Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Casper, Monica J. and Eric Wertheimer, Eds. Critical Trauma Studies: Understanding Violence, Conflict, and Memory in Everyday Life

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Casper, Monica J. and Eric Wertheimer, Eds. Critical Trauma Studies: Understanding Violence, Conflict, and Memory in Everyday Life

Article excerpt

Casper, Monica J. and Eric Wertheimer, eds. Critical Trauma Studies: Understanding Violence, Conflict, and Memory in Everyday Life. New York: New York University Press. 2016. 293 pp. $30.00 paper (9781479822515)

Psychological trauma can be defined, roughly, as the effect of an experience which the mind is unable to process, assimilate, and assign to the past. A traumatizing experience, therefore, is defined not by its intrinsic properties but by the mind's response to it (Herman, 2001). Critical trauma studies takes this anti-essentialist insight one step further by examining how social relations and cultural meanings produce trauma, in two ways. First, relations of denigration and oppression entail traumatizing experiences for individuals and groups--through class, race, gender, sexuality, and so on. Second, the concept of trauma is, itself, socially constructed and performative.

This interesting, often insightful collection explores the socio-cultural dimensions of trauma across a wide variety of settings, including war in Afghanistan and Chechnya, Iran's Evin Prison, the Nazi holocaust, and sexual and racial violence in America. Several contributors write from experiences with activism, victim advocacy, or therapeutic practice, and several reference personal traumas of their own. Many of the contributions take an explicitly feminist or intersectional approach. The editors, Monica Casper and Eric Wertheimer, are professors in Gender and Women's Studies and in English, respectively, and the collection is highly interdisciplinary with contributions from Africana studies, justice studies, communications studies, and comparative studies as well as from more traditional disciplines like philosophy, religious studies, English, and sociology. The book includes an introduction that speaks to the context, themes, and aims of the collection.

Some chapters are written using conventional social science methods: a content analysis of laypersons' writings on forgiveness, for instance, or a case study of one New Orleans family's experiences after Katrina. Others are personal, even poetic: a written translation of a performance art piece about Fallujah; an extended meditation on one girl's silence in Evin Prison; a bitter and yet hopeful lecture on surviving sexual abuse. Other chapters combine the clinical and the personal: a literary analysis of trauma and forgetting in Cormack McCarthy's The Road; a conversation with Gabriele Schwab about the children of perpetrators of atrocities; a very useful discussion of the practical aspects of crisis intervention and rape survivor advocacy; a pedagogical study on addressing personal trauma--students', and one's own--in an undergraduate writing class.

Sociologists may be challenged and frustrated by the intense subjectivity of some chapters, especially in the middle section on "Poetics", but these chapters are worth wrestling with for the insights they offer into the affective experience of trauma. Personally I found the book's final four chapters, which present grounded studies of how trauma affects people's everyday lives, to be the most interesting; I wish the book had inverted its chapter order to begin with the concrete and move towards the abstract instead of following the standard practice of putting the theory chapters first.

Certain themes run through the collection: silence and speaking, forgetting and memorializing, narrative as a form of healing. These themes are taken up in quite different ways by different authors. For instance, some authors describe silence as one of trauma's pernicious effects, while others consider how silence may function as a defense of the self against atrocious trauma. Likewise, remembering appears for most authors as a necessary step in healing, but some contributions point out ways in which forgetting, too, has a survival value. While most contributors seem to accept the notion of trauma as a fracturing of the self, and healing as the reconstitution of that self, some contributions suggest that the supposed integrity of the self is itself a social construct, and possibly a chimerical one. …

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