The best trauma narrative I know is Aftermath

fear-1131143_1280The best trauma narrative I know is Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of the Self, by Susan Brison.  It’s an account of her rape and attempted murder.  I call it the best trauma narrative because it combines philosophy, trauma theory, and narrative.  Alice Sebold’s Lucky, probably the most well known rape narrative (reviewed in this blog), is better written, and makes a more compelling story.  But Susan Brison is a distinguished philosopher, and she approaches her trauma, and trauma theory in general, from a perspective that combines philosophy and experience.    

Actually, Brison doesn’t think being a philosopher did her much good.  Rape and trauma challenge philosophy because they reveal how embodied we all are.  Before we are minds, even before we are body-minds, we are body.  Philosophy is generally not comfortable with bodies.  Philosophy is practiced by questioning the obvious, asking questions such as “what is time?”  But when confronted with an experience that is overwhelmingly obvious, her rape and near murder, Brison found no comfort in philosophy. 

But now, when I was confronted with the utterly strange and paradoxical, philosophy was of no use. (p. x)


Brison is good but wrong

Brison is good because her philosophical training leads her to question many of the axioms of trauma theory, such as Cathy Caruth’s claim that traumatic experience is marked by the absence of the victim, who acts out but does not remember what happened to her.  “The missing witness” it is called by Caruth, Shoshana Felman, Dori Laub, and Bessel van der Kolk. 

Where Brison goes wrong is in her over estimation of testimony. 

In this book I explore the performative aspect of speech in testimonies of trauma: how saying something about the memory does something to it. (p. x)

Ironic is that those she criticizes do the same thing, imagining that “testimony” is healing.  Laub is probably the most energetic exponent of this view, but it is shared by many.

The problem isn’t the missing witness, but the missing listener

Missing in most cases is not the witness, but the conscientious listener.  A survivor can know her own trauma without others to hear it, but healing takes place when someone listens carefully, over and over and over again.  Conversation is should be called. 

When I hear the word “testimony” in reference to trauma, I almost always think first of the witness box at a trial.  Much trauma testimony has the quality, in which the traumatized one speaks for a couple of hours, someone else listens and asks some questions, and then they both go home, never to meet again. 

An understanding listener will be present tomorrow and the days after that.  It’s not the narrative that heals, it’s the relationship with the people who listen, ask questions, make small talk when necessary, while remaining a trusted and reliable presence.  It is the attachment to this trusted presence who is willing to hear the unspeakable that heals. When it does. 

Trauma testimonies undo the effect of the very violence they describe. (p. 72)

No, a relationship with someone who cares and listens to the victim’s testimony over and over again heals.  

One might argue that mine is just an extension of the claim that trauma cannot be told unless there is someone there to listen.  Or as Brison puts it,

It’s essential to talk about it, again and again. It’s a way of remastering the trauma, although it can be retraumatizing when people refuse to listen. In my case, each time someone failed to respond I felt as though I were alone again in the ravine, dying, screaming. And still no one could hear me. Or, worse, they heard me, but refused to help. (p 16)

It is this need for listeners that Caruth, Laub, and van der Kolk confuse with the missing witness, who was not present at his own trauma (but retains a camera-like image of it in his unconscious, which causes symptoms).  The problem isn’t the missing witness.  It’s the missing listener.

Dori Laub refers to an implicit “contract” between the interviewer and the witness.

For this limited time, throughout the duration of the testimony, I’ll be with you all the way, as much as I can.  I want to go wherever you go, and I’ll hold and protect you along this journey.  Then, at the end of the journey, I shall leave you. (p. 70)

In reality, this means that Laub will carefully listen to someone testify for a couple of hours and then say goodbye, never to see that person again.  Laub’s statement is in a well-known book on trauma and testimony, subtitled Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History.  I think it should be subtitled Crises of Listening . . . . 

Laub is not being truthful with his witnesses, survivors of the Holocaust.  He’s not going to be there when they need him, which is generally not when they are testifying, but when they begin to come to terms with what they have said.  That is actually the most difficult part of the journey.  Several witnesses who have testified twice agree (Daniel T-153, T-978; compare also the repeat interviews of Max B., T-94, T-1126; and Lorna B. T-94, T-1126).  The missing witness is actually the missing listener, someone who continues to care. 

Listening and love

The living body is a loving body, and the loving body is a speaking body.  Without love we are nothing but walking corpses.  Love is essential to the living body, and it is essential in bringing the living body to life in language.  (Oliver, xxv)

Listening well and carefully, being present and available over some period of time–that too is a type of love.  It can be given by a friend, a spouse, a support group, or a therapist.    Laub is talking about a quickie.

The unspeakable

One reason that terrible trauma testimonies go missing is because we really don’t want to hear them.  So instead of saying “I just can’t listen to any more of this,” we say “your experience was unspeakable.”  Paul Fussell has it just right when he says

There is no reason why the English language could not perfectly well render the actuality of… warfare: it is rich in terms like blood, terror, agony, madness, shit, cruelty, murder, sell-out and hoax, as well as phrases like legs blown off, intestines gushing out over his hands, screaming all night, bleeding to death from the rectum, and the like …. What listener wants to be torn and shaken when he doesn’t have to be?  We have made unspeakable mean indescribable: it really means nasty. (pp. 169– 170)

Of course, sometimes the traumatized say that their experiences are indescribable.  Sometimes they say this when they don’t want to talk about it.  Other times when they are afraid no one will really listen, an experience familiar to many.  Primo Levi became an admired narrator of the Holocaust because he wrote such limpid prose, all nastiness removed.  Perhaps he removed too much.  Perhaps it killed him (Levi committed suicide). 


Brison opens her book by saying philosophy didn’t help.  But not all philosophers are like Bertrand Russell, who thought that philosophy should aim at a god-like view, free of the “accidents of private history.” (p. 160) 

Albert Camus thought philosophy was about the meaning of life.  Not life in general, but your life and mine. 

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.  Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. (p. 3)

Brison answered this question with her life.  And with new life.  She seems to have fully returned to life only with the birth of her first child, four years after her rape and near murder.  One year later her brother committed suicide, driving off the top floor of a parking garage.  “The universe didn’t catch him,” she says dryly (p. 113).  The universe never does, but sometimes people do.    

Severe trauma is an accident of private history, even if it takes place within a world historical context, such as war.  But finding meaning and purpose in life is not a private act.  It requires others who care enough to listen.  There are many levels of listening, many layers of caring.  But in showing how much we need others to make sense of our lives, trauma makes mincemeat of a philosophy like Russell’s.  That is, most philosophy, or at least most Anglo-American philosophy.     

Note: I was introduced to Brison’s book by Henry Greenspan, author of On Listening to Holocaust Survivors (see previous post).  My experience with Holocaust testimony is based on viewing several hundred hours of Holocaust testimony in the Fortunoff Video Archive at Yale University from 2007-2014.  I’m not unaware of the irony that Dori Laub, who I criticize, co-founded the Fortunoff Archive, where I have learned so much.  I’ve also listened to the earliest Holocaust testimonies, taken by David Boder in 1945.  The T-xxxx reference to witness testimony is that of the Archive.


C. Fred Alford, What if the Holocaust had no name? [on David Boder] In Holocaust Studies: A Journal of Culture and History, vol. 15, no. 3 (2009), 71-94. 

Susan Brison, Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self.  Princeton UP, 2002.

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays.  NY: Vintage, 1955.

Henry Greenspan, On Listening to Holocaust Survivors: Beyond Testimony, 2nd revised and expanded edition.  St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2010. 

Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford UP, 1975.

Dori Laub, Bearing witness.  In Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (57-74). New York: Routledge, 1992.

Kelly Oliver, Introduction: Kristeva’s revolutions. In The Portable Kristeva, ed. Oliver.  New York: Columbia UP, 2002.

Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy.  New York: Oxford UP, 1969.   


Comments (2)

  1. Emma

    “Severe trauma is an accident of private history, even if it takes place within a world historical context, such as war. But finding meaning and purpose in life is not a private act. It requires others who care enough to listen. There are many levels of listening, many layers of caring. But in showing how much we need others to make sense of our lives, trauma makes mincemeat of a philosophy”

    Very well put. Thank you.

  2. I have never heard anyone say before that terrible experiences are called indescribable when they could be described but people don’t want to say it or hear it.I think it’s a very good point.It is a more powerful version of how people here avoid the bereaved.They say that they do it because they don’t know what to say to them but you don’t need say much,you may need to listen or they may just want a friendly smile or greeting.I think we are afraid of our own feelings of sadness being stirred up.Then we saw Princess Diana’s death when British people let out all their sadness.

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