Tori Amos and Religious Trauma Syndrome

Songwriting is a frequent medium for the therapeutic expression of inner psychological struggles. Singer/songwriter Tori Amos has been one of the most open musical artists about her therapeutic grappling with past traumatic experiences in her life. Her song, “Me and a Gun,” is perhaps her best-known example, a vivid portrayal of a rape early in her career. The song depicts not only the harrowing experience itself, but also the thoughts that went through her mind as survival instincts set in. The lyric, “But I haven’t seen Barbados so I must get out of this,” is repeated throughout the song, as Amos used that as a thread of hope during this traumatic experience.

Amos’s often caustic relationship with her religious past is another traumatic experience frequently portrayed in her music. Examples include ‘Crucify,’ ‘God,’ ‘Abnormally Attracted to Sin,’ ‘Devils and Gods,’ ‘Original Sinsuality’ and ‘Icicle.’ These songs and others vary in how much they grapple with religion directly, but many of them specifically address combinations of religion, sexuality, and mental health. While many people experience religion as a source of comfort and consolation from the wiles of life’s dark moments, many others have also had less than ideal, even traumatic experiences in their religious backgrounds. Amos’s musical setting of religious topics in her music certainly leans strongly toward the latter.

Two songs from her 1994 album, Under the Pink, are particularly direct. ‘God’ notes that sometimes “God just doesn’t come through.” ‘Icicle’ describes an experience during a church service in which Amos wrestles with her innate sexual desires and the church’s restrictions on those desires. In this song, she portrays this struggle as “the monster” and uses images of a “hiding place” as a means of escape. A particularly strong instrumental introduction to the song presents the hymn, “O, For A Thousand Tongues to Sing,” framed by accented, dissonant chords that ultimately dissolve into an equally dissonant, contrapuntal transition into the main body of the song. This hymn is notable as it is the first hymn in the United Methodist hymnal, the denomination in which Amos’s father was a minster. Amos’s setting of the hymn portrays a dark inner psychological struggle between religion and sexuality. The dissonant textures that surround the hymn portray a since of internal turmoil rather than the inner peace often associated with sung worship experiences.

It should be noted that such religious struggles do have ramifications for an individual’s psychological health. The following is not intended to diagnose or ascribe any condition to Tori Amos in any way. I am neither qualified nor able to make such an assertion. Rather, it is simply provided to note that many people do indeed struggle in deep psychological ways with their religious past and that this struggle is increasingly recognized within the fields of psychology, psychiatry, and psychoanalysis. The term, Religious Trauma Syndrome, was first put forward by Marline Winell in a series of 2011 articles for the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies. Wortmann, Park, and Edmonsdson have found links between spiritual struggles and PTSD symptoms. (Wortmann, Park, and Edmonson, 2011) They note that “spiritual struggle has been linked to PTSD symptoms in a variety of trauma-exposed samples.” (Wortman, et al., 2011, 444) The most current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V, published in 2013 by the American Psychiatric Association, lists “Religious or Spiritual Problem” in the category “Problems Related to Other Psychosocial, Personal, and Environmental Circumstances.” It should be noted that it does not fully recognize Winell’s Religious Trauma Syndrome as a mental disorder. Rather, it lists a similar description under “conditions and problems that may be a focus of clinical attention or that may otherwise affect the diagnosis, course, prognosis, or treatment of a patient’s mental disorder.” It does grant a certain amount of weight to such conditions, noting, “a condition or problem in this chapter may be coded if it is a reason for the current visit or helps to explain the need for a test, procedure, or treatment.” (DSM V, 715) Regarding religious or spiritual problems in particular, it states, “This category can be used when the focus of clinical attention is a religious or spiritual problem. Examples include distressing experiences that involve loss or questioning of faith, problems associated with conversion to a new faith, or questioning of spiritual values that may not necessarily be related to an organized church or religious institution.” (DSM V, 725, V62.89) Len Sperry notes that “the wording of this code was based on research reviewed prior to 1991.” He advises, “Recommendations for changes in the DSM-5 V code have been made based on updated research…. Even though the DSM-5 does not incorporate these recommended changes, the suggested changes can be particularly useful to psychiatrists and other mental health professionals who deal with patients presenting with spiritual and religious concerns.” (Sperry 2018, 61) It seems that musicians, the psychological professions, and society as a whole are certainly becoming more open to the importance of this type of trauma and its psychological repercussions.

–Nathan Fleshner, Assistant Professor of Music Theory, University of Tennessee, USA

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. 2013. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Sperry, Len. 2018. “Spiritual and Religious Concerns Presenting in Psychiatric Treatment.” Ethical Considerations at the Intersection of Psychiatry and Religion. Edited by John R. Peteet, Mary Lynn Dell, and Wai Lun Alan Fung. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 60-73.

Winell, Marlene. May 2011. “Religious Trauma Syndrome: It’s Time to Recognize It.” Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Today, Vol. 39, No. 2: 16-18.

Winell, Marlene. September 2011. “Understanding Religious Trauma Syndrome.” Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Today, Vol. 39, No. 3: 23-25.

Winell, Marlene. November 2011. “Trauma from Leaving Religion.” Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Today, Vol. 39, No. 4: 18-20.

Wortmann, Jennifer H., Crystal L. Park, and Donald Edmondson. 2011. “Trauma and PTSD Symptoms: Does Spiritual Struggle Mediate the Link?” Psychological Trauma. Vol. 3, No. 4: 442-452.

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