The Unspeakable: Narratives of Trauma

by Magda Stroinska (Volume editor) Vikki Cecchetto (Volume editor) Kate Szymanski (Volume editor)
©2014 Edited Collection 289 Pages


How does a trauma survivor communicate «what can’t be said out loud» to others? In what form? How can we – readers, listeners, viewers – recognize the pain and suffering hidden behind words, pictures, or other artifacts produced by trauma survivors? This volume presents a possible response by bringing together the «expressions of the unspeakable» by trauma survivors and the interpretation of researchers in various fields, i.e. clinical psychologists, linguists, anthropologists, literary and film scholars, historians, and visual artists, some of whom are survivors of trauma. By describing or analyzing different strategies for finding a narrative form for expressing the survivor’s trauma, the contributors offer not only insights into how the survivors dealt with the pain of traumatic memories but also how they were able to find hope for healing by telling their stories, in literature, graphic novels, visual art or simply by creating a personal narrative in their own voice.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction: We need to talk about trauma
  • Historical Context
  • France in Shock from its Revolution
  • The Functions of Humor and Laughter in Narrating Trauma in German Literature of the First World War
  • The Human Body in Nazi Concentration Camps: The Case of Stanisław Grzesiuk
  • Traumatic Silences in Contemporary Australian War Fiction
  • A Trauma in Hiding: The Case of Jules Marchal
  • Socio-political Context
  • The Trauma of Culture Shock
  • Exploring the Edge of Trauma: The Differing Dynamics of Tragedy and Sublime
  • Creating a Habitable Everyday in Estonian Women’s Diaries of the Repressions of the Stalinist Regime
  • Trauma in Words: Comparison of the Coverage in Le Devoir and the Toronto Star of the 2010 Haitian Earthquake
  • “Singular Events” Context
  • Metaphors we li(v)e by: Disease as a Conceptual Metaphor for Sexual Assault
  • Metamorphosing Difficulties: The Portrayal of Trauma in Autobiographical Comics
  • Having a Relative with Mental Illness: Beyond the Traditional Definition of Trauma
  • Theoretical Context
  • Breaking the Silence: Reevaluating What Makes an Experience a Trauma
  • Trauma Narrative: Recovery and Posttraumatic Growth – A Clinical Perspective
  • Contributors and Editors
  • Index

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Introduction: We need to Talk about Trauma

Magda Stroińska, Kate Szymanski & Vikki Cecchetto

Just like any one of the generations before us believed of their era, we believe we live in interesting, fast-changing and often unpredictable times. What makes our generation different from the past ones is that we can observe in real time what is happening in the world through the various media. For some, the attributes ‘interesting’ and ‘unpredictable’ may carry with them a sense of threat to their (comfortable) lives and from this situation to a diminished sense of security is only a very short step. Feelings of insecurity, mistrust of others, and fear of the unknown are often triggered by having experienced some traumatic event on an individual or national scale. It is no wonder then that the words trauma and traumatic are used so often in everyday discourse, both in the media and also in private conversations. Many have been affected either by political upheavals (i.e., war, revolution, riots, ethnic or religious cleansing), natural disasters, personal tragedies or the consequences of economic downturns. We use the word trauma so often that it is at risk of losing the force of its meaning, its semantic impact.

On the other hand, in psychology, trauma is very particularly defined as an individual’s response to an event or a series of events that completely overwhelm that individual’s ability to cope with the experience and, subsequently, to integrate it into their life’s narrative. Prototypically, the event that triggers trauma is some kind of threat to life (including serious injury or a threat to physical integrity) of the subject or others, and engenders feelings of intense fear, helplessness and horror (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-IV).

A natural reaction to a terrible event is to banish it from awareness. There are no words to describe a traumatic experience. On the individual and collective levels, trauma is purged from consciousness; it is (as psychologists call it) dissociated. The paradox lies in the fact that a ritual of healing cannot take place unless a trauma story is told. The silence and secrecy that often surround the event that triggered the trauma need to be broken so that the processes of meaning making and recovery can begin. To witness a trauma narrative is to give the victim the presence and supportive context in which they can express the unspeakable. The act of witnessing these testimonies creates a connection between an individual and the community, between past, present and future.

The origin of trauma is the Greek word τραυ˜μα meaning “a wound” which may be literal or metaphorical. The emotional pain of a traumatic experience is ← 13 | 14 → disorganizing and overwhelming for an individual, creating - in the words of Arthur W. Frank (1995) - a “wounded storyteller.” This can often result in the psychological symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD’s clusters of intrusion, constriction and hypervigilance leave the victim oscillating between remembering the traumatic event (flashbacks) and forgetting it (numbness), a conflict that is intrinsic to trauma. This trauma dialectic is not confined to PTSD sufferers (for whom these responses are involuntary). A majority of trauma victims also have these characteristic responses to their situation and struggle with the need to deny - both to themselves and to others - what has happened to them, and with the need to speak about and remember the traumatic experience. On the social level, the ambivalence of knowing and not knowing about horrible events, of talking and being silent about them, is also quite common. Our collective memory does not retain traumatic experiences for a long period of time.

However, it is only when a trauma story becomes a testimonial, when it is being spoken about and witnessed by others, that a healing of the wound can take place. Often, unless a trauma victim reclaims the horror of the event in narrative form, the shattered self cannot recover. In order to understand and integrate the traumatic event into their life narrative, a survivor needs to reconstruct the experience and to find language capable of recounting it, so that a path towards the future could be opened and, for some survivors, personal growth might even take place. Otherwise the dark shadow of victimization may remain permanently cast over the course of one’s life. At a societal level, we also need to reconstruct our traumatic pasts so the future can be reclaimed. As Judith Herman (1992: 2) so poignantly put it, “…an understanding of psychological trauma begins with rediscovering history”.

Regardless of the substantial interest in the trauma experience among mental health professionals, there are many controversies that surround the concept of traumatization. For example, psychologists and psychiatrists continue to argue over the definition of what constitutes trauma. Should it be defined by the diagnostic criteria as delineated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV, and the 2013 revised version DSM-5), thus applying a medical model to its formulation, or should the definition be revised to include more psychological criteria reflecting the experiences and reports of the trauma victims themselves? What constitutes a process of traumatization? To what extent do culture and identity influence a traumatic experience? How does the process of trauma recovery unfold? This volume attempts to address some of these controversies and offer insights into the nature of traumatic experience and its narration.

While the research to traumatic stress has expanded substantially in the last twenty years and the subject of trauma has generated enormous interest among scientists and the general public alike, the trauma victims themselves unfortunately ← 14 | 15 → are still stigmatized. Whether it is a rape survivor, war veteran or a victim of sexual abuse, their credibility is often questioned or undermined by society. For the victim, this dialectic of knowing and not knowing, speaking and being silenced, acknowledging and denying is constantly being played out over and over again. However, it is only by bearing witness to the courage and voices of those who are not willing to be silenced that we can liberate traumatized individuals and traumatized nations from that stigma. By bringing together various voices to witness different traumatic situations, this book attempts to serve this purpose.

The Structure of the Volume

The direct impetus for this volume came from the international conference Exploring the Edge of Trauma organized by Professor Lieve Spaas from Kingston University, London UK, at West Dean College in May, 2010. The conference was an excellent opportunity to bring together and engage trauma researchers from various disciplinary backgrounds in a common discussion. This volume includes seven of the presentations from authors who participated in the West Dean conference. Additional contributions were also solicited from scholars researching aspects of trauma and its varied forms of expression in a multitude of contexts who had not participated in the conference.

Our contributors represent different disciplines, training, and perspectives in the discussion of trauma. This interdisciplinary approach adds to the multidimensional understanding and analysis of traumatic experiences that are too often confined to a singular disciplinary perspective. We believe that the main contribution of our book to trauma research is this transdisciplinary nature of the volume.

We tried to organize these diverse papers into groups that seemed connected by an overarching theme but, in many ways, the book offers a spectrum of issues rather than addressing discrete elements within the field of trauma studies. At first glance, the rationale for the thematic organization of the various papers may seem random, but, as we demonstrate below, the content is in fact interrelated.

The experience of trauma is always individual but the traumatic event that triggers it may affect any number of people. Some traumatic events, such as illness, the death of a loved one, the threat of death to oneself, domestic or other violence, sexual abuse or assault, are events that happen in a personal space. On the other hand, wars, revolutions, political persecution or natural disasters may simultaneously affect thousands or even millions of people. They are also likely to become mediated traumas to millions of other people around the world through the coverage of these events by mass and social media.

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In trying to establish a structure for the volume, we loosely grouped the papers into four major “contexts” of personal trauma: a) the historical context (the effects of the French Revolution – Xavier Martin; the experience of WW1 in German soldiers’ diaries – Jakub Kazecki; the recounting of survival in a Nazi concentration camp – Bożena Karwowska; the experience of Australian and New Zealand soldiers during WW2 found in literary texts – Tessa Lunney; being the unwitting instrument of trauma – Lieve Spaas); b) the socio-political historical context (the integration of refugees into a new culture – Barbara Chettle; political oppression in Ethiopia – Kebedech Tekleab; women as political prisoners in Estonia – Leena Kurvet-Käosaar; the media’s reporting of cataclysmic natural disasters (2010 Haiti earthquake) – Irena Radišević; c) individual trauma resulting from “singular events” (sexual assault – Magda Stroińska and Sarah Lightman; living with siblings who suffer from mental illness – Avi Sanders & Kate Szymanski; living with a parent suffering from Alzheimer’s and the loss of a child – Sarah Lightman); and d) the theoretical context: the modification of the current definition of trauma to include the perspective of the victim (Avigail Gordon & Kate Szymanski); and looking beyond the damaging effects of trauma (Kate Szymanski & Nancy Rosenfeld). Although we have arbitrarily assigned papers to the particular categories, in actuality, many of them overlap one or more of these areas.

From a timeline perspective, the French Revolution is the earliest traumatic event discussed in this volume. Its profound impact on French society and on the psyche of individual victims, witnesses and spectators is discussed by accessing the epistolary writings of the period by an expert in the field, Xavier Martin. At the other end of the timeline, the most recent traumatic event we reference is the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Irena Radišević explores modern media coverage in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy to show what aspects of suffering received the most attention in the mediation of the trauma. But as we all well know, trauma knows no geographical or temporal boundaries and suffering is hard to quantify.

A Look Beyond this Volume

As editors, we have tried to at least touch upon the main areas of trauma studies but, as the volume took its final shape, we realized that there is so much more that we were unable to cover.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (July)
Comicroman Bilderroman traumatische Erinnerungen Visualisierung
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 289 pp., 11 coloured fig., 11 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Magda Stroinska (Volume editor) Vikki Cecchetto (Volume editor) Kate Szymanski (Volume editor)

Magda Stroińska is Professor of German and Linguistics at McMaster University (Canada). Vittorina (Vikki) Cecchetto is Associate Professor (Retired) of Italian and Linguistics, McMaster University (Canada). Kate Szymanski is Associate Professor at the Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies at Adelphi University in New York (USA).


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