Trauma and Narration as a Way of Coping with Trauma in Mary Karr’s "The Liars’ Club"

Hausarbeit, 2014

19 Seiten, Note: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Psychological Effects of Trauma
2.1 Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
2.2 Patterns of Defense: Dissociation and Repression

3. The Narration of Trauma
3.1 Narrative Exposure Therapy
3.2 Narrative Strategies and Writing Techniques

4. Trauma and Memory in The Liars’ Club
4.1 Memory Formation

5. Coping with Trauma in The Liars’ Club
5.1 Involuntary Coping Mechanism and Emotional Defenses
5.2 Narration as a Way of Coping with Trauma

6. Traumatic Incidents in The Liars’ Club
6.1 Sexual Abuse
6.2 Loss of Parents

7. Conclusion


1. Introduction

The recollection of traumatic memories is often fraught with enormous difficulties for a person affected by trauma. This is due to a disruption of memories, something that Cathy Caruth alludes to in her definition of trauma in Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History by stating that the “response to the event occurs in the often delayed, uncontrolled, repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena” (Caruth 1996: 11). In her definition, Caruth refers to the distorted powers of recollection that very often only allow the traumatised person to access small fragments, if any at all, of the traumatic event. Even though this derangement of memories constitutes a type of psychological defence, and therewith temporarily serves the psyche as a means of protection, it is not conducive to one’s mental health in the longer term. A much more beneficial long-term effect on the psyche of traumatised persons can be achieved through the conscious narration of trauma. In order for the traumatic event not to be triggered arbitrarily, the traumatic event must consciously be placed into the context of one’s own life story. Based on Mary Karr’s novel The Liars’ Club, this term paper not only reveals what it is that initially prevents the author from the sincere coping with trauma, but also analyses how Karr makes use of her post-traumatic experiences in the writing process in order to overcome these.

So as to better illustrate the underlying themes of trauma, this paper includes several subsections that will help to gain further insights into the subject matter. Firstly, I would like to introduce the psychological effects of trauma and I hence included a subsection on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that shall introduce the basic relevance which trauma implicates. Secondly, I included a subsection on the two different pattern of defense of dissociation and repression as these frequently appear throughout the memoir. Following this, I added a section regarding the narration of trauma. A first subsection on the Narrative Exposure Therapy allows the reader to learn about a psychotherapeutic approach which is often used for the treatment of people suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A second subsection on certain writing strategies encompassing the narration of trauma shall complete the theoretical framework of this paper.

In the following section, I begin to apply this theoretical background to Mary Karr’s memoir The Liars’ Club. The section establishes a link between trauma and memory in the memoir and moreover elucidates the distortion of Karr’s memories in greater detail. A further section shall investigate the mode in which Mary Karr manages to cope with trauma. The first subsection analyses how the themes of silence, defense and memory are all intertwined with each other, and furthermore, prevent her from sincerely coping with trauma. The second subsection, on the other hand, investigates how Karr manages to frankly cope with the traumatic occurrences through the narration of trauma. Another section examines two especially traumatic incidents that occur in the memoir and that is Karr being sexually abused as well as the lack and loss of both of her parents. The first subsection analyses the abuse more closely, especially with regard to the point of view Karr takes on in these scenes. The second subsection on the loss of her parents, on the other hand, concerns itself with the emotional defenses against the vicissitude of the presence of her parents. Lastly, I added a final subsection, the conclusion, in which I discuss the complications the narration of trauma entails and sum up my findings.

2. The Psychological Effects of Trauma

2.1 Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

In her essay “Recapturing the Past: Introduction”, Cathy Caruth terms Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder a “historical phenomenon [...] in which the overwhelming events of the past repeatedly possess, in intrusive images and thoughts, the one who has lived through them” (Caruth: 1995: 151). Something Caruth rated as “particularly striking” (ibid.) with regard to this matter is the fact that this is a “past that was never fully experienced as it occurred” (ibid.). Thus, she speaks of “an experience that is not yet fully owned” (ibid.). Even though “the images of the traumatic re-enactment remain absolutely accurate and precise, they are largely inaccessible to conscious recall and control” (ibid.).

The traumatic incident, which precedes this Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, oftentimes denotes “a life-threatening event” (Maggie Schauer et al.: 2011: 7) that can be “characterized by extraordinary circumstances and by the presence of distinct physiological alarm and defense responses in the victim when they do occur” (ibid.). This “physiological alarm state” (ibid.) consequently causes “a cascade of responses in the body and mind” (ibid.). Schauer et al. emphasise that these “extraordinary circumstances [...] are noted for the quality of the impact they have on human beings” (ibid.).

2.2 Patterns of Defense: Dissociation and Repression

In their essay “The Intrusive Past: The Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma” Bessel A. Van der Kolk and Onno Van der Hart point towards the significance of defense mechanisms with regard to trauma. One example for a common defense pattern is dissociation. They explain that the dissociation of a traumatic experience [already] occurs as the trauma is occurring. […] Many trauma survivors report that they automatically are removed from the scene; they look at it from a distance or disappear altogether, leaving other parts of their personality to suffer and store the overwhelming experience (Van der Kolk & Van der Hart 1995: 168).

These unresolved conflicts are likely to subsequently emerge. Thus, the traumatised person can for instance “later on suffer from flashbacks” (ibid.). According to Van der Kolk and Van der Hart, this presumably horrific “memory is contained in an alternate stream of consciousness, [one] which may be subconscious or dominate consciousness, e.g. during traumatic reenactments” (ibid.). In comparison, the coping mechanism of repression ensures that “what is repressed is pushed downward” (ibid.). Thereby, the presumably horrific memory enters “the unconscious” (ibid.) and as a result, “the subject no longer has access to” (ibid.) the repressed memory at all.

Another factor that is used in Narrative Exposure Therapy: A Short-Term Treatment for Traumatic Stress Disorders as “criteria that must be met at some level for a diagnosis of PTSD” (Maggie Schauer et al.: 2011: 13) and can hence also be considered as a defense against traumatic experiences is the “active avoidance of reminders of the traumatic event” (ibid.). This can, for example, include the evasion of “talking or thinking about the event” (ibid.). In addition, there is also the “passive avoidance or numbing” (Maggie Schauer et al.: 2011: 13), which includes a “general emotional numbing as well as detachment from other people” (ibid.).

3. The Narration of Trauma

3.1 Narrative Exposure Therapy

Narrative Exposure Therapy is a psychotherapeutic treatment intended for patients suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Maggie Schauer et al.: 2011: 34). Throughout the therapy, the patient “repeatedly talks about each traumatic events in detail while re-experiencing the emotions, cognitions, physiology, behavioral, and sensory elements and meaning content associated with this event” (ibid.). In addition, “the patient narrates positive life experiences” (ibid.) as well. The patient then attempts to “construct [...] a narration of his or her life, focusing on the detailed context of the traumatic experiences as well as on the important elements of the emotional networks and how they go together” (ibid.). Ideally, the patient thereby realises that this fear/trauma structure results from past experiences and that its activation is nothing but a memory. They thus lose the emotional response to the recollection of the traumatic events, which consequently leads to a remission of PTSD symptoms. At the same time, they gain access to “lost” past memories and develop a sense of coherence, control, and integration (ibid.).

The therapy’s aim to successfully integrate the traumatic events into one’s own life story is something Silvia Pellicer-Ortín also makes a subject of discussion in her essay “To Know, but not to Know: Myth and the Working Through of Trauma in Eva Figes’s Tales of Innocence and Experience”. Silvia Pellicer-Ortín argues in her essay that “the healing process begins when the traumatised person is able to arrange the traumatic events chronologically, [thereby] transforming them into a narrative” (Pellicer-Ortín 2011: 222). Suzette A. Henke, however, adds that this conscious recollection of memories can also be achieved in a written form. Suzette A. Henke defined this as “scriptotherapy” (ibid. 223) and denotes this as “the process of writing out and writing through traumatic experience in the mode of therapeutic re-enactment” (ibid.).

3.2 Narrative Strategies and Writing Techniques

In the essay “That was Their Deal: Trauma Narratives’ Ethical Re-framings”, Laurie Vickroy argues that reading a trauma narrative oftentimes makes great demands of the reader. In addition, she draws attention to the impact narrative forces can have on the reader. While reading a trauma narrative, the reader is in the best case induced to “commit to a serious cognitive engagement as they process moments of extreme emotions and dereliction and figure out what brought these about” (Vickroy 2011: 42). However, there often lies an intention behind this commitment the reader ideally undertakes. The narrator is likely to be able to direct the emotions of the reader to a certain extent because of this effort of the reader. Not only can the narrative writer attempt to promote identification with certain characters, she or he can also try to prevent it. There are certain writing techniques which can alleviate this matter of identification. For example, “other characters in the text can speak for or against the traumatized” (ibid. 40).

Another attempt by the author to guide the reader’s feelings is mentioned in Vickroy’s essay. The confrontation with injustice is likely to cause feelings of sympathy in the reader. Vickroy explains that the “readers’ strong propensity for individual rights and feelings can be tapped to help them identify with traumatised characters that have been treated unjustly” (ibid. 39). Vickroy further shows consideration for the possible irritation the readers might encounter while being confronted with a traumatised character’s behavior. Regardless of whether this conduct is consciously created or not by the narrator, certain behavioral patterns of the traumatised are likely to “threaten or put off readers” (ibid. 40). She elaborates that “if the traumatic symptoms are accurately portrayed, of necessity victims will engage in self-defeating, defensive and repetitive behaviors that are a part of the symptomatology of trauma” (ibid.), something that is likely to discourage readers.

A further narrative strategy that is especially powerful in trauma narratives is that of omissions. The omissions in specific text passages can be effective as these are likely to evoke a sense of irritation, suspense and various other emotions (Lavrijsen 2011: 86). Jessica Aliaga Lavrijsen invoked in her essay “Trauma and Silence in Brian McCabe’s “Say Something” that the “reader should interpret the story, even the silences in it” (ibid.). She amplifies this viewpoint through stating that “silence is not simply a linguistic element that determines the beginning and ending of utterances but, […] silence is a complex, communicative event related to concepts such as topic, function, setting, participants, etc.” (ibid. 85). This silence that Lavrijsen mentions can, for instance, be revealed through the narrator’s usage of elements such as “incoherencies, discontinuities, repetitions, [or] ellipses” (ibid.). Even though she acknowledges that “not all silences are meaningful” (ibid.), she also states that “some silences in a certain narrative can reveal some inner or hidden aspect that is part of a work’s fictive world” (ibid.).

4. Trauma and Memory in The Liars’ Club

4.1 Memory Formation

The very first sentence of Mary Karr’s memoir The Liars’ Club already alludes to the arduousness Karr experiences while attempting to recall a traumatic event from her memory. She begins by stating “my sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark” (Karr 2007: 3) and therewith is likely to evoke a sense of secrecy as to what incident it is that she is referring to at this early stage in the memoir. Also, this distinct assertion of her illustrates how strongly Karr’s memory is influenced by a traumatic experience. Despite the fact that she speaks of her “sharpest memory” (ibid.), Karr’s ability to remember becomes questionable as she clearly admits that it is “surrounded by dark” (ibid.). However, the usage of the word “dark” (ibid.) can not only amount to the sense of not being able to see anything besides this “single instant” (ibid.), it might also advert to the feelings of desperation this retrospection entails.

As far as this first traumatic “instant” (ibid.) is concerned, Karr clearly states that “it took three decades for [...] [it] to unfreeze” (ibid.). The only information that the reader at this early stage obtains is that Karr’s “mother had been taken Away [...] for being Nervous” (ibid. 6). Not only the capitalisation of the words “Away” (ibid.) and “Nervous” (ibid.), but also the simple fact of the deprivation of a parent both hint at the severe sorrow underlying this instance. In addition, the fact that Karr does not provide further details of this traumatic incident suggests her traumatised state of mind, which denies her to have access to specific parts of her memory. The traumatic images are not all available to her as she only manages to allow for the reader to receive small fragments of the entire traumatic occurrence.

It is not before page 157 that Karr tells us more about this traumatic experience. The reader learns that her mother is profoundly convinced that she murdered her daughters. She calls Dr. Boudreaux and states “I just killed them both. Both of them” (ibid. 157) and further elaborates “I’ve stabbed them both to death” (ibid.). On page 170, Karr adds more facts with regard to this horrific event and tells us about a “fire” (ibid. 170) and her mother “burning [...] [both her own and her sister’s] clothes” (ibid.). However, it is until page 318 that Karr tells us all about the very foundation of this incident. Karr states her mother “hallucinated we’d been stabbed to death” (ibid. 318). She encloses more and more details about the incident only gradually and throughout the narration of the memoir. On the whole, this manner of narration strongly suggested that she is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Karr is only able to narrate single fragments of her memories at one time and since new information concerning a specific memory seems to appear spontaneously, she is not able to specify all data surrounding one traumatic event all at once.

However, this manner of narration is also likely to evoke questions of authenticity in the critical reader. It can, despite the notion that she is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, also be viewed as a plain writing strategy Karr consciously deployed in order to substantiate a traumatised state of mind. Knowledge about the symptoms and the aftermath of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder would certainly provide an author with adequate information that could be used for a vivid illustration of trauma. If, however, her narrating style is not a result of her own afflicted mental state, I would rate the ample precision Karr displays in the narration of these childhood memories as extremely innovative.

5. Coping with Trauma in The Liars’ Club

5.1 Involuntary Coping Mechanism and Emotional Defenses

As it was mentioned in 3.1, the attribution of traumatic events into one’s own biography entails a healing efficacy for a traumatised person. The recitation of the traumatic event is hence crucial for a successful coping with trauma while remaining silent about these incidents, therefore, does not at all alleviate this healing process. In Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, silence is something that she is often forced to adhere to by her family. When Karr inquires about her mother’s residence in a psychiatry, her father completes the topic through saying “kids [...] [a]ren’t allowed” (Karr 2007: 170). Karr further adds: “He turned away then, and shook a Camel loose from his pack and pushed in the cigarette lighter” (ibid.), the lighter here serving as a symbol for “the period at the end of a sentence” (ibid.). When Karr is confronted with the fact that she still has two half siblings, her grandmother threatens her and clarifies that if Karr shall “fail to mind [her] [...] mother” (ibid. 78), she “would be Send Away, just like [her half siblings] [...] had been” (ibid.). Thus, not only Karr but also her sister had “promptly forgotten them” (ibid. 79). Karr elaborates further that this was an “erasure that held for nineteen years” (ibid.). This again reveals an instance in which silence is strongly encouraged by a family member and caused the storage of this data in a stream of consciousness that remains completely repressed for many years.

This stimulation of repression certainly promotes the active prevention of memories regarding the traumatic event as can be seen in the case of Mary Karr. Not only the previous example demonstrates this rejection of a traumatic memory very well, but also Karr’s confession on page 170 similarly does so. She states that she “had blotted out [her] Mother holding the butcher knife” (ibid. 170) and therewith again brings up a matter from the very beginning of the memoir, the instance in which her mother attempted to, or in her psychotic state, was convinced to have killed her daughters. This suggests that she managed to repress this memory in another stream of consciousness, but yet, it now appears in the form of a flashback. Such arbitrary flashbacks point towards the fact that the defense mechanisms of repression with regard to such a significant incident such as this rampage of her mother is not conducive to the psyche as it prevents the facing and therewith overcoming of traumatic memories.

The memoir, however, also includes instances in which Karr avoids the facing of traumatic incidents in a rather passive manner. For instance, when her mother and Hector go to Mexico for a vacation, she and her sister were left “with Hector’s cousin” (ibid. 233) and became witness of a cruel domestic quarrel. Interestingly, Karr states at this point that “we must have rushed in and found her bleeding and screaming” (ibid. 235) and therewith makes use of a modal verb which is normally used in order to express a past probability. She does not describe the incident as an actual event that she experienced in reality, but instead approaches the incident with sheer uncertainty. This reveals her detached state and the displacement she still grants from the traumatic situation. Karr thus passively avoids the matter through the usage of the defense of passive avoidance.

Also, her psyche at this point makes use of the coping mechanism of dissociation while she is experiencing the instance because she is simply not able to bear the traumatising violence that is involved in this occurrence. The traumatic situation is consequently stored in a stream of consciousness which is now that she is attempting to narrate it not completely available to her. She admits that the “scene has melted from [her] [...] head” (ibid.). On page 258, Karr recalls the departure from her mother in a similar manner and speaks of the event as if it was something that she did not experience herself. She states “I must have said good-bye to her” (ibid. 258) and “we must have wept, being a family of inveterate weepers, the makers-of-scenes in airport terminals” (ibid.). She reaches the climax of this scene when she says “she did promise vaguely to come for us soon, but I can’t exactly hear her saying that” (ibid.). The unconnected way she speaks about the experiences again suggests that the coping mechanism of dissociation is preventing her psyche from having to deal with these traumatic conflicts as these allow her to only go through the traumatic instances from a distance.


Ende der Leseprobe aus 19 Seiten


Trauma and Narration as a Way of Coping with Trauma in Mary Karr’s "The Liars’ Club"
Universität Hamburg  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Family Affairs: Recent American Memoir
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
Memoir, Trauma, Memory, Psychology
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Annika Kelm (Autor:in), 2014, Trauma and Narration as a Way of Coping with Trauma in Mary Karr’s "The Liars’ Club", München, GRIN Verlag,


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