Laura Castor teaches how fiction can help us process life’s most debilitating events.
Last September, Laura Castor (M.A. ‘85, Ph.D. ’94) was working in her apartment near the University of Tromsø, which sits above the Arctic Circle in the largest city in northern Norway. It’s a place that’s famous for awe-inspiring natural beauty, including the northern lights and the midnight sun. But it’s also a place of darkness, where the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon from November to January.
It’s fitting, then, that Castor’s task that day was to detail a sobering revelation about the human condition. She was writing the afterward to her forthcoming book, Facing Trauma: Literary Stories of Survival and Possibility in Uncertain Times (Cambridge Scholars Publishing), which explores how trauma in its many guises takes center stage in late 20th and early 21st century American literature, including Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, and Toni Morrison’s Home.
Castor, a professor of American studies at Tromsø who grew up near Philadelphia, says it’s only been since 9/11 that Americans as a whole have focused attention on the ways trauma—whether in the aftermath of abuse, a natural disaster, or a terrorist act—can fundamentally undermine personal ambition and the American dream itself. “The trauma in contemporary American life can be seen as the shadow side of America’s promise of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” she says. “The guarantee that anyone with a little pluck and a little luck can achieve a new and fulfilling life rings hollow for many people.”
While we have grown more comfortable acknowledging personal trauma, there is a widespread belief that psychotherapy and antidepressants are some of the only appropriate methods for processing and treating these life-altering experiences. Castor suggests an often overlooked approach to working through trauma: reading texts where deeply disturbing events drive the plot.
“People read not because they want to bone up on their debate skills, but because they need a relief from the stress of everyday life,” she says. “They want to escape into a great story.” Reading about trauma helps people feel seen and less isolated. It also can provide a way to sort through scenarios that are more complicated than a villain harming a victim. “One person’s story is singular but it is also connected to larger cultural stories.”
Castor knows of which she speaks. As a survivor of a short-lived but abusive marriage, she recognized parts of that relationship in the books she read, particularly Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag. She says reading about trauma helped her recover. “I moved from sympathy to empathy for domestic abuse survivors and for survivors of other kinds of traumas.”
Reading novels gives people the opportunity to process distressing events and even gain insights into those who have caused them harm. “Fiction allows people to see the points of view of characters who can perhaps be difficult to relate to,” Castor says. In that way, reading can provide comfort, affirmation, and even healing. “These texts really challenge the way we categorize people.”