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Trauma - The Seductive Hypothesis

Trauma - The Seductive Hypothesis

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Published by Ted Strauss
In much of contemporary culture, “trauma” signifies not so much ter- rible 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 commodifi- cation of altruism, the justification of violence and revenge, the entry point into “true experience,” and the place where voyeurism and wit- nessing intersect. Trauma is today the stuff not only of suffering but of fantasy. Historically, trauma theory and treatment have shown a ten- sion, 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 inter- national 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.
In much of contemporary culture, “trauma” signifies not so much ter- rible 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 commodifi- cation of altruism, the justification of violence and revenge, the entry point into “true experience,” and the place where voyeurism and wit- nessing intersect. Trauma is today the stuff not only of suffering but of fantasy. Historically, trauma theory and treatment have shown a ten- sion, 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 inter- national 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.

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Published by: Ted Strauss on Jul 25, 2011
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05/26/2013

 
Steven Reisner 51/2
TRAUMA: THE SEDUCTIVEHYPOTHESIS
 All at once, as it seemed,something we could only have imagined was upon us and wecould still only imagine it.
 —P
HILIP
G
OUREVITCH
In much of contemporary culture, “trauma” signifies not so much ter-rible experience as a particular context for understanding and responding to a terrible experience. In therapy, in the media, and in internationalinterventions, 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 painand its treatment, but a host of sub-stories involving the commodifi-cation of altruism, the justification of violence and revenge, the entry point into “true experience,” and the place where voyeurism and wit-nessing intersect. Trauma is today the stuff not only of suffering but of fantasy. Historically, trauma theory and treatment have shown a ten-sion, exemplified in the writings of Freud and Janet, between those whoview trauma as formative and those who view it as exceptional.Thelatter view, that trauma confers exceptional status deserving of specialprivilege, has gained ground in recent years and has helped to shape the way charitable dollars are distributed, how the traumatized arepresented in the media, how governments justify and carry out inter-national responses to trauma, and how therapists attend to their  traumatized patients.This response to trauma reflects an underlying,unarticulated beliefsystem derived from narcissism; indeed, traumhas increasingly become the venue, in society and in treatment wherenarcissism is permitted to prevail.
S
eptember 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 uswho were in New York and have direct visual memories of the event as
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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 violentand tragic morning, it has become increasingly clear that the
 stories
of September 11—and the purposes to which they have been put—have avalue that supersedes their value as memory, or even as memorial.A story of trauma, properly told, may confer exceptional status, atleast for a time, not only on the sufferers but on those who wouldinvoke the suffering. Few would argue about the inherent justice insuch exemptions—it is only humane that sufferers have an opportu-nity to recuperate, and that severe suffering generate among the morefortunate a generosity toward the victims. It is my premise here, how-ever, that for the most part, especially in the public forum, trauma is notaccorded value on this basis, but rather is a commodity that tradesaccording to the value of the fantasies of suffering, and of the fantasiesof the privileges that suffering confers, that are projected onto the suf-ferers by others.Asidefromtheirpersonalvalue, thestoriesofthetraumaoSeptember 11have social, economic, and political value. Among thosedirectly affected, the value can be exchanged for a promise of exemp-tion from further suffering, guaranteed by charitable and governmentcontributions. Among those in government, for example, who wouldinvoke the suffering and defend the sufferers, trauma confers an exemp-tion from having to justify aggressive retaliatory action. And amongthose who would treat the sufferers, trauma confers a kind of authori-tative status.Prior to September 11, “trauma” and the traumatized had alreadycarved out a unique status in the zeitgeist. Before September 11, traumawas a subject not so much of dread as respect. The traumatized evokeda kind of awe and envy once reserved for the rich, the powerful, or the brave. Memoirs had replaced fiction on the bestseller lists, andin a number of famous cases in which autobiographies were exposedfor their exaggerations or fabrications, these were not, as in the past,unfounded claims of heroism, but unfounded or exaggerated claimsof profound suffering.
Steven Reisner
2
Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, New York University School of Medicine;teaching faculty, NewYork University PsychoanalyticInstitute and New York University International Trauma Studies Program.Submitted for publication May 19, 2001.
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How did it happen that suffering and trauma had become so ele-vated, both in the public sphere and more and more in the psychothera- peutic sphere? I will argue that much of our current response to traumareflects an underlying, unarticulated belief system about our vulnera- bility to terrible events. I will attempt to articulate certain question-able assumptions inherent in that belief system as it is reflected in theculture at large, as well as in the culture of treatment, to chart their consequences and propose alternatives. The current attitude towardtrauma, I believe, has made us as individuals, as analysts, and as asociety more susceptible to traumatic response and less capable of deal-ing productively with trauma. Three distinctions with regard to currentdiscourse on trauma are at the heart of our problematic approach totrauma: (1) traumatic eventvs. traumatic response; (2) signs of trau-matic experience vs. the symptoms of trauma avoidance; (3) traumaas 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 psychologywas born. I begin, then, with a reframing of the early history of traumatheory, in order to contextualize these three distinctions and theapproaches that follow from each.
THE SEDUCTION OF TRAUMA 
Psychological trauma is a peculiarly twentieth-centuryconcept, bornwith psychology and especially psychoanalysis. It began as a liberat-ingdiscourse, part of the century of the individual that psychoanalysisheralded and furthered in the Western world. But even within the dis-course 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.Thissplit 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 thelast decade of the nineteenth century, with the earliest psycho-analyticwritings of Freud and Breuer, because in psychoanalysis the
TRAUMA: THE SEDUCTIVE HYPOTHESIS
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