Affluenza, Paula Jones, Uganda: Convient Relativism in Definitions of Trauma

In Trauma: A Geneology, Ruth Leys uses the example of Paula Jones to indicate the reasons why many people view contemporary theories of trauma with some skepticism (PTSD, in particular).  Essentially, if Jones can be said to have experienced “trauma” at the hands of Bill Clinton (so the thinking goes), then how can this same term be applied to survivors of the Holocaust?  Or the Ugandan girls who were taken as “wives” (i.e. sex slaves, many of whom were murdered as “examples”) (another example by Leys).

Leys uses the term “lawyerly fiat” to describe Jones’s use of trauma as a cause for litigation (p. 104 in the Kindle Sample).  This reminds me of the case of the young man who was found “not guilty” in the case of drunk driving deaths because he apparently suffered “affluenza,” the theory being that the wealth upbringing provided by his parents had left this young man with no actual conception of consequences.  (Need the source – it’s easy to find on Google.)

For me, this seems to imply that there’s a conception of “relative” trauma, that the definition and acceptance of trauma as a phenomenon is very much social and situational.  Just look at the ways in which Freud eventually dismissed the narratives of his patients as “fabrications,” at how many physicians dismissed the psychological symptoms of World War I soldiers as a “lack of courage” (see Leys; Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery) – clearly, trauma has not been consistently defined or accepted historically.  And today, different groups advocate for awareness of differing types of events as traumatic.

So how do we decide what “counts”?  Clearly, the Uganda girls were raped and abused and murdered traumatically.  Holocaust survivors endured trauma.  But what about this “affluenza” thing?  How can we possibly exonerate a young man for “suffering” the excesses of wealth when his actions have directly caused the deaths of others?  When the “neglect” he “endured” has deprived families of their loved ones?

This plays out in the classroom, too.  There are students who have clearly suffered through some things.  There are also students who face unshakable anxiety when faced with what we would think of as “ordinary” coursework.  These are not always the same group of students.  I could draw a Venn diagram of students who have suffered in life and students who suffer in class – there’s some overlap, but no one knows just how much.  Have any studies been done on this?  What did they find?

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