield against criticism. As a result, any such testimony can’t advance a dialogue in any true sense; it’s solipsistic.
Advantage: only those who don’t want to understand trauma could ever make a claim like this, since the claim seeks to pre-emptively silence the voices of the traumatised. This amounts to a refusal of a survivor’s assertion of subjectivity, which is a form of objectification, which reinforces the conditions of the original trauma.
And so on.
It’s vital to recognise, though, that the clinical definition of trauma really is distinct from the fast and loose use of the word in the cultural discourse. The DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for PTSD are stringent. They require, at minimum, direct exposure to “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” — or witnessing or learning of a loved one’s exposure to the same — plus at least one psychological intrusion symptom, a persistent avoidance of triggering stimuli, at least two symptoms of cognitive decline, two alterations to arousal and reactivity, and the impairment of functioning in everyday life. Under these criteria, trauma as such is basically reserved for survivors of, or witnesses to, assault, abuse, rape, armed conflicts, murder or attempted murder, accidents resulting in permanent disability, and near-death or large-scale catastrophe. The aim of these criteria is to establish a baseline for the most extreme end of the whole range of human experience, where extremis is itself relative to the known capacities and endurances of our species. There are many varieties of disturbance for which we have many words of varying severity — discomfort, pain, agony; melancholy, anguish, despair — but there are no words beyond “trauma”, which designates the outermost reaches of human suffering. And however much a particular individual may be disturbed by an experience, however much that experience may lie at the extreme end of their personal suffering, however much they may feel themselves to have been traumatised by it, this in itself is not sufficient for the experience to be classified as traumatic in light of the extremes known to others. It may well be traumatic, or later turn out to be so, but feeling it to be so doesn’t take the survivor very far towards meeting the criteria that represent a multitude. There is, then, a tension, if not a conflict, between trauma in the clinical sense and trauma as a cultural concept.
As if on cue, I caught a stark example of this tension just as I was revising this review for publication. In the lead-up to International Women’s Day, and in view of a sexual assault scandal at the highest levels of the Australian Government, Anna Spargo-Ryan wrote in The Guardian about the pressures placed on women who disclose incidents of mistreatment. “It is still necessary to confess to the indiscretions that have befallen you, to the laundry list of touchings and takings”, she said, in order to identify the double-edged sword of offering testimony: “[But t]his is also how we form the femininity that reveals us as hysterical, an aberration, an overreaction.” As a consequence, she added, “[t]o have a girlhood, outward or inward, in any kind of body, is to start with a baseline of trauma.” Really, though, is “trauma” the right word to use here? No-one could reasonably doubt that “to have a girlhood” is “to start with a baseline” of something — suspicion, unease, even a sort of double-consciousness — but “trauma” is, by any measure, a wild overstatement. For one thing, it’s clinically impossible, since “hav[ing] a girlhood”, in and of itself, is nowhere near comparable to physical proximity to a specific traumatic event. For another thing, if trauma is an experiential “baseline”, it isn’t any longer trauma; it would be a norm, and its very normativity would shift the threshold of “trauma” further into the extremes of experience, if the word is to have any meaning as a designator of extremis. How, then, to see the tension clearly? As a clinical concept, “trauma” demands a high degree of exclusivity. As a cultural concept in recent years — as a signifier of the bravery of self-exposure, of worthiness of attention, of solidarity with the marginalised and minoritised — it comes freighted with expectations of inclusivity. Everybody has “their” trauma, we say, and everybody’s trauma matters. And yet, in saying these things, our cultural exchanges and interactions corrode the clinical significance of the words we use.
How does an anthology like Trauma orient itself towards this situation? That’s a loaded question, I admit. Then again, trauma is a loaded subject and Trauma bears a loaded title — implicitly carrying loaded intentions — and all of the above feeds into the context of the anthology’s arrival. If Trauma intervenes in a discourse already very much in progress, and one whose rhetoric has begun to ossify, then what is the manner of its intervention? Without an introduction from the editors, readers are left to guess for themselves. Does it aim to be summative? If so, how? Does it prioritise comprehensiveness, representing trauma in all its varieties, or does it prioritise definitiveness, representing a selection of traumas in their most harrowing terms? Does it rather aim to be provocative, an anthology of criticism that takes nothing as given and looks afresh at what has become familiar? Maybe, though, it aims for none of this. Maybe it simply seeks to reaffirm the new status quo, to allow its contributors to generate more of the discourse exploring trauma as an embodied phenomenon. Maybe it wants to take this discourse into new territory, blazing trails across varieties of trauma and embodiment as yet under-explored. Or maybe it is content to be an old-fashioned rattle-bag — to bring together a wide range of experiences and expressive styles in one volume, and to suggest that each contribution is an equally valid manifestation of the one stark word in the title.
The good news is that Trauma contains a few quite impressive contributions. Unsurprisingly, most of them are by women who focus on abuse or mistreatment and anchor their experiences in the body. In Marina Benjamin’s ‘Soma’, the experience takes the form of an internalisation of ostensibly masculine values, which makes it impossible to reconcile a “horror of biological essentialism” with being “an embodied woman”. In Emma Jane Unsworth’s ‘Hallelujah’, it’s medical malpractice followed by a sensitivity to the cultural silence around complications during childbirth, while in Monique Roffey’s ‘The Fish Bowl’ it’s a lingering shame — the shame of having been raped in youth, and of “hav[ing] been sexually objectified, generally, from about the age of fifteen”. In each of these contributions, though, the adoption of prevailing rhetorical norms doesn’t entail an extension of them. In effect, each one says: I have a body, my body has been hurt, the hurt won’t go away and its persistence is traumatic — hear me.
Other contributions are more provocative because more courageous, more revealing of vulnerabilities, and more novel in their subject matter. Yvonne Conza’s ‘Blank Spaces’ is a careful observation of the way that suicide propagates itself through those whose loved ones take their lives. Saskia Vogel’s ‘Nacre’ deals with both intergenerational abuse and the self-harm of rationalising the violence of an abusive partner. In ‘A Recipe for Madness’, Naomi Frisby describes her exploitation by a partner with narcissistic personality disorder, from first encounter to apparent love to falling out — a situation that doesn’t appear often in the literature on trauma, especially not from the victim’s perspective. I have some reservations about Frisby’s essay, given that she makes the diagnosis without medical consultation, but nevertheless her prose has a flair that elicits the claustrophobia of the experience, its embodied effects, and their consequences for her clarity of perception: “I know something’s changed”, she writes when things turn sour, “[because m]y body trembles with anxiety when he’s at home.” Not “I tremble”: the body, again, is dissociated from the self. Meanwhile, in ‘Sleep No More’, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett emerges as one of the few contributors to Trauma to have received a clinical diagnosis of PTSD, after she experienced both an assault in the street by an unfamiliar man and proximity to a terrorist attack. But her clarity of perception arrives indirectly, as post-traumatic dreams alert her to “the trauma of being a woman in a world where some men wanted to hurt me more acutely than was clear to me in my waking life at the time”. One of the rewards of Trauma is to watch contributions like these last two play off one another, as the ferocity of Cosslett’s investigation into her trauma is tempered by the slow burn of Frisby’s awakening. Elsewhere, Tomoé Hill and Christiana Spens look at grief passed down through family structures, albeit to differing degrees, while Joseph Schreiber and Georgie Codd both discuss the difficulties of “coming into [one’s] body” when a gulf exists between one’s embodied self-perception and the perception of one’s body by others.
Amidst all this, there are two clear stand-out entries: one by co-editor Sam Mills and the other by Anna Vaught. Mills’ ‘The Shattering’ is a devastating report from the frontlines of extreme mental illness. In describing her father’s catatonia schizophrenia, and her role in caring for him, it covers much of the same territory as her memoir, The Fragments of My Father (2020), but accrues power via its compression of chronology: it details a terrifying disintegration of the psyche at a breakneck pace. And although Vaught’s ‘In Order to Live’ champions the remedial power of reading in moments of psychic distress, it wisely avoids homily and bibliotherapy. Instead, turning to questions of prose style and narrative ethics, it gives Vaught a vehicle through which to develop a passionate argument for the sensory powers of literary language. Intriguingly, both Mills and Vaught keep one eye on the traumatised body, though they also value the occasional beauty of turning to the world outside the body in search of a displaced self. Reflecting on her catatonic father, for instance, Mills observes that “his body seemed to have been unable to cope with [the] rarefied emotion [of schizophrenia] and had shattered in response”. Indeed, she says, with schizophrenia, “[t]he self is lost [and] fractures into voices” so that “fragments of self might even be put outside of the sufferer, into objects (a tape recorder, a vacuum cleaner) [or] the landscape (a tree).” But this leads Mills to attempt to recover her father, inasmuch as that is possible, by looking for him in the places where he might now see himself, by imagining his vision of his place in the world. And Vaught describes her own shattering — a succession of breakdowns, following a history of abuse — in terms that involve not an explosion so much as an implosion, as a fantasy life colonises her sense of the real. But, in her retelling, this shattering leads her to recover reality by attending to the sensuality of abstractions. “[A]s a young child”, she writes, she would read obsessively so as to “linger with the feelings that words gave me when I ate them or jumbled them about in my mouth”, “savour[ing] scansion or the weight of a line for its mnemonic qualities and the comfort that afforded”. As an adult, then, it is this habit that grounds her in the here-and-now when instability threatens: “I still suck words like sweeties”, she says, by way of “observ[ing] language change, idiolect, slang, rhyme”. Words, here, are instruments of both composition and composure: as units of meaning, they piece together a narrative; as aesthetic phenomena, they hold together a mind.
Unfortunately, many of the remaining contributions to Trauma show less care for the possibilities of the language that conveys them, using words largely as conduits for reportage or straightforward depictions of events. I make this judgment with not a little trepidation. As above, the self-exposure of trauma testimonies is a submission to vulnerability which, when public, functions as a protective shield; I’ve heard it said that it simply isn’t a critic’s place to cast aspersions on writers who have summoned the courage to share something raw with the world. But criticism is neither necessarily an attack nor a statement on anyone’s bravery. It’s only a judgment on the words on the page, the value of those words, and, in this case, the worth of their appearance in an anthology like Trauma. Of the remaining contributions, in truth, most don’t touch on trauma at all. And despite the anthology’s subtitle — Essays on Art and Mental Health — only about half of them actually discuss art, with more emphasis on the practicalities of writing than on the ways mental illness might impact one’s creative ambitions, judgments, and self-esteem.
The true subject of most of these pieces is something closer to generalised anxiety or depression, or another attendant experience of trauma. Sometimes they’ll strike a personal note, as in pieces by Rowena Macdonald, Neil Griffiths, and Rachel Genn; sometimes they survey Trump-era cultural tensions, as in pieces by James Miller and co-editor Thom Cuell. Sometimes they deal with varieties of cultural upheaval — Momina Masood on sexual repression in Pakistan, Juliet Jacques on disaster tourism at Chernobyl, Catherine Taylor on relationships strained by Covid-19 — or else they depict cultural figures from the past, as in Seraphina Madsen’s biographical sketch of Nikola Tesla. A few pieces examine therapeutic work, including Ian Boulton on talking, Alex Pheby on writing, Jude Cook on psychoanalysis, and, memorably, Susanna Crossman on her time as a hospital clown visiting traumatised and neurodivergent children. Others describe struggles with addiction, as in entries by Tamim Shadikali and Azad Ashim Sharma, while Venetia Welby evokes chronic insomnia, Tom Tomaszewski muses on cultural dislocation, and Kirsty Logan and Paul McQuade discuss grief and mourning.
Take a look at any one of these contributions and there’s a good chance you’ll find a solid piece of writing, if solid in a conventional sense: serious, polished, shapely. The best of them are less conventional: stylish, unpredictable, taut and tense, a little rougher than the rest. The only real damp squib is David Lynch’s press release on the benefits of transcendental meditation, indistinguishable from the promo talks he’s been giving for the last twenty years. Otherwise, you could pick a random entry and easily make a case for its standalone merits. What’s harder to do is make a case for its merits as something that speaks to the anthology’s core concern. Taylor’s contribution, for instance, testifies to an experience of lockdown that needs greater understanding from the powers that be. It’s more fraught than most of the other entries and skilfully strikes a balance between yearning and suppressed rage. But Trauma isn’t an anthology about lockdown, and the distresses of lockdown aren’t necessarily traumatic: they can be intensely felt, even life-altering, and still something other. To be fair to the individual contributors, they themselves don’t always co-opt the word “trauma” and some of them don’t draw on the rhetoric of the body. Their voices have been conducted into a choral arrangement whose effects they may not have anticipated. What I mean, I suppose, is that there’s another question shadowing the default question that a critical reader might bring to Trauma. The default question is simply this: how well, or how poorly, does each entry in the anthology illuminate some aspect of its theme? The shadow question is this: how does the anthology as a whole reshape the meaning of that theme, by making so much space for contents that obtain proximity to it without quite touching its core?
This question sounds abstract, but it has a practical dimension as well. It’s as much a question of curation as anything else; it has a bearing on the process behind Trauma, given the appearance of the entries selected for the anthology and the absences of potential others. And in fact it’s hard to avoid wondering about those absences after Saskia Vogel raises expectations in the anthology’s opening pages:
I never think the legacy of abuse in my life is worth talking or writing about because it’s run-of-the-mill suburban nuclear family stuff. It’s not the trauma of war. I should just soldier on. Who am I to describe what I carry with me as trauma?
Vogel doesn’t seriously inquire into this matter; she airs her doubts largely to clear the way for telling her story. And although the everydayness and invisibility of her suffering is part of what makes it so disturbing, it’s hard to read her contribution to Trauma without wondering when the trauma of war will show up. But it never does. Trauma contains no testimonies of armed conflict, nor any of displacement or asylum. In the current political climate, this is a startling omission, and all the more so when there is space for Tom Tomaszewski to glance at a family history of displacement a lifetime ago. Then, too, except for a few passing comments by Anna Vaught and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, there’s also no consideration of the trauma of disability and disfiguration. Since the cultural discourse so strongly conjoins trauma with embodiment, I’m at a loss to explain this oversight: the disabled body is the traumatised body nonpareil. I can’t imagine that there’s any intention behind Trauma to sideline certain traumatic experiences, but it’s an uneasy thing to see so many narratives brought under that banner and no place given to paraplegia, blindness, or amputation — or diaspora, uprootedness, the desolation of lives in flight from cataclysm — with all that those experiences entail in this country at this time. Their absence gives the impression that Trauma is more invested in “trauma” as a cultural concept, opening up a platform for self-selecting inclusivity, than in determinedly seeking out people whose exceptional clinical traumas would overawe most of the other contributions.
Ultimately, though, when I wonder how Trauma might reshape the meaning of “trauma”, it is the abstract side of the question that captures me. It’s a question of the possibilities forfeited by the scope of the book. There are countless fine gradations on the spectrum of human experience, and although language has the capacity to represent any of them — through a combination of diction, illustration, qualification, and explication — their distinctions are elided by convenient idioms, received expression, vogue terms that have all the individuated significance of an emoji. So what is elided when such varieties of experience are united under a definitive title? What happens to the significance of that title as variety of experience exerts pressure on it? But I misrepresent these concerns when I suggest that they come to me as abstractions. The truth is that, for me, they arise from a place that is anything but abstract, so I can’t pinpoint it without getting personal.
3. Speaking for Myself
I remember the first time I realised something in me had broken. I was stopped in the street, and engaged in small talk, by a man whose face I couldn’t see. When I say I couldn’t see his face, I don’t mean that he was concealing it or that I avoided looking. I looked him right in the eyes — or where I supposed his eyes would be — and tried to figure out who he was, what he meant to me. After all, he hadn’t flagged me down at random; he knew me, he addressed me by name, he assumed familiarity. But no matter how hard I stared at him, he seemed always, impossibly, to keep his face turned away. All I could see of him was a smudge of brown, as if he’d covered his entire head in a mask of fine muslin.
I went to the doctor for help. I was twenty-five. I’d made myself known to my GP a few months earlier, at the start of winter, because of an incident that darkened the days of everyone in the house I shared with five others. In mid-November we’d noticed the smell of gas in our kitchen and summoned an engineer. He entered our house and switched on his equipment and promptly gave us a pass. But over the following weeks, all six of us felt out of sorts, and I, in particular, noticed my losses. My sense of smell diminished. My energy levels plummeted so low that I could wake up only just before I had to leave for work and I’d be back in bed, without a meal, immediately asleep, as soon as I arrived home. My appetite disappeared, and whenever I happened to injure myself even slightly — when I nicked my throat while shaving, or pricked a finger on a knife — the blood took longer to congeal, flowing like water with a tinge of crimson. In mid-December, one of my housemates picked up the scent of gas again. Again an engineer was summoned, but this time he didn’t even need to step inside before he confirmed the leak. His equipment could detect it from the street. It had been with us for a month or so and, with varying degrees of severity, we six had been poisoned. The consequence, for me, was a winter of isolation and depression, a lazy eyelid that still hasn’t resolved itself almost fifteen years later, and the diagnosis of a vacillating condition known as prosopagnosia: face-blindness.
For about six months after the poisoning was identified, I couldn’t see human faces at all. Everyone I saw — everyone, bar none — wore the mask of muslin. I lived in what was truly a world without discernible others: no other eyes, no other lips, no other expressions of mood. At the same time, I felt myself outlandish, always visible, always at risk of being caught off-guard and recognised by someone in the faceless mass. I felt embarrassed about the situation, too, and for fear of shame I would pretend, whenever I met someone I knew, that nothing at all was wrong with me; I’d rely on other clues to their identity — location, context, body language, tone of voice — and I’d swallow my anxieties in order to perform my usual self, to carry a conversation without laying bare my inadequacy. After six months, I began to see faces again, but I wasn’t able to recognise them outside of familiar locations until another year had gone by. Even now, I’d say that my success rate with recognition is probably only just above fifty per cent. If I’m exhausted or overwhelmed by activity, as when meeting someone in a crowd of a dozen, those muslin masks return and I am once more a stranger in a land of people who all look like no-one.
On reflection, I consider this to have been the beginning of my experience with trauma — not because it was itself traumatic, but because it resurfaced during another experience that was. This second experience occurred several years later. By then I was living a different life in a different city. Still, winter came around and once again I got sick. I don’t know what the cause of my sickness was. All I know is that it gave me something nasty — sticky fluids, a hacking cough, incredible fatigue — and it plagued me for months. Every day from early October through to the following March, I looked like Patient Zero for something without a name. But I couldn’t not get up and go to work. My circumstances wouldn’t allow it; I would’ve been risking a life on the streets, with an untold impact on others. So I persisted. I forced myself to keep going despite my illness as if I could just press through it. Then one night, walking home in the dark, I was attacked in public. A kick to the back of the head sent me stumbling forward. I spun around to confront my assailant and found myself facing nothing at all. This, I would later learn, was a case of derealisation. What followed was a period of severe depression and anxiety. It was severe enough, at any rate, that some mornings, in the darkness of London before dawn, I’d cross the safety line on the Tube platform and curl my toes over the edge. But even though it brought me face-to-face with one doctor after another, everyone I saw told me not to worry and just to get some rest; I was young and healthy and I’d be back to my old self in no time. A year after that, nothing had changed. And the worst was still to come.
Soon enough I had to put a stop to working. Then my body came to a stop anyway. Yes, I do mean my body: I still had intentions, desires, plans, obligations, but my mind could not make my body satisfy them. I fell into a fatigue unlike any weariness I’d ever known. I drowsed through entire days, entire weeks. Eventually I lost my mooring in time. It reached a point at which I couldn’t envision an existence for myself beyond a couple of hours from any one instant; at midday, for example, I couldn’t internalise the notion that I’d still be in the world by sundown. And, at my worst moments, I was locked into my body. If you’ve ever seen The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), you’ll know a little of what that feels like: I’d wake in bed, fully conscious, and find myself unable to move. This wasn’t the languor of depression; it wasn’t a reluctance to rise and face the world. It was full paralysis combined with full consciousness of immobilisation. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t call for help; I literally couldn’t move a finger. All I could do was feel the heat flush through my limbs as my heart rate increased, panic set in, and I endured the agonising passage of ten, twenty, forty-five minutes — an hour, maybe more — and then, inexplicably, I’d be released. What would happen to my mind during those times is something I’ve never seen put as clearly as in Michael Harris’ account of the same experience, in his book Solitude (2018):
Nothing moved at all, but my heart and lungs. And now they were nervously thrumming like caught animals. … I commanded my body to move, then began conceding little parts of me. Could I at least move my head? No. My arms? No. Could I turn my palm or raise a finger? And with each failure, a panic crawled across my body. The panic in turn brought a message, something that’s whispered only to the paralysed: you are only a spark inside this four-limbed apparatus; you are alone in the cave of your mind; the I of you is only a story in a robot’s head.
I do not now consider myself a person with a disability. At the same time, I can’t deny that I have had experiences as disabling as Harris’ — experiences in which my body was subject to a power beyond my will, behaving independently of my wants, such that my safety was at risk for a period of time unforeseeable to me. Nor can I deny that I live today in awareness that these experiences might beset me again without notice. As future possibilities, they are the tentpoles around which I warily raise my hopes for each day, and anticipate my limits.
And, worst of all, these experiences have not been confined to my life at home. Sometimes, on a city street, I have felt my body grow gargantuan; I might stop at a pedestrian crossing to find my limbs inflating, as if blown up to Sumo proportions, but with only an aether between bone and skin, so that muscle would press ineffectually against its encasing whenever I tried to raise an arm. At other times, in public, everything around me would slow to a crawl — a crowd in a train station, traffic at an intersection — so that, for me alone, events lasting only a few seconds had a duration of five or ten minutes. And, at the very worst times, my body would simply fail and leave me wholly at the mercy of the people around me. More than once I found myself in a shop or a mall and I felt the life flood out of me. Each time I’d have to sit down, then lay down, wherever I happened to be. I’d have to close my eyes until some spark of energy flickered again within me, but all too often, before that could happen, I’d be approached by strangers, or else security guards, who had no idea what to do when their questions about my wellbeing were met with silence. I could only look up at them helplessly. And once again, during incidents like these, I lost the ability to distinguish, remember, and recognise human faces. Whatever trauma this was, its arc was long and reached back years into my past.
I could go on. There’s a lot to say about the spontaneous trembling of limbs and the cruel union of enervation and insomnia. There’s more to be said about the inner turmoil, the guilt for my new dependence on others, my resentment at the apparent futility of my aspirations, my anger at the sense that in my mid-thirties I was watching my possibilities wither on the vine. But I’ll focus instead on the clinical events. First, as is typical of virtually everyone in my situation, I was dismissed and discredited: three successive doctors told me they couldn’t see anything wrong, with two prescribing a higher intake of vitamin C and the third advising me to substitute olive oil for lard. I walked out of their clinics not quite believing that I was still living in the twenty-first century. Then, a few years later, after a series of fights, threats, and breakdowns in front of audiences, I was taken in for a barrage of tests (MS, MND) which led me to a specialist who diagnosed post-viral myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) — a “classic case”, he said. This was followed by a clinical diagnosis and a recognition of my having met the criteria for PTSD. Depersonalisation and derealisation will give you that, when accompanied by disabling paralysis which constitutes a recurrent and unpredictable threat of serious injury. Simply put, I lost control of my body, and each time it seized control of me I became convinced I was imminently going to die. And often, on reflection, when the threat abated at last, death seemed preferable to fumbling after the horizon for the rest of my days.
With all these details offered up, I’d like to return to the question of the meaning of “trauma”. As I’ve said, for all its abstraction, this question has pressed upon me as anything but abstract in the course of my experience. Every time I have suffered some sensation that is extreme as far as my experience goes, I wonder: is this it? is this trauma? is this what “trauma” means? And I suppose that’s why the question came back to me so fiercely during the time I spent with Trauma. When reading one or another entry in the anthology, wondering the same things about it, I’d have to hold my provisional judgments of the material over against the judgments I’ve already made of myself. Because, look, there’s no getting around it: no matter what my medical records might entitle me to say, I haven’t been able to endure a potentially traumatic episode without wondering, in retrospect, whether I ought to describe it that way. Could I do so, in good conscience? Or should I hold back instead, refrain from owning my personal extremis, in light of how my experience would rub up against that of others with a prior or superior claim to the term?
Of course, if you’ve read this far, you already know that I shrink from it. Nobody who seeks to claim traumatisation would bury the lede beneath thousands of words of criticism. Well, okay, maybe you could see it as a strategy for avoidance or denial; but indulge me, if you will, and see it as intended, as a practical corollary to my grounds for not wanting to lay claim to “trauma” after long and arduous contemplation. Why relinquish the claim? Along with the usual reservations — how wan even my worst moments have been by comparison to the true extremes of what is possible — I halt in the face of three doubts. I doubt that composing a testimony of trauma has quite the empowering effect its proponents assume it does. I doubt, too, that it’s possible for a written testimony to be what it purports to be, inasmuch as its writtenness suggests that trauma has loosened its hold on the writer. And I doubt that a groundswell of such testimonies can bring about the social change that many readers and writers hope for, if indeed it can bring about change at all.
My first doubt emerges from the rhetoric of trauma as abject objectification. If one’s body bears the scars of objectification, I can’t see how the pain is alleviated by situating oneself, primarily or exclusively, within a narrative whose endpoint is an explanation of causality. At best, such a narrative can rationalise the pain and describe the experience; but as long as it stands as the framework for understanding one’s nature, it stalls one’s self-perception so that one remains a person-become-thing — a person, as before, who does not do things, but has things done to them. To the extent that agency and subjectivity can alleviate the pain, a testimony of trauma that doesn’t aim higher than causality also doesn’t suffice as a way of contesting the situation it emerges from. To take one’s traumatisation as a defining feature of oneself is to perpetuate objectification, making it impossible to present oneself as a subject and maybe even making it difficult to conceive of oneself that way.
My second doubt follows on from the first. A piece of writing may or may not serve as an expression of its author’s subjectivity, but it is in any case a symptom of it. To write at all — to sit, reflect, compose, search for words — requires at least a temporary release from the conditions of abject objectification. In picking up a pen or tapping at the keyboard, one demonstrates some modicum of subjectivity, even if only fleetingly — meaning that when a testimony culminates in traumatisation without recognising the liberation that allows its own writing, it is, to take a charitable view, incomplete. The use of words presupposes a faith that words have use, have capabilities, as well as a faith that one can exploit them, if not truly master them. Both of these articles of faith are at odds with trauma in its full throes. As Alex Pheby suggests in his contribution to Trauma, trauma can sometimes be alleviated by writing, even when one doesn’t know how to write into one’s trauma — though I’d add that, regardless of the product, the act of writing itself is certainly a sign of trauma’s alleviation.
My third doubt comes from a place of natural scepticism, I suppose, and my sense that Anglophone culture is very much post-literary. Writing today doesn’t enjoy enough cultural traction to generate the sweeping changes that many writers dream of, so I find it difficult to share the view expressed succinctly by Monique Roffey in ‘The Fish Bowl’:
Sexual trauma is everywhere and every day. We just don’t know about how common it is because of the shame. We keep quiet about it because of the shame. These are the stories we never tell, and they are mainstream. And, as a result, mainstream culture is as holey as Swiss cheese. This is why I’m passionate about teaching memoir these days. To fill in the holes. Get people writing about difficult things. Telling their stories. Then society will look different.
Will it? As a result of the storytelling? Meaningfully? In some way more meaningful than just becoming a society with a fresh abundance of stories in it? That storytelling in itself is a form of activism seems to me a blind conviction; a story can’t even be guaranteed an audience, let alone an effect at scale beyond whatever size its audience may be. And I suspect that people know this when they tell their stories: hence the expansion of the cultural definition of “trauma”, as writers in search of an audience make a bid for immediacy, legitimacy, and extra-literary worthiness by yoking their most distressing experiences to that supercharged word. Of course it’s easy, maybe tempting, to conflate this suspicion with a suggestion that silence is preferable to storytelling, and I can well imagine a reader who infers from these words that my plea to writers of trauma testimonies is ultimately that they just shut up. In fact, Roffey herself makes the leap; she describes her attendance at a mental health support session and reports feeling that anything less than truly severe clinical trauma isn’t worth anyone’s breath:
In the group, almost everyone has been abused, some severely and systematically, and it has caused lasting psychological damage. Listening to these people, over the course of a year, my swimming pool attack seems impossible to count as serious. I have come to understand there is a ‘spectrum of abuse’, and my teenage event registers as mild or weak on this spectrum. Something to get over. It was only [penetration with] fingers. They didn’t gang rape me with their teenage cocks. Then, I’d have something to write about.
Roffey, by rights, shouldn’t feel any pressure to “get over” this event. It clearly haunts her, as it would anyone. Nor should she feel any suspicion that the event isn’t “something to write about”. The world is wide enough for there to be no issue of an entitlement to write, no criteria that make some stories worth the telling and some worth only silence. At issue are the effects of what happens in the process of writing for publication: the invocation of particular rhetoric, the appeal for an attentive audience, the search for a foothold in the discourse. At issue is how this process, today, incentivises work that expands our cultural sense of what trauma might be, but also moves that threshold of experience whose foundations are clinical. To the extent that the process might end up eroding those foundations — in other words, downplaying the severity of clinical trauma — I’d say it’s ethically dubious, at best, even if perhaps justifiable as a necessary evil of progressive political change. But I’d say, too, that the rhetoric of trauma anyway loses its efficacy as a force for change, when those who invoke it tie themselves in knots by reframing an extreme of human experience as a normative one. Everyone has “their” trauma, and Roffey says as much — “It’s common. It always had been common” — but she doesn’t try to reconcile the supposed normativity of trauma with her “spectrum of abuse”, a bipolar construct that by definition must relegate some forms of experience to its extremities. A serious question: if, in this view, most of the experiences on such a spectrum are essentially traumatic, then how do we designate those experiences that still lie at the most severe extreme? “Traumatic” is the word we have at hand today, and it’s not really adequate to those experiences even now, so we diminish what little potency it holds when we stretch it to accommodate more than it does. Yet circumspection doesn’t demand silence of those who worry they might not be worthy of testimony. On the contrary, it demands elaboration — detail, nuance, particularisation — to convey the quiddity of an experience without recourse to a readymade label that shepherds it into a fashionable flock.
I’m moved, here, to return to an earlier spectrum. Roffey’s spectrum is the second to appear in this review; the first appeared when I wrote that, “through a combination of diction, illustration, qualification, and explication”, language has the capacity to represent any of the “countless fine gradations on the spectrum of human experience”. No, I don’t believe that language can render precisely this or that experience. Words are unstable repositories of meaning, and sentences are too linear and unifocal to capture the simultaneity of events in time. But language can, at minimum, delineate one experience from another, marking limits and toying with contrasts so as to amplify or diminish their relative intensity. A bird’s eye view of language makes this simple: we can easily say that to feel anxious is not the same as to suffer anxiety, to feel depressed is not the same as to live with depression, to feel traumatised is not the same as to have survived a traumatic event. Zoom in on particulars, though, and language can do much more. Not only can it build a testimony that describes what happened to a person; it can equally testify to what didn’t happen but could’ve, and how a purely potential occurrence might still exert an effect. It can set one person’s experience against the experiences of others, elsewhere and elsewhen, and it can serve as a record of revision, examining how the significance of an experience might change under retrospective scrutiny, reinterpretation, reconsideration in light of later events. It also has the capacity to freeze-frame a singular moment of experience and particularise it almost exponentially, unweaving the prior elements that have given it its texture, gazing ahead to the subsequent events that will give it its significance. In these ways and others, language can bring fine and ever finer shades of distinction to any experience on the human spectrum. Outside of a therapeutic setting, does it finally matter whether or not these shades push the experience over the threshold of extremis marked by “trauma”? Solely by way of distinction, absent a bid for a clinical diagnosis, they’d rightly mock the cultural clamour for a share of the word and inclusion in a nameable category of suffering.
Ultimately, with the exceptions of Mills and Vaught, what’s largely lacking from Trauma is a sense of uncertainty about what the contributors’ experiences are. Uncertainty abounds as a component of experience — why can’t I get over a wrong I suffered long ago? what’s happening to my body against my will? how am I to cope from here on out? — but the experience always has a name, an identifiable cause, a linear chronology between that cause and the present, and usually a mechanism for catharsis. There are few misgivings about whether the name is appropriate, the cause exclusive, the chronology simplistic, the catharsis effective. For the most part, the contributors share an objective: ownership of their involuntary distress, the narrativised reclamation of agency, self-assertion via the suppression of misgivings about whether uncertainty itself mightn’t be integral to the experience they claim. Of course, critics of my reading of Trauma might well reduce my own objectives to varieties of policing: of rhetoric, of tone. Fair enough. But to this I can only say that even now, even here, I speak from uncertainty, not authority; I felt a need for these contributions to at least make space for the notion that they betray the best intentions of their authors, that on the page they feign a knowledge absent from the authors’ days. And, too, for all the talk of bodies that have become dissociated from selves, I feel there’s a more visceral, more palpable quality to a testimony that says “here’s what I endured, in all its particulars, though I don’t know how to name the experience” rather than a multitude that say “I, too, have experienced the thing you’ve named, and here’s what it felt like for me”.
My worry is that writers today need urging, page by page, to write the former testimony, and less so to write the latter. In the literary sphere, after all, the latter became the preferred vehicle for the exploration of the vulnerabilities of non-normativity under Trump. Now, post-Trump, it’s an already available form for self-expression, within a discourse already receptive to that form, and what Trauma tells us about trauma above all is precisely this: that this is how we in the literary sphere have come to talk about trauma; that, yes, the hostilities of the Trumpists — with their clearly embodied targets — have provoked us into conceiving of trauma as a locus for inclusivity, via solidarity of sentiment. It may be that there are plenty of avenues in our cultural discourse through which to further those aims, and it may be that trauma was the best avenue open to us during the last six or seven years. But is that still the case? Who, now, is served by our ongoing fascination with this concept, and to whom do we do a disservice? If all our talk of trauma aims to make progressive gains, can we not also stop to consider our losses and overreaches in the heat of the fight? While these are difficult, unsettling questions, they are to my mind necessary ones. In making its contribution to the cultural discourse around trauma, Trauma will best satisfy readers who seek continuity without wondering if questions need to be asked.