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Number 9: Winter 2013

Trauma and the Ghost Dance of Psychoanalytic Practice

Brid Greally

Herman (1992) describes psychotherapy with clients who are struggling with trauma in terms of three stages: establishing safety, reconstructing the trauma story and reconnecting the survivors and their community. However, I find it important to learn from trauma studies such as Herman’s that claiming to understand too quickly or too fully can be experienced as a betrayal and an obscenity. In their elaboration of the importance of witnessing, these writers help us to remember the importance of a particular type of listening which acknowledges its limitations and is able to listen to the unsayable. Oliver in her 2001 book entitled Witnessing; Beyond Recognition, draws on both the religious and judicial aspects of witnessing which include the need to acknowledge the impact of the external event whilst acknowledging one’s inability to grasp the full impact. Trauma is a breach of boundaries that puts inside and outside into a strange communication; a searing wound of history and truth which raises questions for the client as to whether the traumatic event really happened. Trauma creates an aporia whereby the experience is both registered and not registered, installing both an impoverishment and an excess. The hallucinatory states of frozen images, flashbacks and nightmares which are often accompanied by numbing, somatisation and enactments, can hinder the capacity for working through. Their immediacy and literalism can produce despair over communicating whilst simultaneously generating a fear of contamination.

In working with trauma, the analyst is presented with the dilemma of how not to re-traumatise the client whilst being able to bear witness to some inevitable repetitions. Laplanche (1994) understands repetitions as not just an attempt to master trauma but as possible attempts at translation. He claims that in flashbacks and nightmares there is a question, such as ‘why me?’, and the constant return to the message of ’what does it mean?’ Even though there is a literal aspect, there is also something different in each repetition which can allow for interpretation and free association. It is, as if, in order to deal with the shock, the disbelief, the death-dealing and dehumanising aspects of their trauma, patients suffer a sense of morbid guilt. Feminists have struggled with the difficulty of holding open the possibility that the client is implicated in their limited choice of responses, as they are concerned that it can be used to blame the victim. However, it would seem that unconsciously the question has been asked and responded to as the effects of trauma are often accompanied by shame and guilt. With a focus on ethics, Butler (2004) highlights how the subject is both dialogic and inter-subjective and she writes of how there is a necessity for what she calls ‘addressability’ in order for there to be the capacity for response and responsibility. She claims that ‘if there is no you to address, I am lost’. The contribution of psychoanalysis is to help us to think how under the impact of the traumatic event, when there is no one there to witness and to recognise its incommensurability, there is a psychic death. Whilst at the same time, shame and guilt attempt to preserve some vestige of psychic living.