May 13 2021

Passing by/through/in Written Word

Alexiana Fry, Stellenbosch University

illustration of a group of masked people

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a traumatic time for all of us regardless of age and background. Beyond the pandemic, students may have faced and will continue to face trauma that can be both generational or a singular event—trauma can also be something that is insidious, besetting most of our BIPOC students. Yet, the pandemic in specific has brought to light an awareness that the world is ill-informed on what traumas many face may look like as it shows itself differently depending on context; and due to this, the world is also, simultaneously, ill-equipped to manage and/or work through what is heavy and held bodily each day.

In the midst of much change and much trial, to shift in order to continue what the normalized timeline is for schooling and education, many teachers are facing their own trauma as well as their students’ trauma. The struggle to maintain focus and meet a presupposed goal or result on schedule feels entirely unobtainable, and it probably should be. A trauma-informed pedagogy is willing to prioritize the overall health of students, moving learning as a whole into a more fluid and flexible space that shifts power, creates mutual trust, and acknowledges the embodied needs and nature of learning.

We are never to glorify the immense suffering that trauma in general has brought for both ourselves and our neighbors, and that includes moving away from the praise of resilience. This can be difficult, especially for those of us who teach in religious or theological-education settings have differing views on suffering. In some cases, teaching in theological settings involves a bit of unlearning and relearning of how to perceive and work through trauma. The ideas can be as difficult as “God has done this to you for a reason,” or notions of forgiving and forgetting, spiritually bypassing what the body will not forget. However, teaching while trauma-informed allows for great opportunity to change an exercise or assignment into something that offers a new way to process through trauma as well as into something that is spiritually formative.

Background and Theory

Ultimately, the choice to help students understand trauma and the concept of trauma narratives, the point of this article, is to restate a very human reality: we are meaning-making, story-telling beings. While some argue that trauma is something that cannot be told through words, especially if the memory is repressed, trauma will always find a way to express itself. We are often aware of the more disruptive effects, but trauma can also show up in your most well behaved students who perform perfectly; resilience is a necessity to survive for those who do not experience the base level of safety in a space that is often unjust and inequitable. Granting the space to feel and process is humanizing in a world that consistently engages in dehumanization.

This concept of trauma narratives is not new, nor is the idea that this kind of processing can be a healing one. Sonya Andermahr and Silvia Pellicer-Ortín write about a phenomenon coined by Suzette A. Henke called “scriptotherapy,” defined as, “the process of writing out and writing through traumatic experience in the mode of therapeutic re-enactment.”1 Hilda Lindemann Nelson has also written on trauma and repair through narrative, calling it literally, “narrative repair;” and Kathleen M. O’Connor created the acronym PTLI, or post-traumatic literary intervention, in her own studies on trauma.2 Janet Rumfelt, in reckoning with Nelson’s narrative repair with war and psychic trauma states, “where trauma unhinges victims and their loved ones from existentialist ground of their being, narrative offers the promise of repair.”3Andermahr and Pellicer-Ortín continue to explain this process as one that helps those in the wake of trauma to begin to not only name the reasons behind why they might be feeling these disconcerting emotions and effects, but in doing so, begin to deal and cope with the trauma itself.

One of the main goals of “writing through” a traumatic experience would be, then, to articulate an unbearable psychic wound that the subject or group is not able to communicate or exteriorize, that is to say, what cannot be spoken may be at least represented and mediated through cultural practices.4

It is not only the individuals processing through the trauma that matters but also the community’s response. A trauma-informed pedagogy must go beyond a one-time activity in order to usher in students who are also trauma-informed. The opportunity within a trauma-informed classroom lies in not only peers receiving the narrative, but also responding to it in a way that can even resolve it—which can often be done by empathizing. This also, in turn, creates ripple effects toward a compassion-based pedagogy, as well as being transformative for students. Sharing these narratives with others is, as Judith Herman shares in her book on recovery from trauma, “a precondition for the restitution of a sense of a meaningful world.”5

While this level of vulnerability cannot be something that is forced upon neither the one who has been traumatized nor the community, the exercise itself could be one that provides a coping mechanism that can continue to be used throughout the student’s lifetime. The classroom and classmates may not be who the student chooses to share with, but beginning to become comfortable with a level of vulnerability to oneself in writing a trauma narrative is a great first step. As connection is something that is fractured in the midst of a traumatic event, consider offering to students who don’t want to share an opportunity to take time to share it with their God, or in their own way, to put it out into the universe.

Teaching Exercise

My main teaching positions have been in undergraduate or nonprofit arenas with students who more likely than not identify as Christian. In all of these settings, I have the joy of teaching what is called biblical hermeneutics, as well as introductory classes to using those tools in the actual sacred texts. In other words, I teach students how to comprehend ancient texts for themselves, rather than reserving hermeneutics as a tool that only the elite or those who have much greater authority can alone employ. I also teach how these texts can move us from a space of greater understanding of the text to practice; after all, how we read is how we live. We deal with the basic premises in hermeneutics, both historical and literary. Yet, what has also been a shift in thinking is taking a step backwards from even those lenses—my personal specialty and research dealing with both the sociological and psychological lenses necessary to attempt to understand. With that in mind, I teach explicitly about trauma, viewing many texts in the Bible as trauma narratives after considering the history from which the texts come from. Those who study and even receive these texts as sacred have been reading the words of authors working through their own communal and individual traumas. Recognizing that the texts I am teaching are potential trauma narratives helps to share with students how entering into biblical narrative from the student’s own context can also be a helpful practice to work through their own trauma. Not only this, but having students see that trauma narratives were also used as a way to connect with their communities and their God can be relieving to those experiencing great disconnection. For these reasons, I assign students in my class to write their own trauma narrative. Let it be known that during this time period of great disruption in multiple spheres of both the educator and student alike, if this is to be assigned as an exercise, it should be in place of a different assignment, and not an additional task. While this can be a form of self-care, students should also be able to dictate what their self-care looks like, a beginning foundation of agency.

The formative pieces of understanding sacred texts as potential trauma narratives should already be in place, and this exercise should happen more likely midway through a course. By this time, students will be able to recognize the variety of forms that trauma narratives can take; in this way, trauma narratives themselves allow for a great deal of agency as they are only defined as such due to their context and content: Trauma narratives can be explicit in nature, granting healing by telling the whole truth of their situation, or they can be far removed, using symbolic language as a way to create safety and distance while still working through what may be experienced. Trauma narratives can be a brand-new creation or a twist on a folklore, taking pieces of what may already be known in order to describe something different. Trauma narratives can be fiction, memoir, or even poetry—rather, prayer. Trauma narratives do not have to have perfect theology, great grammar, or socially acceptable emotions. There is room for the “messy-self,”6 and complexity. Importantly, trauma narratives can be done alone as an individual, or communally. In assigning the creation of their own trauma narrative, with the boundaries being as open and vast as the ones outlined above, they can be as detailed as a journal entry, or as short as a haiku. Although the exercise will be framed by simply asking for students to write their own trauma narrative, dependent upon your students, the assignment can be reworked even in a role-play type scenario, posing the question of, “what might a trauma narrative say if it was written in this current context?” This, once more, allows students an additional step away for distance from the situation, either in their own voice, or through the voice of any biblical author.

After the assignment is completed, it is important to make space to share these narratives with one another. Here, students can dictate their level of engagement, as the creations could be triggering or retraumatizing dependent upon what is written and shared. Self-disclosure is something that is argued relentlessly on all ends of the spectrum, and it should be wrestled through personally. As an instructor, there are things I am more than comfortable sharing that can be an avenue for further vulnerability for others, demonstrating for students to see how trauma does not have to be the final word. Yet, there are also many traumatic events I will not share with students, and while mutuality and a dismantling of power structure is incredibly important in the classroom, ensuring that I as teacher am still a safe place is crucial, and I cannot be that if I retraumatize students.

Creating that safe space in which these are offered would begin with a covenant that creates spaces of safety, rules for responding to these creations, and a code of confidentiality. If healthy boundaries are not established and agreed upon by every member that receives these trauma narratives, the space will not be as effective as it should, and it could be potentially harmful. I have done this exercise in large group formats, and they can also be done in small groups, which is easy if the students have been together since the start of class because a level of community may have already been established. All of these details would need to be discussed at length in preparation, in a syllabus or schedule handed out at the beginning of class, so it is not one of complete surprise to an extent. However, there is room as well for this exercise to be one that happens at a flexible time, and it can be shifted depending on what is sensed of the needs of students in the class.

The saying is true and trustworthy: we must shift our focus as educators, and humans alike, from rewarding “success” to rewarding arrival.7 The outcomes of this exercise can be that no one wants to share, and the class reserved for sharing is one where you allow your students to care for themselves; or that everyone shares with vulnerability and respect, becoming a close-knit community. Nonetheless, encouraging your students to even acknowledge their trauma is a step that some have not taken before, and the simple act of showing up in that space is painful. Trauma of any kind, however, cannot and will not be unaddressed; the way out is through.

Conclusion

A trauma-informed pedagogy is one that advocates for a more holistic way to approach the basic knowledge of how learning best happens when the students in your classroom are moving towards health in all forms. As an educator yourself, considering what it means to be part of a community entrusted with sacred trauma narratives from a typically intellectual space re-places what may be currently disembodied and even virtual into a more embodied and creative experience that can make room for the transformative—ultimately, closer to the ultimate goals of a theological education for both student and teacher alike. The goal, as stories are employed as ways to learn, hear, and heal from one another, is that students move toward the other, and hopefully, toward justice, both inside and outside of the classroom.

 


Notes

1 Suzette A. Henke, Shattered Subjects: Trauma and Testimony in Women's Life-Writing (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998): xii, as found in Sonya Andermahr and Silvia Pellicer- Ortín, Trauma Narratives and Herstory (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) 3.

2 Hilda Lindemann Nelson, Damaged Identities, Narrative Repair (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001., and Kathleen M. O’Connor, “How Trauma Studies Can Contribute to Old Testament Studies,” in Trauma and Traumatization in Individual and Collective Dimensions: Insights from Biblical Studies and Beyond, eds. Eve-Marie Becker, Jan Dochhorn, and Else Holt (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht), 210–222.

3 Janet L Rumfelt, "Reversing Fortune: War, Psychic Trauma, and the Promise of Narrative Repair," in Interpreting Exile: Displacement and Deportation in Biblical and Modern Contexts, eds. Brad E. Kelle, Frank R. Ames and Jacob L. Wright (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011),325.

4 Sonya Andermahr and Silvia Pellicer-Ortín, Trauma Narratives and Herstory (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), 3.

5 Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence¾From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 70.

6 Taken from Michelle Mary Lelwica, “Embodied Learning through Pedagogical Promiscuity,” in Teaching Sexuality and Religion in Higher Education: Embodied Learning, Trauma Sensitive Pedagogy, and Perspective Transformation, eds. Darryl W. Stephens and Kate Ott (New York, NY: Routledge, 2020): 17–29.

7 Taken from Paul Ollinger, “Your Only Goal Is to Arrive,” Forge, April 13, 2020, https://forge.medium.com/to-survive-the-quarantine-change-your-metrics-e345d79be14b, as found in Oluwatomisin Oredein, “Pandemic Predispositions: Minority Trauma Responses in Higher Education,” Praxis: The Responsive and Expanding Classroom blog series, Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, May 18, 2020, https://www.wabashcenter.wabash.edu/2020/05/pandemic-predispositions-minority-trauma-responses-in-higher-education/.

Select Recommended Resources

Boase, Elizabeth and Christopher G. Frechette, eds. The Bible Through the Lens of Trauma. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016.

Herman, Judith, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence¾From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

Langer, Ellen. The Power of Mindful Learning. New York: Perseus, 1997.

Menakem, Resmaa. My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. Las Vegas: Central Recovery Press, 2017.

O’Donnell, Karen, and Katie Cross, eds. Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture & Church in Critical Perspective. London: SCM Press, 2020.


Alexiana FryAlexiana Fry is a PhD candidate in Old Testament with emphases on trauma hermeneutics, feminist theory, and migration studies at Stellenbosch University. She received her MDiv at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary with a focus in education in 2017. She works as an adjunct Bible professor in the West Michigan area. She wrote for Feminist Studies in Religion on trauma and “othering,” and has future articles coming out in 2021.