If Everyone Is Traumatized, Is Anyone?
In defense of the trauma plot as executed by "The X Files"
In the new year, during a period of great upheaval in my personal life, amid the many great upheavals in all of our lives, I told my wife that I needed to watch The X-Files again.
For my money, The X-Files is the most important show in the world. Not the best—the most important. When I first watched The X-Files it was a lifeline, a map with which to begin to understand what had happened to me, what was happening around me in the world. I’ve returned to it again and again over the years, when I’ve needed to touch my finger to the pulse of the truth.
We had recently bought DVD box sets of the second and third seasons, which ran from 1994-1995 and 1995-1996 respectively. Our projector, bought cheap for Christmas the year before, only plays DVDs. The projector went on top of a pile of leftover boxes and library books on the bedside table; it splayed bright light against the bare opposing wall until the first episode began to play, at which point it went dark. The X-Files isn’t shot in black and white (with one notable exception), but it might as well be—scenes are framed in shadow, faces cast in profile, secrets hidden but palpable in every corner and every breath. Through the low-resolution lens of our projector, the grainy, filmic quality of the cinematography, its emphasis on negative space, became rich, textured, replete with meaning.
The second season of The X-Files opens with agents Mulder and Scully separated and exiled to opposite corners of the FBI world: him to a scuzzy motel to transcribe surveillance tapes, and she to Quantico to teach. Their investigations into paranormal phenomena in the first season led them to an international government conspiracy that may or may not be collaborating with an extraterrestrial force; obviously they had to be silenced. I will confess that the season two premiere, “Little Green Men,” had bored me on past viewings, because Scully (played by a very pregnant Gillian Anderson) barely features in it. Instead, we follow Mulder to an observatory in Puerto Rico, where he finds evidence that renews his faltering faith in his long-held belief: not only that aliens exist, but that, decades ago, they abducted his younger sister right in front of him.
The episode begins in the darkness of space, with Mulder narrating in a low tone. “We wanted to believe,” he says. “We wanted to call out.”
In the dark of our bedroom, I felt a prickle at the back of my neck, a yanking in my chest, near my heart. It’s the feeling I associate with those moments in life when we are approaching a crucial truth that we have not yet realized.
A satellite—one of the Voyagers, Mulder tells us—tears into frame. The Voyagers carried a message from us, the people of Earth, far out into space in hopes of a response.
The satellite speeds off, becoming smaller and smaller, until it is gone.
In that moment I grasped something I hadn’t before, or perhaps something I had only forgotten. In the quest for the truth, for any truth, we can only get so close. The relationship between objective truth and the meaning we make of our lives is asymptotic. But in seeking—in calling out, in trying to believe, in flying out into the dark—we may depart from the plane of what is conventionally known and achieve something greater: a peace with the unknown, with the hidden and vanished, from which all things are possible.
Almost thirty years ago, The X-Files pilot opened with the case of Karen Swenson, whose body was discovered in the Collum National Forest in Bellefleur, Oregon. (The episode alleged in a title card that the events that follow were “inspired by actual documented accounts.”) Under her nightgown, officials discovered two small bumps in the skin on her lower back, just above the elastic of her underwear. The detective and the coroner exchanged a glance over her inert body, which lay face-down, faceless, in the dirt. Covering her up, the coroner said, “It’s happening again, isn’t it?”
Yes: again and again and again. Karen Swenson, the first dead girl of The X-Files, is an often-overlooked but establishing figure in the series. Her discovery in the pilot’s cold open sets the tone and theme for what follows, over three decades, fourteen seasons, and two movies.
The X-Files is, in many ways, about violence against women. I would struggle to name a show that isn’t, in part, about violence against women, this being one of the defining logics and mechanisms of our world since the invention of television and well beyond; but The X-Files is not only a show about trauma, but one that is inherently, structurally, narratively traumatized. Beyond all sense or reason or widely-accepted rules of storytelling, the show returns irrepressibly to the site (or sites) of injury. In doing so, it tells a different story than some recent critics of trauma theory and its adherents have sketched: a story about a traumatized world, haunted by its own historic violences, and the people in it who, though harmed and violated and betrayed by this world themselves, try to do something, anything, against the tide regardless.
The X-Files pilot aired on the Fox network in 1993, in the aftermath of a war many Americans no longer believed in, in the aftermath of a recession, in a crisis of violence as women spoke up about the violence in their homes, and a crisis of memory as accounts of childhood sexual abuse, Satanic ritual abuse, and, yes, alien abduction proliferated. A deeply postmodern show, The X-Files’ relationship to truth was as fraught as America’s at large. In the pilot, Mulder, an FBI agent who believes in extraordinary phenomena against all reason and institutional pushback, explains to Scully, his new partner, that his sister was taken from him as a child. Regressive hypnosis therapy later reveals what he understands to be the truth of his experience: “I can recall a bright light outside and a presence in the room. I was paralyzed, unable to respond to my sister’s calls for help.” Scully, a medical doctor and inexhaustible skeptic, replies, “But how do you know—” Mulder interrupts. “The government knows about it, and I’ve got to know what they’re protecting. Nothing else matters to me, and this is as close as I’ve ever gotten to it.”
Already we have some hallmarks of the emergent field of trauma theory: repressed memories and regression hypnosis unlocking a violent event, so unexpected and paralyzing that it cannot be assimilated into the survivor’s previous understanding of the world and themselves. Cathy Caruth’s 1996 literary and psychoanalytic treatise on trauma, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, outlines a formula: there is an encounter, like a train crash, or an assault, or a genocide. Something so world-shattering that it cannot be held by the conscious mind, and therefore cannot be reconciled and healed. The memory is repressed, or never even made. Because the conscious mind cannot hold it, the injury must try to make itself known and heard in other ways. The wound “cries out”—but because the mind, or soul, or psyche, or whatever you would prefer, is not ready or capable of perceiving it, the wound must continue to cry out, over and over again, a tree falling in a forest with no one to hear.
“It’s happening again.” In the third episode of the first season, “Conduit,” a little girl vanishes in front of her brother. Mulder and Scully investigate; as Mulder becomes more and more convinced that this is history repeating itself, going to greater and less legal lengths to uncover what really happened, Scully tells him, “Stop running after your sister. This won’t bring her back.” But Mulder can’t stop. A superior hands Scully a tape recording from Mulder’s regression hypnosis therapy. In the session, he tells the therapist that he can hear his sister: “She’s calling out my name, over and over again.” He tells the therapist that another voice, an unknown one, is reassuring him that no harm will come to her, and one day she will return. As Scully listens to the tape, we are shown Mulder sitting in a church pew, crying. Slowly, he lowers himself to his knees, and begins to pray.
If this all sounds a little hokey to you, you are not alone. Recently, the author Will Self argued in Harper’s Magazine that trauma has become an integral part of modern consciousness, a way that we try to explain the extraordinary circumstances in our own individual lives, but that really only captures the ordinariness of our shared experience of the modern world. If everyone is traumatized, is anyone? Self explores a history of trauma wherein new technologies such as trains and photography created fissures in the commonly held and felt notions of time, of past and present and future. (In this sense, trauma has always belonged to the speculative realm of science fiction.) Our present moment is, in a word, fractured: technologies have proliferated, phones and computers and cars and cranial imaging and diagnoses and the Cloud, and our minds have fractured accordingly.
Self acknowledges that the psychology we call trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder exists, inasmuch as “the symptoms associated with modern conceptions of trauma are the psychic correlates of physical processes to which the individual psyche cannot consciously adapt: you either repress the posthumous shock … or you rise up giddily into psychosis.” Where he finds fault is in the belief that “a timeless phenomenon […] has affected people in different cultures and at different times in much the same way.” Self points to the “suddenness” of modernity as the root of what we now call trauma. Here he is at least in partial agreement with Caruth, who attributed trauma to “an overwhelming experience of sudden, or catastrophic events” (emphasis mine.)
Parul Sehgal also took on trauma theory in The New Yorker, arguing that the trauma plot has taken precedence in contemporary literature, while also creeping invasively into the literature of the past to reframe it for our modern, traumatized eye. “Trauma came to be accepted as a totalizing identity,” she writes, and as such, became the fulcrum for a defined literature. Sehgal sketches the defining characteristics of the trauma plot: a protagonist who is limited to “profile or bare outline,” who is “self-entranced, withholding, giving off a fragrance of unspecified damage”; a formal thinness, limited to the traumatized protagonist as lens; a structural reliance on confession or flashback. Recent examples of such damaged characters include A Little Life’s Jude; Wandavision’s Wanda; Fleabag’s Fleabag. This ubiquity “[exposes] the creakiness of a plot mechanism” rather than any deep and hard-won truths about life, or humanity, or whatever. Trauma becomes a cultural script explicating all ills of all severities, and also explicating the behaviors and actions of all traumatized persons. There is no agency, no autonomy or individuality, only trauma. There is no plot, unless the plot is trauma.
In some regards, both of these essays are convincing. Trauma is pervasive in our contemporary discourses on wellness and mental health; and admittedly, its history in such discourses is short. These essays may provoke in you, as they did in me, a sense of defensiveness. Their undertone does occasionally veer toward clichés about the younger generation: that we are overly fragile, prone to solipsism and an emotional porosity that blinds us to the greater world. The author Brandon Taylor argues that Sehgal’s analysis of trauma is actually representative of a larger problem with the literature of identity; and, moreover, that if a book, or a Marvel show, is bad, that is not the same as trauma narratives themselves being bad. Also, as he says, “that kind of is the way it is sometimes, no?”
Self, to my mind, goes even further astray in his concerned disdain for the younger crowd. TikTok, he argues in closing, is one arena where trauma discourses have proliferated, while the application itself is a medium of the traumatizing, which is to say fracturing, present. “Social media is inherently traumatogenic,” he writes. Our codependence on technology is so intense that “It’s estimated that 2015 was the first year in which more than a trillion photographs were taken.” The circulation of images, and selves, and the reliance on timelines, is part and parcel of the suddenness, the in-and-out-of-timeness, that has traumatized the world. But this diagnosis feels as reductive as the traumatic pathology itself has apparently become.
Reading these essays, I was reminded of the sixth season episode “The Ghosts Who Stole Christmas,” in which two psychotherapeutically inclined ghosts explain to Mulder and Scully what’s wrong with them. By their reckoning, Mulder is a “narcissistic, overzealous, self-righteous egomaniac,” not “single-minded” but “prone to obsessive compulsiveness workaholism, antisocialism,” “a lonely man chasing paramasturbatory illusions that you believe will give your life meaning and significance.” Scully suffers from “an awful small life,” “conflicted yearnings,” “a subconscious desire to find fulfillment through another,” and “intimacy through codependency.” Is this the truth? Maybe. What is the truth, anyway?
Like Self, Sehgal, and Taylor, I’m not interested in any kind of trauma determinism. As Indigenous scholar Eve Tuck notes, it is all too easy to position damage as the endpoint in a conversation, rather than the beginning of it. To my mind, trauma is most useful as a way to conceive of the consequence of a reprehensible act or event which otherwise cannot be spoken of, admitted to, or acknowledged, even to oneself. Whether this is a history that has been institutionally suppressed or a category of violence, such as rape, that is socially stigmatized and denied to the point of illegibility, trauma—the body and mind rebelling in the aftermath—insists that something has in fact occurred. In this way, it also becomes a locus of possibility within impossibility. Trauma is an injunction: a call to action, to reach out, to find something-to-be-done.
Mulder’s dilemma is my own: a desire to seek and quantify, to provide evidence of, the unquantifiable unknown. There is a photograph I took of myself, dead-eyed, on a particular day in 2015 that I return to occasionally. I took it because something horrible had happened, and also because I had gotten a haircut, with bangs, and I didn’t know if I liked it or not. I hold onto emails, texts, screencaps, snippets of poetry, anything that might someday be important when I am taken to task for my understanding of my own experiences—all of which may in fact be worthless, unconvincing, or lost sometime between then and now. And yet it doesn’t matter. What matters is the search. The effort to, as scholar Avery Gordon writes, make “common cause” with the erased and disappeared. In other words, the wanting to believe.
What’s interesting about The X-Files is the way the show seems to compulsively return to the foundational violences which have defined the United States as a country. In this way, the show not only paints a holistic, structural picture of trauma, but actually enacts it: form following function, the narrative bends into the shape of “the wound that cries out,” the “often delayed, uncontrolled repetitive appearance of … intrusive phenomena.”
The show’s twists and turns often defied comprehension or common sense, from both a viewer’s perspective and a writer’s. I would never claim that this effect is intentional, but it is thematically effective. The show folds over on itself, revisiting Mulder’s sister’s disappearance, Scully’s season two abduction, trying on alternate explanations, holding them up to different lights. Mulder’s sister was abducted by aliens; or, perhaps she was an alien, one of many alien clones; the alien clones are medical specialists working in secret labs that forcibly impregnate women and harvest their infants; or the clones are mute, agrarian drones, endless little girls working secret fields in southern Canada, that have something to do with smallpox vaccinations and an alien disease; or else maybe Samantha was abducted by a serial killer of little girls; or maybe she died alone in a hospital as a child, and Mulder never even knew.
Meanwhile the alien conspiracy unravels—backwards, as well as forwards. As the show progresses, we learn that the international conspiracy was birthed in the aftermath of World War II, when Nazi scientists were welcomed into America to conduct experiments involving alien-human hybrids. An extraterrestrial entity that looks like black oil and causes radioactive burns becomes trapped in the body of a Russian-American agent of the conspiracy, who then becomes trapped in a missile silo left over from the Cold War. In season two, Mulder finds a train car “packed floor to ceiling” with alien bodies. In season three, Scully finds a camp full of, apparently, leprosy victims, who were subjects of the Nazi-affiliated experiments; outside the camp she discovers pits where “death squads … [dumped] the bodies on top of each other like they were garbage.” The fictional events echo and stretch real historical ones: experimental vaccines are tested on the unknowing; samples of human tissue are taken and registered without consent as part of some secret eugenic scheme. All of this in preparation for the day when colonization arrives: when some of humanity will survive, and most of it will not.
In French, The X-Files was called Aux Frontières du Réel, “at the frontiers of the real.” It is in many ways a frontier story: of intrepid heroes running up against unknown space, of secrets buried in the emptiness of the desert. But The X-Files recognizes that the desert isn’t, and never was, empty. In the season two finale, Mulder follows an encrypted government file to so-called New Mexico, where he meets members of the local Navajo community, including Code Talker Albert Hosteen. Albert has his grandson show Mulder the train car, telling him, “nothing vanishes without a trace.” According to Albert, the aliens made contact with Indigenous peoples 600 years ago—the first abduction event. The X-Files’ preoccupation with alien invasion echoes a wound that is not modern, not limited to the twentieth century as Self and Sehgal would have it. The ripples date back to the original American sin: the colonization and genocide of Indigenous peoples on this land.
The X-Files is a deeply imperfect show. It is often racist and almost methodologically sexist. The less said about the final seasons, the better; it would take more words than I have here to tie their thematic failures to the originals’ thematic successes. Yet even so the pattern recurs: in the revival, which aired from 2016-2018, we revisit World War II, we revisit America’s eugenic regimes, Scully’s pregnancy, Mulder’s sister’s abduction. “It’s happening again.” It will happen, forever.
I hesitated to write myself into this essay, and yet the work would not move forward without me, without my own incomplete memories. In “Conduit,” Mulder tells Scully: “When I was a kid, I had this ritual. I closed my eyes before I walked into my room, ‘cause I thought that one day when I opened them my sister would be there. Just lying in bed, like nothing ever happened. You know I’m still walking into that room, everyday of my life.”
That’s what it’s like.
I am sixteen, being introduced to The X-Files for the first time. Mulder looks at Scully with an expression of revelation and tells her, “I think I know who killed Karen Swanson.” A feeling of precipice, of proximity to something enormous and unfathomable, tingles at the back of my skull.
I am twenty, writing my senior undergraduate thesis. Recent events, and old ones, have forced me to go part-time in my studies in the hopes of forestalling a complete breakdown. I work at the library until close, clicking between episodes, transcripts, PDFs, and my own draft. I forget my credit card at the fried chicken place on the corner at 2 AM. I begin to cry as I write my concluding thoughts on a friend’s couch:
“The truth will save you.” Setting aside the idea of a single truth, and setting aside the idea that there is only one way to be saved, I find this to be true. … I do not know everything that has happened to me and I never will, but the absences in my memory and the rebellions of my body bear their own meanings, and I work to live with those ghosts. In doing so, I “[interfere] precisely with those always incomplete forms of containment and repression ceaselessly directed towards us” (Gordon, 2008). In doing so, I haunt, and I find my way.
I am twenty, and it is 6 AM, and I walk out into the cold spring Toronto morning, heedless of my lost credit card, breathing in the pink sky, aloft on the high of catharsis, my pain left momentarily behind.
I am twenty-seven. The past has once more become present. Like Mulder, I am looking back at an event that is distant from me now; my former self is almost like a different person, like a little girl who has gone missing from me. I tell my wife, I need to watch The X-Files again.
On-screen, two satellites hurtle into the void of space, seeking the unknown. The show flashes back to the night Mulder’s sister was taken; he watches, paralyzed, as her small body floats into the air and disappears into the light. Evidence burns and is lost, and yet, back on wiretap duty, Mulder tells Scully, “I still have my work. I’ve still got you. And I still have myself.”