The imitation of trauma by those who study it

abstract-art-516337_1920The transference is always active between the scholar and what he or she studies.  This is especially so when the subject is trauma.  So Dominick LaCapra argues, and I think he’s right. What does the transference mean in the case of trauma?  For LaCapra it means that “at some level you always have a tendency to repeat the problems you are studying.” (p. 142)         

More generally,

by transference I mean primarily . . . the tendency to repeat in one’s own discourse or practice tendencies active in, or projected into, the other or object [of study]. (P. xv)

In the case of trauma, those writing about it often write as though they have been traumatized.  The writing of Cathy Caruth and Shoshana Felman is frequently in “unmodulated, orphic, cryptic, indirect allusive form” that is designed to transmit the disorientation of trauma.  (LaCapra, p. 106)  This may be suitable for trauma fiction, as it is sometimes called (though I have questioned that in another post), but it is unnecessary and counterproductive when trying to explain trauma. 

Why imitate trauma?

Those who imitate trauma frequently insist on challenging distinctions between then and there, and here and now, distinctions basic to overcoming trauma.  They write as if they are in the grip of a need to keep faith with the traumatic experience.  One does so by reflecting its way of thinking.  Quoting Bessel van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart, Caruth asks whether

the possibility of integration into memory and the consciousness of history thus raises the question ‘whether it is not a sacrilege of the traumatic experience to play with the reality of the past.’ (p. 154)

One can understand why the traumatized would want to keep faith with the past.  Van der Kolk opens his recent book on trauma with a story about a Vietnam Vet with PTSD who wouldn’t take his sleeping pills because his nightmares served as a living memorial to his dead buddies.  To let go of traumatic memory would be to abandon his buddies forever (pp. 9-10)

What is harder to understand is why theorists of trauma would think this ideal worthy of imitation, though of course the imitation of trauma is always easier than the real thing.  Dori Laub writes that the “listener to trauma comes to be a participant and co-owner of the traumatic event.” (p. 57)

There is a difference between, interviewer, therapist, and historian.  But, the idea of anyone co-owning another’s trauma fails to respect boundaries.  One might be inclined to forgive Laub, a psychoanalyst who is also a child survivor of the Holocaust, but the idea is pernicious.

What should the student of trauma do?

  • Documentation and interpretation.  Characterize what trauma looks like in people who have been through terrible experiences.  Explore the way they often seem captured by the past.  Explain why trauma doesn’t always recede with time.  Show how others can help.
  • Understanding trauma as part of history.  In the end there is no trauma, only the specific traumas of specific people in particular historical and social contexts.  Clarifying the context of trauma is especially important because trauma decontextualizes, removing the usual markers that separate past and present; home and battlefield (unless home is the battlefield, as it often is in domestic abuse); what can be saved and what must be mourned as lost forever. 
  • Valuing the victim’s perspective.  The signal contribution of trauma theory is to focus on the victims in history, the victims in life.  Taking trauma seriously means telling history from the bottom up. 
  • Trying to say what the traumatized cannot.  Rather than participating in the victim’s trauma from the inside out, the goal is to remain on the outside while trying to help the traumatized put words and emotions to their experience.
  • Empathy is also about distance, respecting the otherness of the other, not trying to take on or take over or share the trauma that cannot be shared, but only known. 

Paul de Man and Jacques Lacan are a bad influence, for trauma is mundane

Both de Man and Lacan have been a bad influence on trauma theory.  For both, trauma becomes an expression of the real which can never be represented in words.  “Perpetual troping” of an event by the bypassed psyche is the way Geoffrey Hartman puts it (p. 537).  

What if we thought about trauma as something really mundane, terrible, but not unspeakable or incomprehensible?  Instead, one can put words to trauma, just as people do with other extreme experiences, as well as experiences not so extreme.  Not just trauma, but any intense experience resists words, whether it is trauma, love, hate, or joy.  It is simply the nature of the relationship between words and things that words never perfectly capture an experience, and they never can.  Words about trauma often use physical language, such as “I felt sick” or “I felt shattered,” because that is the way trauma is experienced. 

The main difficulty the traumatized have is not in finding words, but leaving behind the trauma that the words describe, recognizing that they belong to another place and time.  This is not a word problem.  It is an experience problem, the tendency of trauma to freeze time.  Of course, time is not really frozen.  Time is not the type of thing that can be frozen; water is that type of thing.  Words are frequently little metaphors.  Like most metaphors, they are inexact.  We must live with that.       

What helps in understanding trauma?  That humans can be terrible to each other

The most helpful insight is that humans can be, and frequently are, absolutely terrible to each other.   It is not difficult to awaken the beast with.  Not within everyone, but in many, more than enough to make life a living hell for the rest.  Without this assumption, the reality of history and trauma on a large scale is difficult to explain.

The Holocaust is frequently used as an example of the terribleness of humans. There was something uniquely awful about the Holocaust, but not in the trauma it caused, which was depressingly like so many other historical traumas, only in many cases more so. 

The Holocaust was unique in the way it combined bureaucracy and technological means with a phobic blood ritual sacrifice of the Jews, as though mass murder was a sacrificial rite.  This was uniquely modern, ushering in the post-modern.

This is something that Jürgen Habermas said: there was something that happened in the Holocaust that seemed to change the face of humanity; that something emerged that we didn’t conceive of before or that we were not able to expect. (LaCapra, pp. 177-178)

What we did not expect, I think, is the appearance of the beast using the means, methods, and language of bureaucracy and the professions.

What lies between over-identification and objectification?  

Large scale historical trauma leaves a long shadow.  We over-identify with the victims, or we objectify them to keep them at a distance.  Either is a barrier to understanding.         

The extremes in trying to come to terms with emotional response are full identification, whereby you try to relive the experience of the other, or find yourself unintentionally reliving it; and pure objectification, which is the denial of transference, the blockage of affect as it influences research, and the attempt to be as objectifying and neutral an observer as possible— whether as empirical fact gatherer or as structural, formal analyst. (LaCapra, p. 147)

Against these extremes, LaCapra posits “working through.”  Its main meaning seems to be sharpening the distinction between then and there and here and now (p. 22). 

Working through is underspecified

I agree that the distinction between then and there versus here and now is basic to trauma theory.  I’m not always sure that it requires “working through,” or even what working through really means.    

If one listens to the testimony of Holocaust survivors, things become a little more complex.  “Living with,” or “living along side of,” are common ways of putting it.  The past doesn’t go away.  It isn’t even past.  Asked about how she lives with Auschwitz, Charlotte Delbo replies

Auschwitz is there, unalterable, precise, but enveloped in the skin of memory, an impermeable skin that isolates it from my present self . . . . I live within a twofold being.  The Auschwitz double doesn’t bother me, doesn’t interfere with my life.  As though it weren’t I at all.  Without this split I would not have been able to revive. (pp. 2-3)

Whatever this is, it is not working through, which becomes sort of an all purpose term for LaCapra.  He uses it over one-hundred times in Writing History, Writing Trauma.  One could call what Delbo does splitting and dissociation, only her writing denies it.  For one thing she is too self-aware.

Death or life?

Holocaust survivors are complex human beings, most of who managed to make lives for themselves.  They did so by living.  Or as Henry Greenspan puts it, by focusing solely on their traumatized selves, we

miss the vitality of their ongoing lives, memories and legacies that have nothing to do with the destruction but which allow survivors to recount at all.  (p. 169)

Survivors survive, some even prosper, because what remains is stronger than what was destroyed, because they have not allowed death to define them.  This applies to every severely traumatized person who is not forever imprisoned in the past.  Some work through their experience, some double as Delbo does, and most probably repress and go on.  The reality of those who survive trauma is richer than trauma theory.  That’s good.


Cathy Caruth, editor.  Trauma: Explorations in Memory.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Charlotte Delbo, Days and Memory, trans. Rosette Lamont.  Evanston, IL: Marlboro Press/Northwestern University Press. 

Henry Greenspan, On Listening to Holocaust Survivors: Recounting and Life History.  Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998.

Geoffrey Hartman, On traumatic knowledge and literary studies.  New Literary History 26 (1995), 537-564.

Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma (with a new preface).  Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. 

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

Bessel van der Kolk, the Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.  New York: Viking, 2014. 




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *