Emotional amnesia. That was the term that flashed in my mind as I read Donnel Stern’s “Witnessing Across Time: Accessing the Present from the Past and the Past from the Present”. Starting with a familiar idea, Stern writes that for survivors “the past of trauma cannot be understood in the present”; that it is drained of vitality, and that memories lack “plasticity”. As practitioners, we experience this in the affectless way in which trauma patients recall life events. Of course, this article refers to several sources and therefore Stern is not the author of each idea. I won’t attempt to credit them all, but rather represent them as best I can.
A second kind of effect: that of contemporary trauma upon capacity to experience the past is the focus of much of this paper. The three clinical examples, one drawn from a fiction, feature situations in which a character or a real-life individual has experienced a contemporary trauma, and that trauma robs the past of any goodness. This is seen in the example of Michael, the character from The Wire. A positive memory of his saving a child from a gang, uttered by Dukie, the boy Michael had saved, is denied. The positive is forgotten. That life is gone, and goodness is dead. With Menachem, the child who is smuggled out of Krakow, we learn of another kind of trauma: the reunion with a mother who has been beaten down by war: sick, emaciated, barely surviving. Menachem’s experience of his mother violates the memory of her vitality, as preserved in the picture he’d kept of her and even prayed to—a witness of Menachem’s creation. Upon reunion: “Something accessible becomes inaccessible”. Meaning, the former memory is tainted. Thirdly, we read of Darryl, the amputee Vietnam veteran who enters therapy, but continues to act out violently after previously suffering a psychotic break while in combat (he fires his weapon at home, terrifying his family). Darryl seems good natured and quiet in sessions. He came from a family of origin that was warm and related, but trauma has soiled nurturing, and only in therapy can a good relationship be preserved.
So trauma distorts an experience of the present, spoils an anticipation of the future, and even robs the past of its once seeming integrity. Witnessing, the article suggests, holds the key to “retranscription”. I am reminded that secret-keeping, if sanctioned, is so because many assume that secrets (not speaking of the past) will protect individuals from pain. Stern’s article more or less echoes this, but adds that the absence of witnesses sends the message that no one cares. “Nobody ever gets over anything,” Stern quotes from a contemporary novel referenced as House of Meaning. The line is despairing, suggesting an absence of hope (or meaning?) for those living in the wake of trauma. Incidentally, the reference in his article contains a mistake. I happen to own the Martin Amis novel in question, which is about a love triangle in a Russian Gulag. The actual title is House of Meetings.