On trauma and its influence

Bette Burgoyne, The Knot, 19" x 22", black paper, white pencil. Source: 50 Watts

There is much to be said, and felt, about trauma. Its mysterious influence and origins are central to many of our current conversations about health, criminality, and social justice.

Last year I read a book by Ruth Leys (2000) called Trauma: A Genealogy, which provides a broad, far reaching history of the concept. Throughout, Leys wrestles with the same problem that any serious thinking about trauma inevitably returns to, where is it? Different approaches lay claim to having found it in different places — in memory, neurobiology, behaviour, narrative, body etc. But the mere variety of claims is enough to reveal an important, and often overlooked insight — similar to the way rough equivalence between paradigmatic approaches to psychotherapy reveals that they work by common factors, not by any specific set of structural ideas (Hubble et al., 2009). The common finding in the search for trauma is distilled as follows: trauma occurs wherever the past disturbs the present to prevent an uncertain future.

From this common understanding of trauma, two important insights arise. First, trauma is found in time, not in material reality. It appears, then retreats, then appears again, then retreats again (maybe to an unconscious place, but unconscious places are by definition unobservable). It is only recognisable by its effect on the present.

Second, trauma has a function. To prevent an uncertain future. Or, put another way, to make the future certain. Which is to say it both exists in time, and also affixes time. Like an immoveable bookmark, and the reader always finds themselves at the same place.

So, then, what to do about it? Because the more I reflect on trauma, the more I see it everywhere, distributed like a primordial tear throughout the fabric of reality. This is not to deny any specific experience. On the contrary, only specific experiences of trauma reveal its true nature in the world. But trauma might be an existential given, in which case the question of what to do has an obvious answer — develop the capacity to permit an uncertain future.

Easier said than done. Because nothing obvious is ever so straight-forward.


Hubble, M. A., Duncan, B. L., Miller, S. D. & Wampold, B. E. (2009). The Heart and Soul of Change: Delivering What Works in Therapy, American Psychological Association.

Leys, R. 2000. Trauma: A Genealogy. University of Chicago Press.




Short stories and essays. Published irregularly.

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Daniel Silver

Daniel Silver

Short stories and essays. Published irregularly.

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