Review of Stolorow’s Trauma and Human Existence, with remarks on his use of Heidegger

cropped-cropped-IMG_0531_editedblack-2_edited-11.jpgRobert Stolorow’s Trauma and Human Existence represents the kind of book trauma theory needs more of, a book that connects the psychology of trauma with a philosophy of human existence.  Connecting trauma to the philosophy of existence is at least as useful as connecting trauma to neuroscience, the current wave.  In this sense, Stolorow’s is an old fashioned book, and that’s a compliment.  

The trouble is the philosophy Stolorow chooses, that of Martin Heidegger.  For Heidegger does not fit well with Stolorow’s relational account of trauma.  For Stolorow, trauma is the loss of attachment, particularly the inability of parents and others to attune themselves to their children’s moods.  His case studies are mostly about patients who experienced troubled childhoods.  He uses a well-known quote from D. W. Winnicott as an epigraph to his second chapter, “there is no such thing as an infant.”  There is only the relationship between mother and child. 

His book could have been just about what is called today developmental trauma disorder (DTD).  Except that he bravely writes at length about his horror at finding his wife of many years dead in bed beside him, so cold and alien he couldn’t touch her. 

Stolorow on his own

Stolorow does a pretty good job of describing the experience of trauma on his own.  

When a person says to a friend, “I’ll see you later” or a parent says to a child at bedtime, “I’ll see you in the morning,” these are statements . . . whose validity is not open for discussion . . . . It is in the essence of emotional trauma that it shatters these absolutisms, a catastrophic loss of innocence that permanently alters one’s sense of being-in-the-world . . . . As a result, the traumatized person cannot help but perceive aspects of existence that lie well outside the absolutized horizons of normal everydayness. It is in this sense that the worlds of traumatized persons are fundamentally incommensurable with those of others, the deep chasm in which an anguished sense of estrangement and solitude takes form. (p. 13)

Where Stolorow goes wrong

Stolorow wants to say that trauma experienced and integrated can result in emotional growth.  After describing the discovery of his wife’s dead body in their bed, and the way it continued to haunt him for years, he concludes

An unbridgeable gulf seemed to open up, separating me forever from my friends and colleagues. They could never even begin to fathom my experience, I thought to myself, because we now lived in altogether different worlds.  Note how closely my description of my traumatized state resembles Heidegger’s depiction of anxiety (pp. 34-35)

The key feature of Heideggerian anxiety is “the experience of detachment from things and from others where I can begin to think freely for myself.” (Critchley, Guardian; Heidegger, Being and Time, II.1)  Heideggerian anxiety saves us from the banality of everyday life, by which he means ordinary human relationships.  In this way it leads toward a more authentic existence, “the mood that launched a thousand existentialist novels, most famously Sartre’s Nausea, and Camus’s The Outsider,” as Critchley puts it. 

Important to understand is Heidegger’s contempt for everyday life, the normal course of human relationships, from gossip to marriage.  Only through anxiety do I confront myself as being-toward-death, an experience that is truly my own.  (One can only wonder whether it was Heidegger’s contempt for everyday life that attracted him to the Nazis in the first place.) 

While it may be that trauma successfully dealt with opens up new paths, I’m sure even Stolorow doubts whether the lesson was worth the price.  But then again, we don’t usually get to set the terms of our tuition for pathei mathos, as the ancient Greeks called it: the wisdom that comes through suffering.    

Why not Heidegger?

Toward the end of his short book, Stolorow seems to grasp Heidegger’s irrelevance to trauma, especially when seen from a relational perspective. It’s a surprising about-face.  

A number of commentators note an impoverishment characteristic of Heidegger’s conception of “being-with,” his term for the existential structure that underpins the capacity for relationality. . . . Authentic selfhood for Heidegger is found in the nonrelationality of death, not in the love of another. (p. 43)

Contra Heidegger, the death we most fear is not our own.  The death we most fear is the beloved other to whom we are attached, the only death we can truly imagine, the only death we can truly mourn.  (If grief is the sorrow, and mourning the process of coming to terms with a world without the beloved, it barely makes sense to mourn one’s own death, though it seems possible as a project of the imagination.) 

Heidegger’s claim about the nonrelationality of death contradicts everyday experience, as Simon Critchley argues. 

Death is first and foremost experienced as a relation to the death or dying of the other and others, in being-with the dying in a caring way, and in grieving after they are dead. (Enigma, pp. 169-170)

Death does not just separate us into individuals who are free to die.  On the contrary, we are “deeply connected with one another in virtue of our common finitude.” (Stolorow, p. 44)  Greek tragedy understood this better than any other literature: the connection, the finitude, and the sorrow that must be shared with those who remain (Alford, pp. 144-167). 

Why doesn’t Heidegger get it?

Heidegger doesn’t get it because his famous Sorge (care) isn’t directed toward fellow humans, but to our relationships to the things of this world, what he calls das Zeug, usually translated as equipment or tools.  People are included under the category of Zeug.

To be sure, one might reply that Heidegger’s goal is to get beyond this taken for granted attitude toward everyday life, in which I expect that what I need will be familiar and close at hand.  But the main way to do this, he says, is through great art, such as Van Gogh’s well known painting of a peasant’s shoes.  This is no model of relatedness.  Heidegger doesn’t even consider that they might be Van Gogh’s shoes, just those of an abstract peasant, and a representative of “shoeness.”  If I were to choose a piece of art that displayed human relatedness, it would have people in it. 

So why choose Heidegger to talk about trauma?

One reason, I suggested, is to give a psychoanalytic account gravitas or intellectual heft, much as others have more recently used neuroscience.  There is, however, another darker and more mysterious reason.  An ancient attribute of the way humans think is that more of something is the cure for something, the superstition of sympathetic magic.  Call it homeopathic thinking run amok.  In the case of PTSD, prolonged exposure therapy (PE) is an example, as though inflicting the trauma over and over again could cure it. 

To see in Heidegger’s being-toward-death a path from trauma to recovery is to repeat the same mistake in the realm of philosophy.  Authentic selfhood is found in our relationships to others, including their deaths, not our withdrawal into an abstract Sorge.


C. Fred Alford, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Greek Tragedy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Simon Critchley, Enigma variations: an interpretation of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit.  Ratio, 15 (2002), 154–175.

Simon Critchley, Being and Time, part 5: anxiety. The Guardian, July 6, 2009.

Martin Heidegger, On the origin of the work of art.  In Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell, 143-212.  New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

Robert D. Stolorow, Trauma and Human Existence: Autobiographical, Psychoanalytic, and Philosophical Reflections.  New York: The Analytic Press, 2007.


Comment (1)

  1. Katherine

    I likw your critique of Heidegger.Brilliant

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