Cathy Caruth drives me crazy, thoughts while reading Caruth’s Listening to Trauma, conversations with leading trauma theorists.

IMG_2110,superliquidCathy Caruth drives me crazy because she glorifies the person who listens to the traumatized, making it seem as if though the listener to trauma is playing a heroic role: willingly becoming traumatized so that the truly traumatized person can testify. Dori Laub, child survivor, psychiatrist, and co-founder of the Fortunoff Archive for Holocaust Testimony at Yale University, is her co-conspirator.

Cathy Caruth is a big deal in trauma theory, probably the single most important person working at the intersection of literary theory and trauma theory, though Shoshana Felman should receive honorable mention. They share a lot, as the conversation between them published in Caruth’s recent Listening to Trauma: Conversations with Leaders in the Theory and Treatment of Catastrophic Experience, reveals. Together, along with people such as Geoffrey Hartman, also a co-founder of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony at Yale (and also interviewed by Caruth), they have helped transform testimony into an important literary genre.

Where Caruth goes wrong

Consider Caruth’s conversation with Robert Jay Lifton in Listening to Trauma: Conversations. Trying to summarize Lifton, Caruth says “there’s a double survivor situation, but a survivor and a proxy survivor, and it’s the meeting of those two that constitutes the witness.” (p. 18)

No! There is only one witness, and one listener. Together they do not make a witness. They make a team, one who tells the story and one who listens.

Lifton gets it right, agreeing that while the listener could be called a “survivor by proxy,” it’s the term “proxy” that should be emphasized.

The proxy’s important. You’re not doing what they did, you’re not exposed to what they were exposed to, but you must take your mind through, take your feelings through, what they went through and allow that in . . . . It’s an encounter, it’s an encounter and a dialogue. (p. 18)

Lifton is talking about an exchange between two separate people with entirely different experiences. It takes two people to have a dialogue, but only one to experience the trauma.

Dori Laub only makes it worse, stating in Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, co-authored with Shoshana Felman, that

One might say that there was, thus, historically no witness to the Holocaust, either from outside or from inside the event. (p. 81)

What is true is that certain things, like climbing out of a pile of corpses, are so overwhelming that they can’t ever be fully shared. But no experience can be fully shared, even good ones, if by shared one means something like the communication of the same experience. Communicating experience, if the other is a willing listener, is like a translation from one language to another. It’s never perfect, and it requires not only a sensitive listener, but one who is willing and able to receive the feeling-tone of the communication, including horror.

Caruth: And you speak about the listener having to be in the place of the survivor’s trauma, “waiting for her there.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

Laub: The Gestalt [shape] of the testimony isn’t simply there [prior to the listening], in the form of a record. I compare this act of listening to the work of a midwife. The listener to testimony is in a way like a midwife. He imagines the baby coming.

Caruth: So are you saying that, as a listener, you make possible the testimony by imagining it taking place? Does your imagination, then, make that place that isn’t yet there?

Laub: Yes. (p. 57)

Not only is this not true, but Laub has already contradicted himself, referring earlier to one of the first recorded interviews with a Holocaust survivor, conducted by David Boder in 1946. There he finds a push to testify, a desire to tell the story no matter how obtuse the interviewer. “I remember listening to his taped testimony, and already in 1946 he was able to give a full narrative.” (p. 50)

Boder’s work is not well known. In listening to the dozens of interviews he conducted (all are available at:, I was struck by how ill-prepared Boder was for his interviews, asking if those who were shot by the Nazis had first been given a military trial. He does not even know how to spell Auschwitz, or where it is located. Boder was not alone in his unpreparedness, however.

What is odd about the Boder interviews is how unsupportive he was, in part because of his ignorance, in part because Boder was trying to be “objective,” taking his seat behind the interviewee and so forth. Nevertheless, the fact that Boder was unable to meet the witness half-way hardly mattered. The pressure to tell was intense, and most survivors told narratively well-developed stories. (See my essay on the Boder interviews in the references.)

Why Laub and Caruth exaggerate the role of the listener

Why does Laub remains caught in the grip of this idea, “an event without a witness”? I think it’s part of an intellectual tendency in literary studies, in which only the most extreme formulation gets listened to, whether or not in makes sense. Or rather, only the extreme formulation gets listened to, especially if it doesn’t make sense. I blame it on the influence of Foucault on everybody. Who can resist statements such as “man did not exist” before the modern era? What Foucault seems to mean is that a certain idea of man as a Kantian transcendental subject did not exist, but the qualifications come later. It’s the literary and philosophical version of the teaser headline.

Why does Caruth remain caught in the grip of the idea that those who listen to the severely traumatized also suffer trauma? I think it reflects her desire to share in the trauma, to be part of the action. In this regard she represents another undesirable attribute of contemporary literary criticism, the desire to substitute the critic for the text. Equating criticism with the creative act is not so different from imaging that one who reads about or listens to trauma is as important as the victim who is traumatized. It’s not true.

What Laub gets right

This does not mean that listening is an easy task, or that listening isn’t important. Laub’s suggestion that listening to extreme trauma invokes what Freud called the death drive (Todestrieb), which seeks to annihilate all experience, is not absurd.

Not knowing trauma or experiencing or remembering it in a dissociative way is not a passive shutdown of perception or of memory. Not knowing is rather an active, persistent, violent refusal; an erasure, a destruction of form and of representation. The fundamental essence of the death instinct, the instinct that destroys all psychic structure is apparent in this phenomenon. . . . The death drive is against knowing and against the developing of knowledge and elaborating [it]. (pp. 59-60)

Laub is referring to traumatized people, but Caruth immediately grasps that this applies equally well to those who listen, and is evident in such simple acts as not being curious (p. 61).

There are real barriers to communicating trauma, both within the traumatized person, as well as within the listener. My objection is only to what I consider an extreme formulation of the problem: that the listener makes the traumatic experience possible (knowable), and does so by becoming traumatized him or herself.


It is hard to listen to the victims of extreme trauma, and so we shut ourselves off. Not being curious is a leading strategy. In a sense we make the testimony possible by being willing to listen, for without listeners there could be no testimony. But we should not congratulate ourselves either. Those who testify to trauma have already done the hard work on their own.


C. Fred Alford, “What if the Holocaust Had No Name?” Holocaust Studies: A Journal of Culture and History, vol. 15, no. 3 (2009): 71-94.

Cathy Caruth, Listening to Trauma: Conversations with Leaders in the Theory and Treatment of Catastrophic Experience. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. Routledge, 1992.

Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Vintage, 1994.


Comments (5)

  1. Vic Martin

    I have a question that is not directly related but here goes: In this instance of trauma discussed here, you are talking about specific trauma that is corroborated by the historical record and/or by other external witnesses. In this case, the victim _can_ produce a coherent, accurate narrative of the thing that caused the trauma. But what about other types of subtle trauma, like you mentioned in another post? The sort that narcissistic parenting can cause, for example, that almost kills the deep self? The “I don’t see you unless you are doing the things I want” thing. Or really, any trauma that is so subtle, or insidious and hidden that the victim either does not realize it was/is happening, or, if they suspect, they can get no external validation because it’s not obvious, or the tormentor hides it or is not aware themselves? I’m curious what the process is for those victims who are _not_ able to provide their narrative. Does your analysis deal only with the original definition of PTSD, that it is for a specific war or natural disaster trauma? Something “out there,” historical, and easily verifiable in the public record so to speak? So that the patient has objective confirmation that “no, this is not all in your head.” Not sure if my question is clear enough because I’m not sure exactly what I’m trying to get at! Thanks for the blog and for the works cited sections too.


      Dear Vic, take a look at my last two posts in July, the one on DESNOS,, and the other on How trauma works: by destroying the inner other,

      I think you’re right and it’s pretty clear that there are different types of trauma, and that PTSD simply doesn’t capture them all. The new category of chronic PTSD (C-PTSD), officially included in the ICD-11 (the DSM for the rest of the world) comes closer to the type of trauma you are writing about, people who are traumatized before they even know they are people. Children mostly. In this case there is no witness, and the problem, as I argue in my post on “How trauma works,” is to develop and have access to an inner other. I think the inner other is a concept that unites PTSD as well as the earlier, less specific traumas you write about, the ones C-PTSD tries to capture, but not very well.

      So, in a sense, the reassurance “no, it’s not all in your head” is ironic. It’s true, C-PTSD trauma comes from subtle failures in attachment and attunement, the kind that Winnicott writes about for example. In that sense it’s relational, but the relation is so subtle as to be almost invisible. And yet, in another sense the cure is in the traumatized person’s head, in his or her ability to access the inner other. Which can only work when there is a real relationship to build on. Even a bad relationship is better than no relationship at all

      Glad you like the References section. I’m never sure if anyone cares about that. Fred

      • wen

        Hi Fred, I love your blog and am spreading it on social media. Im going to read Winnicott. I often feel more mainstream trauma theory doesnt help me grasp my CPTSD. Its to me like looking at it from psychoanalytic perspective gives me a sort of structure and validation. I think most important, for me personally, is that CPTSD is a disrupture in my sense of existence. That I exist. That Im here. But I feel I cannot be here for all kinds of reasons I lost connection with. But some things you write touch on that and voila, I feel connection to myself comes back, if even for a few minutes. Thanks for having created your site.


          Dear Wen, thanks for your comment. You know, I think not just Caruth, but so much trauma theory and therapy, led by the Veterans Administration, still thinks of trauma as a single event. Sometimes it’s an implicit assumption, directed by the desire for quick therapies. I would say the most important advance in trauma theory is C-PTSD, and the idea that trauma is an experience that may unfold over years. Psychoanalysis is more helpful in thinking about trauma this way, or at least Winnicott’s psychoanalysis is. Glad my blog was helpful to you. Fred

  2. Andrew Bailey Paul

    is there more info on specifying dissociation, or alternative explanations? I mean, dissociation of what? not experience from perception or memory, like you quote. but also the “Not knowing” as “rather an active, persistent, violent refusal; an erasure, a destruction of form and of representation” feels uninclusive. When your experience feels highly studied (in your experiences and in the nature of trauma and the traumatic natures of life) but memories still intrude, is the dissociation then of life from spiritedness, consistent aliveness, social tolerance, activity tolerance?, rather than mind from body? The role of emotions after trauma origins also trouble me. After considering plausible emotions, sometimes in a parts/IFS way, are they dissociated?

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