A culture that once avoided talk of mental health is now openly celebrating people who speak candidly about their psychic wounds—even or especially when they are the type of people who are known to us all because they perform labors that seem somewhat superhuman. When Olympic gymnast Simone Biles abruptly withdrew from several events at the 2021 Tokyo games, she cited the ongoing suffering she has experienced as a victim of sexual abuse. Nearly all the stories about her decision praised Biles for taking a mental-health break, even though it likely cost the Olympic team gold medals. Likewise, when the number-two ranked women’s tennis player, Naomi Osaka, withdrew from both Wimbledon and the French Open, claiming mental-health challenges, she was lionized for speaking out.
The word that is used to describe their pain is “trauma,” classically defined as a lingering and haunted response to a terrible experience such as assault, natural disaster, serious accident, or some other deeply disturbing event.
Experts praised both Biles and Osaka for putting “emotional wellness” ahead of everything else, but rather than acknowledge that athletes like them are the exception—since they had chosen to take on the mental and physical challenges that elite competition poses—experts used their experiences to argue that similar kinds of trauma were pervasive and growing. Trauma “has nefarious and wide-spread tentacles,” Margo Lindauer, associate clinical professor at Northeastern University, told one news outlet. “The impacts of trauma are ongoing and unexpected and can rear up in all sorts of different ways.”
Today, trauma diagnoses have moved far beyond the realm of individual clinical expertise to take on outsize significance as an explanation for a broad array of social, cultural, and political problems. A popular book about trauma, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by the psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, has been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 150 weeks. In it, the author explores the physiological and neurological impact of trauma on patients who had been clinically diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and he claims that therapies such as mindfulness yoga, art, and dance are effective in treating them.
Van der Kolk’s work relies on the burgeoning field of “epigenetics.” The central idea is that an individual’s genes can be altered as the result of life experience and that those changes can be passed on to future generations. Do our genes express themselves (without permanently altering the underlying DNA code)? That could provide insight into the possible existence of intergenerational trauma.
“The idea of a signal, an epigenetic finding that is in offspring of trauma survivors, can mean a lot of things,” Rachel Yehuda, director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the author of a study of intergenerational trauma among Holocaust survivors, told the BBC. “It’s exciting that it’s there.” But researchers caution that this study was small (studying only 32 survivors) and assessed only one generation of offspring. The findings would have to be repeated across more generations to prove epigenetic certainty. Also, as the BBC noted: “There is a big stumbling block with research into epigenetic inheritance: no one is sure how it happens. Some scientists think that it is actually a very rare event.” (To say nothing of the fact that nearly all the experiments on epigenetics have been performed on mice, not people.)
Other scientists have been blunter in their criticism. “These are, in fact, extraordinary claims, and they are being advanced on less than ordinary evidence,” Kevin Mitchell, an associate professor of genetics and neurology at Trinity College, Dublin, told the New York Times. “This is a malady in modern science: the more extraordinary and sensational and apparently revolutionary the claim, the lower the bar for the evidence on which it is based, when the opposite should be true.”
Epigenetics exists in the discredited shadow of Lamarckism, the evolutionary theory first developed by 19th-century French naturalist Jean Baptist Lamarck. Lamarck argued for the inheritance of acquired characteristics (e.g., the giraffe’s neck is long because earlier generations had to stretch to reach the leaves of tall trees), and although his theories were discredited by serious geneticists in the early 20th century, they remained popular in the Soviet Union because they fit Communist dogma about remaking society by altering humanity at the root.
Despite the questionable provenance of epigenetics, the idea that trauma is not only widespread but deeply rooted—and passed on—in people’s bodies from generation to generation has captured the American imagination at a time when victimhood is already a dominating force in the culture. Even Van der Kolk thinks things might have gone too far. Asked by a writer for the Atlantic whether it was appropriate to compare people’s experience during the pandemic to the patients in his book (who experienced things such as rape, kidnapping, and combat during wartime), he responded, “When people say the pandemic has been a collective trauma…. I say, absolutely not.” Other scholars, such as Nick Haslam at the University of Melbourne, have also warned about the dangers of the “creeping conception of trauma.”
That hasn’t stopped the demand for its explanatory powers among the public. As one bookseller told Book Riot about the popularity of trauma books, “I think a lot of people are reevaluating their definitions of trauma right now—people who might have believed themselves to be trauma-free before the pandemic are beginning to pay closer attention to their pain and what it means.”
As these books and articles about “inherited family trauma” and, more recently, “racialized trauma” have proliferated, the claims they make for epigenetics, particularly its broader explanatory power as the cause of complicated social phenomena, have gotten way out ahead of the actual scientific research. Resmaa Menakem, the author of My Grandmother’s Hands, claims that “white-body supremacy” has imposed multigenerational trauma on people for centuries. “In America,” he writes, “nearly all of us, regardless of our background or skin color, carry trauma in our bodies around the myth of race.” He goes on to claim that “white-body supremacy has become part of our bodies. How could it not? It’s the equivalent of a toxic chemical we ingest on a daily basis. Eventually, it changes our brains and the chemistry of our bodies.”
According to Menakem, trauma is everywhere and is basically anything. Thus understood, it can explain almost any human action, including antisocial behavior. “We can have a trauma response to anything we perceive as a threat, not only to our physical safety, but to what we do, say, think, care about, believe in, or yearn for,” Menakem writes. “This is why people get murdered for disrespecting other folks’ relatives or their favorite sports team…. Whenever someone freaks out suddenly or reacts to a small problem as if it were a catastrophe, it’s often a trauma response.” He even claims, without evidence, that there is a special category of “deeply toxic” trauma “that lives and breathes in the bodies of many of America’s law enforcement officers.”
Thanks to the popularity of such ideas, self-diagnoses of trauma have skyrocketed, racial resentments have increased, and the laudable goal of harm reduction (to prevent trauma) has expanded into incoherence. When everything is considered dangerous and worth fearing, is it any wonder people interpret any negative experience as trauma?
Consider an essay in the New York Times written by Amanda Gorman, the young woman chosen to read a poem at President Joe Biden’s inauguration (and who received near-universal praise for doing so). Recalling that experience, she describes what in previous eras would have been called stage fright, but in her rendering is traumatic. Extrapolating from her own understandable jitters about performing for a national audience, she makes the sweeping claim that anyone who doesn’t share them is in denial about how much there is to fear in the world today: “If you’re alive, you’re afraid. If you’re not afraid, then you’re not paying attention,” Gorman claims. In an unwittingly apt encapsulation of Americans’ journey from resilience to trauma over the past several generations, she tweaked President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous line, writing, “The only thing we have to fear is having no fear itself.”
Of course, if you are a Harvard-educated member of the elite, as Gorman is, you can turn that fear into lucrative sales of your poetry while dispensing therapeutic fortune-cookie wisdom to readers of the Times. “So do not fear your fear. Own it. Free it,” she writes. “This isn’t a liberation that I or anyone can give you—it’s a power you must look for, learn, love, lead and locate for yourself.” As for the masses, who have no access to such elevated platforms, there is TikTok, where “trauma healing” videos have racked up nearly a billion views. Such videos feature self-described (but largely untrained) mental-health coaches who tell their followers that the normal range of emotions one might feel after, say, being dumped by a boyfriend is in fact a serious “trauma response.” As Newsweek described in a 2021 story about the trend: “One massively viral video shared by TikTok user @mtvmcribs shows him and his friends revealing their ‘favorite traumatic memory.’ In the clip, each person shares a traumatic experience they’ve endured…. After each person shares their story, the rest of the group claps and cheers.”
Indeed, we are moving toward a culture that embraces trauma and fear as the new normal. A book by Dr. Gabor Maté called The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture, which will be published in September, argues just this. Maté “has come to recognize the prevailing understanding of ‘normal’ as false, neglecting the roles that trauma and stress, and the pressures of modern-day living, exert on our bodies and our minds at the expense of good health.”
Which raises the question: If “modern-day living” is traumatic, what isn’t?
Trauma talk hasn’t merely led to a lot of bad TikTok advice; it has created new and worrisome incentives that are beginning to shape both culture and policymaking.
Consider the story of Mackenzie Fierceton. As Tom Bartlett reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Fierceton was a University of Pennsylvania graduate who won a Rhodes Scholarship after claiming to have been a traumatized and abused former foster kid from a low-income family. In fact, she was the daughter of a doctor, had attended private school (yearbook photos featured her skydiving, horseback riding, and whitewater rafting), and had lied both on her undergraduate application essay and to the Rhodes committee. Despite having been found out, Fierceton remains unrepentant (and is suing the University of Pennsylvania): “I have a right to write about my experiences as I experienced them,” she said.
Is it any surprise that her lie was a trauma narrative? As Bartlett noted, “writing about personal trauma in your college application is common enough that there are guides on how to do it.” Elite institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania are “sensitive to the charge that they cater to the wealthy and well-connected” and “eager to show that they’re transforming society rather than laundering its inequalities.” These universities are therefore “always on the lookout for remarkable kids from less-fortunate circumstances.” Fierceton might have lied, but she was not being irrational, given the incentive structures in place in college admissions these days.
The appeal to trauma is especially popular among younger generations of Americans. When an inconsiderate 25-year-old man from Brooklyn ghosted some women he had met on a dating app, those women didn’t chalk it up to a bad dating experience and move on; they took to TikTok to claim that the man in question, whom they called “West Elm Caleb,” was a “predator.” They enjoyed wallowing in their “shared trauma” of being his “victims.”
Young people aren’t the only recent converts to trauma talk. It’s also become increasingly common to hear professionals in many fields claim to have been traumatized after experiencing the normal slings and arrows that come with the job. Washington Post reporter Taylor Lorenz, the Norma Desmond of Millennial journalism, was more than ready for her close-up when she sobbed to an MSNBC reporter on camera about the “severe PTSD” she claims to have endured for being justifiably criticized on Twitter for her shoddy reporting. By contrast, actress Sandra Oh was traumatized not by failure, but by success; she told a reporter that “to be perfectly honest, it was traumatic” to experience the level of fame she had achieved.
In popular-culture offerings from television to books to movies, it feels as if no plot can be advanced without reference to trauma. Characters suffer now-formulaic flashbacks of childhood deprivations or assault not to deepen our understanding of them, but to flatter our need to see our traumatized selves in them. Writing in the New Yorker last year, Parul Sehgal made a spirited case for an end to the “trauma plot” in fiction and on screen. “Trauma trumps all other identities, evacuates personality, remakes it in its own image,” Sehgal wrote. “The trauma plot flattens, distorts, reduces character to symptom, and, in turn, instructs and insists upon its moral authority.”
Will Self found a similar trend in literary criticism. Writing in Harper’s, he noted how the focus on trauma does not encourage new insights, but rather a simplistic presentism and narcissism, with a dash of religious fervor. “Part of what gives modern trauma theory its appeal is precisely its covert importation of Judeo-Christian redemptive eschatology: a grand narrative of human moral progress in which suffering is an essential motivation for all the principal actors,” Self wrote. “For literary theorists, psychic trauma is an exclusive sort of stigmata, a wound at once invisible and sacred, the bearers of which become sanctified and thereby able to convey the singular Truth that shines through the miasma of contemporary moral relativism: that of their own suffering.”
More worrisome than the promiscuous use of the word “trauma” to describe everyday experiences is its growing use as a political weapon among progressive policymakers. As Haslam told the Atlantic, the concept creep we see with trauma is especially appealing to people on the left. It “broadens moral concern in a way that aligns with a liberal social agenda by defining new kinds of experience as harming and new classes of people as harmed.”
Once identified as victims, these people are then seen as “needful of care and protection” by those in power. This is not a sign of increased empathy or moral progress. Rather, as Haslam notes, “by increasing the range of people who are defined as moral patients—people worthy of moral concern, based on their perceived capacity to suffer and be harmed—it risks reducing the range of people who see themselves as capable of moral agency.” Trauma becomes exculpatory for its supposed victims, and evidence of the moral superiority of their saviors.
This sensibility can be found among decarceration activists and progressive critics of the criminal-justice system, who regularly make unsubstantiated claims about, say, the “transgenerational trauma” created by prison sentences for criminals. It also conveniently shifts the trauma narrative away from victims of crime, who might have experienced real trauma, to the perpetrators, who are then recast as the real victims.
Willette Benford, a “decarceration organizer” and former felon, is typical of such activists. Speaking to a local Chicago news station, she said nothing of the trauma experienced by crime victims in her community, most of whom, like her, are black. Rather, she wanted to talk about “going inside [prisons] with trauma just from being a Black woman in America…. Then going inside and being oppressed, because most prisons are in rural southern counties and [employ] predominantly white officers and male officers.” Benford, by the way, was convicted of first-degree murder for killing her girlfriend, for which she served only 23 years of a 50-year sentence.
In schools, trauma has been used by interest groups such as teachers’ unions to resist practices that might reveal the damage that school closures inflicted on many of the nation’s public-school students. As the New York Times reported last spring, some educators and teachers’ unions actively encouraged parents to opt their children out of testing, claiming that standardized testing was harmful to students—this at a time when half of schools still remained closed and evidence of learning loss might have prompted earlier reopenings that would have benefited children. “Voices as prominent as the former New York City schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, and the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest educators’ union, have encouraged parents to opt their children out of state tests during the pandemic,” the Times reported. Why? “We do not want to impose additional trauma on students that have already been traumatized,” Carranza said.
This approach to trauma can easily lapse into excuse-making. In a New Yorker profile of black families home-schooling their children, one mother noted in a Facebook chat for parents that her son was kicked out of his middle school for serious behavioral issues. Another mother responded: “When I heard you say they had a behavioral problem—or you were told that—the thing that came to mind for me was, all Black people have a behavioral problem. It’s called trauma.”
Trauma talk in education often dovetails nicely with the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives pursued by progressive educators. The chancellor of California’s Community Colleges, the largest system in the nation, is drafting a series of new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion policies that will apply to the entire California state system. As a report by the National Association of Scholars found, among the recommendations made by the state’s curricula committee is the promotion of “culturally responsive classroom practices,” including “no longer weaponizing ‘academic integrity’ and ‘academic freedom’ that impedes equity and inflicts curricular trauma on our students, especially historically marginalized students.” No definition of “curricular trauma” is provided.
In public schools, trauma talk is often introduced as part of critical race theory–inspired pedagogy. As Robby Soave reported in Reason, high school students in Salinas, California, were taught about “‘intergenerational trauma’ through an interdisciplinary and critical lens” in a mandatory ethnic-studies course.
This kind of trauma talk defines trauma down. Words should matter: As Haslam told the New York Times: “It’s hard to talk about this without sounding like you’re policing the language….But when we start to talk about ordinary adversities as ‘traumas’ there is a risk that we’ll see them as harder to overcome and see ourselves as more damaged by them.”
For progressive politicians, that’s a feature, not a bug.
Consider Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who told her 8.5 million Instagram followers about the trauma she experienced during the January 6 riots on Capitol Hill. Although she was not in the Capitol at the time, she nonetheless invoked her “trauma” as if she had been, adding that it was even more stressful for her because she was also a “survivor” of sexual assault. Such trauma talk is a powerful political tool in the hands of someone like Ocasio-Cortez because it is effectively immune to facts. You cannot question someone else’s experience of trauma; as Sehgal notes, “to question the role of trauma, we are warned, is to oppress.”
Other liberal politicians invoke trauma to expand the scope of federal power. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s “Anti-Racism in Public Health Act of 2021,” which would “amend the Public Health Service Act to provide for public health research and investment into understanding and eliminating structural racism and police violence,” contains provisions to fund “public health interventions and perspectives for eliminating deaths, injury, trauma, and negative mental health effects from police presence and interactions, including police brutality and violence,” for example.
Similarly, as the Washington Free Beacon reported, the Biden administration enacted new rules for the Department of Health and Human Services that ensured that clinics accepting Medicare could “boost their reimbursements by implementing ‘a Trauma-Informed Care Approach to Clinical Practice,’ which seeks to ‘avoid re-traumatizing or triggering past trauma.’ That includes ‘multi-generational trauma, whereby experiences that traumatized earlier generations, such as the genocide of Native American tribes, are passed down’ to subsequent generations.”
The Biden administration’s National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality also indulges in a lot of trauma talk (the word appears 17 times in the text). The plan promises to “expand trauma-informed social services for women and girls in the criminal and juvenile justice systems who are struggling to cope with trauma, substance use disorders, and behavioral health disorders.” The document goes on to promise to introduce “trauma-informed practices” at the border, “trauma-informed training programs” for federal workers, “culturally-relevant and trauma-informed programs that prevent gender-based violence,” as well as “best practices for implementing trauma-informed, culturally-responsive approaches to school discipline.”
Where there is trauma talk there is usually hyperbole about violence. When Democratic congresswomen Ayanna Pressley and Cori Bush introduced their “Housing Emergencies Lifeline Program (HELP) Act” earlier this year, Pressley stated, “Every eviction is a form of policy violence.” (This is a favorite phrase of Pressley’s; last year she tweeted, “student debt is policy violence.”)
This expansion of definitions serves a broader political utility: The supposed daily trauma (or violence) inflicted on people by the enemies within (racists, Trump supporters, free-speech advocates, landlords) justifies the creation and enforcement of stronger protective measures for the victimized groups, which requires more intervention by the government, ad infinitum. In this world, victimhood serves as a kind of privilege offset for elites who are keen on believing they understand the needs of the masses, just as carbon offsets work for private jet owners who want to see themselves as environmentalists.
But it comes with a cost. By diluting the meaning of trauma, trauma talk undermines the needs of real trauma patients. Coopting therapeutic language to promote ideological notions of race or to excuse antisocial behavior undermines social norms by placing trauma trip wires around normal areas of life and generating ineffective and wasteful policies. Last, and worst, it rejects the possibility of renewal and resilience in favor of fear—fear that makes one brittle and consigns one to perpetual pain.
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