Wordlessness, Trauma, and the Right to Explanation

Social-political contexts of tragedies can obscure answers people need to heal.

Posted Jun 23, 2018

"I'd never been able to tell anyone what was going on inside. So I forced these images back, away, for years."

[He] finally told a stranger what was going on inside of him. He didn't feel alone anymore.

"There was somebody with me who cared." 

—On Lt. Karl Marlantes, Vietnam War Veteran, CNN (Blake, 2012)

Tragic events can leave us without words and struggling for an explanation. It’s been argued that a primary feature of trauma is tragedy that’s stuck in that state: unspeakable and inexplicable (Herman, 2015).

U.S. Army photo from the official U.S. Department of the Army publication Vietnam Studies - Airmobility 1961-1971. Washington D.C. 1989
A U.S. Army rifle squad from the Blue Team of the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry exiting a Bell UH-1D Huey helicopter in Vietnam. 
Source: U.S. Army photo from the official U.S. Department of the Army publication Vietnam Studies - Airmobility 1961-1971. Washington D.C. 1989

Humans are hungry for explanation. When faced with an event with unknown origins, people are driven to know why it came about, as the work of cognitive scientists like Tania Lombrozo has demonstrated. The explanations people tend to prefer, in everyday life and in science, keep things simple and help people learn about causal mechanisms (Lombrozo, 2011). 

Generating explanations is a cornerstone of practical learning. Developmental psychologists such as Alison Gopnik, Caren Walker, and Cristine Legare have spotlighted how explanation lets us change our minds based on what we’ve experienced. Legare explains that the process of explanation lets kids come up with hypotheses for why unexpected things happened. This can help prevent mistakes like tossing out new information that doesn’t square with the old way they understood the world (Lagare, Sobel, Callanan, 2017). To “ask” why is to open the door for change to come in.

As people get older, it’s harder to change and the repercussions of figuring out “why” have higher stakes. Some research suggests anxious people might find relief in not attempting to understand aversive stimuli. Adopting a detached approach and turning away from pain can make it more tolerable (Kalisch et al., 2005).

Yet, avoiding acknowledging one’s experience of a tragic event and failing to put it into words is commonly thought to slow post-traumatic growth and recovery (Amir et al., 1998; Herman, 2015). Moreover, this strategy can have moral or political significance when a group of people is targeted and forced to endure pain, as in the case of ethnic minority groups subjected to prejudice and discrimination, or women victimized by sexual assault.

Recognition of post-traumatic stress disorder initially stemmed from advocacy for veterans of the Vietnam War (Figley & Boscarino, 2013) and victims of rape and domestic violence. A crucial feature brought to light about their suffering was that the traumatic events tended to not to be put into words. Their experiences were hidden through their own preferences to keep silent, their families’ and close friends’ silence, and by omissions in the public discourse at the national and global levels. The clinical science of PTSD has developed since its beginnings in no small way because of the verbalizations of suffering people who faced an increased risk of being shamed or stigmatized. Major shifts in programs and policy that protect the vulnerable build on the candid personal narratives of survivors.

This is no small task and its merits have been questioned (Muldoon & Lowe, 2012). Tiptoeing around the event lets people sidestep the emotional and social costs of confronting it. The alternative—articulating a cogent narrative about the tragic event—may be significantly disruptive or ultimately, fruitless. The event was traumatic because it qualified as unexpected, devastating, outside the realm of normal events, and beyond control. Asking and answering why can involve hitting a wall where there are no clear answers, or having deeply unwelcome realizations about the culpability of close others, the self, or major social institutions (Ehlers & Clark, 2000; Litz et al., 2009). It might reveal that harmful elements in a person’s life are more widespread than initially realized—making one’s traumatic event seem relatively unexceptional and unworthy of the emotional responses it continues to trigger.

However, people can and do pursue understandings of their traumatic experiences. Often with therapists as guides (and not necessarily any interest in the politics of their pain), they make sense of the biological aspects of post-traumatic stress, learn to manage them, and integrate the new knowledge that came from the trauma into their worldview (Ehlers & Clark, 2000). In a testament to the persistent drive toward explanation, despite the risks to personal identity and social position, people persist in attempting to figure out why.

What the history of the science of PTSD shows us is that this pursuit will always be tied to broader social forces. For example, there is no way to make sense of why the terrible event happened, if there is no explicit acknowledgment that a terrible event has occurred. In this way, sorting out causation for violence through the process of explanation is not simply a cerebral exercise, unfolding similarly across all humans capable of complex cognition. Being able to figure out why is inextricably linked to a person’s social position, and whether the identity they occupy is granted authority to make claims of suffering.


Amir, N., Stafford, J., Freshman, M. S. & Foa, E. B. (1998). Relationship between trauma narratives and trauma pathology. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 11(2), 385-392.

Ehlers, A., & Clark, D. M. (2000). A cognitive model of posttraumatic stress disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 38, 319–345.

Figley, C. R., & Boscarino, J. A. (2012). The Traumatology of Life. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 200(12), 1113–1120.

Herman, J. (2015). Trauma and Recovery. Basic Books: New York, NY.

Kalisch, R., Wiech, K, Critchley, H. D., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J. P., Oakley, D. A., Allen, P. & Dolan, R. J. (2005). Anxiety reduction through detachment: Subjective, physiological, and neural effects. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 17(6), 874–883.

Lagare, C., Sobel, D. M., Callanan, M. (2017). Causal learning is collaborative: Examining explanation and exploration in social contexts, 24:1548–1554.

Litz, B. T., Stein, N., Delaney, E., Lebowitz, L., Nash, W. P. Silva, C. & Maguen, S. (2009). Moral injury and moral repair in war veterans: A preliminary model and intervention strategy. Clinical Psychology Review, 29, 695–706.

Lombrozo, T. (2011). The instrumental value of explanations. Philosophy Compass, 6(8), 539-551.

Muldoon, O. T. & Lowe, R. D. (2012). Social identity, groups, and post‐traumatic stress disorder. Political Psychology, 33(2), 259-273.

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