Thursday, November 29, 2018

Settings: How Writers Can Leverage Traumatically Closed Systems

By Bonnie Randall 

Part of the How They Do It Series (Contributing Author)

Imperium Intra Imperio (Latin): A state within a state.

“Traumatically Closed”. When I teach Violent Threat Risk Assessment for the North American Centre For Threat Assessment & Trauma Response, participants and I spend a significant amount of time discussing and dissecting Traumatically Closed Systems[1].

What is a Traumatically Closed System?

Within a Traumatically Closed System, information is carefully guarded by all members—who will also display a high degree of suspicion of outsiders.

The flow of information in a Traumatically Closed System always follows a ‘top-down’ hierarchy; there will be a formal (or informal) leader at the top, and she or he will decide when and what information will be dispersed ‘below’.

A Traumatically Closed System will never openly discuss past crises or adverse events. And if such an event is ever referred to (or is brought up by a pesky outsider—think Gene Hackman’s character in Mississippi Burning), the Traumatically Closed System will very rapidly do one or all of the following:
  • Redirect conversation a different direction
  • Deny or minimize the event
  • Become openly hostile, standoffish, or stoic
In a Traumatically Closed System, those beneath the leader or leaders have little faith or trust in them—yet will also either have been brainwashed to believe the ‘outside’ has suppressed them…or, perhaps the ‘outside’ really will have oppressed them (ie: First Nations people are a tragic example of this; many feel their Chiefs and councils are corrupt,yet historical maltreatment and abuse prevents them from leaving the system they are in). Therefore, even if they have the internal courage, knowledge, or intuition directing them to break free of their Traumatically Closed System, members will nonetheless feel as if there is nowhere else to go.

And so the carousel keeps on spinning.

Secret-keeping is common—and expected—in Traumatically Closed Systems. Anne Rice crafted her majestic, yet dysfunctional, Mayfair family in The Witching Hour using precisely this premise. The Mayfairs have engaged in breathtakingly depraved crimes. There is even a long-dead body wrapped in a carpet way up in the attic of their magnificent home. And despite all of them (and they are prolific! There are dozens upon dozens of Mayfairs!) knowing full-well every sin…no one ever breathes a word. They do not dare.

People within Traumatically Closed Systems have exceedingly poor conflict resolution skills. Disagreements and contention are seldom managed face-to-face. Instead, underhanded and passive-aggressive methods are employed—and with expectedly unhelpful, and even catastrophic, results. (Ahem—any of you who have ever seen a local community’s ‘Rant & Rave’ page on social media would have borne witness to this. Rest assured, the people who are the biggest, loudest, and most profane keyboard warriors are highly likely immersed in a Traumatically Closed System).

The relationship between people in Traumatically Closed Systems and any ‘helpers’—such as law enforcement, doctors, emergency personnel, counselors—is strained and sometimes even openly combative; to the point where, even when a crisis occurs, a Traumatically Closed System will often not ask for help (“No problem! A tornado just ripped 3 people’s arms off, but WE’RE ALL GOOD HERE!”). Only when a crisis is so massive that it simply cannot be swept under the rug (when the alcoholic father finally shakes the baby to the point of brain-death), will the Traumatically Closed System actually actively seek help. Oh, and, if help is forced upon them? Oh, dear. Then the Traumatically Closed System will have a response that looks like anger, anxiety, resentment, or even sabotage.

After the impact of a crisis—in fact, sometimes immediately after a crisis—the Traumatically Closed System will ‘move on’, and project the visage of being ‘fine’. Any cracks in the veneer of any member of the Traumatically Closed System will be seen as ‘weakness’ and, more importantly, as a threat to the (dysfunctional) integrity of the system. Therefore, folks who breach the protocol of the Traumatically Closed System will be shamed, humiliated, coerced, or even threatened back into toeing the party line.

As in “Nothin’ to see here, folks.”

The range of emotion you will see from people in a Traumatically Closed System will undoubtedly be warped. There will be either a ‘phony cheer’ projecting a Suzy Sunshine happiness to outsiders, or the Traumatically Closed System will wear no mask at all, and be as unwelcoming and hostile to outsiders as it really is. Both vibes are highly dysfunctional, yet also highly effective; this is how a Traumatically Closed Systemkeeps its secrets under lock and key, and also how it keeps outsiders firmly outside—right where the Traumatically Closed System believes they belong.

Why Do Places, People, Towns, and Regions Become Traumatically Closed Systems?

Three factors need to converge in order for a Traumatically Closed System to form. First, and most crucial:

1. There will be a history of unresolved past traumas, or one, massive, unresolved trauma. 

Think a culture or religious group who have experienced attempted genocide. A family with intergenerational incest. A town where there has been a lengthy string of violent homicides.

And then:

2. The system will have a pre-existing, stiff hierarchy—as in a series of militant principals in a school. 

A rabbi, chief, priest, or bishop who has imposed a strict interpretation of spirituality upon believers. A matriarchy or patriarchy who, over generations, has never been questioned and carries ultimate veto-power.

3. Involvement of the ‘outside’ has always—pre-trauma, even—been limited or stunted. 

This can be for a variety of legitimate reasons: perhaps there is a language barrier. Maybe religious dictums have created an us/them dynamic. Harsh geography or remote geography has isolated a community, region, family, or school.

In Summary

Traumatically Closed Systems create difficult—and sometimes impossible—psycho-social barriers to work around. I cannot think of many helping professionals who look forward to trying to infiltrate institutions like these. Yet in fiction, conflict is the name of the game—and the barriers within your stories can be made more deeply authentic by understanding and weaving in the psychology of systems with deep wounds and turbulent, unhealed histories.

Anecdotes, shared examples, and comments welcome as always.



The North American Centre For Threat Assessment & Trauma Response is the forerunner in the identification of individuals who present with the proclivity to inflict violence en masse. In a world where mass shootings—particularly those occurring in schools—have become not just common, but expected, Violent Threat Risk Assessment, as offered and taught by NACTATR,is crucial education for schools, collegiate institutions, and a variety of other organizations.

For more information, and for bookings, please click here.

[1] “Traumatically Closed System” is a term coined by and utilized within the work of J. Kevin Cameron, Executive Director of the North American Centre For Threat Assessment & Trauma Response

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.

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About Divinity & The Python

Divinity - Where deception and desire both hide in the dark...

The Cards Forecast Work

Shaynie Gavin is so much more than the sexy siren who mixes cocktails at The Python. A carpenter with a business plan, Shaynie is trying to amass enough funds to launch her own dream - Divinity, a place where up-cycled furniture from the past is sold alongside Tarot readings forecasting the future - and all in a setting that could not be more perfect: a former funeral parlor. Shaynie's belief that Divinity is attuned with the passions, the loves, and even the lies of its departed souls, allow her to feel satisfied when the cards she draws there reveal Wands, the Tarot's symbol for work. And yet...Shaynie would be so grateful if the Tarot would also, just once, illuminate a Hellnight from her past. A lost evening whose scars still slither over her skin, Hellnight haunts Shaynie. Yet when she calls the question of that chilling evening into her deck...

The Cards Forecast Love

...and love appears in the form of pro hockey star Cameron Weste. Weste is haunted by scars and superstitions of his own, and he wants Shaynie's Tarot to answer far deeper questions than she first guesses this sexy Lothario to be capable of. Who knew Weste was this intense? The Tarot, apparently. And yet...

The Cards Forecast The Devil

When Cameron Weste lands in her life, a stalker surfaces too, dropping clues to a connection between Shaynie, Cameron, and her lost, brutal Hellnight. Suddenly every card warns of deception, and nowhere feels safe. Shaynie and Cameron have to fight for their love - and their lives - as The Devil, their stalker, is determined to turn the Death Card for them both.


  1. I've never heard of traumatically closed systems and this was a great read as to the psychology behind Anne Rice's Mayfair witches, which still is my favorite trilogy.

    1. Thanks, Penny
      The Mayfair trilogy is my favourite too!

  2. WOW. This was an eye-opening post that's made me rethink entire sections of my worldbuilding. GREAT read!

    1. I am glad you found it helpful, Christina