Trauma escapes language, but so does life

human-1411499_1920Trauma escapes language, but so does life.

Trauma theory has a problem with language.  Leading trauma theorists such as Cathy Caruth hold that the mark of a traumatic experience is that it escapes language.  This is the primary reason that Caruth and others have been attracted to the work of Bessel van der Kolk, and neuroscience generally.  Van der Kolk holds that traumatic experience is so sudden and overwhelming that it cannot be put into words.  Ruth Leys addressed the problem in a 2010 interview.  I don’t believe the intellectual situation has changed much since then, other than the increasing influence of affect theory: the claim that there is an autonomous neurological system that experiences not just trauma, but life, in such a way that language is always playing catch-up. 

It is my claim that a major reason for the popularity among postmodern theorists of non-cognitive theories of trauma and affects is that there is a deep coherence between the views of cultural critics and those of the scientists to whose work they are attracted. . . . Van der Kolk [a psychiatrist and neuroscientist] believes that the literal nature of the traumatic flashback or memory means that it belongs to a system of traumatic memory different from that of ordinary memory and as such is cut off or dissociated from ordinary recollection, symbolization, and meaning.  In the case of Caruth the same argument takes the deconstructive form of claiming that the aporia or gap in consciousness and representation that van der Kolk and others believe characterizes the victim’s traumatic experience stands for the materiality of the signifier in de Man’s sense, that ‘moment’ of materiality that simultaneously belongs to language but is aporetically cut off from the speech act of signification or meaning. (p. 666)

An aspect of this argument that does not get a lot of attention is how language normally develops.  The answer seems to be that language is always cut off from experience, not just among the traumatized, but among us all.  If so, then traumatic experience is continuous with ordinary experience.  Trauma does not operate in a parallel neurological or linguistic universe.  The difficulties the traumatized experience putting words to their experiences are exaggerated versions of everybody’s experience with language.  Trauma is uniquely painful, but the way traumatization happens is not unique, but is shared by all who speak. 

How language develops

Consider what is gained and lost when the child begins to acquire language during the second year of life.  My guide is Daniel N. Stern, author of The Interpersonal World of the Infant, and Diary of a Baby.  Stern was a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst specializing in infant development.

Stern argues that language is a double-edged sword.  It makes parts of our experience sharable with others.  At the same time it makes some parts of our experience less sharable with ourselves and others.  Language

drives a wedge between two simultaneous forms of interpersonal experience: as it is lived and as it is verbally represented. (1985, p. 162)

Experience can be shared with others only when its intense immediacy and particularity is adapted to the framework of a common language.  Language connects us to a world of others while at the same time reframing our experience in a language that others can understand.  As such, it subverts our own primary experience of the world, an experience that is prior to and beyond language.  Through language

the infant gains entrance into a wider cultural membership, but at the risk of losing the force and wholeness of original experience . . . . Language forces a space between interpersonal experience as it is lived and as represented.  (1985, pp. 177, 182) 

In later works, Stern elaborates the capacity for storytelling, which emerges at three to four years of age.  Much is gained, but again not without cost.  In telling a story about him or herself, a story that might be as simple as “my day with mommy,” the child brings the events of his or her life together in a way that helps to create a sense of self.   However, at the same time the possibility of what D. W. Winnicott calls a false self is created. 

If the lived past and the narrated past are very discrepant . . . story making can establish and perpetuate distortions of reality–distortions that contribute  significantly to mental disturbance. (Diary, 136-137)

Language development is the model for traumatic experience

Jacques Lacan refers to “the real” (réel) as “that which resists symbolization absolutely.” (Evans, pp. 159-161)  If Stern is right about the way language develops, then Lacan’s real is an artifact of the way language works.  We just don’t notice it.  Language’s inability to grasp immediate experience remains unremarkable.  Until trauma happens.    

When trauma happens, the distance between what we feel and what we can communicate becomes a gulf.  The narratives that people ordinarily use to explain trauma lie or fail, as the “lived past and the narrated past are very discrepant.”  Often this is because the linguistic resources of the culture are insufficient to explain overwhelming experiences, particularly the way they can linger long after the traumatic event (be it a roadside bomb or a childhood) is past. 

When a person says “I just don’t have the words to explain what happened,” he or she might just as well be saying “the language I am familiar with, the language I share with others like me, does not have the words and phrases to describe what I went through.”  And he or she would be right.  Even the best and most subtle language is only a rough approximation of experience. 

What do we learn about trauma from how language develops?

If all this is true, then traumatic experience is an exaggeration of normal experience.  The ordinary gap between what is experienced and what is said is widened in trauma, but it is unnecessary to assume that traumatic experience is neurologically or linguistically different in kind.  Similarly, when traumatized people have trouble telling a narrative about their story, this is most readily explained by the limits of a culture’s narrative resources.  Stories don’t come out of nowhere.  People take story lines available in the culture and use them to tell their own story.  The problem with neurological stories is that they are so distant from experience as to be all but unusable except by experts who keep their distance.

All this does not mean that talk therapy is the best or only cure for trauma.  There will always be a gap between lived experience and narrated experience.  Widened by trauma, this gap is often best addressed by body-work, everything from yoga to massage, in order to bring the body to a place where it can live with itself.  Only when the body’s reactivity is reduced do words stand a chance of even roughly representing experience. 

Looking at trauma in this way reveals the error of sanctifying trauma, as some have sought to do.

The danger of speech, of integration into the narration of memory, may lie not in what it cannot understand, but that it understands too much.  The possibility of integration into memory . . . thus raises the question, van der Kolk and van der Hart ultimately observe, “whether it is not a sacrilege of the traumatic experience to play with the reality of the past?” (Caruth, 1995, p. 154)

The same question could be asked about the acquisition of language in the first place.  With language one is taking a unique individual experience and putting it in a form shared by others.  Is this sacrilege?  No, because we believe the gains in social relatedness are worth the cost.  As long, that is, as the narrative of experience is not a narrative of lies, such as “my parents beat me for my own good.”    

Trauma is not a unique linguistic or neurological event.  It is an intrusion of experience that cannot find narrative form.  Since life begins with experiences such as these, it may be said that learning a language (for the first time) is to experience trauma.  Conversely, trauma therapy means learning a language that is inadequate to experience in order to share that experience as best we can.  This is not an aporia, or paradox.  It’s just the way language works.     


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

Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis.  New York: Routledge, 1996.

Ruth Leys and Marlene Goldman, Navigating the genealogies of trauma, guilt, and affect: an interview with Ruth Leys, pp. 656-679.  University of Toronto Quarterly, 79 (2) 2010. 

Daniel N. Stern, The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology.  New York: Basic Book, 1985.

Daniel N. Stern, Diary of a Baby.  New York: Basic Books, 1992. 

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


Comment (1)

  1. Katherine

    That is very interesting about language abd the problems it creates but yet we need it

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