Time to reevaluate the prominence trauma has in our stories

There’s an excellent article on the prevalence of the trauma plot in contemporary literature in the January 3-10 issue of The New Yorker, which grabbed my attention for two reasons: first, as a writer wanting to understand more about the craft (and which types of stories are currently popular and why) but secondly, as someone who has experienced trauma and is in the process of redefining my life in response to it.

The article, when I first read it, was headlined: ‘The case against the trauma plot.’ It’s now headlined ‘The key to me’. Its big idea falls somewhere between those two headers.

What is a trauma plot? It’s a story driven by the slow reveal of the key trauma of a central character’s life, often revealed in flashbacks or confession, whether, in some of the examples given by The New Yorker, the suicide of a father as in Apple’s Ted Lasso, or a history of violent abuse, such as in Netflix’s reboot of the Anne of Green Gables stories.

But let’s rewind a little for a broader context … I revisited Jordan B Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life prior to Christmas, more out of a sense of wanting to finish a book that I’d bought than a real desire to read his stuff. Very early in the re-reading I was struck by one of his analogies for how humans do life. He discusses how lobsters that have been defeated by a rival for a favoured place to live on the seabed actually start to experience brain rot — they literally retreat into their shells and die. I had an immediate connection to what he was saying, since I’d only recently started to recast how I’ve experienced much of the past decade as a retreat into my shell because of what I’ve previously described as one of my most traumatic experiences, my departure as the Vice Principal of Operations from Laidlaw College in 2011. I recognised myself in Peterson’s allegory. I’ve lived as a defeated lobster for most of the past decade, to the point — as friends are wont to remind me —that I’ve become something of a hermit.

At the same time I’m grappling with the structure of a novel that has occupied me for most of that decade, the story of a friend that I began to write in 2014 and which has subsequently seen no less than seven (unsatisfactory) rewrites. A traumatic event is at the heart of the novel, as it is with much contemporary fiction (particularly the successful stuff) but with each rewrite I get more of a sense that it is the trauma itself that is getting in the way of the story; that while it’s a definite trigger for much of what follows, its importance has been overblown — certainly in my thinking and in my retelling. I have since restructured the story entirely (still with the traumatic event in there, but in a far less prominent role), and at this stage of the rewrite it feels far more interesting, more open, more pregnant with possibility.

Back to The New Yorker, which says the following about the trauma plot in fiction and its corollary in the field of psychology and mental health:

The prevalence of the trauma plot cannot come as a surprise at a time when the notion of trauma has proved all-engulfing. Its customary clinical incarnation, P.T.S.D., is the fourth most commonly diagnosed psychiatric disorder in America, and one with a vast remit. Defined by the DSM-III, in 1980, as an event “outside the range of usual human experience,” trauma now encompasses “anything the body perceives as too much, too fast, or too soon,” the psychotherapist Resmaa Menakem tells us in “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies” (2017). The expanded definition has allowed many more people to receive care but has also stretched the concept so far that some 636,120 possible symptom combinations can be attributed to P.T.S.D., meaning that 636,120 people could conceivably have a unique set of symptoms and the same diagnosis. The ambiguity is moral as well as medical: a soldier who commits war crimes can share the diagnosis with his victims, Ruth Leys notes in “Trauma: A Genealogy” (2000). Today, with the term having grown even more elastic, this same diagnosis can apply to a journalist who reported on that atrocity, to descendants of the victims, and even to a historian studying the event a century later, who may be a casualty of “vicarious trauma.”

In other words, the word and perhaps even the concept of trauma itself has become over-used, in fiction as well as in life. This resonates with my experience — how I have understood periods of my life in relation to traumatic events, but also how I have heard and observed others use ‘trauma’ in ways that I suspect have not been genuine or helpful. That observation will rattle some cages, particularly among the fraternity of counsellors that I have known who might read this. The problem with commenting on someone else’s trauma is that trauma and the nursing of it has become such a sacred cow. But also a casual observer can never really evaluate the integrity of the trauma experienced by someone else — so I won’t even go there.

Anyway, I have plenty of my own experiences to draw from.

Objectively, I’ve experienced a lot of trauma in life — perhaps not relative to others (victims of war, abuse, refugees, those in extreme poverty etc), but certainly a fair share of what those 636,120 variants would describe as trauma, whether as a newspaper reporter or investigative journalist, or even as a theologian/pastor/counsellor. But if I’m honest, only two traumatic events have genuinely shaped whole periods of my life — a cliff collapse in 1996 that I reported on as a newspaper editor before being drawn in to recover the bodies; and my aforementioned departure from Laidlaw College. Both events were triggers for addictive behaviours, anxiety and depression, relationship strife, loss of identity, major career changes, relocation, loss of friendships, and so on. Both events impacted me in very negative ways, but then also resulted in character-shaping and life-changing decisions.

It’s also fair to say both events have been overdramatised in my narrative.

What do I mean by this?

Both events loom larger in my story than they deserve. Both stories have lingered longer in my retelling than they should. An indicator of the latter is when the stories begin to feel rehearsed, like you’re not recounting the events themselves but your own narrative of those events. The story feels staid. You’re aware of embellishing certain features, perhaps even adding components that were not part of the original (and not because you’ve realised new insights). And both events have been used to excuse many things to which they are probably unrelated … poor decisions, mediocre performance, negative outcomes.

‘I did this because …’

‘I failed at this because …’

‘I’ve been disadvantaged because …’

Some of which may be true. But it’s not the whole story, even if it’s compelling to make it so.

‘How to account for trauma’s creep?’ asks The New Yorker:

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? 

I’ve taught several tertiary courses on trauma, in both journalism and theology. The journalism paper looked at how journalists recover from the real life trauma of being eyewitnesses to horror: people being killed in car accidents; children being murdered by terrorists; women being raped and murdered in their beds. I used some of these examples in my theology course, which I wrote and lectured under the title Theology of Suffering and Hope, and in which I argued that suffering was inherently meaningless — which is part of what makes it traumatic.

One way that we cope with suffering (and its meaninglessness) is to give it value (meaning) — particularly spiritual value.

‘God is teaching me a lesson.’

‘Good will come of this.’

‘This is Mother Nature’s way of responding to the climate threat.’

All of which is bullshit. Suffering contravenes what we expect life to be: full of peace, joy, love, contentment. This is one of the core narratives of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, that suffering has interrupted the goodness of Creation as something foreign, something that doesn’t belong, something that was introduced because of disobedience (the Original Sin), and something that, because it was not introduced as part of the created order, has NO DIVINE PURPOSE or meaning.

But one of our fundamental human idiosyncrasies is to assign value and meaning where there isn’t any, hence … 636,120 ways (according to The New Yorker) of giving trauma (suffering) meaning and value by assigning it a role in subsequent events that it probably doesn’t deserve. Just as I have with the major traumatic events of my life.

Is that wrong? To some degree, yes, because the narrative of trauma overshadows other ways of narrating our experiences that are based in things such as love, joy, peace, grace, goodness. When we justify suffering by assigning it more value than it’s worth, we sideline other pieces of the story that are of far more importance and value than those associated with the trauma. I am not what I am today because of how I was treated by what were essentially some pretty inconsequential (if not downright bad) people at Laidlaw College. I’m also not what I am because of what happened in 1996 on a beach in Western Australia, or the foolish decisions I made in the aftermath. My narrative is more broad, more rich, more potent than those two events.

The New Yorker agrees with this assessment, as it concludes:

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. 
  • For the sea urchin reference, read the full article