Translating the Language of Trauma


The language of trauma is wordless. Whatever words we may have at the time of impact, whether we are well-published professors or toddlers, none of them serve to express What Happened.

What Happened may be named by outsiders—a rape, a car accident, a molestation, a war —but these words merely shape the abstract air around the shapeless primordial reality. Pain is wordless. Betrayal is beyond words. Our reality is shattered—that’s the core. Whatever we depended on—a parent, good health, the rules of the road, the goodness of our neighbors—whatever feeling of safety and stability we had, that is splintered, and with it go the words we used to describe our previously normal world.

How, then, can we convey experience that is beyond words? Normal sentences feel treacherous. Subject, verb, adjective, object, adverb: traitors, all of them.

Fragments, phrases, poetry, images. These come closer.

Toni Morrison did it brilliantly in Beloved, as she described the horror of slavery. The language roils and rebels, scenes and sentences split, spilt, refusing to lie down on the page and make sense. Because what she’s describing is too traumatic for linear storytelling.
All of it is now . .  it is always now . . there will never be a time when I am not crouching and watching others who are crouching too . . I am always crouching . . the man on my face is dead . . his face is not mine . . his mouth smells sweet but his eyes are locked
[Beloved, by Toni Morrison. Knofp, 1987. Periods added for internet formatting]
Each of us finds her own way to tell what cannot be told in words.