The Harrowing Truth of Trauma in a Victimhood Culture

Trauma is chaos. As a result of being overpowered, the self deploys erratic mechanisms of avoidance and coping, the logic of which are not straightforward or within the control of the self. Rooted in an experience of external abuse, or violence, or tragedy, arise internal experiences that are harmful and volatile.

  • Dissociation — a dis-attachment from the self, entering into a dreamlike waking state.

  • Intrusive nightmares — the metaphoric dramatization of the pain in an unwaking state.

  • Sleep paralysis — a semi-hallucination in which the self awakes from sleep to a dark figure, but is frozen in terrified bodily paralysis.

  • Addiction — the compulsion to dull and escape emotions that are too complex or powerful to understand or mitigate in the throes of feeling overwhelmed.

  • Irritability — Momentary regression to childlike levels of emotional self-control.

The more the popular consciousness has reflected upon trauma, the more we see it everywhere. The American Psychiatric Association once forged a single category for these post-traumatic experiences — post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — but since 2013, in the DSM-5, trauma has been elevated to an entire class of disorders called “Trauma and Stress-Related Disorders.” Trauma is no longer simply a single structure of mental illness, but an entire metastructure, which is becoming elastic enough to explain any and every form of mental suffering.

The Rise of Victimhood Culture

It is in this context that the rise of “victimhood culture” finds an understandable logic. The connection between a past experience of circumstantial suffering and present experiences of mental overwhelm is too obvious to ignore. Consequently, “group identity” has become a primary category for classifying trauma. Corporate trauma among groups give an anchor for traumas that supply meaningful solidarity to what, in the traumatic mind, is utterly incomprehensible — group solidarity provides order to what is otherwise purely chaotic mental suffering.


Group solidarity provides order to what is otherwise purely chaotic mental suffering.

This rise of group identity as a means for supplying order as an antidote to traumatic isolation paved the way for what we today call “intersectionality politics.” The intersectionality movement promises to chart intersections of power and powerlessness in terms of group identity — race, class, wealth, gender, sexuality, religion, cultural normativity, etc. The more of these categories that intersect with one’s individual identity, the more powerlessness is diagnosed, and the more solidarity and power is obligated to that person to compensate for the trauma they have experienced.

Politics aside, this is a very normal way of approaching pain. When someone is overpowered, it makes ethical sense for those with power to help that person. The most straightforward way of proactively locating the traumatized and quantifying the degree of power they need in order to achieve recovery is to think in terms of groups. This is why the evolution of trauma from a single, peculiar form of suffering (think Vietnam veterans in the 1970s, when the term was first popularized in the psychiatric literature), to a metastructure has operationalized the trauma concept as a fundamental component of personhood.

Patricia Collins and Valerie Chepp write in The Oxford Handbook of Gender and Politics that this term “intersectionality”[1] can be disambiguated with five axes for coordinating power dynamics:

  1. Systems of power (race, class, etc.)

    • The belief that the world has distributed power according to certain categories, which privilege certain groups of people and disadvantage other groups.

  2. Locative privilege

    • This aspect highlights the implicit advantages of being "nearer" to center of privilege and power, and the implicit disadvantages of being topographically or geographically excluded from those centers.

  3. Relational hierarchy

    • This axis highlights the relational aspect of hierarchies — that there is no such thing as "power," but only power being manifestly utilized for some vicious or virtuous end in the context of specific relationships.

  4. Epistemic bias

    • That is, how the way "knowledge" and "answers" are formulated are inclined to give more power to the privileged, and that marginalized groups need to find a way to stack the cards of knowledge in their favor. In other words, intersectionality tends to sympathize with the postmodern rejection of the Enlightenment, arguing that there is not such thing as objective, unbiased truth claims.

  5. The complex interrelation of all these realities.

    • Victimhood is never as simple as boiling down a situation to one of these realities, but rather recognizing that all of these variables (systemic, locative, relational, and epistemic abuse) are always at play in every situation, which makes every situation invariably political.

Why Focusing on Victim Groups is Inadequate

There are several ways the marriage of trauma and intersectionality underserves trauma survivors.

First, remedying social inequities does not meet the immediate need to recover from trauma. Yes, it’s good to rescue abused children from homes. Yes, it’s good to give financial and social support to addicts who have ruined their lives because of their post-traumatic dysregulation. Yes, it’s good to leave abusive and harmful and dysfunctional relationships. But it’s a harmful fallacy that will bite us in the ass to assume that leaving the chaotic circumstance will resolve our internal chaos. External order is good — especially social solidarity and support, even in the form of group identity. But it does not resolve the internal dynamics of post-traumatic stress.


External order is good — especially social solidarity and support, even in the form of group identity. But it does not resolve the internal dynamics of post-traumatic stress.

Second, configuring trauma merely in terms of corporate solidarity fails to diagnose certain meaningful terms of trauma — for example, the sexual abuse of white boys. What do we do with it? Well, they are boys, and in being children, they have at least one intersectionality card to play. But what about ten years from now, when they realize they were abused? What do we do with middle class white men who were abused as boys, and are just coming to terms with that abuse and all the ways it has wreaked havoc on their emotions, relationships, and behaviors?

Third, “stacking up” traumas can incentivize the arbitrary quantification of pain. By this, I mean that intersectionality can belie the false notion that your trauma and my trauma can be measured against one another and objectively compete, like a pair of twos against a straight flush.

Fourth, solidarity politics can unnecessarily exaggerate (even fabricate) trauma, leading to what some call “Oppression Olympics,” or “Victim Olympics.” When we begin to configure traumas relative to one another in a competitive schema, then we incentivize not only the quantification of trauma, but the maximization of that quantification. In other words, the more victimhood I can substantiate, the more power and sympathy I can socially command from those who buy into the same intersectional conception of trauma and identity.


Intersectionality can belie the false notion that your trauma and my trauma can be measured against one another and objectively compete

Ange-Marie Hancock, Professor and Chair of Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, comments: “the idea that only the marginalized dimensions of categories matter and the bias toward conceptualizing categories as mutually exclusive for political purposes both contribute to the Oppression Olympics.”[2]

Fifth, configuring group solidarity in terms of kinds of group suffering can serve to reinforce stereotypes of those groups among the “privileged” groups, which are de facto excluded from claims to trauma.

For example, as Hancock explains, “In the quite legitimate quest to carve out a political space for themselves, black women were faced with a gender gap and backlash in the black community that persists today. It is not that black feminists were wrong to make claims passionately and publicly, but the resulting backlash has been problematic, as black men have used that public passion against them, at times joining mainstream constructors of black women to call them ‘angry,’ among other pejorative terms.”[3]    

The Lingering Reality of Trauma

Junot Díaz recounts in The New Yorker his boyhood experience of rape:

“It fucked up my childhood. It fucked up my adolescence. It fucked up my whole life. More than being Dominican, more than being an immigrant, more, even, than being of African descent, my rape defined me. I spent more energy running from it than I did living. I was confused about why I didn’t fight, why I had an erection while I was being raped, what I did to deserve it. And always I was afraid—afraid that the rape had ‘ruined’ me; afraid that I would be ‘found out’; afraid afraid afraid. ‘Real’ Dominican men, after all, aren’t raped. And if I wasn’t a ‘real’ Dominican man I wasn’t anything. The rape excluded me from manhood, from love, from everything.”[4]

Notice here the complex interplay of Díaz’s individual experience and his group identity. He feels more “identified” by his experience of boyhood abuse than he does by his solidarity with those of his cultural and racial history — he even wonders to what degree the former jeopardizes the latter.


More than being Dominican, more than being an immigrant, more, even, than being of African descent, my rape defined me
— Junot Díaz

Here, the insufficiency of solidarity politics is showcased by the harrowing effects of boyhood sexual abuse. There is no categorical or political rescue for what has happened. Díaz later comments:

“Trauma is a time traveler, an ouroboros that reaches back and devours everything that came before. I remember … At night I had the most vivid dreams, often about ‘Star Wars’ and my life back in the Dominican Republic, in Azua, my very own Tatooine. Was just getting to know this new English-speaking me, was just becoming his friend—and then he was gone.

No more spaceship dreams, no more Azua, no more me. Only an abiding sense of wrongness and the unbearable recollection of being violently penetrated.”[5]

Each of us must reckon with the truth of our own trauma. We must find a way to bear witness to it, in order that we might achieve the ultimate psychological and spiritual victory after abuse: to bear witness to ourselves. At the end of the day, group identity is helpful insofar as it supplies an anchor of external order to internal chaos. But the real task before the traumatized is to find a way to establish internal order.

This is the real path of recovery. Solidarity can only supply tenuous rails and friends with which we can run our recovery. We have to supply the train, the engine, the fuel, the direction — we have to find a place worthy of going and go there. We have to rescue ourselves from ourselves, which is the most difficult task, because there is no group for you: There’s just you.

Yes, we can draw wisdom from those who have gone before. We need Gandalfs and Sams and Aragorns. But to be a bearer of a ring of power is to be alone. And to have suffered trauma is to have suffered as oneself.


My trauma is mine. And yours is yours. Whatever solidarity we are able to establish will not resolve the traumas we have endured.

And here we find the harrowing truth of trauma in a victimhood culture: We are alone. In a world that clamors for our allegiance with the promise of solidarity, we are irreducibly individuals. As Morpheus says to Neo in the Matrix: “There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.” And each one of us must determine what is the best path for himself as an individual. Taking into account wisdom, teachers, guides, revelations, and reason, the path is ours to determine still. My trauma is mine. And yours is yours. And whatever solidarity we are able to establish betwixt, it will never anchor you or me enough to rely upon completely for recovery from trauma.

The truth of your individuality is both beautiful and hard. The truth of your trauma wants both to be hidden and revealed. Whatever it is, it is your truth.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Patricia Hill Collins and Valerie Chepp, “Intersectionality,” in The Oxford Handbook of Gender and Politics, edited by Georgia Waylen, Karen Cells, Johanna Kantola, and Laurel Weldon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 57-87.

[2] Ange-Marie Hancock, Solidarity Politics for Millennials: A Guide to Ending the Oppression Olympics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 35. For a more academic work by Hancock on the intersectionality literature, see Intersectionality: An Intellectual History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[3] Hancock, Intersectionality Politics for Milennials, 62, note 62. Here, Hancock is interacting with Cynthia Burack’s work, Healing Identities: Black Feminist Thought and the Politics of Political Groups (Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).

[4] Junot Díaz, “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma,” April 16, 2018. Accessed on June 8th, 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/04/16/the-silence-the-legacy-of-childhood-trauma.

[5] Díaz, “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma.”

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