Trauma and the therapeutic possibilities of public narrative

In the past couple of weeks I’ve had a couple of publications that centre on the same theme: the possibilities of public narrative for healing individual and collective traumas.

Public narrative is an extremely broad term and captures a wide range of practices from autobiographical writing and public speaking through to the creation of cultural products including books, TV and film.

The concept of trauma is similarly broad (and increasingly contested). It includes experiences that meet the criteria for PTSD (DSM-V and ICD-11) and complex PTSD (ICD-11 only).

I recognise and have some time for the criticism of recent popular cultural tendencies to describe every negative experience as ‘trauma’ and every strong emotion as ‘being triggered.’

But I would also note we’re still only just beginning to grasp the full extent and diversity of experiences that can cause and constitute traumatic disorders. It wasn’t that long ago (two editions of the DSM) that we excluded events like sexual assault and domestic violence as potential causes of PTSD. The DSM-V authors still don’t agree that prolonged exposure to those two things in childhood can constitute a separate and more severe form of the disorder.

Acknowledging these debates, I use the notion of traumatic experience to describe and talk about sub-clinical trauma — experiences that meet some but not all of the criteria for PTSD or complex PTSD. These experiences can still be powerfully distressing and debilitating and fundamentally call into question our ability to survive and the linear temporal structure of our adult lives.

The Last of Their Number

This piece poses the problem of feeling isolated because your life story cannot be told and cannot be heard; it explores public narrative, particularly autobiographical writing and public speaking, as a possible solution, while cautioning that we need to build public listening skills and practices as well.

Pandemic déjà vu

This piece acknowledges that collective traumatic experiences of pandemics can produce paroxysmal public rage — and explores the possibilities of cultural production (books, film, TV) for telling stories of mass traumatising events.