The way we think and talk about trauma is deeply influenced by psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk’s most famous work, The Body Keeps the Score. In a profile of van der Kolk, New York Magazine takes a deep look at “America’s favorite diagnosis.” Published in 2014, the book is a perennial New York Times bestseller that puts forth the idea that trauma is type of memory distinct from the filing system that stores things like your to-do list or last apartment address.
Past trauma, according to van der Kolk’s model, can evoke physiological effects in our present, even if the trauma is not explicitly remembered. (The body is keeping the score, even if our conscious mind is not.) He’d seeded this concept two decades earlier, and published a 1994 paper in The Harvard Review of Psychiatry with the same title.
The (excellent) story provides an in-depth reflection on how we talk about trauma today—not just with our therapists, but on daytime television, text-heavy Instagram stories, and even in J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, highlighting how this framework is “politically promiscuous.”
As far back as the early ‘90s, the story highlights, the concept of repressed memories leaked out of theory and into the culture, sometimes morphing and warping in the process. Van der Kolk, for his part, won’t claim responsibility for the misappropriation of his work.
There is also a notable and detailed history of Van der Kolk, the man, including how he was fired from his own trauma center over allegations of bullying in 2018. He appears to still be reckoning with the ubiquity of his work, even as “the world’s most famous living psychiatrist” holds trauma workshops across the world.