The nature of trauma

There are a number of ways to consider psychological trauma, and perhaps the most common one is that the individual is overwhelmed by an event which they struggle to come to terms with.  This may either be an event in their early childhood, for example being sexually and/or physically abused; or may be something in their adult life (which of course could still involve some form of abuse).

The key point here, with regards to the ‘common’ idea of trauma, is that there is an ‘original’ event which is experienced as unbearable, and continues to be so unless there is some kind of therapeutic intervention.  A good example is that of someone who has a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which may be ‘caused’ (I will discuss the whole question of causation a bit later) by a major disturbance in their everyday life. This could be a mugging, a sexual assault, being caught up in a terrorist attack, being involved in a road traffic accident, or some other violent and disturbing event.

With PTSD, the emphasis tends to be on events that occur in the present, in the here-and-now, rather than in early childhood. Freud himself acknowledged that not all trauma originated in early childhood experiences, but rather in the here-and-now; he called these the actual neuroses. However, as I have already noted, some traumas can be traced back to early childhood experiences. And this is where problems start to arise with the whole idea of an ‘original cause’ or an ‘original event’ that can be seen as the basis of trauma.

One of Freud’s key, not to say peculiar, discoveries was that trauma occurs retroactively. In other words, it is not the ‘original event’, for example being sexually abused in early childhood, or being attacked in adulthood, that traumatises the individual. Rather, something else has to happen to the individual later on in their life that ‘triggers’ the trauma. For example, someone who was abused in early childhood may enter into an abusive relationship in their teens or early twenties and this can then ‘trigger’ the memory of the earlier abuse. However, at this point things start to get even more complicated. Strictly speaking, the abusive relationship in the person’s teens or early twenties (to keep with this example) is not a ‘reminder’ of the earlier, childhood abuse; rather, this ‘secondary abuse’ constructs the memory of the ‘primary (childhood) abuse’, at which point the individual becomes traumatised. This is not to suggest for one moment that the abuse did not take place in the person’s childhood. The key point here is that at the time (in this case, in the individual’s early childhood) such experiences were not (necessarily) experienced as either abusive or traumatic. Rather, there is more likely to be a feeling of unease or even bemusement; a feeling that something rather strange has happened but the individual can’t quite figure out what it is or whether it should have happened in the first place.

It is only when the individual is confronted by a similar type of experience, later on in their life, that they can register it for what it actually is, and it’s precisely at this moment of realisation that the person becomes traumatised. Freud’s term for this ‘retroactive trauma’ is Nachträglichkeit, which is often mistranslated as ‘deferred action’. This mistranslation gives rise to the (false) notion that the second event ‘reawakens’ the memory of the original experience. A better translation is the rather awkward term ‘afterwardness’, although personally I prefer to stick with the German Nachträglichkeit. 

The key point here is that the ‘original’ event does not ‘cause’ the trauma; rather, the trauma is constructed around a later experience. I realise that this is a somewhat peculiar concept to get one’s head round, and there is always a danger that it might appear to downplay or even deny the existence of such an ‘original’ or ‘primary’ event that may indeed have been abusive. However, it should be pointed out that it is only through the occurrence of the later experience, and the resulting traumatisation of the individual that follows, that the existence of the ‘original’ or ‘primary’ experience is brought to light in the first place. And it should be remembered that this ‘second’ event may not occur until years or even decades after the ‘primary’ one. This helps explain how the symptoms of PTSD, for example in combat veterans, only appear many years after the events themselves. It may also help shed some light on the whole concept of historical sex abuse.

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