Dear ISSTD community,
New York Magazine recently published a cover story by Danielle Carr, Assistant Professor at the Institute for Society and Genetics at UCLA, on the career of trauma luminary Bessel van Der Kolk. The development of Van der Kolk’s theoretical and empirical contributions to trauma studies provides a lens through which Dr Carr explores how the concept of “trauma” has come to have such a large cultural footprint. It is undoubtedly true that the concept of psychological trauma has expanded well beyond its clinical and scientific origins, becoming a touchstone for people seeking a name for a spectrum of vulnerabilities and distress.
The popular medicalisation of everyday unhappiness and larger social problems are topics that are ripe for scrutiny. However, while seeking to debunk certain trauma cliches, the piece trades in a few of its own. The 1990s is characterised as a period of wild “recovered memory” abandon in which talk shows and self-help books leant unjustified certainty to people’s suspicions they had been sexually abused as children. The term “repressed” is used interchangeably with “recovered” memories, hypnotherapy is invoked ominously and there is the inevitable reference to the debunked 1980 biography Michelle Remembers as well as a swipe at Ellen Bass and Laura Davis’ 1988 self-help book The Courage To Heal. These are the narrative features of a tale that has been retold by self-appointed sceptics for at least a quarter century.
At the same time, Dr Carr also offers a more novel and provocative history of the recent past of traumatology. Although post-traumatic stress disorder was first formulated by disaffected Vietnam veterans and their psychiatric allies, defence funding for trauma research and treatment has dramatically expanded over the last two decades. Dr Carr links this change to the tragedies of September 11 and the subsequent War on Terror, suggesting that the concept of “trauma” has been politically useful in foregrounding American suffering but de-emphasising aggression overseas. Meanwhile, the broadening of the definition of trauma to include developmental and relational patterns, while certainly clinically useful, has become implicated in ongoing political battles, as ideological opponents claim to be traumatised by one another.
It’s not always comfortable reading critiques of trauma theory, particularly given the overt hostility and bad faith that has greeted the study and treatment of the dissociative disorders. However, the recent appeal of the language of trauma (and, increasingly, dissociation) in the popular imaginary is something that we need to pay attention to. These are the social and historical forces that shape how people experience, present and articulate trauma and dissociation, and the opportunities that we have to hand to support them.