It was on a train journey, from Richmond to Waterloo, that Virginia Woolf encountered the weeping woman. A pinched little thing, with her silent tears, she had no way of knowing that she was about to be enlisted into an argument about the fate of fiction. Woolf summoned her in the 1924 essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” writing that “all novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite”—a character who awakens the imagination. Unless the English novel recalled that fact, Woolf thought, the form would be finished. Plot and originality count for crumbs if a writer cannot bring the unhappy lady to life. And here Woolf, almost helplessly, began to spin a story herself—the cottage that the old lady kept, decorated with sea urchins, her way of picking her meals off a saucer—alighting on details of odd, dark density to convey something of this woman’s essence.
Those details: the sea urchins, that saucer, that slant of personality. To conjure them, Woolf said, a writer draws from her temperament, her time, her country. An English novelist would portray the woman as an eccentric, warty and beribboned. A Russian would turn her into an untethered soul wandering the street, “asking of life some tremendous question.”
How might today’s novelists depict Woolf’s Mrs. Brown? Who is our representative character? We’d meet her, I imagine, in profile or bare outline. Self-entranced, withholding, giving off a fragrance of unspecified damage. Stalled, confusing to others, prone to sudden silences and jumpy responsiveness. Something gnaws at her, 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.” Now such exposure comes cheap. Frame it within a bad romance between two characters and their discordant baggage. Nest it in an epic of diaspora; reënvision the Western, or the novel of passing. Fill it with ghosts. Tell it in a modernist sensory rush with the punctuation falling away. Set it among nine perfect strangers. In fiction, our protagonist will often go unnamed; on television, the character may be known as Ted Lasso, Wanda Maximoff, Claire Underwood, Fleabag. 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. In Hogarth Press’s novelized updates of Shakespeare’s plays, Jo Nesbø, Howard Jacobson, Jeanette Winterson, and others accessorize Macbeth and company with the requisite devastating backstories.
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.”
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? The question itself might offend: perhaps it’s grotesque to argue about the symbolic value attributed to suffering when so little restitution or remedy is available. So many laborious debates, all set aside when it’s time to be entertained. We settle in for more episodes of Marvel superheroes brooding brawnily over daddy issues, more sagas of enigmatic, obscurely injured literary heroines.
It was not war or sexual violence that brought the idea of traumatic memory to light but the English railways, some six decades before Woolf chugged along from Richmond to Waterloo. In the eighteen-sixties, the physician John Eric Erichsen identified a group of symptoms in some victims of railway accidents—though apparently uninjured, they later reported confusion, hearing voices, and paralysis. He termed it “railway spine.” Sigmund Freud and Pierre Janet went on to argue that the mind itself could be wounded. In the trenches of the Great War, railway spine was reborn as shell shock, incarnated in the figure of the suicidal veteran Septimus Smith, in Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway.” What remained unaltered was the scorn that accompanied diagnosis; shell-shocked soldiers were sometimes labelled “moral invalids” and court-martialled. In the decades that followed, the study of trauma slipped into “periods of oblivion,” as the psychiatrist Judith Herman has written. It wasn’t until the Vietnam War that the aftershocks of combat trauma were “rediscovered.” P.T.S.D. was identified, and, with the political organizing of women’s groups, the diagnosis was extended to victims of rape and sexual abuse. In the nineteen-nineties, trauma theory as a cultural field of inquiry—pioneered by the literary critic Cathy Caruth—described an experience that overwhelms the mind, fragments the memory, and elicits repetitive behaviors and hallucinations. In the popular realm, such ideas were given a scientific imprimatur by Bessel van der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score” (2014), which argues that traumatic memories are physiologically distinctive and inscribe themselves on an older, more primal part of the brain.
“If Greeks invented tragedy, the Romans the epistle and the Renaissance the sonnet,” Elie Wiesel wrote, “our generation invented a new literature, that of testimony.” The enshrinement of testimony in all its guises—in memoirs, confessional poetry, survivor narratives, talk shows—elevated trauma from a sign of moral defect to a source of moral authority, even a kind of expertise. In the past couple of decades, a fresh wave of writing about the subject has emerged, with best-selling novels and memoirs of every disposition: the caustic (Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels), the sentimental (Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”), the enraptured (Leslie Jamison’s essay collection “The Empathy Exams”), the breathtakingly candid (the anonymously written memoir “Incest Diary”), or all of the above (Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume “My Struggle”). Internet writing mills offered a hundred and fifty dollars a confession. “It was 2015, and everyone was a pop-culture critic, writing from the seat of experience,” Larissa Pham recalls in a recent essay collection, “Pop Song.” “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 Body Keeps the Score” has remained planted on the Times best-seller list for nearly three years.
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 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. The claim that trauma’s imprint is a timeless feature of our species, that it etches itself on the human brain in a distinct way, ignores how trauma has been evolving since the days of railway spine; traumatic flashbacks were reported only after the invention of film. Are the words that come to our lips when we speak of our suffering ever purely our own?
Trauma theory finds its exemplary novelistic incarnation in Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life” (2015), which centers on one of the most accursed characters to ever darken a page. 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.
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; truly, there are newborns envious of the devotion he inspires. The loyalty can be mystifying for the reader, who is conscripted to join in, as a witness to Jude’s unending mortifications. Can we so easily invest in this walking chalk outline, this vivified DSM entry? With the trauma plot, the logic goes: Evoke the wound and we will believe that a body, a person, has borne it.
Such belief can be difficult to sustain. The invocation of trauma promises access to some well-guarded bloody chamber; increasingly, though, we feel as if we have entered a rather generic motel room, with all the signs of heavy turnover. 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. As audiences grow inured, one trauma may not suffice. We must rival Job, rival Jude. In “WandaVision,” our protagonist weathers the murder of her parents, the murder of her twin, and the death, by her own hands, of her beloved, who is then resurrected and killed again. All that, and a subplot with a ticking time bomb.
Trauma has become synonymous with backstory, but the tyranny of backstory is itself a relatively recent phenomenon—one that, like any successful convention, has a way of skirting our notice. Personality was not always rendered as the pencil-rubbing of personal history. Jane Austen’s characters are not pierced by sudden memories; they do not work to fill in the gaps of partial, haunting recollections. A curtain hangs over childhood, Nicholas Dames writes in “Amnesiac Selves” (2001), describing a tradition of “pleasurable forgetting,” in which characters import only those details from the past which can serve them (and, implicitly, the narrative) in the present. The same holds for Dorothea Brooke, for Isabel Archer, for Mrs. Ramsay. Certainly the filmmakers of classical Hollywood cinema were quite able to bring characters to life without portentous flashbacks to formative torments. In contrast, characters are now created in order to be dispatched into the past, to truffle for trauma.
Jason Mott’s “Hell of a Book,” which received the 2021 National Book Award for fiction, begins with a slow pan across the figure of a woman sitting on a porch in an old, faded dress: “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.” 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. The narrator, a wildly successfully novelist on book tour, finds himself followed by an apparition, who represents both a young Black boy killed by police and a child who witnesses police shoot and kill his own father. But the rangy, sorrowing themes that Mott wants to explore are subsumed by an array of cheap effects, coy hints of buried trauma in the narrator’s own past: amnesiac episodes, hammy Freudian slips, a therapist’s sage but unappreciated insights. Once brought to light, this trauma feels oddly disengaged from the story at hand, as tangentially connected as those two entwined strands in “Ted Lasso,” signalling to the same vague homilies (grief haunts, trauma catches up with you) and unnecessary to Mott’s more powerful points about police violence as a form of terrorism and the painful perpetual mourning it inspires. Mott uses all the possible cranks and levers of the trauma plot, as if imagining a wire of suspense drawing us in. But the machinery is nothing so fine; it chews up his story instead.
I hear grumbling. Isn’t it unfair to blame trauma narratives for portraying what trauma does: annihilate the self, freeze the imagination, force stasis and repetition? It’s true that our experiences and our cultural scripts can’t be neatly divided; we will interpret one through the other. And yet survivor narratives and research suggest greater diversity than our script allows. Even as the definition of what constitutes P.T.S.D. has grown more jumbled—“the junk drawer of disconnected symptoms,” David J. Morris calls it in “The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” (2015)—the notion of what it entails, the sentence it imposes, appears to have grown narrower and more unyielding. The afterword to a recent manual, “Stories Are What Save Us: A Survivor’s Guide to Writing About Trauma,” advises, “Don’t bother trying to rid yourself of trauma altogether. Forget about happy endings. You will lose. Escaping trauma isn’t unlike trying to swim out of a riptide.”
To question the role of trauma, we are warned, is to oppress: it is “often nothing but a resistance to movements for social justice,” Melissa Febos writes in her forthcoming book, “Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative.” Those who look askance at trauma memoirs, she says, are replicating the “classic role of perpetrator: to deny, discredit and dismiss victims in order to avoid being implicated or losing power.” Trauma survivors and researchers who have testified about experiences or presented evidence that clashes with the preferred narrative often find their own stories denied and dismissed. In the nineties, the psychologist Susan A. Clancy conducted a study of adults who had been sexually abused as children. They described the grievous long-term suffering and harm of P.T.S.D., but, to her surprise, many said that the actual incidents of abuse were not themselves traumatic, characterized by force or fear—if only because so many subjects were too young to fully understand what was happening and because the abuse was disguised as affection, as a game. The anguish came later, with the realization of what had occurred. Merely for presenting these findings, Clancy was labelled an ally of pedophilia, a trauma denialist. During treatment for P.T.S.D. after serving as a war correspondent in Iraq, David Morris was discouraged from asking if his experience might yield any form of wisdom. Clinicians admonished him, he says, “for straying from the strictures of the therapeutic regime.” He was left wondering how the medicalization of trauma prevents veterans from expressing their moral outrage at war, siphoning it, instead, into a set of symptoms to be managed.
And never mind pesky findings that the vast majority of people recover well from traumatic events and that post-traumatic growth is far more common than post-traumatic stress. In a recent Harper’s essay, the novelist Will Self suggests that the biggest beneficiaries of the trauma model are trauma theorists themselves, who are granted a kind of tenure, entrusted with a lifetime’s work of “witnessing” and interpreting. George A. Bonanno, the director of Columbia’s Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab and the author of “The End of Trauma,” has a blunter assessment: “People don’t seem to want to let go of the idea that everybody’s traumatized.”
When Virginia Woolf wrote about her own experience of sexual abuse as a child, she settled on a wary description of herself as “the person to whom things happen.” The mask of trauma does not always neatly fit the face. In “Maus,” Art Spiegelman strives to understand his overbearing father, a Holocaust survivor. “I used to think the war made him that way,” he says. His stepmother, Mala, replies, “Fah! I went through the camp. All our friends went through the camps. Nobody is like him!” Mala won’t cede her knowledge of her husband or of life to the coercive tidiness of the trauma plot. There are other doubting Malas. I start seeing them everywhere, even lurking inside the conventional trauma story with designs of their own, unravelling it from within.
Stories rebel against the constriction of the trauma plot with skepticism, comedy, critique, fantasy, and a prickly awareness of the genre and audience expectations. In the Netflix series “Feel Good,” the protagonist, Mae, a comedian dealing with an addiction and disorienting flashbacks, struggles to fit their muddled feelings about their past into any straightforward diagnosis or treatment plan. (“People are obsessed with trauma these days,” Mae says ruefully. “It’s like a buzzword.”) The protagonist of Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You,” learning that she has been drugged and sexually assaulted, also finds the ready-made therapeutic scripts wanting; some of the show’s most interesting strands follow the ways that focussing on painful histories can make us myopic to the suffering of others. Conversations about trauma in Anthony Veasna So’s “Afterparties” are seasoned with exasperation, teasing, fatigue. “You gotta stop using the genocide to win arguments,” Cambodian American children tell their refugee parents.
The appetite for stories about Black trauma is skewered in Uwem Akpan’s “New York, My Village” and Raven Leilani’s “Luster.” Scanning the season’s “diversity giveaway” books, Leilani’s Edie, one of the only Black employees at a publishing house, sees “a slave narrative about a mixed-race house girl fighting for a piece of her father’s estate; a slave narrative about a runaway’s friendship with the white schoolteacher who selflessly teaches her how to read; a slave narrative about a tragic mulatto who raises the dead with her magic chitlin pies; a domestic drama about a Black maid who, like Schrödinger’s cat, is both alive and dead.”
The FX series “Reservation Dogs,” set in Oklahoma’s Indian country, draws attention to, and shirks, the expectation that Indigenous stories be tethered to trauma. A sixteen-year-old named Bear and his friends are accosted by members of a rival gang, who pull up in a car and start firing. Bear’s body shudders with the impact, flails, and falls, with agonizing slowness. He is brought down—in a hail of paintballs. It’s a fine parody of “Platoon,” of the killing of Willem Dafoe’s Sergeant Elias. If it isn’t enough to play on one classic narrative of trauma, Bear then has a vision of a Native warrior on horseback, ambling through the mist. “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. They’re teen-agers, and announce themselves in the time-honored ways—their taste, their terrible schemes, their ferocious loyalty to one another.