“The Case Against the Trauma Plot”: Life Beyond Trauma
Good news: Trauma is not a death sentence. It may be a diagnosis, but not necessarily a prognosis. Trauma can launch personal transformation, post-traumatic growth.
This helpful and hopeful message is especially good to hear now, when “traumatic” is invoked as a descriptor for so much current experience, whether justifiably or not.
Truly traumatic has been the COVID-19 pandemic, now in Year Three, which, with its 1.1 million deaths in the U.S., its lockdowns, self-isolation, ever-mutating virus, and the tragic lack of social cohesion, thanks to a rabid anti-science contingent, has left so many, especially the youth, feeling unmoored. Political dysfunction exacerbates the unmoored feeling. Gun violence is off the charts, with mass shootings now weekly. Climate change is hard upon us — floods and wildfires fill the news — yet no common defense is mounted. Humanity itself seems unmoored, not able to save itself.
And, now, we learn how America’s youth, notably its girls, are “not O.K.”
The distressing findings of a new study conducted by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) landed with major impact: America’s teens, again notably its girls, “are engulfed in a growing wave of sadness, violence, and trauma.” Subjected to sexual assault (while having less consensual sex), to bullying both physical and virtual, and to a social-media culture obsessed with physical beauty and body image, girls at historic rates report sadness and hopelessness, such that: One in three girls considers suicide and makes a plan to carry it out. Cause-and-effect is hard to ascribe, but this downward trend accelerated during COVID’s isolation and increased domestic violence; other factors include gun violence, racial violence, and homelessness. A psychologist quoted by The Washington Post, citing “the pain of the world,” conjectures that “girls are more likely to respond….by internalizing conflict and stress and fear, and boys are more likely to translate those feelings into anger and aggression.” (The perpetrators of this violence were not studied, a major oversight.) This study spanned the decade 2011–2021 and included over 17,000 respondents.
If there is one reading assignment I would give America’s girls to allay their distress, it would be the invaluable essay titled “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” by Parul Sehgal. While Sehgal doesn’t actually make her case until midpoint (first she assembles her evidence), I will highlight it here: After noting at present how “trauma has proved all-engulfing” and how our culture thus prioritizes the “trauma plot” in everything from cultural messaging to storylines to the therapy profession, Sehgal then dismisses it — “never mind the pesky findings” of research data — which findings are: “that the vast majority of people recover well from traumatic events and that post-traumatic growth is far more common than post-traumatic stress” [italics mine].
Sehgal knows the American cultural landscape. Coming from the book world — she was an editor, then reviewer and columnist in the books section of The New York Times from 2012 to 2021 — Sehgal is now a critic at large at The New Yorker, writing on culture and literature. Clearly Sehgal believes (as do I) that culture, the immersive environment in which we all swim, is as influential in shaping the individual as politics or persona. And coming from the book world, it seems no accident she enlisted “plot” in her title, to denote trauma’s centrality as driver. Literary criticism usually begins and ends with “ambiguity” and “complexity,” eschewing prescription. But with this essay, Sehgal takes a cannon to the canon, going far more utilitarian than is usual critical practice, to say: No, the trauma plot is not merely literary, but is, in reality, hurtful. Thence to her argument against the plot.
But first, her evidence, including a definition of trauma. Writes Sehgal: “Its customary clinical incarnation, P.T.S.D., is the fourth most commonly diagnosed psychiatric disorder in America and one with a vast remit.” As one psychiatrist helpfully puts it in layman’s terms, trauma is an event “outside the range of usual human experience,” that is, “anything the body perceives as too much, too fast, or too soon.” Adds Sehgal:
“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…. Today, with the term having grown even more elastic, the 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.’”
This generalized trauma has been taken up, in Sehgal’s estimation, too energetically by writers of fiction. She traces the “trauma plot” to Virginia Woolf who, on a train in 1924, encountered a weeping woman. “A pinched little thing,” Sehgal writes, “she had no way of knowing that she was about to be enlisted into an argument about the fate of fiction” (in Woolf’s essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”). Noting that writers draw from their temperament, time, and country, Sehgal asks: Who is our representative character today? “We’d meet her, I imagine….giving off a fragrance of unspecified damage…. Something….keeps her solitary and opaque, until there’s a sudden rip in her composure and her history comes spilling out, in confession or in flashback.”
“Dress this story up or down: on the page and on the screen, one plot — the trauma plot — has arrived to rule them all. Unlike the marriage plot, the trauma plot does not direct our curiosity toward the future (Will they or won’t they?) but back into the past (What happened to her?). ‘For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge,’ Sylvia Plath wrote in ‘Lady Lazarus.’ ‘A very large charge.’”
Thus today the tyranny of backstory, of the most traumatic kind. Notes Sehgal: “Classics are retrofitted according to the model. Two modern adaptations of Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’ add a rape to the governess’s past. In ‘Anne with an E,’ the Netflix reboot of ‘Anne of Green Gables,’ the title character is given a history of violent abuse, which she relives in jittery flashbacks.” Hogarth Press’s novelized updates of Shakespeare’s plays are “accessorize[d]….with the requisite devastating backstories.”
How has trauma, and the attendant trauma plot, become “all-engulfing”? Sehgal speculates:
“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?”
While trauma was once seen as moral defect — soldiers with “shell shock” in World War I were labelled “moral invalids” — now moral defect has been elevated, writes Sehgal, “to a source of moral authority, even a kind of expertise.” “My trauma, I’ve heard it said, with an odd note of caress and behind it something steely, protective.” Also protective: the therapy profession. As a counter, Sehgal cites George Bonanno, author of “The End of Trauma” and himself a professor of clinical psychology who (as I Google) advocates for the idea of resilience in trauma. She quotes Bonanno for his “blunt” assessment: that “People don’t seem to want to let go of the idea that everybody is traumatized.”
Accordingly, in the realm of literature, novels and memoirs driven by trauma have been big best-sellers for decades. Sehgal ticks off the types — the caustic, the sentimental, the enraptured, “the breathtakingly candid (the anonymously written memoir ‘Incest Diary’), or all of the above (Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume ‘My Struggle’).”
Then, daringly (and no doubt destroying her credentials as an impartial book reviewer), Sehgal flays two recent acclaimed novels for trauma overkill. Teeing up, she writes: “The dominant mode by which a young, hungry writer could enter the conversation was by deciding which of her traumas she could monetize….be it anorexia, depression, casual racism, or perhaps a sadness like mine, which blended all three.”
The first example of this trauma overkill, Hanya Yanigihara’s novel “A Little Life” (2015), features “one of the most accursed characters to ever darken a page” — Jude — “evidently named for the patron saint of lost causes.” Upon abandonment at birth:
“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…. Trauma trumps all other identities, evacuates personality, remakes it in its own image. The story is built on the care and service that Jude elicits from a circle of supporters who fight to protect him from his self-destructive ways.”
Mystified at the loyalty this “post-identity” character engenders, Sehgal posits the trauma plot’s logic: It’s merely enough to “evoke the wound and we will believe that a body, a person, has borne it.” The second example of novelistic overkill is Jason Mott’s “Hell of a Book,” winner of the 2021 National Book Award for fiction, which begins “with a slow pan across the figure of a woman sitting on a porch in an old, faded dress.” Sehgal quotes Mott at length:
“The threads around the hem lost their grip on things. They broke apart and reached their dangling necks in every direction that might take them away. And now, after seven years of hard work, the dress looked as though it would not be able to hold its fraying fabric together much longer.”
Sehgal interjects here: “It is tempting to read this as a description of the trauma plot itself, threadbare and barely hanging on, never more so than in Mott’s novel” [italics mine]. It is exhilarating — truly exhilarating — to see a cultural gatekeeper re-examine the terms and conditions of minding the gate — and then alter those terms and conditions in a more humane and dynamic direction, up and away from the stasis of damage and tragedy. So rare! I have appealed for this alteration for years.
“Threadbare,” “barely hanging on,” “evacuates personality,” “post-identity”: By now I hope the reader, especially the American girl in distress, grasps the point: Trauma may be the diagnosis, but unless the character — the individual — acts to haul past the trauma, the trauma stays. And, most definitely, the character — the individual — can act, can counter-act. Here is where Sehgal, in her essay’s second half, makes her valued-added points and renders a real public service, as a critic “at large” writing about the larger culture can do.
Humorously noting there may be objections — “I hear grumbling” — Sehgal asks, not rhetorically: “Isn’t it unfair to blame trauma narratives for portraying what trauma does: annihilate the self, freeze the imagination, force stasis and repetition?” Yet she declares: “Survivor narratives and research suggest greater diversity than our script allows.”
Adhering to the idea of “plot” — which she has shown now works as much on American society itself as in the scenarios of novelists and screenwriters — Sehgal objects to the script’s “coerciveness,” to the “coercive tidiness of the trauma plot.” She writes: “It often yields a story that can be easily diagrammed, a self that can be easily diagnosed.”
Then Sehgal makes her most important point: “But in deft hands” — and here I will open out from the writer writing to the reader reading — “the trauma plot is taken only as a beginning — with a middle and an end to be sought elsewhere” [italics mine]. This bears repeating: Trauma is only the beginning, we are not the sum of our trauma; the rest of the story — the rest of our biography — is yet to come. Pointing the way to post-traumatic health and growth, Sehgal adds: “With a wider aperture, we move out of the therapeutic register and into a generational, social, and political one” — vistas way beyond the stifling atmosphere of the damaged self, moving out into the world. A wider aperture also enables charity and ethical-moral consciousness: Focusing only on our painful histories “can make us myopic to the suffering of others.”
For a story that shirks the trauma plot, in fact kicks it to the curb, Sehgal cites the FX series “Reservation Dogs,” which defies expectations that Indigenous stories “be tethered to trauma.” After describing how 16-year-old Bear and friends “survive” an ambush — by paintball — from another gang, with Bear flailing and falling in slow-motion, she writes:
“Bear then has a vision of a Native warrior on horseback…. ‘I was at the Battle of Little Bighorn,’ the warrior says, as if prepared to give Bear a speech on adversity and heroism. Then he clarifies: ‘I didn’t kill anybody, but I fought bravely.’ He clarifies again: ‘Well, I actually didn’t get into the fight itself, but I came over that hill, real rugged-like.’ Humor protects genuine feeling from sentimental traditions that have left the specificity of Native experience flattened and forgotten. Bear and his friends, we learn, are reeling from the suicide of a member of their group. They face all the present-day difficulties of life on the reservation, but mourning is not the only way they are known to themselves, or to us.”
Of course, this is not to dismiss trauma with a joke or humorous story — far from it. And Sehgal would know that to move through life only as a jokester or an ironist (stating the opposite of what one feels) exacts serious costs to one’s fullest personal development. But, as she sympathetically shows, humor can get the car out of the ditch. Determination is crucial, too, I’d add: the determination not to let one’s inner richness lie buried, undiscovered. Also helpful is understanding that past generations of Americans saw life’s troubles as just that: life, not trauma.
Again, Sehgal’s insights as a cultural gatekeeper are singular and, I hope, pioneering. Here it is germane to note my own artistic experience: In the early 1990s I reached out by phone to a man under siege in Sarajevo, helped keep him going, started writing a play about us, meanwhile he escaped and we finally met face-to-face. Triumph! But: In marketing the play to American theatres I ran into….the trauma plot: Surely I didn’t reach out to Sarajevo only out of “simple human sympathy,” surely there was trauma in my past resonating with Sarajevo’s; I replied a sad childhood did not equate. And, showing no understanding of real trauma, producers urged my character to flirt: “No,” I said, “you do not flirt with a traumatized person!” Finally I inserted a “Mr. Producer” into the play, to stand in for my own culture which I now recognized to be deeply troubled, perhaps in decline. (Somehow I got three productions.) Since then, I too have been writing against the trauma plot (see: “Shut Up, Hamlet, and Drive”).
Note: For her essay Sehgal received the 2023 Silvers-Dudley Prize, named in part for Robert Silvers, founder of The New York Review of Books. Recognizing this pioneering essay with such award may indicate a major institutional gatekeeper, NYRB, joins the case against the trauma plot.
I have discussed this essay in detail, because I sense a crying need for its wisdom in swaths of the American public, again especially our girls. Sometimes, in the throes of struggle, hearing a higher note, as Sehgal has sounded throughout, will inspire. Ever helpful, Sehgal closes with an overview that enables us to see the landscape whole: “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.”
In sum, trauma buries the richness in us. Urging an “open destiny,” Sehgal wishes us this perspective: when “my trauma becomes but one rung of a ladder. Climb it; what else will you see?”