Passing the Flame: Narrative Trajectories of Trauma

This essay was destined to be a commentary on an article for a small journal I occasionally contribute to. However, my commentary was lost (likely buried in a chain of emails) and not published. To not be a complete loss, I am posting it here. While this version reads better when paired with the article I was responding to (currently behind a paywall), much of this essay can stand alone.

Trauma is ubiquitous and central to the human condition. In The Flame of Trauma, Peter Petschauer presents a constellation of trauma narratives. Many of these accounts, including his own, show the “stickiness” of trauma—or how trauma experiences and their effects have a way of shadowing sufferers and arriving uninvited in the lives of one’s descendants.

The popular and professional awareness of intergenerational and historical trauma has grown over the past two decades. This growing recognition is in part a result of what Ian Hacking called a “looping effect”—a feedback process where the more popular certain categories become the more likely people will use them to frame their dysphoria or experiences and generate narratives that confirm them. The increasing currency of intergenerational and historical trauma narratives, and their power as explanatory models, make them important to think with.

Intergenerational trauma involves transmitting the burdens and effects of a traumatic experience from one generation to the next. How this happens is complex. It encompasses conveying narratives, memories, moral imperatives, relational models, and embodied modes of being-in-the-world to one’s descendants. Historical trauma is a broader concept that includes the process of intergenerational transmission. It involves imparting shared traumatic experiences resulting from histories of racism, genocide, persecution, dispossession, colonialism, and other collective losses and suffering. People’s recollections and responses to these events are passed to future generations. Additionally, the consequences of unjust social and political structures (historical and contemporary) impinge on people’s lives—those affected by historical trauma often live in marginalized contexts, conditions of dispossession, and within forms of structural violence which perpetuate the cycle. Historical events may also, as Valmik Volkan observed, become chosen traumas filled with further symbolic meanings and narrative significance that can be drawn on to form a shared identity, garner public support, or justify ethnic violence.

Intergenerational and historical trauma often surfaces in my thinking and scholarship. As a child and family mental health counselor, it was impossible to not see intergenerational echoes in my clients. My first ethnographic research project identified historical trauma as a dominant motif in the intergenerational transmission of identity in a Native American family. And like Petschauer’s account, the narrative and explanatory structure that intergenerational trauma offers recently provided a vantage into how my father’s experiences in the Vietnam War might have shaped my own idiosyncrasies. Historical events, both macro and personal in scale, shape our psyches in ways we might take for granted or not recognize.

The transmission of trauma is overdetermined. Its elusive, intersecting qualities limit empirical investigation into causation and its mechanisms of communication. Further research challenges arise when we see how each trauma can come with unique forms of loss, social and political-economic contexts, and cultural models that shape people’s emotional expression, memory, and response. These challenges do not trouble me; each represents an important domain for further study and insight. What stood out for me in Petschauer’s essay, and what I want to emphasize, is intergenerational trauma’s role as a public narrative. What can we learn by studying trauma narratives and their looping effects? Why do we probe our ancestors’ stories—both written and embodied—to explain our contemporary varieties of dysphoria? Viewing these traumas through a narrative lens foregrounds their dynamic, cultural, and intersubjective elements.

Narratives give meaning to suffering and they can reorient the self. When people construct narratives, it helps them answer existential questions central to their experiences, such as why me, why now. The process of narrativization involves positioning the suffering in history. People link contemporary stressors to past events. This establishes a connection to the past and offers a sense of continuity and meaning. People also use narratives of past trauma to index current pain and injustice, using it as an “idiom of distress.” Mark Nichter described how idioms of distress are a culturally resonant and convenient means of experiencing and communicating complex meanings and stressors, such as powerlessness and loss, to others.[1]

My latest research examines the narratives and the meaningful life events of persons with younger onset dementia and their caregivers. In their stories, people often drew on traumatic experiences to explain why they have dementia. A pattern emerged. People used trauma to not only explain their condition, such as its origins, but they also used it to organize and emplot their narratives. In these accounts, and across my other research too, people use trauma (their own or their ancestors) as a stitch or quilting point to structure or hold the narrative together and stabilize fluctuations of meaning. Jacques Lacan described these as points de capiton.

Trauma narratives are also malleable. My research on the transmission of historical trauma in a Native American family shows how narratives of past suffering and loss are a tool to emplot contemporary family members experiences of trauma into a resilient frame. Family members are instructed to listen to and derive strength from others’ contemporary and historical traumas because such stories teach one how to be strong and persevere in the face of enmity. Here historical trauma did not always result in pathology. They emplotted their experiences from a strengths-based perspective, and their narration of events in relation to their ancestors’ traumas compressed time and enabled individuals to identify with, and locate themselves within, their rich historical and cultural system.[2]

Approaching intergenerational and historical trauma from a narrative perspective helps us frame the events and representations at hand. Attention to narratives, idioms of distress, and looping effects enable us to draw on psychocultural and psychohistorical intersections, facilitating a reorientation of how we think about context and agency. This perspective moves beyond causal variables to help us consider how the vicissitudes of trauma and its narrative emplotment shape our lifeworlds. As Howard Stein said to Petschauer, “We all write our lives with our history.” Likewise, our history, culture, and the narratives we inhabit can also inevitably write us.

[1] “Idioms of Distress Revisited,” Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 34, 2010.
[2] “Rethinking Historical Trauma: Narratives of Resilience,” Transcultural Psychiatry 45:3, 2008.

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