Trauma’s Imaginal Worlds

Few people pass from birth to death without intimate knowledge of trauma’s capacity to alter the landscape of the psyche. So many experiences are traumatizing: war, rape, death, car accidents, hurricanes, earthquakes, bullying, scapegoating, incest, family violence, racism, homophobia—and this, a cursory list at best. Even if you are fortunate enough to dodge trauma, its vicariousness insures we all share an intuition of how its fearsome power can forever change a life.

When something traumatic happens, and what occurred remains unsynthesized with the rest of the life story, the unarticulated bits of memory haunt the survivor, much the way a phantom limb recalls the injury as well as life before the tragedy. Trauma births its own world, one that exists beside the regular, expressed order of things where life stories are normalized, validated, even valorized. In trauma’s otherworldly realm—the imaginal landscape of our minds—travel the fragmented narratives of what transpired, but also of what failed to come about: escape from harm, facing down abusers, regaining a sense of safety. Here we find the birthplace of grief, but also creativity, the origins of trauma stories, yet also their erasure, all vying for connection with what can no longer be—or become—now that trauma has claimed its space.

The imaginal worlds opened by trauma are not necessarily pathological, devouring an otherwise healthy mind. Rather, they can be adaptive responses to social worlds marred by unpredictability, danger, cruelty, loneliness, and an awareness of death (as most societies are). In healthy, thriving environments, trauma’s imaginal worlds can lead to creative self-expression as well as unimagined solutions to threats, changing both the survivor of trauma and her community.

Contrary to the individualistic worldview that drives capitalistic democracies, any threat to one of us may be a threat to us all. Implicitly, we know this is true. As a species we evolved to read emotions, including the signs of trauma’s untold tales—a far away look, monosyllabic responses, the feeling of being alienated by another’s internal preoccupations. Imaginal worlds require energy and attention to sustain. The pulling away from connection must have evolved to signify a threat too overwhelming to integrate, both with the person’s sense of possibility and with what the social group could absorb.

Mythological figures—such as Loki of Norse Mythology, the Trickster of the Winnebago Indian tales, Krishna in India, Hermes for the Ancient Greeks—are symbolic of social worlds where trauma plays an active role in creation and becoming. In worlds ordered by myths and the cycle of life, where trauma is both the threat of destruction and the source of creation, trauma is a life-destroying force, yes, but it is also one of the greatest motivations for personal and social change.

Psyches, bodies, and communities, like the ecological niches on which we depend, are cyclic, both integrating and disintegrating, whether we like it or not. This natural flow contrasts with modern/postmodern Civilization where creating history, with its focus on linear progression, is the goal. Whatever interferes with progress is often silenced, suppressed, denied, or ignored. Yet, in vibrant, socially connected, nature-informed communities, trauma is not cordon off. Rather, this is Civilization’s trick, one that has implications for cultural change and the impact of trauma, along with the stories we tell—and don’t tell—about how trauma alters us.

I have an intuition: Without the body–and being embodied–trauma loses its potentially transformative aspects. My hypothesis is that our modern/postmodern Civilization perpetuates what I call dissociative spaces–stagnant psychological places of escape–that have replaced the more malleable and transient imaginal worlds that in myth-based societies fostered reintegrating body sensations and awareness with split off memories of trauma.

In modern times, these dissociative spaces are part of a long history of narrative practices that largely ignore the body and its voice. Centuries of preoccupation with progress, and suppressing trauma’s impact, has taken the life out of the stories we tell. Increasingly, trauma stories fail to move the listener’s spirit, and for the storyteller, fail to regain the sense of soul and soul-felt connections so often lost to trauma. Much like the deluge of Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, and blog aggregates that keep us current without demanding much engagement, our efforts to story trauma in ways that transform self and society frequently suffer from emotional disconnection, if not compassion fatigue, in which only the most horrific and peculiar accounts receive their emotional due.

Can we heal trauma, learn from it, change because of it, without engaging with how our bodies suffer from its effects?

The body is the wellspring for emotions. To overcome the dissociative spaces that result when trauma’s impact is denied or ignored, what we imagine, fantasize, and remember must be reconnected with the intense emotions that led to split off memories and the initial retreat from reality. But this also means reconnecting with the body.

When we ignore the role of the body for psychological distress, we risk losing age-old practices for transforming suffering into meaningful change and a renewed sense of belonging. Rather than catalysts for personal and collective growth, our imaginal worlds become habitual reprieves from continually vacillating between feeling overwhelmed and emotionally shutting down. Granted, at least in dissociated, imaginal worlds there is the possibility of escape from suffering. But to take such an attitude is to doubt that transformation is possible. Prolonged escapism is now a serious threat to our capacity to feel. Apathy and a fear to hope threaten to become the new norm, along with a devaluing of life, of which the body is our most tangible symbol.

© 2012 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).

Laura K. Kerr, PhD, IMFT is a mental health scholar and registered marriage & family therapist intern in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, visit her website.

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