Trauma and ‘normality’

One of the enduring legacies of the London bombings, whose tenth anniversary falls this July, is psychological.  According to a recent BBC news story, ‘hundreds may have been traumatised’1 The key point about this story is that it is referring to people who may have just been ‘passing by’ when they witnessed something horrific and totally outside of their normal experience, rather than being physically injured or directly involved.  This idea is summed up in a quote by Dr Andrew Hartle, who treated some of the casualties at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington:

In Tavistock Square… hundreds if not thousands of people would have walked past the scene of that (explosion) before emergency services were able to provide an effective cordon.

This is not a particularly novel idea: over the last few years the concept of what might be described as ‘passive traumatisation’ (as in passive smoking) has become an accepted part of modern cultural discourse.  In other words, you no longer have to be a direct causality of, say, a car crash, a terrorist attack, an assault, or some similar traumatic event; rather, simply witnessing such an event or its aftermath may be enough to traumatise an individual.  There also seems to be a fine line between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ traumatisation, the latter occurring when someone else, for example a therapist, listens to accounts of trauma.  Or perhaps it might be better to argue the the definition of ‘involvement’ or ‘casualty’ has changed.  This seems particularly apt in an age of virtual experience, where ‘reality’ is becoming one vast simulacra.

But this seems to beg the question (which I have referred to in other posts): what makes trauma traumatic?2  One answer seems to be: anything that does not fit a person’s ‘normal’ experience of the world.  This in turn, of course, begs another question: what do we mean by ‘normal experience’?

This is not such an easy question to answer as it might seem.  It could be argued that if you live in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, then ‘normal’ is somewhat different than life in the Home Counties.  However, this does not mean that citizens of these countries are any less traumatised by the continual levels of violence that many of them witness, sometimes on a daily basis.   The evidence seems to suggest that they can be deeply affected.  One explanation for this is that although they may be witnessing such horrific events now, this has not always been the case, and therefore, in the wider scheme of their lives, such experiences are still ‘abnormal’.

On the other hand, isn’t the nature of violence precisely that it can never make sense, however ‘used’ to it one may become?  This being the case then perhaps it’s not so much a case that trauma equals something outside of one’s  ‘normal’ experience, but rather that ‘normal’ equates to anything that makes sense – both to the individual and to wider culture that he or she is part of.  The only problem here, of course, is that delusory thoughts and fantasies can make perfect sense; so does this mean that we should accept them as ‘reality’?  But this then, of course, begs another question…..

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  2. See for example my post on the nature of trauma: []