- Reading Trauma Narratives: The Contemporary Novel and the Psychology of Oppression by Laurie Vickroy
Laurie Vickroy's Reading Trauma Narratives focuses on literary works that bring out the connections between individual trauma and systems of social oppression. Vickroy shows how reading fiction by Margaret Atwood, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Chuck Palahniuk, and Jeanette Winterson can bring readers to see the connections between individual trauma and broader cultural pathologies, especially those caused by the power relations inherent to class, gender, sexuality, and race. Her study makes a major contribution to contemporary approaches to trauma that broaden the concept of trauma from the personal to the collective and from the idea of a single overwhelming event to the chronic trauma experienced by marginalized groups and by those subject to domestic abuse. Taking her theoretical frame from the likes of Kai Erikson, Laura Brown, and Maria Root, Vickroy extends the definition of trauma to include the kind of chronic traumatic stress produced by persistent denigration and humiliation. For Vickroy, as for these theorists and novelists, trauma is an indicator of social injustice.
The strength of the study lies in its perceptiveness about characters. Vickroy's thorough understanding of trauma and the survival [End Page 204] strategies engendered by it enables her to illuminate the characters of Atwood, Morrison, Faulkner, Winterson, and Palahniuk from a different angle than we are accustomed. This perspective enables her to probe the complicated depths of perpetrators of even the most heinous crimes, like the patriarchal figures in Morrison's Paradise, who kill five unarmed, innocent women. Vickroy's analysis of the effects of past trauma on these characters suggests a way for readers of Morrison, and of the other authors she discusses, to make more nuanced ethical judgments by understanding characters' destructive acts: not as isolated events, but as actions embedded in their own past experiences of trauma. Vickroy's thoroughgoing understanding of trauma and its effects, along with her comprehensive understanding of the survival strategies commonly employed by trauma victims, enables her to look deeper into characters that readers are inclined to dismiss with a summary judgment. Her perspective thus presents the reader with a model of complex and patient ethical thinking.
The title of the study, Reading Trauma Narratives, promises a central emphasis on readers and reader response. This dimension of Vickroy's analysis could be more fully developed. Vickroy mentions in the introduction that the writers she analyzes "consciously incorporate traumatic symptoms and mechanisms into their content and formal strategies" (128), but her argument would be more grounded if she included specific examples of how literary form reflects traumatized characters' distorted thinking and approach to the world. She does explain how writers foster empathy and immersion in the fictive world by enabling readers to inhabit characters' consciousness. But more attention to specific passages would make her already persuasive argument stronger.
Vickroy's comprehensive understanding of trauma adds complexity to her excellent analysis of literary narrators, enabling her to point out the distortions in their perceptions and judgments that are caused by trauma. In relation to the narrators of Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom!, for example, she is able to enrich the standard category of unreliability by adding trauma to the list of factors that cause a narrator's skewed presentation of events: a narrator's failure of judgment or lack of ethical perspective may be caused by "trauma-related faulty cognition, shame, repression, or dissociation" (128). Here Vickroy considers the difficult position of the reader, who must try to discern the factors that skew each narrator's perspective and find a coherent storyline snaking through their contradictory accounts.
Vickroy's approach works particularly well—at least in the eyes of this reader—in the chapters on Morrison and Palahniuk. In part [End Page 205] because Vickroy's analysis highlights the embeddedness of individual trauma in social systems of oppression, she is particularly attuned to Morrison's powerful presentations of unjust race and gender power relations that traumatize her characters through daily injuries of humiliation and degradation. "Morrison's characters exhibit the...