REVIEW COORDINATOR: Melissa Burchard
Trauma and the Loss of Self
Taking Oneself As Someone At All and Therapeutic Recognition
In this paper, I introduce two ideas that lie at the intersection of trauma and philosophy: (1) a particular self-conception that is best visible in cases of severe abusive trauma that I call “taking oneself as someone at all” and (2) the kind of response required to help restore this loss, which I call “therapeutic recognition.” My hope is that by describing these two ideas using various philosophical concepts and research found in authors as varied as Susan Brison, Thomas Nagel, Charles Mills, and psychiatrist Judith Herman, philosophy will be required to face the reality of trauma and the lived experience of victims and survivors. [Full abstract unavailable here.] I conclude that it is not the case that the trauma victim is “welcomed back” to the world she knew prior to her traumatic experiences; rather, it is the witness who joins the survivor’s world. In therapeutic recognition, both survivor and witness come to share a world and its underlying assumptions about how one’s physical safety and trust in others cannot be taken for granted. In this way, therapeutic recognition can restore the survivor’s ability to take herself as someone at all, among others, equally real.
One of the most devastating effects of severe trauma that psychiatrist Judith Herman describes in Trauma and Recovery(1) is the disconnection from others that trauma victims can experience. She notes the profound effect of this disconnection: the fundamental form of trust, first developed with our primary caregivers, is lost in traumatic experiences (51). She writes: “Thereafter, a sense of alienation, disconnection, pervades every relationship… When trust is lost, traumatized people feel that they belong more to the dead than to the living” (52). Trauma thus disconnects in the following manner: the perpetrator can take the victim out of the human fold to the point where she is unable to develop or maintain relationships with other people.
Part of what can feed this severe isolation is the lack of proper acknowledgement or recognition from others — particularly those who do not have any experience or even second-hand knowledge of what it is to experience trauma — of their traumatic experience(2). That is, there is a gap between trauma survivors and those who have not experienced trauma, who I will henceforth refer to as “non-survivors.” I am interested in this particular disconnecting effect where there is distance between survivors and non-survivors in understanding the experience of severe abusive trauma and its immediate aftermath(3).
In Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of the Self(4), philosopher and trauma survivor Susan Brison diagnoses this problem of not being able to understand and properly sympathize with survivors of sexual assault as one of never learning how to react to rape.
We lack the vocabulary for expressing appropriate concern, and we have no social conventions to ease the awkwardness… We do not learn — early or later in life — how to react to a rape. What typically results from this ignorance is bewilderment on the part of the victims and silence on the part of others, often the result of misguided caution(5).
In this paper, I am interested in exploring the question of how we should respond to a survivor’s trauma narrative. Put in other terms referred to above: How can we minimize the gap between survivors and non-survivors in understanding the experience of trauma, its aftermath, and recovery from it? If trauma disconnects victims from others, how can they genuinely reconnect with others and feel like they belong to the living, to the human community?
My answer to these questions comes from examining some philosophical literature on the self through the lens of severe abusive trauma. I suggest that trauma victims can lose a sense of self that I call “taking oneself as someone at all,” which I think can help us understand the specific kind of disconnection experienced by many survivors of severe abusive trauma. I then suggest that the loss of taking oneself as someone at all can be restored through a “therapeutic” or “restorative” form of recognition offered by others, and in particular, by those who have not encountered trauma first- or second-hand.
The upshots of this investigation at the relatively unexplored intersection of philosophy and trauma studies reverberates beyond the academy. The perspective of trauma is generally not assumed in philosophical reflections on the self and personhood; instead, ideal conditions are often assumed. I suspect, and worry, that those who have not experienced trauma similarly make assumptions that others they encounter are not traumatized. But this is mistaken, both in and out of the academy. First, given the number of people who have experienced sexual violence, human trafficking, child abuse, urban violence, and combat warfare, among other forms of extreme experiences, traumatic experiences are not uncommon(6). Secondly, it just cannot be known a priori whether someone has experienced any form of trauma. So I believe it is important to begin turning our assumptions around (if we hold them), such that we think about the likelihood of trauma rather than treat it as a “special” or rare case. When we do so, we may both better understand the self while also potentially responding better to survivors’ experiences of trauma.
The loss of taking oneself as someone at all
What exactly does it mean to be “disconnected” from others in the aftermath of severe abusive trauma? After a traumatic event, as Herman notes, despite physically surviving, victims often have trouble relating to others such that they “feel they belong to the dead.” I want to parse out how this disconnecting experience of trauma can reveal a particular kind of self-understanding, which I call “taking oneself as someone at all.” Taking oneself as someone at all can be lost when others fail to properly respond to trauma narrative or experience. We will see the extent to which philosophical literature can help us better understand this kind of self-understanding in terms of the disconnecting effect of trauma.
Susan Brison’s reflections on her own experiences of surviving sexual violence gives us a clear way to understand how she profoundly loses an important sense of her self when others fail to respond sufficiently to her trauma narrative, or the fact that she was severely traumatized. She describes what it was like in the immediate aftermath of having been attacked in broad daylight from behind, then sexually assaulted and left for dead in a ravine: “For the first several months after my attack, I led a spectral existence, not quite sure whether I had died and the world went on without me, or whether I was alive but in a totally alien world.”(7) This “spectral existence” manifests explicitly in a forensic examination post-trauma:
For about an hour the two [male doctors I had never seen before] went over me like a piece of meat, calling out measurements of bruises and other assessments of damage, as if they were performing an autopsy. This was just the first of many incidents in which I felt as if I was experiencing things posthumously. When the inconceivable happens, one starts to doubt even the most mundane, realistic perceptions. Perhaps I’m not really here, I thought, perhaps I did die in that ravine. The line between life and death, once so clear and sustaining, now seemed carelessly drawn and easily erased(8).
The feeling of leading a “spectral existence” is not limited to impersonal medical encounters; the effect manifests when Brison felt that well-intending relatives failed to express sufficient sympathy. Such relatives did not bring up the traumatic event for fear of reminding her of what happened. Brison’s reaction was: “Didn’t they realize I thought about the attack every minute of every day and that their inability to respond made me feel as though I had, in fact, died and no one had bothered to come to my funeral?”(9)
Despite having physically survived the life-threatening event, Brison’s sense of existence is diminished in ways where she feels isolated and alienated by the way that others — from medical staff to family members — respond to her after the traumatic experience. She does not “take herself as someone at all” in that she feels less alive than others because they do not understand what she has experienced, hovering in a purgatorial state somewhere between life and death(10).
Another way of understanding the diminished existence and disconnecting effect of trauma is by considering the flip-side of the self-conception Thomas Nagel emphasizes in The Possibility of Altruism(11) and The View From Nowhere(12) of understanding “oneself as merely a person among others equally real”(13). He takes as a starting point the reality of one’s own perspective, and suggests that we must think of our perspectives abstractly, “of ourselves as one point of view among others”(14). This self-conception, which takes no perspective to be privileged, is important for Nagel because he thinks it makes acting in the interests of others without ulterior motives of satisfying one’s own interests possible.
However, when considering the perspective of enduring and surviving trauma, it is Nagel’s starting point that is precisely thrown into question. For instance, Brison’s perspective seems unreal to her while the doctors examine her and when her relatives do not reach out, even with the good intentions of protecting her from reviving memories of the trauma. Nagel has no issue with the conception of the reality of one’s own perspective and instead takes as problematic the conceiving of the reality of other people’s perspectives; he begins with a strong self-conception, whereas for the trauma victim, a lack of sufficient response to traumatic experiences from others leads to the loss of or threat to her self-conception. The trauma survivor has the reverse problem as Nagel: she has no issue with the conception of the reality of other people’s perspectives, but she has great difficulty seeing her own perspective as real. Her problem is the experience of being among others equally real, while the emphasis in Nagel’s problem is understanding other people’s perspectives as equally real as his own. In Nagel’s case, it is the experience of being among others that is taken for granted. This reverse perspective of Nagel’s concern thus gives us another way of understanding the inability to take oneself as someone at all: everyone else’s point of view seems to be privileged, but it is not clear to the survivor whether she even has one anymore after the experience of severe abusive trauma.
A third way of understanding the disconnecting effect of trauma and the loss of taking oneself as someone at all can be found in Charles Mills’ essay “Non-Cartesian Sums,” where he explains the “whiteness of philosophy” and more generally, the nature of a “white universe,” from the perspective of a non-white person(15). He introduces the idea of “parallel universes,” where “universe” is taken metaphorically to refer to the set of assumptions and framework that shape and inform our experiences. In the “white universe,” in academic philosophy and beyond, certain assumptions are held as standard — take, for instance, an abstract claims and principles argued for in moral philosophy, such as Kant’s famous Categorical Imperative, stating in one formulation that we should always treat ourselves and others never as mere means, but as ends in themselves. But there is actually a second universe that runs parallel to this universe, where it is understood that, in fact, the abstract claims of the first universe have been historically systematically violated for non-whites. While most whites believe that the abstract claims and assumptions are genuine, oppressed non-whites, often for the sake of survival, must go on pretending that the abstractions hold universally despite procuring a consistent collection of experiences that prove otherwise. These universes partially overlap, but the non-white universe, “because of crucial variations in the initial parameters, goes radically askew”(16).
Parallel universes work similarly in the experience of trauma in the following way. There is one universe in which “most of us” live — that is, those who do not encounter any form of abusive trauma and who hold an underlying set of beliefs grounded in the assumption of one’s physical safety from human-induced trauma. We believe, or behave as though we believe, that the statistics are in our favor to not encounter abusive trauma from fellow humans. Furthermore, despite however much we might acknowledge that our identity can change in light of our experiences, we believe that our experiences will not be marked by trauma, and so we believe that our sense of “who we are” will remain intact.
But trauma narratives, like Brison’s, give us an opportunity to glimpse into the nature of severe abusive trauma: in fact, most of us — that is, empirically, the great number of people who encounter abusive trauma in various forms — live in the real world, where physical safety and trust in others cannot be taken for granted. These narratives confirm to us the possibility that the world is composed of the illusion that abusive trauma is anomalous. The survivor’s interlocutor is at a turning point and given the opportunity to determine whether the world is as the survivor describes. The interlocutor can deny the survivor’s world, thus continuing to exclude her from joining a human community again and further fortifying her sense that she is living in a separate, parallel world; or the interlocutor can stand as a genuine witness to the survivor’s experiences and consider the reality of the world that those experiences describe. If the interlocutor can do the latter, then, I suggest, the work of “therapeutic” recognition is at play: this kind of recognition is the bridge between the parallel universes, which helps to establish or restore the survivor’s sense that she is someone at all, genuinely among others, feeling as equally real as them.
Therapeutic recognition: Restoring the ability to take oneself as someone at all
We should now be able to understand disconnection better in a specific way: when non-survivors fail to respond to traumatic experiences and trauma narratives properly, survivors can lose their ability to take themselves as someone at all, where they feel less alive than others, unable to live “among others, equally real,” off in a world that runs parallel to non-survivors. The practical question naturally follows: How can their ability to take themselves as someone at all be restored, such that they feel among others, equally real, in a shared world?
I suggest that “therapeutic” recognition can bridge the gap between the non-survivor and survivor. Brison gives us concrete suggestions for how to respond to trauma narratives that indicate what therapeutic recognition might entail. She notes that it is not enough to construct a narrative; survivors need an audience.
In order to construct self-narratives we need not only the words with which to tell our stories, but also an audience able and willing to hear us and to understand our words as we intend them. This aspect of remaking a self in the aftermath of trauma highlights the dependency of the self on others and helps to explain why it is so difficult for survivors to recover when others are unwilling to listen to what they endured(17).
Herman makes a similar suggestion. It is not “simple pronouncements” relieving the victim of blame, but more specifically: “From those who bear witness, the survivor seeks not absolution but fairness, compassion, and the willingness to share the guilty knowledge of what happens to people in extremity”(18). So what can an audience do to “hear and understand the words [of a trauma narrative] as [the author] intends them,” to “bear witness” and “share the guilty knowledge of what happens to people in extremity”?
The first main feature of therapeutic recognition is the need for the witness to listen to the survivor’s narrative as it is told, particularly without interruptions, judgments, doubts, or opinions. For her, what was helpful to her was not to withhold talking about the assault for fear of reminding her of it. Rather, what she found supportive and useful was that she was given an opportunity and a safe space to talk about her experiences and concerns regarding the traumatic event. It is “conversational gridlock,” as well as victim-blaming that is to be avoided, not talking about the event altogether. She already thinks about the attack all the time, so for someone else to bring it up would give her the chance to have her experiences, the traumatic event, and her sense of being truly alive confirmed by others. The survivor needs others to recognize what she has already seen, and in recognizing her narrative, the survivor can begin to feel that she is connected to others in a community who attempt to share the same “guilty knowledge of what happens to people in extremity.”
There is a temptation to say that the witness “just” has to listen without interrupting with judgments and doubts about the narrative’s key facts or its overall veracity, as if this task is easy. But there can be different implications to listening. One can listen to the details of a trauma narrative to genuinely imagine what it was like to experience the traumatic event; one can also listen to the details of a trauma narrative to question the coherence of those details. The former can help a trauma survivor confirm her sense of self; the latter can throw the survivor’s confidence in her story-telling into doubt, and thus cast doubt on her sense of self. And judgments and doubts can be difficult for a speaker to even notice, much less suppress, because they are deeply tied to one’s sense of the world as predictably safe from events like abusive trauma. This leads to the second feature of therapeutic recognition: the witness must withhold the emotional need and tendency to deny that “this traumatic event could happen to me.” Brison makes this point clear:
My sense of unreality was fed by the massive denial of those around me… Where the facts would appear to be incontrovertible, denial takes the shape of attempts to explain the assault in ways that leave the observer’s world unscathed. Even those who are able to acknowledge the existence of violence try to protect themselves from the realization that the world in which it occurs is their world and so they find it hard to identify with the victim. They cannot allow themselves to imagine the victim’s shattered life, or else their illusions about their own safety and control over their own lives might begin to crumble. The most well-meaning individuals, caught up in the myth of their own immunity, can inadvertently add to the victim’s suffering by suggesting that the attack was avoidable or somehow her fault(19).
What makes it so difficult to avoid denying that abusive trauma is real can be attributed to having to imagine what is happening to the speaker, while also having to identify in some way with the speaker such that one ends up imagining oneself, or someone dear to oneself, enduring the same traumatizing experience. Brison refers to a friend “succumbing to the gambler’s fallacy,” who “pointed out that my having had such extraordinary bad luck meant that the odds of my being attacked again were now quite slim”(20). Embedded in this response is an expression of attempting to protect and preserve the friend’s sense of a safe world in which something so random could not happen without some rational explanation. In this case, the friend resorts to (a misunderstanding of) probability to help explain the seeming randomness of Brison’s attack. What the friend is avoiding is imagining and facing the idea that this event could happen to anyone, that the world can be a terrifying place where human beings can be traumatized by one another so badly that even when they do survive it, they do not fully feel alive. Like in victim-blaming, the friend is deflecting away from the truth and reality of (the victim’s) trauma in our world to preserve her sense of safety and trust in others, and she is thus not genuinely listening to Brison’s narrative.
So far I have mostly described therapeutic recognition in negative terms: listening to a trauma narrative without interrupting, and without deflecting away from the narrative’s details to try to preserve one’s own sense of the world as safe. Therapeutic recognition might be understood in a culminating, positive point: the interlocutor who “bears witness” to the survivor’s narrative does so when they shift from thinking, “This traumatic event can’t happen to me,” to realizing, “This can happen to me.” The survivor lives in a world where she knows that her safety and trust in others are not guaranteed and were never guaranteed in the first place, even though it may have seemed so all her life. When the witness who has not experienced trauma moves from thinking, “This could never happen to me” to “This could happen to me,” they have now entered the survivor’s world, leaving the world of illusory thoughts like “This can’t happen to me,” and more broadly, “The world is generally safe from traumatizing experiences,” behind. The successful witness who offers therapeutic recognition thus does not turn the focus of the victim’s story away from the victim and towards themselves. Rather, the victim’s story and the victim herself are the pivoting points around which the witness realizes, “This can happen to anyone, including me or someone I know.” When the witness makes this shift, they provide the victim with the sense that she is someone at all: her experiences were real, she is alive and not dead, and the witness accepts her story as part of her and “who she is,” rather than taking all of this to be a random, anomalous blip in the grand scheme of events. So she is not only someone at all, but someone at all because she is safely and securely connected to another person who recognizes her through listening to her trauma narrative, and accepting its ramifications about the nature of their shared world.
Thus I conclude that it is backwards to think that non-survivors “welcome” survivors “back” into the prior world of assumed safety, and that this is how survivors are pulled out of alienation, “spectral existence,” and “living posthumously.” Rather, it is the non-survivor who must make the difficult effort to join the survivor in her world, and this is done so by listening to her trauma narrative without judgment or doubt, and by coming to terms with the reality of her experience as that which can happen to anyone, including the non-survivor themselves. The aim of therapeutically recognizing the survivor’s trauma narrative and their sense of themselves as someone at all is to properly share a world with them, rather than giving them the sense that they have veered and spun off into a separate, isolated world. “Taking oneself as someone at all” and sharing a world with others cannot be assumed or taken for granted, but rather, should be understand as a joint achievement between the inhabitants of that shared world.
In this paper, I hope to have shown that it is worth thinking about the self and how the self relates to others from the perspective of having experienced severe abusive trauma. What becomes of our reflections on the self, others, and the world, both academically and practically, when we run into someone with a distressing trauma narrative? Perhaps we can learn to react to rape, to sexual violence, to severe abusive traumatic experiences and survivors’ trauma narratives, if we carefully consider our assumptions about trauma and the construction and maintenance of the self among others, equally real, in a shared world(21).
Susan Brison. Aftermath: Violence and Remaking of the Self. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
Judith Herman. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — From Domestic Abuse to Political
Terror. New York: Basic Books, 2015.
Thomas Nagel. The Possibility of Altruism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.
Thomas Nagel. The View From Nowhere. Oxford, England, UK: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Charles Mills. “Non-Cartesian Sums.” In Blackness Visible, 1-20. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,
- Judith Herman. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: Basic Books, 2015).
- I believe it is crucial to receive recognition of one’s trauma narrative from peer trauma survivors, but my main interest here is the relationship between the trauma survivor and someone who has not experienced a similar kind of traumatic event.
- I am interested in cases of what I call “severe abusive trauma,” such as sexual violence and child abuse. The phenomena I explore in this paper likely overlap with other kinds of traumatic experiences like combat warfare or surviving natural disasters, but the cases I came across in my research were those of severe abuse from an identifiable, and often singular, perpetrator.
- Susan Brison. Aftermath: Violence and Remaking of the Self (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).
- Brison, Aftermath, 12.
- Brison, Aftermath, 9.
- Brison, Aftermath, 8-9.
- Brison, Aftermath, 12-13.
- “Spectral existence” may sound like the rare neuropsychological condition known as Cotard’s Syndrome or Cotard’s Delusion, where one believes one’s body no longer exists or ceases to function properly, sometimes to the extent of self-starvation. However, my interest is not in the belief of one’s bodily existence or having illusory thoughts about one’s physical state; my interest is rather in the existential and relational phenomenon of feeling severe isolation and alienation from others.
- Thomas Nagel. The Possibility of Altruism. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979).
- Thomas Nagel. The View From Nowhere. (Oxford, England, UK: Oxford University Press, 1989).
- Nagel, The Possibility of Altruism, 14.
- Nagel, The View From Nowhere, 20.
- Charles Mills. “Non-Cartesian Sums” in Blackness Visible, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 1-20.
- Mills, “Non-Cartesian Sums” in Blackness Visible, 3-4.
- Brison, Aftermath, 51.
- Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 69.
- Brison, Aftermath, 9.
- Brison, Aftermath, 10.
- I wish to thank Anthony Laden for his guidance on thinking through and writing this material, Melissa Burchard for organizing the conference Philosophical Engagements with Trauma where I was afforded the opportunity to present this paper, and the participants of the conference who offered insightful and encouraging questions and comments on my paper.