Health and Medicine

How Trauma Became America’s Favorite Diagnosis

By the time we decided to assign a profile of Bessel van der Kolk, author of the ubiquitous The Body Keeps the Score, plenty of publications had already clocked the fact that everything has become “trauma.” The plots of books and movies and TV shows, the ways we explain ourselves to friends and family and therapists — so many of these things have taken the shape of this seemingly catchall psychiatric framework. But the first time I spoke to Danielle Carr about van der Kolk, I knew she could do something different. Danielle is an intellectual historian who studies the history of psychiatry, and her story is as much a profile of van der Kolk as it is a profile of our modern understanding of trauma. The idea we now call “trauma,” she shows us, has been on a very strange journey: originating as a controversial diagnosis in the years after Vietnam; igniting a sordid, tabloid-y culture war in the ’80s and ’90s before getting tossed aside as junk science; getting redeemed and resurrected as a scientific field during the War on Terror; and finding new relevance during the Trump years. And at nearly every juncture of trauma’s modern arc, van der Kolk has been there — fighting for its validity, pushing for it to expand and expand. After 50 years of fighting, van der Kolk, it seems, has won.

—Joy Shan, features editor, New York

Tell Me Why It Hurts? How Bessel van der Kolk’s once controversial theory of trauma became the dominant way we make sense of our lives.

Photo: Hugo Yu

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