Spring 2009, Vol. 17, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

New Directions in Trauma Studies

An Interview with Vivien Green Fryd

Vivien Green Fryd

The 2008-2009 Warren Center Fellows’ Program, “New Directions in Trauma Studies,” will examine the emerging field of trauma studies and will work to define its boundaries and enhance the field through interdisciplinary discussion. The Fellows believe that by addressing the lived experiences of trauma through an interdisciplinary humanistic lens, their work will augment the theoretical understanding of individual and collective experiences of trauma, will intervene in the suffering that results from trauma, and will assist in trauma prevention. The program’s director is Vivien Green Fryd, professor of history of art. Letters recently joined Professor Fryd at the Vaughn Home to discuss the ongoing seminar.

LETTERS: In your proposal, you assert that we’re living in “an age of trauma that […] deserves further attention.” For the purposes of your study, what constitutes trauma?

FRYD: In 1980, the American Psychiatric Medical Association had come up with the term Posttraumatic Stress Disorder for the first time. It was a result of people returning from the Vietnam War and experiencing what they identified as PTSD—which involves anxiety, disassociation, depression, and flashbacks. The list of symptoms goes on. At the same time, feminists began to argue that women who had experienced sexual trauma were also experiencing PTSD. Thus, trauma is a clinical, psychological problem that individuals experience when there’s an extreme incident and rupture in their lives that creates so many problems that they have difficulty engaging in normal day-to-day activities. Today, 9/11 is a perfect example, as are the earthquake in China and the cyclone in Myanmar. These are all examples of people who’ve had an extreme experience that causes these various symptoms—and it’s something that can still go unrecognized as a clinical problem. Watching the news yesterday, I heard that the Veterans’ Administration is talking about the fact that Iraqi vets need additional help, and it seems like a no-brainer; hadn’t they already figured this out with the Vietnam War? It’s an issue that keeps recurring. Trauma can be individual or it can be collective—that is, that more than one person experiences it at the same time. You do not have to have lived in New York during 9/11; you can live in Nashville, Tennessee and have posttraumatic stress experiences about being afraid to fly. Sometimes I get on a subway somewhere, and I will think, “boy, this would be a great place for somebody to bomb”; that would be an example of cultural trauma. Then there are generational examples where trauma gets passed down from one generation to the next—and it can also be trans-generational, in particular among African Americans having to do with the residue of slavery and how it affects their current lives.

LETTERS: What issues do you hope this seminar will develop or seek to answer?

FRYD: When I was talking about PTSD first being defined, I left out the Holocaust. But it was the Holocaust and the Vietnam War that were the two big events that led to the Psychiatric Association defining it as a disorder. It was in 1980 that feminists came on board, and in the 1970s that the rape crisis movement came about with Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will and with feminists in the arts and literature ending the silence about rape and sexual violence in American culture, raising questions about rape as an exercise of power and domination rather than sex. Trauma studies began with Freud, who was the first one to talk about trauma, although he initially talked about it as female hysteria—and he saw it in a number of his female patients. What’s interesting is that so many people have problems with his talking about female hysteria—which today we now identify as trauma—which usually is linked to sexual abuse—incest, rape, things linked with childhood events—but he then came up with his theory of the Oedipal complex that replaced hysteria as a “woman’s problem.” It wasn’t until World War I that he returned to accepting the idea of trauma—men returning from war with trauma, which he saw in relation to the trauma of his female patients. He was the first to talk about it; again, though, a lot of people were rejecting what he was saying. One of his students even delivered a paper rejecting everything that Freud said about trauma. So it’s very contentious. There’s actually an organization—which started in the 1992—called the False Memory Association, which emerged from two particular cases. One involved a grown woman who had memories of her father committing incest. Her mother, Pamela Freyd, started the association. The other was the very famous case of children in the McMartin Preschool who had reported abuse; the False Memory Association argued that therapists had planted false memories. It’s a contentious issue, and some people have problems accepting the fact that trauma can, in fact, occur.

LETTERS: What do current scientific studies say about trauma and how do you approach that information from your discipline?

FRYD: The way in which my brain functions is to look at how trauma and representation intersect—visual intersections in high art and popular culture, in movies and pornography, in comic books or in literature—and I’m interested in the ways in which works of art can act as testimonies giving voice to that which is silenced. I’m interested in how trauma is silenced. The Holocaust is a great example in a family with Holocaust survivors—I talk about this having read about it and having lived it because my mother was a Holocaust survivor herself. Anytime the Holocaust came up when I was a child, it was “shh, don’t talk about it.” And the same thing happens, I think, with incest in a lot of families. I’m interested in how viewers and readers bear witness and acknowledge the reality of such traumas.

LETTERS: Are there any specific results you hope the group’s work will produce?

FRYD: I’m really interested in whether trauma can be healed. Is it possible for psychotherapy to heal trauma? I believe that it can, but healing doesn’t mean you’re free of it. Trauma stays with you—it always comes back. But is it possible for a work of art to heal a trauma—or to stimulate a trauma? Can it work as a visual cue that can resurrect a past trauma? I have been reading about ways in which neuro-psychologists have studied the brain to understand trauma-effects, then I met with a colleague, David Zald, from the psychology department; it turns out that he does studies on the brain and he talked about how the amygdala—which modulates memory and controls responses linked to fear—is triggered during experiences of trauma. It enhances memory and coding, and trauma affects the cortex so that you can’t access those memories. Clearly it’s more complex than this. I’m fascinated by the fact that scientists are using MRIs and other equipment to look at the brain and are realizing that PTSD literally codes itself within brain activity. Someone’s inability to remember—a survivor of Vietnam, the Holocaust, incest—emerges out of an extreme experience that causes a rupture that prevents access to what particularly happened. And one may never be able to remember it again. It’s fascinating. I’m a little disappointed that we don’t have a participant in the sciences who’s doing this kind of work, but I’m hoping to bring in outside speakers on the issue.

LETTERS: You mentioned war and its effects on PTSD. You also mentioned the effects of natural disasters in China and Myanmar as factors affecting trauma. Are there clear differences between the trauma civilians experience and the type that soldiers experience? Is it a difference of degree rather than kind?

FRYD: It makes me think of [Hurricane] Katrina and something my daughter said yesterday. I was invited to present a paper at a conference in New Orleans, and I asked her if she’d like to come down with me and look at schools like Tulane. And her response was, “Mom, I wouldn’t want to live down there because there’s going to be another Katrina.” And I thought, this was her response to trauma, and it reminds me of my own experience. Because my mom was a survivor of the Holocaust, as a child I believed that if I told people I was Jewish, I could be rounded up and taken off to a concentration camp; so I hid my Judaism as a child. It was so alarming to hear my daughter say that, and I had to acknowledge that this was her response to trauma. I don’t watch the news a lot—I mean I listen to NPR—but I don’t watch a lot of TV, so she wasn’t inundated with it. So this is an example of how trauma becomes culturally ingrained, a social dynamic. Race is also such an issue, and Katrina is your basic example as far as what happened to minorities who were living there.

LETTERS: It seems that a host of socioeconomic factors come into play in trauma studies. To follow up on China and Myanmar, does nationality and how certain populations interact with disasters have a major effect on trauma? To what extent does a person’s nationality inform how she will deal with her experiences?

FRYD: It makes me think about the Lost Boys [of Sudan] who settled here in Nashville. They’ve opened up an art exhibit in town; it would be fascinating to go and talk to them about their art and about how they deal with their memories of their trauma. What happens to the people who’ve had continuous traumatic experiences like these and have moved to the U.S. to begin what we consider a normal life? The Lost Boys, Vietnam and Iraqi vets, incest and Holocaust survivors—how are they affected upon entering into normal life? Survivors of trauma always have that residue that affects them emotionally and physically.

LETTERS: You mention in your proposal that this seminar differs from other trauma theory groups in that it takes an interdisciplinary approach. How do you see the field benefiting from the contributions not only from medicine and law, but also the humanities and social sciences?

FRYD: The strength of anything that takes place at the humanities center is that you have people coming together to talk about the issue. Trauma studies is not usually discussed from an interdisciplinary point of view. There are many, many wonderful books on trauma studies—some on Holocaust survivors, some on Vietnam Vets, some, although fewer, on visual representations of trauma—and what we’re trying to do is bring it all together. What’s fascinating is that it turns out there’s going to be conference in Australia in December 2008 that will deal with trauma from an interdisciplinary point of view. It’s fascinating that it takes place at exactly the same time as our seminar, and that we didn’t know about it, and they didn’t know about us. I think that what we’re proposing to do is really new—and that the people in Australia are on board with us!

LETTERS: How do other factors such as age and gender factor into the group’s work on trauma studies? How essential are they to your own work?

FRYD: That’s something of interest in my work—I’m finding that women and children are not the only victims of rape. Men can be victims in rape, and it doesn’t have to be in prisons, where we’re familiar with it, or in churches—and it doesn’t have to be male-on-male. It can be female-on-male. There are some people who’ve written on male rape, but it’s largely an issue that doesn’t enter into the larger American culture. This became a topic that emerged from the women’s movement, when some men involved in anti-rape crisis approaches in the 1980s uncovered that not only are women socially constructed, but so are men, and not only are women raped, but so are men. The issue of gender becomes interesting. Trauma studies is a very difficult topic; how do you deal with trauma studies when you’ve experienced trauma, and how do you approach it from an intellectual, detached point of view—and does it have to be a detached point of view if it’s personal? When is it personal? It’s fascinating. I’m writing a book titled Representing Sexual Trauma in Contemporary American Art. The number of people who respond to this topic is amazing; I wish I had a video. Because most people show incredible surprise and shock, and I get the question, “what got you interested in that?” It puzzles them. Other work I’ve done, people want to hear more—but with trauma studies, people can’t understand why you work on this and they can only joke, “oh, a light topic, haha.” Why would you choose something so difficult? There are a group of us who do it, and we own up that it’s difficult.

LETTERS: You mentioned before that trauma is a timely issue. At what point did you begin to work on trauma, and what inspired you to propose this seminar?

FRYD: My interest in trauma studies really came from my decision to write about the representation of rape and sexual violence in American visual art. I wrote a rough draft and sent it to readers; and when I got comments back, the readers skirted around the issue that I needed to conceptualize trauma studies. So I realized I wanted to do more reading, and not only would I never turn down a chance to work at the Warren Center, I also thought it was right up my alley. What I didn’t realize when I decided to get on board was how invested I’d become. Even though my book manuscript will be done in the fall, I’ll still be able to refine my ideas. My next project will also be on a photographer who’s a Holocaust survivor—my uncle—so it’s not surprising that I’m engaged in trauma studies right
now. It’s timely in my personal life as well
as historically.

LETTERS: Thank you for sharing insight into the discussions that have shaped the seminar so far. The project has great potential not only for shaping an important emergent field, but also for shaping how we deal with trauma outside of
the humanities..

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