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195. The cauldron (VI)

“I’m just trying to deal with my trauma and practice self-care right now.” In twenty years—if not ten—these words will be foreign to most people, but, for today, everyone wants to talk about their trauma. There is a certain space in human affairs, a space predominately—though not exclusively—dominated by women that needs to express a vague unease or dissatisfaction; it is a sort of non-specific anxiety about the current situation, what might happen in the future, and what happened in the past. This space is not unconnected to the need for humans to bond and draw resources and attention to themselves; hence the space currently occupied by “trauma” was occupied, about ten years ago, by “OCD” and, in the 1960s, by “neurosis” and “my Oedipal complex”—and a 150 years ago it was occupied by “propriety” and “good Christian behaviour”.

The idea of psychological trauma is a metaphorical extension of physical trauma; a trauma is the insertion of an object into a body, “a blunt trauma” or “bullet trauma”. In the psychological realm, the idea is that a life event has penetrated the mind and remains lodged there—psychic shrapnel—and that it recurrently causes a person distress, just as a person with the remains of a bullet lodged in their thigh will wince and move about as it shifts in the flesh. As with the word “abuse”—now somewhat in decline—trauma is in favour because it is ambiguous. “I was abused as a child.” This could mean anything from rape, starvation, and savage beatings with a belt to that one time your mother lost her temper and screamed: “I wish I never had you.” There is a considerable difference between the two, one being sustained malicious activity and the other being an unpleasant but—given how difficult children can be—understandable lapse that is probably almost typical.

The great advantage of “trauma” and “abuse” is that the words are vague and yet suggest a very grave event; and people are reluctant to pry if someone says they are “traumatised” or were “abused”—it sounds really bad, and we can imagine the worst; most people recoil at anything “too deep” and offer shallow sympathy and attention instead. The worst does happen, after all; humans really are pretty bad. Yet, of course, these words are also used in the twilight zone between conscious and unconscious thought to manipulate people, to create a drama.

The media loves these terms for that very reason: “Palace racial abuse probe; Meghan’s trauma!” This could mean anything from Prince Philip blundering through golden palace doors into a party to expostulate, “Charles’s boy has gawn and married a blasted nigger, would you believe?” to someone saying, very lightly, “Given the nature of the Royal Family, its symbolic role, the racial issue must be handled with sensitivity.” When people are reluctant to pry into “your pain” then the accusation can be held over the public, in the broadest sense of that word—and this is not a racial issue as such, Princess Diana also excelled at this art.

This is the language of female neuroticism—in the non-Freudian sense, a female predisposition to feel positive and negative emotion more strongly—combined with a therapeutic sensibility, the idea that to share a negative event dissipates its potency; of course, some males make use of this method too, with variable success. In the manipulative sense, the language is pseudo-therapeutic; the real trauma is never shared in public, since that would render its potency for emotional manipulation null. “It’s *sob* just, like, I can’t…” “It’s okay, we understand,” Oprah passes a tissue. Doubtless genuinely abused and traumatised people rarely speak out, since real sexual and physical abuse tends to provoke intense shame, not a desire to parade in a coquettish way in front of other people. In any case, the language will shift again in another few years, according to trends in psychology, but the exploitable space for ambiguous language remains constant.


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