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Definitions and History of Trauma and its Studies

Updated: Feb 15, 2022

Definitions of trauma vary and differ.

Typically, when speaking of trauma, what tends to be referred to are the more severe forms or catastrophic events that leave individuals injured in some way, be it chemically, physically, or emotionally. These include: car or other forms of accidents, brain injuries, including from domestic violence, historical traumas such as wars, environmental racism like "Cancer Alley' in Louisiana, and other Black and Brown neighbourhoods impacted by chemical plants, forced migration, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, kidnapping and enslavement of Black Africans to the Caribbean’s and Americas, the Holocaust, Japanese Internment Camps, Chinese Head Tax in North America, collective traumas such as 9/11, or individual and personal traumas such as sexual abuse or domestic violence[i].

Prior to the 19th century the term, which derives from the Greek word for wound, was used to refer to actual physical wounds (Cvetkovich, 2003; Alexander, 2012; Leys, 2000; Farrel, 1998). Soldiers on the frontlines who endured wounds (say, from shell shock), were said to have experienced "trauma" (Cvetkovich, 2003; Alexander, 2012). In this way, trauma “entered ordinary language and scholarly discussion after World War I” (Alexander, 2012: 9).

Other notable wars that popularized the term and are well documented in trauma studies include the Vietnam War and World War II (Alexander, 2012). During the 19th century Victorian era, Kirby Farrel (1998) cites that survivors of railroad accidents who presented psychosomatic symptoms were said that have experienced "traumatic neurosis". These masculinist approaches to trauma linked some of its earlier articulations with men (Alexander, 2012).

This would later shift as trauma of women and girls were brought to the forefront, shifting trauma from the public to the private sphere to include domestic and intimate partner violence such physical and sexual abuse, and more recently, an emphasis on verbal, emotional, psychological abuse and cyberbullying (Farrel, 1998; Herman, 1992; Faludi, 1991; Federici, 2013b; Fisher, 2019; Morris and CRIAW, 2013; Msosa, 2019; Jones, 2019; Iloabugichuku, 2019).


Psychology and the pathologizing of trauma also opened the term up to more feminized (read: sexist and misogynist), racialized (read here: anti-Black and racist), ableist and sanist, as well as homo/queer/trans/and bi phobic interpretations due in part to its association with hysteria[ii], the medicalization of deviance[iii], and the emergence of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)[iv].

The term trauma would receive psychological meaning due to notable psychologists such as, “Jean-Martin Charcot, Pierre Janet, Alfred Binet, Morton Prince, Josef Breuer, and Sigmund Freud” (Leys, 2000, 4). Freud’s work in particular was influential in how trauma has come to be understood as a wound to/of the mind (Caruth, 2016:4). According to Freud, trauma occurred as a result of emotional shock that was brought on too quickly, too suddenly, and unexpectedly (Caruth, 2016; Leys, 2000). This is because as Judith Herman (1992) suggests, the intensity and force at which trauma arrives unannounced “overwhelms the ordinary human adaptation to life” (33).

For Freud, this trauma unfolds so quickly that there is a delay in processing it, which left the experience unrepresentable and not “fully known”, therefore unavailable to the conscious mind unless and until it “imposed itself again repeatedly” (Caruth, 2016:4). For those that draw from Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis, this process is referred to as fragmentation, splitting, or dissociation from the mind-body, which is itself viewed in Cartesian terms as dualism[v].

Trauma that is not readily available immediately or easily recalled is often framed as repressed (Sedgwick, 2011; Ball, 2010; Cvetkovich, 2003; Herman, 1992; Farrel, 1998). Trauma studies scholar Ann Cvetkovich (2003) and philosopher Melanie Klein (see Sedgwick, 2003) take issue with repressed trauma because repression implies participation or choice, and not all traumas are necessarily experienced (or known) in the moment they happen. Repression also gets tied up with Freudian psychoanalysis that is inherently homophobic and victim-blaming as Michele Foucault, Ann Cvetkovich, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick suggest in their work. Unrepresentable trauma (and trauma in general) is often associated with neurological processes in the brain, its chemistry, biology, and neurology. More specifically, as it relates to memory, as well as the nervous system (see, Frideres, 2016; Cvetkovich, 2003; Fisher, 2017; Weissman, 2004; Taylor, 2006). Others take a more biopsychosocial approach to trauma (Engel, 1980; Gatchel et al., 2007; Menen, 2018). While some philosophy, critical race, Black, Indigenous, feminist, queer, disability, and post-modern scholars have made sense of unrepresentable trauma through more socio-political frameworks or Indigenous worldviews that collapse time and space[vi]. But more on this later.

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Until next time, in solidarity.

Photo Cred: Dorothy Attakora-Gyan

Image Description: A photo of art I found at Value Village or Salvation Army. It came with a "broken" or "missing" hand. I thought it was perfect. As someone with invisible disabilities and chronic pain, I wanted to bring it home with me. Initially, it was a gift for my Airbnb host I was staying with at the time, who loved this type of art, so it felt extra special. But I thought they might be offended I got a "defective" gift for me, and not get what I was doing *shocking, misunderstood again*. I made it mine because I appreciated it's beauty and see nothing actually wrong with it. Different abilities is a thing. So is ableism. Or what Robert McRuer calls, "compulsory able-bodiedness." Disability justice matters, as Mia Mingus' and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, or even Syrus Marcus Ware's work and art attest to. I'm still struggling with internalized ableism, compulsory able-bodiedness, and sanism. But these intersections and a trauma-informed lens still matters. Be kind. Wounds ain't nothing to play with. And they aren't "excuses". They do however complicate conversations people would rather have be "convenient," or neat and tidy. That's white supremacy's work. Leave it to them, that shit is for the birds. Trauma doesn't give a fuck about "convenience," or stable grounds. K bye. *Blows kiss in Canadian Accent*

Notes [i] See, Sharpe, 2016; Danticat, 2003a; Danquah. 2003a; Mock, 2014; Mollow, 2006; Moore, 2018; Walcott, 2006; Herman, 1992; Alexander, 2012; Piepzna-Samarasinha, 2018; Dryden, 2018; Cvetkovich, 2003; Rajiva, 2014; Fisher, 2017; Leys, 2000; Caruth, 2016; Forter, 2007; Swan, 2016 [ii] According to Judith Herman (1992), hysteria which was introduced by Freud and French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot was also known as “the Great neurosis” (Herman, 1992). What Herman (1992) called “the archetypal psychological disorder of women” (9). Herman (1992) contends that hysteria was initially believed to be a “disease that originated in the uterus of women” (9). She adds that what was not known, understood or most feared about women, including emotionality, desire and sexuality was largely viewed as disorder and categorized under the umbrella term of hysteria (Herman, 1992). Anything viewed as deviant that women did or went through was explained away as hysteria, and thus, trauma (Herman, 1992). In Freud’s logic, women were traumatized because they were sexually deprived or repressed (Roudinesco, 2016). This reasoning made sense to not only men of ‘higher learning/education’ but was widely popular in the mainstream at the time. According to Erich Fromm (1956) Freud’s ideas were popular due in part to “reactions against the strict mores of the Victorian age after the First World War, and because it fueled capitalism in that “one had to show that man was by nature competitive and full of mutual hostility” (84). This capitalist agenda was fuelled in various ways. Fromm (1956) writes, “while economists “proved” this in terms of the insatiable desire for economic gain, and the Darwinist in terms of the biological law of the survival of the fittest, Freud can to the same result by the assumption that man is driven by a limitless desire for the sexual conquest of all women” (85). While hysteria has been discredited, how we understand female desire and sexuality has not. It is still marked as neurosis (Herman, 1992). [iii] Conrad and Schneider, 2001; Lorde, 1984; Ahmed, 2017; Massumi, 2014 [iv] Piepzna-Samarasinha, 2018; Orr, 2018; McRuer, 2006; Clare, 2017 [v] See Tolle, 2005; Piepzna-Samarasinha, 2015; Fisher, 2017; Swan, 2016; Rajiva, 2014 [vi] see Cvetkovich, 2003; Piepzna-Samarasinha, 2015; Lorde, 1984; Alexander, 2005; Anderson, 2013; hooks, 2000; 1992; 2013; 2016; Pinkola, 1992; Moraga and Anzaldúa, 2015; Shiva, 2013; Sharpe, 2016; Smith and Smith, 2015; Smith, 1999); Smith, 2012; Somé, 1994; 1997; 1999; Spade, 2014; Spivak, 1988; St. Denis, 2013; Haritaworn, Moussa and Ware, 2018; Orr, 2018; Dryden, 2018; Halberstam, 2012; Harper, 2005; Mingus, 2015; Fell, 2012; Massumi, 2015; Deleuze and Guattari, 1987; Gonick, 2010; Guerrero, 2000; Kimpson, 2005; Kinew, 2015; Kovach, 2005; Kuppers, 2011; Linklater, 2014; Martin- Hill, 2004

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