Trauma and Recovery in the Era of Trump: A View to Mircea Eliade, Michel Foucault, and the World of Biblical Narrative

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[W]hen you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything…Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.

When I first heard Donald J. Trump brag about sexually assaulting women, I froze. I also froze when he said that these statements were merely “locker room talk,” and that focusing on them is a “distraction from the important issues.”

What I mean by “I froze” is that I did not have the words, in those moments, to explain what I thought or felt. The situations were unnarratable to me, and it took me time to be able to put into words what Trump’s remarks were like to hear, as well as what my freezing responses were about and/or indicated.

I suggest that trauma and recovery is related to this. Trauma and recovery under Trump’s jurisdiction are, in my view, the instigation of the unnarratable by Trump and Trump’s administration, as well as the pursuit to create a narrative in the face of such instigation(s)—no matter how many tries, times, and versions it takes.

In order to unpack these claims, I will explain the theory of trauma and recovery alongside Trump’s claim that “[W]hen you’re a star…[y]ou can do anything [to women].” Given the religious studies focus of this blog series, I will do so with a view to Mircea Eliade, Michel Foucault, and the world of biblical narrative.

Here we go.

The Theory of Trauma and Recovery

Trauma and recovery are often described as paradoxical experiences. While trauma theorists, on the one hand, define trauma as that which is unnarratable, they also, on the other hand, define recovery of trauma as the process whereby survivors narrate that which, by definition, is unnarratable.

When teaching this theory to my undergraduates, I break it down as follows:

Imagine the brain as encompassing a metaphorical library—a room filled with files outlining our experiences, referents, and understandings of what “is” and what “should be.” Then imagine trauma coming into that library with no regard for what is written on those files. Trauma violates them. It throws them on the floor. It rips them into such tiny pieces that the brain can no longer decipher what was written on the files in the first place. When trauma makes its impact, it “blows apart” one’s understanding of the world and one’s place in it.[1] As Psychiatrist Judith Herman puts it, traumatic events are such “violations of the social compact” that they become “unspeakable.”[2]

This imagining works especially well in my Religions of World course. Before investigating the historical, cultural, and theological contexts—including contexts of trauma—from which a variety of religious texts and traditions emerged, we first attempt to put vocabulary to the study of religion and religious experiences. One of the first sources we read is Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and The Profane. Here, Eliade argues that that which is sacred constitutes that which is known, while that which is profane constitutes the unknown—the chaotic. Sacred space, in Eliade’s view, is not something “contra secular” but rather that which contains referents. Sacred space is filled with orientations telling us what “is,” what “isn’t,” what matters, what doesn’t, et cetera. By contrast, profane space has no orientation—no referent—no anything with which to compare anything. In profane space, we are lost.

We can imagine traumatic experiences as those which shift us into profane space. In trauma, we experience a loss for words because there are no words that can accurately refer to the experience had. Our loss for words is due not only to the limitations of language, but also, if not more so, to a loss of orientation.

Such shattering linguistic effects of trauma, however, do not end with a total, immutable deconstruction of one’s personal or collective narrative and consciousness. As Herman herself writes: “[Such] atrocities refuse to be buried.”[3] The brain becomes so “possessed,” as Cathy Caruth puts it, “by [the traumatic] image or event.”[4] This possessiveness often hits the traumatized belatedly and unexpectedly—typically via flashbacks, nightmares, hallucinations, numbness, dissociations, and/or other disruptive experiences. In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association named this array of disruptive responses to trauma “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” otherwise known as PTSD.

This brings us to paradoxes one and two. Paradox one: the brain becomes possessed by an image or event that, by definition, lacks possession. Paradox two: psychosomatic symptoms of PTSD reveal a type of “truth” in the very inability to claim that truth. In other words, because trauma erodes so completely a process of meaning making, traumatized persons can experience a sense of “realness” in their unprocessed flashbacks, hallucinations, and/or other dissociative responses in a way that more processed responses cannot, as PTSD experiences often exist outside of the constructedness of one’s social world.

Despite what some may describe as the beauty of a traumatized person’s raw and authentic affect, recovery nevertheless requires connections to be made and stories to be told. That’s paradox three. As Herman explains, because “[t]he core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others[, r]ecovery…is based upon the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections.”[5] Herman thus names owned reconstruction an integral part of the recovery process.[6] She also insists on the import of social/familial legitimation through this process. In fact, if the survivor lacks validation, she can experience further traumatization. For example, “[w]hen the victim is already devalued (a woman, a child), [the victim] may find that the most traumatic events of her life take place outside the realm of socially validated reality. Her experience becomes [all the more] unspeakable.”[7]

The ability to narrate the unnarratable can thus depend, to a large degree, on social context. Think about it: What stories in your social, political, and global contexts are being told? What stories are being heard? What stories are given value?

To summarize: Recovery, in contexts of trauma, means putting words to the flashbacks. It means putting words to the dreams, hallucinations, or other seemingly unfamiliar thoughts/images/actions that haunt the traumatized. In Eliadic terms, it is the process whereby survivors make the unknown known. And it certainly helps to have others recognize the process, too.

Trauma and the Bible

Although not written in the wake of the DSM manual, biblical narratives bear witness to traumatic experiences, particularly those instigated by Empire. To appropriate the words of Hilde Lindemann Nelson, the Bible offers “narratives of repair”—narratives that “resis[t] an oppressive identity and attempt[t] to replace it with one that commands respect.”[8] From the Assyrian onslaught in 722 BCE, to the Babylonian captivity in 587 BCE, to the Roman conquest of Judea in 63 BCE, to the fall of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, ancient Israelites, early Jews, and early Christ followers fought repeatedly for cultural persistence, and often used narrative as a means of doing so.

Time and time again, we see the Bible’s communities of storytellers depicted as the cultural “Other” in relation to the cultural “Self.” Yet throughout these narratives, we also witness resistances to these Self vs. Other constructions. While the Israelites in Exodus, for instance, are depicted as slaves—i.e., cultural “not-Selves”—at the beginning of the narrative, they are later portrayed as escaping their slavery and acquiring a covenantal relationship with Yahweh. This relationship helps solidify the notion that the Israelite culture is important, legitimate, and has value. When Moses receives the commandments on Mount Sinai, it is as if Yahweh is bringing the Israelites into the “known” space—a sacred space—with orientations, referents, and a means by which to make sense of their surroundings.

Studies on the book of Esther similarly acknowledge a resistance to Jewish subalternity. Whereas the Jews at the beginning of the narrative are persecuted by Persian officials for their ethnic origins, they respond with a force so strong that their neighboring gentiles eventually revere them in fear of consequential death. Although the Jews’ reversal of fortune can be said to mimic Persian power and mores, their actions nevertheless become another means by which to legitimate the Jewish “Other.”[9]

Revelation, too, bears witness to experiences of trauma and recovery. While John’s community of Christ followers are at once depicted as weak, slain, and culturally “Other than,” they are also always already depicted as Christ’s chosen ones—the ones who will survive, conquer, and reign on high in the New Jerusalem (c.f., Esther). Akin to the Passover Seder, in which the reading of the haggadah and the reenactments performed throughout the festive meal “both recalls and makes present the exodus liberation of the children of Israel from bondage in Egypt,”[10] Revelation’s community of storytellers, like other biblical storytellers, work to confront trauma and wrest survival from it.

Trauma and Trump

What does any of this have to do with the era of Trump? Unfortunately, I cannot pretend to answer that question in all-encompassing terms—including traumatic terms—as the determination of an event as traumatic is individual. Whereas one person may perceive an event to have been traumatic and experience belated psychological and/or psychosomatic effects, another may not.

What I can say is that, when typing “the era of Trump” into my Word document, I experienced a flashback of my own to October 2016, in which a 2005 recording of Trump made international headlines. In the recording, Trump said that “when you’re a star…[y]ou can do anything [to women]…Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

To which Trump responded, as if it were an apology: “It was ‘locker room talk.’”

In my view, Trump’s response was not an apology at all, but rather a normalization of rape culture. It was also an attempt—even if an unconscious one—to squander the narrative claims attesting to the pervasiveness of rape culture and sexual assault.

As is well known, rape, and rape culture, have become common topics of discussion in the work of trauma and recovery. In the 1970s, second-wave feminists argued that rape is at once a sexual and a violent crime (contra the notion that rape is a sexual act secretly desired by women) that has profound effects on the minds and bodies of the abused. The term “rape culture” was also implemented in the ‘70s as a means by which to bring to popular consciousness the widespread normalization of sexual violence. While rape has since been understood as the nonconsensual sexual and always already violent penetration of one person by another (whether with a body part or a physical object), rape culture has since referred to the societal attitudes whereby rape, and other forms of sexual abuse, become normalized, excused, and even promoted.

The normalization of sexual assault is perpetuated by (cis) patriarchal and misogynistic claims/statements/questions such as:

Men are “manly” if they are dominant;
Women are “feminine” if they are passive;
Women are too sensitive;
Sensitive boys and men are too “girly”;
It is okay for men to sit with their legs open;
It is “unlady-like” for women to sit with their legs open;
Boys will be Boys;
What was she wearing?;
Survivors just want attention (as if being attended to in cases of assault is a bad thing);
Survivors need to get over their circumstances. Life is hard for all of us;
Survivors should be silent lest they want to ruin the lives of their perpetrators.

We can view Michel Foucault’s theory of discursivity as working in tandem with this view of rape culture. In his The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault argues that the conversations we have—whether at University, in the White House, or, indeed, in the locker room—contribute to the ways in which we make sense of our surroundings. If we say that women are weak, they become weak. If we say that sensitive men are “girly” and therefore “lesser than,” they, alongside self-identifying and socially designated girls and women, become “lesser than.” The way we act, understand ourselves, and make sense of each other is due in large part to social constructions, and the constructions we construct are constructed via language—via conversation—via talk.

Foucault further theorizes, akin to Herman, that those with power, privilege, and/or authority (e.g., Trump’s “stars”) have further impact on the production of knowledge. “Stars” have the ability to construct and solidify, more than most, the social practices and commentaries that claim what, and who, is “in,” and what, and who, is “out.” We might even say, in keeping with Trump’s own rhetoric, that those with power have the opportunity to construct and solidify, more than most, what is “real” and what is “fake.”

As shared above, I froze when I heard Trump’s recording. I also froze when I heard his apology. And I froze, again, when I heard him speak of “fake news,” as if lingering betwixt and between his narratives of “reality” is the notion that theories of rape culture are also “fake.”

There are, of course, many reasons why I froze in these instances. My experiences as a woman in a culture of rape is certainly a part of it. My hope, though, is that my responses will be understood by readers without need for detailed explanations. As my fellow feminists would say: She shouldn’t need to explain herself. While recovery from trauma does indeed require stories to be told, her words here should be enough to render her responses legitimate.

What I will say, then, with a resounding resolve, is that in response to these blasts of chaos space, I have come to narrate that:

It is real that women and men experience a normalization of sexual abuse and sexual objectification;

It is real that women and men experience these normalizations through action and talk;

Recognizing the pervasiveness of rape culture (e.g., rape talk) is not, contra Trump, a “distraction from the real issues,” but rather, a major part of them;

And it is real—even in our current postmodern, post-truth, deconstructive age—that the stories we tell matter, and that those who have less of a voice have to work doubly—or triply—or f*cking bigly—hard for their stories to be heard.

So, what is trauma and recovery in the era of Trump? Even in its individuality, it is, as stated above, the instigation of the unnarratable—via words or otherwise—by Trump and the Trump administration. It is also the pursuit to create a narrative in the face of such unnarratable(s)—no matter how many tries, times, and versions it takes.[11]

After all, there is reason biblical narratives tend to operate on “repeat.” No single story can respond to and/or adhere to the needs/wants/desires of all contexts. While the Bible’s Exoduses, Esthers, and Revelations share discourses of trauma in their tellings, they do not share the same contexts of trauma or communities of storytellers. Thus, we have multiple stories, and multiple tellings, operating under the pretense that stories matter, no matter how many times, or in how many ways, you tell them. Perhaps John Collins, in his work on early Jewish apocalypses, says it best:

If a message is to be communicated in the face of distractions or ‘noise’ [e.g., trauma], the communicator must use ‘redundance’ by repeating the message several times in slightly different ways…No one formulation exhausts the total message….[R]edundance is crucially important….It implies that the apocalypses [and by extension all stories constructed in the face of ‘noise’] are not conveying a…univocal truth that can be expressed precisely in one exclusive way.[12]

So I type here, as one writer, in the midst of the Trump era, attending to the affect I’ve experienced in and around Trump’s rhetoric. I’ve done my best here to connect the dots—to bring to the fore that which has sat as chaos space inside my mind to that which can sit, if only for a moment, as sacred. But like the Bible’s own communities of storytellers, I will keep working. I will keep telling stories. And I will keep listening to the stories of others, including those that may carry a different textual affect than that which is shared here.

Will you talk, and listen, with me?


[1] Kai T. Erikson, Everything in Its Path (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1976), 254.

[2] Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1997), 1. Emphasis in the original.  -rds or otherwiseing this: ,veions of trauma and recovery can also be found in this artocle,n from the real issues, but rather

[3] Ibid., 2.

[4] Cathy Caruth, “Introduction,” Part 1, in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 5.

[5] Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 133.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 8.

[8] Hilde Lindemann Nelson, Damaged Identities, Narrative Repair (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001),   6.

[9] On trauma and the introjection of imperial mores in Esther, see my article: Trauma and Counter-Trauma in the Book of Esther: Reading the Megillah in the Face of the Post-Shoah Sabra. Note, too, that some of my explanations of trauma and recovery above can also be found in this article.

[10]  Harry O. Maier, Apocalypse Recalled: The Book of Revelation After Christendom (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002), 19. It is also common, like biblical stories, for Seders to engage memories and postmemories of multiple traumas. Many haggadot, for instance, allude to the Holocaust. Some also allude to black slavery, sex/gender discriminations, and other social justice issues, either in the haggadot proper or in haggadot supplements.

[11] Here, it is important to recall that words and actions are not mutually exclusive. Because stories dictate what can and cannot be—and what/who does and does not matter—constructing narratives contributes to constructions of ourselves, and the actions that we take. Narrating the unnarratable in response to the Trump administration thus does not negate or exclude taking action. Narrating is part of taking action, and can lead to/function in tandem with ethically mindful organizing; protesting; marching; fundraising; voting; etc.

[12] John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016), 134.

Sarah Emanuel will graduate with her Ph.D. in Biblical Studies with a concentration in Women's and Gender Studies from the Graduate Division of Religion at Drew University in May 2017. Her research foci include: New Testament/Early Christianity, Early Judaism, Biblical Narrative/Storytelling, and the Bible and Theory. Sarah currently teaches in the Religious Studies Program at New York University and in the Religion Department at Seton Hall University. She also leads a Rosh Hodesh group through Moving Traditions, which focuses on the impact of gender and gender theory on Jewish teens. When Sarah is not teaching, she is working on her book manuscript, which is tentatively titled: Roasting Rome: Humor, Resistance, and Jewish Cultural Persistence in the Book of Revelation. Sarah looks forward to beginning a Visiting Assistant Professorship at Oberlin College in Fall 2017.

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