My Book Is a Trauma Plot: A Conversation Between Geoffrey Mak and Whitney Mallett

By Whitney MallettApril 28, 2024

My Book Is a Trauma Plot: A Conversation Between Geoffrey Mak and Whitney Mallett

Mean Boys: A Personal History by Geoffrey Mak

THERE IS A PERIOD in American capitalism that created the trauma plot. The War on Terror dovetailing with Web 2.0 storytelling—the monetization of personal data at their intersection—it all set the stage for trauma to become the dominant way we make sense of our lives. From the rubble of 9/11, Gawker was born. The personal became political and a new surge of veterans caused PTSD funding to soar. While jet fuel melting or not melting steel beams remains divisive, there’s a prevailing consensus that the body keeps the score. It’s in this landscape that literature enters a double bind. The personal essay, with its subjective emotional authority, often seems the only possible contemporary mode, and at the same time, there’s a sense that its outcome is not as liberatory as we may have hoped. In the intro to his book of essays Mean Boys: A Personal History (Bloomsbury, 2024), Geoffrey Mak draws a line, starting from the postwar magazine boom, through Baldwin and Didion, to the personal essay’s perverse evolution into the mass-shooter manifesto. Frequently disparaged as “minor, myopic, narcissistic—or, at worst, capable of spreading despicable violence,” Mak writes, the personal essay “embarrasses people.”

For years, I was one of these embarrassed people. While there are a lot of parallels between Mak’s trajectory and mine—the journalism and marketing gigs, fitting in more with the ravers than the lit crowd—perhaps the biggest difference is that, along the way, he was writing a first-person account of it all. I was resistant to writing so raw. Mean Boys, however, has caught me at a moment when I’ve been facing my avoidance of these millennial-defining modes head-on: the first-person essay and the trauma plot. Written over the past eight years and exemplifying these sensibilities, Mak’s essays function, in part, as a tour of the past decade’s bromides—Berghain, Balenciaga, gamification, k-holes. One of his greatest strengths is in articulating how influence functions according to the era’s destabilized posture of defiance and the disorienting reverberations of sardonic, accelerationist, and self-referential modes.

In Mean Boys, Mak adopts different voices, shifting between the storyteller and the infomaniac, carving out a persona that’s drawn to swag as much as grace. Despite its fluctuating registers, eclectic affinities, and chronologies that sometimes double back, the book has a sense of earnest transformation at its core. Mak’s story hinges on a relatable journey of self-acceptance, negotiating new approaches to family, religion, mental health, and sobriety. As a teenager while he is figuring out that he is gay, narrator Mak watches his minister father and their Evangelical church protesting same-sex marriage. It is not until years later, after Trump’s election, that he finally comes out to his parents. Paranoid and processing a sexual assault, Mak has a breakdown in Berlin right before the COVID-19 pandemic and retreats to his family home in California to recover. He spends lockdown immersed in prayer, a return to religion inspired as much by the traditions he grew up with as by his 12-step sponsor. Mak suggests there’s humility in leaning into one’s historical moment. In charting his metamorphosis, this collection is less an indictment of the personal essay than a fraught demonstration of its possibilities.

What follows is a conversation Mak and I had on a Saturday afternoon in November 2023, which spanned incels, reparative reading, and the special power of cliché.


WHITNEY MALLETT: I just finished Mean Boys, and what really struck me is that it’s about the particular affect, or mood, created by the excess information that has defined this era in the United States and produced a feeling that engenders a diffuse paranoia in the public. Mean Boys narrates the emotional consequences of this period, don’t you think?

GEOFFREY MAK: I think people who’ve lived through the last 10 years have changed a lot. More than they would have in any other decade. I recently heard Rirkrit Tiravanija say, “The human is changing,” because information about us affecting how we understand ourselves—social feeds, covert intelligence, data—is accumulating at enormous proportions, and we are increasingly surveilled by nonhuman agents. When Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations broke in 2013, I started out really angry, really paranoid. I was in a rage that the government was spying on us at a civilizational scale. Five years later, I became kind of embarrassed. Why had I made such a big deal of it?

I went back and read this interview I’d done with Laura Poitras. It was only 2016 but it feels like a million years ago. We were talking about Big Brother, the NSA—it’s almost too simplistic in retrospect, too obvious a bad guy.

I remember I was really obsessed with reality TV. I had this crazy conspiracy theory that Kim Kardashian was a CIA propaganda asset, and reality TV was engineered so people could warm up to the idea of themselves as performers for the invisible people watching, which was the government—as if reality TV was supposed to tease people into this new surveillance condition. Eventually, I had a psychotic break, which I write about in my book Mean Boys. And after that, it’s like, I’ve just accepted that I don’t really know what’s going on behind the scenes, nor is it my job. Sanity is basically just learning how to say, “I don’t know. I don’t have the answers to these questions. I have to trust my own observations, and work with what I have.”

This is when affect theory became important to me. In any given situation, I might not know what is going on, but I know how I feel, and to some extent can control how I feel. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has this essay, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Introduction Is About You,” in which she models the paranoid reader as this arms-crossed guy who’s like, “I’m suspicious of everything; I know what’s really going on. You can’t fool me.” But because everything’s a foregone conclusion, usually sinister (the government created AIDS, Kim works for the CIA), paranoia forecloses change by already assuming the worst. As an alternative, the reparative reader is a little dumb, a helpless romantic, always hoping that a lover is going to be different this time. Sedgwick says the reparative reader is always open for surprise, and interestingly, she links this to camp and how queer people embrace Hollywood, which is literally responsible for imaging heteronormative myths and the nuclear family.

Except haven’t queer people always been behind the scenes puppeteering Hollywood to some degree? Someone like Bob Mackie designing looks for these celebrities. Or Britney Spears’s stylists in the early aughts being like, “Let’s dress her like Peter Berlin”—a gay icon of 1970s San Francisco and the original photosexual. But also, James Dean and Marlon Brando, there’s always been a homo undercurrent of these quote-unquote heterosexual icons.

Yes, exactly—it’s reparative to say that the queerness had been there all along. Someone said, “The internet belongs to women and gays,” which makes no sense, but I buy it.

I think there is something feminine about Web 2.0 and even straight men have had to adapt to that. Someone like Adam22 (the guy who does that No Jumper podcast, textbook culture vulture who then married a porn star) is very feminine in the way he seeks attention and is hyperconscious of his perception. His brain has been, like, melted by the algorithm.

Remember that term metrosexual? Nobody uses that anymore. It was describing a straight man who cared so much about his clothes that it destabilized his sexuality. Now it’s like the fuck boy. I think the writer Natasha Stagg once said something like “the definition of a fuck boy is somebody who makes you think you’re dating when you’re not. And is also into fashion.” This last part—it’s like, in less than 10 years, the metrosexual turned into the fuck boy and suddenly fashion became part of your masculinity and part of your successful sexuality.

Is it a successful sexuality though? I think of the fuck boy as having a frustrated sexuality. To me, the fuck boy is the guy who leads you on, who breadcrumbs you. Who wants the validation that you want him through text messages but then flakes when you actually want to fuck. There’s an impotence, maybe a fear of intimacy. Fuck boys don’t seem that horny or into sex.

I see my book, from the first essay to the last, as a journey from the paranoid to the reparative. The first essay is all about conspiracy theories. And then the last essay is about embracing something that’s totally and lethally toxic. It’s a close reading of the incel mass shooter Elliot Rodger’s manifesto. In the earliest versions of that essay, I avoided reading the manifesto, but then I realized I had to do it. And when I did read it, it was a weird experience. It was kind of like a drug trip. Like, I really entered his mind and imagined inhabiting his body, going through his experiences. I got into it. I felt immersed. I had a four- or five-year dry spell, which had immediately followed a sexual assault in 2013. I hadn’t been having sex for several years. I didn’t identify as an incel. I wasn’t online. I wasn’t joining the forums. I never got violent. But I knew that if I was going to leave this phase of my life, I was going to have to confront the proto-incel, which was Elliot Rodger. I wasn’t going to condemn him per se, because that was obvious, and it had already been done. I didn’t feel it was my job or responsibility. I thought I owed it to myself to love him. But in a way unique to literature. Because I just read him. I never watched his videos.

There were all of these weird parallels in our identities. And in a way, letting myself love him was a way of loving myself, which sounds like a platitude, but in practice it’s more complicated than that. I was reading Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1980) last night, and they say that the rhizome, which is their model of literature, “has neither object nor subject”; it is “nothing more than a name as the trace of an intensity.” And I think when I was really deep into reading and writing about that manifesto, the subject being me and the object being Rodger, there was no more division. It became an intensity, a unified thing. I don’t know what you would call this kind of experience.

Is it empathy?

I call it empathy.

Is it identification?

It is also identification. I don’t think identification is required for empathy, but it often comes before empathy. There are competing definitions of empathy out there, but the way I think of it is a subject and object that appear to be fused. And this gave me answers to two things. One was my own loneliness. The second thing was the solipsism inherent to the personal essay, which is my practice. I struggled a lot with that. When did the personal essay have its boom? Around 2014, is that when we started seeing personal essays everywhere?

Around 2012, Gawker and sites like xoJane really wanted you to commodify trauma. I resisted it for a long time in part because of my own misogyny. I had this idea that it was more noble to do “journalism,” and the people writing these personal essays were narcissistic. At the time I was vain about not being vain. I was really like, “I’m not like other girls.” I had a lot of stuff that had happened to me that I hadn’t unpacked. I felt a lot of anger and resentment towards women who were similar to me who I perceived as being whiny or dramatic. Especially white women. Meanwhile, I just needed to process my own shit.

If I were a woman, I wonder if I would’ve finished a book like this. I would’ve been discouraged. I once heard Jia Tolentino say she banned herself from using the first person for an entire year because she didn’t want to be associated with the stereotypes of the annoying, often female, personal essayist.

One of the essays in my book—the one about being sexually assaulted, and then reclaiming ownership of my identity through nightlife—actually originated as a Facebook post. I was in so much pain, and I needed my friends to know. I think it’s important that it wasn’t written for strangers. I kept my Facebook manicured so I only had about 250 friends on there and they were all my actual friends. That’s who I was writing for. And it just got this overwhelming response. And it’s interesting looking back on it now—I realize I wrote an archetypal trauma narrative.

My book is a trauma plot, which comes from Parul Sehgal’s great New Yorker essay, “The Case Against the Trauma Plot.” Riffing off of her, Christian Lorentzen wrote in Bookforum: “An era is stained by its favorite clichés: the rise and fall, rags to riches, the trauma plot.” You can already hear his disdain. Of course, I hadn’t read any of this criticism when I was writing my book. And that is probably a good thing because then I wouldn’t have written it, and I’m glad I did. At the time, I wasn’t performing anything. Or I was not conscious of performing. I was just in a lot of pain. The writing is so raw. I read it now and I’m like, “Damn, I don’t write like that anymore.” And then what’s interesting is that in the book’s later essays, I feel like I am performing vulnerability, and it doesn’t come as naturally. It’s something I put effort into, and I’m really self-conscious of that. I think as writers get older, they get colder. The writer gets a sliver of ice in their heart as they get older—I care less about companionship. I do miss being the naive writer writing on Facebook to my friends.

I never was raw and expressive like that, even on social media.

Well, you just wrote this amazing essay about the sexual phenomenology of being a hot girl. It’s so short, a whiplash of an essay. I was reading it with bated breath because I couldn’t predict what the next sentence was going to be. It was so real, but it was also very open in a controlled way. You were vulnerable in a way that wasn’t emo. But I felt it was pretty vulnerable. Do you feel that way?

Yeah, absolutely. I’m having my moment trying to be vulnerable. But it is not something that came to me with the same urgency that you talk about. You say you were like, “I was in so much pain,” you just had to. This is something I feel self-conscious about, and it’s probably related to my pattern of getting in codependent relationships with people who feel like they need to make art or they’re going to kill themselves. My entire family is emotionally avoidant, and then I attach to people who are more emotional, and I’ve approached our relationships like they’re the one who is chaotic and I’m the one who’s good at the functional day-to-day stuff. I got to the point where I realized I needed to express myself in this way if I wanted to be a healthy person and have healthy relationships. But I still feel like a fake artist or fraud because it’s not my first instinct. Almost an impostor syndrome.

An impostor syndrome with your own pain?


Let’s unpack that because you write about dissociation and I can see how that’s all related.

If someone touches your body when you’re very young, and you never tell anyone about it, then you don’t trust your own reliability as a narrator. There is a narrative ellipsis where dissociation comes from. When you’ve circumvented processing certain pain, the rerouting of that pain becomes a problem of narrative. But I also worry that the trauma plot is a trap. I worry about getting stuck in this formulation of confession. To make anything a narrative, it has to become more streamlined because obviously, it’s complicated, right? There are a million factors. It’s not like one-to-one: I behave this way at 33 in my romantic relationship because of this thing that happened to me when I was 13. Maybe it’s another avoidance tactic, but I’m always so afraid of getting trapped in a narrative.

I’m in psychoanalysis, and I said to my analyst a couple sessions ago: “I’m so scared to put things out into the universe. Because once I say them, they are there. And I have to acknowledge that I’ve said whatever it is, but if I don’t say it, whatever I’m describing is indeterminate, still unspoken so therefore subject to change, and sometimes I’d rather let it stay that way.” There’s that Joan Didion quote: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But do you and I now distrust ourselves because we’re so good at telling stories?

I’m not sure if being a writer makes me better at telling stories or just more critical of the ones I tell. Some writers are really writerly in how they show affection, but in interpersonal relationships, sometimes I don’t say anything because I’m afraid I’ll say it in a clichéd, hackneyed way. I worry that it sounds insincere even when I mean it.

I have a friend who I call my “harm reduction buddy.” We text each other if we ever have cravings, in this very canned, ready-made, scripted way: “Tonight was a victory for both of us. I’m so grateful you texted me.” Or: “Tonight was a win but I am acknowledging the limits of a single phone call to solve every problem.” I don’t talk like this with anyone else, but in a way, the ready-mades feel safe—they reduce problems to make them conquerable. Recovery is too urgent to be dwelling in complexity and nuance. And it’s extremely meaningful to both of us to cut through that this way.

For addicts in recovery, you must be the reparative reader. So, let’s say someone you love relapses over and over again, but you have to think, “This time it’s going to be different.” Recovery communities really softened me as a person. And as a writer. They gave me an appreciation for cliché, their built-in optimism that has worked for many, many people. Why should I feel like I’m above it?

You know when people choke before the big game? I think I have that when it comes to vulnerability and intimacy.

Because that way you still have control.

Do you know that people pleasing is a technique to control what people think of you? I underlined a few things in your book that reminded me of that.

I have this character Ellis in the book who I describe as having this pathological obsession with filling everybody’s cup of water at the dinner table. I’m kind of admitting that it did rub me the wrong way. He would do all of these acts of service as a control mechanism, because he could withdraw at any moment, even if we were dependent on him. Isn’t that what Hegel says in the master-slave dialectic, that the slave is in control?

Topping from the bottom.

There was something in your essay about coming really easily. What was the line?

That it’s part of my ego as a hot girl, but also part of my armor. I’m trying to explain how I’m not numb but also not vulnerable. An orgasm is something I can achieve easily, but I do it in this formulaic way.

To me, that is ultimate control.

I’d rather show up as my fully vulnerable self like the reparative reader. I want to be open to being surprised.


Geoffrey Mak is the author of Mean Boys: A Personal History (Bloomsbury, 2024). His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Paris Review, and Artforum. He lives in Brooklyn.

LARB Contributor

Whitney Mallett is the founding editor of The Whitney Review of New Writing, a biannual literary review, and the co-editor of Barbie Dreamhouse: An Architectural Survey (2022).


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