To the frontpage
spacer spacer spacer

Narratives of the traumatized self

What happens to the self, when traumatized by rape and other abuse? Can trauma narratives reconstruct our belief that we can understand the world and feel at home again? Or does the traumatic loss of carefreeness forever destroy our attempts to find our way home? Philosopher Robin May Schott explores different approaches to this ever-present issue

"We have means both to understand the world and to act in it. Arendt compared the feeling of understanding to the feeling of being at home." (Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought, 303)

"In telling a story we renew our faith that the world is within our grasp." (Michael Jackson, The Politics of Storytelling, p.17)

"I am not alive." (Charlotte Delbo, Auschwitz and After, p.260)

FORUM/26.6.2003 Any student of philosophy will remember Descartes' famous cogito ergo sum: "I am, I exist is necessarily true each time that I pronounce it, or that I mentally conceive it." Denying the cogito would be pragmatically self-defeating -- as Bernard Williams writes, like saying "I am absent" in a roll call. What is one then to make of Charlotte Delbo, a non-Jewish French woman who survived Auschwitz and Ravenbrück, and claimed that she had died in Auschwitz? What does this pragmatic contradiction tell us about the conditions for being a self?

Delbo's claim is not a response to Descartes' need to prove the existence of a thinking self. It is a response to another question about the self: Can one feel at home in the world? Being at home in the world is one of the fundamental impulses for both philosophy and storytelling, as Hannah Arendt's work has made clear. The attempt to reassure oneself that human beings and the world are made for each other can be viewed as a form of secular theodicy, an affirmation of the meaningfulness of the world, even though this world is a place of suffering and atrocity.

Stories of traumatized selves raise a number of questions: What happens to a self when the unthinkable happens, when one is stripped of what makes one human? Can narratives of trauma reconstitute our faith that the world is within our grasp and that we are at home in it? Or does the traumatic loss of carefreeness forever mar one's attempts to find one's way back home?

The American feminist philosopher Susan J. Brison, who surived rape and attempted sexual murder, affirms in Aftermath; Violence and the Remaking of a Self (Princeton University Press, 2002), that narratives of trauma enable one to remake a self that at least some of the time can feel at home in the world. More troublingly, Charlotte Delbo's trilogy, Auschwitz and After (Yale University Press,1995), vividly shows that paradoxes forever haunt the effort of returning home.

Brison's book is situated within three overlapping discourses. First, the book is a wrenching personal account of how, while she was walking on a country road outside Grenoble, France on a lovely morning in July 1990, she was attacked from behind, raped, beaten and left for dead. Her book is a sensitive account of her rape and her ten-year long and difficult journey to remake herself. Her personal account situates the book among other accounts written by survivors of individual or collective atrocities. In this respect, Brison's primary task is to bear witness to her rape. Bearing witness is both a way of working through her personal trauma and engaging in the political necessity of bearing witness to the injustice of sexual violence.

Second, as a professional philosopher Brison reflects on her personal narrative in order to engage with philosophical issues about the nature of the self, the nature of knowledge, and the role of narrative. Third, as a professional feminist philosopher, Brison is firmly oriented by feminist discussions of the relational self and the significance of the perspective of the victim. Although on a quick read one might oppose the personal account to the philosophical dimensions of the book that would sadly do little justice to the philosophical contribution of the book. The book is philosophical in including not only "a number of pages which only an academic could love", as one reviewer put it in The Spectator Remembering to forget.

The book's philosophical mission is carried out by the personal narrative, which anchors philosophical issues in the actual life-experiences of empirical individuals -- in this case, in the author's traumatic experiences. This approach reflects one of the central contributions of feminist philosophy. If philosophical problems about personal identity and knowledge are thought in relation to concrete selves - including selves who have been raped - then one arrives at rather different theories of the self than if one seeks to disengage oneself from all concrete experiences.

Hence, the question that motivates Brison is: what are the conditions for remaking the self, when she/he has been unmade by trauma and violence? Her answer is that since the self is fundamentally relational, the self can be remade in connection with others. As the psychologist Judith Lewis Herman notes, a traumatic event is one in which a person feels utterly helpless in the face of what is perceived to be a life-threatening force. Trauma destroys the belief that one can be oneself in relation to others. Working through trauma can only be done in relation to empathic others, who become the keepers of one's story. Brison worked through her trauma in the context of relations with her husband, therapists, fellow rape victims, friends, and professional philosophers. This relational character of the self no more undermines the possibility of autonomy than does recognition that all selves are embodied. In fact, Brison along with other feminists argues that the possibility for becoming self-determining is thoroughly imbued with one's dependence on others through caring and socialization.

Anchoring philosophical issues in the concrete experiences of violence has implications for other areas of philosophy as well, including epistemology. Whereas philosophers typically argue that in order to have knowledge, one must divest oneself of particular perspectives, accounts by victims of violence lead to very different implications. Take the example of the philosopher who adopted a utilitarian approach to assessing whether the harm to the rape victim outweighs the benefit to the rapist, as described by Brison in chapter one of her book.

There are a number of troubling aspects to this example. First, one might well wonder whether a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis is the most illuminating starting point for considering the ethical implications of rape. Second, even if one were a persuaded utilitarian (and I have met feminist philosophers who are), one would wonder about how to apply a utilitarian methodology to this question. One would need to be able to imaginatively understand what the harm done to the rape victim is -- no easy matter, since as Brison notes much of what a rape victim goes through is unimaginable. Thus, no matter what methodological approach one adopts, one must try to understand the perspective of the victim of rape. First-person narratives are essential epistemological tools that enable philosophers to understand different kinds of selves, and thereby open up new areas for philosophical inquiry.

Victims of rape experience the unmaking of the self and the loss of the feeling of being at home in the world. As the Serbian feminist and anti-war activist Lepa Mladjenovic writes, rape makes a woman "homeless in her own body" (quoted in Rhonda Copelon: "Surfacing Gender: Reconceptualizing Crimes Against Women in Time of War" in Mass Rape, 1994). Are there strategies that help one to return home again? Brison thinks that narratives of trauma do enable one to return to this feeling of being at home.

For the traumatized self, narrative serves both to integrate memories of trauma into the survivor's sense of self and view of the world, and to reintegrate the survivor into a community. Brison uses the language of "mastering" and "remastering" a trauma through narrative. The residue of trauma is a kind of body memory. Whereas traumatic memories feel as though they are passively endured, narratives are a result of certain choices. By engaging in a narrative, the survivor takes control over certain aspects of both her story and her memory, and thereby can regain more fully her voice and subjectivity. And by narrating one's past, one is more able to freely construct a narrative of future liberation from this past.

In contrast to Brison's notion of narrative as enabling one to master trauma, remake oneself and ultimately approach the feeling of being at home in the world, Charlotte Delbo's trilogy Auschwitz and After unsettles these ideas. Delbo's account is based on a structurally different situation than the violence that Brison experienced. Writing by survivors of Auschwitz addresses the unthinkable that happened not once, but happened over and over and over again to those closest to one and to those thousands of other persons and corpses that passed by on the way to the crematorium. Because the atrocity to which she testifies is a mass atrocity, Delbo shuns the individual narrative voice. In the first volume, None of Us Will Return, the women in the group are occasionally named, but mostly appear as part of the "we" that experiences arrivals and departures, thirst, roll call, daytime, night, and the tulip in front of the SS officer's house. Delbo shuns the narrative impulse, which depends on reflection, in favor of a direct confrontation with the physical details of atrocity through "sense memory", which drowns all intellectual defenses. This sense memory is a blending of senses that is conveyed in the present tense, as in the following: "The woman moves forward...The dog leaps on the woman, sinks its fangs in her neck...The woman lets out a cry. A wrenched-out scream. A single scream tearing through the immobility of the plain. We do not know if the scream has been uttered by her or us, whether it issued from her punctuated throat, or from ours. I feel the dog's fangs in my throat."(Delbo, 28)

The presence of sense memory is one of the reasons that Delbo described herself as living next to Auschwitz. "Auschwitz is there, unalterable, precise, but enveloped in the skin of memory, an impermeable skin that isolates it from my present self. Unlike the snake's skin, the skin of memory does not renew itself...." Delbo gives voice to a splitting of self. On the one hand, she remembers every moment of Auschwitz; on the other hand, she does not recognize herself in the self that was in the camp. This splitting of the self attests to the paradoxes of witnessing - its necessity and impossibilityiv. For how can one bear witness to that which is unthinkable, to the arbitrary and inexplicable infliction of brutality that reduces one's choice to that of death or living death? Charlotte feels the dogs' fangs in her own throat and the writer Delbo thereby ruptures narrative form, with its traditional distinction between self and other, life and death, past and present.

In the third volume of the trilogy, The Measure of Our Days, about the survivors' physical return home, the multiplication of individual voices is even more explicit. As the survivors are released from their shared trauma, the "I" is sometimes Charlotte, sometimes Gilberte, Mado, Poupette, Marie-Louise, Ida, Jacques, and others. The varied fates of the returnees show that accidents of fate are decisive for survivors' attempts to live. Does one marry prince charming who turns out to be a man who will cheat and desert one? Is one's husband a man who will memorize every detail of his wife's camp experiences, making her memory into his own? Does one marry a man who is himself a survivor and who lives as if he were the only survivor in the family? Does one return to one's father alone, having witnessed the death of one's sister in the camp? Is one falsely suspected of having been a collaborator and shunned for years by one's former comrades?

Given the variety of fates that Delbo portrays, I find the notion of "mastery" of trauma suggested by Brison's interpretation of narrative difficult to apply to Delbo's text. The horrors of the camps continue to disorient both the "I" and the reader, and resist integration into the "normal" life of earning a living, keeping a house, and rearing a child. The paradoxes in surviving atrocity and bearing witness to it are alluded to by the paradoxes within the text itself. The knowledge gained in the camps is "useless" knowledge - useless for living - though also "a deeper, more trustworthy knowledge" by which one could see everything in a person's face the moment one set eyes on them.

Can narratives enable survivors to return to a feeling of being at home in the world? Can they deepen the reader's/listener's understanding of what is possible in the world? Both Susan Brison and Charlotte Delbo answer the second question in the affirmative. But they struggle differently with the first question. The anthropologist Michael Jackson describes in The Politics of Storytelling (Museum Tusculanum Press, 2002) the intelligibility of a story as depending on the "unconscious bodily rhythm of going out from some place of certainty or familiarity into a space of contingency and strangeness, then returning to take stock."

Brison's personal narrative follows this structure. She is raped in a foreign country, returns home, and through narrative seeks to master the trauma and remake herself. Nonetheless, she cannot sustain the belief in irreversible repair and her renewed feeling of being at home is constantly at risk. Although Delbo's text follows this literal form of storytelling as well (arrest and deportation, camp experiences, and return to home), she nonetheless resists the attempt to provide narrative mastery of traumatic events. She writes, "A child gave me a flower / one morning / a flower picked / for me / he kissed the flower / before giving it to me / and asked for a kiss /...There is no wound that will not heal / I told myself that day / and still repeat it from time to time / but not enough to believe it." (Delbo, 240-41)

Both philosophy and storytelling may renew our faith in the world and reassure us that we can feel at home in it. But they must also give voice to the profound dislocations that continually rupture this reassurance. As Brison and other feminist philosophers illustrate, personal narratives do effectively anchor reflection in concrete experiences, with profound implications for philosophical theories. But these narratives must themselves resist the impulse to master that, which is unmasterable. Delbo's work provides a remarkable example of how the self that is split retains the sense of contingency and strangeness in the world, which makes impossible a return to the certainties and familiarities of being at home.

Robin Schott, Ph.D., is feminist philosopher based in Copenhagen.

Printer ikonspacerPrint

KVINFO · Christians Brygge 3 · DK 1219 København K Tel: +45 33 13 50 88 · Fax: +45 33 14 11 56 · E-mail: