Trauma Studies

I was an early scholar in the emerging field of Trauma Studies in the mid- to late-1980s. I was working on a PhD at Yale,, where I was introduced to Elizabeth Wilson and Cathy Caruth, among others.  While Yale’s trauma studies scholars worked within a psychoanalytic tradition, I was repelled by the basic principles of psychoanalysis and instead turned to African American critical theory, theory from the Black postcolonial world, semiotics, and newer neurological clinical psychological approaches to PTSD, all of which I used to create a frame for what I called “the literatures of trauma.”

The result of my studies and many interviews with Holocaust survivors, combat veterans, and rape and incest survivors was Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma (1995, Cambridge University Press). Worlds was not widely reviewed, but it has been consistently cited by scholars for more than a generation now.

My other writings on trauma literature include:

Caruth’s work is cited about an order of magnitude more often than mine, which isn’t surprising. But I’m more interested in who is citing me than in how many citations I receive. One of my main complaints about psychoanalytic trauma studies is how Eurocentric and racist much of the scholarship is (and I include Caruth’s work in this category). When I compare the reach of my own work to, for example Caruth’s, I feel comfortable that Worlds is reaching the people it was intended to reach.  White mainstream scholars with a European focus rarely reach for  Worlds, but it resonates for many scholars who are not white and not European, and who focus on the trauma narratives of oppressed peoples and members of marginalized communities.

There is little pleasure to be found in trauma studies, but it can be deeply rewarding when I feel my work has helped people uncover their own truths or interpret the stories of others whose voices are not usually centered in the West.  This is why I am glad to see Worlds has been useful not just for scholars of the Holocaust, Vietam War, and sexual abuse/rape, but for scholars studying trauma narratives from war in Bosnia, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, Somalia, Uganda, Rwanda, Okinawa, Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan; trauma narratives of disability, sexual subjugation, AIDS, Latin American testimonio; trauma narratives by African Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Indigenous Americans, Hispanic and Latina Americans, LGBTQ+, Australian Aboriginals, Asian Australians; postcolonial trauma narratives from Japan, Taiwan, the Raj, the Caribbean, Algeria, Eastern Africa, Malawi, Francophone Africa, South Africa, Zimbabwe; slavery narratives; prison narratives from the Russian Gulags, narratives by imprisoned women; trauma literature from oppressive regimes in Argentina, the Philippines; and for scholars of many other places and peoples.

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