• mauve

Trauma, Memory and Identity Formation

Below is the transcript to this video I produced though the text slightly deviates from the video.

“She, my grandmother, taught me to recognize the landscape of danger, the shards of fear, the impenetrable faces of women, fleeing, accused, audacious in their will to live.”

“1939” by Marjorie Agosín

In Waiting for the Barbarians The Magistrate dissociates from the violence he inflicts on The Barbarian Girl (his name for her) and we see the multifarious way power takes root in the mind of those who torture under a specific social paradigm. In David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, Song Liling cleverly manipulates the Western bureaucrat Rene Gallimard into divulging government secrets by becoming the colonial subject Gallimard’s culture has told him he should want to dominate. During the trial where Song informs on Gallimard, Song explains “The West has sort of an international rape mentality towards the East…’her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes’...The West thinks of itself as masculine--big guns, big industry, big money, so the East is feminine--weak, delicate, poor, but good at art”(Hwang 82). In Under the Udala Trees, the horrors of war are juxtaposed with the violence of heterotopia, terrorizing the lives of Ijeoma and Anima, two young women in love. These stories interact with the sociopolitical history which is tantamount to the theories of traumatic memory. Trauma, in a postcolonial context, can be determined largely by the attitudes of whole societies, and, since we live in, as bell hooks would say, an “imperialist white-supremacist capi­talist patriarchy,” particularly enacted by those who seek to emulate all of those qualities hooks refers to in her explication, we should consider the trauma that occurs under those circumstances (hooks 17). As she lays out her feminist treatise in Feminism Without Borders, Chandra Mohanty also mentions this: “sexism, racism, misogyny, and heterosexism underlie and fuel social and political institutions of rule and thus often lead to a hatred of women and (supposedly justified) violence. The interwoven processes of sexism, racism, misogyny, and heterosexism are an integral part of our social fabric, wherever in the world we happen to be” (Mohanty 2). Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí, in her text, The Invention of Women: Making An African Sense of Western Gender Discourses, explains even the construction of women as a category is a product of colonization, so the trauma created by the subordination of women as a separate or inferior category is closely tied to Western epistemologies (Oyěwùmí 1-7). Or, as Song Liling would say “Only a man knows how a woman should act” (Hwang 62). We must consider how the trauma of subordination or categorization on colonial subjects has had an impact on generations of people throughout history. Though trauma can be individual and interpersonal, the precursors to trauma are social conditions. The identity of a person: their gender, race, class, sexuality is always a factor in whether or not and how they will experience trauma.

This is where theories of trauma and memory to read culture and literature become pertinent. In Western society, trauma, defined openly beginning with Freud as “hysteria” (though he later retracted his findings, molding them instead into a patriarchal hypothesis of suppression) in his “The Aetiology of Hysteria,” then recast by Bertha Pappenheim (famously called Anna O. by Freud in his work) to help women, again redefined by Yealland and Kardiner as related to sociopolitical events and feelings, and again highlighted as a response to both private, domestic terror and public, conflict terror by women’s movement activists of the 70’s to today, where, since 1980, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is a recognized and legitimate therapeutic diagnoses (Herman 17-25). What we have now is an understanding of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD). Most have become familiar with the concept of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder’s tie to one particular traumatic event, but not as many are familiar with the relatively new (in terms of clinical validation) term Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (“Post-traumatic Stress Disorder”). The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders defines CPTSD by contextualizing it with the historical positioning mentioned in my above paragraph:

The soldier returning from active duty in a war zone, the child who lives with physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect, the first responder who must deal with human suffering on a daily basis, and the adult who endures domestic abuse all are experiencing trauma. Complex trauma occurs repeatedly and often involves direct harm to the victim. Its effects are cumulative and generally transpire in a specific setting and, frequently, within a particular time frame or within a specific relationship. Going through trauma can make an individual experience intense feelings of guilt, as if they are somehow responsible for the event(s) that are so terrifying to them. This altered sense of shame and painful self-perception is crippling. It can make the person feel isolated and hopeless, and as if they are no longer in charge of themselves. (“Complex PTSD”)

There is now an understanding of “collective trauma” and “intergenerational trauma” where the experiences of ancestors transcend their timeline and enter into present life. Sociologist Sue Coyle defines this phenomenon as it is relevant for social workers and emphasizes “multiple generations of families can transmit the damage of trauma throughout the years”(Coyle). She makes the distinction between intergenerational trauma and collective or historical trauma by defining intergenerational trauma as affecting one family and adds “While each generation of that family may experience its own form of trauma, the first experience can be traced back decades”(Coyle). Coyle is clear that even your great grandparents’ trauma can affect you in myriad ways. Going on to describe historical or collective trauma, Coyle notes they are similar to intergenerational trauma but are on a “communal scale” (Coyle). To use specific examples, Coyle cites “slavery, the experiences of the American Indians after European colonization, and the Holocaust,” though she says historical and collective trauma are certainly not limited to these horrific experiences (Coyle).

Marjorie Agosín , in her edited volume Inhabiting Memory: Essays on Human Rights in the Americas, presents us with the theoretical concepts of trauma as spanning across generations of cultural groups who have experienced similar traumas such as forced exile, torture, rape, war, and genocide. Agosín, while introducing the volume, emphasizes traumatic memories and the act of remembering or forgetting has huge implications for histories of societies: “Memory is not always arbitrary or objective; that is precisely why the act of remembering represents a peculiar way of humanizing history”(xi). She adds, “Courageous citizens refuse to forget and today, in the midst of ‘democratic’ regimes in these countries, families of the disappeared continue to demand the truth and whereabouts of their loved ones”(xiii). Agosín is of course speaking of the tangibly lost, disappeared, but I also argue we must think of those who are presently with us yet unable to function in society as it is constructed precisely because of their trauma. For instance, Joy DeGruy mentions this in her text Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, a text intended to promote questioning and healing among African Americans whose ancestors survived chattel slavery, when she poignantly writes:

These cycles of oppression leave scars on the victims and victors alike, scars that embed themselves in our collective psyches, and are passed down through generations, robbing us of our humanity. For who can be fully human under the weight of oppression that condemns them to a life of torment, robs them of a future, and saps their free will? Moreover, who can become truly human when they gain so much from the pain and suffering of those whom they oppress and/or take advantage of?(DeGruy 6)

DeGruy also discusses the continual re-traumatization when people do not believe your trauma and ask you to “explain” it to them, as if they are receptive to empathizing with the experience. She notes:

African Americans are repeatedly asked to reveal ‘proof’ of the realities of racism to skeptical white people. They reluctantly explain the countless incidents of discrimination and even assaults directed at them and those they love. More often than not, the response of the questioner is denial and disbelief. The black person, having reopened wounds, is left frustrated and reinjured.(DeGruy 21).

Consider this also takes place within the novel Waiting for the Barbarians when The Magistrate makes a spectacle of the wounds of The Barbarian Girl, repeatedly asking about what happened to her out in the prison yard. Though she initially refuses to share with him, eventually she does only volunteering the information after he annoys her by sharing a hunting story and adding, “Never before have I had the feeling of not living my own life on my own terms”(Coetzee 45). The Barbarian Girl then shares her story of torture as if to say: shut up, you are talking about privileged choices while I was disabled through the actions of others I had no control over--you are, right now, not letting me live on my own terms every day. After she shares he trauma, The Magistrate treats the story as a fascination or entertainment and asks her to go on saying,”What do you feel towards the men who did this?” to which she responds “I am tired of talking”(Coetzee 47). The Magistrates attitude toward The Barbarian Girl is comparable to the beliefs of Rene Gallimard in M. Butterfly when, at the very end of the play, he says:

I have a vision. Of the Orient. That deep within its almond eyes, there are still women. Women willing to sacrifice themselves for the love of a man. Even a man whose love is completely without worth. (Hwang 92)

The Magistrate is continually and analogously obtuse that The Barbarian Girl is a person at all; he is unable to imagine a multidimensional person who, when not plucked out of their original environment, is nuanced and interesting, the effects of which are harmful and retraumatizing.

Elaine Scarry discusses how civilization is the embodiment of people in proximity to each other and how during war civilization’s representatives “unmake” the body as a deconstructive sacrifice, hollowing themselves out “To Die” for their country (Scarry 121-122). To juxtapose, in the domestic sphere, women in violent relationships sacrifice themselves for the good of the relationship, family, or gender role. We see this sacrifice, both in war and the home, in Under the Udala Trees as Ijeoma and Amina make such sacrifices in the violence that is, for them, the forced heteronormativity of their society. Trauma is something that happens when people are forced to forget their humanity, their proclivity to feel and choose. This is palpable in a story where the girls’ minds are colonized with religious prescriptiveness and social dread. Whether public or private war, subjects are permanently scarred and those spheres of public and private are equally impactful and related to each other. Agosín explains:

Memory is also linked to what connects and identifies us, such as the language we speak. The ways we perceive and retrieve memory in order to approach the past is an extension of our bodies and ourselves. Memory envelopes everything, especially in those societies that have so often been denied their own humanity by abusing their dignity. (Agosín xix)

Good, Good, Hyde and Pinto’s Postcolonial Disorders, where mental illness is considered in relation to past and current imperialist political events, also explores traumatic phenomenon outside of European myopia. They do this by explicating subjectivity and “necessarily address ‘disorders’--the intertwined personal and social disorders associated with rampant globalization, neoliberal economic policies, and postcolonial politics; and whether read as pathologies, modes of suffering, the domain of the imaginary, or as forms of repression, disordered subjectivity provides entree to exploring dimensions of contemporary social life…” (Good 2). The authors emphasize “a reexamination of thinking on race, ethnicity, and culture” and their “relevance for psychiatry,” in particular “historical or multigenerational trauma” or “historical unresolved grief” and how it impacts subsequent generations of postcolonial subjects” (Good 5). It is important to be aware that focusing on “disorders” proper can reify the need for “humane intervention,” key words which allow colonial disruption and further traumatization, so in Postcolonial Disorders the authors make clear this is not yet another way to objectify historically colonial subjects (Good 8-11). They continue to define their mission and explain: “a benefit of linking ‘disorders’ to ‘subjectivity’ is the potential for increasing understanding of the lived experiences of persons caught up in complex, threatening, and uncertain conditions of the contemporary world. Such a linking provides a focus on the historical genealogy of normative conceptions associated with order and disorder, rationality and pathology, and brings analytic attention to everyday lives and routine practices instantiated in complex institutions” (Good 11). It’s vital that while we wish to have a more equal society we don’t continue to infantilize people by objectifying their experiences and removing agency, capitulating the power large systems like institutions, governments, and nations possess. In other words, it’s not enough to stop the analysis at: people have no power. It’s important to use this information to understand why people make certain decisions every day, to see them as actors within, against, or teetering on the line of traditions and boundaries that we can trace, and to also recognize they are full people with complex lives, not just a diagnoses or cultural stereotype. Freud first formulated his ideas about trauma by listening to women, but because of professional pressure he chose to forget what he heard to make his findings socially acceptable. When listening to the experiences of others it is important not to change what they are saying to suit our own needs. As Agosín exclaims in Inhabiting Memory: “Hopefully the exploration of memory will lead us to a world where the right to remember and the act of remembering are essential elements to human rights!” (Agosín xx)

Works Cited

Agosín, Marjorie, ed. Inhabiting Memory: Essays on Memory and Human Rights in the

Americas. Wings Press, 2011. Print.

Agosín, Marjorie. At the Threshold of Memory: A Bilingual Critical Anthology of New

and Selected Poems. White Pine Press, 2003. Print.

Coetzee, J.M. Waiting for the Barbarians. Penguin, 2010. Print.

“Complex PTSD.” The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders. 23 June 2017.


Coyle, Sue. “Intergenerational Trauma--Legacies of Loss.” Social Work Today, Vol. 14 No.

3 May/June 2014. Web.

DeGruy, Joy. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and

Healing. Uptone, 2002. Kindle.

Good, Mary-Jo DelVecchio, Sandra Teresa Hyde, Sarah Pinto and Byron J. Good.

Postcolonial Disorders. University of California Press, 2006. Print.

Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence--from Domestic

Abuse to Political Terror. Basic Books, 2015. Kindle.

hooks, bell. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. Atria Books, 2004.

Hwang, David Henry. M. Butterfly. Plume, 1993. Kindle.

Mohanty, Chandra. Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity.

Duke University Press, 2003. Print.

Okparanta, Chinelo. Under the Udala Trees. Mariner Books, 2015. Print.

Oyěwùmí, Oyèrónkẹ́. The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender

Discourses. University of Minnesota Press, 1997. Kindle.

“Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America. 1 Jan

2016. Web.

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford

University Press, 1987. Kindle.

 © MPT 2020 

  • Facebook - Grey Circle
  • Twitter - Grey Circle
  • YouTube - Grey Circle
  • Instagram - Grey Circle
  • LinkedIn Social Icon