Trauma and Recovery
Judith Herman, M. D.New York: Basic Books, 1992(About a six-hour read.)
THE ORDINARY RESPONSE TO ATROCITIES is to banish them fromconsciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud:this is the meaning of the word
Atrocities, however, refuse to be buried.Equally as powerful as the desire to deny atrocities is the conviction that denial does notwork. Folk wisdom is filled with ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves until their storiesare told. Murder will out. Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events areprerequisites both for the restoration of the social order and for the healing of individualvictims.The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim themaloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma. People who have survivedatrocities often tell their stories in a highly emotional, contradictory, and fragmentedmanner which undermines their credibility and thereby serves the twin imperatives oftruth-telling and secrecy. When the truth is finally recognized, survivors can begin theirrecovery. But far too often secrecy prevails, and the story of the traumatic event surfacesnot as a verbal narrative but as a symptom.The psychological distress symptoms of traumatized people simultaneously callattention to the existence of an unspeakable secret and deflect attention from it. This ismost apparent in the way traumatized people alternate between feeling numb andreliving the event. The dialectic of trauma gives rise to complicated, sometimes uncannyalterations of consciousness, which George Orwell, one of the committed truth-tellers ofour century, called “doublethink,” and which mental health professionals, searching for acalm, precise language, call “dissociation.” It results in the protean, dramatic, and oftenbizarre symptoms of hysteria which Freud recognized a century ago as disguisedcommunications about sexual abuse in childhood.Witnesses as well as victims are subject to the dialectic of trauma. It is difficult foran observer to remain clearheaded and calm, to see more than a few fragments of thepicture at one time, to retain all the pieces, and to fit them together. It is even moredifficult to find a language that conveys fully and persuasively what one has seen. Thosewho attempt to describe the atrocities that they have witnessed also risk their own credi-bility. To speak publicly about one’s knowledge of atrocities is to invite the stigma thatattaches to victims. [c.f.,
.]The knowledge of horrible events periodically intrudes into public awareness butis rarely retained for long. Denial, repression, and dissociation operate on a social aswell as an individual level. The study of psychological trauma has an “underground”history. Like traumatized people, we have been cut off from the knowledge of our past.Like traumatized people, we need to understand the past in order to reclaim the presentand the future. Therefore, an understanding of psychological trauma begins withrediscovering history.