Trauma narratives without the narrator: a trauma marker

DSC00212slimThere is an influential school of thought about trauma which argues that psychic trauma is the direct intrusion upon the mind of an unmediated experience. Cathy Caruth and Shoshana Felman are associated with this view.

As it is generally understood today, post-traumatic stress disorder reflects the direct imposition on the mind of the unavoidable reality of horrific events, the taking over of the mind, psychically and neurobiologically, by an event that it cannot control. (Caruth, p. 58)

Elaborated, this view holds that people do not have traumatic “experiences.” Traumatic events happen when people are unable to possess their own experiences in narrative form. The traumatized are deeply affected by these experiences, but unable to know them, for narrative is the language of experience.

In my experience, narrative competence is a poor measure of trauma.

This doesn’t fit my research

I have worked with three different traumatized groups. Whistleblowers, who are often remarkably traumatized. I spent almost a year with a group of whistleblowers talking among themselves. I attended their weekend retreats, and I interviewed them. My experience is recounted in Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power. See too my post on whistleblowers.

I viewed over two hundred and fifty hours of Holocaust Testimony held by the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony at Yale University. I watched dozens of survivors testify, each for roughly two hours, some more, some less. Many of these testimonies were given in the early 1970’s. In many cases it was the first time the survivor had spoken to anyone about his or her experience. My experience in the Archive is recounted in After and Holocaust, and Trauma and Forgiveness. See my post on Holocaust survivors.

I listened to about 50 hours of audio recordings of recently liberated survivors, made in 1946, by David Boder. These are the first recorded interviews with survivors of the death camps. Surprisingly, what the witnesses say, as well as how they say it, does not differ dramatically from those statements held in the Fortunoff Archive, all of which were made more than twenty-five years after liberation. Boder’s recordings are available to anyone at Translations for those interviews not conducted in English are available, although it is extraordinarily helpful to hear the original voices. My experience with these interviews is recounted in Holocaust Studies.

As one would expect, whistleblowers are generally not as traumatized as Holocaust survivors. However, it is useful to have listened to and talked with those who have suffered a less overwhelming trauma. Since trauma is a subjective experience, it is not surprising that some whistleblowers appear more traumatized than some Holocaust survivors.

Almost all are able to narrate their experience coherently

My experience, in all three cases, is that the traumatized, even the severely traumatized speaking in the immediate aftermath of their trauma, were able to coherently narrate their accounts. Boder had the disquieting practice of sitting behind his subjects and speaking very little, as though he were a psychoanalyst. Yet, even his witnesses are able to give a clear account of their experience, moving smoothly between here and now, there and then, even as little time had elapsed. Their narratives did not have to be framed and formed by another so they could hear and know their own unmediated experience. They understood and were able to descriptively mediate their own experience. To be sure, many were emotionally overcome during their accounts, but this means that their affect was appropriate to the horror they experienced. They were not dissociated.

The same can be said for the Fortunoff witnesses. Decades removed in time from their original experience, they often talked as though it were only yesterday. A few appeared to be reliving their experiences as they talked about it, but appearances can be deceptive. Bessie K. said “when it comes to me to start talking about it, right away I step into the camp.” (T-206) But the fact that Bessie was able to say this, and so distinguish then and there from here and now, is a marker of narrative competence. She did not confuse then and now; she talked about how she willingly risked confusion in order to talk about her torment. That’s different. In any case, Bessie soon moved on to talk about her present life, one in which her children and grandchildren played the major role.

Present narratives, absent narrators

Caruth argues that trauma is a break in time.

What causes, trauma, then, is a shock that appears to work very much like a bodily threat but is in fact a break in the mind’s experience of time. (p. 61)

This is incorrect. Trauma is not a break in the mind’s experience of time. Trauma is a break in the mind’s experience of itself. This is why the narrative can be present, but the narrator absent. This is often hard to detect, but it is the key trauma marker from my experience: a perfectly competent narrative, told in a way in which one lacks a sense of the narrator’s presence at his or her own performance. Those who view trauma primarily through texts will be less able to make this distinction, though I believe it is present there too, often as an intended literary effect. Consider Meursault in Camus’ The Stranger.

What has happened, I believe, is that the trauma narrative itself takes the place of the experience of going-on-being, of being alive and present in one’s own life from one moment to the next. Trauma doesn’t destroy narrative. Trauma destroys the narrator, by fragmenting his or her sense of going-on-being. This is the equivalent of psychic death. Stubbornly held to, often exquisitely elaborated, the chronology of the trauma narrative is the framework within which reality is experienced. And confined.

A listener is needed not in order to tell or retell the victim’s trauma, but to express an interest in other parts of the traumatized person’s life, the parts that remain infused with vitality, ones which can be invested in new narratives, and a new life.

Much trauma theory gets it backwards

Much trauma theory gets it backwards, imagining that the task is to recover an original experience of trauma, one that cannot be put into words. No, the task is to help the traumatized live a new narrative, a new life. Needed is reentry into the experience of going-on-being so the trauma survivor can let go of an overly narrativized trauma. Or rather, let go of a trauma narrative that has become a perverse transitional object, substituting for one’s own going-on-being.  I believe that this is what Maurice Blanchot means when he refers to “the danger that the disaster acquire meaning instead of body.” (p. 41)

Trauma theory may be organized in various ways. Ruth Leys (2000) distinction between mimetic and anti-mimetic accounts does not organize trauma as I have. From my experience, both the mimetic and anti-mimetic accounts get it backwards, mistaking the narrative for the narrator.

Primo Levi and the Perfected Trauma Narrative

Many were surprised when Primo Levi, lucid narrator of his Holocaust experiences in books such as the Drowned and the Saved, a man who seemed to harbor no rancor, took his own life.  Why should we be surprised?  Why should one imagine that the narrative and the narrator are one?  Perhaps the separation of narrative and narrator saved his life, but finally took it, as his real life bore in on his narrative world.

The resolution of trauma is not the perfected trauma narrative but its opposite: living in the present. It sounds obvious, but it is frequently forgotten by those who study trauma.


C. Fred Alford, Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.

C. Fred Alford, “What if the Holocaust Had No Name?” Holocaust Studies: A Journal of Culture and History, Vol.15 (3), 2009, pp.71–94.

C. Fred Alford, After the Holocaust: The Book of Job, Primo Levi, and the Path to Affliction.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

C. Fred Alford, Trauma and Forgiveness. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.   

Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Ruth Leys, Trauma: A Genealogy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.


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