Take-homes from the AASECT Winter Institute on Trauma

Take-homes from the AASECT Winter Institute on Trauma July 24, 2016

If you want an info-dump about trauma, focused on the role of narrative in understanding and healing it, here ya go.

My grandparents with me and my husband (on our wedding day).
My grandparents with me and my husband (on our wedding day).

As a budding sex educator, I was thrilled to discover AASECT (the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists). Better yet, they were having a Winter Institute on sexual trauma in a town near me in early 2015!

I know, I know. It sounds weird to get excited about trauma. But recently, trauma has been on my radar, and I feel that I need to understand it better because it’ll benefit both my professional and personal life. I was extremely fortunate to be able to attend this 3-day workshop, thanks in large part to the generosity of my grandparents, pictured at right, who’ve been amazingly supportive of my career goals.

For a synthesis of everything we talked about at the 3-day workshop, I recommend my colleague Mary Reid Brogue’s blog post about the event. In it, she artfully weaves together many of the themes and discussions. I’m only going to focus on one theme in my blog post summary: narrative.

From what I can tell, narrative occupies a complex role in relation to trauma. One of the things trauma does is overwhelm; a definition we tossed around in the workshop was trauma as overwhelming experience, a stimulus greater than the organism is designed to handle. Consequently, people have trouble narrating traumatic experiences. This is partly due to how the prefrontal cortex of the brain will go dark during trauma (and during traumatic memories), since that part of the brain controls cognition, reasoning, and speech. But it’s also because trauma fragments, making it hard to make sense of events and memories, and thus making it harder to narrate.


See also: The Impact of Sexist Microaggressions


Like many, I am skeptical that talk therapy provides the best or only means of healing from trauma. Certainly, to narrate is to author, to control. But trauma occupies the body, and traumatic memories are sorted and stored differently than normal memories. So while narrative is a powerful tool in the therapeutic toolbox, it’s not always the best one for the job. This is one reason I was so intrigued to hear about trauma therapies that foreground the body, like EMDR. I’m also really curious about dance and art therapies that involve the body, though we didn’t get as much of a chance to discuss those in the workshop.

However, narrative kept intruding into the weekend workshop, no matter how much participants seemed to say “yes, but” to it. One instructor told a personal narrative about a traumatic boating accident that (surprisingly) left her with very little trauma. As folklorists know, personal narrative is a very powerful teaching tool; it conveys not just facts about a person’s life, but also values and empathy. The personal narrative was so effective because it demonstrated what we would spend days discussing: that trauma is relative (despite being at the center of the event, it was not as bad from her perspective as from that of onlookers), that trauma has variable impacts (she managed her experience of it by maintaining a feeling of control and agency despite being in danger), and that there are many factors in resiliency, ranging from personal to cultural determinants.

In another workshop, we watched multiple clips of a (consensually) filmed therapy session. With my ethnographic training, I could see that the participants were the most present with one another when one was narrating a story, usually a personal narrative. The more distantly past, the more engrossed the listener was. Why? Narrative has great appeal for people. Further, while there are definitely ways to craft narratives to manipulate people, to my eye, getting lost in a narrative was actually safer than trying to be present in the rest of the therapy session, when someone might actually ask something of you. Story appeal won over guarded behavior. In other words, you can only be so cagey when you’re engrossed in hearing someone’s narrative.

That feeling of being wrapped up in someone’s story also emerges when engaging in the flow state, which is a topic I would’ve loved to see addressed more. Personally, I think there’s true healing to be found in the flow state, specifically as manifested in the flow arts (hoopdance, juggling, and so on). But I can’t prove it yet so this is just speculation (anyone wanna hook me up with a lab and some funding?!).

The workshop’s content also got me thinking through some of my own narratives, my reasons for being there. I usually find learning about things that manifest in my own life to be an empowering experience; here, though, it just was difficult. I haven’t had a lot of trauma in my life, but it’s affected me in other ways, by affecting the people I care about. It’s been tough for me to find ways to incorporate trauma into my personal narratives without feeling uncomfortably appropriative about it. Now what I think I’m doing is trying to understand it better, when initially I was so struck by trauma survivors’ irrational behavior that I couldn’t really make sense of what was going on. In turn, I want to use this knowledge to help others… and do some self-healing, to a degree. Is it okay to admit that? Aren’t we all damaged, to some degree, and just trying our best to heal ourselves and each other?

To wrap this up, I can see that I’m drawn to some of the same fascinating relationships between body and narrative that got me into my dissertation topic (the body in European fairy tales) in the first place. Trauma occupies a different point of tension between body and narrative than the other things I study, which is perhaps one of the reasons I’m fascinated by it. I hope to make scholarly contributions to the study of trauma in the future, and this blog post is a first step in sharing some of my knowledge, perhaps inspiring others and creating collaborations along the way. Because that’s another thing we learned about trauma: support networks are key to success in trauma recovery, as in many other aspects of life.

Originally posted at my Sex Ed with Dr. Jeana blog.

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