Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

The Rhetoric of Trauma Narratives

Dr. William Zeiger.

Regrettably, many people suffer from the after-effects of serious trauma, whether these result from war, accident, natural disaster, or other violence. Healing from the effects of trauma often requires victims to tell their stories.

A "good" trauma narrative--one that helps the victim heal--has certain rhetorical features of speaker, text, and audience, according to recent psychological theory. The narrative must originate in the victim’s own mind, must be coherent and specify rational causes of the trauma, and must be well received by an appreciative audience. As in any rhetorical situation, these rhetorical features interact. The degree of detail in which the trauma is recounted—a feature of text—may affect the quality of the audience response. The trauma narrative is successful if it recounts the traumatic events in full detail, making sense of the events themselves and knitting them into the larger narrative of the victim’s pre- and post-trauma life. The more detail that is included in the narrative, the less likely are trauma memories to overwhelm the victim’s sense of self. However the healing of the victim also depends in part on the narrative being heard and appreciated. While trained therapists can endure to hear profoundly disturbing stories, the general public is likely to be repulsed or incredulous at a trauma narrative. Therefore a “good” trauma narrative for an untrained listener must provide detail sparingly and judiciously. This tactic maximizes the likelihood of an appreciative hearing and the sensation in the victim/teller of being received into ordinary society.


Dr. William Zeiger  (United States)
Associate Professor
Department of English
Slippery Rock University

Teacher and storyteller, Dr. Zeiger has lived and worked in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Diego, as well as abroad. His interest in trauma narratives grew out of a storytelling partnership with a victim of severe abuse and an appreciation for tales that she transmitted. He now resides in Western Pennsylvania with wife Victoria and sons Benjamin (11), Gabriel (9), and Nathaniel (7).

  • Trauma Narrative
  • Rhetoric
  • Healing

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)