restricted access The Narrative Shape of Traumatic Experience
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The Narrative Shape of Traumatic Experience

The idea that narrative reflects lived experience, even the writer’s experience, has long been dismissed as simplistic and credulous in the postmodern academy. The “death of the subject,” as Jameson notes, means a rejection of a belief in the self and produces a “new depthlessness” that valorizes surfaces and weakens notions of historicity, thus detaching the writer from her experience.1 With the de-centering of the notion of self, the idea of an inner domain of emotions and thoughts that gives public voice to lived experience is rendered pointless. In postmodern trauma theory, this idea has been extended by the work of trauma theorists like Cathy Caruth and others who insist on the fundamental “inaccessibility of trauma.”2 Caruth has drawn scientific support for her position from the work of neurobiologist Bessel van der Kolk and his associates on how traumatic memories are encoded in the brain. Van der Kolk holds that because people who undergo psychological trauma suffer “speechless terror . . . the experience cannot be organized on a linguistic level” and thus becomes not only inaccessible but also unrepresentable.3

Thus, key theoretical positions on trauma reinforce the postmodernist position that lived experience, and especially traumatic experience, resists linguistic representation and in doing so, separates the writer from lived experience. We are left with the sense that narrative and experience can have little, if anything, to do with each other. Mattingly points out that even much of current narrative theory takes the position that to treat narratives as direct expressions of action or experience is “naive and false.”4 But, if experience, and traumatic experience in particular, cannot be represented in language, how are we to understand narratives that clearly bear a relationship to the writer’s lived experience? Why do trauma survivors continue to tell stories in which experience and narrative, especially in the case of trauma narratives, are, in fact, very closely interwoven, as demonstrated in works like those of Holocaust [End Page 290] survivor Elie Wiesel (Night), American slaves like Frederick Douglass (Autobiography), and combat veterans like Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried)? And why does no less a critic than Adorno write that “. . . in art alone . . . suffering can still find its own voice”?5

Although the idea that traumatic experience can be expressed effectively in narrative is unacceptable among many trauma and narrative theorists, equally important theorists suggest a need for a reconsideration of that position. For example, studies of the cognitive, physiological, psychological, and behavioral implications of expressive writing corroborate what readers of literature have long suspected: writers often turn intuitively to writing as a way of confronting and surviving trauma suffered in their own lives.6 We see this vividly illustrated in the words of a Holocaust survivor, haunted by a horrific recurring dream of the gas chamber:

One night when the nightmare was particularly intimidating, I arose, switched on the light, found an old notebook and pen, and started to write. Night and day I wrote, like a man possessed. . . . Like a viper, the nightmare tried to sneak by, but, with pen in hand, I stabbed it repeatedly, pushing it back. Gradually, the nightmare receded until it disappeared completely. I had begun my journey back to sanity.7

A review of work in clinical studies of post-traumatic stress disorder (Scurfield, Brown and Fromm, Janoff-Bulman, Herman, King, King and Fairbank, Solomon); in psychology, sociology and cognitive sciences (Pennebaker and Beall, Pennebaker (1990), Pennebaker (1997), Smyth, True and Souto, Lepore and Symth, Campbell and Pennebaker, Hellewell); in psychobiology (van der Kolk; Frewen; Vieweg; Olff, Langeland and Gersons); and in occupational therapy (Mattingly and Mattingly, Garro), indicates that there may be good reason to reconsider the relationship of narrative to lived experience. Recently, for example, Ruth Leys, in her role as “historian or genealogist of trauma,”8 has written a trenchant critique of current trauma theory as embodied in the work of Caruth and van der Kolk. In doing so, she has also pointed out the divide between mimetic and antimimetic positions in current theories of trauma and detailed the ways in which the polarization of those positions does little to provide...


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