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  • Trauma by Lucy Bond and Stef Craps
  • Lewis Kirshner (bio)
Trauma by Lucy Bond and Stef Craps. London: New Critical Idiom, Routledge, 2019, 173 pages.

This concise and informative treatment of the history and changing uses of the term "trauma" covers a broad range of topics, from clinical to popular social contexts. While the book's intended audience encompasses mainly literary and cultural scholars, students in mental health disciplines and social sciences can find much here of relevance for their own fields. Trauma, as the Bond and Craps observe, has become a thriving subject of political and social discourse, applied widely and sometimes loosely to an enormous variety of situations. As such, it has expanded our understanding of forms of human suffering, both the psychological effects of personal and social violence, and the more subtle influence of global events like environmental and technological changes on our lives. At the same time, the prevalent focus on trauma risks becoming a master narrative that obscures important political and economic issues. The authors tread a careful path between an appreciative, receptive approach to the expanding applications of the concept of trauma and a critical skepticism about its relevance.

Chapter One introduces the history of the trauma concept with the 19th century's concern with physical injuries resulting from the changed conditions of modern industrial life. Puzzling medical complaints following railway and work accidents created legal and financial problems with which European societies increasingly had to wrestle. Not the least of these was the status of non-organic afflictions that raised medical suspicions of malingering, character weakness, and the validity of diagnoses like hysteria or neurasthenia. Freud, of course, adapted the term trauma to the impact of life events on similar patients who consulted him for various mental and behavioral complaints. Under the influence of the French neurologists Charcot and Bernheim, he redefined hysteria as a post-traumatic state characterized by problems of memory of unassimilable experiences, perhaps with an organic basis. In the place of recollection, the patients displayed sometimes dramatic physical and emotional symptoms, whose origins could be reconstructed. Freud pursued a psychological explanation [End Page 800] for these conditions, at first emphasizing the delayed effect of childhood sexual abuse, which awaited puberty to achieve its full significance. Out of this work came his important notion of an unmanageable level of excitation that breaks through protective barriers (as a property of the nervous system) and the consequent splitting or fragmentation of the mind into dissociated parts.

Beginning with Studies on Hysteria (1895), Freud pointed to the importance of sexual repression in contemporary culture for the formation of neuroses. In his classic case reports, he argued that symptoms could be understood as indirect expressions of the conflict between forbidden wishes and prohibitions that could be discovered by interview methods. Although he began his investigations in a medical context, scholars now view these historical phenomena in social terms related to the changing status of women and the role of sexuality in bourgeois European life, rather than as purely individual disorders. The suffering person represents the product both of a unique private history and of complex developments in the wider society. Freud himself wrote throughout his life about these intertwined levels of trauma, but his major psychoanalytic theories gradually focused on the inner workings of the mind. In so doing, his attention turned from the causal importance of sexual abuse to the role of subjective sexual fantasies in neurosis.

World War I brought a heightened awareness of post-traumatic illnesses to psychiatrists confronted with the numerous military victims of shell-shock and combat stress. While the devastating consequences of combat on soldiers may have formerly been taken as implicit in the normativity of war or accepted as inevitable aspects of the presence of evil in human life, suddenly the human effects of military trauma became a pressing medical and social issue. Despite persistent resistance to the medical validity of post-traumatic conditions, the extent of the problem could not be ignored. Freud himself was forced to extend his explanations of trauma from the fate of sexual arousal and repression to the consequences of actual violence. His hypothesis of a pleasure principle governing mental...


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pp. 800-808
Launched on MUSE
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