Does Trauma Have a Race?

Conceptualizing Trauma and the “Return to Equilibrium” through Imperialism and Impermeability in World War I France

in Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques
Katherine E. J. Ellis Researcher, Pennsylvania State University, USA

Search for other papers by Katherine E. J. Ellis in
Current site
Google Scholar
Restricted access


The task of theorizing and “curing” psychological trauma posed an unprecedented challenge to Western medicine during World War I. In this article, I analyze linguistic and thematic patterns across influential French medical journal publications (1914–1919) to elucidate the dominant medical model of psychological trauma in white men. My approach highlights the centrality of la volonté (“willpower”), historically a critical aspect of Western masculinity, to experts’ conceptualization of trauma itself. I expand this analysis to consider key differences between the model of trauma in white men and the so-called “facsimiles of pathology” in North African soldiers. This comparative analysis illuminates a larger cultural schema of the healthy (white, masculine) self as discrete, sovereign, impermeable, and “justified” in its occupation of colonial spaces.

Contributor Notes

Katherine E. J. Ellis received a dual-title PhD in French and Francophone Studies and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from the Pennsylvania State University. Her research engages the history of Western psychiatry, literary and social representations of mental illness, and women's, masculinities, and visual cultural studies. Email:

  • Collapse
  • Expand