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  • Judith Herman and Contemporary Trauma Theory
  • Susan Rubin Suleiman (bio)

Trauma studies constitutes a huge field today, keeping whole armies of theorists—philosophers, literary scholars, and historians as well as clinicians—very busy. There are many reasons for this, starting with the enormous and still growing interest in the Holocaust and other collective historical traumas (the diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder, which first entered the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual in 1980, was based largely on symptoms of Vietnam War veterans), and extending to the increased clinical awareness of sexual abuse as a phenomenon of “everyday life” for both adults and children.

There exists today both a wide consensus among theorists on a certain definition of trauma, and a strong and sometimes violent debate about specific aspects of trauma, notably as regards its relation to memory. The importance of Judith Herman’s work is that she is one of the pioneering clinicians in the field as well as a major player in the theoretical debate.

What is the consensus about trauma? Everyone seems to agree that a traumatic event “overwhelm[s] the ordinary human adaptations to life,” as Herman puts it. “Unlike commonplace misfortunes,” she writes, “traumatic events generally involve threats to life or bodily integrity, or a close personal encounter with violence and death” (Herman 1992, 33). A more neurologically based definition would be that a traumatic event—or “traumatic stressor”—produces an excess of external stimuli and a corresponding excess of excitation in the brain. When attacked in this way, the brain is not able to fully assimilate or “process” the event, and responds through various mechanisms such as psychological numbing, or shutting down of normal emotional responses. Some theorists also claim that in situations of extreme stress, a dissociation takes place: the subject “splits” off part of itself from the experience, producing “multiple personalities” in the process. The diagnosis of MPD (multiple personality disorder) was once very rare, but became quite common for a while [End Page 276] he 1980s and 1990s. Symptoms of MPD, according to clinicians who diagnose it, always indicate earlier trauma, even if—or especially if—the trauma is not remembered by the patient.

This is where we enter the contested territory of trauma theory. The most important subject of debate concerns the relation of trauma to memory and came about as a result of a number of legal cases in the 1980s involving recovered memory of sexual abuse. There are two very hostile camps here, as far as I can see, and both of them are linked in interesting ways to Freud. Members of the first camp, which includes clinicians such as Judith Herman as well as researchers, among them Bessel van der Kolk, believe firmly in the theory of dissociation, which is related to (though not identical with) the concept of repressed memory, or traumatic amnesia. According to this view, the more horrific and prolonged the trauma, the more the subject has a tendency to dissociate and therefore have no conscious memory of the traumatic event. Thus, a child or even an adolescent who is subjected to repeated sexual abuse by a family member may very well not remember it until he or she (the overwhelming majority being girls) enters into therapy as an adult; at that point, the patient may recover memories in a gradual process, sometimes with the help of hypnosis. Only by finally remembering the repressed trauma can the patient move on to recovery, that is, to “mastery” and healing.

Judith Herman writes:

The patient may not have full recall of the traumatic history and may initially deny such a history, even with careful, direct questioning. . . . If the therapist believes the patient is suffering from a traumatic syndrome, she should share this information fully with the patient. Knowledge is power. The traumatized person is often relieved simply to learn the true name of her condition. By ascertaining her diagnosis, she begins the process of mastery. . . . She discovers that she is not alone; others have suffered in similar ways. . . . A conceptual framework that relates the patient’s problems with identity and relationships to the trauma history provides a useful basis for formation of a therapeutic alliance. This framework...


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pp. 276-281
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