Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

The Release of Trauma Centrality: Psychological Factors in Apology and Forgiveness

Emma Edenbaum

Religion 390: Forgiveness in the Islamic and Christian Traditions

December 2, 2019

I affirm that I have adhered to the Honor Code in this assignment.

The climate of modern times has inspired the psychologists of today to delve deeply into the topic of trauma, especially surrounding that of triggers and post-traumatic stress disorders.[i] Included in these lucrative studies is a recently developed term that’s usage is growing in frequency: trauma centrality. Trauma centrality can be defined as “the degree to which a traumatic event is seen as central to one’s identity and sense of self. Individuals who perceive greater centrality see the trauma as being an important part of who they are and an important part of their life story.”[ii] In being exposed to literature and cinematography describing and presenting painful and provocative experiences which the reader or viewer is made to question how they may be rectified, the term “trauma centrality” seems very relevant and applicable. Traumas that individuals experience are capable of consuming their entire lives, and when putting this new psychological term of centrality into the context of philosophical and theological literature, it seems that the identity consumption may be relieved through apology and forgiveness.

Trauma centrality is commonly portrayed in real life events as well as in mass media. For example, in early 2000, Javed Iqbal, a Pakistani mass murderer, killed one hundred children in response to perceived wrongs against him committed by his servants and local police force, saying that, through murder, he would “take revenge on the world [he] hated” and because his mother had cried for him, he would incite “one hundred mothers to cry for their children.”[iii] Iqbal’s purpose of his own life was established through the lens of a victim. In media, the film Dead Man Walking tells of the character Matthew Poncelet, a man convicted of rape and murder to the point where he is sentenced to the death penalty, though it is not until the very end of the movie that he is solidly and concretely revealed as the true perpetrator.[iv] Throughout the film, he has the opposite of Murphy’s suggestion of learned helplessness where one “comes to accept that one’s proper status in the world is that of a victim” and “seems to… [give] up hope that effective voluntary control over important environmental events is possible,” believing in their lack of control over bad things taking place.[v] Poncelet became so angry at the system and himself that he becomes incapable of accepting his responsibility and refuses the identity others give him. In his final moments alive, he expresses an aversion to discussing his crimes but seconds later is shown yelling about them. He is unable to maintain his attention on other features of his life because he cannot seem to see them, overtaken by the identity of a man jailed and about to die. In another film, Flatliners, one of the characters, Nelson Wright, is haunted by a bitter memory of Billy Mahoney.[vi] Mahoney’s character lacks depth. He is just a child, and all that is known of him is that he is accidentally murdered by Wright when they were both young and that was enough for the movie’s plot to move forward. The trauma that happened to this little boy made up the entirety of his identity.

A common effect of trauma centrality, at least consistently in the above portrayals, is revenge. With the Pakistani murderer, Iqbal, physical abuse from his servants and dismissal from the local police coupled with their accusations of sodomy led him to purpose his life with a single focus of getting back at the world.[vii] In Dead Man Walking, the father of the murdered young girl directly expresses to Poncelet that he would kill him himself if given the opportunity, and in Flatliners, Wright has to die in questionably another universe in order for Mahoney to stop attacking him.[viii] The connection between trauma centrality and revenge is that a victim who sees a considerable portion of their identity as defined by the occurrence of a trauma and therefore their quest for that trauma’s justice also takes up a considerable portion of their life, and through potentially unhealthy means. Govier describes revenge in a way that is overwhelming and indicative of trauma centrality, painting vengeful victims as those who “may be too furious and hateful to get things straight and may be disproportionate in the penalties seek to impose on others.”[ix] According to a philosophy professor, Robert Solomon, asserts that “feelings of vindictiveness and vengeance are basic to [one’s] sense of justice: it is… anger and resentment that provide… insight into what is wrong with the world and give… our understanding of… justice.”[x] That fury and hate are connected to revenge and not forgiveness—an arguably more moral route—because the rectification of a wrong through forgiveness is not seen as a form of justice. It goes along with the political scientist P.E. Digeser’s view that separates the two and describes forgiveness as a block for justice.[xi] This view can be accepted with the idea that trauma centrality is only relieved at a definitive date as determined by when an act is carried through on the original wrongdoer as opposed to the individual deciding for themselves their identity, and relieving the centrality of an event through their own doing on themselves such as that through forgiveness.

 Forgiveness is an individual act that does not necessarily rely on the wrongdoer in order for it to occur. Reconciliation is necessary for apology, perhaps, but not for forgiveness.[xii] With justice seen through the lens of revenge, there is no definitive change for the victims themselves. Forgiveness encapsulates emotion, both hostile and positive, but in an arguably more moral fashion. Morality is exemplified through forgiveness “based on obligations to respect other persons and to seek, so far as reasonably possible, to further human welfare and limit human suffering.”[xiii] Though trauma centrality is negatively viewed in a lot of the philosophical or theological literature, perhaps sometimes it is okay to focus on oneself alone and leave the wrongdoer out of the equation for the purpose of allowing the aim of the forgiveness to be a reduction of distressing psychological states as seen through trauma centrality, for example.

With psychology and interventions like forgiveness counseling, a person must want to forgive as opposed to revenge where a wrongdoer does not necessarily submit to reciprocated action against them. With apology and forgiveness, a victim gets to decide when that happens and base on themselves, therefore choosing what part of their identity upon which to focus and display, rather than rely on the wrongdoer to decide that for them.

[i] Benjamin Bellet, Madeline Bruce, Payton Jones, Richard McNally, and Mevagh Sanson. “Symposium 35 – Trigger Warnings! Are They Helpful, Harmful, or Neither?” Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies. Marriott Marquis Hotel, Atlanta. 22 November 2019.

[ii] Login S. George, Crystal L. Park, and Stephanie R. Chaudoir, “Examining the Relationship Between Trauma Centrality and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms: A Moderated Mediation Approach,”
Traumatology 22, no. 2 (2016): 86.

[iii] Trudy Govier, Forgiveness and Revenge (New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2002), 2.

[iv] Dead Man Walking. Directed by Tim Robbins, performances by Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Robert Prosky, Raymond J. Barry, R. Lee Ermey, and Scott Wilson, PolyGram Filmed Entertainment Working Title Films, 1995.

[v] Jeffrie G. Murphy, “Forgiveness in Psychotherapy.” Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits (New York: Oxford University Press), 79; Sivakumar Nuvvula, “Learned Helplessness.” Contemporary Clinical Dentistry 7, no. 4 (2016): 426.

[vi] Flatliners. Directed by Joel Schumacher, performances by Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, William Baldwin, Oliver Platt, and Kevin Bacon, Stonebridge Entertainment, 1990.

[vii] Govier, Forgiveness and Revenge, 2.

[viii] Dead Man Walking. Directed by Tim Robbins, 1995.; Flatliners. Directed by Joel Schumacher, 1990.

[ix] Govier, Forgiveness and Revenge, 9.

[x] Govier, Forgiveness and Revenge, 15.

[xi] Jacob T. Levy, “Political Forgiveness by P.E. Digeser,” Political Theory 30, no. 6 (2002): 866.

[xii] Glen Pettigrove, Forgiveness and Love (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 101

[xiii] Govier, Forgiveness and Revenge, 12.

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