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.

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Trauma is Evil, Creativity is Good


DSC00481One doesn’t ordinarily think of trauma as evil. We may think about people who inflict trauma as evil, but not the experience of trauma itself. I think it’s useful to see trauma as evil.

Evil was not always what bad people do. Today the Holocaust is the leading image of evil. It comes as a surprise that for over a century the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was the paradigm of evil. Tens of thousands perished, and Voltaire wrote Candide, a satire about this best of all possible worlds. Theodicy, or the justice of God, was debated as never before. Consider how differently evil must have been understood then: not what humans do, but what humans suffer.

This view of evil is ancient, going back to what the Hebrew Scriptures called rac. Evil is anything that is bad or harmful to humans (Isa. 45.7; Jer.4.6; Amos 3.6; Mic. 2.3; Eccles. 1.13; Job 2.10). It’s an ancient way of thinking about evil, but it has its advantages, particularly if we think about what trauma does. Trauma unmakes the victim’s world, to use Elaine Scarry’s phrase. And trauma makes it almost impossible for the victim to put his or her world back together again.

What does this mean? For some it means that the victim is unable to testify to his or her own experience. This is an influential view held by Cathy Caruth, Dori Laub, and Soshana Felman, among others. It does not seem to be literally true. The testimony of thousands of victims of the Holocaust provides the counter evidence.

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Demystifying transgenerational trauma. Review of History Beyond Trauma and The Shell and the Kernel.


B0000722History Beyond Trauma, by Françoise Davoine and Jean-Max Gaudillière, has been well-received for over ten years. I could hardly find a negative review. But, in my view the book provides no evidence at all for its most fundamental claim: that historical and social trauma is the origin of madness (pp xxii-xxiii).

To be sure, intergenerational trauma exists. Parents inflict it on their children. Davoine and Gaudillière recognize this, but the message the book sends, and certainly this message has been widely received, is that historical traumas such as war are passed down the generations in ways that can’t be readily explained by the familiar experiences of children in troubled families.

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Daddy Mad Face and Daddy Angel Face: trauma and attachment

DSC00634Consider the following odd exchange between parent and child.

There were two sides to my father. I called them Daddy Mad Face and Daddy Angel Face.

We had a game we played when we were quite young. When Dad arrived home late on a cold, dark night, we’d make him go out again, first turning up his collar and mussing up his hair. Cast by us as some poor, homeless wanderer he’d knock at the door and we’d bring him into the warmth, take his coat and lead him to the table. It was a strangely satisfying ritual that I wanted to repeat over and over again.

Dad escaped from a train bound for Auschwitz, leaving behind his mother, his brothers and sister – Lawrence, Henry, Fela, Tola – their husbands, their wives and their children. And, as I found out only a few years ago, his first wife.

Sometimes we’d ask questions that must have caused him a lot of pain. How could you leave your mother on the train? “They would shoot you.” Why didn’t you fight? “They would shoot you.” Why didn’t you all just run away? “They would shoot you.” How can you be sure they are all really dead? “I went back.”

He firmly banned us from having toy guns, until we nagged for long enough. Once, looking down the sights of a toy rifle he got for my brother, he remarked almost casually, “I saw them shoot the breasts off a woman.”


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How the Holocaust Became Traumatic, Alexander

For some time I’ve been puzzled by the idea of collective or historical trauma. Only individuals can experience trauma, so what sense does it make sense to say that a society is traumatized? Literally it makes no sense, unless it is seen as some sort of additive statement, such as this person was traumatized, and this person was traumatized, and this person, and so forth. But society is not additive; it is an abstraction. How can an abstraction be traumatized?

Looking at Jeffrey Alexander’s account of how the Holocaust became traumatic helps to explain the process, as well as raising some questions.

Alexander holds that nothing is traumatic in itself. Trauma is made, or constructed, by the meaning we give events, a social process involving the representation of trauma, as well as the political and persuasive power of those who do the representing. It also requires the receptivity of the larger society.

The claim that nothing is traumatic in itself doesn’t sound very convincing if we think about the trauma suffered by those who survived the Holocaust. Did someone who was imprisoned in Auschwitz have any alternative but to construct his or her experience as traumatic? Even the term “construct” suggests an agency that was largely lacking. Just read Lawrence Langer’s Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory.

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Bessel van der Kolk’s House of Trauma Has Many Mansions. Review of The Body Keeps the Score (2014)


IMG_0646,straitFor a man who was a leading defender of repressed memory syndrome in the early 1990’s, providing expert testimony in a number of high profile cases, Bessel van der Kolk has done remarkably well for himself. No matter that he seems to have lost his lab and his Harvard medical school affiliation as a result (New York Times). Some of the qualities that led him off the deep end of the repressed memory bandwagon have led him to write what an important, but flawed, book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score (2014).

Van der Kolk (vdK) holds that the real problem with trauma is not in the past. The problem is that trauma keeps the sufferer from feeling alive in the present, and so able to enjoy everyday life. All the desensitization in the world isn’t going to do any good if a person can’t enjoy the everyday pleasures of life. The way to approach trauma is to work from body to mind. If you are traumatized, and talking isn’t helping, and you are picking the scabs on your body as a means of self-stimulation and soothing, go see a massage therapist. And while you do that we will continue to talk (pp. 88-89). This isn’t all he has to say, but it is at the core.

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What makes trauma political? And how does it work?

Can a society or culture be traumatic? No, it doesn’t make sense. No matter how closely we are imbricated in each other’s lives, trauma remains an individual experience. Nevertheless, a society or culture can make it easier or more difficult for its members to bear trauma. It is in this way that trauma becomes a political issue. (My argument applies to societies of ordinary immorality, not to regimes like Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, or Mao’s China.)

D. W. Winnicott, a British psychoanalyst, concluded that a traumatic culture is one which its members can’t appropriate and make their own. Behind this way of thinking is the idea that a culture is itself a transitional experience. The first transitional experience is the child’s experience with a favorite toy or “blankie,” a soft object that represents me and not me, mother and not mother. Transitional objects are logical impossibilities: something that is and isn’t at the same time. It is through our relationship with transitional objects that people are able to take first a comforting object, and later the resources of an entire culture, such as its music, food, smells, art, movies, and so forth and make them their own.

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What is trauma? How does therapy cure?

Trauma is knowledge of the unbearably real. Trauma is a breaking of faith with all that one held sacred. Trauma is too much too soon. Trauma is “knowledge as disaster,” as Maurice Blanchot put it. The survivor of an environmental disaster captures the meaning of unbearable knowledge when she says

While it could be argued that it’s not a bad thing to become more knowledgeable, it is, I think, certainly a bad thing to become knowledgeable in the way that we’ve become knowledgeable. It’s like a person who’s an agoraphobic. If you’re terrified to go out of the house, you don’t live a very good life. (Erikson 1995, 197)

If trauma is knowledge, then what exactly is it knowledge of? That everyday life is a conspiracy to make the world seem safe enough to live in. Trauma is the result of an experience that makes it impossible for the traumatized to use social conventions the way most of us do in order to relieve anxiety, even dread. An example of such as convention is the statement “just you wait, everything is going to turn out ok.” Well, sometimes it doesn’t. Robinson Crusoe put the lie this way.

How infinitely good . . . providence is, which has provided in its government of mankind such narrow bounds to his sight and knowledge of things; and though he walks in the midst of so many thousand dangers, the sight of which, if discovered to him, would distract his mind and sink his spirits, he is kept serene and calm, by having the events of things hid from his eyes, and knowing nothing of the dangers which surround him. (Defoe, p. 163)


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What I learned about trauma from Holocaust survivors: not to idealize integration

Between 2007 and 2014, I viewed over 250 Holocaust testimonies at the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony at Yale University (Alford, 2009, 2013). Many date from the late 1970’s, and were given before Holocaust testimony became its own genre, with its own norms. Many were talking about their experiences for the first time. Many had not spoken about their lives in the ghettos and concentration camps even with their families. It wasn’t until at least a decade later that talking about the Holocaust became widely accepted, even within the Jewish community.

One of the founders of the Archive was a psychoanalyst and child survivor, Dori Laub. He established an unstructured interviewing format that is still followed. Survivors would frequently talk for a half-hour without interruption. Most interviews lasted about two hours. A number lasted four. There was no time limit. In all this they are quite different from the interviews undertaken for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation (

What I learned

Extreme trauma lasts forever. People don’t get over it. They learn to live with it, alongside of it. Those who testified were, for the most part, “successful survivors.” They married or remarried (a number lost their entire families to the Holocaust), built businesses, raised families, had children and grandchildren. They survived surviving by living alongside their trauma, beside their Auschwitz self as one called it.

There are no constants among survivor testimonies, no universal themes. The two that come closest, are “no one can understand who wasn’t there,” and “even today I live a double existence.” Kraft (p. 2) argues that doubling is the near universal theme.

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What’s going on with the new PTSD diagnosis in DSM 5?

There seems to be movement, but not much change, in the diagnosis of PTSD in DSM 5. PTSD is no longer a fear or anxiety disorder, but has its own category. In part, this seems to be the result of the popularity of PTSD. The APA justifies this stand-alone category partly in terms of the presence of PTSD “at the center of public as well as professional discussion.” (

In reality, PTSD was created as a result of popular pressure, and it was expanded for the same reason. That is not necessarily a bad thing.
Intriguing is the movement of PTSD toward the category of a dissociative disorder.

The move has not yet been completed, but as Matthew Friedman points out, locating trauma and stress related disorders next to dissociative disorders in the “DSM metastructure” is no accident. The thinking of many seems to be that in the future they will be more closely related. This may be an attempt to come to terms with Chronic-PTSD, or DESNOS (disorders of extreme stress not otherwise specified), championed by Judith Herman, Bessel van Kolk, and others. As Friedman (2013, p. 524) puts it, “I recall overhearing a comment after my . . . presentation in 2011 on DSM-5, that the PTSD criteria were becoming more “DESNOS-ish.”

I’m going to assume that readers are familiar with the major changes in the diagnostic criteria for PTSD in DSM 5, and write more generally about the problem of thinking about trauma in terms of diagnostic criteria. Many diseases have similar symptoms, such as fever, swollen lymph nodes, low blood count, etc., but very different causes. It would be far better, and not just for PTSD, for the DSM to devote less time and attention to parsing symptoms, and instead looking for causes. But apparently the science is not up to the task. In effect, ever since the introduction of PTSD in DSM III in 1980, PTSD has been defined by the traumatic event that precedes it.

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Review of Crazy Like Us. With comments on its relationship to Herman’s Trauma and Recovery, and Empire of Trauma.

Crazy Like Us isn’t a recent book, and it is certainly not an academic one. But maybe that’s good, for Watters makes statements about the state of the global PTSD industry that an academic might hesitate to make, at least in plain English.

Crazy Like Us isn’t just about exporting PTSD. It’s about exporting anorexia nervosa to Hong Kong, and a medicalized diagnosis of depression to Japan. But the chapter on the tsunami that brought PTSD to Sri Lanka is the one I’m interested in here.

Watters isn’t anti-psychiatry (his wife is a psychiatrist), and he isn’t against the diagnosis of PTSD per se. His point is that psychiatric categories are cultural categories, and particularly responsive to social change. As the medical anthropologist Allan Young put it, a diagnosis of PTSD “can be real in a particular place and time, and yet not be true for all places and times.” (101-102).

His most important insight is that PTSD is a diagnosis that fits a modern Western world, in which people see themselves as autonomous individuals first, and members of groups and social networks second. In a so-called traditional culture, the diagnosis just doesn’t make sense. So much the worse for us, Watters seems to be saying, but perhaps it’s not so simple.

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