The Ugly Truth

Over at So Many Books, Stefanie has a fascinating post on the proliferation of overly intimate memoirs, often detailing horrific and disturbing experiences as justification for the book’s publication. Why is it that we have become so trauma-obsessed in the 21st century? Partly it’s due to a confusion between celebrity and intimacy, and the breakdown of a sense of community in which we are fully known, but it’s also due to a particular fascination with the nature of trauma. Trauma studies has been an area I’ve researched in the past few years, and in fact yesterday I was cleaning up the copy of a chapter on the prevalence of child abuse narratives, arguing that many tread an uncertain line between an ethical desire to let people know the enormous damage caused by abuse, and an overly-voyeuristic, prurient interest in what actually occurs in traumatic sexual encounters. Wherever you look in the diverse media, we are being offered stories of both private and public catastrophe whose publication rests on the underlying belief that their huge popularity means they are commercially rewarding to the publisher. There’s big money to be had in people’s misery, it seems.

Yet one of the many paradoxes in this contemporary craze for trauma is the fact that real trauma is something that is not easily articulated. The experience of Holocaust survivors provided the origins of what we call trauma theory today. When those starved and tortured waifs were released from Buchenwald and Auschwitz they needed to tell people what had happened to them – it was historically, ethically, politically and personally essential that they should do so. And yet language proved recalcitrant to their horrific tales, and the listeners they encountered found it almost impossible to hear the experience they were recounting. No one knew how to deal with these poor, tormented souls, many of whom eventually committed suicide. The psychoanalysts Van der Kolk and and van der Hart subsequently proposed a distinction between ordinary ‘narrative’ memory, which is organised on a soap opera principle, whereby every daily event fits into an ongoing storyline and is therefore understood, digested and filed away, and ‘traumatic’ memory, whereby the event that occurs is so horrific, so abnormal, so terrifying, that no frame of reference exists into which it can be slotted and it therefore remains like a lump of undigested matter in the mind. ‘Narrative’ memory is fluid and flexible and often somewhat distant from the lived event; ‘traumatic’ memory is detailed and vivid and has lost none of the power of experienced reality. As such it keeps returning over and over to the victim, as if it were happening again. The key in this instance is to introduce flexibility into the traumatic memory, because until it can be processed and its deadly power neutralised, the event will be experienced as a gap or gaping wound in the victim’s life, and this is almost impossible to tolerate.

So trauma studies looks at narratives, films and also witness accounts that attempt to find ways to express events for which there are no given, satisfying formulations. It’s been a significant field of study because of the questions it poses to language and representation when pushed to their limits, and also because of the profound links with history, politics and psychoanalysis that are simultaneously forged.

Ok, so why should it be that this highly specific form of experience has become such a dominant part of our modern culture? One answer to this might lie in the work of cultural theorist Georgio Agamben (who is utterly fab, if you like this kind of thing). He proposes that the way we think about experience has altered significantly since the 18th century. It used to be that experience of the world carried great value, hence authority was placed in the older members of a community, and life was seen as a continual garnering of experience that would eventually culminate in the final plenitude of death. However, the great seachange in our culture has been from a humanist perspective on life to a scientific one. The structures of science now dominate our way of understanding the world, and so rather than value what people have experienced, we value what people know. There’s an immediate disadvantage here: valuing experience meant that it was possible to believe we could all have a full and complete life; whereas if we value knowledge it becomes impossible ever to reach an end point of complete integration. We can only ever add to the sum of our knowledge and die incomplete.

Now it strikes me that trauma has become an odd way of reassigning significance and importance to the fact of having had a life experience. Trauma is resolutely not about knowing things; it’s about having been through an event that was radically alien to knowledge and understanding. But turning it into a narrative gives it the look of having been mastered – there’s a powerful transformation at work in the victory of words over dangerous, untamed experience that we can all share and marvel at. Equally the experience of trauma is one of the few in our society that is given a special form of authority. No one can deny or argue with a trauma victim’s experiences, which is a pretty unique state of affairs in the modern world. And it’s fundamentally democratic; it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, or educated or not, so long as you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. So in our topsy-turvy, mixed up world, trauma becomes a real achievement, a short cut to a significant life, whose significance cannot be challenged. However, I imagine, given the blanket bombing of trauma stories by the media, that times will eventually change: not because we have found a way to value the richness and complexity of so-called ‘normal’ life experience, but because of that ugly quality in humankind – compassion fatigue.

14 thoughts on “The Ugly Truth

  1. How fascinating! I can see our culture has moved away from the stiff upper lip ideal of not discussing trauma to revelling in it- which has to be in part because of the status attached to victimhood. But maybe it’s also do with the public private divide slipping. Everything, not just emotions on dealing with trauma, is so much more public than it ever was before.

  2. Yes, this IS fascinating, and I often find myself missing the “stiff upper lip.” I also find myself thinking “yet ANOTHER ‘tramuatic childhood memoir?’ Don’t people get tired of them?” Initially, since I’m fascinated by psychology, especially developmental psychology, I found some of these interesting, because they can provide some hope for those in despair (“look. This person who had this horrific childhood is now doing very well, and is being asked to host his/her own T.V. show. This could be you.”). But, as with so much, we seem to have just gone from one extreme to another, so now it’s got to be much MORE than just, your ho-hum run-of-the-mill, father beat us and mother was manic-depressive dysfunctional family. No, it’s got to be father-became-mother and mother-became-father, and even though they were millionaires, they forced us to live on the street and eat worms dysfunctional family.

  3. “So in our topsy-turvy, mixed up world, trauma becomes a real achievement, a short cut to a significant life, whose significance cannot be challenged.” — EXACTLY.

    Nearly everyone has some event in their lives that is traumatic or painful. Suddenly, rather than being an impetus towards art or an exploration of humanity, these traumas are now ends in and of themselves. In a really bizarre, morbid kind of way, they’re self-validations: “Look, I’ve had terrible experiences, so I must be worth listening to.”

    Which is not to say that traumatic experiences should be dismissed, not at all. But there has to be something beyond those individual circumstances, those grotesque details. Doesn’t there?

  4. I kind of jumped the gun when I hit “submit.” I meant to emphasize this ‘democratization’ of suffering. Because of the widespread awareness and acceptance of the memoir-genre, no one can really call someone’s life-events “more traumatic” or claim them to be superficial. We recognize all kinds of traumas, from the physical to the more subtle emotional kind. Which kind of undercuts any kind of critique. There’s always the “you’re not taking my pain seriously enough” retort.

  5. Great discussion from Litlove and Stefanie, and I couldn’t agree more about the solipsistic nature of memoirs — echoing that nature of our culture. Perhaps as modernization dehumanizes our world, people feel it more necessary to express their own viewpoints from a narrower and narrower perspective. We can see how this type of expressionism has progressed, from the modernists and Impressionists onward. Litlove raised the Holocaust as an issue, and I frankly think we haven’t given enough credo as to how this event (and Stalin’s purges) traumatized the human race as a whole. The fact that technology could be used against man, against nature, in wholesale extinction, is almost too much to grasp. How do we come to terms with that knowledge? Maybe the myopic and self-centeredness of memoir and other forms of contemporary art somehow acknowledge this terror without really dealing with it, i.e. as a traumatized child would react to abuse. Maybe the more powerless one feels, the more one finds it necessary to assert self? However, I still loathe Augustin Burroughs.

  6. Interesting. Don’t take us poor traumatized folks out of the equation, though. We are in the audience too, and we are attracted to stories of similar traumas to our own in an almost obsessive way. With me it’s extreme weather, so I’m glued to the news during hurricane season and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched “Twister.” I think we seek others who have shared our unintelligible experience in the hope that they can explain it to us. At the very least we can sympathize meaningfully since we truly know what they have been through–we’ve had the same experience. I think that as long as there are traumatized people there will be a fascination with trauma and compassion for its (fellow) victims. Oprah can rest easy. 😉

  7. Fascinating comments. I think what I’m hearing is that whilst there are many excellent reasons for speaking and listening to trauma – it is after all a fundamentally ethical and compassionate thing to do – the problem lies with a media that produces such representations to excess and therefore risks trivialising their serious and heartfelt core. It also seems to me that we have fewer ways than ever in the modern world to really deal with fear and anxiety. The lost stiff upper lip was one, but in the absence of stoicism fears can seem overwhelming.

  8. I find what you say about the difference between narrative memory and traumatic memory fascinating. Do you think that the people who write the trauma memoirs are attempting to add some flexibility to their traumatic memory and just pretty much failing at it? Or maybe it is better to say, they are hoping to somehow transform the experience. Cynical me wants to say they are wanting to make a buck off their suffering, which may be the case for some, but not all. Still, it is hard not to lump them all in together.

  9. When trauma studies meant Holocaust writing, then most narrative attempts were brave, experimental and pretty much doomed. A few writers seemed to come to terms with what happened to them – Jorge Semprun, notably, Robert Antelme, and Elie Wiesel (although I cannot recall whether he committed suicide in the end). Primo Levi eventually killed himself. My feeling is that it depends on the level of trauma involved, and at that point in time it really was difficult to get people to understand the events they had been through. Nowadays the situation is far more complex and the line between trauma and very unpleasant experience seems to be continually blurred, and with commercial interest involved, well, suddenly even valid trauma can look dodgy. A trauma is an experience which is so terrifying that you are literally not in yourself anymore – the self is evacuated at the moment of trauma’s occurrence, and so it can only be understood in retrospect (hence the need for narrative). As I say, I work a fair deal in this area and I find it very interesting and extremely complex.

  10. What a wonderful post and such good responses too. You are really thowing up great pieces litlove.
    I find myself torn between responding straight away and waiting, mulling and coming back later.
    One minor quibble if you will allow me. Perhaps the “ugly quality in humankind – compassion fatigue” is as much a defence mechanism as anything else. Removing ourselves from the trauma of others allows us to function in a world where such things can and do happen every day and to anyone.
    Our collective unreality enables us to go about our days without the crushing knowledge that the world is ludicrously unfair, that man can be almost unspeakable brutal to man and that lives can change completely in seconds. It makes life easier.

  11. Elie Wiesel is still alive. In fact, he was just on Oprah. Does anyone know how to categorize “Night”? Traditionally, it’s been fiction, but since Oprah picked it up, everyone’s insisting it’s a memoir (including EW, although critics say much of it is fictionalized).

  12. Very interesting post. One of the reasons I’m so fascinated by the 18C is that is so often the turning point between older ways of understanding people, government, nature, etc. etc. and contemporary ways. To observe the shifts happening in literature is so intriguing.

  13. Further thoughts: What are the memoirists trying to achieve? (Also, there is obviously a demand for such reading, which says something about reader trends…) Are the writers trying to enlighten by sharing their experience of the human condition, are they trying to shock, are they trying to create a healing catalyst for themselves? Maybe that doesn’t matter as much as the end result: If a work is honest and well-written, then it is going to last long after the social and cultural trends fade away. Can someone remember (or would anyone be willing to take a stab at naming) the first such memoir that started this trend? I don’t think Holocaust survivors would count…Confessional memoir maybe is a better charactertization?

  14. Hello Eoin -nice to see you in the salon and witb a very good point. To try to feel sorry for the whole world is not a healthy position either, you’re quite right. AC, I’m delighted to know Wiesel is still alive (I must say I thought he was dead by now). La nuit is a compressed version of his wartime memories that first appeared in a 900-page volume. So fundamentally they are memoirs, but that act of condensation indicates the extent to which his experience was edited. It would be interesting to find out how much he altered between books (someone must have written about it somewhere). Dorothy – you know far more about the 18th century than I, but it does seem to be a moment of transition in all kinds of ways – I hope you’ll say more about that in your posts! LK – ah you open a can of worms there. The confessional memoir certainly dates back to the 19th century (I’m thinking of authors like Chateaubriand) – others than I would have to say whether they abound in earlier times. I think you identify the various reasons why people write them very clearly (Foucault talks about the slow uncovering of secrets as being a great pleasure in itself) and it’s certainly true that the ones that last do so because they have literary merit beyond the personal motivations that may have driven them. Equally autobiography has been responsible for a lot of very inventive, unusual narrative – it’s furthered the way we think about story telling in many different ways.

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