Week 1 Focus: Why Trauma? Why now?

 Suggested Reading Assignments:



Trauma terminology is often used to describe the ongoing events of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a term, trauma has only recently been adopted into colloquial use to describe our everyday experiences. Lexi Pandell, in her article “How trauma became the word of the decade,” examines the colloquial use of the word trauma and explores why the recent shift in usage troubles experts. She explains that this shift has led to a definitional misunderstanding of the word itself. Pandell highlights that at the beginning of 2022, nonfiction books on trauma – including Didion’s The Year of Magical – held spots at the top of the New York Times (NYT) Bestseller List. Parul Sehgal explores the current desire for and reliance on trauma narratives, writing, “on the page and on the screen, one plot—the trauma plot—has arrived to rule them all.” As trauma is understood in this cultural moment, virtually anything can be traumatic and cause trauma. Pandell explains, “‘Trauma’ in its current usage has created a tidy framework within which to understand our lives and roles. The word evokes a narrative in which one is stripped of agency: An event happens to us…In this telling, we are powerless. Our minds protect us, or our memories get stuck, or our behavior changes — and it’s beyond our control.” Media psychologist Pamela Rutledge takes Pandell’s understanding of trauma terminology one step further, stating: “I have trauma,’…[has become] like, ‘I’m depressed or, ‘I’m addicted to cookies. It has become a popular idiom tossed around without meaning” (Pandell). Generalization of trauma attempts to simplify the complex human experience and potentially jeopardizes an individual’s ability to receive necessary trauma care. However, this reality begs the question: if a universal experience (such as the pandemic) has been traumatic, how can we understand trauma as a concept without generalizing it?

Although the term’s widespread use has arguably expanded to include too much, its clinical definition has remained exceptionally narrow. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines trauma as “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” (DSM-V). Suppose we take a historical approach to re-align trauma terminology with a broader understanding of what a traumatic experience can look like. In that case, the acknowledgment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in 1980 by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) serves as a critical moment (DSM-III). This acknowledgment differentiates between casual mentions of trauma and life-altering traumatic experiences. As Rodger Luckhurst points out in his book The Trauma Question, individuals with PTSD experience “extreme ‘stressor’ events…[which] produce certain identifiable somatic and psycho-somatic disturbances…trauma [in this case] disrupts memory and therefore identity in particular ways” (1). Interpreting traumatic experience in terms of identity and memory, similar to what Didion does rhetorically in her memoirs, assists in expanding an understanding of trauma as a term without overgeneralizing it. Thinking about trauma in terms of memory and identification allows for the examination of the ways specific events have altered an individual’s sense of self and ability to connect with a past, present, and future self. 

The recent focus on trauma terminology has resulted in a widespread longing for communities that explore the implications of traumatic events and how we begin to recover from them. Pandell points to a current pervasive desire to engage with stories of trauma in her mention of #traumadumping on social media platforms, where users will share stories of their trauma with nondescript virtual audiences.

          Analyzing the recent shift in understanding surrounding trauma, as well as societal responses to this shift, illuminates the importance this ideology plays in our contemporary society. To this end, it reveals particular ways written trauma narratives might serve a profoundly new purpose both in and out of writing classrooms. In week two, you will learn more about how and why we write about trauma, why trauma narratives have a place in contemporary writing classrooms and common misconceptions about trauma writing.


Works Cited

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DMS). 3rd ed., American Psychiatric

Association, 1980.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DMS). 5th ed., American Psychiatric

Association, 1980.

Pandell, Lexi. “How Trauma Became the Word of the Decade.” Vox, Vox, 17 Jan. 2022,


Luckhurst, Rodger. The Trauma Question. Routledge, 2008.

Sehgal, Parul. “The Case against the Trauma Plot.” The New Yorker, 27 Dec. 2021,



Suggested Writing Assignments:

  • Weekly Reading Reflection – Pick an excerpt from a reading from this week – a paragraph, a page, a single line – and reflect. Why did you choose this expert? What does it add to your understanding of writing or thinking about writing? How does this excerpt complicate your understanding of Didion’s work? Of course, there is no need to answer all of these questions, but what is required is careful thought about how reading can inform the way that we understand writing and the writing process.



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