There is a certain kind of person who, on being introduced, says, “What’s your story?” I like that way of opening a conversation with someone you have just met. It offers people a way of presenting themselves as they might like to be seen (which may not be the same as how others see them). But it would also be true to say that I like “What’s your story?” because stories are my stock in trade. So here’s a shocking one:
During the civil war that racked Sierra Leone in the 1990s, my cousin Morlai, a teacher, was stopped at a checkpoint by soldiers who mistook him for a member of the rebel faction and dragged away for summary execution. Thousands of civilians were killed this way during that war: pulled aside at checkpoints by nervy, suspicious soldiers and shot. Morlai, though, survived. He lived, he told me later, because one of the soldiers ordered to execute him was a former pupil.
I was appalled by the story. Morlai was my favorite cousin. We were silent for a while and then I said, “You must have been a really good teacher.” And we both laughed.
Our laughter may seem surprising. In Western societies, we have begun to conflate every difficult experience with trauma, such that the words suffering and trauma have become interchangeable. But here was someone I knew well, the cousin with whom I had grown up and who was and is immensely dear to me, who had gone through something terrible and yet was not traumatized by it—who, in fact, was able to reach a place where he could laugh about his experience. I am not suggesting that every horror can be turned into a joke. I’m thinking only about Morlai and the fact that since that day two decades ago he has gone on to live a good and contented life.
SO WHAT IS THE MEANING of the word trauma? In medical terms, it describes the impact of violence on the body: “Traumatic injury is a term which refers to physical injuries of sudden onset and severity which require immediate medical attention.”
Trauma has also been used by mental health professionals since the 1970s. When used in this context, it is a specialized term to describe the impact of a violent or horrific event on an individual’s mental well-being. We might think of trauma in this sense as the wound that does not heal. There’s a man who lives in my ancestral village in Sierra Leone. Because of the rebel invasions that took place during the war, to this day he flees at the sight of a stranger and hides in the forest until the person leaves. Sometimes he stays there for days. His wife carries his meals to him. I have interviewed a woman who at the mention of the violent death of her husband twenty-five years earlier shut down to the point that she was unable to speak. We call this “damage.” But the way the psyche responds to violence is less predictable than the body’s. Everybody will suffer, and the suffering, like a wound, is real. But not everyone who suffers will be traumatized.
I began to write about war twenty years ago, as my country was emerging from a decade of civil war. My family, among thousands of others, had suffered greatly in those years and in the years that preceded the outbreak of violence. My father, who was a political activist in the 1970s, was imprisoned and then murdered. His death was followed by twenty-five years of dictatorship and oppression, ten years of civil war, and even an Ebola outbreak. Perhaps not surprisingly, in the novels that followed my first memoir two of my main characters were trauma specialists, and in the years of writing those books I spent many hundreds of hours talking to victims and those who try to help them.
We are a culture that loves to catastrophize.
One of the people I spoke to early on in my research was the Sierra Leonian psychiatrist Edward Nahim, who for many years ran the state mental facility in Freetown. He had what I then took to be an unusual attitude toward the concept of trauma—namely, that it was being applied too widely. In particular, he thought Western NGO workers were too quick to describe the condition of people in Sierra Leone as traumatized. One day he remarked to me of the country’s population, “You know, most of these people will be okay.”
Nahim’s insight echoed the arguments of the psychologist Boris Cyrulnik, whose work I came across not long after. Cyrulnik survived Nazi-occupied Paris, but his parents were killed in the death camps. As a psychologist he worked with children who had suffered everything from institutional abuse to surviving genocide. Cyrulnik challenged the orthodoxy that pain equaled trauma. Instead, he argued that emotional vulnerability could be transformed into emotional strength. For many people who suffer, he said, the pain is real, but it provokes defiance and not surrender. He called this “resilience.”
MANY OF US UNDERSTAND these concepts intuitively. In 2018, for instance, I told Morlai’s story, including the moment when he laughed about his near-execution, in a segment for PBS. After it aired, I waited to see what the online reaction would be. To my surprise, it was overwhelmingly positive. Soon after, people who had seen the segment began to approach me when I was on book tour to say how helpful they had found it. A child psychoanalyst emailed me and wrote, “I agree that ‘trauma’ has been overused in ways that erode the significance of real traumas and undercut the ability of people to cope with truly terrible, stressful experiences.” In fact, he said, many people who had endured great suffering, far from being unable to cope, were the very ones who went on to change the world for the better.
My cousin Morlai is one of those people. Somehow he has been able to transform his own life as well as the lives of people around him, including not just his children (all four of whom he has put through college in the face of considerable hardship) but also many hundreds of children who have earned an education at the school he and I founded in a small village in Sierra Leone and have run for sixteen years.
SO WHY, THEN, if it’s clear that there are many people who are not destroyed or permanently damaged by terrible life events has the belief that suffering necessarily leads to trauma become so common? And why do some people react angrily when anyone suggests otherwise?
Sometimes I think it comes from people who feel their own suffering is insufficiently acknowledged. The extension of the concept of trauma can be a way of countering indifference. I have been hurt, so surely somebody must care, the wounded person says. Other people argue that denying that pain and trauma are the same lets abusers off the hook too easily. And yet others argue that it puts the onus on the victims to heal themselves. But the roots of our collective embrace of the concept of trauma run deeper than this.
The Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking has a term, looping, that describes the circumstances by which a condition begins to replicate itself society-wide once it gains recognition. I’m not talking about a previously unrecognized condition becoming correctly diagnosed. Instead, Hacking describes the way professional and personal beliefs and expectations about a condition can interact to reproduce symptoms and broaden diagnostic criteria. In other words, mental health professionals can inadvertently create that which they seek to describe. If conventional discourse tells people that suffering equals trauma, then it becomes more likely that suffering will be experienced as traumatic.
None of us can avoid pain. But we can change the way we look at our suffering.
Here’s another word I like: catastrophizing. As the name suggests, catastrophizing is a way of framing a painful situation in the worst way possible. And we are a culture that loves to catastrophize. Newspaper reports, for instance, describe a person’s life as “ruined,” or “over.” And this kind of thinking can take on a life of its own, imprinting in the memory and becoming part of a person’s identity. Your perspective on what happened replaces what actually happened and informs your response to it. Looping.
Today we seem to be caught in a constant loop with regard to the concept of trauma. And the loop is widening. Once the word trauma was reserved for men coming back from Vietnam, men who had experienced such horror they could barely function. Today it is used to describe almost any kind of deeply felt hurt, and even some not so deeply felt. This tendency has left us with no words to describe the truly damaged. And it has made it harder for people to break out of the loop and respond resiliently to suffering.
EVERY TIME I MEET a mental health professional who specializes in trauma, I ask why some people seem to manage their experiences where others do not. I find there not to be much disagreement. Individual temperament is a big factor—an inclination to humor, in particular. That would be my cousin Morlai. Another factor is having good people around you when bad things happen, people who will care for you, but will not catastrophize. The good news for all of us is that growing older also helps overcome much suffering. A person develops the characteristics necessary to handle the past event. Simply put, in the end most of us get over the bad things that happen to us. That’s what the Sierra Leonian psychiatrist meant when he told me that most people in the country would be okay. And he was right.
How people respond to trauma isn’t just about the individual or family, though—the societal values of the place where you live can affect the level of your individual resilience, too. Do you live in a society that turns suffering into an existential question, a society that seems to demand that you ask, “Why me?” Or is it the kind of society that accepts the randomness of life and says, “Shit happens”? All these factors shape the way people make sense of what happened to them. Boris Cyrulnik, for instance, felt that the narrative of “ruined” lives that was given to the children for whom he cared was one which condemned them to a fate in many ways worse than the original event. For too long, he argued, the caring professions— and consequently society—had subscribed to a kind of psychological determinism. The victim’s fate became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cyrulnik argued that the emotional vulnerability of the hurt children he cared for could be transformed into emotional strength and that crucial to this was their ability to shape their own narrative rather than having others shape it for them.
What Cyrulnik was making the case for was the importance of what the researchers Dan McAdams and Kate McLean call narrative identity. “Narrative identity,” they write, “is a person’s internalized and evolving life story, integrating the reconstructed past and imagined future to provide life with some degree of unity and purpose.” Our narrative identity is derived from the stories told to us as children by our parents, combined with our own experiences and framed by a master narrative constructed by the society we live in. It is a vital part of our world outlook, informs how we respond to opportunities, challenges, and setbacks.
In the 1940s, the psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark designed an experiment that became known as the “doll test.” The experiment has been repeated frequently. Black children were invited to choose between a black doll and a white doll. They repeatedly chose the white doll and, in answer to a series of questions, ascribed positive virtues and qualities to the white doll and negative ones to the black doll. Kenneth Clark told NPR, “The doll test was an attempt on the part of my wife and me to study the development of the sense of self-esteem in children…to see the extent to which their color, their sense of their own race and status, influenced their judgment about themselves and their self-esteem.”
Around the same time as the Clarks’ original experiment, the psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon wrote in his book Black Skin, White Masks about precisely this same damage to the psyches of colonized peoples, damage that was the result of seeing themselves negatively depicted in multiple ways, through books, films, comics, and magazines, all reinforced by social attitudes. The dominant colonial discourse, with its emphasis on white superiority and brown and black inferiority, (mis)shaped their narrative identities in a way that made them devalue themselves just as they were devalued by their colonial rulers.
McAdams and McLean argue that there are certain elements of a narrative identity which can be associated with higher levels of mental health and wellbeing. Chief among them are agency and meaning. This puts into clinical terms something writers have always known. Wittingly or unwittingly we may maintain the narratives we ourselves have imbibed. We may also use our powers to challenge them. As Salman Rushdie once observed, “Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.” Or as the Danish writer Isak Dinesen put it, “All sorrows can be borne if you can put them into a story.”
FIFTEEN YEARS BEFORE my country went to war, my father was murdered on the orders of the man who had recently become our dictator. My father was tried and hanged as a traitor. But I knew my father, and I knew the circumstances of his arrest, because I was in the house when it happened. And I knew also what had led up to it. I was eleven, my father was my hero. Admittedly, at that age, all fathers are heroes to their daughters. But he was a hero to a lot of other people too, and they told me so, in secret, for we had many enemies. Those enemies controlled the newspapers and television news; they imprisoned journalists and writers. They controlled the master narrative.
Years later, at the height of the conflict in Sierra Leone, I was working as a news reporter at the BBC. Again, the narrative was distorted: the war was incorrectly described as tribal, and reports were aired devoid of historical or political context. The resulting narrative given to Western audiences was one of inexplicable chaos, even though within Sierra Leone some had foreseen war for many years, including my own father, who had on the eve of his death written a letter to the nation which warned that the country was headed toward destruction.
When I wrote my first book, The Devil That Danced on the Water, then, I chose my own family as the vehicle for a story that would rewrite the master narrative while also giving voice to my personal narrative—one that I had been creating and revising and framing from the time of my early adolescence. I seized control of my own story, exerting agency, and I gave it meaning.
None of us can avoid pain. But we can change the way we look at our suffering, from a place of despair to one in which the past is not forgotten but transcended, and a future of fulfillment remains in sight. For Morlai, it is the courage of a young man who risked associating himself with a suspected rebel to stop a firing squad from killing his beloved teacher—that is the apex of his story.
Aminatta Forna is the award-winning author of the novels Happiness, The Hired Man, The Memory of Love, and Ancestor Stones, the memoir The Devil that Danced on the Water, and the essay collection The Window Seat: Notes from a Life in Motion.
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