Parul Sehgal makes some points I agree with in her “Critic at Large” column in the January 3/10, 2022 issue of The New Yorker: yes, the trauma explanation of character development in narrative fiction is overdone, and, yes, good writing creates an air of mystery; it’s subtle, complex, and presents individuals whose stories we can believe in. It’s also true that not everyone has the same reaction to trauma: yes, post-traumatic growth is possible (though her assertion that it’s the norm is questionable).
In fact, I am an example of post-traumatic growth.
But along the way, like Will Self in his screed against trauma in Harper’s, and whose name she drops and whose work hers largely replicates, Sehgal manages to be utterly dismissive of the lives and real experiences of actual trauma survivors. Like Self, she goes so far as to question trauma’s legitimacy while complaining about the trauma theory of Cathy Caruth, implying, ironically in true postmodern fashion, that trauma is a modern invention, the product of obscure 19th century medical musings about train travel (to which again, I react with a visceral “WTF???”) that just happened to have ballooned in the 20th century, by some historical accident, in order to explain away the experiences of war veterans and survivors of sexual abuse.
Sehgal traipses through the by now expected avenues of Freud and the DSM’s definition of PTSD—which she gets wrong, by the way: the current DSM does not acknowledge traumatic events as etiology but defines PTSD in purely symbolic terms. Sehgal does the de rigueur bashing of Bessel van der Kolk and the standard invocation of Shakespeare, all while studiously avoiding the voices of the traumatized except to expressly dismiss calls for the online collection of their stories.
For traumatized people like me, this comes as no surprise. Sehgal is just yet another prominent and well-regarded person brushing off our experiences or redefining them in ways that suit her purposes. She doesn’t speak for me any more than the DSM committee does or Bessel van der Kolk does or the writers of Ted Lasso do. The fact that trauma is having its day in popular culture right now is no reason to deny its reality; the fact that most of the writing about trauma is bad is no reason to throw the whole concept away.
Indeed, there are whole genres dedicated to unrealistic depictions of romantic relationships and science and war, but their existence does not mean that people never fall in love or do groundbreaking research or engage in combat, still less that those are modern inventions—just read the Greeks! Sure, not every scripted drama should use trauma as character development, just as not every home decorating show shouldn’t feature shiplap; for a while they all did, though, and, the case remains, shiplap is an actual thing.
Amid Sehgal’s calls for more subtlety, she also commits the fallacy at the heart of most explanations of trauma by the untraumatized, vacillating between “Oh, poor baby!” at one moment and “Just get over yourself!” at another. (To her discredit, Sehgal settles on the latter.) The truth is even more subtle and complex than Sehgal seems to be able to understand: you can be both forever changed by trauma and you can grow from it. I have spent 45 years learning from my traumatic experiences, but I also still get triggered. These seemingly paradoxical responses might make for good writing, but they wouldn’t be believed, either by editors at major publications like The New Yorker or by critics like Sehgal.
This paradox is only one of many reasons I’ve spent those 45 years avoiding dealing with “my trauma” (scare quotes Sehgal’s) in my writing; another (maybe more important) one is that trauma doesn’t define me as a person or as an artist. That Sehgal would approve of that is immaterial; her own opinion is invalidated, in my mind, by her dismissive tone and lack of a desire to understand what the lived experiences of trauma are really like.
Imagine, if you will, if an “able-bodied” (scare quotes mine, this time) writer presumed to know everything about the life and experiences of a wheelchair user or, as is the case here, merely dismissed these experiences as a cheap way to develop a character. It wouldn’t work— neither The New Yorker nor Harper’s would never publish it. Yet that is precisely what Sehgal and Self do in their essays on trauma.
We should also make a distinction Sehgal fails to make: legitimate criticism of an overused trope is one thing, but the kinds of trauma stories people share or create for therapeutic purposes are not intended to be great art, and they should not be read that way. That they do not rise to the level of complexity and sophistication she expects is no fault against them, and faulting them on artistic terms is simply cruel to those creating them. They exist solely for the purposes of healing and validation by the individuals who create them and by their peers, not for critics to leverage in lamentation over the way a trauma subplot has hijacked her favorite show on Apple TV .
Here’s my take on it: if you’ve never experienced trauma—and I mean real wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-screaming trauma, not just the a-sad-thing-once-happened-to-me-once trauma—don’t write about it. That’s my advice if you’re a critic, a journalist, a novelist, a poet, a show-runner, a researcher, a therapist.
Just stay the fuck away from it.
If for whatever reason you feel you have to, privilege the voices of actually traumatized people, consult them in a genuine way in the creation of your work. Bring them in. It will be scary, yes, but anything less merely perpetuates the damage.