Originally published in Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 51:381-414, (2003)

In much of contemporary culture, “trauma” signifies not so much terrible experience as a particular context for understanding and responding to a terrible experience. In therapy, in the media, and in international interventions, the traumatized are seen not simply as people who suffer and so are deserving of concern and aid; they are seen also as people who suffer for us, who are given special dispensation. They are treated with awe if they tell a certain kind of trauma story, and are ignored or vilified if they tell another. Trauma has become not simply a story of pain and its treatment, but a host of sub-stories involving the commodification of altruism, the justification of violence and revenge, the entry point into “true experience,” and the place where voyeurism and witnessing intersect. Trauma is today the stuff not only of suffering but of fantasy. Historically, trauma theory and treatment have shown a tension, exemplified in the writings of Freud and Janet, between those who view trauma as formative and those who view it as exceptional. The latter view, that trauma confers exceptional status deserving of special privilege, has gained ground in recent years and has helped to shape the way charitable dollars are distributed, how the traumatized are presented in the media, how governments justify and carry out international responses to trauma, and how therapists attend to their traumatized patients. This response to trauma reflects an underlying, unarticulated belief system derived from narcissism; indeed, trauma has increasingly become the venue, in society and in treatment, where narcissism is permitted to prevail.

All at once, as it seemed, something we could only have imagined was upon us and we could still only imagine it.

—Philip Gourevitch

September 11, 2001. New York City. Never before have scenes of murder and destruction been seared so completely, collectively, and simultaneously on minds throughout the world. Even for those of us who were in New York and have direct visual memories of the event as it unfolded, our perception and experience competed with the images played and replayed, stories told and retold, on television and in the press.

In the year and a half or more that has passed since that violent and tragic morning, it has become increasingly clear that the stories of September 11—and the purposes to which they have been put—have a value that supersedes their value as memory, or even as memorial.

A story of trauma, properly told, may confer exceptional status, at least for a time, not only on the sufferers but on those who would invoke the suffering. Few would argue about the inherent justice in such exemptions—it is only humane that sufferers have an opportunity to recuperate, and that severe suffering generate among the more fortunate a generosity toward the victims. It is my premise here, however, that for the most part, especially in the public forum, trauma is not accorded value on this basis, but rather is a commodity that trades according to the value of the fantasies of suffering, and of the fantasies of the privileges that suffering confers, that are projected onto the sufferers by others.

Aside from their personal value, the stories of the trauma of September 11 have social, economic, and political value. Among those directly affected, the value can be exchanged for a promise of exemption from further suffering, guaranteed by charitable and government contributions. Among those in government, for example, who would invoke the suffering and defend the sufferers, trauma confers an exemption from having to justify aggressive retaliatory action. And among those who would treat the sufferers, trauma confers a kind of authoritative status.

Prior to September 11, “trauma” and the traumatized had already carved out a unique status in the zeitgeist. Before September 11, trauma was a subject not so much of dread as of respect. The traumatized evoked a kind of awe and envy once reserved for the rich, the powerful, or the brave. Memoirs had replaced fiction on the bestseller lists, and in a number of famous cases in which autobiographies were exposed for their exaggerations or fabrications, these were not, as in the past, unfounded claims of heroism, but unfounded or exaggerated claims of profound suffering.

How did it happen that suffering and trauma had become so elevated, both in the public sphere and more and more in the psychotherapeutic sphere? I will argue that much of our current response to trauma reflects an underlying, unarticulated belief system about our vulnerability to terrible events. I will attempt to articulate certain questionable assumptions inherent in that belief system as it is reflected in the culture at large, as well as in the culture of treatment, to chart their consequences and propose alternatives. The current attitude toward trauma, I believe, has made us as individuals, as analysts, and as a society more susceptible to traumatic response and less capable of dealing productively with trauma. Three insufficiently drawn distinctions with regard to current discourse on trauma are at the heart of our problematic approach to trauma: (1) traumatic event vs. traumatic response; (2) signs of traumatic experience vs. the symptoms of trauma avoidance; (3) trauma as exceptional vs. trauma as formative.

To clarify these distinctions I turn to history, to the dawn of the previous century, when trauma entered the vocabulary and psychology was born. I begin, then, with a reframing of the early history of trauma theory, in order to contextualize these three distinctions and the approaches that follow from each.

The Seduction of Trauma

Psychological trauma is a peculiarly twentieth-century concept, born with psychology and especially psychoanalysis. It began as a liberating discourse, part of the century of the individual that psychoanalysis heralded and furthered in the Western world. But even within the discourse of psychotherapeutics, trauma discourse has always been split. This split has its origins in the differing theories of two originators of that discourse, Sigmund Freud and Pierre Janet, and continues between psychoanalysis and other approaches to trauma, and, more recently, as a divide within the psychoanalytic discourse on trauma as well. This split has tremendous consequences in the conceptualization, values, and treatment of trauma.

Trauma as Exceptional vs. Trauma as Formative

To explain what I mean, I have to start at the beginning, in the last decade of the nineteenth century, with the earliest psychoanalytic writings of Freud and Breuer, because in psychoanalysis the conceptualization of trauma preceded the conceptualization of mind itself. Trauma is so constitutive of psychoanalysis that, not surprisingly, one finds in Freud’s earliest written communication to Breuer, in 1892, his first attempt to define the concept: “We arrive at a definition of psychical trauma: any impression which the nervous system has difficulty in disposing of by means of associative thinking or of motor reaction becomes a psychical trauma” (p. 154).

As they would write in their “Preliminary Communication” (Breuer and Freud 1893), a trauma (“a foreign body to the mind”) was a psychical event that left an unmetabolizable residue, a sum of excitation, lodged in memory and separated off from awareness. This residue continued to have its effects long after the event in the form of hysterical symptoms, leading Breuer and Freud to conclude, famously, that “hysterics suffer from reminiscences.”

Although my emphasis will be on the psychoanalytic history of mind and trauma, it is helpful to set alongside that history another theorist of trauma, Pierre Janet, whose thinking on the subject, especially in recent years, has been undergoing a revival (see van der Hart, Brown, and van der Kolk 1989; van der Kolk and van der Hart 1989; for a critique, see Leys 1996). At about the same time that Freud and Breuer began their investigations, Janet asserted that hysterical symptoms constitute a splitting of consciousness due to a combination of traumatic memories and mental weakness. The split, according to Janet, was the result of “subconscious fixed ideas” whose “cause was usually a traumatic or frightening event that had become subconscious and had been replaced by symptoms” (Ellenberger 1970, pp. 372-373).

At this point the theories of trauma and splitting of consciousness offered by Freud and Breuer on the one hand and Janet on the other appeared quite similar; however, a closer examination reveals that because each believed the illness to arise from different causes, they advocated very different types of treatment. Janet believed that “subconscious fixed ideas … are at the same time cause and effect of mental weakness …” (Ellenberger 1970, p. 373). Breuer, by contrast, asserted that a kind of twilight mental state, which he characterized as “hypnoid,” was responsible for the splitting of consciousness and ultimately for hysterical symptoms (Breuer and Freud 1895). He believed that a hypnoid state might be the result of the reverie that accompanies the repeated recollection of a traumatic event and therefore should not be understood as the result of mental weakness. Even in hysterical women for whom the originating trauma was mild and did not seem to warrant the splitting that was observed, Breuer asserted that it must be seen to have resulted from the boredom imposed on bright young women whose minds were being wasted on mindless activity. In his theoretical contribution to Studies on Hysteria, Breuer overtly contradicted Janet: “It is not the case that the splitting of consciousness occurs because the patients are weak-minded; they appear to be weak-minded because their mental activity is divided…. This is specially true of people who are of a very lively disposition, to whom monotonous, simple and uninteresting occupation is torture …” (Breuer and Freud 1895, pp. 231-233).

Naturally, Breuer and Janet each developed a treatment reflective of their theory of the symptoms’ origins. In that Janet believed that it was mental weakness that made hysterics susceptible to the staying power of “subconscious fixed ideas,” his treatment consisted of ridding the subconscious mind of these ideas—by hypnotic suggestion. Janet made liberal use of the authority of the hypnotist, convincing his patient that the traumatic memory was incorrect; he then attempted to replace the traumatic memory with an alternative, nontraumatic memory, which he himself provided. In one famous example, the case of “Marie,” he described his method:

It … occurred to me to put her into a deep somnambulistic condition, a state where (as we have seen) it is possible to bring back seemingly forgotten memories, and thus I was able to find out the exact memory of an incident which had hitherto been only very incompletely known…. The attacks of terror were the repetition of an emotion which this young girl had felt when seeing, at the age of 16, an old woman killing herself by falling down stairs…. Through the same process as before, through bringing the subject back by suggestion to the moment of the accident, I succeeded, not without difficulty, to show her that the old woman had only stumbled but had not killed herself: the attacks of terror did not recur (in Ellenberger 1970, pp. 362-363).

Breuer’s emphasis, by contrast, was on the retention of traumatic affect, when, by virtue of the power of the trauma or the boredom of the subject, a disturbing experience had been split off into a separate consciousness and could not be responded to with full and appropriate affect. Thus, the aim of Breuer’s hypnotic treatment was both to revive the split-off memory and to permit the release of the affect that had not been released at the time of the trauma. This was the “cathartic” method, the aim of which was “abreaction.”

In a separate paper, Freud (1894) offered a third explanation for the impact of trauma, distinct both from Janet’s, which seemed to him “to admit of a great variety of objections” (p. 46) and from Breuer’s. Freud asserted that a splitting of the mind resulted when “an occurrence of incompatibility took place in … emotional life—that is to say an idea or a feeling which aroused such a distressing affect that the subject decided to forget about it because he had no confidence in his power to resolve the contradiction between that incompatible idea and his ego by means of thought-activity” (p. 47).

In other words, for Freud an experience was traumatic because it was overwhelming to “the dominant mass of ideas constituting the ego” (Breuer and Freud 1895, p. 116). Splitting of consciousness was due to a combination of traumatic experience and subjective response. Even at this early stage, Freud’s was a “dynamic” view; trauma was the result of an interaction of self and environment, a crisis of experience and meaning, rather than solely the result of an environmental impingement on the weakened ego. Thus, Freud’s method of treatment involved analysis of the conflictual elements and was aimed at integrating the split-off memory, with its full affect, into consciousness.

Over the next few years, Freud would expand upon this view in a manner that would be obscured and distorted by later historians and critics. In 1895, simultaneous with the publication of the Studies, Freud wrote a brilliant, difficult work that, although unpublished and forgotten for over fifty years, formed the basis of much psychoanalytic theorizing to come. At the core of The Project for a Scientific Psychology (1895) was Freud’s description of the ego (the “I,” or Ich in Freud’s German), a neurological structure formed to master stimulation from the environment and from bodily needs in a way that maximizes survival and minimizes pain. Since stimulation was seen as potentially traumatizing to psychic functioning, the ego was envisioned as a developing organization of networks of neuronal connections whose aim was to make use of experience and memory to anticipate and avoid traumatization: “Thus quantity in ω [perception] is expressed in ψ [ego] by complication” (p. 315).

This, in essence, is the psychoanalytic view of the development of the ego; it is seen as having evolved secondary to potentially traumatizing experience. In this view, the self is construed as a kind of psychic pearl cohering, soothing, and protecting against the foreign irritant, the “too muchness” of experience.

Simultaneously with the Project, Freud advanced another theory of trauma: the much-referred-to and misunderstood “seduction hypothesis,” in which he asserted that hysteria and other neuroses always and invariably are the result of sexual abuse in early childhood. Interestingly, Freud’s first mention of that hypothesis came in the very same letter, written to his friend Wilhelm Fliess on October 8, 1895, in which he enclosed his newly written Project: “I am putting together all sorts of things for you today— … [including] two notebooks of mine…. I scribbled them full at one stretch since my return…. Just think, among other things I am on the scent of the following strict precondition for hysteria, namely, that a primary sexual experience (before puberty), accompanied by revulsion and fright, must have taken place; for obsessional neurosis, that it must have taken place accompanied by pleasure“(Masson 1985, p. 141).

This is important because of the controversy surrounding Freud’s so-called abandonment of the seduction hypothesis, its meaning, and its place in the history of trauma theory. Many recent theorists of trauma (Masson 1984; Herman 1992; Davies and Frawley 1994; van der Kolk, McFarlane, and Weisaeth 1996) have assailed Freud for giving up the theory that neurosis is caused exclusively by childhood sexual trauma. As one critic put it, “faced with his colleagues’ hostility to his discoveries, Freud sacrificed his major insight” (Masson 1984, p. 191). Freud, so the story is told, turned away from the evidence of ubiquitous childhood abuse and replaced it with a theory of childhood sexual fantasy, in essence shifting the responsibility for neurosis from the abuser to the abused. In so doing, Freud is said to have abandoned more than the seduction hypothesis, but to have abandoned his principles and generations of victims as well: “Freud’s subsequent retreat from the study of psychological trauma has come to be viewed as a matter of scandal. His recantation has been vilified as an act of personal cowardice…. Freud’s rival Janet, who never abandoned his traumatic theory of hysteria and who never retreated from his hysterical patients, lived to see his works forgotten and his ideas rejected” (Herman 1992, p. 18).

As this turn in Freud’s thinking has been cited as setting the treatment of trauma on the wrong course for nearly a century, it is important to understand Freud’s seduction hypothesis, its ostensive abandonment, and what the historians and critics have made of this development.

To be fully understood, the seduction hypothesis must be read in the context of the Project and its theory of “normal” ego development, which asserted that the normally functioning ego owes its existence to the need to master painful psychical stimulation. Freud believed the ego capable of mastering very severe traumas without developing pathology; intense—even intensely painful—stimulation was not enough to create symptoms, since “experience shows … that [often] the most distressing memories, which must necessarily arouse the greatest unpleasure (the memory of remorse over bad actions), cannot be repressed and replaced by symbols” (p. 353). Instead he argued, based partly on clinical experience and partly on theory, that “sexual ideas are alone subjected to repression.” This constituted the greatest “riddle” for Freud: why did the ego fail in its appointed task of mastering traumatic stimulation only when faced with certain sexual memories?

Behind this question was an unspoken assumption, held at the time by Freud, Breuer, and Janet, and, earlier, by Charcot. This was that there is a significant difference in the workings of the mind between normality and pathology, that the mental functioning of neurotics differs from normal people in kind, rather than in degree.

In the Project Freud offered one possible explanation of the circumstances under which the psyche might shift its functioning from the normal to the pathological. According to the Project, memory, as opposed to perception and hallucination, reflects the presence of an ego organization, and as such follows what he called the “secondary process.” Neurotic pathology, on the other hand, follows “primary process,” indicating the ego has failed in its appointed task of mastering psychical stimulation, and necessitating the transformation of that overwhelming stimulation into somatic or psychical symptoms. Freud conjectured that there was only one circumstance under which what would normally become a memory (or would generate a normal defense) would instead provoke a symptom (an abnormal defense): if a memory of an event caused a greater sexual release than the experience itself had. Freud argued that this could happen only if between perception of the event and recollection of the event the subject had undergone puberty. This is the theory of Nachträglichkeit (deferred action). In hysteria, he wrote, “We invariably find that a memory is repressed which has only become a trauma by nachträglichkeit. The cause of this state of things is the retardation of puberty as compared with the rest of the individual’s development” (1895, p. 356).

In addition, at this point Freud believed that only direct stimulation of the genitals in the prepubertal period would provoke sufficient sexual release, when triggered by a memory after puberty, to overwhelm the ego defenses. Therefore, according to the theory of Nachträglichkeit, only actual childhood sexual abuse, reevoked after puberty, could lead to neurosis: “these sexual traumas must have occurred in early childhood (before puberty), and their content must consist of an actual irritation of the genitals (of processes resembling copulation)” (Freud 1896, p. 163).

In the years following, leading up to the so-called abandonment of the seduction hypothesis and beyond, Freud adjusted this theory in a direction that would make psychoanalysis unique among psychological theories of trauma. To put it simply, Freud came to believe that the difference between normal and pathological psychological functioning was one not of kind but of degree, and that for both normal and pathological subjects the ego could be understood as that aspect of psychic functioning that is organized, more or less successfully, in response to the traumas of experience.

Even prior to the so-called abandonment of the seduction hypothesis, which came in his famous letter to Fliess on September 21, 1897, Freud developed a number of concepts that would substantially broaden and change the theory of Nachträglichkeit. He found, for example, that sexual memories might come from sources other than direct genital stimulation, that sexual experiences overheard or seen by children were enough to stir childhood sexual fantasy. He found that children stimulate their own genitals very early on by masturbating, and that the ideation accompanying such masturbation often had a sexual content; he developed the concept of erotogenic zones and the understanding that “during childhood sexual release would seem to be obtainable from a great many parts of the body” (Masson 1985, p. 212). Ultimately he came to believe that children are sexual beings born into an environment of overstimulation, and that the sensual experiences of childhood, acting in combination with fantasy and desire, posed a constant challenge to the integrity of the ego. He came to believe, too, that sexual stimulation was ubiquitous, and that puberty was not the divide he thought it was.

In other words, Freud came to understand that normality and pathology were differentiated, not by whether there was childhood sexual abuse, but by an interaction of individual susceptibility to stimulation, the degree of traumatic stimulation, and the peculiarity of the development of the internal life of a particular self, its meaning systems, and its fantasies: In a letter to Fliess on October 27, 1897, he wrote that “the infantile character develops during a period of ‘longing’, after the child has been removed from the sexual experiences. Longing is the main character trait of hysteria…. During this same period of longing fantasies are formed and masturbation is practiced, which then yields to repression” (Masson 1985, pp. 274-275).

This was not an “abandonment” of the theory of environmental traumatic impact, or even of the effect of traumatic sexual seduction. If anything, in abandoning his belief that only actual genital abuse could cause neurosis, Freud expanded the range of environmental sexual experiences that could be deemed traumatic (and simultaneously formative) to the young child. Even in his own case, which he came to articulate after September 21, 1897, he noted the influence of sexual abuse; in a letter dated October 3-4, 1897, he stated that “in my case the ‘prime originator’ was an ugly, elderly, but clever woman…. she was my teacher in sexual matters and complained because I was clumsy and unable to do anything” (Masson 1985, pp. 268-269).

Freud’s infamous change of heart did shift his emphasis on trauma in a number of significant ways. First and foremost, he gave up completely the idea that hysterical symptoms could be caused only by direct childhood sexual abuse. Second, he emphasized the interaction of self and environment in determining the psychological outcome of childhood experience. He would later term this interaction effect the complemental series:

It is not easy to estimate the relative efficacy of the constitutional and accidental factors. In theory one is always inclined to overestimate the former; therapeutic practice emphasizes the importance of the latter. It should, however, on no account be forgotten that the relation between the two is a co-operative and not a mutually exclusive one. The constitutional factor must await experiences before it can make itself felt; the accidental factor must have a constitutional basis in order to come into operation (Freud 1905, p. 239).

But most important was Freud’s shift in terms of understanding that trauma, rather than being exceptional to the ego, was formative of it, and that the same was true for the entire range of responses to and interactions with the environment, from the normal to the pathological. In other words, Freud’s legacy is harsh, in that it leaves human beings to face the problem that what we call trauma is, in a sense, not trauma but life, and that we are who we are because of the opportunities that “trauma” gives us, that we exist as humans to make the most of our difficulties, not to sustain the fantasy that it is desirable, or even possible, to undo them.

Thus, in a letter dated October 3, 1897, Freud reflected on the images of abuse he had gleaned from his own childhood: “I have not yet grasped anything at all of the scenes themselves which lie at the bottom of the story. If they come and I succeed in resolving my own hysteria, then I shall be grateful to the memory of the old woman who provided me at such an early age with the means for living and going on living” (Masson 1985, pp. 268-269).

Freud’s transformation of his theory was groundbreaking and marks the beginning of the psychoanalytic mode of understanding: that to be human is to interact meaningfully and usefully within a potentially traumatizing environment. The more successful we are at navigating this intersect of desire and fear, trauma and meaning, the less likely we are to fall ill in the face of terrible events. Thus, with the so-called abandonment of the seduction hypothesis, psychoanalysis became a form of individual empowerment in the face of the harshness of experience, rather than a theory of the bad effects of victimization. Against this, Janet (and to a lesser extent Breuer) maintained a more paternalistic, authoritarian, and medicalized view of the patient and of trauma—the patient was seen to have acquired a pathology that needed to be relieved by a doctor.

Still, in the recent trauma literature Janet is undergoing a revival, and Freud’s abandonment of his theory that neurosis is invariably caused by the sexual abuse of children is being criticized. The “vilification” of Freud is based not merely on his supposed denial that sexual abuse of children occurs, but on his abandoning the belief that abuse is the invariable origin of neurosis. In much of the trauma literature, including some of the recent psychoanalytic literature, Freud’s critics have gone to great lengths to demonstrate that he was misguided in abandoning that position: “Freud had no way of empirically validating the extent of sexual abuse in Victorian Vienna. As a bourgeois father, he apparently could not conceive that children were abused in numbers large enough to produce the frequency of hysteria seen in that day…. Considering that it was only in the 1980’s that empirically excellent studies generated incidence rates of childhood sexual abuse at 38% of all American women, we can understand Freud’s resistance to accepting the frequency of childhood sexual abuse implied by the incidence of hysteria” (Davies and Frawley 1994, p. 14).

On the face of it, this argument is absurd. Every clinician knows from experience that Freud’s seduction hypothesis—the assertion that every neurosis is invariably caused by sexual abuse —cannot be correct. And yet enormous effort has gone into condemning Freud for giving up the hypothesis, and hardly less effort into attempts to reinstate it. This has been achieved by a variety of means, from making the case that childhood rape is actually widespread enough to be responsible for all neurosis, to the tendency to extend the meaning of the terms sexual abuse and trauma in order to grant them greater ubiquity. This coincides with the widening of the concept of trauma in our culture more generally. But whereas Freud broadened the meaning of trauma to acknowledge that suffering is a formative aspect of the development of human beings in general, trauma theorists have expanded the concept to extend a kind of sympathetic pathology to a wide swath of the population. Some theorists have gone so far as to describe American culture itself as a product and reflection of traumatic pathology. In such a culture all of us, with the exception of perpetrators, are innocent victims: “our entire culture has become ‘trauma-organized,’ meaning trauma and its immediate and long-term effects have become a central organizing principle for our entire social structure. A number of studies in recent years have shown that up to three-quarters of the general population in the United States have been exposed to some event in their lifetime that can be defined as traumatic. This exposure to overwhelming stress has long-term as well as immediate consequences for the survivors and their families, friends, colleagues, employers, and fellow citizens” (Bloom and Reichart 1998, pp. 14-15).

With this shift of the trauma discourse, not only has trauma been relegated to the exceptional and pathological, but it has simultaneously become ubiquitous: traumas are to be found everywhere, we are all traumatized, we are all “survivors.” To accomplish this, another fundamental distinction has been obscured: the distinction between a traumatic event and a traumatic response.

Traumatic Event vs. Traumatic Response

The term trauma is used in two distinct ways that in recent parlance have been confused. “Trauma” can refer to a traumatic event or circumstance or to a traumatic response or effect. (I will restrict my use of the term to refer to the latter.) This distinction is important because, contrary to the writings of many recent trauma theorists, traumatic circumstances do not invariably lead to traumatic effects, and using the word trauma for both can instill the belief that they do.

A traumatic circumstance can be defined, in part, as an overwhelming physical, emotional, or social experience—a shock or disaster, acute or chronic, that tears through or tears apart the ego’s protective organizational fabric. This organizational fabric is woven of many threads. An individual’s protective matrix includes the physical body, the social support network, social customs, and individual and social belief systems. This organization or “ego” (individual and social) is formed of beliefs and practices that allow for a measure of predictability, social order, and the means to ensure or restore safety and stability. Some circumstances are quite terrible, but research shows that if they are predictable or find a place within individual and cultural meaning systems, the incidence of trauma that follows is relatively low (Agger and Jensen 1996). By contrast, circumstances that may not cause extreme damage but that undermine the organizational fabric can lead to traumatic reactions.

Thus, it is not the traumatic event per se, but the event in its context and its meaning, that leads or does not lead to trauma. As Breuer and Freud pointed out in 1893, trauma is produced when there are traumatic circumstances and where there is no opportunity to react to those circumstances: “The fading of a [traumatic] memory or the losing of its affect depends on various factors. The most important of these is whether there has been an energetic reaction to the event that provokes an affect. By ‘reaction’; we here understand the whole class of voluntary and involuntary reflexes—from tears to acts of revenge—in which, as experience shows us, the affects are discharged. If this reaction takes place with sufficient intensity [as for instance, with revenge] a great part of the affect disappears as a result…” (p. 8).

Taking this further, it might be said that trauma results when there is a tearing of the integrity of the psychophysiological or psychosocial system, and where that system cannot be psychically restored or energetically reasserted. But where strong reaction is possible, or where a belief system is reasserted, trauma may well be averted.

Thus, one might say with Freud that to avoid trauma a person must react to the traumatic circumstance in an active way—a way in which previously held meanings are reasserted, energies discharged, the social fabric rewoven, and belief systems and practices reinforced.

It is well known from trauma research that people who go through traumatic circumstances with strong belief systems—religious, political, cultural—and who are able to emerge with their belief system intact are less likely to suffer traumatic reactions (Agger and Jensen 1990). Extensive research in populations surviving traumatic circumstances shows that only a small percentage—some say fewer than 10 per cent—show the kind of psychological or familial dysfunction that justifies ongoing therapeutic intervention. This is surprising if one reads much of the trauma literature. The fact that PTSD is in fact “an atypical response to traumatization” (Yehuda and McFarlane 1995, p. 1704), however, indicates that individuals, families, and cultures have mechanisms for dealing with traumatic circumstances that are underestimated.

Signs of Traumatic Experience vs. Symptoms of Trauma Avoidance

Individuals, families, and cultures tend to make use of habitual, culturally sanctioned ways of coping with trauma, particularly if their history is one with repeated traumatic circumstances. Whether these coping mechanisms consist of prescribed rituals of mourning and cultural reparation, customs of forgiveness and hope for a better afterlife, beliefs that experiences of suffering are inevitable aspects of the cultural identity, customs of adaptation and cultural malleability, traditions of individual or social alcohol or drug use, or customs of revenge— each supports a belief system, reinforces social ties, elaborates an historical narrative, and permits some discharge of pent-up energies.

Thus, not only is an individual ego formed by processes of structuring potentially traumatic experience, but entire cultural identities and traditions are as well. Cultural systems, to a certain extent, are group modes of coping with traumatic circumstances. As Clifford Geertz put it (1973), “There are at least three points where chaos—a tumult of events which lack not just interpretations but interpretability—threatens to break in upon man: at the limits of his analytic capacities, at the limits of his endurance, and at the limits of his moral insight. Bafflement, suffering, and a sense of intractable ethical paradox are all, if they become intense enough or are sustained long enough, radical challenges to the proposition that life is comprehensible and that we can, by taking thought, orient ourselves effectively within it—challenges with which any religion, however ‘primitive,’ which hopes to persist must attempt somehow to cope” (p. 100).

Geertz argued, as did Freud, that such challenges to the organizational system need not be catastrophic to be traumatic: “More commonly it is a persistent, constantly re-experienced difficulty in grasping certain aspects of nature, self, and society, in bringing certain elusive phenomena within the sphere of culturally formulatable fact, which renders man chronically uneasy and toward which a more equable flow of diagnostic symbols is consequently directed” (p. 102).

For the most part, traditional mechanisms for contending with trauma facilitate an avoidance of a traumatic reaction. In fact, it could be argued that for the “chronically uneasy” the press to avoid the effects of trauma is the single most pervasive individual and cultural response to traumatic circumstances. Often what are described as symptoms of trauma—numbing, hyperarousal, impulsivity—can be better understood as symptoms of the attempt to avoid the full impact of trauma, with its intrinsic challenge to given systems of meaning and belief.

Every culture has its idealized story, the story of the way things are and why they are that way. Every culture, too, has ways of addressing what is at the margins of that story, what threatens that story. And each culture has its privileged narrative of trauma, its traditional manner of addressing the culturally traumatic so that it reinforces, rather than undermines, the collective identity or cultural ego.

In the United States over the past century, the preferred narratives of trauma have shifted. For a time, the stories of traumatic threat were told as tales of heroism and sacrifice, the twin themes of the Second World War, and focused on the foreign threat. These two responses to trauma integrated the individual and the social—trauma was seen to be inevitable if we are to protect our country and our values; it was to be faced with courage on the individual level, and with communal sacrifice for the greater good. Toward the end of the twentieth century, as the conception of the dangerous shifted from outside our borders to inside, as war receded as the context, and the pursuit of security and wealth became values in their own right, the American trauma narrative shifted away from the social to the individual, and away from sacrifice for the greater good to stories of individual victimization, emphasizing evil intent against the individual on the part of the perpetrator. The preferred story cast the traumatized as innocent or naive and blameless. Typically, the victim has had the means for achieving security and wealth taken from him or her through violence or abuse.

In the popularized versions of these stories, played out in the tabloid press or on television, stories about children and animals often met these criteria. The aim was to evoke in the reader or the viewer the urge to restore the lost happiness and economic security of these innocents. If, however, the victim turned out not to be naive, the turnabout in sympathies has often been dramatic.

Since September 11, the heroic story has returned but, interestingly, without the concomitant sacrifice. Throughout, the privileged position of the victim has not been dislodged from the zeitgeist.

The recent emphasis on narratives of individual trauma, suffering, and deprivation, in the press, on television, in politics, and in therapy, is not only a renewed appreciation for the impact and ubiquity of tragedy, but is simultaneously a form of trauma avoidance, a mechanism that justifies the discharge of tension, without the need to make the psychic and social adjustments trauma necessitates.

One of Freud’s unique contributions to the study of trauma was to conceptualize two processes by which traumatic experience may lead to something other than traumatic effect; alongside trauma avoidance (the discharge of built-up energy) Freud posited the essentially formative quality of traumatic experience—the notion that trauma facilitates the structure and development of the self: “[Energetic reaction] is not the only method of dealing with … a psychical trauma. A memory of such a trauma, even if it has not been abreacted, enters into the great complex of associations, it comes alongside other experiences, which may contradict it, and is subject to rectification by other ideas” (Breuer and Freud 1893, p. 9).

As Freud learned, true transformation of the self requires a combination of structural development and energetic expression. This process may be called trauma integration. Ultimately, psychoanalysis can be seen as one of the means for individuals to integrate trauma when avoidance fails or turns pathological, and when cultural and individual processes of integration no longer serve.

In the early twentieth century, under the influence of psychoanalysis, trauma was seen as a psyche-engendering painful experience, to be treated with psychoanalysis or psychotherapy aimed at promoting increased psychic structure and freedom. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we have retreated from Freud’s complex understanding of the role of pain, aggression, revenge, responsibility, integration, and sublimation. In its place is a view of trauma as an identity in itself, an identity at once exceptional, privileged, and pathological. The goal is no longer to claim and transform trauma, but to cure it.

To put it rather bluntly, trauma, the traumatized, and trauma treatment have become the stuff of a particular cultural fantasy. In the language of this fantasy, trauma is seen as exceptional rather than formative, traumatic events are given priority over traumatic effects, and the symptoms of trauma are seen as pathological in themselves, to be avoided or treated rather than accepted and integrated.

This is not to say that trauma does not exist or that PTSD is not a genuine problem that requires caring treatment. But too often the understanding and treatment of trauma are overtaken by popular and cultural fantasies that impart to the traumatized and those aligned with the traumatized a kind of specialness, the aim of which is to blunt the impact of trauma and divert its effect. This, I believe, can do more harm than good, both to the traumatized as individuals and to the larger community within which they have become symbols.

The Narcissism of Trauma

It seems as if nowadays, there are almost no patients left, there are only victims who are in no way whatsoever implicated in their situation…. one does not say ‘patient,’ not even ‘victim,’ the correct signifier is: ‘survivor’.

—Paul Verhaeghe

In America, in the latter part of the twentieth century, the discourse of trauma had taken an increasingly central position in the zeitgeist, occupying ever more space on bestseller lists and providing subjects for talk shows and material for the news media. Simultaneously, the therapeutic language of trauma and the popular language of trauma began to meld; psychologists became talk show hosts, and talk show hosts became psychologists. With the events of September 11, 2001, the news media, government, and health establishments joined this overlapping discourse. In the process, the traumatized became celebrities as well as sufferers.

“Trauma,” particularly in America, has achieved a special status, accompanied by a rarefied narrative. In the current zeitgeist, the “survivor” of trauma inhabits a privileged and exceptional space, and is imbued with special qualities. First and foremost, the “survivor,” while in the public eye, is to be exempt from the mundane limitations of the everyday. Our front-page survivors are offered money, medical treatment, education costs, work, and, if they are children, stuffed animals and the fulfillment of their wishes.

The survivor is given authority and is at times gazed upon with a kind of awe. Like the soldiers of former times, the traumatized are regarded as people who have faced death and survived, and who, on that account, have greater access to reality than those who have not had such an experience. Painful experience is accorded a greater truth than ordinary experience, and to hear a story of trauma, of horror, is in the minds of most today to hear from one who has journeyed into the harsh world of the real. In the trauma literature, traumatic memories are believed to be more vivid and therefore more accurate than other memories (van der Kolk, McFarlane, and Weisaeth 1996; Terr 1990). As a result, the language of trauma memory is taken from the language of photography; traumatic memories are described as “photographic” or “flashbulb” (Brown and Kulik 1977). Reflected in this linguistic usage is the naive yearning for objective validation through technology, as if photography, because it is mechanical, is somehow more representative of objective reality than, for example, painting or drawing.

In this way, the “survivor” is granted a position that for the artist or the creative writer is hard-won: that of exploring the limits of cultural values and expectations for the public to experience vicariously, and finding the form to tell the tale. In recent popular culture there has been a melding of art and trauma, a shifting toward the memoir and “true dramatization,” which have lent a veneer of historical validity to the morality tales of popular culture.

In one well-known example, the award-winning memoir of a childhood in Auschwitz, the imagery of photography was employed to describe an imprinting in traumatic memory, ostensibly unencumbered by the working over and wearing away of normal memory: “My early childhood memories are planted, first and foremost, in exact snapshots of my photographic memory and in the feelings imprinted in them, and the physical sensations…. I’m not a poet or a writer. I can only try to use words to draw as exactly as possible what happened, what I saw; exactly the way my child’s memory has held onto it; with no benefit of perspective or vanishing point” (Wilkomirski 1997, p. 5).

Wilkomirski’s “memoir” turned out to be nothing of the sort, and has been exposed as having been fabricated from whole cloth (see Maechler 2001). Yet its success as a memoir provides a useful perspective on trauma as a discourse. Fragments is, I believe, a masterful co-opting of the language of trauma, and studying it helps expose the underlying fantasy structure that readers bring to such a discourse, and that makes us susceptible to being fooled. A key element of the narrative of trauma is the fantasy that there was an idyllic time before the trauma: “It must have been Riga, in winter. The city moat was frozen over. I’m sitting all bundled up with someone on a sled, and we’re running smoothly over the ice as if we’re on a street. Other sleds overtake us, and people on skates. Everyone’s laughing, looking happy. On both sides tree branches are bright and heavy with snow. They bend over with ice; we travel through and under them like through a silver tunnel. I think I’m floating. I’m happy” (p. 6). This pretraumatic state is then taken away by some terrible external circumstance. This is the structure of the narrative of war trauma, traumas of natural disasters, and traumas of childhood suffering and abuse. “But this picture is quickly scared off by other ones, dark and suffocating, which push into my brain and won t let go. They’re like a wall of solid black between me and the sparkling and the sun” (p. 6).

In the popular trauma discourse, the preferred story is the story of the traumatized as an innocent, a victim. The evil to which he or she has been subjected is seen to have entered from the outside and to have imposed itself on the traumatized, in the form of the abusive parent, the marauding soldier, heartless nature, the terrorist, the torturer. In memoirs, the innocence of the traumatized is most frequently aligned with the innocence of childhood. Along with whatever else has been shaken by the trauma is the promise and birthright of a childhood free from suffering. Often these are combined: the classic trauma narratives combine the loss of the pretraumatic state with the loss of childhood innocence :

For the first time, the feeling of deathly terror in my chest and throat, the heavy tramp of boots, a fist that yanks me out of my hiding place under the covers at the bottom of the bed and drops me onto the floorboards in the middle of an otherwise unfurnished little room….

In a shadowy corner, the outline of a man in hat and coat, his sweet face smiling at me.

May be my father.

Uniform, boots, screaming at him, hitting him, leading him out of the door…. The man is taken downstairs. I crawl after him, grab onto the banister, clamber down….

They’ve put the man against the wall next to the front gate … and they keep yelling something that sounds like “Killim, killim, killim. …”

All at once I realize: From now on I have to manage without you, I’m alone [p. 6].

An implicit theme of the trauma narrative is that the traumatized is absolved of responsibility. Not surprisingly, the discourse of the trauma narrative has much in common with the structure of children’s stories and fairy tales. In such stories, suffering is depicted as an aberration imposed on the innocent from without; it is ultimately overcome by magical intervention or by a fateful reward. The result, in such stories, is either restoration of the pretraumatic state (The Little Princess, Hansel and Gretel) or the accession of the protagonist into an exalted position (Cinderella, Harry Potter), or both (Sleeping Beauty, Snow White).

The “survivors,” like the protagonists in children’s stories, are accorded status by virtue of identification. The traumatized, in a sense, do the suffering on behalf of the public and, for the time they are granted such status, may exchange it for a wide array of currencies, from the monetary to the authoritative. It is not unusual for such public attention to engender competition among the sufferers for a greater quantity of trauma value (Belkin 2002). Whoever has suffered the most, and in a manner in keeping with cultural values and fantasies, receives the most of what, in our culture, suffering confers: the multivarious methods offered for restoring the pretraumatic state or for raising the traumatized, in some way, to an exalted position. Increasingly this has taken the form of financial remuneration.

For the therapist of trauma, a vicarious form of trauma culture inheres. Where the traumatized are looked upon with awe, the analyst is privileged merely to listen. And when the analyst turns around and speaks to other therapists of the sufferings of the sufferer, the presentation is received with a similar awe, as when the sufferings of the traumatized are related—as if the act of listening to the story is as much a feat of survival as the experience of the events themselves: “How can you listen to those stories?” we are asked.

The analyst endures his or her own hardship for the sake of the treatment, adding to the uniqueness of trauma therapy among treatments: fees are waived or reduced; session times are extended (sometimes doubled). Often the analysts seek a support group to help cope with the unique difficulties of trauma work. The analyst’s experience is sometimes thought of as “vicarious traumatization.”

Unlike most other psychological treatment, trauma intervention focuses primarily on the problem as coming from the outside. Therapists increasingly resist implicating the sufferer in the suffering. Even the psychoanalyst, when addressing issues of trauma, abandons the neutral position of other treatments and takes a stand with the patient against the perpetrator. In fact, taking a neutral position with regard to the patient’s subjective experience of the trauma is often described as siding with the perpetrator. In Treating the Adult Survivor of Child Abuse, Davies and Frawley (1994) level precisely this charge against Freud. The seduction theory, they argue, “was based on validation of a patient’s childhood experiences with real people; it incriminated adults who used children to fulfill their own narcissistic needs. The oedipal conflict, on the other hand, insisted that childhood sexual abuse was fantasy material driven by unconscious sexual wishes; it protected the parents at the expense of the patient’s reality” (p. 15).

Trauma is an affliction in the passive voice: the sufferer has been traumatized. It is something that happens to someone, as the tuberculosis victim has been exposed to an infection. Part of the discourse of trauma treatment includes the implication that there is a curative value in “expressing” the trauma, that through treatment the illness will be evacuated and the pretraumatic state restored.

The therapeutic trauma discourse, like the extratherapeutic trauma discourse, covertly and overtly emphasizes the idealization of the pretraumatic state. Most developmental theories, in both psychoanalysis and trauma theory, have described, as a kind of baseline or norm, an idealization of the infant-mother bond, and much of the recent literature on childhood trauma describes deviations from such an attachment as pathological and traumatogenic. It becomes the task of the treatment to restore the traumatized person to the pretraumatic state, or to introduce a normal life that the traumatized person has never experienced. Folded into the fantasy of the pretraumatic state is the ideal of safety as the optimal childhood environment. Psychoanalysis has taken on this construct as the organizing principle for the analytic environment (see, e.g., Sandler 1987; Winnicott 1965).

Through the treatment, the traumatized patient is offered the opportunity to reexperience the developmental progression that has gone awry. The language of trauma treatment is increasingly derived from the language of developmental object relations theory, which is itself derived from the language of mothering. Treatment is described as “nourishing,” interpretations as “satisfying” (Klein 1957). The consulting room is a surrogate womb or nursery, a “holding environment,” and “what happens in the transference … is a form of infant-mother relationship” (Winnicott 1960, p. 141). Implicit in the language are covert or overt notions of the analysis as a second chance at childhood—and not any childhood, but a Western idealization of childhood where mothers are optimally available and only appropriately and not overly frustrating, and where the child’s needs are paramount. Further, trauma is responded to, even long after the crisis has come to an end, as if the memory of the experience has the same life-and-death consequences as the experience itself.

While all therapeutic relationships take place in a protected and private environment, where one partner of a special relationship listens to the secrets of the other, in trauma treatment this special relationship is emphasized in distinct and extraordinary ways. It is common in the clinical presentation of trauma treatments for the therapist to note how many failed therapies or misdiagnoses preceded the current treatment, adding to an aura of special understanding. Often the therapist will speak not to the patient, but to the patient as if he or she were a child, to the “child persona” (Davies and Frawley 1994, p. 220). It is often asserted as well that what is curative is not the therapy or the analysis, but the experience of a better relationship than the patient/child had previously had.

These elements, taken together—the exceptional, privileged status of the traumatized, the assertion that the needs of the traumatized are responded to as if they reflect life-or-death urgency, the location of the threat to well-being as coming exclusively from the outside, the requirement that caretakers forgo their own needs, the aim of the effort toward restoration of a former idealized state (or to make such a state available for the first time)—reveal that, to use psychoanalytic terms, trauma has become the venue in our culture, and in our treatment, where narcissism is permitted to prevail.

The narcissism of trauma is that aspect of the cultural attitude toward the traumatized in which the therapist, the bystander, the international aid organization, the philanthropist, the government, the tabloid reader and television viewer, project vulnerability onto the sufferer and then assert that this suffering is special, especially worthy of aid, attention, and relief from life’s difficult obligations and twists of fate. The traumatized, then, are not only sufferers in their own right; they are in addition the repositories for our own lost narcissism and, provided they pay the toll of significant misery, are permitted to retain the privileges of the narcissistic position.

In Freud’s seminal work “On Narcissism: An Introduction” (1914), he described parents’ projection of their own narcissism onto their children. He argued that children, once quite literally part of their parents’ bodies, become the recipient of narcissistic self-regard that has been lost to humbling experience:

If we look at the attitude of affectionate parents towards their children, we have to recognize that it is a revival and reproduction of their own narcissism, which they have long since abandoned…. they are inclined to suspend in the child’s favour the operation of all those cultural acquisitions which their own narcissism has been forced to respect, and to renew on his behalf the claims to privileges which were long ago given up by themselves. The child shall have a better time than his parents; he shall not be subject to the necessities which they have recognized as paramount in life. Illness, death, renunciation of enjoyment, restrictions on his own will, shall not touch him; the laws of nature and society shall be abrogated in his favour…. At the most touchy point in the narcissistic system, the immortality of the ego, which is so hard pressed by reality, security is achieved by taking refuge in the child [pp. 90-91].

In contemporary culture, this process has been expanded. It includes not only parental ambitions for children, but illusions regarding a host of others whose exemption from suffering holds the promise that we too might, under special circumstances, be exempt from suffering. The traumatized are a reminder that life is fragile, and that ultimately we die. The sentimental outpouring of largesse for the traumatized reflects, among other things, the fantasy that suffering is a guarantee against death; that somehow, if one suffers enough, there will be a reward, an exemption from mortality. Just beneath the surface of the narcissistic construction of trauma, with its appearance of altruism and generosity, lies a corollary component: that of the justification of aggression and revenge toward the perceived source of the trauma. Just as the traumatized are entitled, in this construction, to a life free from suffering, the sources of their suffering (and ours) are vilified, and violent retribution is often condoned. As Freud (1915) put it, “The ego hates, abhors and pursues with the intent to destroy all objects” that are a source of threat to this narcissistic state (p. 138). Thus, trauma rhetoric is filled with the splitting into good and evil, a reflection of the narcissistic position.

As a result of the fantasies imposed on them, the sufferers have found themselves possessed of a fickle commodity, a kind of celebrity status, which lasts as long as the survivors’ story fulfills the desires of the other. But insofar as each of these desires—the desire for the restoration of the idealized state, and the desire to destroy the source of suffering—are derived from narcissism, they cannot be satisfied or sustained without continued effort and, ultimately, distortion.

Because no one is born into a perfect environment, and no country is trouble-free prior to war or disaster, the expectation that such a state will be restored, that there will be a “return to normal,” is problematic. The pretraumatic state invariably had difficulties that predated the trauma and that are likely to continue beyond the current crisis. Moreover, tragedy, whatever it is, usually has permanent effects, unamenable to “cure.” After tragedy, things can never be the same, nor should they be. Trauma is invariably an experience of loss, even if what is lost is the naive belief in safety or permanence, and, however much it may be mitigated, loss cannot be cured.

Along the same lines, trauma brings with it no privileged window onto truth, wisdom, and creativity. And to invite the traumatized to participate in the creation of law, or defense policy, or the art of memorialization is at best to reduce these efforts to the lowest common denominator of childish narcissism; at worst it is a cynical manipulation of public emotions for covert political agendas.

But while the traumatized are not oracles, they do carry a message, one quite frightening, both to the traumatized and to those who witness their trauma: the traumatized are harbingers of disillusionment. What they have, if they can sustain it, is a privileged window onto what is false. This is the impossible social position, available to the traumatized and to the witnesses of trauma, that narcissism would obscure. Impossible, because few people want to know what is false unless they can quickly put an alternative belief in its place. Too often the rush to help the traumatized is motivated by the desire to avoid trauma, in favor of a fantasy of victimization and restoration. Inevitably, however, the reality of each particular case of suffering overwhelms the fantasy, and the trauma professional who seeks to exceptionalize trauma must move on to the next circumstance. This is why trauma treatment and international intervention so often end in resentment and mutual hostility.

To continue to be heard, the traumatized must tell the story that the listeners—the journalists, the philanthropists, the aid organizations, the politicians, and, too often, the therapists—want to hear. When they do so, they are valued; their story is validated. The Tibetan monk, the Kosovar proponent of multiethnic harmony, the Afghan woman under the Taliban, the adult abused as a child, each tells a story of suffering which at different times has satisfied the fantasy (not to mention the political agenda) of different listeners. It is the story that becomes the commodity; it is the story, not the suffering, that is validated in the telling. Herein lies the envy that sets in among sufferers; true sufferers believe that it is suffering itself that opens privileged status, and they become confused when the listener moves on to another story of suffering, equal (or lesser) in severity compared to the first, but that holds more current meaning for the listener.


Trauma in its true sense marks a tear in the personal and social fabric. It forces on sufferer and observer the unwanted knowledge that “personal and social fabric” is a construction, a network of beliefs, practices, and knowledge designed to give us the idea that we are safe and that things make sense. But often we are not safe, and what we hold dear is not guaranteed to be correct or even wise. Trauma, then, for individuals and cultures alike, provides a painful opportunity to re-examine the organizational fabric, to fix it where it needs repairing, to take it down when it doesn’t serve, to examine the unexamined beliefs that leave us vulnerable, and to know when and for what it may be necessary to fight to maintain or restore safety. We squander this opportunity when we valorize suffering; we sidestep trauma’s lessons and our own responsibility for those lessons.

To return to the beginning, trauma was conceptualized in psychoanalysis before mind itself, because, for the psychoanalyst, trauma is a dramatic opportunity for psychological growth. It points not only to the place where growth stopped, but just as precisely to where it might take on a new dimension. Trauma, like psychoanalysis, gives us the opportunity to face the limitations of belief, to experience the gap in the truth. There may be less painful ways to foster individual and cultural transformation, but there are none more acute than the formative experiences of trauma.


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