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The Trauma Wire



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.




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Where there is hierarchy there is violence (part two)


…Which means there are casualties. They are victims, if you’re feeling sympathetic and outraged. They are losers, if you’re not. Chris Leavitt, my protagonist from Crystal From The Hills, is not much of a victim, but he is much of a loser. And I write that with love. In a way, I prefer losers to victims, though they are in some respects the same. Losers lack the hubris of victims, mostly because they haven’t the fortitude to call themselves victims. So Chris Leavitt is a traumatized individual; a casualty and a loser, not a victim: he is privileged, free for the most part but wary of his onlookers–his shadows, both real and not. Ironically, he pays more attention to the less than real shadows, which render him paranoid yet oblivious to what’s right beneath his nose. He is innocent in so far as he is uncalculated, uncensored and anarchic. Whether too impulsive enough or just lacking in political savvy, he is unequipped for any tight, hierarchically-driven order.

There are hierarchies all around: some are tacit structures, governed by race, class, gender, philosophy, religion–prejudices of various kinds. This is not original, but then neither is the hand-wringing that surrounds public controversies. It’s not nice to judge people for being different, people say on camera. But they do. Of course they do. It’s the correct thing to aim for the center (“the center holds” our President tells us), but all around us (and him), splitting, the thoughtless, triage-like division of life into “good” and “bad”, right and wrong, is occurring, and meanwhile, we are all shepherded into cliques, nurturing our prejudices and providing succor within echo chambers. I was once clique-bound at Thunder Road, the workplace that employed me for fifteen years, and which I depict in another book, Working Through Rehab: An Inside Look at Adolescent Drug Treatment. Contrary to my younger observations, Thunder Road is just another typical hierarchical system governed by shadows who determine who fits and who doesn’t; whose turn it is to be in charge, and whose turn it is to go…what works and what doesn’t. Leaders use corporate tools for the most part: manuals, handouts, HR policies, lawyers and spreadsheets, to create order. Meanwhile, the world they govern is an inchoate mass driven by an oral tradition, and the unconscious.

My turn on the rollercoaster lasted longer than most, though it was never my goal to merely have my turn. It was my pretension to do more, and now I have, only from the outside looking in. The point of my book is that taking a turn is not enough. Being politic, fitting in and censoring dissent may suit a hierarchical system, but it is psychological death to the conscious individual, the growing professional. I could avoid hierarchies, mess with hierarchies, dissent and maneuver only so much until shadows converged and told me that if I was to continue avoiding the trappings of leadership and compliance, then it was my time to leave. Cohesion: it means togetherness, which is good, sort of. But coherence, which is like music, is superior. I remember being told once by someone in charge that if I was to really take a turn being in charge, then I’d have to assert just that, regardless of what is right. The decisions were mine, I was told: ultimately, what I said prevailed, not because I was right, but rather because I was in charge. Reluctant leadership. I nodded compliantly but remained slippery, thinking this a dangerous, undemocratic idea, this thing about being right because it was necessary to be so. The problem with equating rightness with being in charge is that being in charge doesn’t last.   

One of my favorite passages of literature reminds me that the exiled exist in numbers, are neither contained nor containable, even if they’re not in charge. Even if they’re not right. This is John Self from Martin Amis’ Money:

“I hate people with degrees, O-levels, eleven-pluses, Iowa tests, shorthand diplomas…and you hate me, don’t you. Yes you do. Because I’m the new kind, the kind who has money but can never use it for anything but ugliness, to which I say: you never let us in, not really. You might have thought you let us in, but you never did. You just gave us some money.”


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