“It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear and speak no evil.

The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement and remembering.”

                                                                       – Judith Herman. 

What is trauma? Why do we think of trauma the way we do? And Why is it that some people’s experiences are considered to be traumatic, while others are not? 

Our social conditions have shaped the way we think about trauma. The two main forces behind the society’s formulation of trauma are the political movements and the systems that disregard these violations. Today we are going to explore these political movements behind the study of trauma as reviewed from David Treleaven’s book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness. 

The concept of trauma was first added into DSM-3 as a rare and fatal stressor that is outside the range of usual human experience, prone to evoke significant symptoms which were marked as distressing to most people. Known as the silent epidemic, trauma deeply disturbs an individual’s capacity to cope, triggering feelings of helplessness and reducing their sense of self. This psychological vulnerability is the outcome of the individual’s usual coping mechanisms failing to acknowledge the psychological trauma. Due to this response, the individual suffers from severe desolation along with physical deterioration. 

If one truly wants to understand the concept of trauma, they need to understand the history behind it. When it comes to the history of trauma, there are three Western movements which play an important role in how we think of trauma today.

The Anticlerical Movement In France:

The first ever scientific study of psychological trauma took place between the eighteenth and the nineteenth century. A French neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot, was the first person to study and define a disease known as “hysteria”. The term hysteria was derived from the Greek word ‘hystera’, meaning womb. It was a gender based diagnosis that was solely reserved for women. 

Before Charcot’s research into hysteria, it was considered to be a disease with incoherent and muddled symptoms. Some of the symptoms include insomnia, muscle paralysis, fainting and intense anxiety. While hysteria was considered to be “the mark of the devil” and was dismissed as witchcraft by The Catholic Church, the anticlerical movement had undertaken a rigorous study of traumatic stress. Charcot was able to record the growth and disposition of hysteria, and exhibit that the disease was psychological in nature. However, Charcot was unable to determine the source of hysteria as his approach was agnostic and did not provide a rational intervention for treatment. He focused more on the neurological symptoms and not on the inner lives of his patients. 

His students, Sigmund Freud and Pierre Janet, on the other hand, were fascinated with finding the source. Hence, it became their goal to research and possibly find a cure for hysteria. They started talking to the women suffering from hysteria and concluded that the symptoms were the result of psychological trauma. These symptoms, they believed, were the consequence of the altered state of consciousness resulted by the intolerable emotional reactions to the traumatic events. Janet labeled this reaction as “dissociation”. Freud and Janet found that the symptoms could be attenuated if the patient was able to enunciate the traumatic incident stored in the unconscious mind. Janet referred to this treatment as “psychological analysis”, a method of treatment that would allow an individual to verbalize the hysteria in a way that would be helpful in attenuating the symptoms. 

Psychoanalytic theory dominated the later part of the nineteenth century as Freud continued his research on the exploration of womxn’s sexual life. He found a connection between sexually abused womxn and hysterical behaviour. For a brief time in history, womxn were heard. However, due to the immense pressure from his colleagues and having no political backing for his thesis, he had to relinquish his research. His female patients were isolated once again, their voices being silenced once more.

The Anti-war Organization Of Veterans:

That was the end of the study on hysteria until the Wars brought this study back into the focus. As soldiers were returning home with indescribable symptoms, terms like ‘shell shock’ and ‘combat exhaustion’ were introduced. This nervous disorder was presumed to be the outcome of the jarring effects of the exploding shells. When the soldiers who did not face any combat, also started showing the symptoms for the same nervous condition, the medical professionals were under tremendous pressure to explain the phenomenon. It was acknowledged that these symptoms were tied to the extreme states of psychological distress. The elongated subjection to war produced the similar hysterical symptoms seen in the womxn examined by Charcot and Freud. This prognosis of combat neurosis was not seen as being “honorable” by the traditionalists. They questioned the moral integrity of these soldiers. They deemed the soldiers suffering from combat neurosis as “cowards” and questioned whether to give them formal treatment or not. The soldiers were threatened, punished and shamed, and sometimes were also subjected to electric shocks. 

This form of treatment continued by the traditionalists until a group of new and progressive medical professionals offered a more humane approach to treatment that could help soldiers return to combat without the hysterical symptoms. They were influenced by Freud’s “the talking cure”, famously known as Psychoanalysis. Due to the success of the approach of this treatment, military establishments accepted that no matter how courageous a soldier is, it is possible for them to be traumatized by the effects of combat. 

However, it all changed following the Vietnam War. This war is the next appearance in the study of combat neurosis. Unlike the two World Wars, the Vietnam War faced mass opposition both inside and outside the military. Soldiers returning were suffering personally as they were feeling betrayed and deserted. Veterans who felt abandoned came together and organized an antiwar movement. ‘Rap groups’ were formed which offered them a safe space to discuss their experiences and raise awareness about the effects of war. Owing to this a context for systematic study of trauma and a new disorder was created, which later came to be known as PTSD. 

The Womxn’s Movement:

The next political event that gave context once again to the study of sexual trauma, decades after Freud’s research, was the feminist movement. This movement raised awareness about the everyday violence, both sexual and domestic, faced by womxn. The effects of sexual abuse and violence was more prevalent in womxn than the men who faced the trauma of war. This movement not only challenged the notion that individual experiences can be understood outside social situations but also the stigma faced by the womxn who spoke out about their experiences. The predisposition to blame the victim impacted the direction of the psychological examination and led the researchers to seek an elucidation for the perpetrator’s crimes in the character of the victim.  This form of repression made sure that womxn stayed isolated, but, like the rap groups, feminists also organized “consciousness-raising” groups to talk about their experiences. Through the unified efforts displayed by the womxn’s movement and decades of study, sexual violence was finally added as a diagnostic criteria of PTSD in the DSM-5. However, this movement was criticized for being centered around white and cis gendered womxn, leading to another wave of feminist movement creating an intersectional analysis emphasizing the interlocking nature of systems of oppression.

The aforementioned political movements and research work brings into focus that the social and economic systems which we live in depend on domination and violence, and how we are conditioned to see a situation as traumatic only when it is associated with a physically traumatic event. We are also deeply conditioned to not see the ways that racism, sexism, casteism and homophobia can be traumatic.

The oppression faced within the Indian context on muslim communities, Dalit and Adivasi Communities, Queer communities, and Womxn has created effects of traumatic stress which gives rise to intergeneration of trauma. Take a look at our article on intergenerational trauma that outlines the history of trauma in the context of our country and its marginalised people.

When we witness a traumatic event which is the result of an accident, we tend to empathize. However, if the same traumatic event happens to be the result of the social and economic oppression, it becomes complicated. In the context of trauma, we cannot diffuse responsibility, we have to pick a side and if you choose to be neutral then that means you have chosen the perpetrator’s side. 

At Pause for Perspective, we are trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive practitioners who work with the intersections of oppression people experience that lead to trauma responses. To make an appointment with one of our counselors reach out to us at 9490708947 or write to us at pause.perspective@gmail.com 

This article is written by Insha Fatima our writer and psychology student. To view the lecture series on Trauma click here