The difference between a war story and a fairy tale is that a fairy tale starts with “Once upon a time…” and a war story starts with, “This is no shit…”
Traditional literary interpretation assumes that all symbols are accessible to all readers — that the author and the reader speak a common language. Critics’ inability to recognize the inaccessibility of the survivor’s symbolic universe seems to lead them to dismiss the “real” war and its devastating effect on the individual author. They replace the war with a set of symbols — metaphors of “experience” or “syndrome” — that denote instead an internal crisis of the “American character.” This problem is rooted in the conflation of two very different, but constantly intersecting kinds of myth: national and personal.
National (collective) myth is propagated in textbooks, official histories, popular culture documents, public schools, and the like. This myth belongs to no one individual, though individuals borrow from it and buy into it to varying degrees. Beidler’s “cultural myths,” and Hellman’s, Melling’s, and Myers’ “American myths” are collective myths that comprise our concepts of what “America” and “American character” are. National myth, as these writers suggest, can gradually be revised as new elements are introduced into the public discourse and old ideas become outmoded. A major upheaval can introduce new ideas and images that are adopted into the popular consciousness. For example, the replacement of the horse by the automobile gradually made the traditional cowboy hero obsolete (now a beloved, nostalgic relic of the American past) and spurred the development of new heroes who drove cars. The hard-boiled detective who became a popular hero in the 1920s and 1930s has his roots in the lone cowboy hero of earlier years, and his predecessors date back at lest to 17th century pulp literature. It is national myth that Susan Jeffords so competently takes as her focus.
Personal myth is the particular set of explanations and expectations generated by an individual to account for his or her circumstances and actions. Psychologist Daniel Goleman argues that person myths take the form of schemas — assumptions about experience and the way the world works. What information an individual absorbs and interprets is determined by the schemas operating in a particular situation. Schemas frequently operate at the level of the unconscious, and it is inevitable (and, in fact, it is their purpose) to automatically skew perceptions of events. The misinterpretation of much of what goes on around us is frequently useful as a coping strategy, if a properly interpreted event threatens important, foundational schemas. This process results in the “trade-off of a distorted awareness for a sense of security,” and Goleman believes that this is an organizing principle of human existence.1
Grand revision of a personal myth must always spring from a traumatic experience, for the mechanism that maintains those foundational schemas will automatically distort or revise all but the most shattering revelations. Chaim Shatan, a psychiatrist who did pioneering work with Vietnam combat veterans and other survivors of trauma, described this drastic uprooting of belief as the “basic wound” that creates a new, permanent, and adaptive lifestyle.”2
The conflation of national and personal myth by traditional critics of Vietnam War literature is supported by their universal failure to make the distinction between literature by combat veterans and literature by non-veterans. Though a nod is always given to the value of veterans’ writings (which gives us the “real” flavor of the war as it reveals the “secret history”), the universal tendency of these critics is ultimately to compare and contrast on the same terms Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Lederer and Burdick’s The Ugly American, and Norman Mailer’s Why We Are in Vietnam with combat veteran Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, O’Brien’s Cacciato, and Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July. Whether, like Beidler, a critic believes that most Vietnam War literature is written by veterans or, like Hellman, that veterans play only a small role in the process of revising American myth, he never considers the possibility that there might exist literatures (rather than a literature) of the Vietnam War.
War literature by nonveterans can be critiqued in the same manner as other genre literatures. These works are the products of the authors’ urge to tell a story, make a point, create an aesthetic experience, to move people in a particular way. Nonveteran literature is, in short, the product of a literary decision. The war, to nonveteran writers, is simply a metaphor, a vehicle for their message — just as the war is a metaphor in the eyes of literary critics such as Wilson, Hellman, and Myers.3 The “real war” about which they write is the war of symbols and images.
For combat veterans, however, the personal investment of the author is immense. Re-telling the war in a memoir or describing it in a novel does not merely involve the development of alternative national myths through the manipulation of plot and literary technique, but the necessary rebuilding of shattered personal myths. To understand the literature of these veterans, we must embrace critical strategies that acknowledge the peculiar position of the survivor-author. It is not possible to generate such strategies solely from field of literary criticism; rather, the critic must expand her horizons and move into the realms of psychology and sociology, acknowledging the specific effects of trauma on the process of narration. Some progress has already been made in this direction, notably by Eric J. Leed and Gerald Linderman.
Leed’s No Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War I (1979) suggested a new subject for interdisciplinary study — “the transformation of personality in war” — and provided scholars with a new methodological approach. Stating first that his book was neither military history, literary analysis, nor psychohistory, Leed proposed a theory of transformation that incorporated both psychological examination of human response to wartime trauma and the examination of the effect of cultural myth upon human reaction to war. Borrowing concepts from psychiatry, anthropology, history and literary criticism, Leed began to discuss the First World War as a “modernizing experience:”
[The First World War] fundamentally altered traditional sources of identity, age-old images of war and men of war. The Great War was a nodal point in the history of industrial civilization because it brought together material realities and “traditional” mentalities in an unexpectedly disillusioning way… [T]he disillusioning realization of the inherent similitude of industrial societies and the wars they wage … eviscerated, drained, and confounded the logic upon which the moral significance of war and the figure of the warrior had been based.4
Leed makes good use of an anthropological theory that was articulated by Arnold Van Gennep:
Van Gennep divided rites of passage into three phases: rites of separation, which removed an individual or group of individuals from his or their accustomed place; liminal rites, which symbolically fix the character of the “passenger” as one who is between states, places, or conditions; and finally rites of incorporation (postliminal rites), which welcome the individual back into the group.5
Leed claimed that liminality was the condition of the front soldier in World War I, and that, rather than passing into the postliminal phase upon his return, the war veteran continued to a “liminal type”:
He derives all his features from the fact that he has crossed the boundaries of disjunctive social worlds, from peace to war, and back. He has been reshaped by his voyage along the margins of civilization, a voyage in which he has been presented with wonders, curiosities, and monsters — things that can only be guessed at by those who remained at home.6
The theory of liminality describes a process of symbolic production based on the traumatic experiences of those entering the transition, or liminal, state. But the symbols generated by liminality are readable only to those familiar with the “alphabet” of trauma; what they represent is not common knowledge. Symbols which commonly represent a particular idea may be drastically transformed within the mind of the liminal type. For example, the symbolism inherent in the Holocaust survivor poet’s description of a bakery’s bread oven is entirely different than the same invocation by a nonsurvivor.
In Leed’s estimation, the normal difficulties experienced by the World War I veteran on his return to peacetime society were intensified by the front soldier’s perception that those on the home front had benefitted monetarily from his suffering — that capitalists had made profits on the war, and that civilians had suffered little or no privations. To support his argument, he points to the organization of veterans’ groups around issues of restitution, benefits and bonuses.7 The “comradeship” of which veterans spoke was comradeship of victims, an emotional tie that became the focus of fond memory when the soldier returned to peacetime society and found himself unable to identify with who and what he found there: “Many ex-soldiers ritualized their liminal status, their position between the front and the home… These men ‘worked’ their war experience to maintain themselves on the peripheries of society.”8
Calling World War I “the first holocaust,” Leed asserts that it was destined to lead to World War II: “Those who had internalized the war, its peculiar relationship between victims and victimizers, the liminality that is imposed upon combatants, were destined to play a significant part in this repetition. For could not resolve the ambiguities that defined their identities in war and resume their place in civilian society without acknowledging their status as victims.”9 World War I provided a crushing blow to the “fictions” by which these men lived their lives.
Gerald Linderman advances a similar argument in Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (1987), emphasizing the internal changes undergone by the men who experience combat. He rarely distinguishes between Union and Confederate soldiers, insisting that the psychological and sociological effects of combat were roughly equivalent in both groups. Linderman divides his book into two sections, the first of which — “Courage’s War” — describes the expectations and ideals of the men who joined the Union and Confederate armies. The second section — “A Perilous Education” — deals with the increasing disillusionment and anger of these soldiers when they found the war was not at all like the one they had imagined. Though he does not use the same terminology as Leed does, his characterization of veterans’ liminality is similar.
After the Civil War, combat veterans returned to a society that held notions about war that the soldiers knew, from hard experience, to be outdated (if, indeed, they had ever had any validity). But the new truths soldiers had learned were out of place at home: “Killing once again became homicide; foraging was again theft, and incendiarism arson. Even language was a problem: Camp talk had to be cleaned up.”10 In order to cope with the demands and difficulties of everyday life, soldiers had to rewrite their war experiences, smoothing over the difficult parts, revising the unpleasantness:
While forgetfulness worked to efface painful experience, soldiers construed bad memories in a way that smoothed their departure. When they were able to discuss the problems among themselves, soldiers ordinarily did so under a rubric — “Time heals all wounds” — revelatory of their assumptions… Disturbing memories were to be kept to oneself, not to be aired publicly to relieve the sufferer and certainly not to correct public misapprehensions of the nature of combat.11
Like Leed, Linderman believes that the soldier who remembered correctly would have been forced to acknowledge his role as a victim of a government and a social order that had exploited him. Linderman and Leed also agree that the veteran had a strong role in supporting and encouraging American involvement in a subsequent war. Participating gratefully in commemoration efforts, Civil War veterans benefitted from and supported the revival of American interest in martial matters: “Although they remained ‘men set apart,’ their separation had been granted public recognition and their estrangement elevated to civic virtue.”12 Even veterans who had earlier been antiwar and alienated began to take part and encourage this martial spirit. This revision was so complete that by 1898 the nation enthusiastically applauded the start of the Spanish-American War. The old values were reestablished: “Civil War veterans had become symbols of changelessness — but only by obliterating or amending an experience of combat so convulsive of their values that it had for a time cut the cord of experience.”13
These two important studies point us in a new direction, urging us toward an understanding of the personal revision process and its interaction with historical myth. Though they confine themselves to the discussion of the experience of the combat soldier, they describe a reaction to trauma that is not limited to men at war. Recent work in psychiatry suggests that we can make a connection between the trauma of soldiers and the trauma of other persons subjected to severe stress. Studies on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have shown that similar symptoms may be found in large percentages of traumatized populations, including Holocaust, Atomic bomb, rape, incest, prison camp, refugee camp, and natural disaster survivors.14 Trauma is a transformative experience, and those who are transformed can never entirely return to a state of previous innocence. According to Lawrence Langer, “The survivor does not travel a road from the normal to the bizarre back to the normal, but from the normal to the bizarre back to a normalcy so permeated by the bizarre encounter with atrocity that it can never be purified again. The two worlds haunt each other…”15 “After Auschwitz,” wrote Elie Wiesel, “everything brings us back to Auschwitz.”16 A careful study of the works of literature produced by trauma survivors points to a certain uniformity of experience and unanimity of intention that transcends the particular incidents described.
One of the strongest themes in the literature of trauma is the urge to bear witness, to carry the tale of horror back to the halls of “normalcy” and to testify to the people the truth of the their experience. “In one sense, all writing about the Holocaust represents a retrospective effort to give meaningless history a context of meaning, to furnish the mind with a framework for insight without diminishing the sorrow of the event itself. Knowledge of the past cannot be exorcised…”17 To be a survivor is to be bound to the dead, to impose upon oneself what Robert J. Lifton calls “an impossible standard of literal recreation of ‘how things were,’ a kind of sacred historical truth, which leads… to what might be called the documentary fallacy; or else a need to glorify the dead and deny them the dignity of their limitations.”18
This universal drive to testify is articulated by writers across traditional genre lines. Wiesel asserts, “I never intended to be a philosopher or a theologian. The only role I sought was witness. I believed that, having survived by chance, I was duty-bound to give meaning to my survival, to justify each moment of my life. I knew the story had to be told. Not to transmit an experience is to betray it…”19 He is echoed by Vietnam veteran writer Larry Lee Rottmann, who stated for the record at the Winter Soldier Investigation:
There is a question in many people’s minds here. They say, “Well, why do you talk now? Why do you come here and tell us these things that happened two, three, maybe four, five years ago?…” I’m here, speaking personally, because I can’t not be here. I’m here because, like, I have nightmares about things that happened to me and my friends. I’m here because my conscience will not let me forget what I want to forget.
I didn’t want to talk about it when I first got back, you know. I didn’t want to talk about it at all… But it gets to the point where you have to talk to somebody, and when I tried to talk to somebody, even my parents, they didn’t want to know. And that made me realize that no matter how painful it was for me, I had to tell them. I mean, they had to know. The fact that they didn’t want to know, told me they had to know.20
Jill Morgan, a victim of childhood sexual abuse, explains her desire to speak out in similar terms:
A close personal friend (male) has asked me repeatedly, “Why do you have to rehash it? It happened. It’s over. Now forget it and go on.” Only by owning myself and my past, by affirming and confirming my innocence in the whole, sordid drama can I rest and feel comfortable with myself.
If my survival is to be meaningful at all to me, it must be because it gave me the strength to fight, the will to survive and the empathy to reach out to other women.21
Each of these authors articulates the belief that he or she is a storyteller with a mission; their responsibility as survivors is to bear the tale. Each one also affirms the process of storytelling as a personally reconstitutive act and expresses the hope that it will also be a socially reconstitutive act — changing the order of things as they are, and working to prevent the enactment of similar horrors in the future.
But the task of the traumatized author is an impossible one. For if the goal is to convey the traumatic experience, no second-hand rendering of it is adequate. The horrific events that have reshaped the author’s construction of reality can only be described in literature, not recreated. Only the experience of trauma has the traumatizing effect. The combination of the drive to testify and the impossibility of recreating the event for the reader is one of the defining characteristics of trauma literature: “Could it be surmounted? Could the reader be brought to the other side? I knew the answer to be negative, and yet I also knew that ‘no’ had become ‘yes’… One had to break the shell enclosing the dark truth, and give it a name. One had to force man to look.”22
Caught forever in this liminal state, the survivor comes to represent the shattering of our national myths, without being able to shatter the reader’s individual personal myths. And it is those personal myths that support and uphold the most widely accepted national stories. No grand restructuring of national myth can be accomplished without a concurrent destruction of the personal myths that words simply cannot reach. Terrence Des Pres describes the survivor as “a disturber of the peace”: “He is a runner of the blockade men erect against knowledge of ‘unspeakable’ things. About these he aims to speak, and in so doing he undermines, without intending to, the validity of existing norms.”23 But the impact of the survivor’s strongest message — that his traumatic suffering was seemingly without purpose, arbitrary, outside the framework of meaning — cannot be absorbed by the reader, whose framework of meaning remains essentially intact. This paradox leads John Hellman to assert:
“Getting used to” moving through the perils of time without the assurance of luck, without the conviction of a special grace conferred by a special geography, is precisely the function of the literary and cinematic narratives which American artists have produced in response to the Vietnam experience. The stories through which we have retaken the Vietnam journey… have presented a Southeast Asian landscape that overturns the meaning of the previously known landscapes of American myth. These narratives purge us, forcing the reader or viewer to reexperience, this time self-consciously, the tragic shattering of our old myths. This process may prepare the culture to accept a significant alteration of our view of ourselves and of our world, a new mythic interpretation of our historical experience that will intelligibly include the experience of Vietnam.24
But survivors never “get used to” losing their sense of meaning; they are forever changed by it. Many are transformed into liminal figures who must remain, like ghostly Casandras, on the fringes of society. Some manage to become postliminal by repressing or revising their experiences (though this is seldom a completely successful tactic, since the revelatory nature of their experience has shown them the inadequacy of “normal” concepts of meaning in the world). Expression, in the form of narration, is frequently a step on the journey towards becoming postliminal, towards rewriting the traumatic events that severed their connections to the rest of society. Nonsurvivor readers and viewers cannot “retake” a journey through a Vietnam that they haven ever visited, and thus cannot “re-experience” a “tragic shattering” of old myths. I cannot emphasize too strongly the fact that the personal myths of the reader are never “tragically shattered” by reading. Only trauma can accomplish that kind of destruction. The revision of national myth occurs only as far as the changes made do not interfere with non-survivors’ basic conceptions of themselves.
The inability to communicate trauma is evident in the preoccupation of trauma authors with the limitations of language. Once again, the preoccupation is evident across traditional genre lines:
The word has deserted the meaning it was intended to convey — impossible to make them coincide. The displacement, the shift, is irrevocable… We all knew that we could never, never say what had to be said, that we could never express in words, coherent, intelligible words, our experience of madness on an absolute scale… All words seemed inadequate, worn, foolish, lifeless, whereas I wanted them to be searing. Where was I to discover a fresh vocabulary, a primeval language? The language of night was not human; it was primitive, almost animal… a brute striking wildly, a body falling; an officer raises his arm , and a whole community walks toward a common grave… This is the concentration camp language. It negated all other language and took its place. Rather than link, it became wall.25
In his first novel, Close Quarters, Vietnam combat veteran Larry Heinemann inscribes his protagonist’s deep sense of alienation, the barrier that language cannot surmount:
I have traveled to a place where the dead lie above the ground in rows and bunches. Time has gone somewhere without me. This is not my country, not my time. My skin is drawn tight around my eyes. My clothes smell of blood. I bleed inside. I am water. I am stone… I have not come home, Ma. I have gone ahead, gone back. There is glass between us, we cannot speak.26
For at least twenty years, the subject of language as a limitation on the expression of women’s thought has been a topic of discussion in feminist circles.27 It may be that a partial explanation for the silence of women is that such a large percentage of us have survived the trauma of rape, incest, or battering. Our stories may not be incoherent or inarticulately told, but simply inconceivable — as the stories of other liminal types are inconceivable. Patterns of violence against women are far from recent developments — statistics such as those provided by the Los Angeles Ad Hoc Committee on Rape (one out of three women over the age of 14 in Los Angeles County will be raped sometime during her lifetime28) pale in comparison with previous episodes, such as the European witch hunts. Those campaigns persisted for almost four hundred years, resulting in the burning of some nine million women.29 A continuing history of gynocidal persecution may well have resulted in the current perception that male language cannot encompass our experience.
We know only the language of these folks who enter and occupy us: they keep telling us that we are different from them; yet we speak only their language and have none, or none that we remember, of our own; and we do not dare, it seems invent one, even in signs and gestures. Our bodies speak their language. Our minds think in it. The men are inside us through and through. We hear something, a dim whisper, barely audible, somewhere at the back of the brain; there is some other word, and we think, some of us, sometimes, that once it belonged to us.30
Dworkin’s assertion is similar to Sidra Ezrahi’s observation about the transformation of the German language by the Nazi system, “whose syntax, style, and symbolic associations were profoundly and avidly violated by what came to be known as “Nazi-Deutsch,” the perverse rhetoric that signified the collective actions of the Nationals Socialists.”31 Ezrahi argues that the ideology of Nazism extended to “every area of cultural expression,” literally taking over the language. Preoccupied with the maintenance of written records, yet determined to conceal the actions of the state from the outside world, the Nazis “created a complex of verbal acrobatics which subsequent generations of linguists would strive painstakingly to sort out.”32 Much German postwar writing,she claims, is “an attempt to purge, through subtle parodies, and ironic reversals of traditional literary modes and forms of speech, the language and the literature of their implication in the crimes of Nazism.33
Paul Fussell suggest that it is the death of metaphor that embodies the distance between the language of the survivor and that of the nonsurvivor reader.34 Alvin Rosenfeld claims that all previous critical schools are useless in the critique of Holocaust literature since
the conception of man, or world view, embodied in psychoanalysis or dialectical theory or theories of aesthetic autonomy had almost no place in the ghettos and camps, which were governed by forces of an altogether different and less refined nature. As a result, it would seem a radical misapplication of method and intentions to search through literary accounts of Auschwitz or the Warsaw Ghetto for covert Oedipal symbols, class struggle, revealing patterns of imagery and symbolism, mythic analogies, or deep grammatical structures. Auschwitz no more readily reduces to these considerations than does death itself.35
Each of the traumas discussed has as its victims a certain group of persons definable by characteristics of race, sex, religion and/or geographical location. If the memebers of a persecuted group define themselves as a community, bonded by their common misfortune, and see their individual suffering as a part of a common plight, then (and only then) will the urge to bear witness be present. If a trauma victim perceives herself as suffering alone, and has no sense of belonging to a community of victims, she will remain silent, imagining that her pain has no relevance to the larger society. She will likely come to believe that she has, in some way, brought her suffering upon herself. The internalization of blame for the evils that befall one is difficult to escape even when the notion of community exists;36 it is all but impossible to avoid when one feels no connection with a community of victims. The community of Holocaust victims, the community of combat survivors, and the community of rape and incest survivors are very different in composition, and thus the work of bearing witness is quite different within each of them.
Holocaust survivors see themselves most clearly as members of a community of victims:
Firsthand accounts of life in the concentration camps almost never focus on the trials of the writer apart from his or her comrades, apart from the thousands of identical others whose names were never known. Books by survivors are invariably group portraits, in which the writer’s personal experience is representative and used to provide a perspective on the common plight. Survival is a collective act, and so is bearing witness. Both are rooted in compassion and care, and both expose the illusion of separateness. It is not an exaggeration, not merely a metaphor, to say that the survivor’s identity includes the dead.37
Des Pres claims that the task of survivors is the awakening of conscience in the greater community, and that the testimony of survivors bears witness for “objective conditions of evil” that will naturally arouse the sympathies of ordinary people.38 He assumes that the terror and mass murder visited upon the community of victims is irregular, and distinguishably evil, that all good people everywhere would object to such acts if only they were aware of their commission. Holocaust victims are both a part of the community of victims, and of the greater community of good people to whom they can appeal.
Ezrahi counters that only some Holocaust literature locates “the individual within the historical and valuational continuum of the community of which, in his extremity, he still remains a part, even if the whole no longer exists and even if his own life is fractured beyond repair.”39 Other Holocaust writers were “cast adrift by the Nazis from the sources of … life’s continuity” and became existentialists, “placing the exposed self at the center as the irreducible source of meaning, and viewing biography as the limit of history.”40
The testimony of those who continued to perceive of themselves as members of a greater community could recreate an historical vision, “anchoring the meaning of life of the self in the fate and the cultural resources of the group.”41 The testimony of those cast adrift was fragmented, and could create no greater meaning for their suffering. For example, the Jew who perceived of himself as a German first, and only incidentally Jewish would see his persecution in terms of an assault on his personal myth (self-definition), while the Jew who saw himself first as a Jew — a people with a history of persecution — might envision his sufferings as a chapter in the martyrology of his people. Each Jew might testify, but the community to whom they testified would be quite different. Furthermore, the testimony of each Jew would be interpreted by different audiences in different ways.
Survival literature tends to appear at least a decade after the traumatic experience in question.42 As the years pass and the immediacy of the event fades into memory the process of revision begins to occur in the mind of each survivor. The dislocation of trauma, which removed meaning from the world, is gradually replaced by new stories about the past that can support a rewritten personal myth. The survivor’s perception of community is a crucial element in the shaping of her new myth. To the Jew with a strong feeling of community with other Jews, testimony becomes a rallying cry, leading to the pledge, “Never again!” The previously assimilated Jew, with little sense of belonging to the Jewish community,431 may identify with the greater community of “good people” whom Des Pres describes, and tell her story to appeal to the conscience of the world. For some, the Holocaust serves as a justification for the creation and maintenance of the state of Israel, and thus takes its place in the greater story of Jewish history. Survivors can make sense of their suffering by creating an historical context.
Without a sense of community power, testimony is useless. Testimonials have as their premise a sympathetic listenership with the power to prevent the repetition of the traumatic experience in the future. Martin Buber stated that “‘testimony without acknowledgment’ may paralyze the will,”44 inhibiting action and speech. Buber angrily responded to Gandhi’s assertion that nonviolent protest tactics would eventually allow the Jews to prevail over German Nazis, insisting that the sort of sacrifice Gandhi suggested was useless in a society that condoned atrocity, a martyrdom “thrown to the winds.” Natalie Shainess makes connections across traumas when she ties the silence of the abused child to the silence of the Jews in Nazi Germany: “Why doesn’t she tell her mother? Why doesn’t she run away? Why doesn’t she go to the police? It calls to mind the problem of Jews in Nazi Germany: how many Germans would go against their own interests to help? What hope was there? Who would listen, who would believe?”45
The need for a powerful community within which, and to which, one can testify is evident in the scarcity of testimony by victims of rape, incest, and other forms of sexual abuse. Less than ten percent of the rapes that occur in the United States are reported; abused women know that their stories will not be listened to. Though generally acknowledged by the psychiatric establishment to be victims of severe trauma, and suffering in numbers that would seem to indicate a distinct pattern of abuse, women who have been raped rarely testify publicly to their experiences. This is due in large part to the special context of women’s trauma. For many other trauma victims there exists a “time before” and a “time after”: a greater social structure in which the commission of crimes against the community is considered improper. Atrocities against women are grounded in a system that supports them, which in fact encourages crimes against women:
In the traditional professional approach to dealing with violence, the legal system and the police in effect aided and abetted the woman-beater. Moreover, medical and social services were powerless, in fact, to provide even short-term or intermediate solutions to the problem of spousal violence… A woman either was sent back home or went to stay with relatives. Whichever she chose, she remained vulnerable, easy to find, and thus a defenceless target for pressure and attack by her aggressor. The result was that she was forced to withdraw legal charges, resume her role as wife and mother and try to swallow her anger and bury her fear.46
Louise Wisechild, who testifies to incest, insists: “Incest is not separate from other abusive messages in our social culture. I couldn’t write about incest apart from what I was told as a girl-child growing up in the 50s and 60s. The religious attitudes of my childhood, the myths surrounding the ‘normal’ family and my experience at school helped keep the incest a secret. These messages reinforced the self-hating images I saw in my internal mirror. In addition, each member of my family had a role in the dynamic of secrecy.”47 The victim of violence against women has no preatrocity consciousness, and interpretation of the event occurs in a mind which, at the same level, expects atrocity and has been prepared for it since birth. Internalizing blame is a natural consequence of growing up in a dehumanizing system. We know that it is common for the victim of even unexpected trauma to feel responsibility for the event.48 How much easier is it to accept responsibility for an event when one has been raised listening to the insistent repetition of the phrase, “If it happens, it’s your fault; you were looking for it”?
Those few women who do testify about atrocities have a strong sense of community, chiefly with other women whom they see as potentially powerful enough to have an effect on the social, political, and economic structures that support sexual abuse. Louise Thornton believes that the testimony of a few abused women will reach other such women, unlocking “the power of the spoken or written word for the thousands of additional women who never told anyone.”49 Ellen Bass, writing in the same anthology, claims:
In this book, survivors of childhood sexual abuse use the power of speech to transform, to fuse secret shame, pain, and anger into a sharp useful tool, common as a kitchen knife, for cutting away lies and deception like rotten fruit, leaving the clean hard pit, that kernel truth: These insults were inflicted, are inflicted, now, every day. The repercussions are deep and lasting. The will to survive is strong, the tenacity and beauty of survival inspiring. We are not alone. We are not to blame. We are innocent, innocent and powerful, worthy of our healing fury, self-love, and love for each other.50
The most important factor in women’s decisions to testify to atrocity is the feeling of sisterhood, of connection to other women, and the hope that the community of women will be strong enough to prevent the commission of atrocities in the future.
Unlike women and Holocaust survivors, combat soldiers were physically removed from the communities with which they identify, and relocated to a new and foreign environment where previous notions of self were rendered useless. Basic Training is designed to traumatize the recruit, to systematically strip him of his civilian identity. The development of a new set of personal myths is required of the soldier:
The recruit brings with him to Basic Training a set of values, beliefs, and expectations about his rights as an individual member of society. He has taken for granted a whole framework of supporting cultural factors, a conception of himself and his achievements which reflects the status he has been accorded in his past social environment, and a set of defensive maneuvers which have served him well in dealing with conflicts, failures, and other personal adversity. The early weeks of training are characterized by physical and verbal abuse, humiliation, and a constant discounting and discrediting of everything in which the recruit believes and everything which serves to characterize him as an individual.51
According to Peter Bourne, the three goals of Basic Training are to destroy the soldier’s civilian identity, to force him to acknowledge and accept discipline from the military, and to convince him of the validity and justice of the military system.52 Armed with this revised perspective on life, the recruit is sent off to battle, believing that he has earned the right to join the masculine ranks of the warrior. Once in combat, however, disillusion sets in, beginning the process of alienation so eloquently described by Leed and Linderman. Ideas of valor and heroism are undermined by the randomness of death in combat. The failure of the social myths upon which the soldier’s personal myths are based is the result of immediate, and traumatic experience. The soldier enters the liminal state and becomes a man without a community outside of the war. He has, like the Holocaust survivor, gone beyond metaphor: “Once there is a wedding of the symbolic world of language and the nonsymbolic world of physical experience, the realities of the war become ‘things to think with,’ to fantasize with, to apply in action within political and social contexts.”53
The acts soldiers commit in battle are comprehensible only in a world defined by war: the killing of human beings, the burning of homes, the defoliation of land. In “Beyond Atrocity,” Robert Lifton argues that much violence can be done by men desperate to define their world in a coherent manner. He calls atrocity “a perverse quest for meaning, the end result of a spurious sense of mission, the product of false witness.”54 At My Lai, for example, soldiers fired upon men, women, and children because they equated them with the enemy: “they were finally involved in a genuine ‘military action,’ their elusive adversaries had finally been located, made to stand still, and annihilated — an illustration, in other words, that they had finally put their world back in order.”55 But the “order” of war cannot be assimilated into the order of civilian life, and the combat soldier returning home cannot recall his wartime experiences without negating the national myth. The soldier who desires to bear witness against his own crimes in war, and against the crimes of his nation, speaks to a community that does not wish to hear his story. Additionally, he knows that to speak is to condemn himself; to confess to crimes for which he should be punished under civilian law.
Langer relates the story of the SS doctor at Auschwitz who protested the Nazi policies of selection for the gas chamber, and who refused to participate in the process. The infamous Doctor Mengele explained to the reluctant executioner that the sentence of death had already been passed on all Jews, and that gas chamber selection merely determined who should live for a short time longer. The doctor was persuaded, and cooperated. When the war was over and he was to be arrested, this doctor killed himself. Langer suggests that the reason for his suicide lay in his inability to face
… a traditional world of justice, where categories like “guilt,” “punishment,” and “responsibility” resumed their former ethical force. Since his earlier behavior suggested that he had never entirely repudiated these categories, we can assume that his suicide is partly a response to the total collapse of a system that had (in his case) so tentatively supported his compromised spirit. His death may have been an acknowledgment of how badly he had used the area of inner freedom that was available to him in spite of external pressures.56
The combat soldier, too, is faced with the reestablishment of the “traditional world of justice.” He must suspect that his actions must ultimately be judged according to the rules of the society to which he will return.
Psychic numbing is frequently an effective coping or delay mechanism for men who are not ready to acknowledge the enormous gap that has opened between their society’s expectations and wartime realities. Vietnam veteran Al Hubbard describes the process:
Sacrificing a portion of your
consciousness so you won’t have
to deal with
building mental blocks
so you won’t have to deal with
having been there.57
But the veteran who is incapable of successfully repressing his combat experience will be disturbed by the intrusion of memories of wartime actions into civilian life. This double vision is troubling, intolerable for some, including Rottmann and the ninety-nine other Winter Soldiers who testified to witnessing or participating in war crimes in 1971. Also in 1971, some one thousand Vietnam veterans gathered in Washington, DC and hurled their medals over the White House fence, protesting the continuation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the needless deaths of tens of thousands of Vietnamese and Americans.58 The testimony of these men was given at tremendous personal cost: their condemnation of American policy in Vietnam contained an implicit criticism of their own complicity in acts of brutality and atrocity. “There’s not so much charm in war stories, you know,” said Christopher Soares, a Lt. Cpl. in “G” Company from February to April of 1969.”But at times you have to tell war stories because what happened to you in Vietnam is always on your conscience… There is so much you have to get rid of in your mind. Sometimes I just stay up half the night and cannot go to sleep because my mind bleeds from hell when it goes back to Vietnam.”59
At the same time, testifying to crimes can be a purgative experience — the confession that purifies the soul and prepares it for readmission into the house of God. By evaluating his acts in light of reestablished social and moral norms, the soldier can contextualize the experience: “I was bed then, but I’m good again now.” Once he repents his crimes and suffers punishment, he is free to rejoin contemporary society a sadder and wiser man.
The new American soldier, as I see it, is a person who has come to a point in his life where he’s rejected violence — he’s seen too much of it. He’s been so much a part of it. He’s learned about how and to what extent human beings can really torture one another. So now, he’s thinking about the future, about his own kids, about the other people who haven’t been born yet, and how the last thing in the world he could wish for would be for them to go through what he’s been through. He’s got eyes that are set really deep, because he’s cried a lot. I think he’s cried a lot in shame, for the year, maybe two years of his life in which he killed, in which he raped the countryside, and I think that’s a shame he’s going to live with for his whole life. And that’s a really incredibly hard road, I think, for the new American soldier because he has to accept the fact that he spent a portion of his life doing those things.”60
When Sgt. Jim Weber left Fort Polk and went to Vietnam, he was a good soldier, trained to fight and kill. He believed in the American cause. But his attitude changed immediately when he witnessed the beatings of Vietnamese children: “And from there on, it was all downhill, and, man, like I was a great American, and I think I still am a great American, you know.”61 Obviously, Weber’s notion of what makes a “great American” has undergone some drastic restructuring. This restructuring places Weber’s definition of the “great American” in conflict with the tenets of national mythology: national mythology supports a war that Weber’s great American opposes. If Weber were a lone voice, a man without community, he would soon be drowned out by the multitude and his new mythology would go unnoticed.
But there is a community of combat survivors; or rather, there are multiple communities. One kind of community is composed of men who have rejected, repressed and revised most of their war experiences until the parts that they can recall seem to be consonant with the greater body of national myth. These men belong to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), the American Legion; they support traditional patriotic ventures; they backed U.S. policy in Central America in the Eighties; they “support the troops” in the first and second Gulf Wars. They mirror, in short, the community of Civil War veterans Linderman describes in Embattled Courage; veterans such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.:
In combat, twenty years earlier, he had undergone severe disillusionment. He had grown weary of such words as “cowardice,” “gallantry,” and “chivalry”… In May 1863 he had prayed that he might lose a foot in order to escape a return to combat, and a year later… he had feared that battle’s “terrible pressure on mind and body” was pushing him toward insanity. He finally resigned his commission, prior to the end of the war, because he no longer thought it a duty to serve. By 1885, however, the war of 1864-65 had largely departed from his consciousness… He installed his sword and regimental colors above the mantel in his study… In public addresses he exalted unquestioning faith and obedience to command as the hallmarks of the true soldier… “War, when you are at it, is horrible and dull,” he told the Harvard graduating class of 1895. “It is only when time has passed that you see that its message was divine… For high and dangerous action teaches us to believe as right beyond dispute things for which our doubting minds are slow to find words of proof. Out of heroism grows faith in the worth of heroism.”62
The members of another veterans’ community do not seek to valorize their deeds in war, nor to rewrite the history of the war so as to make their presence there more honorable. These combat veterans attempt to come to terms with their experience by undertaking the task of rewriting national mythology so that it conforms to the basic tenets of their revised personal myths. Gathering in groups as diverse as Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Vietnam Veterans AGainst the War (Anti-Imperialist), Veterans for Peace, Vietnam Veterans Foreign Policy Watch, the Smedley Butler Brigade (a group of veterans who attempted to bring food and medical supplies to Nicaragua), Veteran’s Vietnam Restoration Project, Veterans Peace Action Teams, and the renegade VFW post in Santa Cruz, California, these men and women work towards changing our conception of the American character. They believe, like writers of trauma literature (which many of them are), that if they can only make us see what they have seen, we too will be changed. We too will see as they see.
The imperative of most critics of literature of trauma is to define their positions as outside readers. No matter how empathetic the critic (if she is not herself a survivor) the trauma of the author becomes, upon translation into text, merely metaphor. The shattering of individual myth and the transformation of the protagonist did not happen to the reader; it can only be described and studied from outside. Crucial, then, is the ability to consider the author as survivor, to bring to bear the tools of sociology, psychology and psychiatry — an understanding of trauma — to the task of reading the literature of survivors. If we begin here, we can start to examine the process of writing as an act of personal revision, and then ask the important questions: “What fundamental changes in the author’s personal myths have occurred? How do these affect the author’s conception of national myth? How is this public revision of personal myth perceived or utilized outside of the marginal community that supports it? How does it change the national myth?” When trauma is written as text, it transcends the bounds of the personal. It becomes metaphor; yet, when such texts are read, they are once again personalized, assimilated somehow by the reader. How do readers interact with texts of trauma? How are the texts revised and adapted so that the reader can incorporate them into personal myth systems that do not include the traumatic experience?
If we recognize the importance of the traumatic experience in the life of the writer, we are led to make critical distinctions between texts. This distinction is already a basic tenet of feminist literary criticism, which has foregrounded the nature of the text — “For feminists, the question of how we read is inextricably linked with the question of whatwe read.”63 We must carefully distinguish between texts written by the survivors of a particular trauma, and texts by writers who describe or detail traumatic situations they have not experienced. We must also work to understand the meaning of the storytelling process to an individual writing after a traumatic experience.64
The basis for any interpretation of the literature of trauma is an underlying theory that explains the human need to tell stories in response to unexpected experiences. Cognitive scientists Ann Weber, John Harvey, and Melinda Starkey provide us with a nicely useful and easily repurposed list in their essay, “The Nature and Motivations of Accounts for Failed Relationships.”
Preserving and protecting self-esteem. Accounts provide “retrospective excuses” that masquerade as the past. By “reframing” their performances, storytellers can present themselves in “a more acceptable, socially approvable way.”
- Emotional purging. Storytelling allows people to detach from bad relationships or disturbing events by distancing and objectifying them, putting the pain and grief of the past behind them.
- Taking control of the past. By generating their own version of events, storytellers can recreate the event so that previously uncontrollable forces are no longer mysterious. “We can after all retrospectively understand and make sense out of an experience that at the time must have seemed very senseless and ridiculous. A very painful experience can in retrospect be seen as one that has provided a valuable lesson or important moral.”
- The search for closure. “The importance of closure cannot be underestimated in terms of psychological comfort…” Though life rarely provides neat endings, storytellers can use stories to provide what real life cannot. In fact, storytellers may find their invented endings even more satisfying than the events upon which their tales are based.
- Ongoing attributional activity. We do not just decide to tell stories when an event is over. Storytelling is an ongoing process; we are always involved in telling the story of our lives. The process of revision, emendation, and addition is endless.
- Stories are ends in themselves. Constructed out of memories and desires, stories can take on their own separate existence. They can become important to the storyteller as stories, and may take any one of many forms: explanations, rationalizations, popular fictions, etc.65
The most important suggestion that cognitive science has to offer us is that every story has at its heart the pursuit of goals, i.e., there are purposes for telling the story. “In order to count as an acceptable story one must first establish a goal state, an end-point, or an event to be explained… As adults, we scarcely tolerate stories without established end-points, and these end-points are typically suffused with value.”66 The goals determine the selection of a story’s events, reducing the candidates for inclusion to a manageable number.67 It is essential for us to make the distinction between the relevant and the irrelevant because we are constantly deluged with an unmanageable amount of information. We include only the elements of a story that seem relevant to our purposes. Most of this process is automatic and unconscious.68 Holocaust survivor, author and critic Aharon Appelfeld supports this argument in his essay, “After the Holocaust,” in which he notes, “While the survivor recounts and reveals, at the very same time he also conceals.”69 He further notes that all testimonial literature ought to be read with “caution,” and with the understanding that survivor testimony “is first of all a search for relief…”70
The goal of telling a story can be to hide information as well as to share it. As anthropologist Gregory Bateson explains, people have many mechanisms to avoid assimilating disturbing information:
They are self-corrective against disturbance, and if the obvious is not of a kind that they can easily assimilate without internal disturbance, their self-corrective mechanisms work to sidetrack it, to hide it, even to the extent of shutting the eyes if necessary, or shutting off various parts of the process of perception. Disturbing information can be framed like a pearl so that it doesn’t make a nuisance of itself; and this will be done, according to the understanding of the system itself of what would be a nuisance. This too — the premise regarding what would cause disturbance — is something which is learned and then becomes perpetuated or conserved.7q
There is a sort of subconscious but intentional ignorance in operation in human beings. We do not notice a great deal of what we do not want to notice. What is disturbing can be ignored until (and often well after) it becomes dangerous to continue to ignore it. Bateson explains, “I, the conscious I, see an unconsciously edited version of a small percentage of what effects my retina.”72
What happens when a traumatic event forces someone to “re-cognize” a disturbing reality? There is a transformation, a change in the terms of representation — even a revision of what constitutes an “event,” both in perception and in storytelling. The chasm between those who have experienced trauma, who have been “disturbed,” and those who have not is vast. Umberto Eco, in The Name of the Rose, sums up the problem in his portrait of traumatized youth: “‘There was no plot,’ said William, ‘and I discovered it by mistake.'”73
Those of us whose perceptions remain essentially undisturbed must become aware of our tendency to filter out unpleasant realities. We would often prefer to generate comforting myths about traumatic experiences, rather than acknowledge the arbitrary nature of life. Des Pres, so perceptive in his understanding of the depth of the traumatic experience, cannot come to terms with the idea that the suffering of the Jews held no great meaning, and in a 1988 essay he regrets that, “Some of our best commentators… have declared outright that the Holocaust is without meaning, that it allows for no redeeming grace…”7r But Langer warns us against generating comforting stories where the evidence does not, in fact, support our efforts: “When we use words to make us feel better, we cannot expect them simultaneously to help us see better…”75 To understand the trauma of the Holocaust (and in order to understand all man-made trauma76), Langer claims we must set aside our stories of the world, particularly our myths about survival. “The challenge before us is to move beyond the heroic enhancement of survival theories to the unheroic diminishment of men and women who are soiled by the situation they find themselves in, whether they live or die.”77
The clearest point of access for nontraumatized readers to the writings of trauma survivors is through an understanding of clinical analysis of the effects of trauma on survivors. Reactions to specific trauma, including Holocaust, combat, rape, and incest have been studied, catalogued, and discussed by the psychiatric establishment. Interest in the subject of trauma is so great that the psychiatric community supports organizations such as the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies and the Journal of Traumatic Stress Studies, which are devoted entirely to understanding human response to trauma. The medical and psychiatric literature on trauma (especially war-related trauma) dates back more than 125 years.
Early theories of war-related trauma assumed that a traumatized soldier suffered a temporary inability to function brought on by an inherent weakness in his character or constitution. The innate “flaw” in the soldier explained by only certain men seemed to suffer “shell shock,” or “battle fatigue” after combat. Much of the work on war-related trauma was done by military physicians, whose interest was in curing the symptoms of combat fatigue and sending a soldier out into the field to fight again. The growing popularity of Freudian psychiatry emphasized the idea that a man’s reaction to combat trauma was determined by his character, and introduced the idea that early childhood experiences might have been responsible for his susceptibility to shell shock.78
Contemporary medical studies of trauma are no longer universally rooted in Freudian theory. Most begin with the observation that trauma places extraordinary stress upon an individual’s coping mechanisms. While life is full of minor stresses that initiate defensive processes, major stresses (such as brutalization and threat to life) overcome an individual’s normal defensive mechanisms.79 The assessment and comparison of clinical pictures of survivors of traumatic events has enabled psychiatrists to construct a relatively clear picture of the symptoms specific to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — which replaced terms such as shell shock and battle fatigue, and acknowledged the connection between war-related trauma and other traumatic experiences such as rape, incest, incarceration in concentration camps, etc.80
In 1980, The American Psychiatric Association (APA) formally acknowledged the existence of “PTSD” in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III. According to the APA, PTSD is a series of symptoms that follows a trauma “generally outside the range of usual human experience.”81
The characteristic symptoms include autonomic arousal, which is often manifest in panic attacks or startle reactions; a preoccupation with the traumatic event in the form of nightmares, flashbacks, or persistent thoughts about the trauma that intrude into everyday affairs; and a general dysphoria, a numbness that takes the meaning out of life and makes it hard to relate to other people. In [some] cases … the symptoms manifest themselves after a latency period of several years or … alternate with apparently asymptomatic periods that, on closer inspection, turned out to be periods of denial.82
Official recognition of PTSD was supported by the (mainly male) APA in response to public outcry about the disorder in Vietnam veterans (most of whom are also male). But the “unveiling” of PTSD is useful to feminist critics, who have searched for new ways to understand and interpret women’s experience and its inscription in women’s literature. Rape and incest are considered to be causes of PTSD, along with combat, violent crime, internment in POW or concentration camps, industrial accidents, and natural and man-made disasters.83
The large number of American women who have reported diffuse sets of anxiety-related symptoms have often been treated in an offhand manner by the medical profession as a whole. Women complaining of problems which psychiatrists now recognize as symptoms of PTSD have historically been treated with tranquilizers ranging from laudanum (an opiate popular in the 19th and early 20th century) to Valium, Prozac and other drugs, or dismissed as neurotics or hysterics. The medical establishment generally ordered them to come to terms with their femininity by getting married, having children, and learning to be a better mother.84 The naming of PTSD as an illness acknowledges the often traumatic nature of women’s experience. It provides us with a new analytic tool for the study of women’s psychology and history.
Critic Alice Jardine argues that “struggle” is the characteristic that necessarily differentiates the feminist text from all others. “The inscription of struggle … whether written by a man or a woman — it was this that was found to be necessary. The inscription of struggle — even of pain.”85 Jardine suggests that the struggle itself marks a feminist endeavor — though a struggle’s result might certainly be an antifeminist text. The inscription of struggle and pain is essential in much feminist literature, which is an indication that it may also be examined as literature of trauma. The struggle and its painful nature may be necessary precursors for the new knowledge that makes feminism possible. All feminist writers, in Jardine’s estimation, have suffered, and then have struggled to express, trauma.
Can it be that all feminist literature is based in trauma? Perhaps not, but it is certainly a proposition to take seriously. Trauma has played a formative role in the lives of many, if not most American women. The relative number of women who have been traumatized far exceeds the number of men who have survived combat, or even the number of men who wore military uniforms during the Vietnam War era. As far back as 1973, the FBI estimated that in the U.S., a forcible rape was committed every ten minutes.86 It is generally acknowledged that official statistics are low, and authorities estimate that between seventy and ninety percent of all rapes go unreported.87 Thus, actual numbers of sexual assault of females of all ages may reach half a million or more a year, or at least one ever two minutes.88 A 1988 study, administered on college campuses, found that one in four female respondents had been victims of rape or attempted rape. The survey noted that rape was “more common than left-handedness or heart attacks or alcoholism.”89 For women living in urban areas such as San Francisco, New York, or Chicago, the chances of being raped in their lifetime may be as high as one in three.90 When the APA states that the trauma which causes PTSD is “generally outside the range of usual human experience,” it is clear that “usual human experience” means usual white male experience.
The most comprehensive study of incest and sexual abuse of young women suggests that thirty-eight percent of American women have had at least one experience of incestuous and/or extrafamilial sexual abuse before reaching the age of eighteen.91 These experiences involved actual sexual contact with a child. If broader definitions which included attempted contact and exhibitionism were applied, fifty-four percent of women age eighteen and under have been incestuously abused. These figures, combined with the statistics on rape of adult women, present a horrifying picture of a society where violence against women is the rule, rather than the exception.
Literature of trauma is written from the need to tell and retell the story of the traumatic experience, to make it real both to the victim and to the community. Such writing serves both as a validation and cathartic vehicle for the traumatized writer. Des Pres reminds us, “Displacement is the goal of any story, in degree: all fiction aims to usurp the real world with a world that is imagined.”92 Desires for affirmation and release cross subgenre lines, manifesting themselves in writings by combat veterans, Holocaust survivors, and feminist writers who are not specifically identified (either by themselves or others) as trauma survivors.
Black poet and playwrite ntozake shange has explained that her writing is based on her personal attempts to deal with a particular problem or issue. Catharsis, she claims, is at the heart of her writing:
Obviously, I think it’s important not to abort an emotional breakthrough… Aborting emotional breakthroughs allows one to keep one’s decorum at all moments. Our society allows people to be absolutely neurotic and totally out of touch with their feelings and everyone else’s feelings, and yet be totally respectable. This, to me, is a travesty. So I write to get at the part of people’s emotional lives that they don’t have control over, the part that can and will respond. If I have to write about blood and babies dying, then fine. I’ll write about that.93
Catharsis is also crucial to the healing of combat veterans with PTSD.Egendorf, Lifton, and other psychologists and psychiatrists insist on the importance of reclamation of emotion in the process of overcoming the alienation characteristic in the disorder:
Based on impressions from our research, a significant minority of Vietnam veterans have had moments of enlightenment, conversions, and other crucial points at which they turned traumatic experiences into sources of renewal. A review of veterans’ writings yield a similar impression. Most memoirs and novels deal with the war experience or with unsettling, if not traumatic, homecomings. A few accounts, however, focus on the struggles of healing, demonstrating that some portion of the veterans population knows what it means to turn suffering to joy.94
The theme of drawing together fragments into a whole is found again and again in the literature of trauma: re-piecing a shattered self. “I write,” said Adrienne Rich, “for the still-fragmented parts in me, trying to bring them together. Whoever can read and use any of this, I write for them as well.”95 The metaphor of fragmentation is at the core of Vietnam veteran Stephen Wright’s award-winning novel, Meditations in Green: “I had an amber vial then (50 DIAZEPAM. Take As Required) in which I kept my fragments, my therapy… I gathered lost cinders of shrapnel that rose surfacing in the milky pool of my thigh like broken bits of sea coral.”96 Each piece of shrapnel represents the surfacing of some repressed memory or idea. This is the true therapy, and it is fitting that Wright’s protagonist places the fragments in a vial which once held anxiety suppressants.
Do not be taken in entirely by the similarities of theme in feminist literature and literature by Vietnam veterans. There is a crucial difference between the trauma of warriors and the trauma of rape and incest victims — due to the peculiar position of power of the warrior before, during, and after his traumatic wartime experience.
Soldiers, though subordinate to their military superiors and frequently at the mercy of their enemies, still possess a life-or-death power over other people. Victims of rape and incest experience violent injury but they are rarely in a position to do violence themselves. Much recent literature — popular, clinical, and academic — places the soldier simply in the victim’s role; helpless in the face of war, and then helpless to readjust from the war experience upon his return home. Feminist critics should be quick to voice their disapproval of an interpretation so drastically at odds with reality. The soldier in combat is both victim and victimizer; dealing pain as well as experiencing it. Soldiers carry guns; they point them at people and shoot to kill.
“Soldier as victim” representations depend upon the invisibility of the soldiers’ own victims, namely Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. These representations must also provide a convincing victimizer for the soldiers, e.g., inept or evil commanding officers, back-stabbing politicians, a traitorous Fourth Estate, or a callous and hostile American public. The purveyors of the myth have successfully peddled their wares to the moviegoing public in the form of violent retribution films (Rambo), as well as sensitive coming-of-age stories (Platoon). Many of the most popular Vietnam novels also reflect this attitude. James Webb’s Fields of Fire blames the victimization of soldiers on the antiwar movement, personified by effeminate intellectuals and faithless women.97 John Del Vecchio’s The Thirteenth Valley describes soldiers as mere pawns in the games of nations, fighting for their lives against nameless ‘enemies.'”98 The general acceptance of this revision is apparent in public praise for the “healing” effect of the Vietnam War Memorial wall in Washington DC — which includes the names of the American soldiers killed in Vietnam and excludes the names of any Vietnamese soldiers or civilians. It is further evident in the proliferation of belated and apologetic “homecoming parades” sponsored by cities and towns all over the U.S. in the months following the dedication of the DC memorial. These marches wed the idea that Vietnam veterans deserve honor for their patriotic sacrifice to the notion that they have been victimized and deprived of their due.
Despite his vulnerable position, a crucial aspect of the soldier’s reality in Vietnam was the knowledge of the power he wielded. He had firepower, the power to bring death raining down in the form of bullets from his gun, fragments of his hand grenades, explosions from the mines he had set, and airstrikes called in to drop napalm, white phosphorus and high-explosive bombs. Many personal narratives and novels feature a moment of epiphany, when the protagonist describes this realization of his godlike power over life and death and glories in it:
He felt like Jehovah Himself, sitting on the bluff, calling down fear, death, and destruction on the poor dudes in the valley… Between explosions he could hear the poor dumb fuckers on the other side going nuts, calling for their mothers, pleading for medics, cursing and shouting and trying to get their shit together… “I love it!” he half-shouted over the crash of incoming shells. “Artillery is a beautiful thing once you learn to appreciate it.99
Women, by contrast, almost never control the tools of violence. Their traumatic experience — rape, incest, battering — is the most extreme form of the oppression visited on them by a society that generally reduces them to victims. Therein lies the most important difference between the trauma of the warrior and the trauma of the woman victim. Women view their trauma as a natural extension of their powerlessness. Warriors are forced to realize the vulnerability of everything they have ever considered powerful.
The Western male consensus has been that power comes from the barrel of a gun. A vital American myth is that the good guys with guns beat the bad guys with guns. But in Vietnam, surrounded by their weapons, soldiers learned that guns and guts were not enough.
Again and again in Vietnam war novels, the protagonist/narrator emphasizes the impossibility of distinguishing between “friendly” civilians and their enemies in the National Liberation Front. The soldier’s desire to survive leads him to see all Vietnamese as the enemy, and to take the offensive whenever he has the opportunity. But violence is useless when everyone is your enemy. There is simply no place to hold and defend.
This situation reverses traditional notions of power. Americans had technology and firepower at their disposal but the real power lay with the Vietnamese communists. The Vietnamese enemy could pick the time and place of a battle and then blend into the landscape. They were at home, could distinguish friend from foe, and, most important, knew when they were safe from attack. The Americans could only be an alien and unwelcome presence in the landscape of Vietnam.
Individual soldiers reacted to this shock not with the self-condemnation and resignation of the victim, or with the anger of the oppressed, but with a deep sense of betrayal. This was not the way it was supposed to be. Narratives and novels by combat veterans emphasize the profound shock of the soldier’s realization that their expectations about war were simply not compatible with reality.
Ron Kovic, a marine who was paralyzed from the chest down in Vietnam, described the trauma of shattered expectations in his memoir, Born on the Fourth of July. Kovic frequently used the third person to tell his own story, perhaps because the revelations were less painful when so distanced. In one instance, he writes about the accidental murder of one of his own men:
I killed him, he kept thinking, and when I wake up tomorrow, he thought, when I wake up tomorrow it will still be the same. He wanted to run and hide… He would wake up with the rest of them the next day. He would get up and wash outside the tent in his tin dish, he would shave, and go to chow. But everything would not be all right, he thought,nothing would be all right at all. It was starting to be very different now, very different from what he had even thought possible.100
“What we call traumatic responses,” asserts Egendorf, “are the new strategies we concoct after being shocked into realizing that life doesn’t play by our rules. When we can no longer pretend that life confirms our favored identity, we take on a negative version of our old self.”101
Feminists have discussed similar transformations. Many early texts focused on women’s need to overcome negative self-image generated by the inability of the individual woman to live up to an impossible social standard.102 Much feminist work of the 1960s was directed at overcoming our culturally inculcated negative self-image, reclaiming anger and proclaiming our self-worth. We learned that even if we bought the myth of the “good girl,” our favored identity would be betrayed at every turn. Conforming to traditional feminine roles was no protection against male violence, and stepping outside those roles was sure to bring trouble. We found that gender and power relationships were closely related, and that gaining power meant redefining ourselves as women.
Powerlessness, in Western culture, is most often equated with the feminine. Women are subject(ive); men are object(ive). To be a man is to be strong, in control of one’s destiny; to be a woman is to be weak, to need guidance, to need protection.
Gender roles, though based on sex, are not necessarily determined by it. A man can lose his “manhood” if he is forced into submission, as black men were oppressed under slavery.103 The soldier temporarily loses his manhood in boot camp. He is disempowered and thrust into a subordinate role, at times literally called a “girl” or a “pussy,” until he completes the rites that win him a place in the community of soldiers, purged, apparently, of the last vestige of effeminacy.
But the soldier in Vietnam found himself in a traditionally “feminine” role. He was powerless against an enemy who struck whenever and wherever he wished. This second attack on manhood caused most combat soldiers to retreat even further from any indications of “femininity” in their own characters. They repressed emotions other than anger, avoided close relationships that involved caring or nurturing, and cultivated a callous attitude toward the feelings and humanity of others. This alienation was encouraged by the military system, which had established a training program geared to enhance combat effectiveness by reducing intimacy and grief of soldiers: “Both anti-grief and anti-intimacy were expressed by calling men who cried, or showed other signs of mourning, ‘girls,’ ‘women,’ ‘ladies,’ or ‘hogs.’ Men who showed intimacy to each other were often called ‘fags.'”104
Soldiers valorized the trapping of masculinity, prided themselves on how “hard” they were, and articulated their alienation in the repetition of the phrases “it don’t mean nothin'” and “there it is.” Corporal Joker, in Gustav Hasford’s powerful novel, The Short-Timers, embodies the depths of the soldier’s alienation, self-hatred and pain:
Doing my John Wayne voice, I tell the squad a joke: “Stop me if you’ve heard this. There was a Marine of nuts and bolts, half robot — weird but true — whose every move was cut from pain as though from stone. His tony little hide had been crushed and broken. But he just laughed and said, ‘I’ve been crushed and broken before.’ And, sure enough, he had the heart of a bear. His heart weighed half a pound… The world would not waste the heart of a bear, he said. On his clean blue pajamas many medals hung. He was a walking word of history, in the shop for a few repairs. He took it on the chin and was good. One night in Japan his life came out of his body — black — like a question mark. If you can keep your head while others are losing theirs perhaps you have misjudged the situation. Stop me if you’ve heard this…”105
As feminist critics we must certainly not make the mistake of simplifying the soldiers’ response to trauma. Women, after all, react to pain and oppression on many levels (and some of our reactions are contradictory). There is no reason to think that soldiers are less complex. It seems safe to assume that at the same time that the repression of the feminine was a denial of the soldiers’ disempowered position, the bonding of soldier to soldier (“brotherhood”) served as a method of creating community in a hostile world. Philip Caputo wrote of the “intimacy of life in infantry battalion, where the communion between men” is more profound than any between lovers:
It does not demand for its sustenance the reciprocity, the pledges of affection, the endless reassurances required by the love of men and women… [I]t was a tenderness that would have been impossible if the war had been significantly less brutal. The battlefields of Vietnam were a crucible in which a generation of American soldiers were fused together by a common confrontation with death and a sharing of hardships, dangers, and fears. The very ugliness of the war, the sordidness of our daily lives, the degradation of having to take part in body counts made us draw still closer to one another. It was as if in comradeship we found an affirmation of life and the means to preserve at least a vestige of our humanity.106
The brotherhood of which almost all vets speak, the bond that holds the men who served in war together, is an uncanny reflection of the feelings of sisterhood described by feminists. For soldiers, and later for veterans, this bonding was a way of coping, of creating a safe place in a hostile world, turning to each other for understanding and support. Given the state of gender relations in Western culture, Caputo’s confession that the relationship he had with his men in wartime was more profound than any relationship he has ever had with a woman is unsurprising. What is fascinating about Caputo’s claim is his description of men sharing tenderness and intimacy. Degradation and powerlessness seem to be the forces active in generating and shaping the relationships between soldiers. Men who are not under severe stress rarely form strong bonds of affection, or reach toward each other for emotional support. The act of caring functions as “the means to preserve… a vestige of our humanity.”
Not only did veterans face some of the same problems of poor self-image and perceived powerlessness as women traditionally face, some also recognized that healing would involve some new understanding of masculinity and femininity. It is no accident that the self-therapy rap groups begun by Vietnam veterans in the late 1960s were modeled on the consciousness-raising groups of the women’s movement. Egendorf comments:
We had come home weary, wanting to be taken care of, and women were not longer waiting as they had before. Many of the women we met — on campuses, in demonstrations, and through friends — were locked in battles of their own, campaigning for new rights, against exclusive male prerogatives… Although we needed women more than ever, and feared them more as well, we looked to them for leadership in a way that would have been unthinkable a short time before. We had the women’s movement as a constant example, with their use of consciousness-raising groups as a major organizing tool. In the way we described them, the veteran rap groups were clearly inspired by women’s groups…107
While women were working on reclaiming anger and learning to assert themselves, Vietnam veterans were working hard at discovering within themselves the capacity to be gentle, supportive, and caring.
I do not mean to suggest that Vietnam veterans were intent of revising gender roles; nor do I intend to argue that these veterans are or were feminists. One need only read the literature of the Vietnam War to be convinced that veterans are no more likely to have enlightened attitudes about women than are any other class of men. I do want to point out, however, that the process which these men were going through on the way toward social reintegration is similar to the process of feminist consciousness-raising. That similarity is born out of the commonality of trauma.
Teresa De Lauretis insists that the redefinition of the boundaries of the political is at the heart of the difference between feminism and other modes of critical thinking. Feminism “defines itself as a political instance… a politics of experience, of everyday life, which later then in turn enters the public sphere of expression and creative practice, displacing aesthetic hierarchies and generic categories, and which thus establishes the semiotic ground for a different production of reference and meaning.”108The mixing of personal and political is also a crucial aspect of the narratives of Vietnam veterans. But for the veterans who write these narratives (white males, for the most part) the trick is in mixing the political with the personal, rather than the other way around. Unlike women, American men have never been herded out of the political sphere; it is, in fact, their natural environment. For soldiers, Vietnam War trauma was exacerbated by their sudden uncomfortable realization of just how personal politics cold get. Their own politics (or some other white man’s) had forced them into facing the strong possibility of death or terrible injury. The radical nature of this understanding is evident in the words and actions of Vietnam veterans who decided to protest against the war.
Using personal experience as political condemnation, some veterans began displaying their wounded bodies at antiwar rallies, rejecting the medals and commendations of the military, and publicly testifying to atrocities they had witnessed or committed in Vietnam.109 These men were attempting to retell the past, “to inscribe into the picture of reality characters and events and resolutions that were previously invisible, untold, unspoken (and so unthinkable, unimaginable, ‘impossible’).”110 Through bitter experience many Vietnam veterans now know that the man with a gun can be painfully weak. Some veterans, in their journey toward healing from the war, have begun to understand the drawbacks of a society based upon the use of violent, coercive power.
Integration of the personal and political for men seems to involve a displacement of the locus of power. “Healing,” says Egendorf, “occurs through an alternative expression of power, one that creates empowerment.”
To empower means to enhance another’s power, something that happens as others come to see themselves as competent, as not missing anything essential, as already intact. Bringing people to this view is possible only if we already see them that way. Empowerment begins and ends with seeing others as already able and whole.111
In Egendorf’s construction, healing is both personal and political — it involves individual psychological work as well as social work. Political activism is an essential component of the healing process — the recovering trauma survivor seeks change.
The first psychologists and psychiatrists to urge recognition of the psychological effects of traumatic stress on the Vietnam veteran population were, like Egendorf and Chaim Shatan, themselves activists, often associated with the radical Vietnam Vets Against the War and “were characterized by critics as ‘crackpot, self-serving psychologists and psychiatrists who were probably all against the war anyway and were only looking for a surefire way to get some money out of the Veterans Administration.'”112 It is ironic that the misrepresentation of these pioneering psychologist-activists would provide an accurate prediction of the post-traumatic stress industry which was to develop, mostly funded by money from the Veteran’s Administration. Richard Fuller attributes the successful institutionalization of post-traumatic stress syndrome directly to the Watergate affair, which ushered in a new set of liberal Congressional representatives who eventually influenced the VA. Fuller explains, in 1985, that there are
55 members of the House who served in the military during the Vietnam era. Within the context of the “New Politics” in Congress, they banded together to form a coalition to isolate those issues of most concern to Vietnam veterans and to pressure the authorizing committees on those points when momentum seemed lax. As a group they represent a formidable force of influence for the legislative activity of the Veterans Affairs Committees in the House and Senate. Readjustment counseling and post-traumatic stress disorder became one of their top priorities.113
In addition to Congressional influence on the Veteran’s Administration the demographic pressures exerted by Vietnam veterans began to influence traditional veterans organizations. President Carter fell in step with the liberal rhetoric and helped establish the Veterans Readjustment Counseling program:
The media blitz which accompanied the opening of the 91 Storefront Counseling Centers, charged with the responsibility for dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, was unprecedented in recent VA history. This positive attention surprised both proponents and detractors of the program. Vet Centers became a rallying point for Vietnam veterans across the country. Politicians jumped to cut the ribbons at Center openings… The Centers and the program had identified an entire patient population that the Veterans Administration had not previously known to exist.114
The American veterans of the Vietnam War were recreated in a new image: that of the “patient.” The broad application of the PTSD diagnosis is evident in the Report of Findings from the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, which claims that “over the course of their lives, more than half… of male theater veterans and nearly half… of female theater veterans have experienced clinically significant stress-reaction symptoms. This represents about 1.7 million veterans of the Vietnam War.”115
Though we may be confounded by angry activist Vietnam vets marching in the streets and hurling their medals back at the government that awarded them, we are quite clear on what to do with “patients” — we place them under the care of experts and we “treat” them with therapy or drugs. We continue the therapy until they are “healed.” Dr. Charles Figley, the founding editor of the Journal of Traumatic Stress and a powerful force in the Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, which was founded in 1985, describes the process:
[A] trauma victim is a person who, in the process of recovering and working through the traumatic experiences struggles to make sense out of the memories of the traumatic event. Recovery is to eventually accept them and be able to face the possibility that something else like it may happen again. A trauma survivor is one who has successfully worked through and made peace with his or her traumatic memories.116
In contemporary institutionalized forms of treatment for PTSD, the crucial components of “recovery” are the decision to relinquish anger and to accept the status quo. Making “peace” is learning to accept the world as it is. The successfully “cured” posttraumatic stress patient is no longer a revolutionary. Clinicians have a vested interest in the revisionary process by which a trauma survivor recreates and reinterprets his or her memories until they take a manageable form. For a clinician, the patient who cannot make peace with his or her memories represents a failure of the psychotherapeutic process. The alternative view — as put forward by, for example, Lawrence Langer — is that the creation of the traumatized victim represents a failure in the world.
The conservatism of the current consensus on PTSD treatment promoted in the establishment psychiatric community is most obvious when we contrast its insistence on the doctor/patient dichotomy and its emphasis on interpretation and prescription with the radical anti-expert stance of the pioneers of the early veterans’ rap groups. Lifton claims that when he and other professional therapists became involved with the consciousness-raising workshops of the veterans’ antiwar movement
…there was an assumption, at first unspoken and later articulated, that everybody’s life as at issue; professionals had no special position from which to avoid self-examination. We too could be challenged, questioned about anything — all of which seemed natural enough to the veterans but was a bit more problematic for the professionals. As people used to interpreting others’ motivations, it was at first a bit jarring to be confronted with hard questions about our own and with challenges about the way we lived. Not only was our willingness to share this kind of involvement crucial to the progress of the group, but in the end many of us among the professionals came to value and enjoy this kind of dialogue.117
Lifton cautions us as early as 1976 that the “radical” possibilities of the early rap groups could easily be turned to conservative uses, that instead of creating “alternative institutions,” they could be absorbed by existing ones: “In this and other ways the rap group experience seemed to me a mirror of psychological struggles of considerable importance throughout the society.”118 Bearing witness is always a double-edged sword. The rap group provided a forum in which the testimony of individuals could be reinterpreted and revised into a consensus testimony of victim-survivors, but as Lifton reminds us, the particular revision generated depends entirely upon the social and historical context in which it is generated.
I do not for a moment wish to dismiss the serious psychological and physiological effects that traumatic stress induces in those who survive it. Rather, I would like to briefly explore the manner in which those effects have been interpreted and represented to the society at large, and to the traumatized individual — interpretations and representations that are self-reflexive, so that “science” and popular culture become impossible to distinguish from one another. I take as my example a psychology text, Vietnam: A Casebook, edited by Jacob Lindy and published as Volume 10 in the prestigious Brunner/Mazel Psychosocial Stress Series (1987). Though this volume is intended as “a clinical book written for mental health professionals,” it is strikingly and immediately infused with metaphor and literary allusion, beginning with its introductory sentence: “Vietnam intrudes as a recurrent nightmare searing the American consciousness.”119 In the second sentence we are told that “we resemble Faulkner’s characters in The Sound and the Fury,” locating us within an existing story. And lest we fail to grasp the primacy of the narrative venture, we are clearly instructed in the second paragraph that this text is
A story… in the here and now of two people constituting a therapeutic dyad, of their struggle to comprehend, to find mutual metaphor, and to communicate their understanding to each other. This is also the story of powerful happenings in the lives of young men, of political and military events now 12 to 15 years past. And finally it is a scientific venture — one which sets out to measure differing components of post-trauma stress and to test the relative efficacy of a given method in the treatment of this disorder in survivors of war trauma.120
Though the storytelling venture is quite explicit, it seems also to thoughtlessly incorporate the stock elements that comprise the normative, pop culture interpretation of the Vietnam War “experience.” — enemies who were indistinguishable from “friendlies,” women combatants, booby trapped children; the hostility of the antiwar movement. Nowhere in this casebook is there any evidence that the psychologists involved in working with Vietnam veterans are interested in exploring the limitations of their own knowledge of the war, or in asking themselves the question: How do we know what we know about the Vietnam War?
The therapists who record the cases in the this book make common reference to book and movie plots as clues to understanding their patients:
As Abraham’s [pseudonym for the vet] tale unfolded, I felt a kinship with the narrator in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, who became increasingly and then passionately curious in his pursuit of the enigmatic and elusive Mr. Kurtz. Conrad shows us that to find a “Kurtz” and to know him is to plumb the depths of the human soul, the other’s as well as one’s own, though the journey be hazardous and uncharted. I glimpsed the horror and despair behind Abraham’s vacant look. I wanted to know and understand this his story.121
Abraham’s therapist assumes Abraham has a “story” — that there’s a plot to his life which is somehow comparable to the plot in Conrad’s novel. Furthermore, the linkage between Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Abraham’s Vietnam War experience is almost certainly the product of the therapist’s familiarity with Francis Ford Coppola’s film, Apocalypse Now, which revises Conrad’s novel and stages it in Vietnam and Cambodia, uniting Conrad’s text and the Vietnam War forever in the imagination of the American viewing public. Coppola’s revision of Conrad’s novel finds its parallel in the therapist’s revision of the “real” story of Abraham — the therapist’s ability to “read” Abraham’s experience is limited by the framework within which he chooses to interpret it. What he sees in Abraham’s eyes is “the horror” of Marlon Brando, playing Kurtz, as directed by Coppola interpreting Conrad, who wrote the fiction upon which this interpretive tree took root. Unaware of the existence of these filters, the psychiatrist assumes that his access to Abraham is unmediated.
Another therapist commences his case history with a reference to Steinbeck’s East of Eden:
In East of Eden, Steinbeck’s Cyrus advises his sensitive son, Adam, to become a soldier… Yet Cyrus chooses not to let his other, more aggressive son, Charles, go into the military… Although I doubt there were any carefully discriminating Cyruses, Vietnam had both its Adams and its Charleses. My patient was an Adam…122
This kind of typecasting limits the ability of the therapist to actually see and hear the patient, allowing him to rely, instead, on a kind of shorthand, on the ability to “read” the patient as if the existence of a life story with a plot was actually possible. Plots are not only drawn from classics such as Heart of Darkness or East of Eden, but also from pop culture books and films specifically about the Vietnam War. In still another case history, a therapist explains how he uses Cimino’s The Deerhunter as a therapeutic tool:
After meeting with [Vietnam veteran “Vince”] for only a few sessions, I found that the powerful message of Michael Cimino’s The Deerhunter became a reality to me. Ongoing knowledge and understanding of Vince brought to mind all of the movie’s central players, characters who demonstrate both immediate reactions to overwhelming combat experience and those devastating aftereffects which we classify as PTSD. The metaphor of the movie became a most useful one in furthering Vince’s understanding of his Vietnam experience.123
By rereading his Vietnam War experience through a preexisting, “approved” text, Vince is urged to revise his self-image so that it fits The Deerhunter’s plot. The idea that a therapist would be willing to replace Vince’s confusion and anguish with Cimino’s completely fantastic vision is incredible on its face, and its implications are chilling. As memory is progressively revised to imitate art, a process similar to petrifaction takes place, in which “reality” is gradually replaced by symbol. In Vince’s case, this petrifaction is so advanced that the therapist is moved to compare Vince’s traumatic memory of shooting a Viet Cong woman (which, wen reenacted, seems to produce further violent impulses), the action of the character Nick (played by Christopher Walken) in The Deerhunter:
The potential “compulsion to repeat” reminded me of the character of Nick in The Deerhunter, who at the war’s end was continually playing Russian roulette, putting the revolver to his head as he had been forced to by the enemy earlier in the war.124
In the therapist’s view, Vince’s urge to “stick a gun” in another person’s face is the equivalent to the “compulsion” of the fictional character, Nick, to risk his own life in endless games of Russian roulette — even though the make-believe Nick’s actions are entirely contrived in order to carry out Cimino’s plot line. This sort of “therapy” fails to distinguish between psychological impulse and plot device, and forced the patient to rearticulate his experience within popularly accepted genre formats. That the patient may already be looking for answers within these genre formats only exacerbates the problem:
It was still early in the therapy when Vince and I began to use the movie The Deerhunter as a way of approaching his intense fear of mutilation and death. In an unconscious effort to master his unresolved war trauma, he had been, almost perversely, drawn to movies and television shows about the Vietnam War and war in general. He had seen The Deerhunter on several occasions and knew the movie well. He had never, however, translated its central message into an explanation which could be helpful to him.125
Such reliance on genre conventions also leads to glib interpretations, or “readings” of the patient’s “story” based on the therapist’s assumption that film and other pop culture artifacts provide access — apparently without mediation — to the traumatic experiences of war:
The Russian roulette scenes [in The Deerhunter] not only shock, they revolt us. As we live through these events with celluloid heroes, we either face the terror of war or we tune it out. Yet this terror is just what Vince and thousands of other combat veterans have been through on many occasions, and often for extended periods. I pointed out to Vince that the war and the enemy were as unrelenting and barbarous as the vicious guard in charge of the roulette game, that he, like the prisoners, was frequently one shot or one inch away from mutilation and death, and that the tension of being so close so often was essentially unmanageable and needed discharge. This movie, I said, explained some of what he had been doing since the war.126
As Michael Anderegg notes in his introduction to Inventing Vietnam: The War in Film and Television (1991), “Cinematic representations, in short, seem to have supplanted even so-called factual analyses as the discourse of the war, as the place where some kind of reckoning will need to be made and tested.”127 The truth of this is brought home with stunning clarity in the passage quoted above, in which a legitimate and respected psychotherapist unselfconsciously articulates, for an audience of his professional peers, the belief that a dramatic film can serve as both model for and explanation of the thoughts and actions of a flesh-and-blood human being.
The Deerhunter, described by John Hellman as a film that “presents Vietnam as yet another historic projection of an internal struggle of white American consciousness,”128 is firmly rooted in the conventions of the Hollywood western. Its hero, Michael (Robert DeNiro), critic Leonard Quart argues, belong to a “long tradition of literary and cinematic heroes — from Bumppo to Dirty Harry — who live according to an individualist code which has its roots in a mythicized past.”129 The therapist’s confusion of life and artifice seems incredible until one remembers the foundation of the psychotherapeutic model — the talking cure — which is interpretation of the “story” told by the patient. The limitations of psychoanalytic theory become clear as we examine its failure to account for atrocity — a problem most fully explored by Klaus Theweleit in his ground-breaking study of fascist thought, Male Fantasies (1977). Theweleit writes that most psychoanalytic theories fail even to address the subject of atrocity, and that those theories which do attempt to engage the problem of “irrational” acts of violence and persecution do so by recreating those acts as “representative” or symbolic:
The problem here is that, too often, fascism tends to become representational, symbolic. In the commonplace attenuated version of psychoanalytic theory that most of us have unthinkingly accepted, fascism is “really” about something else — for example, repressed homosexuality. Fascist murder becomes a misdirected way of getting at that “something else” — a symbolic act, if not a variety of performance art.130
The violent and traumatic acts described by the patient are always interpreted by the psychotherapists who pen these case studies, as representing “something else.”
Part of the problem lies with the therapist’s own difficulties in wrestling with and coming to terms with the patient’s story. Sarah Haley, a pioneer in the field of posttraumatic stress studies, explains that she had a very difficult time coping with the stories told to her by “Mark,” a Vietnam veteran with a high combat history and a severe case of PTSD:
As a therapist who had evaluated, treated or supervised the treatment of nearly 100 combat veterans and who felt she had “heard it all,” I was not prepared for the descent into psychic hell that awaited me. As in Philip Caputo’s Rumor of War, I felt myself being dragged, kicking and screaming for release down every jungle trail, burned out village, and terrorizing night patrol until the thin line between control and its loss, between combat killing and murder/atrocities, had been crossed. The veteran’s combat nightmares, night terrors and startle responses which had plagued him since his return from Vietnam and which he had heretofore told no one were alive and shared in the treatment hours. I came to dread those hours, to have sleepless nights before them, and often an episode of crying or dry heaves following them.131
Haley’s distress if clear, but in her case history she details the process of therapy in a manner strongly reminiscent of a classic love story, reworking Mark’s experience and her interactions with him along romance genre lines. Mark is “handsome.” As the healing progresses, he leaves behind a destructive “sadomasochistic” marriage, and transfers his affections to his therapist — a hopeless love in the romantic tradition. Finally (though the transformation is poorly described), Mark returns to sanity, and his eyes “clear,” he presents his new (proper) love object to Haley, presumably for her blessing, and goes forth into the world, healed.
The move from interpretation to appropriation of a veteran’s story is apparent in the work of at least one psychotherapist featured in the Lindy text. The therapist treating Abraham confessed to a wish-fulfillment male-bonding fantasy which, in its contours, strongly resembles the manner in which most male critics of Vietnam War literature enter the discourse, by virtue of their masculinity, and thus become vicariously “one of the boys.” After concluding a therapeutic relationship with Abraham, the therapist remarks:
I, too, felt sad knowing I might never see Abraham again. A fantasy entered my mind. It was sometime in the future. A war was going on and Abraham and I were comrades in arms, fighting together under dangerous and precarious circumstances. We sustained and supported each other. Somehow, I knew, we’d both come through all right and remain buddies for life.132
The “successful” conclusion of therapy seems to require that the myth of the warrior be reinstated, at least in the mind of the therapist, and perhaps at the expense of the patient.
Revision of veteran experience to conform to the requirements of popular culture mythology (from which many psychotherapists seem to derive their understanding of the Vietnam War) requires a suspension of judgment on the part of the therapist that often moves beyond the absurd and into the realm of the obscene:
As therapy progressed, I began to see that Vince’s “senseless” killings [in Vietnam], sometimes of innocent people, had grown out of desire for revenge and a need to discharge unmanageable tension… Once Vince began to understand his on rage and his desire for vengeance, he not only could see why he had participated in these actions but could begin to forgive himself. And my helping him develop that understanding let him see that I too understood and that therefore other people would as well.133
Just as the Vietnam War depicted by Cimino in The Deerhunter “is a charnel house where good guys struggle with bad ones to survive, rather than a war determined by social ideology, Cold War politics, and nationalism,”134 the Vietnam War described by the therapist exists only in terms of the subjective experience presumably survived by the veteran patient — a subjective experience mediated first by the patient’s ability to describe the events of the war, and then by the interpretive structure of the therapist. Only in a completely depoliticized environment — one in which no critical inquiry was possible — could Vince’s status as a Vietnam veteran entitle him to unconditional “forgiveness” even for acts of “senseless killing.”
This same suspension of judgment is also manifest in the comment’s of Marshall’s therapist, who explains away an incident in which his patient stand up, points his finger at his therapist’s forehead, and exclaims, “Click, I just walked up to that five-year-old child, pointed my revolver at his head, and blew it off. Then I sat down and continued with my lunch. There’s no way you will ever understand that.”135 Instead of dealing with the fact that his patient has murdered a five-year-old child, the therapist maintains his “composure” and answers:
I said I had listened to many Vietnam veterans, that I understood how children could be dangerous; that in this kind of guerrilla warfare, as absurd as it may have sounded, such actions against children were sometimes necessary for survival… In response to the tacit question Marshall asked in pointing the guy (“Are you one of us?), I needed to answer very specifically, “Yes, I am.”136
The sympathy these therapists have for their combat veteran patients is quite clear, and it resonates strongly with the sympathy (and the sense of superiority) demonstrated by Dori Laub in his discussions of his Holocaust survivor patients. But the suspension of judgment requires that we recreate the survivor as no more than a victim, a pawn without agency, caught up all unwilling in a game of Russian roulette. The political nature of such stories of victimization is most apparent if we place a Nazi SS trooper on the therapist’s couch. How many American therapists would hastily urge him to forgive himself? How many would, in response to his “tacit question,” answer, “Yes, I am one of you.”
The problem here is not in the therapeutic mechanism (the process by which a patient and therapist work together to assist the patient in becoming self-conscious) but in the therapist’s failure to recognize the inherent biases of his or her interpretive structure. These therapeutic strategies are supported by an ideological structure and a political agenda that go without saying and are often unconsciously absorbed by the therapist who does not trouble himself to ask the question: “How do I know what I know about Vietnam?” A different set of ideological assumptions might lead to the creation of a therapeutic environment in which the goal was urge the patient to radical action (to change the world), rather than to urge him or her to accept the status quo. This alternative perspective is suggested in the next two chapters, which deal with the feminist community’s response to the testimony of rape and incest survivors.
3. Philip Beidler is a Vietnam veteran, which makes his decision to enter into the critical discourse on the same level as Wilson, Hellman and Myers quite interesting. In none of his critical writing does he claim that the viewpoint of the combat veteran is essentially different from the viewpoint of the nonveteran reader, writer or critic. The insistent burial of the fact of his own veteran status and his identification with the Objective analytic techniques of the literary critic imply a rejection of the notion that veterans have a privileged viewpoint,
20. The Winter Soldier Investigation was convened in Detroit, Michigan on January 31 and February 1 and 2, 1971, by Vietnam Veterans Against the War to provide a forum for soldiers who wanted to testify to having committed or witnessed war crimes in Vietnam. The quote is from the testimony of Lt. Larry Lee Rottmann, veteran of the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam Veterans Against the War, The Winter Soldier Investigation: An Inquiry into American War Crimes (Boston: Beacon Press 1972: 163-164. Rottmann became a Vietnam War writer in his own right, founding, with Wayne Karlin and Basil T. Paquet the Vietnam veteran-owned and run First Casualty Press. Since then he has authored a novel, poetry, memoir and nonfiction about the Vietnam War.
27. A number of French feminists, such as Monique Wittig, Luce Irigary, and Hélène Cixous have written extensively on the subject, and American feminists such as Elizabeth Meese, Alice Jardine, and Barbara Johnson (among others) have also produced essays dealing with the topic.
36. “I encountered among Hiroshima survivors a frequent sense of being ‘as-if dead,’ or what I called an ‘identity of the dead,’ which took the following inner sequence: I almost died; I should have died; I did die or at least I am not really live; or if I am alive, it is impure of me to be so and anything I do which affirms life is also impure and an insult to the dead, who alone are pure. An expression of this sense of themselves can be found in the life-style of many survivors, one of marked constriction and self-abnegation, based upon the feeling that any show of vitality is in some way inappropriate for them, not inwardly permissable. They retain a sense of infinite culpability, and even, ironically enough, of guilt and responsibility for the catastrophe itself, despite being victims rather than perpetrators of the catastrophy.” Robert J. Lifton, Boundaries (New York: Random House 1969: 13.
42. Most of the literature of the Holocaust actually appeared almost twenty years after the end of the war (see Ezrahi: 67-68). A quick check of the publication dates of most World War I, World War II, and Vietnam War literature will support the claim of the elapse of almost a decade before the publication of most major works. I have not yet come across a piece of rape or incest literature that was not published at least ten years after the event.
43. A number of Jews who had not, before their persecution, identified very strongly with the Jewish community, changed their minds in the camps or after. Being persecuted as a Jew had the effect of making some victims see themselves, for the first time, as belonging to the Jewish community. Becoming what one is named is a common coping mechanism for those who are persecuted and abused.
48. Remember the earlier Lifton quotation about Hiroshima survivors, footnote 36
51. Peter G. Bourne, “From Boot Camp to My Lai,” in Richard Falk, Gabriel Kolko, and Robert J. Lifton, eds., Crimes of War: A Legal, Political-Documentary, and Psychological Inquiry into the Responsibility of Leaders, Citizens, and Soldiers for Criminal Acts in War (New York: Random House) 1971: 463-464.
64. This brings up the interesting question of “cross-traumatic reference,” or the way in which the survivor of one trauma (for example, rape or sexual abuse) might write about the experience of a different trauma (for example, the Holocaust). This is a subject area that is largely unexplored.
65. Ann L. Weber, John H. Harvey, and Melinda A. Stanley, “The Nature and Motivations of Accounts for Failed Relationships,” in Rosalie Burnett, Patrick McGhee and David Clark, eds., Accounting for Relationships: Explanation, Representation and Knowledge (New York: Methuen) 1987. Though Weber, Harvey, and Stanley formulated this theory of storytelling specifically to explain why people told stories about failed relationships, it is also useful for understanding why people tell stories about other man-made traumatic experiences. Failed relationships, in fact, are a subset of the larger category of traumatic experiences and I will be discussing some of these relationships in the next two chapters, dealing with rape and incest.
68. See Natalie Dehn, Computer Story Writing: The Role of Reconstructive and Dynamic Memory, Ph.D. thesis, Computer Science Department, Yale University, December 1989. For more information on the cognitive process of storytelling, see also Robert Wilensky, Planning and Understanding (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley) 1983: and, Edward Hovey, Generating Natural Language Under Pragmatic Constraints, Ph.D. thesis, Computer Science Department, Yale University, March 1987 (Technical Report #YALEU/CSD/RR521).
76. In this volume I have limited my discussion to what I call “man-made” trauma. This is trauma that results from the deliberate exercise of violent power by one human being over another human being. Not under discussion here, though certainly related and deserving of study on their own merits, are the other two classes of trauma: environmental and incidental. Environmental trauma (caused by earthquakes, floods, lightning strikes, etc.) and incidental trauma (car and boat accidents, death of a loved one from natural causes, etc.) have been studied by psychiatrists and sociologists. There exists a large body of literature on the subject.
78. See Karl Abraham, Ernest Jones, et al., Psychoanalysis and the War Neurosis (London, Vienna and New York) 1921; John Appell, M.C. Gilbert et al., “Comparative Incidence of Neurophsychiatric Casualties in World War I and World War II,” American Journal of Psychiatry 103 (1946-1947): 196-199; F.X. Dercum, “‘So-called Shell Shock’: The Remedy,” Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry 1 (1919): 65-70; M.D. Eder, “Psychopathology of the War Neurosis,” Lancet (12 Aug 1916): 279-288; Great Britain, Army, Report of the War Office Committee of Enquiry into “Shell Shock,” (London) 1922; G.W. Howland, “Neuroses of Returned Soldiers,” American Medicine, New Series 12A (May 1914); 312-319; Ernst Simmel, Kriegsneurosen un psychisches Trauma (Munich) 1918.
80. A Veterans Administration handout, given away at Veterans Outreach Centers all over the country, describes the following symptoms: “Emotional Response Symptoms: psychic or emotional numbing; feelings of helplessness; apathy combined with being withdrawn; dejection; anger, rage, hostility that is repressed; anxiety and fears associated directly with combat experiences; emotional construction and unresponsiveness; tendency to react under stress with combat survival tactics; sleep disturbances and recurring nightmares; loss of interest in work, activities; fatigue and lethargy; hyperalertness, irritability; avoidance of activities that arouse memories of Vietnam; suicidal thoughts and feelings; self-destructive behavior; survivor guilt; flashbacks to stressor events or part of event experienced in war; rapid turnover in employment; running away from involvement (at times, literally driving long and fast at night). Interpersonal Relationships: difficulty in establishing or maintaining intimate relationships; tendency to have difficulties with authority figures; emotional distance from children; self-deceiving and self-punishing patterns of relating to others; inability to discuss war experiences with others; fear of losing others; inability to deal with significant others without alcohol or drugs to relieve anxiety. Cognitive Functioning: fantasies of retaliation and destruction; confusion in value systems; memory impairment; negative self-image; hypersensitivity to issues of equity, fairness; alienation, feeling “different,” sense of meaninglessness.” (VA Handout, no date, in possession of author.
102. See Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York: Morrow) 1970; Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Vintage) 1974; and self-help texts such as The Assertive Woman (first published in 1974, now in its fourth edition [Impact: 2002]). Other excellent examples of this kind of writing can be found in some of the early collections of essays by women of color, including Moraga and Anzaldúa, eds., This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (New York: Kitchen Table) 1981.
103. See John Blassingame, The Slave Community, revised and enlarged edition (New York: Oxford University Press) 1972/1979; W.E.B. DuBois, The Negro (New York: Oxford University Press) 1915/1970; Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Vintage) 1927/74; Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness (New York: Oxford University Press) 1971/1977.
112. Richard B. Fuller, “War Veterans’ Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the U.S. Congress” in William E. Kelly, ed., Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the War Veteran Patient (New York: Brunner/Mazel) 1985: 6.
117. Robert J. Lifton, “Advocacy and Corruption in the Healing Profession,” in Charles R. Figley, ed., Stress Disorders Among Vietnam Veterans: Theory, Research and Treatment (New York: Brunner/Mazel) 1988: 86.
119. Jacob D. Lindy, Vietnam: A Casebook (New York: Brunner/Mazel) 1987: xv. The tendency to use “Vietnam” as a metonym for the experience of American soldiers in the Vietnam War is almost universal in the psychological literature, as it is in fiction, non-fiction and memoir.
129. Leonard Quart, “The Deer Hunter: The Superman in Vietnam,” in Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud, eds., From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press) 1990: 167.
130. Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies: Volume 1: Women Floods, Bodies, History, translated by Stephen Conway (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) 1987. Originally by Verlag Roter Stern, 1977: xi.
131. Sarah Haley, “Some of My Best Friends Are Dead: Treatment of the PTSD Patient and His Family,” in William Kelly, ed., Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the War Veteran Patient (New York: Brunner/Mazel) 1985: 63.