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