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.

However, it is true that the victim of trauma can never put his or her world back together again in the same way. The world has been robbed of its goodness, its stability, its order and predictability, at a level beneath and beyond words. As one victim of the Holocaust put it, “You’re not supposed to see this; it doesn’t go with life. It doesn’t go with life. These people come back, and you realize they’re all broken, they’re all broken. Broken. Broken.” (Julia S., T-934)

Most are broken, and most it turns out are able to put themselves together again, at least for purposes good enough for living what appears to be a normal life. They walk among us, those who have experienced evil, not only Holocaust victims, but anyone who has experienced extreme trauma: rape victims, victims of assault, chronic abuse, mortal illness, terrible accidents, the horror of war. The list is long, in principle endless. Yet exactly what does it mean to say that the trauma they suffer is evil?

It means that trauma strips its victim, at least temporarily, of his or her individuality, making of its victim a site of psychological and biological reactions. This is what it means to say that trauma unmakes the world. Trauma unmakes the ability of the individual to act; he or she becomes a reactor. First to the trauma itself, and then to its endless reiteration in the body and mind, for that is what trauma is: the inability to escape the constant psychological and physiological reaction to the assault.

The victim of trauma is caught in a world which is constantly being unmade by his or her reactivity to stimuli that resemble (only faintly, a naive observer might imagine) the original event. To live in a world that in an unpredictable instant can become that other world, the world of the originating trauma, is to be an endangered self, one who is no longer an actor in the world. Eventually there is no originating trauma, just trauma, constantly reacting to intimations of panic, pain, horror, doubt, Doubt so fundamental it questions the existence of oneself as an actor and agent in the world.

Why call this evil?

Why do I call this evil? Because too much attention has been given to the evil actor. William Blake had it right when he said that Satan gets all the best lines in Paradise Lost. Satan is active, defiant, a being who would tear himself from the earth full born if he could, so as to depend on no One. “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” he explains (1.261-263). Don’t we secretly admire that attitude?

For all its flaws, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, about the trial of one of the architects of the Holocaust had the right idea: strip its perpetrators of any appearance of being evil demiurges. They possessed only the power of destruction, of decreation, and about this there is nothing special. It is difficult to create, and easy to destroy. A lifetime’s work can be destroyed in an instant. So can a livable life, a life.

Evil is best understood in terms of its victims. And that is where we should look, at the unmade. Reflect for a minute on popular culture, the crime drama. The detective may be the hero, the tale is usually told from his or her perspective, but the killer is the co-star. The victim is a walk on, or carry off.

Throughout I have used the term victim, rather than survivor, whether referring to Holocaust victims or the victim of a crime drama. The term “survivor” serves a purpose when referring to the Holocaust, as it refers to the minority of European Jews and others who did not die at the hands of the Germans. But in our popular culture, survivor suggests someone who is somehow made stronger by the experience of trauma. Sometimes this is true, generally it isn’t. Even if they have, many victims have said the lesson wasn’t worth the price (Erikson, p. 197)

It would be helpful to use the term victim more frequently, locating the evil where it belongs, in the mind and body of the sufferer, in the form of an overwhelming reactivity, and consequent inability to initiate the world anew. Something we must do every day if we are to remain creative selves.

Creation is the opposite of trauma and evil

Creation is the opposite of trauma, even or especially the little acts of creation all of us undertake every day, like frying an egg, which can be an elegant act. If, that is, we are able to be present in our acts. It is this ability to be present that trauma destroys, and that is why it is evil.

It is an evil that may be overcome, or rather lived with, counterbalanced by creative acts, but first we must give the devil its due. Trauma is the destruction of living lives, and that is why it is evil.


Kai Erikson, “Notes on Trauma and Community.” In C. Caruth (ed.), Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

The quotation from Julia S. comes from the Fortunoff Archive for Holocaust Testimony at Yale University.


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