Testimony creates the trauma it discovers

zen-178992_1920Testimony can create the trauma it discovers.

Trauma theory and testimony grew up together, beginning in about 1980.  By this I mean that trauma theory and Holocaust testimony emerged as socially and historically significant at about the same time.  It’s worthwhile thinking about their relationship.  If we take the limits of testimony seriously, then much of current trauma theory, especially Cathy Caruth’s account of the “missing moment,” is mistaken. 

It is, of course, not literally true that trauma theory emerged in 1980.  Freud built much of psychoanalysis on his reinterpretation of his patients’ trauma almost a hundred years earlier.  Shell shock, as PTSD was then known, emerged with the First World War.  What happened beginning in the early 1980’s was the inclusion of PTSD in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM III) for the first time.  The introduction of PTSD coincided with the “narrative turn” in the humanities and social sciences.  At about the same time, the Fortunoff Archive for Holocaust Testimony was established at Yale University. 

I have come to believe that Holocaust testimony leads to a misunderstanding of trauma, especially if one does not understand testimony’s limits.  I have published three books on trauma that draw on Holocaust testimonies in the Fortunoff Archive.  I think I understand the limits of testimony better now.  My instructor, so to speak, is Henry Greenspan, author of On Listening to Holocaust Survivors.  I also draw on some more recent papers of his.  In place of testimony, Greenspan has engaged in extended conversations with survivors.  Some of these conversations have lasted decades.  Out of these conversations comes a different way of thinking about testimony and trauma. 

Testimony creates the trauma it discovers

Testimony as a genre more closely resembles a monologue than a dialogue.  The interpersonal center of gravity, as Greenspan puts it, is almost always represented in the survivor; not in the relationship between survivor and interviewer (Dapim, p. 194). Testimony is generally delivered in a single session, not allowing for the development of a relationship between interviewer and survivor.  Testimony aspires to be a definitive as possible.  As a genre, it has the quality of a declaration, as in “this I witnessed.”  That can be a lonely place.  The alternative would be mutual exploration, in which the survivor and interviewer become partners in a dialogue.  This takes time.

Cathy Caruth characterizes trauma as the recognition of the threat after it has already made its mark on the mind.  With trauma, recognition always comes a moment too late, before the psyche is prepared to defend itself (Caruth, p. 62).  The result is an experience that is detached from symbolic representation in language.  Trauma haunts the body-mind of its victim, an unspeakable terror expressed through the symptoms of trauma.           

Consider the following story by Victor.  It seems like it is exactly the type of experience to which Caruth refers, a moment that overwhelms an unprepared psyche. 

“Lazaret,” that means “infirmary.” It was behind the trees so nobody should see it. And everybody takes a suitcase of rubbish there and puts in the rubbish…. So here was fire. And here was always burning rubbish. And there were some dead bodies burning over there, with the skin folded and the bone showing, that I could see.  

It is the way we listen (or don’t listen) to accounts like this that creates the traumatic experience.  In other words, it is the listener who does not hear the whole story who contributes to making an experience traumatic, for the speaker feels isolated and cut off, with no one to share the experience.  Learning to share takes time and commitment on both sides. 

In his conversations with Victor, Greenspan learns the larger context of his experience at the “rubbish heap.”  Victor was assigned to look through the pockets of the dead in order to find money and gold.  He saw another prisoner fill up a suitcase with money, and carry it to the rubbish dump behind the infirmary.  A German captain came up to him and said

“Halt! Open this up!” And he opened it. And it was full of money, English pounds and American dollars. . . . This I have seen because I have rubbish. I understand what’s going on because I have seen them far away. And he opened the suitcase. It was maybe a hundred feet away or less. He opened the suitcase, and I could see the things packed in there, like hundred bills and things. So he went behind those trees. And the way they shot—, this I find out from a friend of mine who was a militia man. They had them open the mouth, and they shoot him in here, to cut the esophagus. So here was fire. And here was always burning rubbish. And there were some dead bodies burning over there, with the skin folded and the bone showing, that I could see. So they shot him. He fall down. And when they left, I went over there to put in my rubbish. I put in my rubbish on this side. He is burning over there on the other side. So I say, if he burns, I don’t want to put more rubbish on him to help out the Germans. So I put the stuff here, and I went back to work. This was Friday. And Saturday come wagons to pick up the clothes. (Listening, p. 131)

Victor tells a complete story, situated in time and space, and structured by a number of narrative strategies, such as the details he includes.  Victor also includes his place in this event, far enough away not to be directly involved, close enough to hear what is going on.  The story is progressive, with a beginning and an end.  And Victor generally observes the conventions of tense, though his imperfect command of English makes it difficult to tell in a couple of cases.

The story is even more horrific than the excerpt.   Victor says later that he was terrified.  Certainly he was traumatized.  But not in the way Caruth understands trauma.  The fact that Victor can tell a complete narrative is evidence of that.  He was not overtaken by an experience he could not represent.  He was overtaken by an experience he could represent in an account that had all the features of a complete narrative.  A narrative of Hell. 

The listener makes the trauma worse

If this is so, then it is the way we listen and write about the experience of men like Victor that creates the trauma, or makes it worse.  The event happens before we, the readers or listeners are prepared to receive it.  The event is so horrific that the listener is taken aback, shocked, silenced.  Who is this man who can survive such horrors?  He must not have fully comprehended the experience at the time.  Trauma, from this perspective, is intersubjectively created between the listener and the speaker.    

If it is we who cannot listen to Victor’s story, the more alone he will feel.  For what witnesses want is to be heard.  Dori Laub, co-founder of the Fortunoff Archive, makes the point that one of the advantages of a trauma-based perspective on testimony is that it alerts us to the countertransference, as it is called: the tendency of the listener not to want to know, to make it as if it is only others are afflicted by horror (Dapim, p. 224). 

The claim that trauma makes it impossible for the traumatized to experience their own experience may say more about the listener that the witness.  Caruth’s, in other words, is an account of the listener’s unpreparedness to hear the whole story.  It is an unpreparedness made worse by the structure of testimony itself, in which an account of horror lacking elaboration and context is labeled as evidence of trauma, rather than a question to be pursued in further conversations.   

What do survivors want?

Survivors (and not just survivors, but everyone really) want someone to listen to their story.  To be sure, survivors want to testify in order to give their experience moral weight and a place in history.  But they also want someone to understand.

Years after liberation, Agi said she maintained silence because that isolation, and the hope it guarded, was preferable to having to face the “refusal” [of not being heard] . . . . For Agi and many other survivors, missing listeners may be closer to the heart of the matter than missing memories.  (Unsaid, p. 240)

From this perspective, the integration that really matters is not primarily intrapsychic, but interpersonal: finding another who will listen and try to understand.  Even if the survivor grasps that we don’t get it (in part because the survivor doesn’t get it either), then at least the lack of integration is shared, a less lonely place (Unsaid, p. 237).  It is hard to imagine that even this advanced level of (mis)understanding could take place in a single interview, a single testimony.   

Survivors of extreme trauma want what the rest of us want: to be known and understood for who we are without being intruded upon, as though someone else knows us better than we know ourselves.   The biggest problem survivors face, I believe, is finding someone willing to try to understand.  Not just once, that’s easy, but over a period of time.  The trauma of survivors begins with the Nazis, but for many it never ends because most people, even spouses, will not or cannot devote the time, energy and ego strength it takes to listen and try to understand without being overwhelmed or consumed.  That’s the sad way of the world, but we should at least recognize it for what it is: not the belatedness of the survivor’s experience, but the limits of our ability to listen. 


American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (3rd Ed.).  Washington, D. C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1985.  [DSM-III]

Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History.  Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. 

Henry Greenspan, On Listening to Holocaust Survivors: Recounting and Life History.  Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998.  An updated second edition was published by Paragon House, Saint Paul, MN, 2010.  Page numbers refer to the original edition. [Listening]

Henry Greenspan, The unsaid, the incommunicable, the unbearable, and the irretrievable.  In The Oral History Review, 41 (2), 2014, pp. 229–243.  [Unsaid]

Henry Greenspan, Sara R. Horowitz, Éva Kovács, Berel Lang, Dori Laub, Kenneth Waltzer and Annette Wieviorka, Engaging survivors: assessing “testimony” and “trauma” as foundational concepts.  Dapim: Studies on the Holocaust, 28 (3) 2014, pp. 190-226. [Dapim]  Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/23256249.2014.951909



Comments (3)

  1. Henry Greenspan

    I am honored that Fred drew on my work in this post. I emailed him a response, but thought at least some of it might be of interest to people here. So I paste that in:

    A few thoughts.

    Re: history of trauma as a concept, I fully agree that it was not until the early 80s that it became “popular,” an part of the “age of testimony” or “era of the witness” as Wiewiorka describes it. Of course, as you note, there was important earlier work. Henry Krystal, himself a Holocaust survivor and a clinical supervisor of mine, did key work beginning in the 60s. His model of trauma remains closest to my own understanding–the core of which is inner surrender to helplessness in the face of imminent (as perceived) annihilation. That is a bit different than the notion of being “overwhelmed” by whatever experience. Clinically, we know that some people experience classical PTSD symptoms (intrusive memories, startle responses numbness, etc.) after seeing a bug cross the floor. Why? Who knows. But, even in instances like genocide, there is no way around trying to understand what events mean subjectively, As you suggest, we might well assume some things virtually “have to” be traumatic. But it ain’t necessarily so.

    In terms of Victor and the issue of narrative, my guess (I can’t say more than that) was that the initial moment at the rubbish pit–the first view–may well have been “traumatic” in the Krystal sense. He does talk about his terror he experienced at that moment, the screams, wanting to block it out, etc. If that is true, the story of the guy who opens the suitcase etc., is a kind of narrative “built around” the trauma–a way of retelling developed after the fact. This would be similar to Leon’s [another survivor whom I often cite] notion of “making a story of what is not a story.” Victor is, indeed, able to do that. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t a “not story” somewhere as well. Even after knowing him over years, and with my own clinical psych training, I would say I’m not sure.

    Either way, I do believe that Caurth’s formulation of the “time warp” never really made sense to me. That is, it did not seem to explain most of what I have heard from survivors (or not heard from them). It is not most essentially about “time to process” but, again, about a core conviction of helplessness. “Falling to bits,” as Melanie Klein put it. Or the “deer in the headlights,” which is the physical manifestation–paralysis–of the same thing. What we call, in medical contexts, “shock.” I believe that shock and trauma are different terms for essentially the same thing, but the shock needs to be of that kind in which there is, inwardly no escape from the “I am toast” conviction.

    I fully agree, as do others, that the notion of “narrative” as a sign of integration is superficial and “Idealistic” (in the philosophic sense). That is, it puts too much on the work of the mind of the “victim” an not enough on collaboration/engagement with surrounding listeners and maybe wider community as well. Lifton an others are also in this tradition. One which I always thought let’s the rest of us too easily “off the hook” (politically and otherwise) and, again, is not consistent with what I think I’ve learned from survivors over forty years.

    That said, I think the reality remains complex and messy. Even with the most attuned, sustained, and caring listening, “trauma” is not necessarily “healed” (whatever that means!). There is what I call the “irretrievable” in my work, and it is a permanent hole. But I do think there are forms of “integrating the lack of integration” itself…..up to a point. That is, survivors can discover that they are not alone in their knowledge of devastation, even if the rest of us might now know it “in the bones” in the way they do. As I’ve written I see most survivors as “jugglers” who carry many worlds, many realities, many permanent injuries, many ongoing strengths…. in a zillion different ways.

    So I think it is always a question of degree and of many factors. Listeners help, but are not the “whole answer.” Survivors luck and pluck also helps, but are not the whole answer. What has come to be called “resilience” (trauma’s happy twin) is also oversimplified. But I always recall Henry Krystal saying to me that part of what helped him–during and after the war–was that “I know my mother loved me.” Of course, this goes back to foundational issues in psych development, no less for survivors than for the rest of us. Such knowledge does not provide immunity or assured “resilience.” But it may help…..especially if the survivor is lucky enough to find others to reinforce that knowledge later in life.

  2. John

    The past two days have been difficult. Difficult for Omran Daqneesh and his sister. Difficult for their parents (God, let them be ok). Difficult for the Marines I work with and who have seen too many faces like Omran’s and his sister’s. And, if I am honest, as a father of three, difficult for me. These swirling currents of our own stress reactions within this posttraumatic global society may not be mitigated by the testimonial of Staffan de Mistura, the UN Envoy from Syria, but they are validated. Hearing the envoy excoriate all involved did not stop the horrors in Aleppo, but it did make them real and despicable. It was reminiscent of the righteous anger of Bruce Cockburn reacting to the dirty wars of Central America so many years ago. These same themes of anger and moral injury emerge during intersubjectively formed narratives of Marines, Soldiers, medics, and special operators as they respond to these war images of children in individual and group therapy as if they were present for the airstrike and its aftermath. Because, in many ways, they were and they still are. And, it is the negative countertransference in so many forms (turning away, disavowal of responsibility, paying lip service, etc.) that magnifies the moral injury. So testimonial is inadequate, but important. And bearing witness is unsatisfying, but important. And a relational and/or intersubjective model for repair of attachment ruptures is helpful, but incomplete. However, respite from difficult days remains unlikely due to the savagery of the perpetrators of the Holocaust and the perpetrators of Aleppo who can read the words of Victor and see the face of Omran and feel nothing.

    • Dear John about Omran Dagneesh and much else. I think in the end you’re right: Some things help, like testimony, therapy that takes time to listen and care, righteous anger (within limits), etc. But while lots of things help, nothing is enough. And so those who care will continue to be bothered and upset. And perhaps that’s just the way it is.

      I send money to good cause groups like Oxfam, but it’s only a token really. The USA should take in a million Syrian refugees. We destabilized the region. But now I’m getting into politics. But that’s what we’re talking about really when we talk about trauma. It doesn’t just happen on the inside. Fred

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