Adrie Kusserow

Trauma Mantras

Duke University Press, 2024

158 pages


Reviewed by Keerti Arora

Lately, trauma studies, as a humanistic mode of inquiry, has been invigorated by a decolonizing discursive call: postcolonial scholars especially have been arguing for a reconceptualization of trauma that accommodates the impact of both event-based catastrophic loss and persistent systemic oppressions across varied geopolitical contexts. This critical move to contextualize the psychological suffering of individuals within collectively experienced cultural trauma is powerfully exemplified by Adrie Kusserow’s Trauma Mantras, a prose poem memoir that offers potent autoethnographic reflections on her work with refugees across the globe. Consider, for instance, “Trauma Inc.,” one of many prose poems in this collection, which is structured as the PTSD questionnaire that is administered to South Sudanese refugee girls in Uganda as well as to students who take the author’s “Introduction to Anthropology” class in the United States. The headnote declares that her students score significantly higher for PTSD on this test than the South Sudanese refugee girls. This juxtaposition, much like the collection itself, problematizes American interventions for survivors of war and displacement: while refugees who find access to philanthropic networks do get refuge in the United States, Kusserow demonstrates the inadequacy of western liberal mental health epistemes (or as Kusserow would call them, “tiny stuffed cages of American Traumasphere”) when used to treat the pathological consequences of global violence. Positioning herself within a larger American humanitarian and scholarly community that works with refugees, her prose poems dramatize “mental health literacy,” a process through which, as she sarcastically explains, “the Global South is saved by white professionals with DSM bibles.” 

While the collection is divided into two parts, Kusserow frequently alternates her geographical and teleological focus on trauma. For instance, prose poems that reflect on her experiences in the American classroom (viz. the grief of her mother’s impending death alongside contemporary events such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and COVID-19) are chronologized amidst those that relay her affective and material witnessing of violence and care work in Uganda, Sudan, various states in India, Bhutan, and Hong Kong. Kusserow also juxtaposes cultural epistemologies: the prose poem “While Teaching Anthropology Class, I Think of Indra’s Net, My Mother, and Try to Redefine ADHD” continues her past oeuvre’s acute criticism of American biomedical discourse and posits a Buddhist metaphor to contextualize the globalized, techno-connected present as an evolved time of plurality. Likewise, in “Trigger Fields,” as she narrates the diagnosis and treatment of a South Sudanese refugee, Ayen, she troubles the Western mind/body dichotomy and problematizes the necessity of this distinction. She points to how Western trauma discourse presents it in the spirit of the Protestant work ethic—an individual must psychologically “work for [and] suffer with trauma.” However, “Not all cultures process distress psychologically,” she tells Ayen’s doctors, and tells readers, “The trouble with trauma is that it has never heard of René Descartes, and it only came into being at the end of the nineteenth century. In countries far from here, it  . . .]prefers the space of soma to the cramped quarters of psyche.” This embodied emphasis reverberates throughout the collection, highlighting the blindspots of therapeutic regimes that fail at processing non-Eurocentric trauma. 

Unlike medical recounting of global trauma that, as Kusserow would say, looks for “exotic displays of PTSD,” Kusserow imbricates herself as a Western-origin witness as much as she critiques Western epistemes. In the same vein that she describes how “asylum seekers [must] bend their stories [ . . . ] to tell a more gripping, rugged, heroic American plot,” how they learn that “history and context must be sloughed off in favor of the unique idiosyncrasies of the single ‘I’—or else the interviewer grows bored or, worse, suspicious,” Kusserow remarks how she is “no different, [and hasn’t] escaped Project Individual Self.” 

The collection’s second part especially offers staunch critiques of individual-centric, techno-immersed Western subjectivities and culturally decontextualized epistemes. In “The Trauma Mantras,” Kusserow remarks how in America, “your story needs to be special, but not enough to land you in the psych ward,” however, “in Tibet, her trauma story felt oddly small, tiny as an ant, at times irrelevant,” not because it wasn’t significantly affective, but because in Tibet, “no one won most destroyed or damaged, no one’s suffering was off limits or indecipherable.” As Kusserow narrates her work with survivors of complex traumatic global events, this potent juxtaposition gives Western readers an opportunity to think about the different and the unfamiliar; it potentially unsettles the ways in which they understand stories both demographically and geographically removed from them. 

In South Asian cultures, a mantra is an instrument of thought—an empowering string of words one repeats to oneself, sometimes in a meditative state, sometimes as one counts the beads of a rosary. A ‘trauma mantra’ then describes one’s subjective relationship to lived trauma, how one recounts, attaches to, and processes displacement-engendering catastrophe. Given current events of mass violence and atrocity, when Palestinian scholars are asking how survivors will even begin to process and heal, Kusserow’s book, in reflecting on Western epistemic inadequacy, couldn’t be  timelier.