Trauma and Postmemory in Art Spiegelman's "The Complete Maus" and Helen Fremont's "After Long Silence"

Thesis (M.A.), 2015
123 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Psychological Trauma
2.1 Symptoms and Behavior
2.2 Prolonged Trauma and Captivity
2.3 Recovery and the Necessity of a Story

3. Trauma in Art Spiegelman´s The Complete Maus
3.1 Reading Comics
3.2 Direct and Indirect Trauma
3.3 The Parallelism between Graphic Narrative and Trauma

4. The Concept of Postmemory
4.1 Familial Transmission of Trauma
4.2 The Postgeneration
4.3 Second Generation Art

5. Postmemory in Art Spiegelman´s The Complete Maus
5.1 Possession by History and Antagonistic Behavior
5.2 Forming a Version of the Past

6. Trauma and Postmemory in Helen Fremont´s After Long Silence
6.1 The Permanent Silence of the First Generation
6.2 A Hindered Quest for an Unknown Past
6.3. Breaking the Silence

7. Conclusion

Works Cited
Primary Sources
Secondary Sources

1. Introduction

Research has shown that personal as well as collective trauma have a long-term effect on victims of genocides and catastrophes. Our society still tries to cope with the event which took place in the 20th century namely the massive homicide of approximately 6 million people of Jewish descent undertaken by the Nazi regime. Before World War II, 9 million Jews had lived across Europe, whereas only 7 years later 90% of them have been either gassed, burned or shot (cf. Epstein 1987, p. 11). Not only does the generation that witnessed and survived the Holocaust deal with its bodily and psychic consequences even seventy years later, but also the generation after, the so called “second generation” receives more and more attention in the scholarly field of Holocaust studies.

“One may observe that the Shoah is an extreme instance of a traumatic series of events that pose the problem of denial or disavowal, acting-out, and working-through” (LaCapra 1994, p. 187). The Holocaust depicts an event of such magnitude and such an absurd reality that even victims back then could not imagine or comprehend its magnitude (cf. ibid., p. 220).

The Holocaust represents a historical as well as a cultural trauma. Members of a collectivity acknowledge they have been subjected to a horrific event and traumatic situation, which scars their group consciousness and their memories forever. Groups take on social responsibility and political action (cf. Alexander: Toward a Theory of Cultural Trauma. In: Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. 2004, p. 1). A trauma is a social construct, which defines a collectivity as a victim and the enemy as a perpetrator (cf. ibid., p. 10). Traumata are continuously and culturally reproduced via monuments, rituals and commemorations. The representations of traumata reproduce and shape collective identity (cf. ibid., pp. 22-23).

Historical trauma is always related to certain events that include losses. Massive loss of life due to murder in ghettos and in concentration camps ruled everyday life during the Holocaust. Communities were destroyed and masses exterminated (cf. Kirmayer/Gone/Moses 2014, p. 304). Historical traumata as the Shoah can be located and its temporality determined (cf. LaCapra 2001, pp. 81-82). The notion of historical trauma suggests also that its event has a negative impact on individuals which poses problems for later generations involving intergenerational transmission of trauma (cf. ibid., p. 307). The trauma of the first generation has therefore consequences for their children, to whom the trauma is transferred and which is to be specified as the concept of postmemory.

Hirsch defines the term “postmemory” in her work The Generation of Postmemory and discusses the transfer of first generation memory, particularly the memory of the Holocaust, to the second generation. She defines the term as a relationship of the second generation to traumatic experiences, which occurred before their births and which have been transmitted to them so intensively that they seem to have become their own memories. Descendants of survivors who lived through traumatic events are able to connect deeply to the experiences and the remembrance of the first generation. Nevertheless, the received and transmitted memories are different from those of the witnesses.

The following thesis talks about the trauma symptoms and the behavior of Holocaust victims. In chapter 2, the specific feature of prolonged trauma victims will be examined due to the ongoing mental and physical abuse during the Holocaust and the possibilities for a successful recovery are going to be depicted. The examination will base its claims on the works of scholars as Cathy Caruth, Dominik LaCapra, Judith Herman, Sigmund Freud and Dori Laub. Caruth´s accentuation on an unspeakable truth of the trauma and her portrayal of survivor guilt as well as Herman´s focus on possible symptoms of trauma victims will contribute to the work considerably. The term “Shoah” and “Holocaust” will be used interchangeably.

In chapter 4, the concept of postmemory and the way survivor children deal with the impact of their parents´ trauma will be based on Marianne Hirsch´s definition of this term and other second generation authors as Eva Hoffman and Helen Epstein, who both incorporated their own experiences of familial transmission of trauma as well as those of their interviewees in their works. Afterwards, features of postgeneration art will be presented in detail.

Second generation literature and art mirrors the depression and horrid state of the mind of survivors. Art Spiegelman´s The Complete MAUS, which is divided into two parts, “My father bleeds history” and “And here my troubles began”, will be analyzed as a whole. Before looking at features of trauma theory in chapter 3 as well as the concept of postmemory in chapter 5, the specific characteristics of comics will be pointed out at first. The work is a white-black comic, which talks about a father´s past before, during and after World War II. Spiegelman describes his father´s traumatic experiences during the war as well as his inability of coping with those after it. Additionally, the implied author, whom is going to be referred to as Art, depicts his own feelings and emotions concerning his father´s past and the way his father´s trauma affects his own life.

In chapter 6, another second generation piece will be analyzed within the context of trauma as well as postmemory theory. In Helen Fremont´s memoir After Long Silence the implied author describes the lives of her parents, survivors of World War II, before, during and after the war. Raised as a Roman Catholic, Helen discovers her parents´ Jewish descent as an adult and starts exploring her family´s real identity as well as her own after many years of silence.

In both works the first generation deals with the effects of World War II and its aftermath. The thesis aims at portraying the degree of traumatization as well as the extent to which the second generation is affected by the traumatic experiences of the parents´ lives. The questions that are going to be answered in the thesis are the following: How does the intergenerational transmission of memory take place? What do the children do to inscribe themselves into the stories of their parents in order to find their own identity on the voyage of discovery of the past? To what extent are the children affected by postmemory?

The topic about trauma theory and the concept of postmemory is especially interesting since it offers a depiction of the characters´ behavior in two different genres, a comic and a memoir. In conclusion, both works will be compared and their differences and similarities depicted.

The thesis might contribute to a successful ongoing remembering of the Holocaust and its aftermath. The topic of the Shoah and its aftermath increases in academic fields more and more. Its consequences on the psyche are not yet fully captured. Since not only the first generation is implicated in it, but also the following generation, the topic of the Holocaust continues on to this day. It is going to persist as long as people, who are either directly or indirectly touched by its effects, decide to commemorate the memories of their ancestors.

2. Psychological Trauma

2.1 Symptoms and Behavior

Traumatic stress studies include a large amount of areas, as post-traumatic stress disorder studies or Nazi Holocaust studies, in which the: “[...] investigation of the immediate and long term psychosocial consequences of highly stressful events [...]” (Figley: Foreword. In: Human Adaptation to Extreme Stress. From the Holocaust to Vietnam. 1988, p. ix) takes place and the criterions that affect these consequences are analyzed (cf. ibid.). There is a wide variety on traumatic disorders, reaching from the aftereffects of a single event to prolonged and repeated violence (cf. Herman 1997, p. 3). The psychiatrist and professor Judith Herman claims: “To study psychological trauma is to come face to face with human vulnerability in the natural world and with the capacity for evil in human nature” (ibid., p. 7). Those who bear witness are doing this to terrible events and it is impossible to behave in a neutral manner (cf. ibid.).

Psychological trauma constitutes the outcome of stressful events that demolish a victim´s sense of security and makes him feel helpless and isolated (cf. ibid., p. 197). A person is considered a victim as soon as he is subjected to a human perpetrator (cf. Rothe 2011, p. 25). We are dealing with atrocities when humans constitute the overwhelming force that traumatizes people (cf. Herman 1997, p. 33). Every person reacts differently to a traumatic occurrence (cf. ibid., p. 58). Usually, the reaction to violence and atrocities that people suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder or PTSD undergo, is to eliminate them from consciousness (cf. Caruth 1996, p. 11) since trauma symbolizes a sore place in a person´s psyche, which hurts incredibly when it is being touched (cf. Fischer 1989, p. 18).

The term trauma derives from the Greek word for “wound”, which originally referred invariably to an injured body. The philosopher and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud discovered at the end of the 19th century that trauma has not only physical effects, but also an impact on the victim´s or a patient´s mind (cf. Hirsch 2004, p. 8). Trauma refers to a subjective suffering that weakens and shatters the individual´s mental apparatus (cf. Freud 1923, pp. 9-10). The victim is not able to remember all the details of a traumatic situation and suppresses these, which leads to a re-emergence of those. The victim, being focused on his trauma (cf. ibid., p. 11), is occupied by a repetition compulsion, in which the suppressed resurfaces repeatedly (cf. ibid., p. 20). The repetitive repression, taking place in the unconsciousness, illustrates unwanted reproductions, which have not been turned into memories yet (cf. ibid., pp. 20-21).

The mind is not able to communicate the impressions of the traumatic incident into a coherent and continuous psychological representation. What remains are unprocessed, unassimilated impressions that stay in the mind (cf. Hirsch 2004, p. 15). At the same time, those untreated memories stay with the victim: “Paradoxically, they neither submit to the normal processes of memory storage and recall, nor, returning uninvited, do they allow the event to be forgotten” (ibid., pp. 15-16).

What inevitably goes along with this reaction of banishing memories from the consciousness, is the unspeakability of those violations and the impossibility of uttering those experiences aloud (cf. Herman 1997, p. 1). The professor Cathy Caruth claims that trauma is: “[...] the moving and sorrowful voice that cries out, a voice that is paradoxically released through the wound“ (Caruth 1996, p. 2). There is an otherness of a voice which witnessed a truth the victim is not able to fully comprehend yet. This voice tries to tell the sufferer of an unimaginable and impalpable truthfulness and veracity (cf. ibid., p. 3). The traumatic experience is “[...] experienced too soon, too unexpectedly, to be fully known and is therefore not available to consciousness until it imposes itself again [...]” (ibid., p. 4). The obtrusion can take the form of nightmares or repeated actions (cf. ibid.).

There is the possibility of linking one´s own trauma to that of another. Hearing a voice in another human being, which speaks through the wound, and listening to it may offer an encounter with that other person and getting in touch with his and one´s own trauma simultaneously (cf. ibid., p. 8).

The trauma´s nature is unassimilated in the victim´s past and cannot be simply located in its original event. It cannot be known and, as this unknown instance, possesses the victim at a later date (cf. ibid.). Trauma reflects “[...] always the story of a wound that cries out, that addresses us in the attempt to tell us of a reality or truth that is not otherwise available” (ibid.) Not only is the truth of the trauma characterized by a delayed response, but it also has to be linked to what remains unknown and unsaid in actions as well as in language (cf. ibid.). PTSD mirrors the direct mental burden of an inevitable reality of terrible events that is not controllable (cf. ibid., p. 58).

Judith Herman presents the concept of a central dialectic of psychological trauma stating that there are two tendencies that victims of PTSD have a disposition to. On the one hand they feel the need to deny their experiences and distract their audience from listening to them. On the other hand there is the will to proclaim their past aloud and call attention to it. Both tendencies work at the same time (cf. Herman 1997, p. 1). Testimonies are often given in an emotional and fragmented manner and they are full of contradictories, which undermine the speaker´s credibility (cf. ibid.). The desire to keep the experience a secret usually prevails. The story of a traumatic situation or event emerges thus as a symptom and not as a narrative. However, victims still oscillate between the desire to tell and to keep their trauma a secret, so they also oscillate between the condition of feeling numb and reliving the whole experience again (cf. ibid.).

Victims of PTSD have difficulties seeing more than a few fragments of the whole image at one time that constitutes their experience. They feel overwhelmed when trying to put all the pieces together and make them fit. What is even more challenging for them is finding language and speaking publicly about it. Most of the time, the tendency to deny and repress prevails (cf. ibid., p. 2).

Psychological trauma involves episodic amnesia. Periods of oblivion replace investigations of the past and vice versa (cf. ibid., p. 7). Trauma overwhelms the human adaptations to life. They include encounters with death and violence as well as threats to life that make the victims feel overpowered by helplessness and terror (cf. ibid., p. 33). The threat to life may be either sudden or introduced step by step. The dimension of a traumatization due to a threat or end to life depends on the victim´s degree of unacceptability of and vulnerability to it (cf. Lifton: Understanding the Traumatized Self. Imagery, Symbolization, and Transformation. In: Human Adaptation to Extreme Stress. From the Holocaust to Vietnam. 1988, p. 19). Powerlessness captures the person concerned and an overwhelming force breaks down an ordinary system of care that assures a sense of control, connection, and meaning (cf. Herman 1997, p. 33).

During the moment of danger the human system of reactions engages the body and the mind. Threat arouses the nervous system and causes the victim to feel adrenalin rushing through his body, which makes him go into a condition of alert. The person focuses on the dangerous situation that he is in. In this condition, the person is able to ignore pain, tiredness or hunger. He is forced to stay focused on exhausting actions as fighting or battling, which will eventually raise his will to survive. When this kind of action is not profitable anymore and the human system of self-defense is overpowered, a traumatic reaction sets in (cf. ibid., p. 34).

As a result, people with PTSD may see long lasting and profound changes in arousal, cognition and emotion. Memory may be effected. Intense emotions may be experienced without a precise memory of a traumatizing event or the other way around, so that victims have an emotionless detailed memory of everything that happened (cf. ibid.). Another possibility is suffering amnesia for the life before an event or crime as the Holocaust. Many survivors have an erased memory of their lives before the trauma (cf. Danieli: Confronting the Unimaginable. Psychotherapist´s Reactions to Victims of the Nazi Regime. In: Human Adaptation to Extreme Stress. 1988, p. 221).

The traumatized person may feel constantly vigilant and irritated without knowing the reason for this behavior (cf. Herman 1997, p. 34). Symptoms that evolve due to a traumatic event are cut off from the source since trauma fragments the complicated system of self-protection. The human nervous system is separated from the present and victims of PTSD act due to that state. They behave as if they were still in a dangerous and traumatic situation in their past and cut off from the present (cf. ibid., pp. 34-35).

The historian Dominick LaCapra differentiates between two reciprocal processes that a victim undergoes. Regardless of their linking, those are still distinguishable and sometimes counteracting procedures (cf. LaCapra 2001, p. 71). On the one hand he pays attention to “acting out”, an action, in which the patient relives the traumatic event. It haunts the victim and re-emerges as the repressed (cf. ibid., p. 70). Acting out implies repetition compulsion and the inability to gain distance from the traumatic situation. The victims then relives the past in the present. Flashbacks and nightmares may set in (cf. ibid., pp. 142-143). When loss and absence merge and are not kept apart, melancholic paralysis may occur (cf. ibid., p. 64) and the process of acting out, which involves melancholia and the unwillingness to accept one´s loss (cf. LaCapra 1994, p. 209), may perhaps hinder the overcoming of trauma (cf. ibid., p. 205). Acting out may be closely tied to “working through” and even be necessary to make the latter possible (cf. ibid., p. 208). Working through on the other hand contains the victim´s ability to distinguish past and present and keep them separated. The patient understands that something happened in the past, but knows it is not related in any sense to the present he lives in now (cf. LaCapra 2001, p. 66). In this case the possibility of mourning is given. The person suffering from trauma remembers the trauma in a performative way and tries to forget and accept it at the same time (cf. ibid., p. 70). He is opened for argumentative judgement, a self-questioning (cf. LaCapra 1994, p. 210) and a new way of living including social norms and empathy for other people, which was not possible before (cf. LaCapra 2001, p. 70). The difference between absence and loss is understood and the process of mourning may start (cf. ibid., pp. 46-47).

As soon as a trauma becomes stored as a memory and “[...] when language functions to provide some measure of conscious control, critical distance, and perspective, one has begun the arduous process of working over and through the trauma [...]” (ibid., p. 90). Working through is a preferable action and it permits incorporating trauma in one´s own life (cf. ibid., pp. 143-144).

The most complex issue with working through is the ability to accept trauma and to always go back trying to work it over without the feeling of betraying the people one lost during the traumatic event. The trust and love that binds a victim to the people he lost may cause the patient to stick with trauma in order to keep fidelity with them. The patient needs to comprehend that his working through does not make him forget the dead eventually (cf. ibid., p. 144). A controlled life-changing process of repetition that working through presents makes a selective scanning of the past possible (cf. LaCapra 1994, p. 174). The future is not blocked anymore and the grieving that the victim suffers from diminishes (cf. LaCapra 2001, p. 151). Acting out and working through demonstrate not a relationship, in which one develops and becomes the other (cf. LaCapra 1994, p. 205), but a combination, in which both are never completely separate from one another (cf. LaCapra 2001, p. 150).

Herman proposes three main categories, in which the symptoms of PTSD fall into. She speaks of hyperarousal, intrusion and constriction. People who fall into the first category anticipate a return of the danger any time after a traumatic occurrence: “The traumatized person startles easily, reacts irritably to small provocations, sleeps poorly” (Herman 1997, p. 35). He behaves aggressively and explosively (cf. ibid.).

When people with PTSD deal with intrusion, they relive the unsafe situation they have experienced, which all of the sudden comes back into consciousness in nightmares or as flashbacks during daily activities. Any circumstances, conversations or material things may remind them of the original occurrence and memories may be brought back (cf. ibid., pp. 37-38.) Even sounds or smells might remind a victim of his trauma (cf. Fischer 2008, p. 20). Those memories, which repetitively emerge, are non-linear and cannot be put into language or an on-going narrative (cf. Herman 1997, pp. 37-38). The emotions that were involved during the original traumatic incident recur with the same intensity (cf. ibid., p. 42). The victim is controlled by terror and rage, which constitute an enormous emotional distress and from which survivors tend to retreat. This makes the condition of PTSD worse, which again leads to a withdrawal from engagement with other people (cf. ibid., p. 42).

When the system of self-defense completely crashes and the feeling of helplessness prevails, the victim is situated in a condition of constriction. The person´s state of consciousness changes and he surrenders. His perceptions may be distorted and he feels an emotional distance and indifference (cf. ibid., p. 43). The quality of a victim´s life is diminished: “In avoiding any situations reminiscent of the past trauma, or any initiative that might involve future planning or risk, traumatized people deprive themselves of those new opportunities for successful coping that might mitigate the effect of the traumatizing experience” (ibid., p. 47).

A survivor finds himself between the extreme points of amnesia and re-experiencing a trauma. He finds himself in a condition of instability (cf. ibid., pp. 47-48).

When a victim is traumatized, he suffers from a disconnection, which unsettles the construction of himself (cf. ibid., p. 51). Trauma however has not only effects on the psyche of the person concerned but also on the human relationships he has with others. Disconnection violates relations with family members, friends, partners and the community in general (cf. ibid., p. 49). The primary effects of trauma are one´s own shattered psychological structures and the bonding that connect community and the individual person. Once the trust in a safe environment, shelter as well as comfort do no longer exist, the victim feels abandoned and lonely, which leads to a disconnection (cf. ibid., pp. 51-52). He is left with shame and doubt and has to re-establish his lost sense for autonomy, identity and intimacy (cf. ibid., pp. 52-53). Due to a disturbed sense of a normal meaningful world, the survivor is not able to modulate deep anger and lives out intolerance and expressions of rage. These outbursts of fury may turn against strangers as well as family members (cf. ibid., pp. 54-56). This instable behavior leads to a withdrawal from intimate relationships due to a feeling of shame and guilt as well as a breakdown in trust. A wish for a protective environment and a need for close relationships with people are nevertheless wished for by survivors. Traumatized people alternate between isolation and withdrawal and an urge for intimacy at the same time (cf. ibid, p. 56).

Caruth mentions an oscillation between the “crisis of death” and the “crisis of life”, which she calls the “double telling”. Having experienced an event or situation that involves the threat of death implies also the aspect of survival. Those two conditions are inseparable regardless of their apparent incompatibility (cf. Caruth 1996, p. 8).

The victim partly feels a relief after his survival. He also feels shame and guilt because of having survived the experience when others have not. The feelings of joy due to the own survival may in fact and paradoxically cause additional guilt in survivors (cf. Lifton: Understanding the Traumatized Self. Imagery, Symbolization, and Transformation. In: Human Adaptation to Extreme Stress. From the Holocaust to Vietnam. 1988, p. 21). Survivor guilt may be expressed in many ways. It may appear as a feeling of self-doubt, shame or a responsibility for the death of other people (cf. Williams: Diagnosis and Treatment of Survivor Guilt: The Bad Penny Syndrome. In: Human Adaptation to Extreme Stress. From the Holocaust to Vietnam. 1988, p. 321).

People, who listen to survivor stories or read testimonies of traumatic occurrences, may also be effected by trauma. The listener becomes a participant of the traumatic event and to some extent experiences trauma himself. The relation the victim has to his own trauma influences the listener´s relation to it. The listener may feel confusion, dread or bewilderment and all the emotions that the victim feels. There is also the possibility of feeling the survivor´s victories, silences and defeats. However, he does not become the victim since he is a separate individual who stays in his own place and keeps his perspective while hearing the stories. The emotions he feels may nevertheless rage within, so he is not only a witness to the survivor, but also a witness to himself (cf. Laub: Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitudes of Listening. In: Felman/Laub: Testimony. Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. 1992, pp. 57-58). The “vicarious traumatization” that takes place then, has its origins in the clinical context, in which it describes helping another person situated in front of one as it is the case with therapists and patients. The term however can be applied to readers, listeners and viewers who are also affected by the survivor´s stories (cf. Kaplan 2005, pp. 122-123). Other survivors may also be influenced by the stories of different victims. Survivors, who already experienced a traumatic situation, are very sensitive and more susceptible to go through a new trauma and be controlled by the emotions of another speaker: “If the traumata are not dealt with, understood, and put into perspective, additional stress accumulate more easily” (Williams: Diagnosis and Treatment of Survivor Guilt: The Bad Penny Syndrome. In: Human Adaptation to Extreme Stress. From the Holocaust to Vietnam. 1988, p. 321). Victims of severe and prolonged trauma are especially delicate and sensitive due to the massive impact on their psyche. The specific nature of such trauma victims and their extreme conditions of chronic abuse and prolonged trauma will be portrayed in the next chapter.

2.2 Prolonged Trauma and Captivity

Prolonged or repeated trauma takes place in situations in which people are imprisoned or held in captivity. Any possibilities of an escape are eliminated or restricted and the victims are controlled by perpetrators at all times. This kind of captivity takes place in concentration camps, in which the victim has continuing contact with the perpetrator (cf. Herman 1997, p. 74). The survivor is constantly confronted with physical violence and emotional terror. The perpetrator keeps him in permanent fear and threatens his life on a daily basis. The belief in an almighty perpetrator is always present and resistance is regarded as impossible (cf. ibid., p. 77). The survivor´s sense of autonomy is degraded by an immense force: “Fear also increased by inconsistent and unpredictable outbursts of violence and by capricious enforcement of petty rules” (ibid.).

The abuser is always in control of the victim´s body. By isolating him from his family, friends and a familiar environment he makes him dependent since he is the only person the victim has contact with (cf. ibid., pp. 80-81). When the victim relinquishes his own autonomy and gives up his urge to survive, his psyche is broken. When the prisoner surrenders and does not want to live anymore, he is dominated by passivity and internally broken completely (cf. ibid., pp. 84-85).

It is the recurrence of the experience that survivors of chronic abuse dread the most. They reveal mostly hyperarousal symptoms (cf. ibid., p. 86) that put the victim into a constant state of alert. Survivors of captivity and concentration camps show no physical calm or ease. They have difficulties getting sleep and complain frequently about somatic symptoms as: “[...] tension headaches, gastro intestinal disturbances and abdominal back, or pelvic pain [...]” (ibid.). The trauma they suffer from is linked to the bodily stress they undergo after their survival (cf. ibid).

Other symptoms survivors of repeated or the so called complex trauma (cf. ibid., p. 158) suffer from are those of intrusion, in which victims live out the traumatic event as if it was in the present. They may fade away some time after acute trauma, but they have effects in the long run when it comes to chronic trauma patients. The most typical characteristics with chronic trauma patients is avoidance or constriction, in which they suppress activities, relationships, emotions and sensations (cf. ibid., p. 87).

The moment, in which a prisoner learns to think in terms of a constriction, may already be when he is in captivity. The thought of a possible future can be too unbearable to think of. That is why by surrendering to constriction he protects himself from the vulnerability of being deeply disappointed (cf. ibid., pp. 86-88). According to Herman, it is extremely difficult to incorporate repeated trauma of a long-term captivity into a victim´s life story (cf. ibid., p. 89). If a person shies away from denying his experience, the suffering only worsens: “The more the period of captivity is disavowed [...] the more this disconnected fragment of the past remains fully alive [...]” (ibid.).

Prevalent for survivors of prolonged trauma is the urge to handle daily tasks with a special ingenuity and determination. Thinking about survival, which was present during captivity, still exists even during daily responsibilities after the event. While focusing on survival, victims unlearn the capability of managing easy tasks since they were not allowed to undertake them in captivity. Victims have the feeling of being overstrained by little things and duties (cf. ibid., p. 90), but they leave no room for mistakes neither for others nor for themselves: “Prolonged captivity undermines or destroys the ordinary sense of a relatively safe sphere of initiative, in which there is some tolerance for trial and error” (ibid., p. 91).

In prolonged trauma the victims seem to be unable to imagine a different world from the violent one they know or to question the brutal environment they are in (cf. Baer 2002, pp. 21-22). They are controlled by the rules of this world completely. People suffering from a repeated trauma question the issue of trust in every person they meet even after survival. They know a limited number of roles ranging from the perpetrators, passive witnesses, rescuers and allies and apply those to the people they encounter after. Every relationship is analyzed within the context of these roles (cf. Herman 1997, p. 92). If a patient regards another person as a perpetrator and puts him in this category, he will have the tendency to flee from that person. If he considers a person to be a rescuer, he will stick to him and value this relationship. These roles are not necessarily maintained for a longer period of time. They may change all of the sudden at all times. If a patient is disappointed by a person he or she trusts, the applied role may change and the wrongdoer be downgraded to a role of a perpetrator or accomplice (cf. ibid., p. 93).

The isolation the victim feels after the traumatic situation is due to the impossibility of pleasing him, since most people fail the test of trustability imposed by the patient. Because of the victim´s disappointment in others he sticks to solitude (cf. ibid., p. 93).

Chronic trauma causes permanent changes in personality and alters the survivor´s psyche for the rest of his life: “People subjected to prolonged, repeated trauma develop an insidious, progressive form of post-traumatic stress disorder that invades and erodes the personality” (ibid., p. 86). People who lived through a single traumatic event may also be shattered and feel a change in their personality. Repeated trauma however changes a person irrevocably and makes him feel as if he completely lost his identity (cf. ibid., pp. 84-85).

The effects of a chronic trauma experience on a victim´s personality is of long duration, most often until his death. The person that the patient was before his captivity does no longer exist. His identity has changed and cannot be re-established after a release: “Whatever new identity she develops in freedom must include the memory of her enslaved self” (ibid.).

The mental scars of prolonged trauma that victims have continue to exist long after the rescue. Not only are they afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder, but also with a torn and disrupted understanding of their relationships with God, the world and themselves (cf. ibid., p. 95). The patient may therefore turn his rage and anger also against himself and not only against the abuser (cf. ibid., p. 94). Suicidal thoughts that were put out of question during captivity in order to symbolize resistance may come back and remain long after liberation (cf. ibid., p. 95). Acting out and the repeated reliving of the trauma in the form of flashbacks may be therefore dangerous and threatening. The repetition may have a retraumatizing effect and it can lead to a self-deterioration. This explains the suicide of concentration camp survivors, who felt safe after their survival and committed suicide nevertheless (cf. Caruth 1996, p. 63).

A man-made disaster like the Holocaust causes extreme stress for all victims. The conditions in concentration camps create a surrealistic environment, in which no conventional social structures are present. Additionally to physical degradation, the lack of food, water, warm clothing and socially competent environment, no predictable end to this kind of experience can be set. The victims are thrown into an unacceptable human setting in an unprepared manner (cf. Kahana/Kahana/Zev/Rosner: Coping with extreme Trauma. In: Human Adaptation to Extreme Stress. From the Holocaust to Vietnam. 1988, pp. 59-61). Extreme traumatic situations like these pose incredible threats to a person´s psyche. Not only does he have to concentrate on survival, but there are also emotional responses to the horrific and dangerous environment he has to deal with. A victim in such a position faces trauma on multiple levels and has many aspects of traumatic encounter while not being able to have periods of temporary relief. He is rather exposed to extreme trauma permanently (cf. ibid., p. 66).

2.3 Recovery and the Necessity of a Story

The possession by the victim´s past can never be completely overcome or mastered. A patient is not able to simply go on with the life he had before his trauma and gain complete victory over it (cf. LaCapra 2001, p. 70). A traumatic event is comparable with a foreign body which attacks a person´s very centre of the self (cf. Kapust: Aussöhnung mit der Fremdheit des Traumas. In: Vergessen, vergelten, vergeben, versöhnen? Weiterleben mit dem Trauma. 2012, p. 107). Trauma can thus be classified as something external and alien. To recover from trauma means finding a way how to live with it, which is still very difficult to accomplish. The acceptance of something alien within ourselves is a very complex and challenging process to go through (cf. ibid., pp. 97-100). The healing of the trauma and of the wound may take an incalculable amount of time for the body as well as for the mind (cf. Fischer 2008, p. 14).

Coping, meaning the favorable reduction of stress (cf. Kahana/Kahana/Harel/Rosner: Coping with extreme Trauma. In: Human Adaptation to Extreme Stress. From the Holocaust to Vietnam. 1988, p. 56), is often hindered since perceptions of threat in the victim´s environment continue to exist. The survivors feel the need to stay vigilant in the aftermath of trauma. They regard every new situation as threatening and dangerous and the possibility of a life threat is still present (cf. ibid., p. 70). Especially survivors of extreme trauma have difficulties in the aftermath, since certain parallels as vulnerability and dependency, which have now switched from the perpetrators to people in the environment, might bring traumatic memories back (cf. ibid., p. 76).

Recovery is nevertheless possible to some extent when the truth of having lived through a dangerous and horrific event is recognized and acknowledged (cf. Herman 1997, p. 1).

The support from the patient´s environment is very crucial. Immediately after the trauma, the victim needs to rebuild at least a basic form of trust as well as protection and safety. When the feeling of minimal safety is established, the traumatized person has to restore a positive view of himself together with the help of family, friends, partners or the people around him. It is important for this person to be tolerated by others especially when it comes to his oscillation between the desire for closeness and distance at the same time. He also needs to be shown respect for his effort to regain autonomy and self-control (cf. ibid., pp. 61-63).

Although survivors have the willingness to share their traumatic experience with people and long for fairness and compassion, they are often afraid to do so since they do not know how their closest family is going to react: “[...] survivors most often hesitate to disclose to family members, not only because they fear they will not be understood but also because they fear that the reactions of family members will overshadow their own” (ibid., p. 65). Instead of compassion, a survivor is overwhelmed with the other´s reaction to his traumatic past and is not able to cope with his own and other additional responses to it.

The patient needs help from the people that are close to him as well as from the environment in order to mourn the losses that are linked to trauma. There is the necessity of mourning and the support speeds up the healing process. The presence of supportive people has an immense influence on the recovery from trauma. The victim needs recognition and restitution for the resolution of PTSD (cf. ibid., pp. 69-70).

Due to the fact that psychological trauma implies and causes disempowerment and disconnection from others, recovery therefore demands empowerment and reconnection. The healing process is only possible within the framework of relationships. A person cannot achieve success in recovery when he is isolated from others (cf. ibid., p. 133).

Additionally to the support of other people and their advice and affection, the survivor has to be the one in control and he has to be the agent of his empowerment and recovery. He is to be asked about his own wishes and provided as much choice in his actions as possible while still embracing the maintenance of safety (cf. ibid., p. 134).

Prolonged trauma survivors have an excellent intuition for nonverbal and unconscious behavior, which they keep up after the traumatic event: “Accustomed over a long time to reading their captors´ emotional and cognitive states, survivors bring this ability into the therapy relationship” (ibid., p. 139).

Herman suggests three basic stages of recovery, in which she includes the establishment of safety, the reconstruction of the victim´s trauma story and the reconnection between him and the community (cf. ibid., p. 3). She underlines that these stages are an attempt to introduce simplicity and not considered to be a linear straightforward progression that survivors undergo. They may be taken on and given up by victims at any time and all of the sudden. Nevertheless, a change from severe PTSD and dissociation to authentic safety and accepted memory should be visible in the process of recovery (cf. ibid., p. 155). It may occur that patients do not know they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. It is particularly important to name the complex trauma and to explain the personality changes it produces to the chronic trauma victims. Since these survivors feel as if they completely lost themselves, they suffer from PTSD extremely and may want to oppose their diagnosis (cf. ibid., pp. 158-159).

At the beginning, it should be the patient´s priority to reestablish a sense of control and power. PTSD victims do not feel secure in their bodies and their thinking. Their sensations are uncontrolled and the relationship to other people is insecure and unsafe. Medicine may help for a short period of time, but the control of the body as well as of the environment must be regained for a long-term successful recovery. This implies getting sleep, eating healthy, doing exercises and developing financial security and a comfortable and sheltered living situation. The victim is able to achieve this aim only with the help of the society (cf. ibid., pp. 159-160). Normal daily activities as shopping, visiting friends or going to work must be possible after establishing safety in body and social contacts. Close family members who decide to participate in creating safety for the victim have to be ready to disrupt their own lives during this time (cf. ibid., p. 162).

A safe environment also demands the designing of a plan for future shelter. The victim himself needs to evaluate the degree of ongoing threat and determine necessary precautions he wants to take (cf. ibid., p. 164). It is crucial for the victim to be the only one in control of the decisions he undergoes (cf. ibid., pp. 166-167). Trauma symptoms may worsen if the step of establishing safety is undervalued. Simply exploring traumatic memories in depth without establishing safety and social support may cause more intrusive symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (cf. ibid., pp. 172-173).

The next stage Herman offers is the detailed reconstruction of the trauma story that the victim formulates. The telling itself may be repetitious and emotionless. In this narrative the victim faces his traumatic past and is confronted with the unspeakable. During this act it is still important to keep the feeling of safety balanced against the wish to face the past (cf. ibid., pp. 175-176). The victim´s narrative as a verbal act involves telling another person one´s own past event without merely reciting the facts that are linked to a historical event (cf. Felman: Camus´ The Plague, or a Monument to Witnessing. In: Testimony. Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. 1992, p. 93).

The goal is to put the whole story and the trauma into words, together with the emotions the victim feels. What is being created is a verbal, organized and detailed report out of the fragments the victim delivers, which can be put within the framework of time and historical context. Crucial for the creation of the story is the patient´s life before the trauma and the factors that led up to the traumatic event (cf. Herman 1997, pp. 176-177). Gaps and silences during the narrative should be acknowledged and accepted. What needs to be accomplished is the integration of the story into one´s own life (cf. ibid., pp. 180-184). The memories the patient has need to be explored in a careful manner (cf. ibid., p. 184). An important part of the healing process is developing the ability to admit to one´s own emotions (cf. ibid., p. 188). Eventually, after repeated encounters with the memories, the telling of the traumatic event does not arouse the same intense emotions as before and these traumatic memories can be stored as almost “normal” memories (cf. Herman 1997, p. 195).

Although trauma can never be completely forgotten, it can become a part of one´s life that does not control the patient´s mind all the time. As soon as new hope and energy are reconstructed and the past reclaimed, the survivor´s story becomes a past separated from the present and the perspective for future plans is unblocked. The stage of reconstructing a trauma story is accomplished (cf. ibid.).

The therapist takes the role of a listener at all times. There is the necessity of an audience and a listener, though it not necessarily has to be a therapist. It has to be a person who takes on the task of a listener. There is no proper healing process and no telling of a story without an appropriate hearer and response to the trauma narrative (cf. Caruth 1996, p. 9).

The listener becomes a screen, on which the story is projected for the first time. By telling the story the victim hears it for the first time and gets to know the trauma himself. He faces immediate contact with the story and is thus able to witness his own experience anew and get to know it on a different level (cf. Laub: Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitudes of Listening. In: Felman/Laub: Testimony. Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. 1992, p. 57).

Patients often prefer silence, because they shy away from listening to it as well as being listened to (cf. ibid., p. 58). Concentration camps are places of the greatest extent of silence marking a forbidden memory and a black hole, which is so intense that it devours the past. It is too unbearable to speak of it, so there are only unknowable attacks of pain (cf. ibid., p. 64).

Recovery still needs a formulation and an awareness of meaning in the trauma. The patient cannot live his life without having found significance in his experience. This formulation establishes life anew and makes immediate relationships and meaning possible. This can occur when a victim for instance becomes active in a charity or symbolically marks his immortality by having children (cf. Lifton: Understanding the Traumatized Self. Imagery, Symbolization, and Transformation. In: Human Adaptation to Extreme Stress. From the Holocaust to Vietnam. 1988, p. 26).

The ability to find a formulation for the trauma is a stage, in which the victim finds his meaning. The survivor´s testimony does not have to be historically correct to be valid. The professor Dori Laub deals in his essay Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitudes of Listening with the testimony of a woman in the late sixties, who was narrating her Auschwitz experiences to an audience. She reported how she saw four chimneys in the camp explode, when in reality it was only one. Her testimony was considered to be inaccurate. However, it was not the number of chimneys she was truly speaking about, but the unbelievable reality of an unthinkable event (cf. Laub: Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitudes of Listening. In: Felman/Laub: Testimony. Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. 1992, pp. 59-60). The focus lies on the meaning of a narrative itself, as the psychiatrist Judith Greenberg correctly points out. She claims the veracity of traumatic cannot be portrayed completely and whole traumatic artifacts cannot be discovered, so it is impossible to reconstruct true historical facts fully (cf. Greenberg 1998, p. 341).

Not purely documentary information is important for true testimony, but the experience itself underlines the importance of it: “Testimonies are significant in the attempt to understand experience and its aftermath, including the role of memory and its lapses, in coming to terms with – or denying and repressing – the past” (LaCapra 2001, pp. 86-87).

Since the overlapping of true but also forged images in the patient´s memory are consequences of PTSD, the telling of those memories suggests unreliability in the context of “correct” historicity (cf. Evers 2011, p. 16). Facts may not be reported in a correct manner and a degree of unreliability is therefore implied, but what makes testimonies worthy are possible distortions, imaginative transformations and narrative modeling. There is also the potential of repression and denial in those testimonies. The telling implies processes of acting out and a re-experiencing of the traumatic situation. Victims like the woman reporting her Auschwitz experience are acting out by narrating their version of the past, which makes a working through possible at the same time. After repeated descriptions she may eventually come to terms with her past (cf. LaCapra 2011, pp. 88-89).

The reconstruction of a trauma story allows articulation and the transmission of the trauma. A re-externalization takes place. The survivor puts the experience outside of himself and out of his internal system. After that, it is taken inside again with the distance that is required for recovery. The presence of the listener makes that process possible (cf. Laub: Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitudes of Listening. In: Felman/Laub: Testimony. Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. 1992, p. 69). There is also the possibility of an internal witness. A photograph for instance may serve as a substitute for it and the victim may create an artificial witness he narrates his experiences to (cf. Laub: An Event Without a Witness: Truth, Testimony and Survival. In: Felman/Laub: Testimony. Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History.1992, pp. 86-87).

Since trauma fragments the victim´s self and possesses him at a later date, the process of telling mirrors the state of PTSD. It mimics the absence of linear and chronological conception that takes place during a traumatic experience. The belated and fragmented return is represented in the narrative. Survivor´s stories lack a beginning, middle, end and are characterized by timelessness. There is no cohesive plot or complete closure (cf. Greenberg 1998, pp. 321-323). The aspect of having survived and the state of having floated between life and death is captured within the narratives as well (cf. ibid, p. 325). As soon as the incomplete fragments are put into a narrative, the signification of the experience is created (cf. ibid., p. 327).

The language of trauma literature and the theory of psychoanalysis both imply the wish for knowing and not knowing about the trauma at the same time (cf. Caruth 1996, p. 3). It visualizes the trauma´s presentable as well as unpresentable clearly in verbal declarations as well as in gaps and silences. The narrative created by a victim, be it oral or written, mimics trauma and implies the lack of integration since trauma negates cognitive integration itself (cf. Rothe 2011, p. 147). Writing and narrating about trauma, including literal aesthetics, can be regarded as a therapeutic procedure, which allows putting trauma into a narrative structure that makes a conscious awareness of it possible (cf. Schmidtgall 2014, p. 112). The integration of trauma into the consciousness succeeds as soon as concealments, gaps and ambiguities are just as much involved as explicit clear statements (cf. ibid., pp. 115-116).

Judith Greenberg claims that: ”PTSD might be described as a condition of being possessed by echoes” (cf. Greenberg 1998, p. 326) meaning the voice that tries to tell the victim of the traumatic event which he is not able to grasp yet. There is the possibility of hearing echoes from other people, repeating the victim´s words while giving him the distance he needs for a better understanding of his experience. By hearing his own words aloud, as it is the case in therapy sessions when a therapists repeats the patients words, the echoing of that other person allows the possible recognition of echoes of one´s own talk that otherwise would have remained unrecognized. Echoes, marking an indirect language, can be also found outside of the body, representing telephones, recordings or songs that may tell us of the trauma again. The required distance that is necessary for recovery is given and a recognition of one´s own past made possible. Testimony is crucial for survivors since traumatic stories emerge as fragmentary echoes, beyond any context. With the help of testimony and narration the fragmented echoes can be put into a narrative and trauma can be imbedded (cf. ibid., pp. 330-334).

After the reconstruction of a trauma narrative, Herman speaks of a third category concerning a successful recovery. She advises survivors to undergo a reconnection, in which they create their future and develop a new self as well as new relationships. The victim reclaims his past and develops a new hope and faith for his further journey of life. This step constitutes a difficult progress for victims since coming from an controlled environment, they now face an unfamiliar freedom. The traumatized person continues taking care of his body, his material needs and builds relationships, but performs it more actively now (cf. Herman 1997, pp. 196-197).

In this third step the survivor recognizes he was a victim and comprehends the consequences and facts of his traumatization. He is ready to incorporate his trauma into life and is now clearly aware of the ongoing vulnerability he feels concerning threats. At this point, he is able to actively engage his fear (cf. ibid., p. 197). The level of power and control has increased, so that technically the victim would be ready to react in a dangerous situation as in a fight or battle. He is able to abandon the feeling of shame and guilt and to impose it rightly on the perpetrator (cf. ibid., pp. 199-200).

A basic sense of trust is recreated and the victim developed a new identity now ready to extent his contacts to other people: “As the trauma recedes into the past, it no longer represents a barrier to intimacy” (ibid., p. 206). Intimacy can now evolve. The traumatized victim does not fear the connection to others anymore, especially when it comes to the next generation. In the process of reconnection there is now a possible wish to share the traumatic stories with the children (cf. ibid., pp. 206-207).

A final closure of trauma can never be completed and there may resurface aspects of it during recovery that seemed already completed. The consequences of having experienced a trauma stay with the victim for the rest of his life, but he is able to learn how to live with it to some extent (cf. ibid., p. 211).


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Trauma and Postmemory in Art Spiegelman's "The Complete Maus" and Helen Fremont's "After Long Silence"
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"
Trauma and Healing. American Ground Zero Fiction
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Trauma studies, Holocaust Studies, American Literature
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BA Kinga Gmiat (Author), 2015, Trauma and Postmemory in Art Spiegelman's "The Complete Maus" and Helen Fremont's "After Long Silence", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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Title: Trauma and Postmemory in Art Spiegelman's "The Complete Maus" and Helen Fremont's "After Long Silence"

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