Trauma Theory

Basis for Trauma Theory

Trauma Theory is built upon several core assumptions:

  • Physical or Emotional Trauma can leave lingering, long-term affects on memory, perception, and emotional well-being.
  • Trauma is not the result of external stimulus alone – instead, it is the internalization of past experience that leads to fundamental changes in the self.


There are, however, some controversies in our approaches to trauma:

  • To what degree is internalized trauma a “biological” or “neurological” phenomenon?  (Cathy Caruth; Ruth Leys; and Judith Herman provide particularly interesting sources for discussing this.)
  • Who defines what “counts” as trauma?  (see Leys; Dominick LaCapra; and others).  In particular, how can the single term of trauma address both an event like the Holocaust and also the descriptions of PTSD used by Paula Jones? (see Leys).
  • How do we differentiate “cultural” from “personal” trauma?  Is there a difference?  I’m thinking of Wounded Knee, where the losses would have not only devastated the group that was there, but would have certainly affected all American Indians who heard about it secondhand.  Or consider Civil Rights, where lynching was used to “make an example” out of a few individuals in order to enforce the tyranny of fear over all African Americans.  To what degree does your neighbors’ loss become your own?
  • To what degree is trauma “faked” or “manufactured” by certain individuals in order to attract attention?  (This is directly related to the crisis in testimony described by Smith and Watson.)


In terms of pedagogy, we have to understand that all students have experienced varying degrees of emotional hardship.  The types of hardship may or may not be considered “traumatic,” and the similar types of external hardships may lead to very different degrees of internalization depending upon the student.

These leads to two key effects I’m examining.  First, the individual student’s classroom performance may be hindered by the effects of past experience, whether directly or indirectly.  For example, a student who can’t sleep at night due to flashbacks will certainly have difficulty concentrating on studies.  The second effect, however, is that many students are unable or unwilling to accept and understand the suffering of others.

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