Writing in the New York Times today, contributing editor Jessica Bennett asks some provocative questions about whether social ideas around trauma have become too all-encompassing.
The word trauma, which in the original Greek referred specifically to physical harm, has in the age of social media been extended to signify seemingly anything disturbing, uncomfortable, or inconvenient. No longer the purview of exceptional circumstances – war, rape, and so on – the term has been co-opted to categorize a range of so-called microaggressions and dating tactics such as ghosting. The phenomenon is what one University of Melbourne psychology professor refers to as “trauma-creep.”
“Call it post-traumatic hyperbole. Or TikTok pseudopsychology. Or even therapy-speak,” Bennett writes. “There are plenty of horrible things going on in the world, and serious mental health crises that warrant such severe language. But when did we start using the language of harm to describe, well, everything?”
It’s a salient question. In the Pixar movie The Incredibles, the bad guy plots to give everyone superpowers because he recognizes that if everyone is a superhero, then no one is. The same principle could be applied to the notion of trauma: if every single everyday occurrence can qualify as traumatic, then how do we react when confronted with actual trauma on a personal, social, or global level?
Where literature is concerned, the focus on trauma narratives – often presented in the form of personal essays or memoirs of harrowing experiences – has had an influence on the way novelists construct their characters, and not entirely for the better. Or so argues Parul Sehgal in the New Yorker. Sehgal suggests that focusing on trendy ideas about trauma to drive a plot or narrative has the unintended result of flattening characters, rendering them mere vessels for often clichéd narratives.
Trauma came to be accepted as a totalizing identity. Its status has been little affected by the robust debates within trauma theory or, for that matter, by critics who argue that the evidence of [Bessel] van der Kolk’s theory of traumatic memory remains weak, and his claims uncorroborated by empirical studies (even his own). Lines from a Terrance Hayes sonnet come to mind: “I thought we might sing, / Of the wire wound round the wound of feeling.” That wire around the wound might be trauma’s cultural script, a concept that bites into the flesh so deeply it is difficult to see its historical contingency.
For Sehgal, the quintessential trauma text is Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel A Little Life, a novel she sums up with withering accuracy:
Jude, evidently named for the patron saint of lost causes, was abandoned as an infant. He endures – among other horrors – rape by priests; forced prostitution as a boy; torture and attempted murder by a man who kidnaps him; battery and attempted murder by a lover; the amputation of both legs. He is a man of ambiguous race, without desires, near-mute where his history is concerned – “post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past,” a friend teases him. “The post-man, Jude the Postman.” The reader completes the list: Jude the Post-Traumatic.
Sehgal here alludes to an earlier novel that could be considered a kind of wallow in trauma: Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. In this and other novels, Hardy elucidated an unambiguously downbeat worldview, subjecting his characters to all manner of pain, obsession, and psychic turmoil. Yanagihara’s use of Jude as the name for her protagonist is a clear nod to a significant literary influence.
The existence of Hardy’s novels proves that the trauma plot is not original to the 21st century. What arguably has changed is the use of a character’s traumatic backstory as a shorthand explanation for everything about that character. This tendency, Sehgal argues, results in a flattening or levelling effect, in part because in literature and film it is often those aspects of a character that remain mysterious or unexplained that offer the greatest interest.
Rob Zombie’s signal mistake in remaking Halloween for a 21st century audience was giving Michael Myers a backstory involving an abusive father-figure at home and bullying at school. Unlike John Carpenter’s original – in which Michael’s pathology remains unexplained – Zombie reduces the character to an abused kid, which makes him comprehensible and, therefore, less frightening.
Sehgal makes much the same point with reference to the hit Apple TV+ series Ted Lasso:
The second-season revelation of Ted Lasso’s childhood trauma only reduces him; his peculiar, almost sinister buoyancy is revealed to be merely a coping mechanism. He opens up about his past to his therapist just as another character does to her mother – their scenes are intercut – and it happens that both of their traumatic incidents occurred on the same day. The braided revelations make familiar points about fathers (fallible), secrecy (bad), and banked resentments (also bad), but mostly expose the creakiness of a plot mechanism.
The reduction of characters to a history of personal trauma is particularly troublesome in books about marginalized figures; too often Indigenous, Black, or queer characters are not allowed to be fully human on the page, but must instead exist as repositories for historical oppression or cultural pain. Great writers steer clear of this constricting tendency; James Baldwin never shied away from depicting the horrors of racism in his novels, but neither did he deny his characters moments of joy, love, or happiness.
The trauma plot, Sehgal writes, “presents us with locks and keys.” But humans are not doors to be unlocked with full understanding waiting just beyond the threshold. It is impossible to completely understand another human and, in literature as in life, what is most interesting are the lacunae that remain mysterious to us. This, Sehgal asserts, is the real problem with the tidy trauma plot: it simplifies and, in doing so, robs us of one of literature’s signal pleasures.