Trauma: Explorations in Memory
… it took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for
everything you did.
The problem was that you didn’t always know what you were seeing until later, maybe
years later, that a lot of it never made it in at all, it just stayed stored there in your eyes.
In the years since Vietnam, the fields of psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and sociology have taken a
renewed interest in the problem of trauma.
In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association
finally officially acknowledged the long-recognized but frequently ignored phenomenon under
the title “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD), which included the symptoms of what had
previously been called shell shock, combat stress, delayed stress syndrome, and traumatic
neurosis, and referred to responses to both human and natural catastrophes.
On the one hand,
this classification and its attendant official acknowledgement of a pathology has provided a
category of diagnosis so powerful that it has seemed to engulf everything around it: suddenly
responses not only to combat and to natural catastrophes but also to rape, child abuse, and a
number of other violent occurrences have been understood in terms of PTSD, and diagnoses of
some dissociative disorders have also been switched to that of trauma.
On the other hand, this
powerful new tool has provided anything but a solid explanation of disease:
indeed, the impact
of trauma as a concept and a category, if it has helped diagnosis, has done so only at the cost of a
fundamental disruption in our received modes of understanding and of cure, and a challenge to
our very comprehension of what constitutes pathology.
This can be seen in the debates that
surround “category A” of the American Psychiatric Association’s definition of PTSD (a response
to an event “outside the range of usual human experience”), concerning how closely PTSD must
be tied to specific kinds of events; or in the psychoanalytic problem of whether trauma is indeed
pathological in the usual sense, in relation to distortions caused by desires, wishes, and
Indeed, the more we satisfactorily locate and classify the symptoms of PTSD, the
more we seem to have dislocated the boundaries of our modes of understanding – so that
psychoanalysis and medically oriented psychiatry, sociology, history, and even literature all
seem to be called upon to explain, to cure, or to show why it is that we can no longer simply
explain or simply cure.
The phenomenon of trauma has seemed to become all-inclusive, but it
has done so precisely because it brings us to the limits of our understanding: if psychoanalysis,
psychiatry, sociology, and even literature are beginning to hear each other anew in the study of
trauma, it is because they are listening through the radical disruption and gaps of traumatic
While the precise definition of post-traumatic stress disorder is contested, most descriptions