Facing and Writing Trauma: Suffering and Survival in Post-traumatic America,” Essay by Kerstin W. Shands

Essay by Kerstin W. Shands

When she was writing her book on trauma in American literature, Laura Castor could hardly have known that another traumatic time in American history would be just around the corner. The corona pandemic could be seen as a trauma on individual, national, and global levels, one that may well lead to an aftermath of post-traumatic suffering.

It is noteworthy how strongly trauma specialists underline the long-term consequences of traumatic experiences. In the view of trauma theorist Gabor Maté, for example, most physical illnesses and mental problems can be traced back to childhood trauma. Indeed, in Maté’s view, trauma may even play a role in the corona virus pandemic.

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Traumatic times may be devastating, but facing trauma can also lead to healing, survival, and a sense of new possibilities. Reading literary texts can be part of a mental ‘decolonization’ on individual and collective levels. This is the suggestion made in Castor’s timely study, Facing Trauma in Contemporary American Literary Discourse: Stories of Survival and Possibility.

Trauma in Contemporary Literature

In recent years, there has been an increased focus on trauma in American literature. Along with a growing awareness of trauma connected with race and gender there has been a development of trauma studies, suggesting that trauma is of central interest for literary and cultural studies.

Subjective experiences of trauma that lead to emotional, physical, and psychological reactions may be complex and difficult to describe. As Kyeong Hwangbo points out in Trauma, Narrative, and the Marginal Self in Selected Contemporary American Novels, moreover, it is important to avoid “the lure of objectifying others’ pain by propagating purely intellectual discourses about them” (4). All the more reason to turn to accounts of trauma found in literature.

Beginning her book with definitions of trauma from psychological, physiological, and medical perspectives, in Facing Trauma in Contemporary American Literary Discourse: Stories of Survival and Possibility, Laura Castor builds on theorists such as Leigh Gilmore, Judith Herman, and Patrick Colm Hogan in her readings of literary works by Louise Erdrich, Siri Hustvedt, Melanie Thernstrom, Nicole Krauss, Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Toni Morrison. These are writers whose works have reached a wide audience and led to scholarly studies, although less so from the perspective presented in this book.

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In the first chapter, Castor analyzes the multiple narrative perspectives Louise Erdrich uses in her autobiographical novel, Shadow Tag, in order to represent a self torn between complex and contradictory pulls of ethical restraint on the one hand and a commitment to truth on the other. Although Shadow Tag has been seen as a roman à clef,  the parallels between Erdrich’s own life and her characters have not been sufficiently explored. The factuality of experience needs to be recorded not just in order to gain a psychotherapeutic outlet from a traumatic marital experience but also for expressions of creative excellence. Erdrich is aware of the fact that this is only her side of the story, Castor suggests, the possibility of a counter narrative and the discovery of another truth being forever lost with the suicide of Erdrich’s former husband, Michael Dorris.

Erdrich’s choice of fiction to write her life is a deliberate attempt to avoid what Lejeune has called the autobiographical pact, Castor argues, since designating Shadow Tag as an autobiographical novel would delimit its possibilities. Using Leigh Gilmore’s coinage, Castor shows how Shadow Tag could instead be seen as a ‘limit-case autobiography’ in which an autobiographical and narratorial ‘I’ has a shadow-like presence in the text, much like the trickster figure in Indian narratives. The trickster quality of the author figure enables the novelist or autobiographer to circumvent the ethical, moral, and generic questions and turn the text into a metanarrative about self-representation through narrative. Castor concludes that “Erdrich’s personal process of healing the trauma from her marriage to Michael Dorris and from his suicide may be just as important as her cultural work on behalf of America’s trauma as a nation from the time of contact between European immigrants and Native peoples (33).

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In a chapter on Siri Hustvedt’s The Shaking Woman and Melanie Thernstrom’s The Pain Chronicles, historical and personal temporal perspectives are central for an exploration of metaphorical language as linked to subjectivity. A distinction is made between the retrospective views dominating traditional autobiographical writing and modern pain narratives, in which forward-looking stories of becoming (and finding meaning in becoming), despite chronic pain, are more prevalent than attempts to seek redemption or triumph. Castor concludes that Hustvedt and Thernstrom express doubts as to whether a humanist mastery of their conditions is possible. Instead, along the lines of what Gilmore has called agency without mastery, these authors create texts that open up spaces where both reader and writer can learn to witness in ways that expand the scope of autobiographical writing.

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In a discussion of Nicole Krauss’s Man Walks Into a Room, Castor explores a story about personal and collective memory and amnesia whereby notions of self-reliance, the American West, and the grand narratives of ‘Manifest Destiny’ are shown to be related to power structures. On collective levels, Castor proposes, American memory includes undercurrents of trauma that point back to World War II. Castor suggests that characters in Krauss’s story inherit stories of violence that their ancestors have experienced. Castor comments convincingly on the significance of the novel’s narrative structure and the effects of post-traumatic stress depicted.

Trauma can become part of collective identity and group identification. If, as Kyeong Hwangbo suggests in Trauma, Narrative, and the Marginal Self in Selected Contemporary American Novels, “trauma is fundamentally about the radically devastating experience of having one’s world irreparably fractured by an intrusive force that is beyond one’s control, then minority subjects, who are discriminated and denigrated by society, bear all the time the overwhelming weight of such intrusive force” (6).

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In an exploration of Joy Harjo’s poem “Equinox,” Castor focuses on how the historical trauma of greed and conquest can be renegotiated. Exploring the imagery and artistic form and praising the decolonizing power of Harjo’s poetry, Castor suggests that this poetry can be useful both for readers who themselves have experienced trauma and for readers who wish to confront a collective guilt of colonization. Showing how a healing process that alleviates psychological suffering is evoked through Harjo’s poetry and music and arguing that Harjo’s art may have a liberating power in that “her movement between and through multiple forms allows her to give expression to knowledge as produced within an Indigenous epistemological framework” (72), Castor concludes that “the poem as a whole can be read as a process of mental decolonization that opens spaces for thinking critically about the psychological and ethical consequences of the frontier narrative of America” (77).

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Continuing the exploration of the personal and intergenerational trauma suffered by Indigenous people and the effects of American notions of ‘Manifest Destiny’ in her chapter on Linda Hogan’s Solar Storms, Castor suggests that Hogan’s novel invites readers to ponder the effects of power and greed on human life and landscapes. Departing from an analysis of the women characters in Hogan’s novel and from the classic theme of a journey up a river, Castor looks at the traumatic effects on the landscape of a dam project and at how Hogan, at the same time, through images of houses and landscapes, points to a way toward healing, renegotiation of trauma, and ‘re-membering’ of the land. But in Castor’s view there is more, since the empathy in Hogan’s novel, calling for perspectives that include unspoken and unrepresented aspects, is “a moral strategy of influencing her reader’s attitudes and understanding of the ways in which Indigenous peoples’ rights are connected to the survival of the planet” while also deconstructing notions of inevitable and total oppositions between white and indigenous people and interests or between humans and the natural world (86).

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Departing from Michael Rothberg’s notion of an ‘implicated subject’ and its guilt and complicity, in her chapter on Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, Castor examines gendered expressions of trauma through a focus on the agency of the main character. Lahiri’s patterns of doubling and tripling point to myths and fairy tales. Looking at images such as footprints in sand or cement along with figurative footprints such as patterns and rhythms of syntax, Castor uncovers layers of political, historical, and psychological truths suggesting that an ‘implicated subject’ may be neither perpetrator nor victim.

In a chapter on Toni Morrison’s Home, Castor explores how this novel, in which home and nationhood are central concerns, asks us to question our social, political, and personal illusions of ‘America.’ The notion of America as a ‘home’ free from the weight of history and ground for countless opportunities for self-invention is revealed to be illusory. In this novel, the seemingly simple notion of ‘home’ has multiple cultural and personal meanings. Castor shows how Morrison’s shifting narrative per­spec­tives lay bare the most hidden violence of Jim Crow at the same time as it open spaces for agency and healing that honors scars rather than erasing them. Morrison’s narrators’ representations of ‘home’ and ‘homelessness’ pro­vide a fulcrum to question America’s collective memory. Ideas of home may be nar­rated differently through prisms of age, geo­graphy, and historical moment, as well as race, class, and gender inequality. The interweaving of different narrative perspectives suggests that there are only partial and contingent truths.

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Looking into Louise Erdrich’s depiction of two different legal approaches to violence against Native women in The Round House, Castor comments incisively on narrative perspectives and characterization and on the use of doubling, complementarity, and ‘twin identities.’ Conventional ideas of justice are questioned, and categories of victim and perpetrator may turn out to be too simplistic. Castor points to other, fluid ways of knowing and to insights from dreams, all of which are important for Erdrich’s characters and for healing and transformation in the face of epigenetic historical trauma.

Collective Guilt

In Facing Trauma, Laura Castor proposes that “[r]eading and writing narrative literature can allow readers to acknowledge, and to work in tandem with, legal, political, and therapeutic interventions in the struggle for justice” (152). Thus, the moral dilemmas depicted lead to a consideration of reader empathy, an ethics of reading, and to thoughts of how to work toward a healing of trauma.

Following Joanna Macy, Castor suggests that hope, rather than being a cognitive or affective stance, should be an ‘action.’ But calling for action means setting goals for what we want literature to achieve. Action, however well-meaning, risks being dictated by current ideological trends that call for specific measures, and with concrete social and political goals there is a risk of instrumentalizing literature.

Certainly, the literature discussed by Castor can “strengthen the reader’s inner ability to question the gendered, racialized stories of inequality behind the American promise of liberty for all” (152), but this cannot be the main goal. Literature is amoral in making it possible to identify with both good and evil (we can think of Milton’s Paradise Lost or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) and make readers recognize immoral and wicked aspects in themselves as well. Indeed, in convincingly depicting the attractions of evil and the ambiguity of polyvalence, literature opens up even greater perspectives in teaching us how to read beyond the obviously good and bad.

Following Walter Davis, Castor argues that “the problem of American culture is not that Americans feel guilty about their histories of violence against whole populations (including the development of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki). On the contrary, precisely the opposite is true for Davis: the continued power of cultural ideas such as America’s Manifest Destiny and the City on a Hill contributes to the continued inability of Americans to feel appropriate guilt” (22). Castor proposes that we need to confront “a traumatic past that implicates us in collective global histories of violence and trauma” and “begin to face the collective guilt of which Walter Davis speaks” (22).

But the need for Americans to feel ‘appropriate guilt’ along with the idea that every American is implicated in collective global histories of violence and trauma (as Walter Davis  would seem to suggest) could be questioned. It is uncertain as to what collective guilt can achieve in a greater perspective and doubtful if the guilt of people living today will lead to restorative justice.

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In The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, Pascal Bruckner argues to the contrary that Western guilt has gone too far. With its roots in the very Christianity that many people believe they have rejected guilt has become pathological: “What it injects into us in the guise of atheism is nothing other than the old notion of original sin, the ancient poison of damnation. In Judeo-Christian lands, there is no fuel so potent as the feeling of guilt, and the more our philosophers and sociologists proclaim themselves to be agnostics, atheists, and free-thinkers, the more they take us back to the religious belief they are challenging” (Bruckner 2).

Conclusion

Facing Trauma in Contemporary American Literary Discourse: Stories of Survival and Possibility presents in-depth analysis of personal and historically situated traumas represented in a range of literary texts. In reading these stories and poems we may be ‘surprised’ into seeing glimpses of our own blind spots. Reflecting on her own experiences, expectations, and assumptions as well, Laura Castor opens up perspectives on the functions of fiction and on reader ‘response/ability.’ Facing Trauma is pedagogic in its discussion of ways of responding to individual and social trauma. Building on LaCapra’s term ‘empathetic unsettlement,’ Castor’s work aims “to broaden the range of people considered worthy of attention and empathy” (151)—an aim that must be wholeheartedly embraced.

Since fiction can offer an empathetic space for working through trauma, reading can be part of a therapeutic process. Kyeong Hwangbo suggests that “performative restaging of trauma helps the victims to work through the pernicious power of trauma that traps them in the repeated reliving of their harrowing ordeals” (225).

In the works discussed in Facing Trauma, Castor finds recurring images suggesting that trauma can sometimes function as a catalyst for transformation. While not suggesting that reading alone can constitute treatment for trauma, Castor affirms that it can be an important part of reparative therapeutic processes. “As listeners,” she suggests, “we could develop more nuanced ways of hearing stories of survivors in which we could suspend judgment, suspend the expectation of being able to relate to the survivor, and pause in the urge to judge him or her according to a familiar story we assume we are hearing. We could consider that intersecting and historically produced conditions could have led to the harm, and followed in its wake” (4).

Drawing on earlier research in relevant ways, Facing Trauma in Contemporary American Literary Discourse: Stories of Survival and Possibility offers a greater understanding of psychological and literary responses to trauma. Paying attention to formal elements and moral subtexts and bringing a ‘planetary’ mindset to in-depth readings of the works of a range of important writers, Laura Castor brings a new dimension to the understanding of these works and offers analyses that help us “see how racial and gendered trauma is embedded in the ideological and cultural fabric of American society that none of us escapes” (24). Forcefully and perceptively, Facing Trauma in Contemporary American Literary Discourse: Stories of Survival and Possibility opens doors to new understandings of trauma in life and in literature.

 

References

Bruckner, Pascal. The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, Princeton: Princeton UP, 2012. Print.

Castor, Laura Virginia. Facing Trauma in Contemporary American Literary Discourse: Stories of Survival and Possibility. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2019. Print.

Hwangbo, Kyeong. Trauma, Narrative, and the Marginal Self in Selected Contemporary American Novels.  Dissertation. University of Florida 2004. https://ufdc.ufl.edu/UFE0007302/00001. Accessed 8 October 2020.

Maté, Gabor. “Coronavirus Trauma & Self-Isolation Mental Health: How Stress Impacts Your Life.”  21 April 2020.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uli_xqVwo9Y. Accessed 17 September 2020.

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