On Pahrul Segal’s “Case Against Trauma”

Parul Sehgal, ace literary critic formerly of NYT Books and now writing for The New Yorker, wrote two top-notch essays this week. One, in the Times, is about Joan Didion and her impact on America. The other is called “The Case Against the Trauma Plot” for the New Yorker that has set Twitter ablaze with fury. I won’t summarize either essay here because they merit your full attention and time, if you have any of that at this busy time of the year. The second essay interests me as a writer and as someone who has suffered trauma.

Sehgal makes the case that trauma does not serve a story well, be it novel, television show, movie, short story. She writes about the current fixation on trauma as the engine that drives all narrative in many storylines and plots. Sehgal says that this is a weak engine, one that “flattens” characters into “a set of symptoms” rather than something that pushes the plot forward and deepens characters. Instead of forward motion, you are dragged into the character’s psychological past, and this is not a good thing.

The essay is complex and complicated, and Sehgal supports her argument by referring to writers such as Woolf and Morrison, referencing Netflix shows, and tracing a history of trauma as psychological/psychiatric phenomenon. She doesn’t put a foot wrong when talking about literature.

However, she falters when she dismisses the work of psychiatrists such as Bessel Van der Kolk, who wrote the book The Body Keeps the Score (a handbook for therapists and psychologists everywhere these days), by saying that his work is not supported by scientific evidence. The study of epigenetics shows that the environment and other factors can affect gene expression. Traumatic events have been scientifically proven to influence gene activity even if it doesn’t alter the sequencing of our genetic codes. You can read more about this here.

Of course, rather than reading Sehgal’s essay and taking time to digest and absorb, the Twitterverse took this essay to mean “Trauma doesn’t matter” or even worse, “I don’t care about your trauma”. The meltdown that followed was epic, maybe epigenetic. Ah, Twitter, always a place of subtlety and nuance. We learn in therapy that we are not responsible for the emotions and responses of others; we can only work on ourselves and our emotions and responses. You’d think all those people with trauma might have learned that. Recognize the article triggered you, take yourself to a quiet place and do some breathing, and then self-soothe, instead of lashing out at Sehgal on Twitter.

While I agree that fixating on trauma isn’t a great characteristic of a good story (or even a good life, come to think of it), we can’t avoid the fact that trauma exists, and that it really damages the lives of people affected by it. However, both in a story and in a life, there is a way out of the trap that trauma sets for you: healing. But healing is hard work. I’ll say that again: Healing is work, HARD work. It can take months, years, decades. It requires time, money, dedication and commitment. It requires excellent therapists (usually more than one). It requires the belief that you CAN heal from trauma, that you don’t have to carry it around like a rucksack weighted down with rocks for the rest of your life. Sometimes trauma is like a railway station in an abandoned town, where you can get stuck and stay there, pretending to be ready to board a train that never comes. Your job as a traumatized person is to build a handcar and pump yourself the fuck out of there.

Anyway, just some thoughts I had when I reflected on the essay over a couple of days. That’s the way to really engage with an essay, not just to react to someone else’s tweet about it, or read the title of the essay and freak out. And now, I’ll leave you with the quote by Joan Didion that ends Sehgal’s essay about the literary icon:

“I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.”

And guess what? What Didion writes about is actually the way to move forward from trauma and live a damn good life while trauma gets further and further away from you in the rearview mirror.