Dori Laub has a bad trauma theory, but he has still made a contribution

Dori Laub has a bad trauma theory, but he has still made a contribution.

Laub concludes an autobiographical essay, “On leaving home and the flight from trauma,” with the following lines.

Perhaps it is only through resisting the temptation and the pressures of becoming the same that he [the therapist] can listen to the patients as they really are, without succumbing to the generalizing effects of theory and the homogenizing produced by fashion and by political correctness. (2013a, pp 579-580)

Laub has adopted some of the most fashionable theories of trauma.  At the same time, it is hard to imagine that he is not a good therapist to the traumatized.  I conclude this from the way he writes about his patients, as well as having seen him interview survivors for the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony at Yale University.

The missing witness

Laub argues that Cathy Caruth’s (1996) concept of the missing witness is helpful in understanding the experience of massive trauma.  “At the moment the trauma occurred, the person who was affected was not there to experience it,” says Laub (2013b, p 188;   See too Laub, 1995).  There is, or at least was, no more fashionable explanation of trauma than this.

As Ruth Leys (2010) put it,

In the case of Caruth the same argument takes the deconstructive form of claiming that the aporia or gap in consciousness and representation that . . . characterizes the victim’s traumatic experience stands for the materiality of the signifier in [Paul] de Man’s sense, that ‘moment’ of materiality that simultaneously belongs to language but is aporetically cut off from the speech act of signification or meaning.  (p 666)

In other words, a literary theory that says the text can never signify the thing to which it refers is transformed, by Caruth and others, such as Shoshana Felman, into a claim that massive trauma cannot be known when it is experienced. 

What if we put it the other way around?  The traumatized person was so overwhelmingly present that the experience was unbearable, requiring dissociative defenses.  This makes just as much sense.  The difference is that the traumatized person becomes the authority over his or her own experience.  This is contrary to Laub’s claim that “the listener (or the interviewer) becomes the Holocaust witness before the narrator does.” (1992a, p 85, his italics).  The result is to imply an elevation of the listener over the witness, as though the listener already knows, as though the listener must suffer too. 

By extension, the listener to trauma comes to be a participant and co-owner of the traumatic event: through his very listening, he comes to partially experience trauma in himself. (1992b, p 57) 

This is common in trauma theory, and I have referred to it in previous posts.

Laub is a special case

The difference between Laub and others who make this claim is that Laub spent two years as a child in a Nazi Concentration Camp, and many years in psychoanalysis.  He does, at least in a general sense, know what comes next.  Trouble is, trauma isn’t general; it’s specific, and the individual witness is the authority. 

The death drive operating within

Laub’s leading argument, which runs through several of his essays, is that the death instinct dismantles the ability of the witness to remember, know, and assimilate experience because trauma activates the death drive.* (Laub, 2003, p 439; 2011).  This reflects the desire of the severely traumatized to seek a state of emptiness and obliteration, an imitation of death in life. 

When the “earlier state of things” is chaotic or traumatic, the urge to restore also functions as a force of traumatic repetition: the death instinct becomes a compulsion to reproduce that very experience of chaos and trauma.  (2003, p 435)

As an example, Laub (2003) refers to of Bessie K., who could hardly remember that her baby was taken by a guard at selection.  In this woman’s testimony, as in other survivor accounts, the pull to “know nothing” is explicitly connected to the sense of being dead.

The death instinct is perhaps the only explanation possible for such an extreme and total obliteration of memory, of truth, and of self. (pp 444-445)

Were the topic not so serious this would be just silly.  Lots of explanations for Bessie’s failure to remember at the time are possible.  I imagine that extreme dissociation in the service of Bessie’s continued life is the explanation, having viewed her testimony in the Fortunoff Archive (accession number: HVT 206).  But it is hard to know for sure.  Certainly the death instinct is not “the only explanation.”

The death drive and trauma theory

The great contribution of trauma theory to psychoanalysis is to remind us that the obliterating experience comes from the outside.  The symptoms and defenses against trauma, usually dissociative in nature, are defenses against a real unbearable experience.  To make the death drive the explanation for traumatic amnesia is to make the victim responsible for his own trauma, as in “he’s not traumatized because something terrible happened; he’s traumatized because he is directing his own death drive against the experience.”  It makes a difference.  It would be well to remember the original meaning of trauma in physical medicine, in which trauma refers to the blow from without (as in “blunt force trauma”), not the defense within

Laub isn’t the only trauma theorist to use the death drive in this way.  Melanie Klein saw trauma as the activation of the death drive within, and Hanna Segal seems to have inspired Laub.  Laub quotes Segal.

The “drive to annihilate the need, to annihilate the perceiving, experiencing self, as well as anything that is perceived,” seems to be unleashed through trauma. (Laub, 2003, p 437; Segal, 1997, p 18)

In other words, massive trauma leads to the desire to obliterate the perceiving self, so unbearable is the experience.  An alternative explanation, that dissociation serves life until it is safe to live again, not only seems more likely, but it respects the victim of trauma more.  I think D. W. Winnicott would have preferred this explanation.

Testimony as therapy

Dori Laub co-founded what became the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony.  I’ve seen him interview several survivors, and he is sensitive and skilled.  This is partly why it makes no sense that he repeatedly claims that testifying is therapeutic.  Consider the last line of “Reestablishing the internal `Thou’ in testimony of trauma.”

Thus testimony has a therapeutic effect because it allows the survivor both to recover the memory of the past and to live more fully in the present. (Laub, 2013b, p 197)

Nothing in the article supports the “thus.”  Nothing could.  Anyone who works with survivors of massive trauma knows that it takes months if not years to build up a basic trust between therapist and patient.  Nothing in giving testimony resembles “a brief treatment contract.” (Laub, 1992b, p 70)  In writing about the efficacy of psychoanalysis in the treatment of trauma, Laub says

both parties have to pass a mutual test of safety: they have to prove to each other that they are stable and strong enough to affirm the reality of the terror of the extermination camps . . . It is only then that the survivor is enabled to surrender himself to the psychoanalytic process. (Laub, 1992b, pp 69-70)

It is unimaginable that this could take place in one two hour interview.     

Why does Laub claim that witnessing is therapy?  I have a theory, but only a theory.   Several survivors who were reinterviewed years later said that the original interview was traumatic, that it released something in them that they didn’t know how to handle (Alford, pp 83-84).  My theory is that Laub knows this and wants to deny it.  In other words, he fears that a single interview may recall terrors that can’t readily be put back in the box.  Claiming the interview is like therapy avoids this conclusion.      


Laub’s great contribution to trauma theory was first to co-found the Archive of Holocaust testimony, and second the use of the open-ended interview, whose inspiration seems to been psychoanalytic.  For me, and for many others, such as Lawrence Langer (1991), the Fortunoff Video Archive is a primary source of testimony about massive trauma.  The Archive also serves the purpose of historical documentation.  The Holocaust isn’t just about the terrible things that happened.  It is best understood, in many respects, by those who suffered it.

Something happened between testimony, therapy, and theory.  I blame the influence of people like Shoshana Felman (with whom Laub co-authored a book) and Cathy Caruth, who treat trauma testimony as though it were a literary text to be deconstructed.  But, perhaps this isn’t fair.  All I really know is that Laub’s trauma theory doesn’t do justice to the contribution he has made. 

*Instinct is the term Laub uses; Freud used the term Todestrieb, or death drive.


C. Fred Alford, 2009.  After the Holocaust.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Cathy Caruth, 1996. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lawrence Langer, 1991.  Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.  

Dori Laub, 1992a.  An event without a witness: truth, testimony and survival.  In Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub.  New York: Routledge, 75-92.

Dori Laub, 1992b.  Bearing witness, or the vicissitudes of listening.  In Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub.  New York: Routledge, 57-74.

Dori Laub, 1995.  Truth and testimony: the process and the struggle.  In Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 61-75.

Dori Laub and Susanna Lee, 2003.  Thanatos and massive psychic trauma: the impact of the death instinct on knowing, remembering, and forgetting. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 51 (2): 433-464.

Dori Laub, 2011. Traumatic shutdown of narrative and symbolization: a death instinct derivative? In Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma Across Generations, ed. M. Gerard Fromm.  London: Karnac Books.

Dori Laub, 2013a.  On leaving home and the flight from trauma.  Psychoanalytic Dialogues 23:5, 568-580, DOI: 10.1080/10481885.2013.832602 

Dori Laub, 2013b.  Reestablishing the internal “thou” in testimony of traumaPsychoanalysis, Culture & Society 18: 184–198. doi:10.1057/pcs.2013.1

Ruth Leys, 2010.  Navigating the genealogies of trauma, guilt, and affect: an interview with Ruth Leys. University of Toronto Quarterly, 79 (2): 656-679. 

Hanna Segal, 1997.  On the clinical usefulness of the concept of the death instinct.  In Segal, Psychoanalysis, Literature, and War: Papers 1972-1995.  New York: Routledge, 17-26.   



Comments (4)

  1. Kinika

    Wonderful review. Could you please suggest some more books on trauma theory? Some of the best books that contain in-depth concepts of trauma theory.


      Kinika, sorry to take so long to respond, or if I did I can’t find it. Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery is among the most well regarded books, even if a little dated. Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score involves more neuroscience, but is aimed at non-experts. For a review and development of the themes in this blog, you might read Trauma, Culture, and PTSD by me. But Herman and van der Kolk are the heavyweights. Regard, Fred

  2. Mary Marshall Clark

    I disagree with your conclusion that Dori Laub’s ‘bad theory’ was the result of a focus on the death instinct. And death. On this, the day of Dori’s passing, it seems important to offer an alternative perspective.
    Some years ago I wrote an article based on an oral history interview I did with Dori, including insights from my reading of Geoffrey Hartmann as well. Near the end of the article: “Holocaust Video Testimony, Oral History and Narrative Medicine: The Struggle Against Indifference” (, I asked Dori to comment on psychogenic death, and his own witnessing. Here is the excerpt from the article with his reply:
    “Laub chose to end the interview with a story that reveals the vital interconnections between narrative medicine, oral history, and testimony and acts as a warning to those who would ignore the signs of silence: physical, verbal, or historical.
    DL: I remember one man who didn’t want to give testimony. After a while he began to talk. He talked for about forty-five minutes. His words were sparse. He died three months later from undiagnosed breast cancer that had spread all over his body. So the silence was not only of words; it was the silence of the dying, of death that infused his withholding. No one knew.
    So the alternative is dying: cognitively, emotionally, physically. It’s the enlivening of the narrative that brings one back to life.
    Fascinated by this story, for a moment I did not notice that the interview was over, the testimony complete, and I asked whether or not Laub had witnessed or heard about accounts of psychogenic death, in which a psychological wound is so severe that it can cause physical death.
    He patiently listened, and with the child in him who survived the camps very much alive in his eyes, said softly:

    DL: No, I didn’t think about that. Maybe it did happen but I saw so much death around me all the time that I never wanted to think of death as the victor. I wanted to think about life.”

    That life was always in his eyes, and I am certain, in his personal and professional witnessing.

    Mary Marshall Clark, Director, Columbia Center for Oral History Research

  3. Dear Mary Marshall Clark, While we may disagree about the role of the “death instinct,” I think yours is a fine memorial to Dori. I am continually aware of the irony of criticizing Dori Laub, for it is from the Fortunoff Video Archive which he co-founded that I have learned so much about trauma and testimony. To me that will be his most lasting contribution. Fred

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