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Number 9: Winter 2013

Editorial: ‘Can’t we just let the past BE the past’?

Val Parks

It is ironic, although perhaps in accordance with Freud’s pleasure principle, that traumatic happenings are precisely those that break through the wadding of necessary stupidity, as we shall discover in these papers; yet today’s society has made of the concept of trauma only further wadding for our over-stuffed societal stupidity. Our conference this year presented a diversity of accounts of trauma, reflecting the diversity of approach that characterises The Site itself. This raises the question: how are we to reconcile conflicting explanations of the topic? My answer is that we do not need to. Rather, we should try to take each paper on its own terms and listen to its insights.

The concept of trauma has perhaps now been around long enough for a revisionist stance to form, and perhaps we are setting one out here. Our title points to a paradox: some of those who experience or have experienced  trauma  never speak of it and wish only to forget. This is often characteristic of traumatized groups within nation states, victims of genocide or campaigns of politically motivated disappearance, imprisonment and torture. There is a plethora of evidence from both those who directly experienced such events and their children that maintaining silence about what happened can have terrible psychological consequences. I am thinking, of course, first of the Shoah survivors and their children. Psychoanalysts like Abraham and Torok in their book The Shell and the Kernel have elaborated a theory of the transmission of unmetabolised trauma from one generation to the next. To trace the cataclysmic effects of the Holocaust, of Rwanda, of any of the other modern horrors seems to me a task we should not draw back from. The other face of the paradox is those who feel compelled to speak out and endlessly repeat their trauma in the form of painful symptoms and suffering. These are more often individual and isolated victims, who may feel singled out: unlucky victims of a cruel blow of fate. Both of these trajectories are laden with pain and share many characteristics in common.

Where the term  ‘trauma’ has been so over-extended, it becomes necessary to question its applications and deployment. Here we come to revisionism. Various important questions need to be asked. Paul Verhaeghe (2001) usefully contrasts accidental and structural trauma. The latter is the kind of trauma Freud had in mind as constitutive of the subject (broadly, the incursion of sexuality in the child’s life). Can we think of this universal experience of trauma in the same way as accidental trauma? Do individual experiences of accidental trauma, say an assault or car accident, have the same kinds of effects on people as those experienced by a whole community or group? What of severity? Are there some traumas that would be universally and wholly destructive of the subject, and to the same extent, regardless of individual make-up? What of PTSD? For some in the psy. field, this is all we mean by trauma; the two are synonymous. Is this so or should we be seeing it as a prefabricated template imposed on those we presume to think of in this category? Above all, what is the contribution of psychoanalysis to those who suffer as a result of trauma? How should we approach the work with these suffering subjects?