Trauma, Resilience, and the Sovereignty of the Representational Image


The following is the last entry–under the date I originally wrote it last summer in my philosophical journal–concerning various contributions to the collection The Unbroken Soul (H. Parens, H. Blum, and S. Akhtar, eds., Lanham, MD:  Jason Aronson, 2008).


Monday, July 21, 2008

Steven M. Southwick, Faith Ozbay, and  Linda C. Mates (all M.D.s), “Psychological and Biological Factors Associated with Resilience” (in The Unbroken Soul), p. 138:  “Developing animals that are forced to  confront overwhelming and uncontrollable, stressors that they cannot master tend to display an exaggerated or sensitized sympathetic nervous system and/or hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal response to stressors as adults.  In contrast, developing animals exposed to mild to moderate stessors that are under their control and that they they can master tend to  become stress inoculated with a reduced overall response to future stressors.”

Compare my thesis that addiction rates in populations vary [inversely] with experienced effective agency for members of [those populations].  [That is, the higher the addiction rate in a given population, the less will be the individual sense of effective agency among members of that population, and the greater the individual sense of  agency in a given population, the lower will be the addiction rate in that same population.]


Susan C. Adelman (Ph.D.), “From Trauma to Resilience” (Unbroken Soul), p. 158:  “. . . [P]rofound enough traumata may actually cause the hippocampal dysfunction so that at the moment of trauma no memory develops that could later be consciously accessible.  In severe trauma, that is, the full facts of what actually happened may not ever be available [to conscious cognition, at least–representation].  In these situations, the clinician and patient need to work together to observe the contexts of fear and their associations as a way into regaining some knowledge of the trauma.  With these pieces, rather than with  a full memory that cannot be recovered because it does not exist, the patient has the option of reconstructing a story that is meaningful to him or here.  This may be the best available strategy for moving the somatic reactions to the more flexible, symbolically encoded higher cortical regions.”

She [seems to be] equating memory with representational memory, against her own recognition, in fact, that there are multiple “memory systems” in the brain.  Trauma exceeds the sovereignty of the image:  It is not subject to that sovereignty any longer.  To use a formulation paraphrased from [contemporary French phenomenological philosopher Jean Louis] Chrétien, trauma is what is unforgettable precisely because it cannot be remembered representationally.  Like the Heraclitean sun, one cannot hide from it, because it never sets.


According to Adelman (p. 195), “psychoanalytic theory has delineated two theories of  trauma.  One is the ‘unbearable situation’ model and a second, the ‘unacceptable impulse model.'”  (She cites Henry Krystal [see my post before last, for some reflections on Krystal’s contribution to The Unbroken Soul], “Trauma and affects,” in Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 33, 81-116.)  [But insofar as the threatened emergence into awareness of an “unacceptable impulse” itself constitutes an “unbearable situation,” there may really be only one underlying model at issue here, in my judgment.  Nevertheless, the modulation between the “unbearable” something-or-other coming, or seeming to come, “from without,” and its coming, or seeming to come, “from within,” as an “impulse,” is worth attention.]

Trauma, Addiction, Resilience and the Like


My philosophical journal from last summer continues with entries on the essays collected in The Unbroken Soul (H. Parens, H. Blum, and S. Akhtar, eds., Lanham, MD:  Jason Aronson, 2008)  In the entry below, with the date of original writing, I begin with a response to something I happened also to read in the New York Times that same day, pertaining to addiction.  Then I return to The Unbroken Soul, above all to a valuable contribution by Henri Parens, one of the editors of the collection and himself a survivor of a concentration camp in Vichy France.


Sunday, July 20, 2008

The cover-story of the New York Times Magazine for, today:  “Me and My Girls,” by David Carr, the Times’ media columnist, on his years as “a drug dealer and crack addict” who (in 1989) “found that becoming a parent [of twin girls to a crack-addict mother who lost custody to him eventually] can save your life” (as the blurb on the Magazine’ s cover says).  P. 34, in response to the idea that drugs changed him:  “But drugs, it seems to me, do not conjure demons; they reveal them.”

Applies to all  trauma, at least within limits I have yet to get wholly clear about–not just addiction, which I increasingly see as linked to/rooted in trauma.


Ira Brenner, “On Genocidal Persecution and Resilience,” in The Unbroken Soul, pp. 80-81:  “Like resilient sapling trees that have had to grow at unusual angles in order to bypass obstructions to sunlight, those who at a young age endured genocidal persecution have followed their own turning and twisting paths in order to grow.  From chronic psychosomatic disturbances in the very young to characterological disturbances in the older ones, many have bypassed certain developmental tasks but have nevertheless functioned well unless illness, loss, or old age set in.  In addition, their survivor ordeals are indelibly imprinted in their psyches and may repeat themselves in symbolic or in actual scenarios until they die.”

The will to recover:  the making good of the evil.


The Unbroken Soul, Henri Parens (camp survivor in Vichy France), “An Autobiographical Study of Resilience:  Healing from the Holocaust,” p. 87:  “Can we adjudge everything that grows vigorously to be resilient [e.g., even rank weeds]?”

Also, same page to the following one (pp.87-88):  Primo Levi’s “characterological depression, biographically proposed by Carole Angier (2002) to be of pre-Holocaust origin, which continued [here he has a note, which I’ll get to below] after the Holocaust may have led him to suicide.”  The note he gives [to this passage] (on p.115) is confirmed by my own experience that, when my life is at its worst, my physical health is [often] at its best–or, more directly, by my experience last year when, during my recovery [in hospital and then in rehab] from my [serious] bike accident [on the kind of bike one pedals], I found my allergies and, more pointedly, my seborrhea, to let up, leaving me to focus on my broken bones:  “Remarkable and yet to be explained, according to Janet Maslin, who reviewed Carole Angier’s biography of Prima Levi (New York Times, Thursday, June 13, 2002), Angier believes ‘that Primo Levi was depressed before and after Auschwitz, but not in it.'”  Parens goes on to  cite as well how camp “inmates tended not to develop common colds (despite exposure to severe weather conditions), nor common ailments:  rather, many died of typhoid and of starvation.”  On Levi’s depression, my often made observation that my superego [tends to] let up on me by not making me [somehow act out judgment against myself] so much when my life [is] going poorly strikes a truth, I think, insofar as depression, addiction, etc., have dimensions of self-punishment built in. 

Parens, p. 103:  “For me as well as for others, healing from the Holocaust has left painful scars, but it has also led to much good. . . . Both give evidence of resilience since scars too are evidence of healing.”


Page 108, Parens quotes a second time (the first is at the beginning of his essay, on p. 88) a line from Primo Levi’s Survival at Auschwitz (1947/1996, p. 142):  “The comrade of all my peaceful moments . . . –the pain of remembering . . . attacks me like a dog the moment my conscience comes out of the gloom.”  Does this testify more to his survivor guilt, or to the twisting of it by, and in service of, his depression?

Resilience, Recovery, and the Death Camps


I continue with reflections on some of the essays collected in The Unbroken Soul (see my preceding post).  In the entry below, dated when I first wrote it, I am concerned with an article by Henry Krystal, exploring the experiences of Nazi death camp inmates for insights into the interconnections of resilience, survival of trauma, and recovery from it.  The entry consists primarily of citations from Krystal, with only a few sparse remarks of my own along the way.  Because of the paucity of the latter in my journal entry itself, it may be helpful to say a bit more here about what interests me in the essay at issue.

In short, what interests me is the possibility of extrapolating, from remarks such as Krystal’s, a perspective addressing human life as such, and not just life in what can all too easily be dismissed as “extreme situations,” such as inmates faced in the Nazi death camps.  Insofar as human life is viewed as, say, Heidegger views it (to use what is, for me, the prime example), there is something irreducibly “traumatic” about human life as such.  

Heidegger’s vision of human being is that we come to ourselves only by recovering our very selves from an initial lostness–lostness of ourselves to ourselves.  We start out finding ourselves cast away into the world, as it were, and into fascination with what we find there.  In effect, although Heidegger never puts it in these terms, what comes “first” for us is the traumatic rupture from ourselves, and it is only “later”–only “belatedly,” to  use a Freudian, not Heideggerian, way of putting the point–in day to day recovery of ourselves from out of such rupture, that we become for the first time who we have always been.  My favorite definition of walking is that it is continuous, controlled, forward stumbling.  Something similar, I think, applies to the relationship between Heideggerian “authenticity” and “inauthenticity,” in that the former is an ongoing daily process of recovery of oneself from out of the lostness of the latter.  Life itself, humanly lived, is the daily practice of recovery from the trauma that thus defines human being. 

From such a perspective, the “extremity” of the inmates’ life in the Nazi death camps ceases to be a matter of such camps constituting, happily, a rare and unusual–if not unique–situation, the very rarity of  which all too easily allows us to forget about it as we go about our common, usual lives.  Instead, the extremity at issue becomes a matter of how decisively the fact of the camps cuts through all the darkness in which the trauma of life, in the sense of the traumatic nature of human life as such, typically wraps itself.  What would then be extreme about the camps would not be the life-situation of those unfortunate enough to get taken there.  It would be, rather, the clarity with which the situation of human life as such is revealed there.  

These matters continue to occupy my thoughts, and to become explicit in many of my posts, past, present, and to come.  


Saturday, July 19, 2008

Henry Krystal, “Resilience:  Accommodation and Recovery,” Ch. 4 in The Unbroken Soul, p. 52:  “Returning to the process of trauma . . . :  If the effort to arrest the progression of the traumatic state failed [in efforts up to and including what he calls “the robot state” in the death camps, where one just did what one was told, like a robot], the deepening of it manifested in a growing numbing of pain and painful emotions, followed by a loss of all vestiges of self-reliance, initiative, and agency.  The empowerment to  say ‘no’ and to carry out self-defense was progressively lost.  At a certain point the traumatic closure reached a malignant state, with the blocking of all mental functions:  cognition, registration of perceptions, recall, scanning, information processing in general, planning, and problem solving.  Finally, just a vestige of these functions was retained, with some capacity for self-observation.  If the traumatic process continued, all vitality was suppressed, and the individual succumbed to psychogenic death, with the heart stopping in diastole.”

Insofar as life is as such traumatic, what he describes here is a matter of life dying of itself, so to speak.


On the very next page (53) he distinguishes the mode of “psychogenic death” he has just described from the “Musselmann”:  In the first case,”there was a direct progression of the traumatic process toward death, following a  universal pattern common to the entire animal kingdom.  By contrast, the Musulman death pattern followed the exhaustion of all emotional resources and manifested in an observable pattern of ceasing necessary survival behavior.  Sometimes, just before death, the Musulman manifested an ineffectual rage, indiscriminately lashing out at anyone who happened to be around him.”

He adds:  “For those who managed to arrest the traumatic process [short of either form of death just described] in the robot state and had to live in this condition for a significant time, there were consequences that were to last the rest of their lives. Survival in the face of an impasse, a ‘no exit’ situation, takes  place in a state of ‘psychic dosing off.’  Survivors undergo symbolic death in order to avoid physical or psychic death.  Such cataclysms result in a permanent ‘death imprint,’ desensitization, and identification with death and with the dead.” 

In his earlier work, [he tells us], he has explored and elaborated “the idea of a ‘stimulus barrier,’ not as a passive bar, but as the totality of potentially mobilizable defenses.  Signal affects are the essential sensory, monitoring, and regulatory signals or ‘switches’ in information processing.”  They “do not stop totally in the traumatic state.  Indeed, and always, we have to create our mental representation of everything we behold.  We must maintain our psychic reality, as it is the only knowable reality.”

Published in: on March 9, 2009 at 2:55 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Trauma and the “Resilience” of Those Who Survive It


Beginning today, my next few posts will contain entries from my philosophical journal occasioned by my reading, last summer, of the essays in recent collection,  The Unbroken Soul (see the following entry for further bibliographical information).  As usual, the entry bears the date I originally wrote it.


Friady, July 18, 2008

Started a new book, The Unbroken Soul:  Tragedy, Trauma, and Resilience (Lanham, MD:  Jason Aronson, 2008), ed. by Henri Parens, Harold P. Blum, and Salman Akhtar.  Psychiatrists/psychoanalysts focused on questions of “resilience”  –why some rebound so “well” from trauma, while others don’t.  The problem, overall, with such a focus is the same as with [Terrence] Des Pres’s [focus] in The Survivor:  An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (Oxford University Press, 1976):  [such an approach] risks blaming the victims for not being “strong” enough to do what, for example (used in the first, introductory essay), Stephen Hawking, Christopher Reeve, or Michael J. Fox, have been able  to do in the face of trauma.

So far, however, there’s been some useful stuff.  For instance:  2nd essay, “Children in War and Their Resilience,” by Boris Cyrulnik, p. 23 (first page of the essay):  “The main challenge for a child is that a traumatizing event is embedded in his or her development personally.  Specific to human beings is that a mere representation is enough to traumatize a child:  a word of course will do it, but also an image,a gesture, a mimic, and, more particularly, a rhetoric.  The way a story is structured by the language (body and words) may convey a traumatizing effect.” So, for example, were some French children traumatized by the images of 9/11.  But, as he is very good to go on to point out, it was not the mere images as such that traumatized.  Rather:  “What traumatized these children was the emotional reactions and the degree of authenticity attributed to the images stemming from their attachment figure.”  He soon goes on:  “The starting point is in someone else’s mind, and the effect goes into the inner world of a child.  Someone’s expression of emotions is imprinted in someone else’s mind.”  What’s more, he adds:  “The child traumatized by the Manhattan attack is not empathic with victims, but he or she feels an anxiety response consistent with emotional responses of his or her surroundings.”  Then, early on the next page (24), he adds this crucial observation:  “The meaning [and therefore the trauma] is not in the fact.  It is in the affective [!!!] context of history and in the child’s relationship with significant figures.”


He draws (p. 24) a potentially useful distinction between what he calls “trauma,” which is, for example, “a broken leg, starvation”–in effect, an “event”in the ordinary sense of a datable occurrence of something “bad”–and “traumatism,” which is what one comes to  “suffer in the  representation of what happened . . . –the internal representation of a traumatizing experience–which depends on a script, like a movie without words, and a narrative, the way this event is translated into words.”

Published in: on March 6, 2009 at 2:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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