How trauma devalues the good past

IMG_2110,superliquidMost who study severe trauma agree that it stops time.  Trauma time is frozen time, in which the experiences of the past never become past, but remain as alive and intrusive as the day on which they happened, maybe more so.  Flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, constriction: all are expressions of a past that continues to intrude upon the present. 

Less frequently written about is the way in which trauma can reach back behind the traumatic event itself and devalue past good experiences, experiences of attachments met and love acknowledged, experiences that preceded, often by decades the traumatic event. 

These observations about trauma are best suited to explaining adult-onset trauma.  It need not be the trauma of a single incident, it could be an experience as extending over years, but I assume that before the trauma there were good experiences, and good memories.  These good memories are not forgotten, but too often they become unavailable as an emotional resource to be drawn upon when times are tough. 

How does trauma devalue the past?

It’s a question of time.  One way to think about time is to distinguish between chronos and kairos, the two ancient Greek words that referred to time.  Chronos refers to linear time, in which one event precedes another, another follows, then another, and so forth.  Kairos refers to the subjective experience of time, which is often quite different.  In the subjective experience of time, the present bestows new meaning on the past, and the past is constantly being reinscribed upon the present.  Time is a circle, not a line.

A simple example.  The significance of the day of my marriage, as well as the days of my marriage, depend on the experience of my marriage over time.  But, time moves backwards too, and the memory of my wedding day and the days that follow will, if I am fortunate, help me get through hard times today as I look back on them, or even if I don’t, as long as they remain alive in my unconscious. 

Experienced time is circular time, past reinterpreted in terms of the present, present interpreted in terms of the past.  Experienced time is kairos, which carries us across the enormous void between “tick” and “tock,” as the critic Frank Kermode puts it.  Not just narrative, but living has  

to defeat the tendency of the interval between tick and tock to empty itself; to maintain within that interval following tick a lively expectation of tock, and a sense that however remote tock may be, all that happens as if tock were certainly following . . . . To put it another way, the interval must be purged of simple chronicity, of the emptiness of tock-tick, humanly uninteresting successiveness . . . .  That which was conceived of as simply successive becomes charged with past and future: what was chronos becomes kairos. (p. 46)

Trauma stops the clock between tick and tock.  There is no sense of the future, and all the previous tick-tocks of my life do nothing to restart the clock.  Trauma is the permanent void between tick and tock.


Freud’s concept of Nachträglichkeit doesn’t fully explain this phenomenon (Eickhoff).  Nachträglichkeit says that what we remember is not the past.  What we remember is the memory of the past, which is itself another memory of the past.  In this way the past is being constantly renewed.  Nachträglichkeit is a theory of the aliveness of memory.  Trauma breaks the chain of memory. 

Though Nachträglichkeit is sometimes applied to traumatic memory, the key point is that unlike ordinary memory, traumatic memory is not reinscribed, at least not to the same degree.  Traumatic memory stays the same, while ordinary memory is constantly being reinterpreted in light of the present moment.  Traumatic memory participates less in Nachträglichkeit than ordinary memory. 

In Memory Perceived, Robert Kraft (p. 23) points out that traumatic memory is actually the most accurate memory, the least subject to confabulation, the least subject to distortion over time, as it doesn’t get mixed up with narrative, but remains in pristine form, often in the form of sensations and images.  This fits the theories of Cathy Caruth and Bessel van der Kolk, who both write about traumatic memory as an event inscribed upon the brain in such a way that it is not integrated into ordinary narrative memory.

The broken circle

Trauma breaks the chain of memory.  An experience, trauma, is inscribed, but not reinscribed as life goes on.  It stays the same, as other memory changes.  But in doing so trauma breaks the chain of memory remembered, and so alienates present from past.  Trauma is the void between tick and tock that cannot be passed in either direction.  The future is a continuation of the experience of trauma, and the time before the trauma is unavailable. 

The term kairos more commonly appears in theology, where it refers to God’s time, in which past, present, and future are present at once.  Trauma  seems to be a mundane parody of this experience, in which the past is spoiled by trauma in the same way that the present and future are spoiled, for they all live in us in the same psyche at the same time.

Conclusion: me then and me now

Donnel Stern speculates that the past,

when it is too emotionally discrepant from the life we lead now, can feel as if it simply no longer belongs to the world within which we live. (p. 71)

If trauma has so changed my world that I no longer feel myself as belonging to the world I once lived in, a good world, or at least a decent one, then I cannot draw on that world as comfort in my time of trauma. 

If two parts of ourselves separated in time are to know one another, one part in the past and one in the present, each part must feel like me. (p. 70)

When the present me is so changed from the past me that I can no longer feel that I am the same person who had a loving parent, for example, then the past cannot comfort me in the present.  The result is what Stern calls “retrospective derealization.”  It’s a good term for a difficult concept.  Difficult to understand, and even more difficult to live with.


W. Eickhoff, On Nachträglichkeit: The modernity of an old concept. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 87 (2006), 1453-1469.

Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Robert Kraft, Memory Perceived: Recalling the Holocaust.  Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.

Donnel B. Stern, Witnessing across time: Accessing the present from the past and the past from the present.  The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, vol. 81 (2012), 53-81.


Comments (2)

  1. A

    what does “An experience, trauma, is inscribed, but not reinscribed as life goes on. It stays the same, as other memory changes” mean for refeeling and retelling traumatic memory? and generally how do you see usefulnesses and unusefulnesses of refeeling and retelling traumatic memory?

    also, as a double experience of time, can’t we feel kairos and chronos at once, and constantly, losing chronos if we lose one? noting and worrying about chronos, where our quantified life in the short (ie appointments) and the long (ie lifetime) happen, while and worrying because kairos feels beyond control? … though kairos can double too? open enough that trauma plays on, alternating with interesting topical learning … kairos’ openness making that alternation possible.

  2. Katherinr

    This reminds me of the definition of eternity in you other blog

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