The Victim of Trauma: How Overcoming Tragedy Entails Being Both a Victim and a Survivor

As therapists, we often speak of beliefs and perspectives and their influence on our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Where both of us read the same story, we can leave it with two completely different interpretations, depending on what’s significant to us. Yesterday, I had a conversation with someone about The Great Gatsby, discussing the life of the protagonist, Jay Gatsby, and, in particular, what he made of it.

My fellow interlocutor told me that he perceived Jay’s life as tragic because of how unfair the world was to him. In my conception, Jay was also a tragic figure, but mostly because he ruined his life. Where I saw responsibility and poor decision making, he saw a victim. And, if you knew us, you’d understand why our areas of focus differed so much. My inner therapist sought to show him his capability for change, whereas he felt trapped in a predetermined universe.

In the end, I partially assented, asserting that both of us were right; Jay was a victim of circumstance and the author of his own demise. We find tragedy in his humble beginnings, learning about a boy who profoundly suffered in poverty, whose life became encapsulated in his drive for regality; the unkindness of the cosmos was embodied in his youth. And, here, in the throes of the wilderness, he and I found sympathy for a boy who deserved much more than he had.

However, as his life progressed, I couldn’t help but wonder how a man who was earnestly informed (by several individuals) that his ideals were unattainable continued to pursue a seemingly lost cause, forgoing the chance at a well-lived existence. His dream-girl, Daisy, told him that he wanted too much and his only friend, Nick, was clear about man’s inherent inability to return to the past; yet, Jay persisted. His childhood trauma and resultant stubbornness, stemming from the conviction that happiness only abided in fulfilling his dream and in its attainability, combined to create the wellspring of agony.

Jay was undoubtedly a victim, but he was also a source. People often think of victimhood in one of two ways: we either deny them the truth or attempt to infantilize them. The reality is that one can be, and often is, both a victim and a survivor. When hearing (or reading) the story, one viscerally feels Jay’s sense of entitlement; although not explicitly stated, his unwillingness to adapt betrays a belief that he doesn’t have to, as his envisioned life is precisely what’s owed to him. The clinical literature indicates that individuals struggling with vulnerable narcissism, or severely low self-esteem (to be simplistic), believe that the world owes them because of their struggles. In their self-conceptions, they conceive of themselves as victims who deserve restitution. And, I’ve felt that way so many times.

Since I was bullied and lived in a home with an emotionally abusive stepfather, I believed that the world owed me and, paradoxically, I also found it within my rights to retaliate for the misery “it” caused me. As I blamed the world on the whole, those around me bore the burden of my aggression. For Jay, the truth could’ve (and likely) entailed a union of a sense of entitlement and his diligent efforts, but it’s certain that he believed he would achieve what no one else could: his idealized life. Although his hope was breathtaking on the one hand; it fostered a poignant sense of sorrow in me on the other.

Here was this man, full of talent, ambition, and charm, who decided to throw his life away on a dream. And his plight is akin to that of many of those who solely conceive of themselves to be in a state of victimization. In our world, the cosmos usually only afford the ability to create; they don’t negate. And, Jay used his gifts; he was as great as anyone could be, but the ends never evolved into joy. In conclusion, his downfall could be traced directly to stubbornness. His tale was a cautionary one, not a rags-to-riches success story, at least in my understanding. And, so many of us find ourselves in it.

To accept one’s victimhood isn’t mutually exclusive from the label, survivor. One can even argue that Jay was a survivor, since ambition drove him to recognition and wealth. But, I maintain that his achievements were based more in his trauma than his volition, although both are certainly true. The tale was one of a man trapped in his apparent need to create a life that he couldn’t have, to become the opposite of who he was, to disavow responsibility, to avoid contemplation, and to obsess over a remedy that was pure fantasy. Essentially, a survivor (in the healthy sense) is able to take the trauma and place in context, accepting the reality that she may not be compensated and that she may have to adapt, acknowledging both the brutality and injustice of her victimhood and her creative ability.

The survivor is also the realist. And, that’s what I couldn’t see in Jay and his understanding of his life to be in a state of perpetual progress. Magical thinking often tells that A will lead to B, that if I deserve it, then I’ll get it. I argue that victims always deserve compensation, but expecting it when unavailable can ultimately ravage a life. I didn’t find the fatal flaw in Jay’s hopefulness; if anything, I found it endearing. However, his sense of entitlement, the expectation of a ceaseless climb upward, was the actual murderer. In essence, his trauma won.

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