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Biography 23.1 (2000) 223-231



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Suzette Henke. Shattered Subjects: Trauma and Testimony in Women's Life-Writing. New York: St. Martin's, 1999. 216 pp. ISBN 0-312-21020-5, $45.00.

Another volume with trauma in the title? Is trauma ironically in danger of becoming the latest intellectual fashion--"ironically" because "fashion" stands at the opposite pole from the realities of traumatic experience? Precisely because that is the case, I don't think too much can be said about trauma, although we do need to understand the intellectual and political reasons for the emergence of interest in trauma now in the humanities. 1 How is trauma theory being mobilized in literary studies? Is it changing critical paradigms? Do its perspectives illuminate fiction and fictional lives? What may trauma theory add to literary analysis?

Suzette Henke's book is an appropriate site within which to visit these questions. It offers re-readings of the literary writing of six women through the lens of recent trauma theory. The writers are Colette, H.D., Anaïs Nin, Janet Frame, Audre Lorde, and Sylvia Fraser. Henke wisely selects women from different nations--France only figures so prominently in the first three figures for arbitrary reasons--and importantly includes African American Audre Lorde. Many other women writers could have been selected, but the ones chosen are more than sufficient to support Henke's thesis. She coins the term "scriptotherapy" to argue that, in each case, the writer used literature--its processes, its creative modalities--to heal or cure herself of damaging traumatic experiences.

As I read, I was torn between two contradictory views about Henke's project. At first, I thought Henke's method trapped her in an old literary/ critical problem--that of reducing the works to the women's lives. The texts themselves--their qualities, genres, images, language, and so on--disappear as they are used simply as direct evidence of a trauma that Henke has named and isolated in the life. But it occurred to me that trauma theory may open up a new, more viable way of linking the life and the text--a way out of our puritanism about texts and lives that has, at least since New Criticism and on through post-structuralism, prohibited critics seeing the one in any easy way in relation to the other.

It would, then, be wrong to devalue the volume because it violated the old "text versus life" literary boundary. The book is less about the texts than [End Page 223] about the historical women. Despite her Introduction, informed by recent psychology and literary and trauma theory, and her acknowledging a new positioning between life and text--she refers to Shoshana Felman's important observation that "A life testimony is not simply testimony to a private life, but a point of conflation between text and life, a textual testimony which can penetrate us like an actual life" (14, qtd. in Henke xii). Henke is not essentially interested in this new critical position. Seen this way, why does Henke need to deal with texts qua literature? Henke's volume is closer to psychobiography than to contributing to theories about "testimony." She uses the women's writing to illuminate their life experiences, and deliberately chooses women authors whose works betray some original familial trauma. 2

Henke's method is, essentially, to put her author on the couch. Taking an unapologetic psychoanalytic framework as given, Henke interprets each writer's literary world in terms of each author's lived oedipal relations and family traumas. It is hard to know, however, how deliberately the women thought about what they found themselves projecting into their fictional characters. Indeed, it is Henke rather than the authors who finds the link back to childhood traumas, and infers that the fictional characters' experiences stand in for those of the author. In some cases, Henke has help from an author's autobiography, but we are all aware how "fictional" such writing is anyway. Henke makes still more links, and spells out the traumatic implications of events she reads about...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1456
Print ISSN
0162-4962
Pages
pp. 223-231
Launched on MUSE
1999-12-01
Open Access
No
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