The case FOR the trauma plot? How writers can use it with purpose and care
It's been criticized for being used as a 'shortcut,' but it can actually offer something essential
Shelfies is a column by writer Alicia Elliott that looks at arts and culture through the prism of the books on her shelf.
When I was a young writer interested in the way violence was portrayed in fiction, I went to a talk by Métis writer Katherena Vermette on her then-recently published book The Break, which is about a disturbingly violent attack on a Métis teen and its impact on her family and community in Winnipeg. During the Q&A, I asked her about how she approached the violence in the book — and what she said has stuck with me ever since.
She told me she was very mindful of the Indigenous women who would be reading her work, to whom violence could be so common as to become mundane. She said she was worried they could be retraumatized and triggered reading such violence in her book. Because of this, and because of her own hesitancy to spend time in the violence, she structured The Break in a spiral, circling around the central act of violence that gives the book its plot. Once she got to that act of violence and had no choice but to write it, she simply got in and got out. She didn't linger, didn't sensationalize. She knew that to do so would be to refuse to consider and hold her already intergenerationally traumatized readers — and that was something she simply would not do.
I have been thinking about this response a lot lately, not only because Vermette has come out with a new novel called The Strangers that acts as a sequel of sorts to The Break, but also because there has been considerable discussion about the use of trauma in narrative as a sort of shortcut to plot or character or depth. In December, revered critic Parul Sehgal wrote a much-read and discussed piece for The New Yorker called "The Case Against the Trauma Plot," wherein she described the trauma plot as such: "Unlike the marriage plot, the trauma plot does not direct our attention towards the future (Will they or won't they?) but back into the past (What happened to her?)." It's a fascinating essay in which Sehgal makes cogent points about how trendy it has become to use trauma as a way to complicate otherwise shallow stories and characters. Even more fascinating is the way she connects this trend in fiction to a corresponding trend within trauma theory and clinical medical books themselves, which have broadened the scope of medical definitions like PTSD until they seem to be able to hold all of us at all times.
But something about this definition irked me. The description seems to focus on the individual, separating its characters from a fuller history, community and context. It assumes that all people and characters can be interpreted the same way — that there is some sort of equal playing field when it comes to revelations of trauma and what that says about the victims. This, arguably, is what the books that Sehgal is criticizing are doing: taking the idea that everything comes down to individual responsibility (and individual failings) and applying it to characters and plot without any concern for the systems that are circling those characters and that plot. It is a simplistic world in which there are good guys and bad guys, where pity is a form of currency and being on the receiving end of that pity is a sign of moral purity.
Sehgal elaborates: "In a world infatuated with victimhood, has trauma emerged as the passport to status — our red badge of courage?"
I would argue that the notion of victimhood offering any sort of enhanced status is a conditional one, dependent on three things:
- The person or character claiming that victimhood must already be perceived as having some sort of societal worth, and therefore being some sort of historical "victor." This is a phenomenon we see frequently when a white boy is found to be a school shooter. Any history of bullying is trotted out to the media as if that somehow excuses or makes sense of his crime — he is actually the victim, the story goes, and therefore his crimes shouldn't be held against him, etc.
- The person or character claiming that victimhood must be perceived to have a future, specifically one that aligns with capitalistic notions of success. We see this in particular when men who have been accused of sexually assaulting women have their futures referenced as reasons to absolve them of the alleged crimes.
- The perceived audience for this performance of trauma/victimhood is presumed to not have experienced that same trauma. This often means the narrative is set up to give the audience a voyeuristic pleasure in viewing that trauma, since it's removed from them and their experiences. The audience masks this more ghoulish part of the transaction by supplying pity to the victim.
If these three conditions are met, then victimhood can be held up as a virtue, as something to aspire to. This way of viewing trauma and victimhood transforms trauma from something complex and shameful to something that is simplistic and exploitable, often for personal gain, and often in a strange vacuum, wherein the existence of trauma in a person's past negates that person or character's ability to traumatize.
On the other hand, victimhood is not seen as virtuous for those within marginalized groups. Because they are perceived as being destined to fail, they are barely allowed to be considered "victims" in the first place; this would point the finger at larger societal structures instead of mere individuals, thus implicating society itself for how it upholds these deliberate prejudices and power imbalances. If someone from a marginalized group faces something traumatic, it must be treated as an inevitability instead of a tragedy. Tragedies are only tragedies, after all, if the victims are considered to have been worthy and capable of another, better fate.
Take Indigenous women, for example. Because of colonialism and sexism, Indigenous women are often perceived by non-Indigenous people to not have societal value, nor are they thought to have a future — at least not one where they escape victimhood, violence, tragedy and death. This is evident enough from the phenomenon of MMIWG, which has seen as many as 4,000 Indigenous women and girls go missing or be murdered in Canada alone. This is the historical, social and moral context into which Vermette's The Strangers enters.
The book follows four Métis women in the Stranger family across three generations as they grapple with systemic inequalities that have historically made victims out of Indigenous women like them: cultural loss, land loss, addiction, abuse, the child welfare system. The oldest character, Margaret, is well aware of the historical victimhood expected of her people. "It seemed [to be] only Indians, Métis, who had sorrow built into their bones, who exchanged despair as ordinarily as recipes… As if sad stories were the only heirloom they had to pass on." The tragedy of Margaret's life, which fuels her rage and grief for decades, is that she thought she could escape this seeming inevitability, that she could imagine a different future for herself. "To think she was almost free of it," Vermette writes. "She had almost overcome the sad Indian stereotype. She'd almost become an example. She used to try to tell herself that she was only Métis, not a real Indian, as if that could spare her from it. Even though it had never spared her family." Since Margaret's life was always expected to devolve into pain and trauma, it isn't considered a tragedy when it actually does; instead, it's seen as fate.
As Sehgal notes of trauma plots, the question "What happened to her?" is a persistent one as we get to know Margaret and each of the other Stranger women. However, the difference between exploiting the trauma experienced by each character and exploring that trauma — essentially, the difference between what's referred to as "trauma porn" and what I'll call "trauma-informed narratives" — seems to me to relate back to that third point: perceived audience. Despite all of the traumas hinted at in this book and how much violence, both colonial and domestic, has shaped each character's life, there are not scenes depicting this violence outright. Instead, Vermette follows the contours of this violence, showing us the depths of these traumas through each character's coping mechanisms or thoughts.
Reading it, I couldn't help but think of her comments about centering already-traumatized readers. How she didn't dwell on the violence because she was concerned with the response of her audience — one she expected to have some experience with the traumas and violence she was writing about. Quite simply, Vermette was writing for Indigenous people, as opposed to just about Indigenous people. She knew the important thing was not feeding voyeurism by showing each drop of blood in literary close-ups, but instead processing that trauma by way of her character's thoughts and actions. This is particularly exemplified in the "trigger warning" Vermette wrote as a sort of foreword to The Strangers:
"This book is about coping within the systems that have been imposed upon us, so there are plenty of triggers for those whose lives have been traumatically affected by them. These include depictions of child apprehension, solitary incarceration, suicidal ideation, some drug use, and some physical violence."
The word "us" is strategically used to imply that this book was written for Indigenous readers specifically, reminding non-Indigenous readers that this book will not be centering their gaze or expectations. Vermette is also purposeful with her situating of this novel as a depiction of "systems that have been imposed upon us" as opposed to individual failings, which is what is so often depicted of marginalized folks.
Writers of trauma porn seem more interested in depicting all the blood and viscera of trauma than anything else. They don't seem to want their work to be in conversation with those who have actually experienced those traumas.- Alicia Elliott
Those who have the privilege of perceiving victimhood as a form of status or a shield do not have to worry about their traumas being depicted as proof of the failings of their race, gender, class, etc. But this is most certainly not the case for characters like the Stranger women, or for real-life marginalized people who live these stories everyday — and therein lies the difference. When Indigenous women write about our traumas, we have to expect that we are giving ammo to racists to hurl back at us, that they will use this as evidence that Indigenous women should be derided, that their racist notions of our inferiority are correct. But we also need space to tell our stories. If this trauma is what happened to Indigenous women like us — what still happens to Indigenous women like us — how can we truthfully tell our stories without including it?
Quite simply, we can't. The only option we have left is to refuse the colonial gaze that wants to eat our pain, wants to read even fictionalized violence enacted on us in excruciating detail, and instead centre readers who understand, who have been there, to whom reading a story that represents them means so much more than what we find in books that either ignore us or flatten us, pathologizing our pain.
It's not always popular to believe that writers have a responsibility to centre certain audiences and be accountable to the groups they're writing about. This seems to me to reflect the same neoliberal and classical liberal notions of "individualism" and "freedom" that have gotten us to this point in history in the first place: if an artist has to worry about its pesky audience, and has actual obligations and responsibilities to that audience, then that might impede on their individual artistic freedom! This is censorship! This is fascist! Artists must be allowed to create whatever they want, whatever the result! Etc. etc.
This centering and elevation of the individual (the artist) over the group (the audience) is a particularly colonial way of thinking. But it wasn't always this way. Before there were writers and readers, there were oral storytellers standing before a rapt audience, who were mere feet from you as you wove your tale. It seems to me that the physical separation of the writer/storyteller from their audience has made it easier to mentally separate any sense of responsibility writers might have to their audience. So the question for them, now, isn't what they owe their audience, or what they're responsible for with their words, but a much more simplistic and uninteresting, "What do I have the right to say, write, do?" It's less about whether they should write something, or how they should write it, and more about whether they can, as if there's some mysterious force physically stopping them instead of an engaged audience waiting, hoping to converse with them about their artistic choices.
The only option we have left is to refuse the colonial gaze that wants to eat our pain and instead centre readers who understand, who have been there.- Alicia Elliott
Thinking about that, I realize the difference between trauma porn and trauma-informed narratives. Writers of trauma porn seem more interested in depicting all the blood and viscera of trauma than anything else. They don't seem to want their work to be in conversation with those who have actually experienced those traumas, nor do they feel any obligation toward them. Writers of trauma-informed narratives, on the other hand, seem to be deeply considering their audience — an audience they presume has gone through whatever traumas that author has chosen to depict, and that understands trauma is not an identity or source of status. An audience who the author expects to have to look into the eyes of one day, and in that looking, understand that "my trauma," as Sehgal writes, "becomes but one rung of a ladder. Climb it; what else will you see?"
Or as Vermette writes, in an aside to her trigger warning that feels like she is sitting across from us at our kitchen table, reaching a hand over to place warmly on ours: "It's not just about [trauma], hey? ... I do try to cram as much love and hope in between as possible."
It's that hope and love that offer other rungs — that, despite the trauma, make all the difference.