Trauma and Its Healers


By Helen Epstein

Published April 21, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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Mapping Trauma and Its Wake: Autobiographic Essays By Pioneer Trauma Scholars

Edited by Charles R. Figley

Routledge, 272 pages, $49.95.

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A medical text in the “Psychosocial Stress Series” of an academic publisher would usually not interest general readers. But with aftereffects of terrorism and disaster an ongoing concern and reports surfacing of some Holocaust survivors experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder in their last years, a new collection, “Mapping Trauma and Its Wake: Autobiographic Essays by Pioneer Trauma Scholars,” is an exception.

According to editor Charles Figley, traumatology, a once narrow surgical specialty treating physical injury, has developed into trauma studies, an international interdisciplinary field with university institutes, research labs, hospitals and clinics in Israel, Australia and Scandinavia and North America. It attracts not only mental health professionals but also human rights activists, experts in law enforcement and justice, and researchers in the physical as well as social sciences and humanities.

In this book, Figley asks pioneering trauma scholars to map this new territory and describe what in their personal history predisposed them to do this work. “Every insight expressed by a healer or investigator is a function of his formative place,” replies Robert Jay Lifton, who has researched Chinese thought reform, Hiroshima survivors, Vietnam veterans and Nazi doctors. “My formative place was Brooklyn, New York, where I spent most of my childhood. My parents were second generation. They were born in America, but barely — their parents had been born in shtetls in Russia.”

“No trauma specialist can come to the clinical practice of victim care without intimate personal experience,” notes Frank Ochberg, who first described the phenomenon of captor-captive bonding known as Stockholm Syndrome. To a lesser or greater degree, the contributors trace theirs.

Judith Herman, whose book “Trauma and Recovery” (first published by Basic Books in 1992) is one of the classic texts in the trauma field, grew up in a secular Jewish family in Manhattan. During the McCarthy era, her father was subpoenaed, her mother was blacklisted and dinner table conversations centered on “who was going to testify, who was going to inform on others, who was going to defend the people who refused to inform.” Fifteen years later, as a psychiatric resident at a time when textbooks typically estimated the prevalence of rape and incest as “one case per million,” she was helped by feminist politics and activism around these issues to recognize and begin research on the incest victims among her patients.

Whether they are Jews or not, World War II plays the predominant role in the psyches of most contributors, from Bessel van der Kolk in the Netherlands to Beverley Raphael in Australia to Lars Weisaeth in Norway. All have retained vivid childhood memories as well as stories of soldiers, POWs and concentration camp survivors. Psychiatrist Henry Krystal, himself a Holocaust survivor, attributes his interest in trauma, vulnerability and resilience to his own war experience as well as to surviving a life-threatening illness as a child in Poland.

Many of the researchers reported encounters with trauma victims in hospital emergency rooms: rape victims, victims of child abuse or Vietnam War veterans. In the 1970s, Lifton, Lawrence Kolb, Matthew Friedman and Figley — himself a Vietnam vet — worked in clinics, groups and individual treatment with thousands of Vietnam veterans suffering from a variety of physical and psychological symptoms and frustrated by an indifferent Veterans Administration.

At the time, child psychiatrist Leonore Terr recalls, the trauma field “was fragmented into ‘battered child syndrome,’ ‘battle fatigue,’ ‘rape,’ ‘incest,’ ‘accident,’ ‘torture,’ ‘civilian casualties of war.’ Trauma researchers were like the proverbial blind men, each describing one part of the same elephant.” It was not until the 1980s that these various researchers began to pool their findings.

Perhaps nowhere in the world is trauma studies as central as in Israel. “As an Israeli, my professional choices were strongly influenced by Israel’s sociopolitical situation and by the events in my family which stemmed from it,” notes psychologist, Zahava Solomon, who is the daughter of Holocaust survivors as well as the wife and mother of Israel Defense Forces soldiers and a former soldier herself. “For me, trauma study is not merely an academic but deeply personal matter.” She began by researching what in Israel was called combat stress reaction, but after the first Gulf War and the intifada she began to evaluate the effects of terror on civilians, especially children, as well as its effect on the behavior of the professionals treating them. Another psychologist, Yael Danieli, also links her interest in trauma to a childhood in the early days of the State of Israel. Moreover, through her work with the United Nations she is one of the rare mental health professionals who extend their work with Holocaust survivors to African and Latin American populations.

Each contributor to “Mapping Trauma and Its Wake” interprets the autobiographical exercise in his or her own way. Some discuss treatment and research in highly technical terms; some tend to catalog their achievements; others attempt to credit every colleague. But although the chapters are uneven, they are an absorbing read, introducing major figures in a field that is becoming more important every year.

Helen Epstein is the author of “Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for her Mother’s History” (Holmes & Meier, 2005) and “Children of the Holocaust: Conversations With Sons and Daughters of Survivors,” recently translated into French.

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