- Speak, Trauma:Toward a Revised Understanding of Literary Trauma Theory
“The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness.”—Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery (1)
“It is ironic that so much has been written about the biological mechanisms of traumatic psychological amnesia when the very existence of the phenomenon is in doubt.”—Richard McNally, Remembering Trauma (182)
Do we forget the traumas we suffer, losing them in an amnesic haze, or do our moments of deepest pain remain available to us? This question drives Tim O’Brien’s 1994 novel, In the Lake of the Woods. In it, the Senate campaign of a Vietnam veteran named John Wade is derailed when word leaks that he was present at the My Lai massacre. Seeking escape after crushing political defeat, Wade and his wife Kathy retire to a remote lake house. Yet shortly after their arrival, Kathy vanishes, never to be found again. The novel’s drama is fueled by the fact that the nature of Wade’s involvement in each tragedy—the massacre in Vietnam and the disappearance of his wife—remains unclear. And this lack of clarity stems from the fact that he seems unable to accurately recall either event. [End Page 333]
Psychologists call the inability to remember an intensely painful experience traumatic amnesia, and the concept was central to specialists’ understanding of trauma when Lake was published. (O’Brien directly quotes one of the great proponents of traumatic amnesia, Judith Herman, four times in the novel.) However, the suggestion that one may forget—or fail to accurately describe—trauma is also a foundational insight for the first wave of literary trauma theorists, among them Geoffrey Hartman, Shoshana Felman, and most importantly, Cathy Caruth.
It is a testament to Caruth’s over-size importance to trauma studies that Ruth Leys, in her 2001 “genealogy” of the field, devotes an entire chapter to Caruth’s work—as much as Freud. And though Caruth’s two books on the subject—Trauma: Explorations in Memory (1995) and Unclaimed Experience (1996)—were published almost two decades ago, her influence endures. In 2011, Cambridge University hosted a colloquium on her work, and in an essay published that same year, Jean Wyatt writes that trauma theory is still “dominated by the theoretical framework” that she introduced (31).1 For Caruth, trauma is an experience so intensely painful that the mind is unable to process it normally. In the immediate aftermath, the victim may totally forget the event. And if memories of the trauma return, they are often nonverbal, and the victim may be unable to describe them with words. Yet Caruth maintains that imaginative literature—or figural, rather than literal language—can “speak” trauma when normal, discursive language cannot, and fiction helps give a voice to traumatized individuals and populations. Hence, her theory of trauma is a ringing endorsement of the testimonial power of literature. Caruth builds that theory on the work of prominent contemporary psychologists and psychiatrists, most prominently Judith Herman and Bessel van der Kolk. In the mid-nineties, few clinicians were so influential in the field of trauma studies as this pair, and their work directly supports Caruth’s claims that trauma is amnesic and unspeakable. Because she constructed her critical edifice on a scientific foundation, her theory has long been resistant to critique, and this resistance contributes to her system’s enduring use value.
However, newer clinical studies of the psychology of trauma have challenged the theories on which Caruth relies. In 2003, Harvard’s Richard McNally released Remembering Trauma, a review of new research that has been widely viewed as a shot over the bow of the trauma studies establishment—and that is now essential reading for specialists.2 In it, McNally summarizes dozens of new studies—both his own and others’—that challenge some of the field’s sacred truths. Though his research is exhaustive, his central arguments are quickly summarized: traumatic amnesia is a myth, and while victims may choose not to speak of their traumas, there is little evidence that they cannot. While its importance for the field of psychology is crucial, McNally’s research also lays the groundwork for a critique...