Trauma, Its Aftermath, and the Narration of the Self: Lessons from Susan J. Brison


Susan J. Brison is a philosopher and a rape survivor.  She has written insightfully about her own traumatic experience in her book Aftermath:  Violence and the Remaking of a Self.  The entries below from my philosophical journal, first written on the dates indicated, contain what were for my interests important passages from her account, sprinkled with a few remarks of my own.


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Susan J. Brison, Aftermath [of her being raped, beaten, left for dead in 1990 in southern France]:  Violence and the Remaking of a Self (Princeton University Press, 2002), p. x: 

The prevalent lack of empathy with trauma victims . . . results, I realized, not merely from ignorance or indifference, but also from an active fear of identifying with those whose terrifying fate forces us to acknowledge that we are not in control of our own.

Nevertheless, the trauma survivor must find empathic listeners in order to carry on.  Piecing together a shattered self requires a process of remembering and  working through in which speech and affect converge in a trauma narrative.  In this book  I explore the performative aspect of  speech in testimonies of trauma:  How saying something about the memory does something to it.  The communicative act of bearing witness to traumatic events not only transforms traumatic memories into narratives that can then be integrated into the survivor’s sense of self and view of the  world, but it also reintegrates the survivor into a community, reestablishing bonds of trust and faith in others.

An important point!


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Brison, p. 20, about her rape survivors’ group:  “Our group facilitator [and herself a rape survivor], Ann Gaulin, told us that first meeting [in Philadelphia]:  ‘Although it’s not exactly the sort of thing I can put on my resumé, it’s the accomplishment of which I’m most proud.'”  On the next page (21),  Brison herself writes: 

I am not the same person who set off, singing, on that sunny Fourth of July in the French countryside.  I left her in a rocky creek at the bottom of a ravine.  I had to in order to survive.  I understand the appropriateness of what a friend described to me as a Jewish custom of giving those who  have outlived a brush with death new names [cf. new names for “religious” after conversion].  The trauma has changed me forever, and if I insist too often that my friends and family acknowledge it, that’s because I’m afraid they don’t know who I am. 

Next paragraph, she also writes:

And I no longer cringe when I see a woman jogging alone on a country road where I live, although I may still have a slight urge to rush out and protect her, to tell her to come inside where she’ll be safe. But I catch myself, like a mother learning to let go, and cheer her on, thinking, may she always be so carefree, so at home in her world. She has every right to be.  [My italics, since I think that last is a very important point she is making here.]


Thursday, August 7, 2008

Brison, pp. 65-66: 

. . . many trauma survivors who  endured much worse than I did, and for much  longer, found, often years later, that it was impossible to go on.  It is not a moral failing to leave a world that has become morally unacceptable.  I wonder how some can ask, of battered women, ‘Why didn’t they leave?’ while saying, of those driven to  suicide by brutal  and inescapable aftermath of trauma, ‘Why didn’t they stay?’  [Auschwitz “survivor” Jean] Améry wrote, ‘Whoever was tortured, stays tortured’ and this may explain why he, [Primo] Levi, and [Paul] Celan and other Holocaust survivors took their own lives decades after their (physical) torture ended, as if such an explanation were needed.


P. 74 she also makes a good point:

Whereas rape victims’ self blaming has often been misunderstood as merely a self-destructive response to rape, arising out of  low self-esteem, feelings of shame, or female masochism, and fueled by society’s desire to blame the victim,it can also be seen as an adaptive survival strategy, if the victim has no other way of regaining a sense of control.


Friday, August 8, 2008

Brison, p. 97, quoting Kaja Silverman, The Threshold of the Visible World (New York:  Routledge, 1996, p. 189):  “If to remember is to provide the disembodied ‘wound’ with a psychic residence, then  to remember other people’s memories is to be wounded by their wounds.”

Brison [herself], pp. 98-99

 And so we must come forward and report that evil has been done to  us.  Doing so does not turn us–or others–into victims.  It may be that the most debilitating postmemories [the term she borrows for remembering the wounds of others, as 2nd generation Holocaust survivors do, for example–i.e., are affected by the memories of their parents and themselves traumatized by those same memories, carrying them on into their own lives] are those instilled by silence.  It is only by remembering and narrating the  past–telling our stories and listening to others’–that we can participate in ongoing, active construction of a narrative of liberation, not one that confines us  to  a limiting past, but one that forms a background from which a freely imagined–and desired–future emerges.

A crucial point from p. 103:

What I emphasized earlier in the book as the central task of the survivor–regaining a sense of control, coming up with a coherent trauma narrative and integrating it into one’s life story–may be crucial to the task of bearing witness, of living to tell, but it may, if taken too far, hinder recovery, by tethering the survivor to one rigid version of the past.  It may be at odds with telling to live, which I now see as a kind of letting go, playing with the past in order not be be held back as one springs away from  it.  After gaining enough  control over the story to  be able to tell it, perhaps one has to give it up, in order to  retell it, without having to ‘get it right,’ without fear of betraying it, to be able to rewrite the past in different ways, leading up to an infinite variety of unforeseeable futures.

In such play, one has freedom toward the past.  Cf. [my own remarks] on “sprung” thought in Addiction and Responsibility, and [Eric L.] Santner [in The Psychotheology of Everyday Life] on recovery as living with one’s stuckness, so to speak.

Confirming that, Brison goes on, p. 103:  “My earlier discussions of the  primary effects of trauma emphasized the loss of  control and the disintegration of the (formerly coherent [as she supposed] self.  My current view of trauma is that it  introduces a ‘surd’–a nonsensical entry–into the series of events in one’s life, making it impossible to carry on with the series.”

Every “event,” in the strong, Heideggerian sense, is  such a “surd.”  Every event is ab-surd.

Brison goes on (still 103, onto 104):

I thought I had made a certain sense of things until the moment I was assaulted.  At any rate I thought I knew how to carry on with my life–to project myself, through action, into an imagined future–the way one knows how to go on in a series such as 2, 4, 6.. . . Not that there was a unique pattern leading ineluctably into a predictable future.  The series could have been continued in any number of different ways. . . . But the assumption was that I could find some way of carrying on the narrative of my life.  Trauma shatters this assumption by introducing an event that fits no discernible pattern.  The result is an uneasy paralysis.  I can’t go on, I can’t stay.  All that is left is the present, but one that has no meaning. . . .

Narrative, as I now think, facilitates the ability to go  on opening up possibilities for the future through retelling the stories of the past.  It does this not by reestablishing the illusions of coherence of the past, control over the present, and predictability of the future, but by making it possible to carry on without these illusions.

Trauma/event is the breaking of the illusion of sense and control.


As part of her following up on the above (pp. 109-110):

It may be that the retroactive attempt to master the trauma through involuntary repetition is carried out, intrapsychically, until a listener emerges [I’d add/gloss:  including–perhaps exclusivelyoneself as such a listener!] who is stable and reliable enough to bear witness to it. Perhaps there is  a psychological imperative, analogous to the  legal imperative, to keep  telling one’s story until it is  heard.  After the story has been heard and acknowledged, one can let it go, or unfreeze it.  One can unclench.


Part of what led Brison to her new view described above was the death one day before Christmas 1995 by suicide of  her brother.  P. 115:

My brother’s death . . . made me rethink the importance of regaining control in recovering from trauma.  Maybe the point is to learn how to relinquish control, to learn by going where we need to go, to repeat the clenched, repetitive acting out without the generation of working through.  The former, although uncontrollable, is, paradoxically, obsessed with control, with the soothing, numbing safety of the familiar.  The latter is inventive, open to surprise, driven to  improvisation.  The former can instill the dangerous, even deadly, illusion of invincibility.  The other can provide the foundation of trust on which new life can be built, the steady bass continuo that liberates the other parts to improvise without fear.

Page 116:  “Recovery no longer seems to consist of picking up the pieces of a shattered self (or fractured narrative).  It’s facing the fact that there never was a coherent self (or story) to begin with.


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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for sharing this entry. I think this is a very important book – and it has inspired me to declare a philosophy major this fall. It is nice to know that others have been affected by her writing.

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