Trauma Privilege

Sejal Shah
April 17, 2016
Comments 9

It was November 8, 2015, at 11:09 p.m. I know because I took a screenshot. In a Facebook group I moderate of over 200 local writers, a woman addressed a post to me—my first name spelled out in capital letters to ensure I would not miss it:

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These words shocked and then silenced me. To what exactly was she referring? The words were public: the post, written to me, was also meant to be read by others. She wanted to provoke me. I understood that.

She went so far as to offer a personal definition of trauma—a definition she assumed excluded me. I wondered, how can one know what another has experienced in her life? No writer writes about everything that has ever happened to her.

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The definition of trauma, according to the Oxford Dictionary (online):

A deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Example: a personal trauma like the death of a child. Also: Emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may be associated with physical shock and sometimes leads to long-term neurosis.

After no immediate response from me, she soon followed up her original post. Gloves off, she threw down the trauma gauntlet:

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The definition of privilege, according to the Oxford Dictionary (online):

A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people: Education is a right, not a privilege. He has been accustomed all his life to wealth and privilege . . . The right to say or write something without the risk of incurring punishment or legal action for defamation.

In “Peculiar Benefits,” an essay from her collection Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay writes:

One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do is accept and acknowledge my privilege. It’s an ongoing project. I’m a woman, a person of color, and the child of immigrants, but I also grew up middle class and then upper middle class . . . My life has been far from perfect, but it’s somewhat embarrassing for me to accept just how much privilege I have.

I share much of the background and many circumstances of birth to which Gay refers. In this same essay, she writes: “What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered.”

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Last November, I was on a panel about the “lyric moment” at a creative nonfiction conference, NonfictioNOW, in which I used one of my creative nonfiction essays as an example of a lyric essay. This essay is in large part about the death of a close friend.

I don’t really get Twitter (Roxane Gay is brilliant on Twitter), though I know enough to retweet. Heidi Czerwiec blogged about my panel for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies using a close, but not exact, quote from my talk. Assay tweeted a line from Czerwiec’s blog post:

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In my talk, I wrote about my lyric essay (titled “Street Scene,” and published in the Kenyon Review Online in 2011). “Street Scene,” about my friend LeeAnne’s suicide, neither addressed nor omitted any privilege I have had. I wrote about walking in Paris. I wrote about grief. From my conference paper:

I was trying to write both about the experience of being in a country where one does not speak the language and also that as her death was my first sustained experience of grief, I must have understood on some level that grieving, too, is walking around a country where you don’t speak the language. Trauma fractures language, narrative, any ability to say what happened. “Why not say what happened?” (Robert Lowell says), but what if you don’t know what happened fully and so there is no way to speak about it?

LeeAnne’s death stunned me and I was traumatized by it—the suddenness of it, the senselessness of it, the sadness of it. The finality of it. It happened a few weeks after 9/11. Everyone was already in shock and mourning. Yet my worst memory of that fall is of the news of LeeAnne’s death.

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From the earlier definition of privilege: “the right to say or write something without the risk of incurring punishment or . . . defamation.”

Gay writes:

When people wield accusations of privilege, more often than not, they want to be heard and seen. Their need is acute, if not desperate . . . must we satisfy our need to be heard and seen by preventing anyone else from being heard and seen? Does privilege automatically negate any merits of what a privilege holder has to say?

The online attacks seemed to have been written in response to Facebook posts and tweets about the blog post I wrote for Assay, in which I covered a panel about trauma narratives at the same conference.

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I also wrote about the panel, titled “You Lived Through It; Do We Have to Read About It?” on my personal blog. In it, I tell a little bit about the panel (the link to my blog post is here). The panel was made up of writers Sandi Wisenberg, Elizabeth Kadetsky, Thomas Larson, and Janice Gary. My more comprehensive report and summary of the panel is the post up at Assay.

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In her essay about The Hunger Games, “What We Hunger For,” Gay writes about a gang rape, which occurred while she was in middle school. It is shocking, beyond language, and yet she managed to write about it. Certainly, this was a, maybe the traumatic event that shaped her life. Gay writes, “They kept me there for hours. It was as bad as you might imagine. The repercussions linger.”

I have never experienced anything close to the trauma and violation that Gay experienced; for that I am lucky. However, like the majority of women I know, I am not a stranger to sexual harassment and unwanted, nonconsensual experiences. I say this not to equate these experiences with anyone else’s trauma, nor even to compare them, but to state a fact.

In “Peculiar Benefits,” Gay writes thoughtfully about how privilege is discussed and wielded, particularly online:

Too many people have become self-appointed privilege police, patrolling the halls of discourse, ready to remind people of their privilege whether those people have denied that privilege or not. In online discourse, in particular, the specter of privilege is always looming darkly. When someone writes from experience, there is often someone else, at the ready, pointing a trembling finger, accusing that writer of having various kinds of privilege.

In the Q&A following the trauma narrative panel in November, author Hope Edelman (in the audience) said something about cyber violence and personal attacks that surprised me.

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Detail from the Assay blog post on the trauma narrative panel.

At the time, it seemed like a non sequitur. What did writing about trauma in a memoir or memoiristic essays have to do with cyber attacks on female memoirists?

I learned. The venom in the Facebook posts startled me. I learned how to block a person on social media. I learned how to block someone in gmail. It had never occurred to me that I could be the target of such wrath. I was naïve.

In addition to considering trauma and privilege in nuanced ways, Gay addresses the importance of speaking (or writing) one’s truth:

We should be able to say, ‘This is my truth,’ and have that truth stand without a hundred clamoring voices shouting, giving the impression that multiple truths cannot co-exist. Because at some point, doesn’t privilege become beside the point? Privilege is relative and contextual . . . If you are reading this essay, you have some kind of privilege.

I have written essays and stories that could be interpreted as trauma narratives. I have taught memoirs and essays that fall under the umbrella of trauma narratives. I have not written in any depth about trauma in relation to me or to my writing. But I should be able to. One should be able to.

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IMG_8625As a writer and an artist, I want to be able to write about the ways in which I have been moved, the ways in which I have been privileged, the ways in which I have suffered, the worlds I witness, the moments of joy or loss; to write, in short, about what it means to be human. No one gets through this life unscathed. All writers have the right to explore these facets of their lives. No writer speaks for all and no one experience trumps another.

What if I were to say that this incident last fall, this shouting out over Facebook, traumatized me? Rendered me speechless and questioning?

Last fall, my friend Lorraine used her label maker to mark one of my folders. (I knew I would write about this sometime.) She typed out “Trauma Privilege” in neat black letters, making a messy subject look calmer. Lorraine later told me she thought I meant for the file to be about the privilege one accrues due to trauma endured and survived. In fact, I was thinking about both trauma and privilege—but instead about how one does not cancel out the other. But I think Lorraine was onto something—a third category: “trauma privilege.”

The definition of trauma privilege (according to Sejal Shah in this essay): The privilege to claim one has suffered the most. The right to shout louder: one’s trauma is greater, weighs heavier, is more severe. One has suffered more. In fact, one has suffered the MOST. Implies the existence of the Trauma Olympics.

Definition obsolete. Trauma Privilege does not exist. Suffering is not a contest; no one wins. There are no medals, no rankings. One’s trauma does not grant one the right to silence others, nor even any special accord. Everyone suffers. Trauma privileges no one.

9 thoughts on “Trauma Privilege

  1. Just beautiful. Absolutely brave. Thank you. I’m a social worker very interested in trauma especially with older adults, and trauma takes many shapes, experiences, and many actively avoid unearthing and discussing trauma due to fear. We have a long way to come to stop victim-blaming and to believe, and to help to heal. I loved your article. I will integrate your beautiful words crediting you – in a talk I’m giving in Japan on trauma and treatment. I am a perpetual learner – but there is no doubt there is a solid connection to untreated trauma and early death – clearly we know this by the research on early life experiences, etc., but it is important – let’s coin the privilege of not having trauma – very exciting to explore this. L. Allen Professor, LSU

  2. My struggle with the issue of trauma is that the word is used so often and at times so casually that it seems trivialized. If everyone is traumatized (and some people I know do believe that our whole culture is traumatized), than it becomes meaningless. I try to avoid comparisons of suffering. On the other hand, I feel my experience of being raped at knifepoint with my life threatened was a trauma in a way that most divorce isn’t. I rarely discuss my rape these days, not because I feel silenced or shamed, but because there’s so much talk of rape everywhere that I’m afraid my experience will be dismissed.

  3. You said it so eloquently, Sejal. How can we compare our personal traumas, like schoolkids in the playground comparing their Disney-bandaged owwies? Suffering’s defined by many components, not the least of which is the agonizing depth to which each individual may or may not journey to comprehend the reason/s behind it… inducing the Bends along the way.
    Thanks for your insight.

  4. A wise friend once told me,”complaining and blaming are the two fastest ways to a spiritual death.” I believe that is what this person is experiencing and I think it is admirable for you to take that experience and turn it into a learning experience… a communal sharing experience. Because isn’t that what writing and reading should be about? Opportunities to feel connected, to share, to grow… as soon as we disconnect, we isolate. As Gay writes, “multiple truths [can]coexist.” No one person’s trauma, privilege, or experience is singular. A great reminder for us all, no matter what obstacles one has or is currently facing. Sharing of yours is brave and encourages me to honestly share of mine. That is the gift of a talented writer. Thank you, Sejal.

  5. I’m so glad you have continued to explore and question regarding this subject, Sejal. I appreciate this article and plan to look for other writing by you, i.e., your blog, and more about others you’ve mentioned. Thank you.

  6. I really appreciate this and want other women, especially young women who will ultimately shape the online feminist discussions, to read it. I see women undermined often for claiming their experience, naming it in the way they need to. We need to get beyond competition for pain, and embrace communal healing. We cant brake the silence around trauma if we start shaming those who speak up.

  7. “No writer speaks for all and no one experience trumps another.”
    How sad that you experienced this attack, Sejal; and that there is such anger and horror and competition in the world that we fight over whose truth is worse. I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to put myself out there again. Thank you.

  8. “No writer writes about everything that has ever happened to her.”

    Love this. And your essay “Street Scene” is fantastic.

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