Cathy Caruth, Forerunner of Studies in Trauma and Trauma Theory: In Conversation

Interview 1 of Kerry McElroy’s Interview Series “A Light in the Mineshaft: An Interview Series With Society’s Traumaworkers”

 Cathy Caruth is Class of 1916 Professor of English at Cornell University and teaches in Literatures In English and Comparative Literature. Her writings specifically on trauma include Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History (20th Anniversary Edition in 2016 with a new Afterword), Literature in the Ashes of History, and the collections Trauma: Explorations in Memory and Listening to Trauma: Conversations with Leaders in the Theory and Treatment of Catastrophic Experience.

 Kerry McElroy is a Contributing Editor to Narrative Paths. She is a feminist cultural historian and writer holding a doctorate in Humanities from Concordia University, Montréal. Her thesis entitled Class Acts: A Socio-Cultural History of Women, Labour, and Migration in Hollywood, focused on women in performance systems. She has published articles on cinema, women, history, culture, and politics in Irish AmericaThe Independent, and Montréal Serai, among other magazines. She holds master’s degrees from Columbia and Carnegie Mellon Universities.

KLM: Could you first start by telling me who you are, and your affiliation? And then I’m going to ask, more specifically, some questions about how you went down the track you did in your career, going back towards your earliest years. And how your training led you to the field of trauma theory.

 CC I’m Cathy Caruth and I teach at Cornell University, in Comparative Literature and English. My training was actually in comparative literature and literary theory. There are a number of routes that led me to trauma theory. One was that my first book was on philosophical, literary, and psychoanalytic notions of experience in which there was a death encounter, at the center of these texts, that wasn’t actually incorporated into experience. I was going to work on a book on the accident, and some paradoxes around the way the accident functions as a sort of narrative. One of the main examples for that was Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, which is his late work on the history of the Jews as the history of a trauma.

And I remember noticing in that book something that was very interesting to me. Which is that on the one hand, Freud had this very interesting idea, which was exemplified by the train accident, of trauma as a delayed experience that you don’t experience until later. On the other hand, there were a lot of proper names of places in the text concerned with Freud’s life— Vienna, England, and so on. So, there was this link between an experience you don’t really have until later, and the specificity of a very specific historical experience. In Freud’s case, it was escaping the Nazis. This seemed to suggest that there was a kind of history that was conveyed through trauma, and perhaps only through it, which has always been my interest.

So that was one thing that led to my interest in the idea of trauma. Not as a pathology or a mental disorder, but as a sort of return of truth (though not in an immediately recognizable form), or of the command for a kind of witness to the truth. That has always, I think, been at the heart of my interest in trauma. Repetition compulsion, which we see in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, is really the later version of trauma, after Freud’s early work on sexual abuse. And that’s when trauma begins to become more explicitly historical.

And so I shifted from the accident to trauma. I do think that that one of the reasons “trauma studies”– a phrase I don’t like, by the way, as it makes the notion of “trauma” seem all-too-recognizable, a simple object of thought–took off in the way it did is because it has a very profound philosophical element to it. It intersected with some questions I had examined in literary theory in this way. You see it in survivor stories. The ones we’re hearing don’t generally say, “Gee, how great I lived. So happy I survived. Thank God”. The question is often, “why did I survive?” Meaning why? By what accident did I survive? Or ethically: why did I, why me?

When you sent me some thoughts in your questions, you asked about the development of my work and the work of other early US trauma theorists in the context of the Vietnam War. And that was interesting to me because I hadn’t really thought about it.

But my first essay on Moses and Monotheism had an epigraph to it, actually. I had read Michael Herr’s Dispatches about that war– his book on Vietnam as a journalist. And the epigraph reads: “It took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did. The problem was that you didn’t always know what you were seeing until later, maybe years later, that a lot of it never made it in at all, it just stayed stored there in your eyes”.

So there is a truth element in trauma studies, insofar as it emerged from Vietnam. If you look at the work of Robert J. Lifton, his book Home from the War: Learning from Vietnam Veterans, he worked with the rap groups in the early ‘70s–‘70, ’71, ‘72. He put a book out in ‘73. The Vietnam vets who did the rap groups were Vietnam Veterans Against the War, so they were political. But they understood their symptoms [of modern PTSD], which they called Vietnam Syndrome, in a political context, and as I interpret it, the symptoms were also a form of attempted witness, and protests against what Lifton called “false witness.” 

Lifton says that when these soldiers went to Vietnam, they thought it was a heroic war, and that soldiers dying and sacrificing themselves for their country was meaningful. They discovered the opposite, and it shattered their anticipated forms. They felt betrayed by the government. This was not a meaningful war.

KLM: And then, the beginnings of US trauma studies around Vietnam are also an entrée into a lot of looking at other types of trauma. The doubled trauma theories in feminism, which would be my area of bringing it in. Misogyny, fields of sexual assault. And I’m thinking, how many generations now have people been putting a feminist spin on Freud? And of hysteria as symptoms of a kind of politicized response to sexual assault that is silenced. That’s a pretty common interpretation. And so it applies, right? We’re talking about the specific context of Vietnam, but you can certainly see how that would happen in so many different fields.

CC: Yes. One thing that became interesting to me when I first started working on trauma was the element of not-knowing at its heart. It’s a delayed experience, or an intertwining of knowing and not knowing. And that was the interest for me originally. Even early on, though, I saw that this not knowing in the case of incest, rape, even Holocaust survivors, Vietnam vets, could also be understood a little differently. A lot of books on incest would be called things like The Secret Trauma or I Never Told Anyone, this kind of thing (also for rape more generally). And in those cases, the not knowing was mediated or passed not just through individuals’ own lack of assimilation of the experience, but also— or rather, because of– the fact that nobody else was seeing it. The not-knowing element was not necessarily about individuals’ own not knowing— it was the fact that others didn’t know, or refused to know. 

And this is part of what I’m interested in now, too. Which is, if there is no one to whom to address the story, you can try to speak it, but no one hears it. That is a different way of understanding the silence that is sometimes said to accompany trauma. You have to think of trauma in that larger socio-political sense, as not just being about what the individual does or does not know, but about what a collective doesn’t know. Which is what I’m working on now: trauma and the breakdown of address. And so to reiterate, that breakdown of address means that the not knowing in the trauma is a collective problem. This is very typical of Holocaust survivors, Vietnam vets, rape survivors, incest survivors. So it can be gendered, as you suggest, but it also moves outwards to other issues as well. There’s also a way in which that anticipation of there being no one to tell can be inscribed in the symptom itself. When you can’t even tell it to yourself because you anticipate not being able to tell it to others. (This is what I discussed with [the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and early director of the Vet Centers in the Veterans Administration] Art Blank in relation to Viet Nam vets in Listening to Trauma (2014), and it isn’t limited to the vets. Other interviews in that book, such as the one by [the psychiatrist and trauma theorist] Judith Herman, concern the not-knowing of families and societies.)

Many trauma scholars are writing more about inner, personal elements of trauma. But there’s often an element of a political or collective element inscribed in that problem of not being able to tell others—something that is often anticipated and can be seen in the traumatic symptomatology itself. That not-knowing one’s experience, in the experiencing of traumatic symptoms, can, in these cases, inscribe within it the fact that there is no one to tell– because no one wants to hear. 

KLM: That exact point became a huge part of my PhD thesis, which was historical labor study of women as a class in the Hollywood system. In the studio era, decades before MeToo. And how abuse was perpetuated. And once I incorporated trauma theory, that was the spark of the whole thing. 

I came to conclude that quite literally, this was a field that was a traumatic history. And now you cannot look at it the same way without seeing every building in Los Angeles that’s named after one of these men who was a rapist or a rape enabler. And every woman who was drummed out of the business and silenced by it. You start to have to think in terms of corruption, of criminality. I mean, it’s an incredibly political and sociocultural context. Who owned the police, who owned the hospitals, the medical establishment. But grounded in trauma.  

CC: Right. And when you say the names on the buildings, it makes me think about the former Confederate states, some of whose monuments still honor the so-called heroes of the Confederacy. Where, you know, for an African-American looking at that, that’s a denial: my own history is not my own. The legacy of my ancestors’ history is literally not being seen. Right there in that sense, that’s collective insistence on not knowing– not as a matter of forgetting, but as something active.

[Holocaust survivor, co-founder of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony at Yale, and pioneering trauma theorist] Dori Laub says this about the death drive and psychic trauma. He interprets the death drive as an active erasure— this is repetition compulsion in Freud. Really, the repetition is an erasure and a false witnessing. Robert Jay Lifton’s work on false witness, which grew out of the previously-discussed work on Vietnam, is important here as well. When you try to give meaning perversely to something that was a shattering of meaning, you repeat it in a form of erasing. That erasure can take the form of action. When, for example, you fight a battle in order to give meaning to the deaths of those who have previously died in a war. Or you fight a war– like the Gulf War– in part to give retroactive meaning to the Vietnam War. And so that’s where history becomes a form of false witness. And that is what I think you’re describing there, right?

KLM: Right. It’s an active field of misrepresentation that vouchsafes the powerful from being blamed for the things that they’ve done. It does an excellent job of silencing the people who have suffered.

CC: One of the interesting things that Judith Herman has said is that families in which incest exists are like totalitarian systems. And in that sense, I’m thinking of what you’re saying about a society sort of operating like a family– an incest family. Often these are the most normal-looking families. But the way they operate, it’s like a totalitarian regime. The truth is, you know there’s a rewriting of history, there’s a silencing and there’s a terrible danger, a kind of terror in there for speaking out. And what you’re describing, it brings that out into the whole society, right? Totalitarianism. Not in the literal sense of Stalin or Hitler, but in some other sense.

KLM: But totalitarian nonetheless! I know you’re not a Hollywood film historian, but you’ve just hit on another exact, uncanny point towards my work. Hortense Powdermaker is the anthropologist who coined the term “the dream factory” for Hollywood, in 1950. She did three years of field work in Hollywood from 1947 to 1950. And that was her conclusion, which was a very provocative conclusion for 1950, and as a woman anthropologist, too. So by the time you get to the end of this 400 page social science book, she says that Hollywood functions as a totalitarian society within the broader culture.

I’ll say one last thing about the state of the field as you watched your own career develop, your own place in it. Before maybe I pivot a bit to historiography and the hazards of doing this work, but also maybe the richness of doing this work, too. In the time since you turned to trauma and you saw a field emerging in the way that it did: how would you react to changes in trauma studies in the last years? The empirical science side, there’s always changes, all the time: five years, ten years, fifteen years, twenty years– massive changes since the time you were writing your first works. We come from the humanities. And that’s the way I think. Like a historian. I also come from literary and cultural studies myself. And so it’s really a gift to talk about these topics like trauma with someone who is a hard scientist, right?

 CC: Oh, I love it. It’s fabulous.

KLM: So- do you think there’s a nexus where these things can all meet, where the social scientists and the humanities people and the epigeneticists can discuss trauma in this way? 

CC: You know, in the intro. to Trauma: Explorations in Memory, the thing I said at the time, and I still believe, is that trauma doesn’t belong to a single field. In fact, it pushes the limits of each discipline in a sense. We have to go “elsewhere.” Dori Laub actually sent me to the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies for the first time. And then I go and see this conference where you have clinicians, you have researchers, scientists.

KLM: I interviewed someone from this group too, for this series. 

CC: And then you also have neuroscientists. And every single lecture I went to had some paradox in it. I’m not a neuroscientist, so I only have a superficial understanding of it, and I’m sure everything always changes.

But listening to the lectures across different fields made it clear how trauma demanded different kinds of languages. The term “trauma” itself says it to you. First of all, because it is in another language originally, ancient Greek. But also, because in its use by someone like Freud, it points to what you don’t yet understand. The term itself says: you think you can read me in your language, but there’s something you aren’t grasping in me. 

One can think about this, again, in terms of an attempt to communicate an experience that has no addressee who can hear. So it’s not part of discourse. The usual way of thinking of trauma, in Freud, for example, is: I have the experience now, I don’t experience the symptoms till later. But we could think of that temporality as a function of another structure. For example, in relation to the lack of address for certain kinds of experiences. The traumatic story is a story about what no one wants to hear. “I have no one to listen”.

One way we can think about these different approaches to trauma is to examine that intersection around the surprise, the potential for these fields coming together. Whether you’re a literary critic who does what I do with a text, or you’re a neuroscientist. That capacity for saying “I don’t know something” I think is really the site, the element by which all these fields can meet. And I hope they continue to work together.

 KLM: Yes. And in that respect, I think I’m just feeling really lucky to bring this to a larger audience because one week in the series, there will be an epigeneticist. The next week it will be a scholar of the Holocaust, and another it’ll be a scholar of the Rwandan genocide, and then an animal abuse investigator, and your interview. And so it’s almost like a prism. Coming at trauma from twelve different directions, and they’re all intersecting. 

 CC: It’s great what this series is doing. I taught a course back at Emory once called Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Trauma, and we had a scientist who worked on intergenerational rat trauma. Kerry Ressler, who’d been at Yale and moved to Emory. Inherently depressed mother rats produce rats who can’t mother. This was fascinating. 

And I work with Nadine Kaslow with the NIA project, which works with abused low income African-American hospitalized women who are suicidal. She was doing studies on trauma, and then also grouped with abused women in which they discussed cycles of violence. To help women actually get out of these situations. But she wanted to compare their quantitative tests for trauma– like, how many nightmares do you have per month?— with qualitative measures. Open-ended interviews. Which was what Dori Laub and others were doing with the testimony of Holocaust survivors at the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale.  

 KLM: That leads nicely into what I would call this meta-historiography question. Which was that, basically, I was originally coming at this work as a feminist cultural historian. And I’m looking at Hollywood as one cultural space, as to the economic roots, the sociological roots: how do we get to the MeToo moment? How do we get to the ways women were treated? And so you have to look at the ways that capitalism functions, and the ways the studios were formed as businesses. You can’t help but be incredibly interdisciplinary. But by the last two chapters, this is where I bring in so much of your work and trauma theory, and that really, really helped it to come together. I developed this idea: that Hollywood itself was a traumatic history for the women who inhabited it. And I have some quotes that I use from you in my epilogue that are just ideal. 

But, or I should say and, as well, this meta question developed for me. I did my defense, and I went back and looked at all my old research and I remembered, “Oh yeah, I had this meta question!” Of, why as a feminist who’s been through certain things that many women have been through, whether it’s sexual assault, domestic violence, why do women come to this work and do this work that is so difficult? It’s constantly picking at the wound, right?

And then you think well, I have friends who are Jewish and they work on the Holocaust, and they have grandparents who are survivors. One of my best friends was at Brandeis, and we used to joke about the traumatic work we had chosen for our PhDs. We can do a Ph.D. in animation. We can do a Ph.D. in medieval love poetry. So why do we do what we do? And that’s where this series was born. So I guess, could you speak to that a little bit? About the meta-work of traumawork? And have you ever experienced, “why do I do this?” Or, “do I feel traumatized by it?”

CC:  I have been asked that certainly, and I have, myself, asked that of others when I did the interviews for Listening to Trauma, because I was wanting to get at the same question with the people I interviewed. And I asked everybody. And I’m not good with that answer.

KLM: I mean, me either. That’s why I keep asking. [laughter]

 CC: I remember somebody asking me. She was a very straightforward woman, and she just said, “are you traumatized?” And “so what traumatized you when you were young?”. At a reception. And my answer was, “Well, if that were the case, I wouldn’t know.” I don’t know the answer. I mean, my experience of it has been largely conceptual and theoretical excitement.

Actually, in an essay I was working on recently, I was thinking about the Vietnam War. This is a moment, now [summer 2021], where it’s all coming back with Afghanistan in the news. We lived through the fall of Saigon, and now this departure from Afghanistan. Speaking of repetition. So when I was very young, I was very involved in junior high school peace marches, and war moratoria and things like that. It really was very important to me at that age. And so there may be a way in which that element had something to do with my interest in trauma later on.

And also, there was perhaps another element that was working unconsciously in my interest in trauma. I don’t think of myself in terms of identities. I mean, my mother was Jewish, my father wasn’t. We celebrated Christmas. But you know, Freud was also assimilated to some extent. I remember when I was writing, struggling really hard with the very first essay I wrote on trauma, on Freud’s Moses and Monotheism. I had written the first part of it about the delayed experience of trauma. But it felt not quite right. Here was the concept of trauma, here was the figure of departure. And then all of a sudden, while I was pacing the hallway thinking, how do I write this? What’s going on here? I suddenly realised: the story of Moses is the story of a return. At the moment I realised it, suddenly the essay came together around return and departure. But what I remember was sort of laughing to myself and thinking: I’ve been writing about Judaism! Because it’s Moses and Monotheism. The monotheism is Judaism. It was an interesting moment. I thought, I didn’t realize I was writing about Judaism until now. So I did always sort of wonder if there was something there.

But, you know, I can’t really say that about all of my work, certainly not on a conscious level. Undoubtedly, there is probably a cultural position of some kind bound up with the way I write. And undoubtedly, a personal experience from my own childhood could be an influence in all of this. But it’s not something that was on my mind when I was doing it. Some people do say, “I am writing as somebody who was traumatized, and I need to write about it”. There are all different ways people respond. But I didn’t think in those terms.

KLM: I had to discuss it a fair amount in my in my epilogue, the writerly position of the traumatized person.

But I think as well, of a kind of positioning of this sort of work as an act of reclaiming of historiography. Saying because these women were made voiceless, your responsibility as a feminist scholar in a later generation is to help bring their voices back into history. Which is a tricky responsibility to give yourself. It leads to its own problems, right? You are afraid of mixing up speaking for them in some ways, while you’re trying to put them back into the historical record. And so where does that situate you as the scholar, and the women you’re trying to rehabilitate or give their due, who were abused to the point of obliteration in some ways? It’s a funny positionality. It’s a heavy weight in a way.

 CC: Do you mean also in the sense of “what is my right to speak for them”?

 KLM: A bit, yeah, that’s what I mean. When do you become a crusader?

CC: I admire that because I have not done that, and I find it hard to do that for whatever reasons. When I write, it is usually (though not always) without any direct contact with people who are traumatized. The connection to people has usually happened indirectly. People do say, “your work has helped me with real things”. But theory is what I’ve tried to address. I’ve had much more trouble when I’ve been asked to give advice, for example, to people who are trying to make policy or do things in the world. There have been some exceptions, but it is usually when I don’t try to write directly about people that the work ends up affecting people the most. 

I have also generally stayed away from genocide studies. Whereas trauma studies in general is to me very inspiring in its own way. It’s because it’s about truth, and also because it’s about the creation of an address and witness. It’s rarely just about everything that got destroyed. I think that would be a lot harder if I were focusing exclusively on the Holocaust, or on genocide more generally. I think it’s different, your experience or someone working on genocide, from what I do. It’s a little different.

But when you work with something like genocide or maybe what you’re describing– real abuse that has been silenced, where the women couldn’t speak for themselves–I think that would be very difficult, a much more difficult experience. So I admire that you’re doing it.

 KLM: I also I wanted to quote you, if you don’t mind. In Trauma: Explorations in Memory, you say, “if PTSD must be understood as a pathological symptom, then it is not so much a symptom of the unconscious as it is a symptom of history. The traumatized, we might say, carry an impossible history within them, or they become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely possess. Traumatic experience is not a pathology that is a falsehood or displacement of meaning, but of history itself”. So that quote meant the world to me in my work.

CC: Because of the inscription of silenced history within the notion and the experience of trauma?

KLM: Because then I talked about abusers and victims and a field of industrial rape, and coming to this ultimate culmination that Hollywood itself functioned as a traumatic history for the women who lived it. So as a cultural field itself. 

CC: Right. That goes back for me to that question of truth. It’s very, very important to me, and I think to a lot of people who work in the field. That the theory of trauma, or of PTSD, is not a theory of mental disorder, per se. That it is about trying to bear witness. So in in that sense, it’s not simply a theory of the individual. You become the carrier of a larger history. You could always be repeating an earlier history. You could always, potentially, be in a history that’s not your own, but that of your parents or your grandparents. That’s one way of looking at Freud’s notion of repetition compulsion. 

So, yes. It’s never simply individual. And that question arises in your own work, as well. Then you have to ask, what would that mean in the context that you study?

So I think the question of history in the study of trauma is just a really interesting one. And I understood what you were talking about earlier— about speaking for women– as an ethical question, a question of what it means to be the voice for others. Because trauma is about bearing witness to violence. 

But to go back to your original point. The notion of trauma is, without question, not something you could ever simply reduce to the individual. In relation to this question there is some relevant background to the formulation of PTSD, which first appeared in 1980 in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III. As I mentioned earlier, leading up to this, there had been work on what was called “Vietnam Syndrome” by the Vietnam Vets Against the War. In the “rap groups”, they discussed their symptoms in a larger political context. They also carried out political protests. We were out of Vietnam by 1975, and the DSM III came five years later. Some Vietnam vets and their psychiatrists were involved in helping the notion of trauma get into the DSM.

But once it’s in the DSM, it’s a psychiatric category which is now medicalised. So that whole witness of history, political witness, that we saw in the VVAW rap groups, was gone. And after it became medicalized— that is, once it appeared to have become medicalized in the DSM, though one can still interpret it differently– a lot of people haven’t wanted to use the word “trauma” anymore to describe their own experiences. Because now they think of PTSD as a mental disorder. 

KLM: I guess I’d end on one final question- on the fulcrum of hope and hopelessness in this work. Where do you find the positive movement in it? Does it ever feel like the repetition of violence is too strong, and that the perpetrators will always continue to evade accountability? When we think about doing trauma work, I’m interested in that movement between hope and hopelessness.

 CC: I wrote in Literature in the Ashes of History on Hannah Arendt. On what she calls the history of the modern lie, which is operative in totalitarianism and is more prevalent in the form of what she calls “image-making” in postwar, non-totalitarian societies. It’s where (as I interpret her) instead of lying serving politics, politics serves the lie, and then erases everything. So it’s a kind of history that erases itself. And in the political realm, right now, it does feel like that sometimes. The movement of history doesn’t seem to offer a lot of hope. Especially in the last years, right?

So I do worry about that a little. There are elements of repetition in Vietnam and Afghanistan that are very depressing to watch. And genocide. I don’t always feel hopeful. So I don’t really know the answer to that. We don’t know if the death drive or the life drive will win out. What do you think? What about you?

KLM: Well. I started this series with the premise that it would be a bit difficult to do this work, meaning to ask the questions. That I would learn a lot of upsetting stories, and that people would be sort of generally gloomy in some way. And that the content I would be giving to the public in the series would be something like, “look at how hard these people work to think about the things that you prefer not to think about”. That was where I was coming from. About a society we’ve set up so that everybody can watch reality TV and sports and not think about these very gruesome things while a few do. And I have not found that at all.

I found in every case that people are doing this work with a real sense of purpose or a sense of joy, or they see actual change. The compulsion to do it is not, “I’m miserable but I do this anyway because I must”. 

CC: I guess also what has been always surprising and wonderful is the fact that the language of trauma seems to allow people to speak. So I guess to your point, it’s not a language in which people engage in order to say, “I’m miserable”. They engage in that language because it’s opening up speech or witness. 

 KLM: It’s been really amazing. I’ve had a lot of stories where people, in the most difficult situations, there’s humor, there’s resilience, there’s people living. And that’s something really special. 

 CC: There are very original, creative people who grow from their encounters with the trauma survivors they meet. So, I think that’s a very important point that you’re making. And it also goes to the point I made earlier about the element of surprise in the experience, and in the notion of trauma. We need to allow people to surprise us with their experience.