Definitions of trauma abound within the psychoanalytic discipline. My own definition is going to be simple. A trauma, whether physical or psychical, must create a breach in a protective covering of such severity that it cannot be coped with by the usual mechanisms by which we deal with pain or loss. The severity of the breach is such that even if the incident is expected, the experience cannot be foretold. We cannot thus make use of anxiety as a preparatory signal. The death of a sick relative, the amputation of a diseased limb may be consciously known about in advance, but if they are to be described as traumatic then the foreknowledge was useless. In trauma we are untimely ripped.
Whether it is as childhood seduction, infantile abuse, shell shock, or war violence, or as a preoccupation with the place of neoteny and the trials of human birth, trauma is continually posited as the hypothetical “origin” of psychic states. However, although “trauma” is crucial to psychoanalytic theory, trauma in itself is not really the focus of its analysis. Freud proposed a “biological bedrock” on which psychic states were formed, but this bedrock was not the object of psychoanalytic inquiry. I suggest that what emerges as a motif in the many retheorizings of psychoanalysis time and again, as another “bedrock,” is trauma. One might call it an “experiential bedrock.” As with biology, it is crucial—but as the area of another mode of inquiry. Psychoanalysis is equipped to contribute to the understanding of the reaction to trauma, not to the trauma itself.
In a colloquial context we tend to look from the perspective of the observer and label a range of difficult or tragic occurrences “traumatic.” Instead, I want to define trauma from the perspective of the person who experiences it. This means both that the same event will not always be traumatic for different people, and that the experience of different events, if they are experienced as trauma, will be the same whatever the event and whoever the sufferer. It was essentially for this reason that Freud eventually disagreed with the rich findings of Otto Rank, who proposed the trauma of birth as the origin of mankind’s neurosis. Trauma is the great equalizer. What differentiates us, since we were all born? Furthermore, what appears to be the trauma from the observer’s perspective may, from the viewpoint of the psychic response of the recipient, only be the catalyst that brings to the surface an experience which, were it not for this later event, might not in itself have been traumatic (or vice versa). Even so extreme an experience as the Holocaust may not breach the defenses of a particular individual. The catalytic event in the present triggers an earlier occurrence which becomes traumatic only by virtue of its retrospectively endowed meaning.
Probably all animate matter can be traumatized; it would seem likely that the response to the breach in the human defensive system takes place at a generalizable psychosocial level. Recognition and language are interactional social processes; without another person neither a psyche nor language is possible. Object relations analysts, notably D. W. Winnicott, whom Max Hernandez addresses in his paper in this issue, have devoted their work to aspects of the psyche, Lacanians to language. To me the fields are interdependent and gain from being looked at together, both in their practice and in the theories that can [End Page 121] be applied to them. When we have a physical trauma it is common for an immediate aftereffect to be some uncertainty about words; even the ability to spell correctly can temporarily disappear. There are undoubtedly physiological explanations for this. But I shall argue that there are psychological parallels. Every patient whom I would regard as having had some relevant form of trauma had a specific relationship to language, and it is this that concerns me. In addition, Max Hernandez describes the breach in the defenses caused by the anal rape of a patient when he was a young boy. But neither the patient’s symptom nor his complaint on coming to a therapist for treatment pertains to...