Dickinson’s Legacy is Incomplete Without Discussing Trauma


In this piece for The Establishment, physician Isabel C. Legarda explores the possibility that the poet Emily Dickinson may have been a survivor of sexual violence.

“Absent the discovery of a secret drawer or floor board stuffed with confessional prose by Emily Dickinson, we will likely never know the exact source of possible trauma. Viewed through the lens of medicine, however, her known writings provide compelling evidence that this trauma arose from sexual assault, and I believe it’s important to consider this possibility not only as a matter of medical and historical honesty, but also for the sake of justice and human connection. Openness to such a tragic consideration potentially allows her poems to function as a salve and source of hope for survivors of such abuse.

To those who think, ‘Who cares?’ I say Emily’s truth matters. Today, over 130 years after her death, women and the atrocities they suffer are still dismissed, diminished, disbelieved, denied, silenced, or scoffed at. The lasting power of Emily’s writing is power taken back, albeit in cipher and secrecy, transforming the poet into a prophet — a mouthpiece — for women across time, even if she felt silenced in her own time.”

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  1. Victorian austerity (the secret of power of preliberated woman) meets trauma theory excess (womanhood as hated man survival), and the two find themselves in an estranged, if invalid, marriage, in a twisted sort of contorted mirror fashion. Emily Dickinson’s verse was so hermetic that you can find all sorts of things in it that aren’t there, including the sort of complete rubbish we read in the piece described above.

  2. Frank, while the interpretation offered here seems compelling to me I’m very interested in hearing why it may not be right. Could you perhaps offer something a little clearer in your crititique of what you call “rubbish”? You know, you gotta fight fire with water, not more fire. Right?

  3. I’m not out to pathologize Emily Dickinson any more than I would be out to pathologize Henry David Thoreau. I think that, in a sense, is what we get, in this instance, from trauma theory. I would prefer to think we were dealing more with human beings than with their traumas. I don’t think pinning a psychiatric label on a person makes them particularly more admirable. In my view, trauma theory would do just that, in this instance, to the likes of Emily Dickinson. I don’t look on distinguished historical figures as damaged goods as a matter of principle.