The Trauma of Rape Can Be Told

B0000782I just finished reading Lucky, by Alice Sebold. It’s an account of her rape when she was a 19 year old freshman at Syracuse University. The book has really caused me to rethink trauma theory, for there is nothing theoretical about Lucky. She describes her rape in horrifying detail. Even more troubling, at least in some respects, is the response of those around her.

I was now on the other side of something they could not understand. I didn’t understand it myself. (p. 27)

This isn’t a review of the book, which was published in 1999. It has been often reviewed. It even has its own Wikipedia entry. Sebold subsequently published The Lovely Bones, which was made into a movie. She is a good writer.

This post is about my embarrassment at writing about trauma theory after reading Sebold’s book. Not that there is anything wrong with trauma theory, but there is something so real about Sebold’s account that it makes the theory of trauma seem an overly intellectual exercise. At least for me, at least for a little while.

Nevertheless, it’s not so simple, for trauma theory helped Sebold, who says that she learned that a short passage from her book had been published in Judith Herman’s classic work, Trauma and Recovery. Sebold said she decided not just to keep Herman’s book as a memento, but to actually read it. It may not have changed her life, Sebold did that for herself, but it helped her make sense of her experience.

I read Herman’s entire book. It wasn’t a magical cure but it was a start. I also had a good therapist. She had actually used the words post-traumatic stress a year before but I had dismissed them as so much psychobabble. True to form, I did everything the hard way: wrote a column, got it quoted, bought the book, and recognized myself in the case histories of the sick. I had post-traumatic stress disorder, but the only way I would believe it was to discover it on my own. (p. 248)

Rereading Herman’s Trauma and Recovery

After reading this passage in Sebold, I went back and reread Trauma and Recovery. Only this time did I realize that unlike most books on trauma and PTSD, the paradigmatic trauma for Herman is rape. Her classic work on trauma comes out of the women’s movement, not the Vietnam War. Perhaps I should not have been surprised, but for a variety of reasons, beginning with the diagnosis of shell shock in WW I, the traumatized war veteran has become the icon of PTSD. This emphasis is continued today, largely because most of the funding for trauma research comes from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Herman and Sebold are both emphatic. Rape has been used by men to intimidate and control women as long as recorded history, as long as warfare. In the United States today, about one in five women has been raped (Rabin). If it’s not a low-intensity war against women, then it’s something that every woman fears. My wife and my daughter do.

The witness isn’t missing

Anyone who theorizes about trauma must be humbled by Sebold’s account of her experience, precisely because it is so untheoretical, so real. Not the Lacanian Real, just real. To be sure, her experience is not rendered transparent, and the immediacy of her book is a rhetorical effect, created by the  skill of the author. Or as Sebold puts it elsewhere, “my feeling is that therapy is for therapy and that writing can be therapeutic, but therapeutic writing should not be published.” (Morris, p. 248) But some theories of trauma are simply incompatible with Sebold’s account of her experience, and I trust Sebold over these accounts.

Most irrelevant, or just plain wrong, is the theory of the missing witness, put forth by Dori Laub and Shoshana Felman, among others. This theory holds that the traumatic experience occurs a “moment too soon,” before the victim has a chance to prepare for the experience. One can find the origins of this account in Freud’s theory of trauma as an experience of fright, which he distinguishes from fear and dread because in fright one “plunged into danger without being prepared for it.” (Freud, p. 51)

Dissociation isn’t absence

Trauma, from this perspective, is inscribed on the psyche in a way that is preverbal, and consequently unavailable to narrative recall, at least without extensive therapy. This account, in my view, confuses and confounds dissociation with narration. This is confirmed in Sebold’s story. Dissociated witnesses are still good witnesses. Immediately after her rape, Sebold could narrate her experience to police, to friends, and to her parents. She was able to explain to her unbelieving father how a man who had lost his knife in the struggle could still rape her. I can barely imagine a rape victim being put in a more difficult position, or the grace with which she evidently handled it (pp. 58-59).

Months later, after returning to school, Sebold spotted her rapist walking down the street. She notified the police, testified before the grand jury, and finally in court. Her testimony, coupled with photographs of her battered body, convinced the judge to give her rapist the maximum sentence. All this, as Sebold emphasizes, does not mean that she was not traumatized. She suffered classic symptoms of PTSD, many of which were still to come. But this did not affect her narrative competence. Instead, it affected her ability to feel what she knew, so that the feelings came back to her years later.

Dissociation means that the emotional experience is separated from the knowledge of the experience. It is, as Herman and many others since have argued, the way PTSD works, the reason knowledge of the experience is not enough to dispel symptoms. This is pretty straightforward stuff, and it is ignored in the theory of the disappearing witness, which holds that the trauma victim is unable to be present at the experience of the trauma. This theory is stated in its extreme form by Dori Laub and Shoshana Felman.

One might say that there was, thus, historically no witness to the Holocaust, either from outside or from inside the event. (p. 81)

Survivors don’t count because they were so traumatized they were unable to narrate their own experience. In other posts I have used evidence from the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony (co-founded by Laub), and elsewhere, to refute this claim, and I won’t repeat it here ( Laub evidently does not meant to be taken literally, but why this extreme formulation in the first place? In other words, why is the experience of dissociation, long recognized as a mark of trauma, turned into an experience of absence? As though the victim was not there.

Death of the subject?

I blame it on “death of the subject” in post-modern literary theory, an exaggeration of the idea that the subject is a social construction. With the loss of the subject comes the loss of subjectivity. Once subjectivity is lost, there can be little value to an inner domain of emotions and thoughts that may be given public expression in narrative (Jameson). No subject, no narrative. Or rather, no reason to believe that narrative can reflect its creator’s lived experience. It is for this reason, but not for this reason alone, that the fundamental inaccessibility of trauma to narrative is so frequently asserted.

The transformation of dissociation into the absence of the subject is not due to a single theory. Even if it were, the “death of the subject” describes a way of thinking that reflects disturbing tendencies in real life. The reduction of trauma to brain science is but another example of the disappearing subject. There are enough forces and theories out there that would disappear the subject, from late capitalism to Derrida; trauma theory should not be one more.

Books like Lucky remind us that the subject has not disappeared, that trauma theory is not the same thing as trauma, and that those who study the theory of trauma should remember that the real trauma narratives are not those works of literary fiction we feel free to intellectually dissect, such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but memoirs of trauma whose authors’ courage and fortitude leave us at least temporarily speechless.


Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Other Writings, ed. Adam Phillips. London: Penguin, 2003. [orig. 1920]

Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991.

David Morris, The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.

Roni Caryn Rabin, “Nearly 1 in 5 Women in U.S. Survey Say They Have Been Sexually Assaulted,” New York Times, December 14, 2011.

Alice Sebold, Lucky. New York: Scribner, 1999.


Comment (1)

  1. Roger Langen

    Great piece. Thank you.

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