Reading for Trauma

Why are there so many amateur therapists in today's fiction?

Reading for Trauma

RECENT CONVERSATIONS ABOUT contemporary fiction would suggest that trauma is everywhere. As Parul Sehgal argued in The New Yorker last month, a reductive and formulaic “trauma plot,” in which “trauma has become synonymous with backstory,” has become omnipresent. For Sehgal, contemporary fiction is populated by characters made complete by way of a damaging, explanatory event in their past that the story gradually unearths.

There is, though, another piece to the trauma plot that remains underdeveloped in Seghal’s essay: its meta-awareness, not just of the ubiquity of trauma stories, but of its readers’ proclivity to see the world through trauma-goggles. As Sehgal herself notes briefly, “stories are full of our fingerprints […]: we co-create them.” If trauma is everywhere, it has also become inseparable from the way we read. But what, precisely, does it mean to see the world through the lens of trauma? And how does the ever-evolving trauma plot problematize this hermeneutic?

It is here that the Therapizer comes in. A fictional character type, the Therapizer is both a personification of the reading practices that consolidate the trauma plot as well as, to use Sehgal’s phrase, a means of “unravelling [the plot] from within.” In the middle of Michaela Coel’s comedy-drama I May Destroy You, for example, self-care champion Terry accuses her friend Kwame of neglecting their mutual friend and recent rape survivor Arabella. In a prime example of “trauma talk” or “therapy-speak,” Terry belligerently lectures Kwame about trauma psychology, so he might better support Arabella:

You know how your laptop breaks down and most things shut down to, like, basic functioning mode? […] I’m saying our nervous systems also shut down to safety mode when it’s overloaded with too much stimulation, too much danger. Hashtag trauma … So no, she’s not fine. She’s vacant. She’s empty. She’s a shell of herself. She’s dying inside. But if you aren’t looking for it, you ain’t going to see it.

Ironically, in this episode, though, it is not Arabella who is “vacant,” “empty,” or “dying inside” (she has in fact just found supportive group therapy), but Kwame. Kwame has himself recently experienced sexual assault, but he is hesitant to share as his friends fail to make themselves available to him, as does a homophobic legal system. Despite being the trio’s self-proclaimed trauma specialist, Terry misreads both Arabella and Kwame in this moment and, in so doing, exemplifies the Therapizer’s shortcomings.

Fluent in therapy-speak but more broadly committed to over-reading those around her (because it’s almost always a “her”), the Therapizer seeks depth at every turn. She is thus neither a professional nor a mimetic figure. Instead, the Therapizer personifies an ethos, disposition, or way of navigating the world. She embodies what literary scholars might call a “symptomatic” or “paranoid” reader, by which I mean that she identifies a hidden ordering principle (in this case, trauma) to account for what is oftentimes a varied range of textual features. Ultimately, the Therapizer demonstrates not just the totalizing and often futile, aggressive nature of trauma hermeneutics but also their status as hermeneutic — a pair of goggles that might be removed to read and know character otherwise. If, as Sehgal argues, trauma appears in contemporary fiction as the key to a character’s truth, the Therapizer caricatures and sets into relief the framework that renders this backstory meaningful.


The Therapizer is a symptomatic reader in the most literal sense, understanding a character’s potentially odd, enigmatic, or inscrutable behavior (their “absences, gaps, and ellipses”) as manifestations of their core motivation: trauma. Given that fragments and elisions are, as Roger Luckhurst argues, the privileged aesthetic for trauma in contemporary fiction, this move is not unmotivated. Yet what turns the Therapizer’s readings into misreadings is the totalizing quality of the trauma hermeneutic. For the Therapizer, there can be no arbitrary absence, unmotivated fragment, or aesthetic experimentation; instead, there are only psychological symptoms, hinting most frequently at an underlying trauma. (You are not forgetful, but repressed. Or, if you are forgetful, it is because you are repressed.) Through these repeated misreadings, contemporary fiction exposes the limits of reading for trauma.

Through Terry’s eyes, for example, Arabella’s momentary distraction on her phone is evidence of Arabella’s traumatic past, even as viewers learn that Arabella is actually connecting with a survivor support group. So too are Bobbi and Angela, paradigmatic Therapizers from Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends and Dinaw Mengestu’s How to Read the Air respectively, compulsive over-psychologizers. Bobbi, for instance, cannot accept Frances’s reticence as reticence. In a series of text messages, Frances renders explicit the Therapizer’s assumptions about inner life:

me: you’re committed to this view of me

me: as having some kind of undisclosed emotional life […]

me: you live an emotionally intense life so you think everyone else does

me: and if they’re not talking about it then then they’re hiding something.

Meanwhile, Angela, the African American partner of second-generation Ethiopian American immigrant Jonas, takes Jonas’s reserve as a sign that he may be an illegal immigrant.

Literary criticism offers a long, varied history of approaches to the anti-confessional, from E. M. Forster, Alex Woloch, and Marta Figlerowicz on flatness to Sunny Xiang on “Asian inscrutability,” Anne-Lise François on “recessive narration,” and Xine Yao on the “disaffected.” Yet, as a stand-in for contemporary trauma hermeneutics, Therapizers like Bobbi and Angela reveal a commitment to the mantra “always psychologize!,” such that their friends’ reticence, flatness, or emotional distance can never be read as flatness, but rather as indicative of hidden psychic wounds.

Frequently, the Therapizer’s insistence is fueled by blatant voyeurism and paternalistic tropes surrounding marginalized identities. In his obsessive, misogynistic pursuit of his daughter’s testimony — what happened the afternoon that she was raped? — David Lurie in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace functions as a sort of proto-Therapizer. When Lucy repeatedly withholds and resists, Lurie alternates between pathologizing her inaction and transforming her resistance into a symbol for naïve martyrdom. As happens in Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom (via Anne), the Therapizer is often a well-off white woman, on a voyeuristic quest to locate unresolved racial and/or class-related trauma in her fellow, socially marginalized character. Anne, for example, presses Gifty, a reticent second-generation Ghanaian immigrant for her family history, designing schemes to procure disclosure and suggesting they trade “a sister story for a brother story.” As Gifty makes clear, their stories are not equivalent; Gifty has grown up fatherless in a small, white-washed town in Georgia and witnessed her brother’s opioid addiction and eventual death. While Anne seems to take Gifty’s disclosure as her decisive “truth,” the novel does not. Instead, Transcendent Kingdom explores the confusing and contradictory ways in which Gifty’s experiences did and did not inform her later life, calling into question the explanatory power of her traumatic past.

Further still, not all trauma is compatible with a confessional format; trauma can be systemic and chronic and thus diffuse. Jilly, a young Black woman in Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of the Colored People, feels this problem profoundly: “The thing about Jilly — and this is something she’d feared about her life from adolescence onward — was that there was no backstory. Nothing exciting or terrible had ever happened to her, and if there was any oppression for her to overcome, it only grazed but never lingered.” Confronting her social media profiles, which exert many of the same pressures as the Therapizer, the trauma plot creates another crisis: the burden of no-backstory. Who is she, Jilly wonders, without one?

It is not just that the Therapizer misinterprets flatness, reticence, and emotional distance, but rather that she deploys trauma to account for a range of emotions, behaviors, and practices. For instance, though the orphan narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation feels irritation rather than grief regarding her mother’s death, her best friend Reva consistently presumes otherwise, misinterpreting what was a “sigh of frustration” (directed in fact at Reva) as “an expulsion of buried sadness.” Reva’s frequent, incorrect assumptions about the narrator’s feelings contribute to the deterioration of the pair’s friendship. In Conversations with Friends, Frances feels similarly exhausted by Bobbi’s presumptions (about Frances’s verbally abusive, alcoholic father and her class status). Whereas Bobbi wants to approach Frances’s reticence and fainting spells primarily psychologically, the text indicates compelling physiological explanations such as chronic pain, disordered eating, and endometriosis. Further still, despite this array of possible motives for Frances’s general malaise (to which we can add her affair with Nick, kept hidden from Bobbi), no single explanation dominates in the novel, thus revealing the chronic, multidimensional, and irreducible quality of Frances’s experience. What the novel positions against Bobbi’s Therapizer lens is not so much an emphasis on medical explanation as a rethinking of personhood.

Does the trauma hermeneutic sometimes cash out? Absolutely. Can trauma seep into every aspect of an individual’s life? Without a doubt, it can. Are there areas in which trauma is an underused analytic? Yes, definitely, and with devastating consequences. What is at stake here is not on a full-on rejection of trauma hermeneutics, but instead skepticism surrounding their indiscriminate and occasionally sloppy deployment. In fact, all of these texts at times reward symptomatic readers, like when Kwame’s own silence is revealed as a symptom (which, as Michael Dango points out, suggests Kwame’s narrative aligns almost too closely with the generic trauma plot and consequently raises questions about the show’s treatment of queer Black male survivors).

Though the Therapizer is an ironic figure in many regards, one irony stands out among many and complicates any straightforward dismissal of her. While her framework fails frequently when assessing those around her, it is often perfectly suited to explain her own disposition. The Therapizer’s disposition seems to come itself from an originary trauma (or guilt, in Terry’s case, as she turns out to be partially complicit in Arabella’s precarity the night of her rape). In Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, for example, therapy-speak expert Karen acknowledges that her narrative approach derives from years of therapy in the wake of a scarring high school experience. In How to Read the Air, Angela is grappling with her own history of racism, poverty, and abandonment. Like Jonas, it is a history she never discloses but instead jokes about at length (“There were already at least a half-dozen ways this imaginary father of hers had left,” Jonas notes). That the Therapizer identity is itself a traumatic symptom within the trauma plot suggests an ambivalence on the part of the text, unwilling to wholeheartedly reject the trauma plot’s premises, even as it exposes its depth as shallow.

Neither the Therapizer nor the trauma plot can be thought apart from the contemporary sociopolitical conditions in which they appear. Though it might be tempting to understand trauma hermeneutics as a bad version of “trauma theory” (founding writers include Cathy Caruth and Shoshana Felman), its sources are ultimately highly varied; it draws as much from Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score as from the discussion questions provided by Oprah’s Book Club. These sources fuel and were fueled by a crucial sociopolitical context: an ever-expanding therapeutic culture that prioritizes individual solutions to what might otherwise be framed as structural or political problems. Alongside a critique of specific institutional practices, then, the Therapizer exposes the contradictions of neoliberal therapeutic culture.

While the Therapizer is not ignorant when it comes to the workings of power and privilege, her inability to cast judgment and to recognize what it might mean to put therapy-speak into action situates the Therapizer as an apolitical force. Therapy-speak appears to annihilate any possibility either of accountability or of vulnerability. Near the end of Trust Exercise, for example, Karen struggles to hold her friend David accountable for his defense of sexual abuser Martin. She prefers instead to analyze him: “If I ever actually become a therapist and David ever has money, I’d like to treat him. He interests me.” It might therefore be said that in the contemporary battle between psychology and morality that Amanda Anderson discusses, the Therapizer epitomizes “psyche” and correspondingly, a transition away from “decisive moral judgment” toward the “crypto-morality” of cognitive science.

But not all Therapizer portraits are so cynical. That the Therapizer is not a professional counselor and hence performing unpaid and unacknowledged labor is both the basis for her satirical treatment (she is vapid and self-serving, especially in the aforementioned texts) as well as the basis for her recuperation. Works like Sigrid Nunez’s What Are You Going Through and HBO’s The White Lotus present women Therapizer characters holding together the fabric of their social worlds. In The White Lotus, the exploitative dynamics are rendered bare, as the hotel’s Therapizer is a working-class Black woman (Belinda), providing existential and practical crisis management for the resort’s white, upper-class tourist and managerial population. She is trauma-informed, but not trauma-thirsty. She is a responsive, careful reader, modeling the attributes of an ideal friend, even as her relations to the subjects of her therapy-speak are far from equal. To demonstrate her expert skills — and reveal this care-work as a skill — The White Lotus and What Are You Going Through gesture toward or actualize the possibility of wages for therapizing. Though this monetization happens ambivalently (because why should one earn money for being a good friend?), these texts nonetheless demonstrate that friendship requires expertise. So too do they show that while therapy-speak saturates domains as widespread as TikTok and course syllabi, there remains an acute, ongoing crisis of emotional literacy and care-work.

If the Therapizer is, broadly speaking, a commentary on therapeutic culture, why consolidate this critique in a character? There are formal affordances, such as the irony that arises when the Therapizer is revealed to have her own trauma plot. But it is also true that the Therapizer, as a character, speaks to a crisis in intimacy, in which relational depth is generated primarily through the disclosure of trauma and a subsequent therapy-speak response. Without undermining the importance of sharing feeling, this particular understanding of depth comes with drawbacks. While the respondent’s therapy-speak eschews liberal fantasies of empathy, the analytic veneer proves almost too clinical — even impersonal, as Waldman has noted. Instead of navigating the complex politics of feeling-with, therapy-speak promotes a peculiar detachment, signaling a disturbing but predictable recourse to neoliberal individualism. If the respondent does feel, it is very often a sort of response-anxiety (see Garth Greenwell’s “Mentor” for a perfect example). So, though it is increasingly common for individuals to “call out” friends who act as Therapizers, the question these works pose is not necessarily, “Who is allowed to be a Therapizer?” but rather, “What is friendship and what can it do instead?”


Christina Fogarasi is a graduate student in Literatures in English at Cornell University. Her work focuses on trauma, therapeutic culture, and the contemporary novel. Her writing has been published in Public Books and Synapsis.

LARB Contributor

Christina Fogarasi is an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen, where she works on trauma studies, disability studies, confessionalism, and the contemporary novel. Her work is forthcoming or has been published in venues such as Public Books and Post45 Contemporaries as well as journals such as New Literary History and MELUS.


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