In an era of public revelation, reflections on the ubiquitous trauma arc
“In a world infatuated with victimhood, has trauma emerged as a passport to status — a red badge of courage?” asks Parul Sehgal in a recent New Yorker essay. Sehgal provides a brief history of trauma diagnoses from what was once called “railway spine,” to shell-shock, to P.T.S.D. (The last, Sehgal notes, is today the fourth most-commonly diagnosed psychiatric disorder in America.) Sehgal is skeptical: P.T.S.D.’s boundaries have become so amorphous that, she writes, 636,120 possible symptom combinations can be attributed to the condition. While it’s possible modern life is simply more traumatic, the likelier possibility Sehgal ventures, is that we’re more inclined to spot trauma, “more prone to perceive everything as injury.”
You’ll be forgiven if you bristle, irked that the crush of lasting trauma might be compared to so much snow-flakery. But Sehgal’s larger concern is that our prevailing fixation on trauma stories — from overly revealing blog posts, to the underpinning of novels, to the too-neat explainer for Ted Lasso’s outward cheery countenance — could be ruining narrative.
While trauma stories can indeed be done badly, I’m not convinced it’s the case trauma awareness is somehow injuring human storytelling. Stories that include trauma can be poorly crafted, just as stories about monsters, or a character squaring off against nature can be. But because some are does not mean they all are, of course — or that their combined weight is somehow flattening narrative. (Understanding human psychology certainly added new elements to narrative in the time since Freud, even if some attempts flopped.)
It’s not the trauma that warps narrative when it doesn’t work. It’s a matter of poorly defining how and why the story is told. We’re watching the form evolve, and so often, such evolution comes in leaps and fits, with perhaps too much awareness of the element we’re still learning to define.
There’s a degree to which showing one’s mess in writing became de rigueur as we transitioned collectively from the early days of social media to the birth of internet writing. There was a thrill in those early years, of finding a bond of common experience across online networks. Perhaps it was only a matter of time…