About the "Trauma" Issue
Bridget E. Keown (Guest Editor)
What does it mean to speak of trauma? The word is one that has meaning across academic disciplines, professional discourse, and cultural production. At the same time, “trauma” rejects easy or coherent definitions. It is both the event and the disruption left behind in its wake. It describes both the catastrophe and the silence that follows.
Institutional efforts to categorize and “cure” trauma routinely prove inadequate. In 2019, the Center for Disease Control identified psychological trauma as one of the largest public health issues facing the global community (Thayer, 2019). Despite this, reinforcing and stressing the validity of the PTSD diagnosis routinely takes precedence over the actual understanding of trauma itself. Likewise, a focus on diagnostic criteria often distracts from the fact that trauma is described and practiced in culturally specific ways that reject easy categorization (Afana, Pedersen, et al. 2010). In such cases, doctors end up replicating and reinforcing systems of imperial domination by classifying suffering and declaring authority over the treatment and potential recovery of suffering individuals. In the face of institutional neglect, to speak of trauma becomes a method of destabilizing categories of identity and difference.
Especially within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, this notion of “recovery” becomes particularly fraught. This special issue of Rejoinder emerges during a period when dominant narratives proclaim the COVID pandemic, at least in the United States, as a thing of the past. The CDC has reframed its risk formula, transporting millions of people from an area of “high” to “low” risk with the click of a mouse (Stone 2022). To be clear, this does not reflect a change in transmission rates, but a change in policy that centers getting “back to normal life” by ending mask mandates and vaccine checks in public spaces (Drake 2022). At the same time, many of us are already looking ahead to a country where reproductive rights, health, and justice are denied and criminalized. We feel the pain, fear, and mistrust of a time yet-to-be surrounding us in this precarious present, binding us in a complex web of memory and emotions that define easy explanation.
As Jenny Edkins observes, systems of power, in this case, the medicalization and politicization of crises, fortify each other in “a practice that…produces linear time, the time of the state” (Edkins 2003, 16). State time insists that trauma be confined to a neat space in the past, and that victims and survivors “move on,” or “move past” the event, much as one “bounces back” after an illness, presumably immune to further harm. This process “precludes modes of political activism through its neutralizing methods of consensus building” (Adams 2014, 128). We are told to practice active forgetting, even as studies indicate that the impacts of the COVID pandemic will be felt for generations. We are told to trust in a system that has repeatedly turned a blind eye to the structural injustices that leave intergenerational trauma in their wake. These memories are inscribed in the stories we tell and the memories we keep hidden, as well as in our very DNA (Yehuda & Lehrner 2018). At this time, to discuss trauma is to recognize discussions of “new normal” as a refusal to reckon with the generational harm that the pandemic laid bare and continues “putting the onus on individuals…who have already borne the dipropionate burden of this pandemic” (Stone 2022). Likewise, it forces us to reckon with the responsibility we bear for the health of those who will come after us, and who will bear the trauma we suffer and that we cause in their cells, their breath, and their brains.
Because trauma affects brain function and plasticity, it challenges every part of our bodies to find a way to communicate its experiences. However, the concept of “trauma” is too often invoked as a symbol that transcends discussions of actual suffering and pain, placing distance between the sufferer and those who observe them. To speak realistically about trauma means to bear witness to the most isolating and painful emotions, including loneliness, fear, grief, and anger, and memories overwhelming events that caused them. This work is as difficult and frightening as it is rebellious. Because pain is often the impetus for change. As bell hooks recalled, “I came to theory because I was hurting—the pain within me was so intense that I could not go on living” hooks 1991, 59). In her story, hooks identified the development of theory as “fundamentally linked to processes of self-recovery, of collective liberation” that goes together with practice (hooks 1994, 59). Perhaps, then, to speak of trauma “enables us to remember and recover ourselves…to renew our commitment to an active, inclusive feminist struggle” (hooks 1994, 74).
The works in this issue expand the discussion of trauma in innovative and deeply personal ways that acknowledge the multidisciplinary field of trauma studies, while also acknowledging trauma as something that can be held, seen, and shared. While the order of the pieces follows a loose chronological progression based on their subject matter, each interact with and call to each other in fascinating ways. Kathy Bruce’s collage work invokes the “sticky” power of trauma and the fragmentation that is so often its hallmark. Bruce notes she drew inspiration from the rich histories of Peruvian women saints, whose images she regularly saw emblazoned on insignificant trinkets. The isolation of these women from their story, and the endless repetition of the cheap reproductions invokes the very nature of trauma that theorists struggle to describe. At the same time, her intricate, textured figures challenge us to embrace the complex and messy work of refiguring, repositioning, and restoring these women as an act of justice to both the past and future.
Celia Vara’s interdisciplinary art embodies such work, providing tangible insight into psychosocial accompaniment she describes as critical to her work as a psychologist, scholar, and artist. Accompaniment is a practice that eschews the traditional power dynamics between doctor and patient in favor of a liberatory exchange where the accompanier “hold the individual’s suffering and well-being in the light of the sociocultural and historical context” enabling the sufferer to reassess, recontextualize, and ultimately acknowledge their experiences as part of a larger narrative (Watkins 2015, 327). Reading Vara’s journey of accompanying and embodying the work of Fina Miralles forces us to realize how thoroughly our lives and experiences are enmeshed with others, how utterly the lives of others tug at and rend our own existence. In a similar manner, Ravy Puth’s fascinating multimedia work uses pop culture to access memories and encourage storytelling across generations. Like Vara, Puth recognizes how government brutality, colonial violence, and economic coercion erase the ties that bind families and individuals to each other and to their pasts, but she posits that music can provide a form of communication that both surpasses language and restores speech. Puth’s work invokes the ghosts of dead musicians, bearing witness to victims of the Khmer Rouge's autocratic regime, while drawing us into what Avery Gordon describes as a kind of “transformative recognition” of our shared humanity and creative potential (Gordon 1997, 8).
Just as trauma calls us to recognize the ways in which our bodies and our existences are connected, it also calls into question the constructs and assumptions intended to keep us apart. The works in this issue provoke and prod at these normative structures, creating space for potential discourse and practice. Emily Irvin’s narrative of creating and displaying Valley, a basin of porcelain and human hair, challenges the affective and physical barriers between art and the humans who create, display, view, and purchase it. Irvin calls on readers to recognize that just as every kind of contact changes Valley—it bears the fingerprints of its creator just as it does the stain where it was kicked by a potential buyer—every interaction in which we engage likewise leaves its mark on us and our world. Consequently, the idea that we can emerge from any experience pristine should be unreasonable. Yet, as Mahaliah A. Little demonstrates, western notions of linear time and progress insist on denying the ways traumatic events shape our realities, our identities, and our relationships. This is especially true for marginalized people, who negotiate inherited and intergenerational trauma, as well as the long-term injustices of structural and institutional violence. In her article, Little insists on “a more capacious theorization of Black women’s identity and sexual subjectivity in the aftermath of sexual violence” that prioritizes their sense of self over the comfort of a society that is complicit in the violence enacted upon them. Little frames her argument by considering discourse around a “post-COVID” world that is still grappling with the realities of a global pandemic, exposing this concept as a complacent lie. Jennifer S. Griffiths’ memories of becoming a parent during the early months of the global SARS-CoV-2 outbreak further challenges the notion that it is possible to “return to normal,” after the pain and revelation caused by profound life changes. Rather than rejecting or moving away from such traumatic emotions, Griffiths’ framework of analysis shows how they can become the fuel for self-transformation and empathy.
Where words fail, art can often provide the insight necessary to bridge the imagined distances between us. Gail Winbury’s abstract works position the viewer both against and within profound and terrifying events—moments of gendered violence and armed sedition—creating a space for emotion and release. Like Irvin, Winbury’s description of her work emphasizes the physicality of her art; not only do the colors slice and consume the canvas, but the gestural brushstrokes and hectic lines recall the artist whose strength and creativity brought them into being. Winbury’s work, along with the others in this issue, demand viewers and readers who are willing to bear witness to the emotions, experiences, and history they commemorate. Okolo Chinua’s poem, “Voices from a Valley Ascended,” invites us to open ourselves up to the world, and to realize that trauma is part of living. It also provides promise of care, being cared for, and being in some sort of harmony with those who have shared this journey. Rather than an ending, it provides an invitation for further reflection and engagement.
Working on this special issue has been revelatory. I am deeply indebted to the staff of Rejoinder for their support and belief in this project, and especially to Sarah Tobias, whose enthusiasm, insight, and patience laid the foundations for all that you see here. My thanks also to my parents and Dr. Fintan Keown, whose support was invaluable during the editorial process. I would like to extend my deepest thanks to those who submitted their work for consideration, and to those whose work appears here. This issue is a testament to your talent, your wisdom, and your labor. I hope it honors the stories that you shared with us.
 For examples, see: Ackermann, Maximilian, Stijn E. Verleden, Mark Kuehnel, Axel Haverich, Tobias Welte, Florian Laenger, Arno Vanstapel, et al. 2020. "Pulmonary Vascular Endothelialitis, Thrombosis, and Angiogenesis in Covid-19." New England Journal of Medicine (May 21). http://doi.org./10.1056/NEJMoa2015432; David, Hannah, Gina S. Assaf, Lisa McCorkell, et al. 2021. “Characterizing long COVID in an international cohort: 7 months of symptoms and their impact.” EClinical Medicine 38 (101019). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eclinm.2021.101019; Lewis, Dyani. 2021. “Long COVID and kids: scientists race to find answers.” Nature. July 14, 2021. Accessed April 12, 2022. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01935-7; Lopez-Leon, S., Wegman-Ostrosky, T., Perelman, C. et al. 2021. “More than 50 long-term effects of COVID-19: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Scientific Reports 11, (16144). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-95565-8; Piazza G, Campia U, Hurwitz S, et al. 2020. “Registry of Arterial and Venous Thromboembolic Complications in Patients With COVID-19.” Journal of the American College of Cardiology 76 (18) 2060 – 2072; Vanichkachorn G, Newcomb R, Cowl CT, Murad MH, Breeher L, et al. 2021. “Post-COVID-19 Syndrome (Long Haul Syndrome): Description of a Multidisciplinary Clinic at Mayo Clinic and Characteristics of the Initial Patient Cohort. “Mayo Clinical Proceedings 96, no. 7 (July 2021): 1782-1791.
Adams, Ross E. 2014. “Notes from the Resilient City.” Log 32 (Oct): 127-139.
Afana, A.-H., Pedersen, D., Rønsbo, H., & Kirmayer, L. J. 2010. “Endurance is to be shown at the first blow: Social representations and reactions to traumatic experiences in the Gaza Strip.” Traumatology 16 (4): 73-84. https://doi.org/10.1177/1534765610395663
Drake, John. 2022. “New CDC COVID-19 Guidelines Reflect Change in Policy Objectives, Not Science.” Forbes. February 28, 2022. https://www.forbes.com/sites/johndrake/2022/02/28/new-cdc-covid-19-guidelines-reflect-change-in-policy-objective-not-science/?sh=375be8cb133a.
Edkins, Jenny. 2003. Trauma and the Memory of Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gordon, Avery. 2008. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
hooks, bell. 1994. “Theory as Liberatory Practice.” In Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, 59-75. New York: Routledge.
Stone, Will. 2022. “CDC’s new COVID metrics can leave individuals struggling to understand their risk.” NPR. March 12, 2022. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2022/03/10/1085797307/cdcs-new-covid-metrics-can-leave-individuals-struggling-to-understand-their-risk.
Thayer, Kate. 2019. “Ending childhood abuse and other damaging experiences could reduce up to 21 million cases of depression, 1.9 million cases of heart disease, CDC finds.” Chicago Tribune. November 5, 2019. https://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/ct-life-cdc-cause-of-death-adverse-childhood-experiences-tt-20191105-hjftriwohvgcriusfjbhwwgrke-story.html
Vosters, Helene. 2015. “Diamanda Galás and Amanda Todd: Performing Trauma’s Sticky Connections.” Theatre Research in Canada 36 (1): 89-105.
Watkins, Mary. 2015. “Psychosocial Accompaniment.” Journal of Social and Political Psychology 3 (1): 324-341.
Yehuda, Rachel & Lehrner, Amy. 2018. “Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: putative role of epigenetic mechanisms.” World Psychiatry: Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) 17 (3): 243-257.