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TRAUMA, NARRATIVE, AND THE MARGINAL SELF IN SELECTED
CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN NOVELS
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
I would like to thank my dissertation committee--Norman Holland, Andrew
Gordon, Malini Schueller, and Hernan Vera--for their suggestions, constructive criticism,
and, most of all, encouragement and patience throughout the entire writing process. I also
thank my parents for their love and support, as well as Fulbright Program and Rotary
International for their scholarships, which helped me financially for many years of the
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A CK N OW LED GM EN TS ..................................................... ................................. ii
A B ST R A C T ............... ...................................................................................... v
1 THE MARGINAL SELF AND TRAUMA: THE STRANDED SUBJECT
IN THE PERFIDIOUSLY CONSTRUCTED HISTORY ..........................................
Trauma, the Quandary of the Marginal Self .......................................... ...............
The Other as the Uncanny Shadow of the Self.............. ...........................................7
Identity and the Narrative Function of Healing and Defiance.................................11
2 TRAUMA AND NARRATIVE: THE BROKEN CONNECTION OF THE
SELF IN TONI MORRISON'S THE BLUESTEYE...............................................19
"Insidious" Trauma: Suppressed Histories and the Foreclosed Self ..........................19
The Failure of Selfobjects and Deformation of Love...............................................31
Traumatic Encounters: Desymbolization and the Creation of the "Othered" Self.....48
3 THE OPEN WOUND OF TRAUMA AND THE HOLOCAUST IN ISAAC
BASHEVIS SINGER'S ENEMIES, A LOVE STORY..............................................82
The Holocaust: The Site of the Annihilated Ontological Landscape of Selfhood .....83
Trauma, Narrative, and Mourning in Holocaust Literature......................................94
Isaac Bashevis Singer's Enemies, A Love Story: A Novel of the Uncanny
Haunting, the Traumatic Wound, and Repetition.....................................101
4 THE INTERSTITIAL PLIGHT OF A MINORITY SUBJECT AND THE
TRAUMA OF SOCIAL ABJECTION IN CHANG-RAE LEE'S
N A TIVE SP E A K E R ........................................................................ ..................... 140
The Interstitial Ethnic Subject and Abjection........................................................140
Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker, A Novel of Immigration and Trauma ...............54
Post-1965 Immigration and the Interstitial Predicament...................................156
An Inverted Oedipal Drama and a Traumatic Chain of Unspoken Grief ................. 166
The Model Minority and the Aborted "Family Romance"..................................186
The Language Game and an Open-Ended Ending .................... .................209
5 SURVIVING TRAUMA AND THE POLITICS OF MOURNING........................221
Traumatic Haunting, Interpretation, and the Politics of Mourning ..........................221
Restaging Traum a or Traum atic Restaging .............................................................226
BIBLIOGRAPHY ........................................................ .......... .. ............ 231
BIOGRAPH ICAL SKETCH ...................................................... 247
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
TRAUMA, NARRATIVE, AND THE MARGINAL SELF IN SELECTED
CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN NOVELS
Chair: Norman N. Holland
Major Department: English
This dissertation examines trauma from a psychosocial perspective, with a specific
focus on the issues of social oppression, disempowerment, and disenfranchisement of the
minority subject in America. Trauma describes the disenfranchised pain and grief that
cannot be integrated into a person's general meaning structure and belief system. The
unspoken grief of minority subjects and their social abjection remain outside the realm of
the social symbolic. This study analyzes the traumas of minority subjects portrayed in
selected contemporary American novels and examines the narrative functions of healing
Chapter 1 contextualizes some of the fundamental issues of this
dissertation and examines the relationship between trauma, identity, and narrative. It
discusses the constitutive role narrative plays in the development of identity and explores
the possible role narrative can play in altering the social symbolic for designated victims
Chapter 2 examines the impact of racism on African-Americans by
analyzing the deformation of love in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, with a focus on the
intergenerational transferral of racial self-loathing, the backdrop of layered traumas
Morrison depicts. I use the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut's concept of selfobject and
explain the psychological impact of racism on the marginalized group in terms of the lack
of idealizing and mirroring selfobjects.
Chapter 3 deals with the Holocaust and its survivors, with a focus on Isaac
Bashevis Singer's Enemies, A Love Story. By examining various symptoms of trauma and
the uncanny haunting by the past catastrophe Singer portrays in his characters, I read the
Holocaust allegorically as an open wound of history not worked through.
Chapter 4 discusses the issues of immigration and cross-cultural passage
by analyzing the interstitial plight of Asian-Americans portrayed in Chang-rae Lee's
Native Speaker. By reading the dynamics of the immigrant family in terms of an inverted
oedipal drama, I examine how the precarious subject position of Asian-Americans as
inside-outsiders triggers a distorted assimilative desire.
Chapter 5 examines questions of interpretation and the politics of mourning,
and concludes by exploring the performative, healing function of trauma literature.
THE MARGINAL SELF AND TRAUMA: THE STRANDED SUBJECT IN THE
PERFIDIOUSLY CONSTRUCTED HISTORY
Trauma: an event in the subject life defined by its intensity,
by the subject's incapacity to respond adequately to it, and
by the upheaval and long-lasting effects that it brings about
in the psychical organization.
J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis
Trauma, the Quandary of the Marginal Self
Trauma is a liminal experience of radical deracination and calamity that brings
about a violent rupture of the order on both the personal and the social level. It
annihilates the sense of continuity in our lives and our self-narratives, bringing to the fore
the contingency of our lives. It destroys the "fundamental assumptions" or "the bedrock
of our conceptual system," which helps us to conveniently manage and confidently
transform a myriad of random experiences into a certain view of our reality.1 Not feeling
like oneself due to a sudden, violent change is the "hallmark of being traumatized,"
according to Charles Edward Robins, who treated many survivors of the tragedy of
September 11, 2001, including those who were at the World Trade Center when the
tragedy happened.2 As The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term, trauma was
originally a medical term used to refer to "a wound or an external bodily injury," or "a
psychic injury, especially one caused by emotional shock the memory of which is
repressed and remains unhealed" or "the state or condition so caused." But it has also
become a word widely circulated in a more general and figurative use. Common to both
the medical and the contemporary common use of the term, as well as to Freud's
definition of trauma as a "breach" in the "protective barrier"3 are the elements of shock
It has becomes a truism to say that we live in an age of trauma and testimony. The
bombarding news of war and genocide in different parts of the world and the abiding
presence of terrorist threats within the borders of the United States have become part of
people's daily lives as they find themselves just a few sound bites away from the site of
violence when they watch the evening news. Particularly after the tragedy of September,
11, 2001 struck the nation, which plunged the threshold of people's general sense of
safety and security, it is no longer possible to envision a world immune from the pain of
others and the immediacy of danger that can ravage one's life without warning. The
repercussions of catastrophic events cannot be safely contained within regional and
temporal borders and travel rapidly these days. In this vein, Kirby Farrell, as if uncannily
predicting the devastating disaster that would shake the entire nation just a few years
later, analyzed the dominant cultural narratives of the nineties and called ours a "Post-
traumatic Culture."4 Similarly, Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub's argument that
testimony is a "crucial mode of our relation to events of our times"5 is even more relevant
nowadays when we find ourselves surrounded by inundating, instantaneous media
coverage and reports about almost every kind of human catastrophe.
We now live in a culture that is immersed in the permeating atmosphere of
unpredictable but imminent hazard and crisis, for the advanced technologies of
information processing expose them to an instantaneous reliving of cataclysmic incidents.
One of the striking characteristics of trauma is the salient visual aspect of its "episodic"
memory, which, unlike the general "semantic" memory, is highly emotionally charged
and stays in an activated, "primed" state without being integrated with other memories.6
Thus, it is not surprising that those who have watched the instantaneous and repeatedly
played out scenes of violence or atrocity, like the attack on and collapse of World Trade
Center, cannot shake the "indelible" memories. Yet there can be possible negative
consequences ensuing from the hypervisual and hypersignified presence of trauma in our
The increasing circulation of images and the incessant influx of cataclysmic
incidents covered by the media can lead to two opposite ways of relating to others' pain:
desensitization to and objection of others and their tragedies or a secondhand
victimization or traumatization. A pervasive cultural atmosphere saturated by images and
narratives of violence may desensitize people to what they see and hear, making it just
another mundane part of their daily lives. As Michael W. Smith warns by invoking Jean
Baudrillard's postmodern theory of simulacra and simulation, in "the postmodern world
lacking distance or interiority, where everything occurs instantaneously and is explicitly
visible," the "fatal" collapse and erasure of the distinction between appearance and reality
can occur.7 In an even worse case, the observer of others' trauma, as Patricia Yaeger
cautions us about the increasing trend in the academic world to talk and publish about the
dead, atrocities, and haunting, can sometimes turn into a "consumer" of the "pornography
of violence" who ends up "merely circulating" the signs and discourse of trauma, which
is already dissociated from the lived history of the victims, and objectifying or
revictimizing others who already suffered enough.8
A different kind of danger can also arise from being heavily exposed to the signs
and narratives of trauma. If people do manage to maintain an empathic stance toward the
victims of trauma and their tragedies without falling into the trap of postmodern
simulation, or into the lure of objectifying others' pain by propagating purely intellectual
discourses about them, they still face another hazard: the risk of suffering vicariously
from the excruciating pains and violence they indirectly witness. A prolonged exposure
to others' calamities can influence, change, and even traumatize those who interact with
them. In addition, the impact of the post-traumatic condition is not confined only to one
generation. As many testimonies of Holocaust survivors and their children show, the
persistent, pernicious power of trauma, which is intergenerationally transferred, does not
fade and haunts the children of trauma survivors. A daughter of a Holocaust survivor
expresses the ominous presence of her parents' war time ordeal and memories:
"'.s//i,tIh it's my shadow, like footsteps walking up behind me."'9
If not worked through properly, trauma and its ominous, fatal aura of doom can
influence others "as through a kind of wordless osmosis."10 Unless translated into a
meaningful narrative and placed in a proper context, strengthened by communal support
and the willingness of both survivors and bystanders to engage attentively in the arduous
process of undoing the injury, traumatic events and the memories of the events will
remain either disparate, fragmented bits of information and empty noises, or the toxic
remains of the past people want to avoid and turn their backs on.
Then how can we work through trauma to stop its vicious cycle of devastation
without falling victims to it? How can we maintain proper respect and optimum distance
when we regard and discuss the pain and trauma of others? What aspects of trauma make
it particularly difficult to work through and mourn for the past catastrophe? What
alternative mode of community or sense of community should we forge, if, as Susan
Sontag maintains in her discussion of the role of photographs portraying the distressing
agony and violence inflicted upon others, "no 'we' should be taken for granted when the
subject is looking at other people's pain"?1 What kind of role does narrative play in the
process of working through trauma and undoing trauma victims' "entrapment" in their
catastrophic past by "re-externalizing the event" that has "gone inside without [the self s]
mediation?12 These are the key questions that address issues of trauma, testimony, and
working through from an ethical perspective.
Yet it is important to differentiate between being exposed to the real-life trauma
such as the tragedy of 9/11 or the Holocaust and being exposed to the trauma of fictional
characters. The depiction of the traumatized takes on a different implication and plays a
different role in the literary, fictional world than in the real-life situation. Since the
trauma of fictional characters takes place in a highly controlled, artistic way in the
literary world, the impact of fictional characters' trauma on the reader is much more
mediated and controlled. In addition, the narrative function of healing and defiance,
which the author produces by his or her sustained empathic stance toward victims of
trauma, critiques the traumatogenic forces in society that bring about the real-life trauma
and helps to create an alternative vision of society that is not founded upon the
subjugation of selected designated victims or minorities.
In my dissertation, I approach trauma mainly from a psychosocial perspective
with a specific focus on the issues of social oppression, disempowerment, and
disenfranchisement of the minority subject in America. As Robert Jay Lifton argues, in
every society there is a group of "designated victims," whom people create to "live off'
both economically and psychologically.13 These designated victims meet the society's
need for pariahs and people to look down upon in order to shore up its ideal ego. In
America, people of color and ethnic subjects, discriminated and often exploited because
of their race or their ethic backgrounds different from those of white Americans, are the
dark shadow of the American dream and the founding egalitarian principle of the nation.
If trauma is fundamentally about the radically devastating experience of having
one's world irreparably fractured by an intrusive force that is beyond one's control, then
minority subjects, who are discriminated and denigrated by society, bear all the time the
overwhelming weight of such intrusive force. Hence, their traumas, which are the result
of constant stress and a prolonged exposure to the ever-present threat of oppression and
humiliation, are different from those resulting from one distressing incident. As Laura S.
Brown, in her analysis of the invisible psychic scar of the socially underprivileged, points
out by drawing on Maria P. P. Root's concept of "insidious trauma," there are
"traumatogenic effects of oppression that are not necessarily overtly violent or
threatening to bodily well-being at the given moment but that do violence to the soul and
I call the self of the traumatized "marginal" for several different reasons. First, by
the term "marginal" I refer to a feeling of disorganization and helplessness that traumatic
incidents induce in their victims. Traumatic catastrophes or conditions of life put people's
world off-kilter, producing a subjective sense of being alienated from the center of their
being. In addition, I also use the term "marginal" in the sense that the victims of trauma
are marginalized and occupy a degraded position in society as a result of their harrowing
experiences. Going through traumatizing events, researchers maintain, creates a
"contaminated identity" for victims, which breaks their spirit and makes them shunned by
others.15 Furthermore, trauma robs its victims of the means to process whatever upheaval
they go through and pushes them to the abysmal periphery of the society. Consequently,
the peripheral zone, to which the traumatized are driven, is an symbolic zone of chaos,
utter aloneness, and shame-inducing marginality. Finally, the term "marginal" also refers
to the position of degradation and exclusion a certain group of people are forced to
occupy because of their race, gender, or ethnicity. When the victims of trauma are
already "peripheral," disempowered members of community, the traumatic experiences
they endure constitute an additional assault on their integrity and safety. The catastrophic
site of trauma is a site of the unacknowledged or unfathomable loss and pain of the
marginal self, and their loss and pain need to be placed in the context of communal
support and attentive, empathic listening. In order to do so, a new way of perceiving the
relationship between the self and the other is necessary.
The Other as the Uncanny Shadow of the Self
One of the ethical and political thrusts of trauma studies lies in the fact that
traumatic incidents, as Jenny Edkins points out, are "overwhelming but they are also a
revelation."16 That trauma is so painful and hard to cope with has to do with the fact it
shatters the harmoniously synchronized illusions that support our self-centered view of
the world and gloss over the gaps and fissures of our social fabric. "Trauma," as Edkins
argues, "is what happens when [what is] normally hidden by the social reality in which
we live our daily lives, is suddenly revealed."17 Although referring to the different
context of immigration, not directly related to trauma, Julia Kristeva also astutely
remarks, "The ear is receptive to conflicts only if the body loses its footing. A certain
imbalance is necessary, a swaying over some abyss, for a conflict to be heard."18
Traumatic events forcefully make us confront the fact that there exists something that
elides or surpasses our neatly regulated and maintained paradigm of the world. Slavoj
Zizek in this respect compares trauma to the Lacanian Real, which "is a shock of a
contingent encounter which disrupts the automatic circulation of the symbolic
mechanism" and is comparable to "a grain of sand preventing [the symbolic
mechanism's] smooth functioning," for it "ruins the balance of the symbolic universe of
Through the fissures that the violent intrusion of the Real creates, we sometimes
glimpse certain anxiety- and guilt-provoking constitutive elements of our society that we
repudiate and relegate to the realm of the personal or social unconscious, because they
are not congruent with the system of meanings that supports and safely ensconces our
existences in the world we comfortably inhabit. The historical trauma of slavery and
racism in America that served to shore up the white hegemonic self and the national ideal
of freedom and equality, for example, are the revelatory symptoms of the repressed and
unclaimed experiences that ultimately underpin and anchor the unfounded grounding of
the seemingly "perfect" and seamlessly unified society.
The known but unacknowledged presence of devalued, denigrated others is, to
borrow Toni Morrison's term, one of the "unspeakable things unspoken,"20 because it
buttresses and maintains the social status quo by subjugating minority groups to the
arbitrary rule of the hegemonic group for the political and economic gains of the latter at
the expense of the former. And the perpetuation of the structural injustice of society is
made possible by the "lethal discourses of exclusion blocking access to cognition for both
the excluder and the excluded."21 As a result, the lethal discourses of exclusion create a
distorted relationship between the self and the other, in which the discriminated,
subordinate minority subject, via a series of psychic mechanisms of internalization and
identification dictated by the dominant rules of society, is reborn as the dark and uncanny
shadow of the hegemonic self.
In explaining the devalued and discriminated minority subject as the dark, uncanny
shadow of the hegemonic self, I invoke the phrase "dark continent," a term Freud used to
describe female sexuality, which is a symptomatic nodal point of simultaneous
fascination, degradation, and dread.22 I also draw on Julia Kristeva's theory of abjection,
and her view of the intimate relationship between the self and the other. "Abject,"
Kristeva argues, "is something rejected from which one does not part," and abjectionn"
"disturbs identity, system, order" for it is the "in-between, the ambiguous, the
The self on the margin is the self, to use Kristeva's term, that suffers from abjection
by society, which fails to realize that the other it persecutes and expels to the limit of its
territory is none other than the projected shadow of itself, just as the uncanny is actually
the familiar and known that has been made into the strange and alien by repression.24
Since the protective wall between the self and the denigrated other is set up to prevent the
return of the repressed and to ensure social stability, the other provokes anxiety, fear, and
at the same time, forbidden fascination. The other, trapped within the wall of the inverted,
hegemonic logic of abjection, becomes the dark shadow of the privileged member of the
mainstream society. As Franz Fanon discusses in his well-known episode about the shock
and terror he felt at being labeled "Nigger" by a frightened white boy,25 confronting the
fact that one has been reduced to the dark shadow of the other, and that one's existence
can be reified into a despised object by the other's judging gaze brings about dire,
traumatic psychic consequences.
Erik H. Erikson provides an effective example of the psychic toll social abjection
exacts from an early age in life from a member of minority group. In one of his
developmental case studies examining children's development of identity and social
consciousness, through their pattern of play, Erikson gives a poignant but chilling
example illustrating how the detrimental social stance toward minorities infiltrates the
mind of the most innocent member of society at a tender age, warping his self-concept
and eroding his self-esteem.26 In his study of about one hundred fifty young children aged
ten, eleven, and twelve, conducted for over a year and a half, Erikson set up a play table
and asked them to play with toys they randomly selected in order to create a movie scene.
The case that deserves our attention concerns a boy whom Erikson identifies as "one of
the colored" and "the smallest" of them. He built his toy scene "under the table." The
black boy's seemingly innocent action reveals that he has already internalized the racist
ideology, which assigns to people of color negatively prescribed, debased subject
positions in its social hierarchy. Since the basic tenet of Erikson's experiment is that
"seemingly arbitrary themes tend to appear which on closer study prove to be intimately
related to the dynamics of the person's life story," he notices the peculiarity manifested in
the boy's creative play as a "chilling evidence of the meaning of his smiling meekness:
he 'knows' his place."27 The ominous implication of the black boy's "knowing his place"
at such an early age is obvious.
To be the cultural, racial, or ethnic other who exists on the margins of society and
to have others' definition of oneself thrust upon one is traumatic. As Gayatri Chakravorty
Spivak observes, the concept and state of marginality work by the "principle of
identification through separation."28 The other is an ideational construct, or the dark
shadow of the self, which the self-centered, tendentious logic of hegemony creates by
various mechanisms of identification through separation, such as splitting, projection, and
displacement. Emphasizing the imaginary nature of identification, Judith Butler explains
how the social symbolic compels its subjects into performative acts, which take place in
relation to societal demands, prohibitions, and fear: "[Identifications] are phantasmatic
efforts of alignment, loyalty, ambiguous and cross-corporeal cohabitation; they unsettle
the 'I'; they are the sedimentation of the 'we' in the constitution of any 'I.' they are
that which is constantly marshaled, consolidated, retrenched, contested. ." 29 A sad
truth is that for the minority subject, the "sedimentation of the 'we'" in his or her
"constitution of the 'I'" involves elements of abjection, denigration, and
disempowerment. Consequently, if he or she internalizes the self-denigrating rhetoric of
the dominant society long enough, he or she becomes a stranded subject in the long
perfidious history, which is constructed and engineered by the self-serving hegemonic
Identity and the Narrative Function of Healing and Defiance
Victims of trauma, like the victims of other kinds of calamities and social injustice,
are, Homi Bhabha asserts, the ones who are "signified upon," and thus in order to be free
from the debilitating grip of helplessness, it is necessary for them to "unspeak."30 Those
studying the close relationship between identity and narrative agree on the constitutive
role narrative plays in the development and maintenance of identity. "Identity essentially
is a narrative matter," and narratives communicate "what is significant" and how "things
matter" to people.31 Therefore, it is integral for those who have what Hilde Lindeman
Nelson calls socially "damaged" identities as a result of their continuous exposure to and
internalization of the insidiously colonizing, denigrating rhetoric of the hegemonic group,
to construct a "counterstory" that can unsettle the cumulative history of subjugation and
help them to extricate themselves from the trap of victimization.32
It is true that, as psychoanalysis shows, people live in a subjectively constructed
world, and hence, how they construct their worlds differs from person to person.
Although for minority subjects, this process of narrative and identity construction is
likely to unwittingly include a component of self-denigration, not all minority subjects
respond to their marginalization in the same, passive way. Therefore, it is possible to
"talk back," or "write back" to alter the social symbolic that inflicts a detrimental psychic
wound on the designated victims of society.
It is my contention that the question of trauma, especially that of social trauma,
which is essentially a matter of radical violence and violation inflicted on the helpless,
can be boiled down to an issue of a symbolic "tear" in the victim's self-narrative, as well
as in the social fabric of unity. When the otherness or alienation caused by trauma is too
much to bear, it erupts as a violent acting out or an impassive deadening of the self or
dissociation. The narrative mediation and symbolization of the past, harrowing
experiences that the victims of trauma had to go through, are missing in both cases. The
repeated re-enactment of traumatic conditions or experiences by the traumatized testifies
to the persistent and pernicious force of trauma, the devastating effects of which are not
tamed by narrative. If the traumatized do not put their past cataclysmic experiences into
perspective by narrative in order to integrate and accept them as part of their lives, they
will remain in the "black hole" of trauma that saps the life out of them by fixating them
on trauma.33 Hence, they will engage themselves in the perpetual and hopeless effort of
regaining their foothold on the solid social ground that has already crumbled under their
Trauma is often called an "action schema," in which victims partially remember
and repeat their traumatogenic pasts without cognitively and emotionally recognizing
their meanings. 34 Saying something about trauma changes it, for as Charles Edward
Robins argues, narrative as a "symbolic work. .. lays a net over it."35 Rather than seeing
the general feeling of disintegration and loss that pervades our culture as an entirely new
phenomenon, we need to see it along the line of our continuously increasing awareness of
the potentially destructive forces of civilization, or, what Horkeimer and Adorno several
decades ago called, the haunting historical "wound in civilization."36
The imbalance, which catastrophic incidents people usually call traumatic
precipitates, foregrounds the actually porous nature of the boundary between the self and
other, which, under normal circumstances, is made into a thick wall of discrimination and
segregation, which is carefully guarded, policed, and maintained by the dominant group.
Yet what the collective trauma of marginal groups, such as the Holocaust, the slavery and
racism inflicted upon African-American, and ethnic genocides, reveals is the inextricably
bound, complex circuit of recognition between the self and the other, which usually
travels on an uneven road in only a unilateral direction.
In order to revisit the scenes of uneven recognition and desubjectification of the
marginal self, I analyze, in the following chapters, different ethnic subjects' traumas
within the context of their collective history within the United States. In chapter 2, I
explore the devastating impact of racism on African-Americans with a focus on Toni
Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye. I borrow the concept of "insidious trauma" from the
ethnographer Maria P. P. Root and use it in order to explain the detrimental effects of
racism, particularly, racial self-loathing, which is the backdrop of the layered traumas of
the Breedlove family Morrison portrays.
In chapter 3, I turn my attention to the tragic collective fate of the European Jews
who had to endure a massive trauma of incomparable magnitude both in terms of its
severity and the number of its casualties. In analyzing Isaac Bashevis Singer's Enemies,
A Love Story, which deals with the lives of some Holocaust survivors in post-war New
York, I interpret the protagonist Herman Broder's continuous imaginative reliving of his
war-time ordeal as the symptom of trauma not worked through. Of particular interest is
the irony that the coping mechanisms Herman adopted to survive the Nazi persecution,
such as deception and disguise, bring about his ultimate downfall after the war. I also
note that his former wife, who was presumed to be dead for years, returns after escaping
from the massive open grave of the Jews. I interpret her resurrection rather symbolically
as the symptomatic kernel of the conjoined personal and communal trauma, which, not
worked through properly, is hard to escape from.
In chapter 4, I explore the issue of immigration, cross-cultural passage, and loss
portrayed in the Korean-American novelist Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker. The novel
depicts Asian Americans' difficult struggle for survival as what I call "interstitial ethnic
subjects" who exist as "inside-outsiders" positioned between the whites and the blacks. I
read the trope of "spying," presented by Henry Parks' profession as an ethnic spy, as the
plight of the interstitial ethnic subject. Additionally, I also interpret Henry's difficult
relationship with his father as an inverted Oedipal drama, in which the immigrant father
becomes a fallen, deposed patriarch who inadvertently provokes and intensifies his son's
assimilative desire. Finally, I approach the death of Henry's biracial child, as well as the
ultimate downfall of Kwang, a Korean American politician Henry is assigned to spy on,
in terms of their symbolic social implications that hint at the ethnic future of America.
In my final chapter, I examine questions of interpretation and the politics of
mourning concerning traumatic events. The need to contain, tame, and control any threat
to the social order compels the social politics of mourning. The politics of mourning
deflects attention from the traumatogenic forces within society, which disenfranchise and
inflict psychic wounds upon certain selected groups. Arguing that the deliberate restaging
of trauma in a controlled, empathic environment helps to counteract both the pernicious,
ever-lasting effects of trauma and the controlling social politics of mourning, I explore
the performative, healing dimension of trauma literature that portrays and resignifies
cataclysmic events and their victims in order to expose, critique, or deconstruct the
wounding forces that cause trauma and unspoken grief.
1 Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, The \huie, lAssumptions: Toward a New Psychology of
Trauma (New York: Free Press, 1992), 5.
2 Charles Edward Robins, New York Voices: The Trauma of 9/11 (Madison: Psychosocial
Press, 2003), 14.
3 Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, SE 18 (1920), 29.
4 Kirby Farrell, Post-traumatic Culture: Injury and Interpretation in the Nineties,
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998).
5Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature,
Psychoanalysis, and History (New York: Routledge, 1992), 5.
6 Kent D. Harber and James W. Pennebaker, "Overcoming Traumatic Memories," The
Handbook ofEmotional Memory, ed. Sven-Ake Christianson (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence
Earlbaum Associates, 1992), 377-379; Regina Palley, The Mind-Brain Relationship (New
York: Karnac Books, 2000), 56; Lenore Terr, Unchained Memories: True Stories of
Traumatic Memories, Lost and Found (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 49-51, 13; Julia
A. Golier, Rachel Yehuda, and Steven Southwick, "Memory and Posttraumatic Stress
Disorder," Trauma and Memory: Clinical and Legal Controversies, eds. Paul
Appelbaum, Lisa Uyehara, and Mark R. Elin (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997),
7 Micahel W. Smith, Reading Simulacra: Fatal Theories for Postmodernity (Albany:
SUNY Press, 2001), 50.
8 Patricia Yaeger, "Consuming Trauma; or, The Pleasures of Merely Circulating,"
Extremities: Trauma, Testimony, and Community, eds. Nancy K. Miller and Jason
Tougaw (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2002), 41. 29.
9 Alan L. Berger, "Ashes and Hope: The Holocaust in Second Generation American
Literature," Reflections of the Holocaust in Art and literature, ed. Randolph L. Braham
(New York: Columbia UP, 1990), 100.
10 Helen Epstein, Children of the Holocaust: Conversations in ith Sons and Daughters of
Survivors (New York: G. P. Putman's Sons, 1979), 137; quoted in Alan L. Berger,
"Ashes and Hope," 106.
11 Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
12 Dori Laub, "Bearing Witness or the Vicissitudes of Listening," Felman and Laub eds.,
Testimony, 69-70; Cathy Caruth, "Traumatic Departures: Survival and History in Freud,"
Trauma and Self, eds. Charles B. Strozier and Michael Flynn (London: Rowman &
Littlefield, 1996), 30.
13 Robert Jay Lifton, "Interview" with Cathy Caruth, Trauma: Explorations in Memory.
ed. Cath Caruth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995), 139.
14 Laura S. Brown, "Not Outside the Range: One Feminist Perspective on Psychic
Trauma," Caruth ed., Trauma: Explorations in Memory, 107.
15 Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 93-94.
16 Jenny Edkins, Trauma and the Memory of Politics (New York: Cambridge UP, 2003),
17 Edkins, 214.
18 Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia
UP, 1991), 17.
19 Slavoj Zi2ek, The Sublime Object ofIdeology (New York: Verso, 1989), 171.
20 Toni Morrison, "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in
American Literature," Toni Morrison, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House
21 Toni Morrison, "Nobel Lecture 1993," Toni Morrison: Critical and Theoretical
Approach, ed. Nancy J. Peterson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997), 270.
22 Sigmund Freud, "The Question of Lay Analysis: Conversations with an Impartial
Person," SE 20 (1926), 212.
23 Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 183; Kristeva, Powers ofHorror: An Essay on
Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia UP, 1982), 4.
24 Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 183-186.
25 Frantz Fanon, Black .\kin, White Masks, Trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York:
Grove, 1967), 111-113.
26 I thank Professor Norman N. Holland for pointing out this case and directing my
attention to it.
27 Erik H. Erikson, Childhood and Society, 2nd Edition (New York: W. W. Norton, 1963
28 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine (London: Routledge,
29 Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (New York:
Routledge, 1993), 105.
30 Homi Bhabha, "The World and the Home," Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, and
Postcolonial Perspectives, eds. Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti, and Ella Shohat
(Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997), 454.
31 Linda C. Garro and Cheryl Mattingly, "Narrative as Construct and Construction,"
Narrative and the Cultural Construction ofIllness and Healing, eds. Cheryl Mattingly
and Linda C. Garro (Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 2000), 9. 11.
32 Hilde Lindeman Nelson, DamagedIdentities, Narrative Repair (Ithaca: Cornell UP,
2001). For more ideas about the functions of"counterstory," see her chapter 5.
33 Bessel A. van der Kolk and Alexander C. McFarlane, "The Black Hole of Trauma,"
Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society,
eds. Bessel A. van der Kolk et al. (New York: Guildford, 1996).
34 Robert M. Galatzer-Levy, "Psychoanalysis, Memory, and Trauma," Trauma and
Memory: Clinical and Legal Controversies, eds. Paul S. Appelbaum, Lisa Uyehara, and
Mark R. Elin (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997), 147.
35 Robins, New York Voices, 128.
36 Marx Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic ofEnlightenment, trans. John
Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1987), 216. Quoted in Avery F. Gordon,
Gh,,,ly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: U of
Minnesota P, 1997), 19.
TRAUMA AND NARRATIVE: THE BROKEN CONNECTION OF THE SELF IN
TONI MORRISON'S THE BLUESTEYE
We are all the time constructing narratives about our past and our future and .. the core
of our identity is really a narrative thread that gives meaning to our life, provided that
it is never broken.
Donald P. Spence. "Narrative Persuasion"
The essence of psychological trauma is the loss of faith that there is order and continuity
in life. Trauma occurs when one loses the sense of having a safe place to retreat within or
outside oneself to deal with frightening emotions or experiences.
Bessel A. van der Kolk. "The Separation
Cry and the Trauma Response"
Moving from silence into speech is for the oppressed, the colonized, the exploited, and
those who stand and struggle side by side, a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes
new life, and new growth possible. It is that act of speech, of "talking back" that is no
mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of moving from object to subject, that
is the liberated voice.
bell hooks. "Talking Back"
"Insidious" Trauma: Suppressed Histories and the Foreclosed Self
The generally accepted clinical definition of trauma pertains to experiences where
an individual witnesses or faces "an event or events that involved actual or threatened
death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others" and it
typically causes responses of "intense fear, helplessness, or horror."37 As Laplanche and
Pontalis point out, trauma is mainly characterized "by its intensity, by the subject's
incapacity to respond adequately to it, and by the upheaval and long-lasting effects that it
brings about in the psychical organization."38
Since the inception of its discussion, trauma has been associated with an image of a
single devastating "blow" or an acute "stab" that breaks the protective shield of an
individual and thus causes deadly and irreparable bodily and psychic damages. In his
Studies on Hysteria with Josef Breuer, Freud first approached trauma in terms of
"quantities of excitation too large to deal with in the normal way" and argued that in
hysteria "a considerable part of this 'sum of excitation' of trauma is transformed into
purely somatic symptoms."39 Since he gave up his "seduction theory" in 1897 and
worked on building his metapsychology, his research moved away from his initial
interest in trauma with the result, that, in the feminist psychotherapist Elizabeth A.
Waites's words, "the role of trauma in psychological development and psychopathology
has remained in the background of psychoanalytic theory and treatment."40 When he
returned to the topic of trauma more than two decades later in "Beyond the Pleasure
Principle," however, he again asserted, "It seems to me that the concept of trauma
necessarily implies a connection .. with a breach in an otherwise efficacious barrier
against stimuli"41 and explained the repetition compulsion in terms of the individual's
active attempts at mastering of a passively experienced, overwhelming incident.
Yet recent studies of the socio-political dimension of trauma have proved that
trauma can result not only from a single devastating event but also from the accumulated
effects of a series of events or chronic life conditions.42 Thus, especially in connection
with issues of social oppression and power dynamics, trauma studies recently has begun
to pay increasing attention to the factors of duration and accumulation of traumatic
experiences to properly understand the history of violence and abuse committed by a
dominant society against groups of disenfranchised and disempowered people and to
examine the full psychological impact of trauma on these people's lives. When a society
singles out and persecutes groups, the "designated victims" (Robert Jay Lifton) or
"targeted groups" (Kali Tal) become the psychological capital upon which the dominant
group lives.43 As Lifton maintains in reference to Jews in Nazi Germany and Blacks in
America, these victims are the "people off whom we live not only economically ... but
psychologically" because "we reassert our own vitality and symbolic immortality by
denying them their right to live and by identifying them with the death taint, by
designating them as victims."44
The long-term effects of oppression and its psychological impact can be understood
in terms of the feminist psychotherapist Maria P. P. Root's concept of "insidious trauma."
Root explains the specific traumatogenic effects of oppression and broadens the limited
concept of trauma as individual distress to include the communal experiences of women,
children, and minority groups who have been neglected in the development of theory.
This concept of insidious trauma is helpful in understanding the psychological plight of
the socially disempowered. As Root explains, insidious trauma is "usually associated
with the social status of an individual being devalued because a characteristic intrinsic to
their identity is different from what is valued by those in power" and illustrates how this
kind of experience indirectly but insidiously becomes a "distinct threat to psychological
safety, security, or survival."45 For many victims of social injustice, trauma is a
communal problem that plagues them insidiously, and its relationship to social
oppression is undeniable. As Kai Erikson notes, trauma precipitates "a constellation of
life experiences," and a prolonged exposure to dangers and threats creates a community
whose members, in their "spiritual kinship," share the same pain and burden, and suffer
from a gradual process of "psychic erosion."46
Frantz Fanon provides a classic example of the psychic erosion a particular
minority group experiences due to systematic oppression and discrimination by citing his
own traumatic experience of encountering racial fear in a white child. In Black .1kin,
White Masks Fanon narrates his encounter with a child's terrified look of racial phobia
and recounts how, under white eyes, his being became fixated by the "racial epidermal
schema."47 At the moment of his public humiliation, which he compares to that of bodily
amputation and psychic splitting, he reflects upon the psychic toll this hostile
confrontation takes on his selfhood. His analysis also shows how a sustained and
persistent exposure to disempowerment and denial of their autonomy makes socially
oppressed subaltern groups develop and internalize a uniquely pernicious psychological
system of self-loathing and insecurity.
To use Fanon's terms, subalterns are compelled to wear the "mask" of the
dominant Other, and in relation to this Other each of them comes into being as an
"abject" subject. As David Marriott points out in his study of trauma and racial phobia in
"Bonding over Phobia," the subjectivity of the oppressed is always mediated by desire
and abjection, and at the interstices of cultural fantasy and anxiety the oppressed and the
oppressor bond through defensive antagonism and mutual "misrecognition."48
Speaking of an Antillean whose security and self-worth are constantly challenged,
Fanon observes that his subjectivity is woven out of "a galaxy of erosive stereotypes"
based upon white men's myths, anecdotes, and stories. In a phrase highly reminiscent of
W. E. B. Du Bois's "double consciousness," Fanon observes that "Whenever he comes
into contact with someone else, the question of value, of merit, arises" and that "not only
must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man."49 In a world
that Fanon defines as determined by the Manichean struggle between the conqueror and
the native, the colonized lives with a fractured psyche and a sense of existential
nonbeing.50 Thus, Fanon's example, as Marriott points out, illustrates the "sick bond of
phobia whose trauma remains with the black subject." 51
As concepts such as Root's "insidious trauma" and Erikson's "psychic erosion," as
well as Fanon's and Marriott's examples illustrate, the forces that control and conspire
against the socially oppressed work surreptitiously but detrimentally. Once internalized,
the adverse effects of subjugation become a traumatic pathology plaguing the inner world
of the socially devalued. Like imprisoned captives, the victims lose their sense of
autonomy under the coercive and systematic control that instills helplessness and fear,
and destroys their fundamental sense of self. These "broken" victims with what Judith
Herman calls a "contaminated identity,"52 have difficulty in imagining themselves as
capable of initiatives and choices. Furthermore, the internalized negative self-images and
the disciplinary power exercised through public discourses even make them participate in
perpetuating the very system that oppresses them. The need for intervention in the
complex distress of the oppressed comes from the awareness of the corrosive outside
forces gone inside without the self s critical mediation.53
What trauma is and how it is perceived, however, are inseparable from who defines
it. Although psychoanalysis mainly stemmed from Freud's initial studies of female
hysteric patients suffering from traumatic life experiences, trauma as a research topic
remained in the background of his theory as he moved toward a more abstract
metapsychological formulation. When the issue of trauma resurfaced in Freud's writing,
it was in response to World War I and "combat neurosis." In other words, "although
'trauma' is crucial to psychoanalytic theory," Juliet Mitchell points out, "trauma in itself
is not really the focus of its analysis" and for this reason, "what emerges as a motif in the
many retheorizings of psychoanalysis time and again, as another 'bedrock' is trauma."54
One way of retheorizing the psychoanalytic approach to trauma is to reexamine and bring
to the fore the blind spots in the very definition of trauma itself.
It is in this context that the clinical psychiatrist Laura S. Brown has taken the
ideological and political approach to trauma studies one step further and challenged the
mainstream, androcentric definition of trauma by exposing its biased ideological
underpinning in her article "Not Outside the Range: One Feminist Perspective on Psychic
Trauma." From a feminist perspective, she specifically took issue with American
Psychiatric Associations's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM III-R) that defined
trauma as "an event outside the range of human experience." Brown criticized this
canonical definition, because according to this definition, the "range of human experience
becomes the range of what is normal and usual in the lives of men of the dominant class:
white, young, able-bodied, educated, middle-class, Christian men."55 Although the
controversy around the definition of trauma finally led to a revision in DSM IV in 1994,
the cumulative social dimension of trauma has not been sufficiently addressed. The
limited view of trauma leaves out the constant humiliation and threats of "assault on the
integrity and safety" of oppressed groups, whose lived experiences of subjection have
become "a continuing background noise rather than an unusual event."56 In order to
perceive this "continuing background noise," the listener must develop a new way of
empathic listening, which requires that the listener bracket prior assumptions and
expectations to notice the blind spots or suppressed histories within the master narrative
In this chapter, I will explore the impact of psychological trauma on selfhood by
focusing specifically on the issues of social oppression and power dynamics portrayed in
Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. A few literary critics have paid attention to the concept
of Root's "insidious trauma" or Kai Erikson's "psychic erosion" and the prolonged
effects of abuse in their analysis of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.5 In examining the
psychological impact of social oppression on minority groups in terms of "insidious
trauma," I will expand on their analyses, but my focus will be more on exploring how
trauma affects the narrative-generating function of the self. In the process, I will
investigate the ways in which the pernicious power of racism determines the form of
intergenerationally transmitted trauma, as well as how race, in its relation with other
social factors, such as gender, class, and age, produces synergistic effects of multiple
As many critics have noted, a central theme running through Morrison's novel is
"speaking the unspeakable" 58 and giving a voice to those whom Morrison calls
"discredited people"59 whose narratives have been silenced by both the weight of their
unbearable traumatic experiences of loss and the systematic denial of those experiences
by a white hegemonic society. "The traumatized," Cathy Caruth notes, "carry an
impossible history within them, or they becomes themselves the symptom of a history
that they cannot entirely possess."60
Morrison bears witness to the unclaimed and suppressed history of African-
Americans, whether it is the forgotten African ancestry in Song of Solomon, or early
twentieth-century Harlem in Jazz, or slavery and an ex-slave's infanticide of her daughter
in Beloved. By doing so, she breaks the silence and confronts the evasion and elision that
have dominated the American literary scene in race matters. As she emphatically insists
in Playing in the Dark, any literature that claims to be "race-free" runs the risk of
"lobotomizing" that literature. In fact, American national literature, Morrison argues,
was founded on responses to "a dark, abiding, signing Africanist presence" that produced
what she refers to as "American Africanism."61 The presence of enslaved blacks was an
outright affront to the American national identity founded upon the ideal of freedom and
equality. From the early history of America onward, American Africanism as a fabricated
signifying system of racial otherness has been used to shore up the foundering ideal
image of freedom and unity as a nation. Thus, the American Africanism filled with the
"underscored omission, startling contradictions, heavily nuanced conflicts," Morrison
notes, served as the "ways in which artists ... transferred internal conflicts to a 'black
darkness,' to conveniently bound and violently silenced black bodies."62
Race has been a blind spot not only in the American literary imagination but also in
psychoanalytic theory. Despite its radical promise of unearthing "the repressed" and
challenging social taboos, psychoanalysis, as a product of the social, political, and
cultural Zeitgeist of its era, reflects the biases and constraints of its time. I argue that the
seemingly innocent oversight in any theory can indicate a significant symptomatic point
where hidden anxieties and desires meet. As Ann Pellegrini argues in her analysis of the
mise-en-scene of psychoanalysis, from the moment its of inception, "psychoanalysis was
involved, through the person of Freud, in the question and the 'problem' of racial
A close reading of Freud's corpus, such as Totem and Taboo, Civilization andIts
Discontents, "On Narcissism," "Mourning and Melancholia," and "Thoughts for the
Time on War and Death," among others, reveals the hidden bias Freud as a white
European man has against non-Western cultures. Freud frequently invokes overly
sexualized "primitive men" as "dark origins" who, he claims, have no social and sexual
inhibitions and hence, no conscience and unconscious,64 to explain the gradual
developmental process of Western civilization and the malaise or what he calls
"discontents" unavoidably caused by its highly advanced culture. Despite his ambitious
and exhaustive attempts to reveal all the fissures and contradictions constituting the
human subject and civilization, he cannot discern the fact that the assumed racial alterity
of other cultures consolidates the very foundation upon which he builds his
metapsychology. In this sense, Hortense J. Spillers is right in her assertion that "Freud
could not see his own connection to the 'race' and culture orbit. Or could not theorize it,
because the place of their elision marked the vantage from which he spoke."65 What lies
behind the overemphasis on sexual differences in psychoanalytic discourses is racial
difference that has been bracketed off from its theory due to its lack of wider social
engagement. As Claudia Tate notes, psychoanalysis, with its focus on the Western
nuclear family, "repressed race under the mask of gender in the family domain."66
The symptomatic elision of race behind gender, initially set in motion by the
founding narratives of psychoanalysis but often repeated even by contemporary
psychoanalytic theories,67 reflects the generally accepted, erroneous belief that "race"
has nothing to do with racial whiteness. It also ignores the fact that race affects human
psychic development. Realizing the fact that "white people are 'raced,' just as men are
genderedd"' and "naming whiteness as a cultural terrain," as Ruth Frankenberg remarks
in her study of the social construction of whiteness, is "a vital aspect of questioning and
delimiting its authority."68
The white subjectivity of the dominant discourse, founded and shored up on the
fantasied racial alterity of subaltern cultures, interpellates minorities to accept the
devalued "not-me" qualities and images that have been split off from it and projected
onto them. Commenting on the hegemonic group's self-instituting mechanisms of
psychic splitting and projection, Sander Gilman notes:
The group is embodied with all the positive associations of the self. The Other
is therefore both ill and infectious, both damaged and damaging. .. the image of the
dangerous Other serves both as the force for the projection of anxiety concerning
the self and the means by which the other defines itself.69
Once internalized by racial others, the fantasied and tacitly accepted racial
difference becomes a pernicious force that forecloses the possibility for them to develop
their own self-narratives based upon their own meaning and value system. Specifically,
for African-Americans in this country, whose legacy of slavery has subjected them to a
rupture of continuity, humiliation, and shame, their color often becomes "the badge of
degradation" that consumes them in "black rage."70 Or it becomes the constant source of
internalized self-contempt, the detrimental effects of which are poignantly exemplified in
Morrison's characters in The Bluest Eye in the form of their broken self-narrative and
stunted development of healthy narcissism.
The Bluest Eye is a story about an eleven-year-old black girl named Pecola
Breedlove who prays for the bluest eyes, seeking acceptance and approval in a white
supremacist society after repeated rejection and abuse by both her family members and
society. Although all the minor incidents are intricately interwoven to culminate in the
major tragedy of the novel, Pecola's incestuous rape by her father Cholly Breedlove, I
suggest that the novel should be read against the backdrop of the insidious trauma which
both her parents and she have to face in a racist society. However, my focus here is not
on, to borrow Claudia Tate's expression, "the protocol of race,"71 which privileges racial
meanings and the explicit socio-historical paradigms surrounding the text and which has
often been considered as the convention in black texts, despite many objections professed
by critics against such a reductive reading.72 Rather than approaching the novel as the
verbal text merely reflecting the social text, however, I want to explore "the dialectical
engagement of the material and the psychical"73 by studying how each individual
constructs personal meanings out of his or her own experiences that are always already
filtered by many intersecting epistemic grids of race, gender, class, and age.
In using psychoanalysis to analyze the psychological effects of the "insidious"
trauma of racism and other types of oppression portrayed in The Bluest Eye, I must
emphasize that analyzing the traumatic effects of racism does not pathologize African-
Americans or deprive them of any sense of agency to rebel against and change the system
that oppresses them. Actually, most works done on trauma highlight the fact that trauma
studies depathologize trauma survivors and restore humanity to them by showing that
their behaviors are normal reactions to abnormally cruel or devastating life experiences.
Another concern in my psychoanalyzing Morrison's novel involves the caveat that
Barbara Christian once offered in her article "Race for Theory" about a hasty and never
ideologically innocent application of Western hegemonic theories to works by African-
American authors or to Third World literatures.74 I admit that a critical engagement of not
only psychoanalysis but also any theory needs seriously to reexamine, in Pellegrinni's
phrase, the "historical pressures operating on and through a given text and its author."75
But at the same time, we have to acknowledge that psychoanalysis, as Pellegrinni argues,
has already become a powerful cultural narrative that we use to order and make sense of
our life experiences and that it can offer an insightful explanation about human behaviors
and motivations. Thus, what is more desirable and productive, I believe, is the
"engagement of psychoanalysis on very altered terms" rather than a total abandonment of
psychoanalytic theory as an analytic tool.76
In The Bluest Eye, the intergenerationally transmitted traumas of rejection and
racial self-loathing, the condemning omnipresent white gaze internalized by many
members of the black community, and the community's final scapegoating of its most
innocent and weakest member testify to the psychic erosion permeating the world
depicted in the novel. The barren or "unyielding" soil77 Morrison mentions at the
beginning of the novel refers not only to a racist society and its bigotry that cannot
embrace and nurture its racial others but also hints at the outcome of prolonged
oppression, the psychic barrenness of a community whose vitality and resourcefulness
have been sapped by the constant pressure and stress of a hostile environment. Thus,
many characteristics of traumatic living, such as intrusion, constriction, repetition, and
dissociation, symptomatically overdetermine the major characters' course of actions in
the novel. Especially for Pecola's parents, the defensive splitting and dissociation of the
self, which originally help them cope with painful and frustrating life experiences, later
make them "fated," in Christopher Bollas's term, to lead a highly reactive life, preventing
them from actualizing their unique potentials, or what Bollas calls "idioms," through
conscious choices and uses of objects.78
Pecola's prayer for blue eyes is the epitome of internalized racial self-loathing.
But I also interpret it as her desperate reparative attempt to forge a new self untouched by
trauma and to rescript her traumatic, incomprehensible experience so that she can make
sense of it and maintain faltering object relationships with her significant others by taking
the blame upon herself for their unforgivable acts. Her prayer for blue eyes and her final
retreat into schizophrenia are caused by the incestuous rape by her father Cholly and the
cruel abandonment by her physically and emotionally abusive mother Pauline, who fails
to provide her with the badly needed protection that is vital for some measure of
restitution of her shattered self after the awful incident. Pecola responds to these
traumatizing betrayals by completely withdrawing into her self-centered, subjective
reality and forsaking reality testing to avoid overwhelming painful disintegration anxiety.
Her fractured, schizophrenic psyche, expressed in a deranged dialogue with her
imaginary friend, exemplifies the common defense mechanisms of splitting and
dissociation often found in trauma victims. A more detailed examination and an
additional contextualization of her self-experiences within her familial and societal
setting, however, are needed in order to understand her trauma and dissociation.
The Failure of Selfobjects and Deformation of Love
If the self, as Stephen Mitchell and contemporary relational psychoanalysts argue,
is defined "not as a conglomeration of physically based urges but as being shaped by and
inevitably embedded within a matrix of relations with other people,"79 the undoing of the
self in trauma involves both the destruction of a continuing sense of self and a frightening
disconnection from others. As Judith Herman notes, "the core experiences of
psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others" and thus,
"traumatic events have primary effects not only on the psychological structures of the self
but also on the systems of attachment and meaning that link individual and
Heinz Kohut's key concept "selfobject" foregrounds the inseparable connection
between the self and its surrounding environment throughout people's life span, and the
traumatic effects of catastrophic life experiences can be explained by the failure of
selfobjects to empathically provide sufficient "mirroring" and "idealizing" self
experiences necessary to develop a cohesive self. Kohut defines selfobjects as those
persons or objects that are experienced as part of the self and used in the service of the
self.81 Emphasizing values, ideals, and ambitions acquired in the self s interaction with
responsive selfobjects, Kohut's self psychology promotes the value of healthy narcissism
in its theorization of human psychological development. Unlike Freud who
conceptualizes narcissism as an intermediary stage of libidinal development from
autoeroticism to mature object love,82 Kohut asserts in The Analysis of the Self and The
Restoration of the Self that narcissism continues throughout life and that a fragile self
lacking mirroring from selfobjects is prone to fragment and lose its cohesiveness.
Kohut's self psychology formulates the basic psychic configuration of the self, or what he
calls the "bipolar self," around the tension arc between two constituents: the "grandiose
self," or healthy assertiveness arising from the mirroring selfobject, and "the idealized
parental image," or healthy admiration for the powerful selfobject.83 Thus, for Kohut, it is
"the pursuit of values, ideals, and ambitions and the self-esteem accruing from those
activities rather than the establishment of satisfying object relations," Morris N. Eagle
notes, that endows life with worthwhile meanings.84
If the post-traumatic legacies of oppression are self-doubt and internalized feelings
of inferiority that ultimately lead to feelings of nonexistence, Kohut's self-psychology,
then with its emphasis on the narcissistic values of ideals and ambitions and the
cohesiveness of the self, can shed light on the ways in which a severe lack of social
mirroring can lead to a serious pathology of self.
In The Bluest Eye the traumatized victim Pecola's self falls apart completely in the
end because of the series of mounting victimizations and shaming she endures as the
weakest and most vulnerable member of the society. The unrelenting domestic and social
aggression against Pecola and her family testifies to the familial and societal failure to
provide an empathic selfobject milieu for its members. As Barbara Johnson argues in her
attempt to extend Kohut's narrow theoretical focus on the nuclear family, it is important
to note that "what is a narcissistic structure for the individual person is also a social,
economic, and political structure in the world" and that race, for instance, can serve as a
selfobject that can indeed "set up an artificially inflated or deflated narcissistic climate."85
In The Bluest Eye, which Morrison admits she wrote to "hit the raw nerve of racial self-
contempt,"86 the deflated racial self and repeated racial trauma poignantly exemplify
Kohut's message that "man can no more survive psychologically in a psychological
milieu that does not respond empathically to him, than he can survive physically in an
atmosphere that contains no oxygen."87
Disconnection and isolation characterize the dysfunctional Breedlove family.
Pecola's family is far from providing mirroring and idealizing selfobject functioning for
its members. Nor does it, in Winnicott's phrase, "hold" and protect its members from
outer environmental impingement to make them develop their own sense of "continuity
of being."88 To the contrary, their faltering integrity as a family unit and the consequently
precarious psychic state each member is compelled to live in are symbolized
symptomatically, especially by the family's physical surroundings. When the family is
first introduced in the novel, each member has been put "outdoors" and seems to have
already undergone considerable psychic damage. After having burned down his house
and put his family "outdoors" and himself in jail, Cholly is described as one who
"catapulted himself beyond the reaches of human consideration" (18). When Pecola first
appears to live with the narrator Claudia MacTeer's family, she is introduced to the child
Claudia and her sister Frieda as "a 'case'. a girl who had no place to go"(16). Claudia
comments on the Breedloves' plight of being put outdoors, relating it to "the real terror of
There is a difference between being put out and being put outdoors. If you are put
out, you go somewhere else; if you are outdoors, there is no place to go. The
distinction was subtle but final. Outdoors was the end of something, an irrevocable,
physical fact, defining and complementing our metaphysical condition. (17)
Occupying the lowest position in the social order due to their race, class, and
Cholly's despicable behavior, Pecola's family indeed has "no place to go." Unlike the
struggling but loving MacTeers, whose integrity as a family is intact despite economic
hardships, the Breedloves, dispersed all over the town, are "broken" and show all the
symptomatic signs of disintegration. Thus, the literal "outdoorness" of their life
symbolizes their forlorn status as social pariahs and their jaded psychic state caused by
As with the reference to the family's "outdoorness," the Breedloves' dwelling place
after their reunion, a storefront, implies the lack of intimacy, privacy, and protection from
hostile forces. After the temporary dispersal, the Breedloves get reunited and resume their
family life in a dilapidated, "abandoned" storefront house, but the lack of attachment
among them is obvious because "festering together in the debris of a realtor's whim,"
each lives "in his own cell of consciousness" (35). The dingy storefront house
foregrounds the family's "sustained exposure" to the greater outside power beyond their
control, such as a realtor's whim, which renders them helpless and "beaten," depriving
them of the "internal locus of control."89
This depiction of Pecola's family invokes Kai Erikson's notion of "psychic
erosion," discussed above in relation to insidious trauma. As Erikson points out, trauma
can ensue from "a sustained battle" against overwhelming adverse forces and "a chronic
life conditions that erodes the spirit gradually," creating an odd spiritual "kinship"
among them.90 The image of the family huddled together in the abandoned, unprotected
place also illustrates the bimodal interpersonal movements often found in traumatized
people. Trauma, Erikson notes, makes people move according to both centripetal and
centrifugal tendencies: "It draws one away from the center of group space while at the
same time drawing one back .... estrangement becomes the basis for communality, as if
persons without homes or citizenship or any other niche in the larger order of things were
invited to gather in a quarter set aside for the disfranchised, a ghetto for the
unattached."91 For the Breedloves, it is each member's insecurity and fear, not the bonds
of love, that holds the family together, creating an odd "kinship."
Pecola's family is anything but the happy family depicted in the Dick-and-Jane
primer that in epigraph form serves as the narrative frame for each chapter. Morrison's
use of the primer highlights the inadequacy of the white voice to prescribe and dictate the
African-American life. As many critics assert, Morrison's use of the Dick-and-Jane
primer invokes the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary convention whereby white
writers or slave owners authenticated black writers' authorship.92 In incorporating the
white primer into her black text, Morrison destabilizes the culturally codified language in
the double-voiced signifying fashion that, according to Henry Louis Gates Jr.,
characterizes black artistic forms. As Gates maintains, "repetition and revision or
repetition with a signal difference" characterizes black artistic forms.93 Morrison presents
three different modifications of the Dick-and-Jane primer so that the final version with no
spacing or punctuation seems to describe the collapsed Breedlove family that lives in a
squalid, cramped space with constant denigrations and threats from its surroundings.
Thus, Morrison turns the recurring intertextual references to the dominant discourse into
a critical commentary on its constrictive power through a series of repetitions with
Another critic, J. Brooks Bouson, observes that the Breedlove family is described
in a way reminiscent of the stereotypical view of the black underclass broken family of
the1965 Moynihan Report. This "racially and class-inflected-and culturally sedimented-
representation," Bouson argues, points to the sinister power of culturally prevalent
stereotypes and ideology.94 Juxtaposed with the ideal white family in the Dick-and-Jane
primer, the Breedlove family really seems the essence of pathological urban poverty and
dysfunctional black underclass family life Moynihan inveighs against. The Dick-and-Jane
primer and the Moynihan report, both white dominant discourses, put the Breedloves
outside the norm of the standard American family life and again push them "outdoors,"
making them social deviants. Pitting the Breedlove family's story against these culturally
powerful narratives, Morrison seems to highlight the unbridgeable gap between the
socially validated reality of white families and the grim denigrated reality of black
families neglected by society. By doing so, Morrison shows how the family as a basic
social unit suffers most from the psychic erosion caused by a prolonged period of
hardships and humiliation, and how its suffering manifests itself in such forms of
disrupted attachment and deformed love.
Rather than serving as a protective and nurturing selfobj ect, a home for the
Breedlove actually works more like "a ghetto for the unattached." Interestingly, as if to
reflect the emotional barrenness and a harrowing sense of disfranchisement of the family,
even the furniture surrounding them has "no memories to be cherished" but stinks of "the
joylessness ... pervading everything" (36).
There is nothing more to say about the furnishings. They were anything but
describable .... The furniture had aged without ever having become familiar.
People had owned it, but never known it. ... No one had lost a penny or a brooch
under the cushions of either sofa and remembered the place and time of the loss or
the finding. No one had given birth in one of the beds. No happy drunk a
friend of the family .. had sat at the piano and played "You Are My Sunshine."
No young girl had stared at the tiny Christmas tree and remembered when she had
decorated it or wondered if that blue ball was going to hold, or if HE would ever
come back to see it. There were no memories among those pieces. (35-36)
Memories constitute who we are. Memories specifically associated with our home
or family members work to anchor and secure our sense of self amid the ever-changing
world around us. The Breedloves' absence of any memorable moments lived and shared
in their house indicates their estrangement from each other and the emotional barrenness
of their lives.
Christopher Bollas asserts that we use objects to express our own unique self, and
these "evocative" objects become part of our self-experiences because we use them "in
our unique way to meet and to express the self that we are." "The object world," Bollas
thus notes, is "a lexicon for self experience, to the extent that the selection of objects is
often a type of self utterance."95 Drawing on and extending Winnicott's term "subjective
objects," Bollas argues that the objects of our choice and use are "a vital part of our
investment in the world" and calls them "mnemic objects" in that they "contain a
projectively identified self experience, and when we use it, something of that self state
stored in it will arise."96 Kai Erikson also analyzes people's emotional attachment to their
belongings in his study of the victims of the Buffalo Creek disaster. After witnessing
survivors' intense grief over the loss of their home, he draws the conclusion that the
furniture or personal belongings are more than a reflection of one's style; they, according
to him, are "a measure of one's substance as a person and as a provider, truly the
furniture of self' or "the outer edge of one's personality, a part of the self itself."97 As
Bollas and Erickson theorize, endowing the object world with personal meanings and
emotional values presupposes the intactness of self as a psychic structure and source of
With a severely "eroded" self, the Breedloves cannot invest emotionally in their
environment or organize their lives in a meaningful order. Nor can they express their
unique idioms creatively through object choices and uses. Instead, they resign themselves
to their world of ugliness because they have internalized the contempt and loathing
directed by the community and the white hegemonic culture toward them. As a result, the
internalized self-loathing becomes the pivotal foundation of their self-concept.
You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and
could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their
conviction. It was as though some mysterious all knowing master had given each
one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question.
The master had said, "You are ugly people." They had looked about themselves
and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at
them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. "Yes," they had said. "You
are right." And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them,
and went about the world with it. (39)
Fanon's analysis of the role of the dependency complex in the dynamics of
oppression and subjugation sheds light on the Breedloves' damaging conviction of their
ugliness. As Fanon observes, the colonized or the oppressed are denied inherent values or
merits of their own and their existence is always already "contingent upon the presence of
the Other." This Other works by closing the reciprocal circuit of recognition and making
the oppressed seek from him the corroboration of their existence and reality.98 In
Morrison's text, the Other, the "mysterious all knowing master," is the one who controls
"every billboard, every movie, every glance" by imposing his own version of reality and
values. It is against and through this ever-present gaze of the Other that the Breedloves
view and construct their selves. Black minorities living in a white supremacist society
seldom find the opportunity for mirrored grandiosity or idealized merger, the key factors
for a healthy self-development Kohut emphasizes. The constant exposure to the
denigrating gaze of hegemonic culture often forecloses the opportunity for them to view
themselves from a perspective not already sinisterly tainted by racial bigotry and bias.
Prolonged oppression causes negative self-appraisals for victims. The victims'
internalized negative self-image and the disciplinary power exercised through public
discourse even make them participate in perpetuating the very system that oppresses
them. Pauline Breedlove in many ways illustrates the sinister power of internalized self-
loathing and the long-term effects it can have on the victim's interpersonal relationships.
Pauline is described as a character who was "never able, after her education in the
movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty"
(122) because of her blind endorsement of the white standard of physical beauty.
What Pauline has internalized and then exercises is a racially inflected cultural
"surveillance" in Foucault's sense. Foucault theorizes surveillance working via the
"uninterrupted play of calculated gaze" and wielding its "multiple, automatic and
autonomous power."99 Thus, Pauline's education in the movies is in a sense her
disciplinary training in the white dominant discourse that works through surreptitious
invisibility. Not surprisingly, what she sees in a dark theater removed from her harsh and
lonely domestic life is "white men taking such good care of they women, and they all
dressed up in big clean house with the bathtubs right in the same room with the toilet"
(123). Although what she collects from her highly destructive hobby of movie going is
only "self-contempt by the heap" (122), Pauline is drawn to the silver screen, unaware of
its deleterious power, because disciplinary power, as Foucault notes, works through
discreet invisibility and silence. "Them pictures gave me a lot of pleasure, but it made
coming home hard, and looking at Cholly hard"(123), Pauline admits, but she cannot
make sense of the odd combination of pleasure and pain her moviegoing brings to her
The film critic Vicky Lebeau asserts that cinema is "the royal road to the cultural
unconscious."100 Through her indulgence in the cinema, Pauline joins the cultural
unconscious as a white-identified black woman who would rather live in a fantasied
world to forget about her frustrating reality of being born black, poor, and ugly. As
Lebeau maintains in her psychoanalysis of filmic fantasies, fantasy is not only conjured
up to provide pleasure. It sometimes is used to protect a filmgoer from a troubling reality
or to "contain the trauma, as well as the banality of our lives."101 Indeed, in The Bluest
Eye, the movie theater lonely Pauline frequents becomes the only place of solace where
she learns to manage many troubling aspects of her uprooted and painfully dull life. Born
with a deformed foot and not loved by anyone previously, Pauline moves from the South
to the North after her marriage to Cholly. But she again finds herself not accepted in her
community in spite of all her attempts at fitting in by changing her looks and manners of
speaking. For desperately lonely Pauline, in a faltering marriage, who "merely wanted
other women to cast favorable glances her way" (118), movies offer a good opportunity
to escape from her bleak reality and be someone else, glamorous and adored by others.
As the film critic Anne Friedberg notes, the film star is "an institutionally
sanctioned fetish that encourages a warped identificatory looking relation and works as
a commodity to circulate a certain overrated, overinvested image. 102 In "Fetishism,"
Freud analyzes the genesis of fetishism and explains that it results from a boy's shock at
his discovery of women's "castration" and his urgent need to defensively allay his
anxiety about the possibility of his own castration by refusing to accept sexual
difference.103 The disavowal of sexual difference is the key element in Freud's discussion
of fetishism. Likewise, filmic fetishes seem to work precisely by disavowing the
difference between the film star and the audience and confusing the boundary between
self and other. In the cinematic relationship between black audience and white film stars,
the alluring images of white film stars often function to manage racial difference in such
a way as to instill white supremacist ideologies into black viewers. Thus, in The Bluest
Eye, Pauline, fascinated by the enticing looks of white cultural fetishes, learns to despise
her own race and to identify with white images by viewing, taking in, and becoming
them. Sitting alone in the dark with her hair done in Jean Harlow's style, Pauline
cultivates her love for the white world. Pauline's fascination is no different from Pecola's
obsession with blue eyes. Whereas Pecola tries to orally incorporate the ideal white
beauty by drinking milk from the Shirley Temple cup or by eating Mary Jane candies,
Pauline attempt to visually take in and be the white beauty by visiting the movies as often
as she can or by emulating movie stars' looks.
Noteworthy to mention here is the fact that cultural fetishes or icons are not
randomly chosen. Friedberg asserts in her theory of cinematic identification that "any
body"(italics original) projected on the filmic screen becomes the object of
"identificatory investment, a possible suit for the sub stitution/misrecognition of self."104
But she is only partially right. The cinematic gaze is never ideologically neutral or
innocent, so that any body can be the target object of identificatory investment. The
unacknowledged cinematic "gaze"105 is not only male-determined, as Laura Mulvey has
argued in her seminal essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." The carefully
constructed cinematic gaze is also white-determined, and the viewer is interpellatedd," in
Louis Althusser's sense, to adopt a certain subject position in cinematic discourse.
In her moments of racial "misrecognition" or Lacanian "meconnaisance," carefully
prepared and staged by the dominant white culture, Pauline temporarily becomes the
image she desires by identifying with white film stars. As the mirrored imago in Lacan's
mirror stage gathers the infants' fragmented body image into an integrated form,
providing an illusionary sense of autonomy and power,106 so do the images of white stars
on the silver screen transform Pauline's black body with a deformed foot into a perfect
personification of white beauty while she immerses herself in the movies and identifies
herself with the image she sees. Consequently, as the subject emerges from the mirror
stage with an alienating, illusionary identity, Pauline also ultimately emerges from her
education in the movies with a fractured psyche and a confused racial identity.
Examining frequent cultural phenomena of racial misrecognition whereby "an
unconscious that seems to be 'white' has displaced a conscious black identity," David
Marriott asks, "If the act of identification produces a fractured doubling of self, how can
we distinguish what is interposed from what is properly desired?"107 Pauline is like those
blacks in Marriott's analysis who "cannot love themselves as black but are made to hate
themselves as white."108 Pauline, in indulging in and desiring the glamour of the white
world, cultivates self-loathing. So when her front tooth falls out, crushing her fantasy of
emulating and thus becoming the white beauty, she also falls out of her illusionary world
and leaves the theater with complete resignation: "Look like I just didn't care no more
after that. I let my hair go back, plaited it up, and settled down to just being ugly" (123).
For Pauline, her race fails to provide her with mirroring and idealizing selfobject
functions and her affiliation with the white Fisher family offers a good opportunity to
build substitute selfobject fantasies as another persona, "Polly," the "ideal servant." Her
existence is curiously compartmentalized between her life with the Fishers, where "she
found beauty, order, cleanliness, ands praise" (128), and her life in a dingy storefront
with her family, which seems to her "like the afterthoughts" or "the dark edges that made
the daily life with the Fishers lighter, more delicate, more lovely" (127). Pauline revels in
her life with the Fisher family, because her status of the ideal servant endows her with the
power, admiration, and affection she craves but cannot have.
She reigned over cupboards ... she was queen of canned vegetables bought by the
case, special fondants and ribbon candy curled up in tiny silver dishes. The
creditors and service people who humiliated her when she went to them on her own
behalf respected her, were even intimidated by her, when she spoke for the Fishers.
She refused beef slightly dark or with edges not properly trimmed. The slightly
reeking fish that she accepted for her own family she would all but throw in the fish
man's face if he sent it to the Fisher house. Power, praise, and luxury were hers in
this household. They even gave her what she had never had--a nickname--Polly.
With a schizophrenic mindset highly reminiscent of W. E. B. Du Bois's "double
consciousness,"109 Pauline views and judges her own world against the standard of
whites. Terrorizing her own children by making them call her "Mrs. Breedlove" but
cherishing her nickname "Polly" given by the Fishers as a token of "affection," she is
determined to guard her own world inside the white family from any intrusion. No
wonder she brutally attacks her own daughter in front of Pecola's friends Claudia and
Frieda and consoles the Fisher's "pink-and-yellow girl" when Pecola spills a blueberry
pie on the impeccable white floor, which she repeatedly claims as hers: "Crazy fool ...
my floor, mess ... look what you ... my floor, my floor ... my floor" (109, italics mine).
Defensive possessiveness consumes Pauline when it comes to "her kitchen" (128) or her
impeccable "white" floor in which she revels. So she scolds Pecola with "words ...
hotter and darker than the smoking berries" (109), because the "blackish" blueberries
splattered everywhere and her ugly black daughter are a threat to her idealized world she
meticulously tries to keep "white" like the impeccable white floor.
Pauline uses her subservient role of the ideal servant to absorb and deflect the
anger, loathing, and frustration that result from her unmet narcissistic needs. To Pauline,
anyone who disturbs her perfect, carefully maintained world, even if it is her daughter, is
to be punished. Pauline rejects her daughter in a similar way that Geraldine, another
distant mother, kicks out Pecola, whom her son Junior lures into his house to abuse.
Geraldine dotes on a black cat with blue eyes-- maybe another object of love indicative of
racial self-loathing--instead of her own son Junior. For Geraldine, desperately struggling
to keep the subtle but constantly blurring line between her world of "the colored" and
"niggers," Pecola is a synecdoche of the denigrated black world she tries to flee from.
Pauline's schizophrenic splitting and rigid maintenance of her two separate worlds is no
different from Geraldine's attempt to dissociate from "niggers" and protect her
"inviolable world" (85).
In a sense, becoming an ideal servant to the powerful white family is Pauline's
vicarious, Horneyean "search for glory."110 Like the neurotics Karen Homey analyzes,
Pauline, in her drive to actualize her ideal image, puts all her energies toward excelling at
her work and aims at absolute perfection, regardless of the cost to her and her family. Her
ruthless abuse of her daughter and callousness to her own family's needs show the
vindictiveness characteristic of those compulsively seeking indiscriminate supremacy in
their search for "glory." Pauline's search for glory illustrates how race, class, and gender
are interdependent and mutually determines the ways in which one's most seemingly
personal desire mirrors hegemonic power relations. The "glory" Pauline pursues is
defined in racial terms and associated with a particular class. Pauline interprets being
black as being blocked from a certain luxury and glamour of life. By allying herself with
the Fishers, she tries to glimpse the white world of comfort and luxury that she cannot be
a part of otherwise. Additionally, her narcissistic pursuit also takes a form specifically
related to the female gender role of taking care of others, and her role of a domestic
servant also invokes the tradition of black "mammies." Thus, race, class, and gender co-
determine the specific ways in which Pauline materializes her search for narcissistic
Whereas the Fisher family provides Pauline with mirroring selfobject experiences,
religion serves as a powerful idealized selfobject for her. This, however, additionally
creates highly distorted object-relationships with her family members. As Kohut explains,
the experience of merger with a powerful and strong figure is crucial for people's
psychological self-maintenance and self-enhancement. Experiencing herself merging
with the omnipotent God is important for Pauline, since this moment of what Kohut
would call "idealizing transference" enables her to feel subjectively the cohesiveness and
integrity of her self, which is badly missing in her rigidly compartmentalized life between
the Fishers and her own family.
More importantly, religion becomes Pauline's means of controlling and using her
family to boost her faltering self-esteem. Embracing the role of "martyr," Pauline resorts
to Christian beliefs to rationalize her neglect of her own family and to shore up her own
ego: "Holding Cholly as a model of sin and failure, she bore him like a crown of thorns,
and her children like a cross" (126-7). In her study of abused women, Elizabeth A.
Waites notes that martyrdom in many persecuted women plays a significant part in
creating a victim identity for them, and that the martyrdom these women embrace in their
"attempts to rescue self-esteem" helps them meet certain psychological needs, since it
makes them "discharge aggression against other people by inducing guilt in them."111
Like the victimized women in Waites's study, Pauline builds up a compensatory meaning
structure around her religion to rescue her self-esteem and keep her sense of self intact:
"She needed Cholly's sin desperately. The lower he sank, the wilder and more
irresponsible he became, the more splendid she and her task became. In the name of Jesus
Cholly Breedlove also contributes his part to the distorted pattern of object
relations within his family by cultivating a profoundly intense hatred toward Pauline. His
hatred toward her enables him to meet several psychological needs. Pauline is an easy
and fe target toward whom he can deflect "his inarticulate fury and aborted desires,"
because she is "one of the few things that he could touch and therefore hurt" (42). As
a black man living in a white-dominant society, Cholly's sense of helplessness is
exacerbated by the fact that his race often aborts his attempts at successfully playing the
culturally expected "masculine" role. His hatred toward Pauline has an intricate
relationship to his sense of emasculation. Morrison introduces an early episode in
Cholly's life that clearly proves this point. He once had a hostile and deeply humiliating
encounter with white armed men, which has caused a profound insecurity about his
manhood. Having white hunters make fun of his virility in front of his partner, while, he,
a naked black teenager suddenly exposed, had to "entertain" them at gunpoint was so
painfully humiliating that only "a half-remembrance" of the incident is enough to disturb
and "stir him into flights of depravity" (42-43).
Coerced obedience, lack of self-assertion, and suppressed anger often undermine
the culturally defined and sanctioned notion of manhood. As he deflected his frustration
and fury by directing them toward his partner, a helpless black girl, Cholly now
strategically exercises his masculine assertiveness and aggression within the safe
boundary of his home against the easiest target, his wife. By doing so, he manages to
maintain his seriously jeopardized narcissistic ego and feel "manly," at least temporarily
within his home. Like Pauline, he uses his spouse, his denigrated selfobject, both to shore
up his precarious, poorly mirrored self and to protect himself from his own rage that
would otherwise consume and destroy him. As Morrison tersely sums up this
complicated interpersonal dynamic, "Hating her, he could leave himself intact" (42).
Both Cholly and Pauline are locked in hatred of each other, perpetuating the
vicious cycle of emotional wounding. In his analysis of intensely cathected "loving hate"
relationships, Bollas argues that hatred may be the type of object relation formed in a
situation where people feel convinced that love is not possible and that intense hatred, in
that case, helps them preserve the connection with their objects. "Hate," Bollas
continues, "emerges not as a result of the destruction of internal objects but as a defense
against emptiness." 112 In The Bluest Eye, Morrison's depiction of the Breedloves and
their pattern of distorted object relations poignantly foregrounds the desperation and
desolation plaguing the dysfunctional family, since a semblance of connection with each
other is barely maintained only through intense mutual hatred and the constant fights they
engage in with a "darkly brutal formalism" (43).
Traumatic Encounters: Desymbolization and the Creation of the "Othered" Self
The odd deformation of love in the Breedlove family takes a heavy toll on Pecola's
psychological development. Her exposure to a series of shaming incidents and the
condemning gaze from others create for her a unique vulnerability, causing her to live in
an altered psychological state. Her constant victimization ultimately leads her to the
realm of complete isolation and derangement after the traumatic violation by her father
and the subsequent rejection by her mother and others in her community.
Pecola grows up without what Winnicott calls "good enough mothering," which
facilitates growth and maturation of children by holding them securely and responding to
their needs optimally. 113 As many object relation theories suggest, if the mother's own
image or self-perception mirrored in her child's eye becomes the foundation of the
child's evolving self-concept, then Pauline bequeaths an ugly self-image to her daughter
from the moment she lays eyes on her. Upon seeing Pecola for the first time right after
giving birth to her, Pauline remarks, "I knowed she was ugly. Head full of pretty hair, but
Lord she was ugly." (126). Winnicott's object relations theory, Kohut's self psychology,
and other relationally oriented psychoanalytic theories show that the existence of self-
validating or "mirroring" others becomes the source of life-long sustenance to overcome
many obstacles in life. Yet from the moment of her birth, Pecola is surrounded by only a
condemning and shaming gaze. Pecola's prayer for blue eyes, like Pauline's attraction to
the movies and her attachment to the white Fisher family, stems from her desperate need
to escape from her unmirrored, unloved self. Thus, a harrowing sense of inadequacy leads
Pecola to wish for a token of love and happiness to fill, in Morrison's phrase, "the void
that is Pecola's 'unbeing.'"114
Jill Matus asserts that it is Pecola's shame-prone tendency to absorb and internalize
the blame placed on her that ultimately destroys her. "If anger helps to maintain
distinctions between what belongs to the self and what must be kept outside it," Matus
maintains, "shame disturbs those distinctions by distorting responsibility and encouraging
self-blame."15 Unlike Claudia, who dares to question and even gives vent to her anger at
the imposed biased value by dismembering the white doll given as a gift, Pecola meekly,
shamefully takes in and internalizes all the negative views or emotions other people
project. She even holds herself responsible for the endless violence between her parents
and prays for blue eyes, with the logic that "if she looked different, beautiful, maybe
Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too. Maybe they'd say, 'Why, look and at
pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn't do bad things in front of those pretty eyes'" (46).
Pecola's shame-prone personality exacerbates the detrimental effects of her traumatizing
life experiences, consolidating her victim status.
The feminist critic Marilyn Frye views anger as an "instrument of cartography" in
"defining others' concept of who and what one is." "To be angry," Frye notes, is "to
claim a place, to assert a right to expression and to discourse."116 Another feminist
psychiatrist, Jean Baker Miller, also emphasizes that anger as a "statement of oneself and
to others" provides a chance to recognize one's discomfort and elicit interactional
responses that can lead to a change in the distressing circumstances. In contrast, Miller
explains, repeated instances of suppressing anger and inaction can lead to lack of self-
esteem and feelings of helplessness.117 Although Frye and Miller examine anger from
different feminist perspectives, their observations shed light on Pecola's predicament of
helplessness and powerlessness. Anger as a form of "resistance" can chart out and
maintain the boundary between the self and the impinging or violating environmental
forces. As a definite form of self-assertion, anger is a demand for a fair share of respect
for the self. Hence, expansion, externalization, and visibility characterize anger whereas
constriction, withdrawal, and invisibility dominate shame.
A chronic exposure to traumatic life conditions induces in shame-prone individuals
a debilitating sense of inadequacy that makes them dread to be seen in their helpless state.
As Foucault's model of the panopticon illustrates, seeing is an act that essentially
involves an exercise of power. Even in seeing motivated by innocent curiosity, the will to
uncover the mystery of an object connotes some semblance of power or the will to
master. Hence, being seen without any chance to complete the reciprocal cycle of seeing
by staring back or being seen in a certain impassive way leads to a humiliated feeling of
subjugation and powerlessness. bell hooks talks about how black slaves or servants were
severely punished for merely looking and argues that white control of the black gaze
pushes blacks into the realm of nonexistence as if their existence does not register in the
white mind.118 Similarly, Morrison in Beloved symbolizes the omnipresent white
surveillance and its sinister power during slavery by referring to "whitefolks with the
Look" or "the righteous Look every Negro learned to recognize along with his ma'am's
Patricia Williams also retells her experience of the white "impassive gaze" and
comments on the disturbing implication of the seemingly indifferent gaze. "What was
hardest was not just that white people saw me," Williams notes, "but that they looked
through me, as if I were transparent." 120 Mr. Yacobowski, the owner of the candy story
in The Bluest Eye, embodies the "impassive gaze" Williams critiques. When Pecola
comes to his store to purchase her candies, she "looks up at him and sees the vacuum"
and the "total absence of human recognition" (48). Mr. Yacobowski "does not see her,
because for him there is nothing to see" (48). After she is exposed to the impassive gaze
of a white storekeeper and his unfriendly demeanor, Pecola feels the "inexplicable
shame" (50), which makes her cry when she steps outside the store.
Overcoming and detoxifying a humiliating sense of nonexistence requires what
hooks calls an "oppositional gaze" that can forge a sense of agency in its attempt to see
through the structure of domination.121 However, a prolonged exposure to domination
and humiliation makes this kind of resistance extremely difficult to conceive and even
more difficult to carry out.
Ironically, shame-prone people's feeling of invisibility and inconsequence often
feeds their wish for invisibility, bringing about a desubjectifying vicious cycle in which
excessive overconcern with social evaluation, coupled with prior experiences of rejection,
makes them seek and hide behind a protective shield of invisibility. When people cannot
control others' shaming gaze, they often try to escape from a painful situation by
controlling themselves. "To look," as Patricia Williams notes, is to make myself
vulnerable; yet not to look is to neutralize the part of myself that is vulnerable."122 For
this reason, whenever she has to face hostile and threatening forces beyond her control,
Pecola habitually engages herself in a self-hypnotic practice of "disappearance" by
shutting her eyes tight, sucking in her breath, and tightening her stomach. Exposed to the
constant domestic violence between her parents that has become a kind of ritual, Pecola
prays to God, "Please God make me disappear" (45) in her attempts to make her body
disappear bit by bit. Later, when bullied and humiliated by a peer, she again tries to "fold
into herself, like a pleated wing" (73).
"Disappearance," as one patient in his psychotherapy states while reflecting on his
childhood trauma and disappearance fantasy, "is about safety." 123 Invisibility becomes a
mask protecting the shamed person from further harm caused by the vicious and
threatening gaze. Pecola's repeated withdrawal into herself is her way of securing and
retreating into the only safe place within her when her environment constricts and
intimidates her with threatening force. Lacking what John Bowlby calls the "safe base"
based upon the solid attachment between the child and the caretaker, which allows for the
child's normal emotional and cognitive development,124 she cannot develop enough
assertiveness to withstand crippling domestic and social aggression. As Adrienne Rich
succinctly expresses the importance of the parental, especially maternal, love for a girl's
struggle in a hostile world, "in order to fight for herself, she needs first to have been both
loved and fought for."125 Neither the distant and vindictive mother nor the violent and
befuddled father can provide for Pecola a semblance of protection and nurturing as her
"holding environment" in a Winnicottian sense. As Morrison describes her predicament
within her family, "a fear of growing up, fear of other people, fear of life" is beaten into
her by her mother, who is determined to make her daughter "bent to respectability"(128).
Devoid of any secure sense of connection with others, she has nothing to lose by severing
her ties with the outside world. Thus, she habitually engages herself in a self-hypnotic
practice of "disappearing."
The child psychotherapist Lenore Terr asserts in her study of childhood trauma that
repeated terror and violence often lead children to develop an altered psychic state.
Unlike the victims of a single traumatic event, Terr explains, repeatedly traumatized
victims learn to "step aside" from themselves and a troubling and painful scene, and
"turn off' their psychological apparatus via practiced trance or dissociation. Thus, when
they ultimately achieve "self-removal" by massive denial, numbing, and dissociation,
they cannot recall the traumatic incidents or even if they can remember them; their
memory tends to consist of fragmentary bits or spots rather than a complete whole. 126 In
Morrison's novel, Pecola's frequent defensive mechanism of disappearance foreshadows
the tragic lot that will befall her after the rape by her father. When she collapses later
under the strain of unbearable shame, betrayal, and rejection, her defensively altered
psychic state finally takes over her life, making her completely split and dissociate herself
from the traumatic event and inducing a serious posttraumatic stress disorder that pushes
her beyond the limit of sanity. After the rape, the area of her self that she can own and
acknowledge without shame is diminished to such an extent that she finally, to borrow
Terr's expression, "steps aside" from her own self, entering into a state of nonbeing.
While Pecola responds to a series of excruciating shaming incidents by taking all
the blame and hiding behind the mask of invisibility, Cholly reacts to the hostile forces
that expose his inadequacy by "acting out." Living in a chronic state of debasement and
humiliated fury, he violently directs his frustration and sense of deprivation outward.
Abandoned on a junk heap by his mother when he was only four days old, and rejected
by his own father, who does not even recognize him, he becomes a social pariah or
deviant. From the moment Cholly is first introduced in the novel, his violence portrays
him in a subhuman, derogatory way, because he has already "catapulted himself beyond
the reaches of human consideration" and "joined the animals" as "an old dog, a snake, a
ratty nigger"(18). His ravaging, violent acts run the gamut from burning down his house
and beating his wife to killing white men and even raping his own daughter. As if to
defensively preempt any possible accusation or attack, he aggressively lashes out at
anyone that even slightly reminds him of his painful past or his helplessness. He thus
clearly shows a poor tolerance for stress and arousal, which many clinical studies identify
as one of the behavioral characteristics of traumatized people.127
Cholly's life-narrative is a completely broken one without any sequence or
thematic thrust running throughout the various stages of his life. Morrison compares his
fragmented and incoherent life, lived in a fury of aggression and lawless "freedom," to
bits and pieces of jazz music.
The pieces of Cholly's life could become coherent only in the head of a musician. .
Only a musician would sense, know, without even knowing that he knew, that
Cholly was free. Dangerously free. Free to feel whatever he felt fear, guilt, shame,
love, grief, pity. Free to be tender or violent, to whistle or weep. ... He could go to
jail and not feel imprisoned, for he had already seen the furtiveness in the eyes of
his jailer, free to say, "No suh," and smile, for he had already killed three white
men. Free to take a woman's insults, for his body had already conquered hers. Free
even to know her in the head, for he had already cradled that head in his arms. Free
to be gentle when she was sick, or mop her floor, for she knew what and where his
maleness was. He was free to live his fantasies, and free even to die, the how
and the when of which held no interest for him. In those days, Cholly was truly
free. Abandoned in a junk heap by his mother, rejected for a crap game by his
father, there was nothing more to lose. He was alone with his own perceptions and
appetites. And they alone interested him. (159-160)
Cholly's life demonstrates the cumulative effects of insidious trauma caused by
constant devaluation by the world, which breaks up Cholly's self narrative and makes it
highly fragmented and incoherent. As the psychoanalyst Donald P. Spence argues in his
discussion of the central role of the self, "the core of our identity is ... a narrative thread
that gives meaning to our life, provided and this is the big if that it is never broken."128
According to Spence, the central mission of the self is turning happenings into meaning
and bringing meaning out of confusion.129
Similarly, Robert Jay Lifton, after years of research on various historical trauma,
such as the Holocaust, the Hiroshima bombing, and the Vietnam War, also emphatically
asserts in his psychology of meaning or symbolization theory that "our central
motivations, our central energies, come from actual or aspired-to meaning structures."
According to him, what brings about trauma is not an overwhelmingly intense experience
per se, but a broken connection of meaning precipitated by it.130 He thus explains
traumatized people's broken symbolic connectedness with their environment and the
overruling elements of separation, disintegration, and stasis in their lives by the failure of
the basic psychological processes, "centering" and "grounding." Centering, Lifton
explicates, refers to the ordering of different life experiences at various levels,
temporally, spatially, and emotionally, for example, so that the self can feel at the center
of its own world and in touch with itself, whereas grounding is a capacity that enables the
self to establish a firm anchoring in its personal experiences and feel secure enough to
face different life challenges and grow by the centering-decentering-recentering process
without losing a sense of oneself. 131 Similarly, the trauma researcher Mardi Horowitz
explains trauma in terms of the shattered inner schemata of the self and the world, and the
repetitive intrusion of the experiences that cannot be assimilated to the schemata.132 In
fact, the devastating psychic consequence of trauma is often explained by its "shattering"
nature and its effects on the survivor's selfhood.133
Cholly's befuddled mental state exemplifies the confusion and horror Spence
observes in people whose meaning-generating and narrative-building function of self
somehow collapses and fails to provide them with "an extended grammar" to "parse the
world."134 His "freedom" actually is an abdication of his personal will and points to his
complete resignation and despair over the fact that he "has nothing more to lose." His
lack of grounding and centering, to borrow Lifton's terms, explains the randomness and
chaos of his life. His aggression is a product of the disintegration of his basic
psychological configuration. When an enfeebled self, lacking in self-validating mirroring
and confirmation of healthy self-assertion, encounters an overwhelmingly frustrating
obstacle in life, it falls apart, and aggression often ensues.135 According to Kohut's
theory, aggression is not an innate part of the basic human psychological configuration.
Only after the disintegration of the basic psychological makeup, Kohut asserts, does
nondestructive, unalloyed assertiveness turn into destructive rage. "Destructive rage," as
Kohut maintains, "is always motivated by an injury to the self."136 Indeed, Cholly's
"freedom" testifies to a seriously disturbed self, deprived of any kind of human
attachment. His aggression symptomatically points to the ferocious narcissistic rage he
feels due to a series of shaming incidents that cruelly crushed his manhood and self-
esteem at the crucial turning points in his life.
As various theories discussed above suggest, the psycho-formative functions of
narrative-building and meaning-generating are central to human experience, and the core
concept of the self cannot be sustained without these functions. Disintegration of these
psycho-formative functions means disintegration of the self. Hence desymbolization is a
major symptomatic effect of trauma. Traumatized people cannot make sense of the
experience they went through. "In trauma," Cathy Caruth argues, "the outside has gone
inside without any mediation."137 The lack of symbolic processing of the traumatic
incident has a serious repercussion on the survivors' sense of self, creating a hole in the
fabric of their life narrative that hitherto consisted of closely interconnected episodes
endowed with personal meaning and ordered in a temporal sequence.
Traumatic events are the incomprehensible, unsymbolisable real that disrupts the
personal narrative of self. Trauma as unassimilated, unsymbolized experiences haunts
survivors like the specters of those who have not been properly buried. Since traumatized
people cannot process their experiences cognitively, emotionally, and symbolically, their
story of trauma becomes, to use Maurice Blanchot's term, the "un-story"138 over which
they have no conscious control. This brings to the fore a highly complicated issue of
traumatic memory and its connection to other symptoms of trauma, such as dissociation,
psychic numbing, and psychic splitting that explain the considerable constriction and
diminution of the self in the wake of trauma. The psychiatrist Henry Krystal sums up this
phenomenon as the "post-traumatic depletion of the consciously recognized spheres of
selfhood" and explains it as the hallmark of post-traumatic stress disorder: "Thus, the
post-traumatic state is characterized by an impoverishment of the areas of one's mind to
which the 'I' feeling of self-sameness is extended, and a hypertrophy of the 'not-I'
alienated areas." 139 All these issues converge and are vividly dramatized in one scene in
The Bluest Eye that describes Cholly's rape of Pecola.
What triggers the inhuman depravity from Cholly is a series of painful incidents in
his traumatic past that somehow get transposed to his present, blurring the boundaries
between different time frames and the separate identities of others in his mind. Especially
his encounter with armed white men during his first sexual adventure deeply humiliates
him, and memories of the incident hauntingly return with a forceful power when he
experiences toward Pecola similarly intermingled emotions he once felt toward another
poor helpless black girl, Darlene. While he was having his first sexual adventure, he was
discovered and interrupted by white hunters. The humiliation of being forced to resume
his performance in front of them, his sense of helplessness, and his guilt over failing to
protect his partner leave a devastating psychic wound. Not knowing how to deal with the
embarrassing situation, where the most intimate and private act was turned into a public
mockery, he displaces his inarticulate fury onto his fellow victim Darlene: "Sullen,
irritable, he cultivated his hatred of Darlene. Never did he once consider directing his
hatred toward the hunters. Such an emotion would have destroyed him. They were big,
white, armed men. He was small, black, helpless. His subconscious knew what his
conscious mind did not guess that hating them would have consumed him, burned him
up like a piece of soft coal, leaving only flakes of ash and a question mark of smoke"
(150-151). Not only his assertive attempt to establish his manhood for the first time ends
in a total disaster. Due to its racially inflected, sexually charged character, the traumatic
incident also teaches him what it means to be a black man in a white society and makes
him personally associate sexuality with control, power, and degradation.
In the rape scene, the harrowing memories Cholly could not integrate into his life
narrative and the entangled emotions attached to them return unsolicited. Numerous
findings on traumatic memory show that unintegrated traumatic events become
dissociated from the original context and return under circumstances that remind
traumatized people of the previous incident. Memory disturbance is one hallmark of post-
traumatic stress syndrome. Traumatic memory is often characterized by its intrusive
nature and its non-narrative, somatosensory or iconic level organization. Traumatic
memory, often termed "episodic" and "implicit" and differentiated from "semantic" or
"explicit" memory, revolves around a specific, lived experience and stays at the most
concrete, lower level that does not involve any conscious processing or linguistic
mediation in its coding. Additionally, episodic memory is "self-focused ... and contains
stories that feature the self' and is often emotionally charged, whereas semantic memory
is affectlesss" and deals with more abstract and general information in a verbal mode.140
Trauma simultaneously damages and enhances certain types of memory. Recent
research in neurocognitive science by Joseph Ledoux, Bessel van der Kolk, and Douglas
Bremner, 14among others, shows that severe or prolonged stress causes serious damage in
the hippocampus, which is believed to be essential to evaluating contextual information
about events and placing them in an associative temporal and spacial representations. In
contrast, stress, the research demonstrates, does not interfere with the functions of the
amygdala that is responsible for the unconscious emotional memory often involved in
conditioned fear responses. On the contrary, stress hormones often enhance activity in the
amygdala system and render amygdala-related emotional memories "indelible."142 As a
result, the stress-induced hyppocampal dysfunction leads to dissociative amnesia that
obliterates the normal contextual information for a specific memory whereas the implicit
memory that has remained intact still triggers even stronger emotional unconscious
recollections of the specific event. For this reason, traumatized people, under the spell of
the reactivated traumatic memory, often react to their past painful event as if it is
happening here and now. As Herman notes, the typical phenomena of hyperarousal and
intrusion cause trauma survivors to lose authority over their memory.143
Survivors often defend against intrusive traumatic memory and the painful
emotions attached to it by what Lifton calls "psychic numbing" or "psychic closing off."
By dulling their senses and feelings, survivors block the persistent return of traumatic
memory and resist its pernicious effects. It is only through this ironic killing of part of
themselves that they protect themselves from total disintegration and survive. As Lifton
notes, "The survivor undergoes a radical but temporary diminution in his sense of
actuality in order to avoid losing his sense completely and temporarily; he undergoes a
reversible form of psychic death in order to avoid a permanent physical or psychic
death."144 In Morrison's novel, Cholly's befuddled, disoriented state of mind and his
habitual boozing seem inseparable from his attempts at numbing and shielding himself
from any devastating thoughts or emotions that he cannot deal with. However, although it
may originally help survivors go through difficult times, psychic numbing, over the long
haul, hinders healing by preventing them from integrating their experiences into their
lives. Moreover, despite their desperate efforts to keep the unsettling memories of the
past at bay, their unassimilated past often breaks through the protective shield of
Thus, in the novel's rape scene, when Cholly looks at Pecola's abject image in his
befuddled state of drunkenness, her helpless look and a hunched back suddenly provokes
in him the uncannily familiar feelings of impotence, rage, and guilt that once plagued
him. The implicit, emotional memory of his failing the powerless black girl Darlene,
along with the accompanying feelings of humiliation, inadequacy, and guilt, returns and
overwhelms him with an inexplicable powerful force. His daughter's pathetic look
connotes to him her broken sprit, and he takes it personally, as an accusation that he has
again failed to protect another poor black girl, this time his daughter. As William Beers
insightfully points out, a shame-prone individual who often bursts into narcissistic rage
has a tendency not to see others as separate entities existing in their own right and often
interprets their innocent acts as "wounds to his self."145 Thus, Pecola's pitiful look deals
another unbearable blow to Cholly's already enfeebled self, unleashing from him an
indignant, narcissistic rage that he has barely been able to keep in check by numbing
himself by heavy boozing and the occasional outbursts of violence against his wife in
their ritualistic fights: "Her back hunched that way; her head to one side as though
crouching from a permanent and unrelieved blow. Why did she have to look so whipped?
She was a child .. why wasn't she happy? The clear statement of her misery was an
accusation .... Guilt and impotence rose in a bilious duet" (161).
However, Cholly's narcissistic rage alone cannot sufficiently explain his incestuous
rape of Pecola. His lust with an encompassing "border of politeness" and his attempt to
fuckk her--tenderly" (160-161) in an oxymoronic way belie the existence of a different
type of emotion than purely defensive rage. While he is attentively watching Pecola, a
particular visual stimulus brings up the image of young Pauline and the tender love he
once felt for her, further complicating his perplexity at the sudden inundating deluge of
past memories and feelings. The image of young Pauline overlaps with that of Pecola, for
Pecola's "timid, tuck-in look of the scratching toe--that was what Pauline was doing the
first time he saw her in Kentucky" (162). This tender love, coupled with the shameful
fury and frustrated anger he felt toward Darlene, creates odd, context-free emotional
reactions of "the hatred mixed with tenderness" (163). Again, not knowing how to deal
with the overwhelming, perplexing situation, he projects the confounded emotions of
anger, guilt, pity, and love onto his daughter, and then rapes her. His rape reflects his
typical behavioral pattern of channeling unbearable emotions into aggressive actions so
that he can maintain some measure of control.
What the elaborately staged rape scene describes is the interesting phenomenon of
repetition that illustrates the untamed powerful driving force of trauma. Unassimilated
traumatic memories are bound to resurface in a situation that reminds traumatized people
of the prior catastrophe, making them repeat the original behavior they employed to cope
with it. As Freud has pointed out several times in his essays, such as "Remembering,
Repeating, and Working-through," "Inhibition, Symptoms, and Anxiety," and "Fixation
to Traumas--The Unconscious," if one does not consciously remember, one is likely to
act out. Acting out by repeating, Freud explains, is a pathological way of
remembering,146 but since it blocks the necessary process of consciously working through
the danger situation, it only ends up increasing the sense of helplessness. In "Beyond the
Pleasure Principle," Freud focuses more specifically on the relationship between trauma
and repetition, and elaborates on his view that traumatized people's repetition is their
unconscious effort to master painful experiences by turning passivity into activity and
achieving a retroactive sense of control. With an example of the famous "fort-da" game
by which his eighteen-month-old grandson stages the separation from and reunion with
his mother, Freud argues that "an instinct for mastery" is more primordial and
elementary than the general "pleasure principle" of avoiding unpleasurable experiences
and seeking pleasurable experiences.147 In his research on trauma and dissociation, Pierre
Janet has also paid attention to the repetitive haunting of traumatic memories and
emphasized the importance of "liquidating" them by transforming them into a form of
narrative memory and making them "placed in their proper context and reconstructed into
neutral or meaningful narratives."148
Once broken by a traumatic incident, the personal narrative of self is prone to
further disintegration unless some remedial efforts are made to put the incident into a
manageable perspective and counteract the repetition compulsion so that traumatized
people can reinvest in their life and restore, to a certain degree, the basic value and belief
system trauma has challenged. Moreover, as the self has been shaped in the relational
context, the restoration of the self in the wake of trauma also requires supportive,
empathic others who can sustain them through the difficult process of recovery and
healing. Or the "holding environment" and its nurturing functions are even more
important when the self disintegrates and its personal world shatters by traumatic
violence. Especially since trauma, as the psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman argues,
radically destroys people's fundamental beliefs in the benevolence and meaningfulness of
the world, and the worthiness of the self,149 it is integral to have empathic others who can
listen to survivors' story to help them understand and come to terms with their experience
through narrativizing activities that ultimately establish some distance from the event and
make it less threatening to reflect upon. Narrative mediation is one major form of what
Dori Laub calls the "re-externalization" and "historicization" of the traumatic incident,
which is necessary for "undoing [survivors'] entrapment" in the troubling past.150
In The Bluest Eye, the lack of empathic listeners and their supports ultimately
results in Pecola's final descent into madness and her subsequent creation of a dissociated
alter ego in the aftermath of her rape. The latter dramatically exemplifies the devastating
effect of her ultimate social castration that exacerbates the harm already done by Cholly's
rape. The girl, who was first introduced as a charity case who had no place to go, is again
outcast so completely at the end of the novel that she goes mad and conjures up an
imaginary friend, the only addressable other available for her, since neither her mother
nor the community provides for her a protective environment safe from Cholly's further
abuse. Even when she ventures out of her family in a desperate attempt to escape from
her misery by magically obtaining blue eyes, Soaphead Church, a pedophilic charlatan,
"grants" her wish by using her for his petty personal purpose and pushes her into
madness. As a result, her wish for blue eyes comes true in an irreversible, Faustian
bargain whereby she enters a delusional world of safety and love at the expense of her
sanity. "Madness," as Shoshana Felman points out, "is the impasse confronting those
whom cultural conditioning has deprived of the very means of protest or self-
affirmation."151 Pecola's final derangement poignantly shows that as a poor young black
girl already devalued, rejected, and abused both inside and outside her home, she finds
the only safe place within herself. Thus the novel reveals the final outcome of insidious
trauma by coupling it with another type of trauma, a more violent and noticeable one.
The devastating effect, in the end, places her completely "outdoors" in a metaphorical
sense. Judith Herman aptly explains this vicious cycle of multiple victimization: "When
the victim is already devalued (a woman, a child), she may find that the most traumatic
events of her life take place outside the realm of socially validated reality. Her
experience becomes unspeakable" (italics mine).152
The unspeakable nature of Pecola's trauma is particularly important and contributes
to her creation of an alter ego and a fantasy world in her madness. Her psychic splitting
functions to keep at least part of her self intact from the fatal violation and defilement
forcefully thrust upon her by her own parent. In his research on the intergenerational
transmission of trauma within the family, Steven Krugman asserts, "In sexual abuse,
especially when the sexual contact is traumatic, the child protects its sense of self by
means of a profound splitting of its inner world."153 For Pecola, the traumatic
victimization by her own father alone is catastrophic enough to utterly break her self-
narrative due to the profound sense of betrayal the incident causes. As Doris Brothers
emphatically argues, betrayed trust is at the heart of trauma, and, according to her theory,
"psychic trauma can only be fully understood as the betrayal of trust in the selfobject
relationships on which selfhood depends" (her italics).154 Although distant and not so
supportive, Cholly as a parent has been a selfobject for Pecola. By violating her, he
destroys the very relational matrix upon which her self is built. Additionally, the sexual
nature of her traumatic experience at such a young age also makes it difficult for her to
comprehend and to integrate the experience into her life. Actually, splitting does not
seem to be such a difficult task for Pecola, who seems to have already started leaving her
psychical body in the rape scene. As if to describe "the void that is Pecola's
'unbeing,'"'55 Morrison stages the rape scene without any kind of emotional response or
protest on Pecola's part, for "the only sound she made" was "a hollow suck of air," which
Morrison compares to "the rapid loss of air from a circus balloon." (163). Pecola
completely excises herself from the rape scene by dissociating herself mentally and
emotionally. The self-hypnotic practice of dissociation that has helped her detach herself
from the tension-fraught scenes of domestic violence finally pays off.
Like other trauma victims, children subjected to gruesome violence and betrayal
often ask "Why me?" Pecola answers the question by blaming her ugliness and creating a
fantasy world in which she is no longer ugly or debased. In her own imaginary world, she
endows herself with what she thinks is the most desirable and admirable image so that
she can repair her broken self-narrative and violated self-image. In other words, she spins
her own narrative of self to make sense of the incomprehensible traumatic victimization.
Thus, she turns the townspeople's despising gaze and looks of horror into envious looks
of jealousy at her bluest eye. Her fantasy also enables her to maintain some connection
with her another abusive selfobject, her mother, by interpreting her mother's cruel and
emotionally distant demeanor toward her simply as a sad, but reasonable reaction to
Cholly's departure and loss of love. In creating a fantasy world and distorting the reality
she cannot possibly accept and assimilate into her life, she resumes her life narrative in
her own way and manages to maintain some measure of continuity in her life, although it
completely isolates her from others and from reality and ultimately leads to her social and
The final image of Pecola reinforces the devastating cumulative effects of multiple
victimization she has endured and reveals the futility of her attempt at survival by a
serious distortion of reality: "Elbows bent, hands on shoulders, she flailed her arms like a
bird in an eternal, grotesquely futile effort to fly. Beating the air, a winged but grounded
bird, intent on the blue void it could not reach ... but which filled the valleys of the
mind" (204). Morrison again presents the stranded bird imagery often associated with
Pecola and repeated throughout the novel to symbolically point to her entrapment in her
trauma. Also, the "blue void" insinuates the empty, ungrounded nature of her desperate
wish to have the bluest eye to compensate for the persecutions and rejections she silently
has to endure.
The lack of testimony and support on the communal level at the end of the novel
completes the traumatic undoing of Pecola's self. Morrison places the accountability for
Pecola's psychic death also on the whole community that splits and projects its own fears
and insecurity onto its most helpless member, who serves as a scapegoat figure.
Completely ostracized and sacrificed by her community, Pecola becomes the dumping
ground or despised object onto which the community defensively splits and projects its
undesirable qualities as its "not-me" part.
All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. All of our
beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us. All of us--all who knew
her--felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful
when we stood astride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified
us, her pain made us glow with health .... And she let us, and thereby deserved
our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty,
and yawned in the fantasy of our strength. (205)
Stigmatized and not seen or heard, Pecola remains a convenient scapegoat that
safely contains all the disintegration products of her self, family, and community. She
never tells her story to anyone and her story is never listened to in its entirety from her
perspective. If trauma narratives, as Susan Brison argues, work like speech acts and if
telling a story, due to its performative power, helps the victim to remake his or her self in
a communal context,156 then the silence imposed on Pecola is one of the most tragic
aspects of her victimization portrayed in Morrison's novel. "To testify," Felman
maintains in her discussion of Claude Lanzman's Holocaust documentary film ,\,,,/th, is
"not merely to narrate but to commit oneself, and to commit the narrative, to others."157
In The Bluest Eye, no one actively testifies for Pecola and commits to addressing the
injustice done to her. Although her friends Claudia and Frieda, at a distance,
sympathetically observe her psychic disintegration, they are too young to articulate or to
analyze the cause of Pecola's plight at the time. To complement the young sisters'
viewpoints, Morrison uses the adult Claudia as the primary narrator and makes other
characters tell their versions of the story and speak for themselves, which help the novel
to take on a more empathic tone. The collapse of testimony and witnessing at the end of
the novel, however, makes Pecola's story of victimization remain difficult to work
Yet it is important to bear in mind that, on another textual level, Morrison does
testify for Pecola. Jerome Bruner once commented that "To tell a story is inescapably to
take a moral stance, even if it is a moral stance against moral stance."158 To paraphrase
Bruner, to tell a story in which testimony collapses is still to testify. By telling a story
where memory fails, the self disintegrates, and witnessing collapses, Morrison seems to
carry out her difficult mission of making language "speak the unspeakable" and capture
"the uncapturability of the life it mourns"159 by avoiding a comforting sense of closure.
Thus, on behalf of traumatized victims, she performs the important narrative function of
testimony and defiance, which is necessary to claim and restitute their selves. In her essay
"Talking Back," bell hooks emphasizes the importance of claiming one's right to speak
and explains how it is related to claiming one's subject position. "To speak then when
one was not spoken to" hooks notes, is both "a courageous act--an act of risk and daring"
and "a gesture of defiance that heals."160 Thus arguing for the movement from silence to
speech, from the object to subject position, she sums up the far-reaching implication of
speech for minority writers: "For us, true speaking is not solely an expression of creative
power, it is an act of resistance, a political gesture that challenges the politics of
domination that would render us nameless and voiceless. As such it is a courageous act;
as such it represents a threat."161 Via The Bluest Eye Morrison "talks back" to the
oppressive, victimizing forces against and within African American communities. By
doing so, she restores the denied dignity and respect to persecuted victims like Pecola and
thus creates a possible narrative space for healing and restoration of the self.
37 American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders-IV (Washington, DC.: Author, 1994), 209.
38 J. Laplanche and J-B. Pontalis, The Language ofPsycho-Analysis, trans. Donald
Nicholson-Smith (New York: Norton, 1974), 465.
39 Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud, Studies on Hysteria in The Standard Edition of the
Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, translated from German under the
general editorship of James Strachey in collaboration with Anna Freud, 24 vols. (London:
Hogarth, 1953-74), vol. 2, xx, 86. Hereafter all references to Freud's work will be cited
40 Elizabeth A. Waites, Trauma and Survival. Post-Traumatic and Dissociative Disorders
in Women (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993), 6. For the controversy about Freud's
abandonment of the seduction theory and its impact on trauma studies, see Jeffrey
Moussaieff Masson's The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory
(New York: Penguin, 1984). Masson's highly polemical view on Freud holds that he
gave up his earlier position on trauma and seduction theory to gain acceptance in the
existing medical circle, because his seduction hypothesis posed a great threat to the
genteel Viennese society and upholding his position became such a great liability to him.
Masson argues that by explaining "memories" of seduction and sexual violence as
patients' fantasies and a development of childhood sexuality, Freud built the foundation
of psychoanalysis upon the neglect of sexual crimes and the suppression of truth.
Some feminist psychoanalysts take a similar view on Freud's recantation of the seduction
theory. For instance, in her books Father-Daughter Incest and Trauma and Recovery,
Judith Herman criticizes Freud's lack of empathy toward his female patients and his
denial of their reality. So she sums up the development of psychoanalysis in this way:
"Out of the ruins of the traumatic theory of hysteria, Freud created psychoanalysis ....
The dominant psychological theory of the next century was founded in the denial of
women's reality. Sexuality remained the central focus of inquiry. But the exploitative
social context in which sexual relations actually occur became utterly invisible.
Psychoanalysis became a study of the internal vicissitudes of fantasy and desire,
dissociated from the reality of experience" (Trauma andRecovery, 14). Father-Daughter
Incest (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1981). Trauma andRecovery (New York: Basic
41 Freud, "Beyond the Pleasure Principle,"SE 18 (1920), 29.
42 See Kai Erikson's "Notes on Trauma and Community" and Laura S. Brown's "Not
Outside the Range: One Feminist Perspective on Psychic Trauma," Trauma:
Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995), 183-
199 and 100-112 respectively. Also refer to Ethnocultural Aspects ofPosttraumatic
Stress Disorder: Issues, Research, and Clinical Applications, Anthony J. Marsella et al.
eds. (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1996) and Maria P. P.
Root's "Reconstructing the Impact of Trauma on Personality" in Personality and
Psychpathology: Feminist Reappraisals, eds. Laura S Brown and Mary Ballou. (New
York: Guilford, 1992), 227-265.
43 Robert Jay Lifton, "An Interview" with Cathy Caruth, Trauma: Explorations in
Memory, 139; Kali Tal, Worlds ofHurt: Reading the Literature of Trauma (New York:
Cambridge UP, 1996), 9.
44 Lifton, "An Interview," 139.
45 Root, "Reconstructing the Impact of Trauma on Personality," 240-241.
46 Erikson, "Notes on Trauma and Community," 185-86.
47 Frantz Fanon, Black .\k,, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York:
Grove Press, 1967), 112.
48 David Marriott, "Bonding over Phobia," The Psychoanalysis ofRace, ed. Christopher
Lane (New York: Columbia UP, 1998), 418-420. After analyzing Fanon's experience of
encountering a racial imago as his double, Marriott gives several examples to show how
cultural fantasy blurs the division between identity and identification and dictates blacks
to hate themselves as whites rather than love themselves as blacks. Along with the
example of a four year old girl who stood fixated in front of the mirror and tried to scrub
out her dark skin, he also cites Kenneth and Mamie Clark's experiments conducted on
black children in 1940s that helped NAACP's legal battle against school segregation. The
experiment used white and brown dolls to test children's racial self-identification and the
result showed a noticeable preference for white dolls at the prompt "Give me the nice
doll" and for brown dolls at "Give me the doll that looks bad." Marriott's examples
illustrate the ways in which identity and identification are indivisibly connected and
mediated by culture and unconscious fantasy, which interpellate the subject, both black
and white, to see the black other as a threat to the white bodily integrity.
49 Fanon, Black .\km, White Masks, 129, 211, 110.
50 Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans Constance Farrington (New York:
51 Marriott, "Bonding over Phobia," 423.
52 Judith Herman, Trauma andRecovery (New York: Basic, 1992), 94.
53 See Cathy Caruth's discussion of the lack of the self s mediating role in traumatic
experiences and its relationship to the enigma of survival in "Traumatic Departures:
Survival and History in Freud," Trauma and Self, eds. Charles B. Strozier and Michael
Flynn (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996). Also for the ethical dimension of the self s
belated experiencing of the traumatic incident and the moral obligation involved in
survival, refer to "Traumatic Awakenings: Freud, Lacan, and the Ethics of Memory" in
her book Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins UP, 1996).
54 Juliet Mitchell, "Trauma, Recognition, and the Place of Language," Diacritics 28
(Winter 1998), 121.
55 Brown, "Not Outside the Range," 100-1. In her caustic critique of the canonical
definition of trauma by American Psychiatric Association, Brown emphatically argues
that the interests of the dominant class determine the public discourse on trauma and she
suggests an alternative feminist theoretical approach to expose the ideological
underpinning of mainstream, androcentric psychology: "'Real' trauma is often only that
form of trauma in which the dominant group can participate as a victim rather than as the
perpetrator or etiologist of the trauma. The private, secret, insidious traumas to which a
feminist analysis draws attention are more often than not those events in which the
dominant culture and its forms and institutions are expressed and perpetuated" (102). For
other challenge to this mainstream definition of trauma as experience "outside the range
of usual human experience," see Elizabeth A. Waites, Trauma and Survival: Post-
Traumatic and Dissociative Disorders in Women, 37-39.
56 Brown, "Not Outside the Range," 102-3
57 Jill Matus, Toni Morrison (New York: Manchester UP, 1998). Although Laurie
Vickroy does not use Root's term of the "insidious trauma," she analyzes Morrison's
novel and other contemporary fictions from a similar perspective. See Laurie Vickroy,
"The Politics of Abuse: The Traumatizes Child in Toni Morrison and Marguerite Duras,"
Mosaic 29. 2 (1996): 91-109, as well as her book Trauma and Survival in Contemporary
Fiction (Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2002).
58 J. Brooks Bouson, Quiet as It's Kept: ,\lhu', Trauma, and Race in the Novel of Toni
Morrison (Albany: SUNY Press, 2000), especially chapter 1, "'Speaking the
Unspeakable': Shame, Trauma, and Morrison's Fiction"; "Contexts and Intertexts," in Jill
Matus's Toni Morrison; Barbara Hill Rigney, The Voices of Toni Morrison (Columbus,
OH: Ohio State UP, 1991), 21.
59 Toni Morrison, "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in
American Literature," Toni Morrison, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House
60 Caruth, "Introduction," Trauma: Explorations in Memory, 5.
61 Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard UP, 1992), 12, 5.
62 Ibid, 38.
63 Ann Pellegrini, Performance Anxieties: Staging Psychoanalysis, Staging Race (New
York: Routledge, 1997), 4. Pellegrini more specifically approaches Freud's question of
racial differences by relating it to his Jewishness. Pointing out the ways in which Jews
figured as emasculated "feminine" and were persecuted as abnormal, asocial being in
Freud's era, she argues that Freud's theories of sexuality and sexual differences were his
way of working out his own racial heritage in an increasing antisemitic climate. For a
further discussion of the influence of Freud's Jewishness on his theorization and the
oversight in psychoanalysis of the complex intersecting points of racial and sexual
differences, see Sander Gilman's Freud, Race, and Gender (New York: Routledge,
64 David Eng, Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian-America (Durham:
Duke UP, 2001), 8.
65 Hortense J. Spillers, "All the Things You Could Be Now, If Sigmund Freud's Wife
Was Your Mother," Female Subjects in Black and White: Race, Psychoanalysis,
Feminism, eds. Elizabeth Abel, Barbara Christian, and Helen Moglen (Berkeley, CA: U
of California P, 1997), 139.
66 Claudia Tate, Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocols of Race
(New York: Oxford UP, 1998), 18.
67 For a detailed discussion of the oversight of race issues in the founding narratives of
feminism and works by female psychoanalysts such as Joan Riviere, Melanie Klein, and
Margaret Mead, see Jean Walton, Fair Sex, Savage Dreams: Race, Psychoanalysis,
Sexual Difference (Durham: Duke UP, 2001) and her article "Re-placing Race in (White)
Psychoanalytic Discourse: Founding Narratives of Feminism," Female Subjects in Black
and White, eds. Elizabeth Abel et al., 223-251.
68 Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness
(Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993), 3, 235.
69 Sander Gilman, Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and
Madness (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985), 120-30.
70 William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs, Black Rage (New York: Basic Books, 1968), 26.
71 Claudia Tate, "Introduction: Black Textuality and Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism,"
Psychoanalysis and Black Novels, 3-21.
72 Cheryl A. Wall, "Taking Positions and Changing Words," Changing Our Own Words:
Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women, ed. Cheryl A. Wall (New
Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989), 9.
73 Tate, Psychoanalysis and Black Novels, 15.
74 Barbara Christian, "The Race for Theory," Gender and Theory: Dialogues on Feminist
Criticism ed. Linda Kauffman (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 225-237.
75 Pellegrini, 4.
76 Ibid, 3. Barbara Christian also notes in "The Race for Theory" that what ultimately
counts in doing literary criticism is "what orientation we take in our work, the language
we use, the purpose for which it is intended" (235).
77 Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (New York: A Plume Book, 1970), 5. All future
references to this book will be parenthetically referenced in the text.
78 Christopher Bollas, Forces ofDestiny: Psychoanalysis and Human Idiom (London:
Free Association Books, 1989), 31-49.
79 Stephen A. Mitchell, Relational Concepts in Psychoanalysis: An Integration
(Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988), 3.
8o Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 133, 51.
81 Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self (New York: International UP, 1971), xiv.
82 Freud, "On Narcissism: An Introduction." SE, 14:67-102.
83 Kohut, The Analysis of the Self, 32-56, 105-132; The Restoration of the Self (New
York: International UP, 1977), 171-191.
84 Morris N. Eagle, Recent Developments in Psychoanalysis (Cambridge: Harvard UP,
85 Barbara Johnson, The Feminist Difference: Literature, Psychoanalysis, Race, and
Gender (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998), 53, 55.
86 Morrison, "Afterword," The Bluest Eye, 211.
87 Kohut, The Restoration of the Self, 253.
88 D. W. Winnicott, The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment (New
York: International Universities Press, 1965), 37-55.
89 The feeling of helplessness and the loss of an internal locus of control are the key
factors in determining the onset of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In
"Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety" (SE 20) Freud discusses the significance of the
subjective feeling of "helplessness" in relation to psychic trauma. Unlike a danger-
situation, Freud asserts, a traumatic situation involves "the subject's estimation of danger
and in his admission of helplessness in the fact of it" (166). Contemporary psychologists
and psychiatrist often explain this feeling of helpless by the loss of an internal locus of
control in stressful or traumatic situations and relate it to a specific personality type or
self-schema. See Suzanne C. Ouellette Kobasa, "Stress Responses and Personality," in
Gender and Stress, eds. Rosalind C. Barnett, Lois Biener, and Grace K. Baruch (New
York: The Free Press, 1987), 308-329; Susan T. Fiske and Shelley E. Taylor, Social
Cognition (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1984), 132-138. For the discussion of the
close relationship between acute post-traumatic reactions and loss of self-control in
combat trauma, see Zahava Solomon, Nathaniel Laror, and Alexander C. McFarlane,
"Acute Posttraumatic Reactions in Soldiers and Civilians," Traumatic Stress: The Effects
of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society, eds. Bassel A. van der Kolk,
Alexander C. McFarlane, and Lars Weisaeth (New York: Gilford, 1996),102-114.
90 Kai Erikson, "Trauma and Community," 185-186.
91 Ibid., 186.
92 Linda Peach, Toni Morrison, (New York: St. Martin's, 1995), 24; Donald B. Gibson,
"Text and Countertext in The Bluest Eye," and Michael Awkward, "The Evil of
Fulfillment, "in Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, eds. Henry Louis
Gates Jr. and K. A. Appiah (New York: Amistad, 1993), 161, 179-180.
93 Henry Louis Gates. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary
Criticism (New York: Oxford UP, 1988), xxiv-xxvi.
94 J. Brooks Bouson, Quiet as It's Kept: ,\haie, Trauma, and Race in the Novels of Toni
Morrison (Albany: SUNY Press, 2000), 29.
95 Bollas, Being a Character: Psychoanalysis and Self-Experience (New York: Hill and
Wang, 1992), 30, 36.
96 Ibid., 20-21.
97 Kai Erickson, Everything in Its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek
Flood (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976), 176-177.
98 Fanon, Black .kuin, White Masks, 211, 213.
99 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. trans. Alan Sheridan.
(New York: Vintage, 1977), 177, 176.
100 Vicky Lebeau, Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Play of .\lh, /,, \ (London:
Wallflower Press, 2001), 6.
101 Ibid., 29.
102 Anne Friedberg, "A Denial of Difference: Theories of Cinematic Identification,"
Psychoanalysis and Cinema ed. E. Ann Kaplan (New York: Routledge, 1990), 43.
103 Sigmund Freud, "Fetishism," SE 21,149-157.
104 Ibid., 42.
105 Following E. Ann Kaplan's differentiation between "gaze" and "look," I use "gaze"
here to connote the active structural element of power involved in the act of seeing an
object. For Kaplan "look" connotes a process, a relation whereas "gaze" has more to do
with a one-way subjective vision. Thus, the object of the gaze often stirs strong anxieties,
fantasies, or desires of the viewer. For a more detailed discussion, see E. Ann Kaplan,
Lookingfor the Other: Feminism, Film, and the Imperial Gaze (New York: Routledge,
106 Jacque Lacan, "The Mirror State as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in
Psychoanalytic Experience, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York:
Norton, 1977). 1-7.
107 Mariott, "Bonding over Trauma," 418.
108 Ibid., 423.
109 W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls ofBlack Folk, (New York: Viking Penguin, 1989),
110 Karen Homey, Neurosis and Human Gi emi til. The Strllu,,,n toward Self-realization,
(New York: Norton, 1991), 17-40.
111 Elizabeth A. Waites, Trauma and Survival: Post-traumatic and Dissociative
Disorders in Women, 53.
112 Bollas, The .lh, ,l,Ii' of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known (New
York: Columbia UP, 1987), 130.
113 Winnicott, The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, 56-63.
114 Morrison, "Afterword," 215.
115 Matus, Toni Morrison, 45.
116 Marilyn Frye. The Politics ofReality: Essays in Feminist Theory (Trumansburg, NY:
The Crossing Press, 1983), 94.
117 Jean Baker Miller, "The Construction of Anger in Women and Men," Women's
GiI thi in Connection: Writings from the Stone Center, eds. Judith V. Jordan et al. (New
York: Guilford, 1991), 189, 185.
118 bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992),
119 Morrison, Beloved (New York: Plume, 1987), 157.
120 Patricia Williams, The Alchemy of Race andRights (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991),
121 hooks, Black Looks, 116.
122 Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights, 223.
123 Quoted in Benjamin Kilborne, Disappearing Persons: .h, \/ine and Appearance
(Albany: SUNY Press, 2002), 198.
124 John Bowlby, Attachment, volume 1 of Attachment and Loss (New York: Basic
Books, 1969) and Separation: Anxiety and Anger, volume 2 of Attachment and Loss
(New York: Basic Books, 1973).
125 Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and institution (New
York: Norton, 1976), 244.
126 Leonore Terr, Unclaimed Memories: True Stories of Traumatic Memories, Lost and
Found (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 70-71, 88; Leonore Terr, "Childhood Traumas:
An Outline and Overview," American Journal of Psychiatry 148:1 (1991, January), 14.
127 Bessel A. van der Kolk and Mark S. Greenberg. "The Psychobiology of the Trauma
Response: Hyperarousal, Constriction, and Addiction to Traumatic Reexposure,"
Psychological Trauma, ed. Bessel A. van der Kolk (Washington DC: American
Psychiatric Press, 1987), 63-66.
128 Donald P. Spence, "Narrative Persuasion," Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Though
6 (1983), 458.
129 Spence, "Turning Happenings into Meaning: The Central Role of the Self," The Book
of the Self: Persons, Pretext, and Process, eds. Polly Young-Eisendrath and James A Hall
(New York: New York UP, 1987).
130 Caruth, "Interview with Robert Jay Lifton," Trauma: Exploration in Memory ed.
Cathy Caruth, 153. Also refer to Robert Jay Lifton's books, The Life of the Self: Toward
a New Psychology (New York: Touchstone, 1976) and The Broken Connection: On
Death and the Continuity of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979).
131 Lifton, The Life of the Self. Toward a New Psychology, 65-81.
132 Mardi Horowitz, Stress Response Syndromes (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1986),
133 For the discussion of the relationship between trauma and its psychological effects on
the survivor's self, see collected essays in Trauma and Self eds. Charles B. Strozier and
Michael Flynn (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996); Richard B. Bulman and Doris
Brothers, The .\hui ,Id Self A Psychoanalytic Study of Trauma (Hillsdale, NJ: The
Analytic Press, 1988); Robert Jay Lifton, The Life of the Self: Toward a New Psychology
(New York: A Touch Stone Book, 1976); Susan J. Brison, "Outliving Oneself: Trauma,
Memory, and Personal Identity," Feminist Rethink the Self ed. Diana Tietj ens Meyers
(Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997): 12-39; Susan J. Brison, "Traumatic Narratives and
the Remaking of the Self," Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present ed Mieke Bal
et al. (Hanover, NH: UP of New England, 1999): 39-54. For a literary approach to the
sexual/textual inscription of traumatic narratives and the possibility of reinventing or
reconstructing the self through "scriptotherapy," see Suzette A. Henke's .VhI\ ncie
Subjects: Trauma and Testimony in Women's Life-writing (New York: St. Martin's,
1998). Henke examines the twentieth century life-writing by women writers, such as
Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, Anais Nin, and Sylvia Plath, to explore the healing and
empowering function of autobiographical writing and suggests that the artistic creation of
a subject position in writing enabled women writers to forge a sense of agency to rebel
against a dominant patriarchal society.
134 Spence, "Turning Happenings into Meaning," 145.
135 Interesting findings about the gender differences in the defensive mechanism deployed
for coping with trauma show that men often become more aggressive and act out their
frustration whereas women become more passive and direct aggression against
themselves. Males' proclivity toward aggression and narcissistic rage seem to reflect the
gender-specific social rearing and relational expectations that promote independence and
self-assertion for males and overinvestment and overidentificattion with significant others
for females. For a more detailed discussion of the impact of unbalanced gender-specific
socialization on narcissistic development, refer to William Beers's Women and Sacrifice:
Male Narcissism and the Psychology of Religion (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1992); Ilene
Philipson, "Gender and Narcissism," Psychology of Women Quarterly 9 (1985): 213-228;
Ronnie Janoff-Bulman and Irene Hanson Frieze, "The Role Gender in Reactions to
Criminal Victimization," Gender and Stress, eds. Rosalind C. Barnett, Lois Biener, and
Grance K. Baruch (New York: Free Press, 1987).
136 Kohut, The Restoration of the Self, 116. For his theory of aggression, refer to pp.111-
131 of the same book.
137 Carth, "Traumatic Departures: Survival and History in Freud," 30.
138 Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock. (Lincoln: U of
Nebraska P, 1986), 28.
139 Henry Krystal, "Trauma and Aging," Trauma: Exploration in Memory, ed. Cathy
Caruth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995), 85.
140 Kent D. Harber and James W. Pennebaker, "Overcoming Traumatic Memory," The
Handbook of Emotion andMemory, ed. Sven-Ake Christianson (Hillsdale: Lawrence
Earlbaum Associates, 1992), 377. Also see Spence, "Turning Happenings into Meaning,"
141 Joseph LeDoux, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional
Life (New York: Touchstone, 1996); Bessel van der Kolk, "The Body Keeps the Scores:
Memory and the Evolving Psychobiology of Posttraumatic Stress," Harvard Review of
Psychiatry 1 (1994): 253-265; Bessel van der Kolk, "Traumatic Memories," Trauma and
Memory: Clinical and Legal Controversies. eds. Paul S. Appelbaum, Lisa A. Uyehahara,
and Mark R. Elin (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997); Regina Pally, The Mind-Body Relationship
(New York: Karnac Books, 2000); J. Douglas Bremner, "Traumatic Memories Lost and
Found," Trauma and Memory. eds. Linda M. Williams and Victoria L. Banyard
(Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1999); Wilma Bucci, "Dual Coding: A Cognitive Model for
Psychoanalytic Research," Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 33
142 Joseph LeDoux, The Emotional Brain, 179-224; Joseph LeDoux, "Emotion as
Memory: Anatomical Systems Underlying Indelible Neural Traces," The Handbook of
Emotion andMemory, ed. Sven-Ake Christianson (Hillsdale: Lawrence Earlbaum
Associates, 1992), 264-286.
143 Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 33-42.
144 Lifton, Ibid.,173.
145 William Beers, Women and Sacrifice: Male Narcissism and the Psychology of
146 Freud, "Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through," SE 12(1914), 147-156.
147 Freud, "Beyond the Pleasure Principle," SE 18 (1920), 14-23.
148 Bessel A. van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart, "Pierre Janet and the Breakdown of
Adaptation in Psychological Trauma," American Journal ofPsychiatry 146. 12
(December 1989), 1537.
149 See Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, The .\V/hituil Assumptions: Toward a New Psychology of
Trauma (New York: Free Press, 1992) and her "The Aftermath of Victimization:
Rebuilding Shattered Assumptions," Trauma and Its Wake: The Study and Treatment of
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder ed. Charles R. Figley (New York: Brunner/Mazel,
1985),15-35. Janoff-Bulman draws on a psychologist C. M. Parkes's concept
assumptivee world" to explain "a strongly held set of assumptions about the world and
the self which is confidently maintained and used as a means of recognizing, planing, and
acting" and points out that these deepest and generalized assumptions are "the bedrock of
our conceptual system that we are least aware of and least likely to challenge" (The
.\sh, uit eC lAssumption, 5). The far-reaching effects of trauma, according to Janoff-
Bulman, can be explained by the shattering of positively biased overgeneralizations about
the world and hence, the recovery from trauma necessarily involves rebuilding the
survivor's inner world and assumptions by integrating the old world-view with a new
appraisal and insight gained from the traumatic experience.
150 Dori Laub, "Bearing Witness or the Vicissitudes of Listening," Testimony: Crises of
Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, eds. Shoshana Felman and Dori
Laub (New York: Routledge, 1992), 68-70.
151 Shoshana Felman, What Does a Woman Want? Reading and Sexual Difference
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992), 21.
152 Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 8.
153 Steven Krugman, "Trauma in the Family: Perspectives on the Intergenerational
Transmission of Violence," Psychological Trauma, ed. Bessel A. van der Kolk
(Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, 1987), 134.
154 Doris Brothers, Falling Backwards: An Exploration of Trust and Self Experience
(New York: Norton, 1995), 55.
155 Morrison, "Afterword," 215.
156 Brison, "Trauma Narrative and the Remaking of the Self."
157 Shoshana Felman, "The Return of the Voice: Claude Lanzmann's Shoah," Testimony:
Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, eds. Shoshana Felman
and Dori Laub, 204.
158 Jerome Bruner, Acts of Meaning (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990), 51.
159 Morrison, The Nobel Lecture in Literature (New York: Aftred Knopf, 1994), 21.
160 bell hooks, "Talking Back," Discourse 8 (1986-87), 123, 128.
161 Ibid., 126.
THE OPEN WOUND OF TRAUMA AND THE HOLOCAUST IN ISAAC BASHEVIS
SINGER'S ENEMIES, A LOVE STORY
The nooses wound for our necks still dangle
before us in the blue air -
We, the rescued,
Show us your sun, but gradually.
Lead us from star to star, step by step.
Be gentle when you teach us to live again.
Lest the song of a bird,
Or a pail being filled at the well,
Let our badly sealed pain burst forth again
and carry us away -
Nelly Sachs, "Chorus of the
There [in Auschwitz] one touched on something which
represents the deep layer of solidarity among all that wears
a human face; notwithstanding all the usual acts of
beastliness of human history, the integrity of this common
layer has been taken for granted Auschwitz has changed
the basis for the continuity of the conditions of life within
My heart lost its hurt
its reason for beating
life was returned to me
and I am here in front of life
as though facing a dress
I can no longer wear.
Charlotte Delbo, Auschwitz and After
The Holocaust: The Site of the Annihilated Ontological Landscape of Selfhood
For both survivors and others indirectly exposed to the Holocaust, the difficulty of
mourning has been the central issue associated with the difficulty of representation. The
Holocaust was an atrocious experience of such magnitude and cruelty that it surpassed
any existing realm of possibility and left survivors unprepared for the daunting task of
coming to terms with their losses and of integrating them into their lives. Emmanuel
Levinas has aptly called the Holocaust the "paradigm of gratuitous suffering" which left a
hole in both personal and collective history.162 For the survivors who were subjected to
and witnessed the dehumanizing and perverse practices of Nazi extermination, the
Holocaust has brought to an end the illusion of "beautiful death," which Jean-Francois
Lyotard describes as "the exchange of the finite for the infinite, of the eschaton for telos."
For the victims of the Holocaust who died utterly dehumanized deaths, Lyotard explains,
their dying was deprived of "the reason to die" in which people often find the comforting
"bond of a we." "One cannot give a life that one doesn't have a right to have," Lyotard
continues to point out in reference to the desecration of the deportees' life and death in
Auschwitz, where "one's death is legitimate because one's life is illegitimate."163
Despite its connotative religious meaning of sacrifice that comes from the biblical
offering of animals to God, "Holocaust," which literally means a whole burning, cannot
anchor the lost lives of its victims in any meaningful religious or ethical system of
purpose.164 Nor can anyone endow them with a consolatory significance even
retroactively. The dubious assertion that the Holocaust and its victims ultimately led to
the establishment of a Jewish state, or even the Jewish mystical tradition and its
philosophy of creation positing and emphasizing the final stage of tikkun or repair after
the stage of disruption and chaos, sounds too contrived and loses its redemptive power
against the heavy silence engulfing victims and the survivors' unspeakable stories finally
spoken often in a highly fragmented manner. Persistently haunting its survivors, yet
characterized by the enigmatic collapse of its witnessing, the Holocaust is a "historically
ungraspable primal scene," as Shoshana Felman notes in her discussion of Claude
Lanzmann's documentary film .\/huh 165 In other words, the devastating impact of the
event is such that it often creates a new identity for survivors, despite the fact that they
may have a hard time acknowledging, recalling, and bearing witness to the catastrophe.
Like survivors of other types of trauma, survivors of the Holocaust feel that the
event has shattered the basic assumptions and expectations of life, or in Habermas's
words, "the integrity of this common layer ... taken for granted" that accounts for "the
continuity of the conditions of life within history."166 Continuing Habermas's geo-spatial
metaphor, I argue that common to all traumatic experiences is the destruction of what I
call the basic foundational elements of the "psychological landscape."167 The
psychological landscape consists of the assumption of meaningfulness and value of life,
the ability to trust others and oneself, the possibility of sustaining fulfilling human
relationships, everlasting ties of solidarity with others, and the projection of one's future
in the continuum of past, present, and future.
A traumatic ordeal or shock destroys people's psychological landscape and
deprives them of the psychological backdrop against which all their life events have
taken place, make sense, and take on significance. This psychological landscape consists
of basic beliefs, values, and expectations that coordinate and arrange seemingly random
events or episodes into a meaningful and coherent sequence of personal narrative.
Depending on one's personal history and cultural milieu or heritage, it may have different
elements and object relations that stay in the foreground or background. Overall,
however, it serves as a protective wall, creating a safe space for the self to evolve
relatively free from intrusive outside forces and buffering any shock or challenge with its
comforting, supportive systems of ideas, and networks of internalized ties with others. It
also provides a sense of projected temporal continuation that seems to promise another
horizon to look forward to beyond whatever turbulence and difficulty one may have at
the present moment. The self stripped of these fundamental elements of surrounding
psychological makeup is not a self.
From a slightly different angle, the moral philosopher Charles Taylor also uses a
spatial metaphor to explain and emphasize the significance of a certain orientation or
framework for selfhood: "What I am as a self, my identity essentially is defined by
the way things have significance for me. a person without a framework altogether
would be outside our space of interlocution; he wouldn't have a stand in the space where
the rest of us are."168 Gradually formulated and modified, this psychological landscape
or, in Taylor's term, orientation or framework, creates a composite picture of who one is
and eventually becomes an integral part of the self.
The accumulated history of one's interaction with others that has been blended into
one's psychological landscape like a pattern in a fabric also helps one formulate and
secure an ontological anchoring in a constantly shifting world. It enables one to organize
and continue to articulate one's personal narrative of self in a protective, nurturing
environment. Thus, the collapse of this psychological landscape leads to a frighteningly
chaotic inner state that radically alters one's sense of self, throwing one into a murky
realm of the unknown, severing ties with others, and making one feel utterly alone.
I argue that trauma is basically about losing one's ground in the familiar space of
psychic and interpersonal history where one's most defining moments in life have taken
place and where one's distinctive qualities as a person have been formulated in
relationship with significant others or, to use Kohut's term, selfobjects. Not only
catastrophic disasters or violent personal upheavals such as rape or a sudden loss of loved
ones, for example, cause traumatic wounds. But a serious disturbance within, or damage
to, this personalized inner space is traumatic in that it threatens to destroy the carefully
built self-narrative and subjects one to doubt, shame, or uncertainty. Trauma is an
experience of violation and violence that destroys this unique, carefully carved out
personalized space. Once this protective space is violated due to a chronic assault to
one's dignity and autonomy, one loses not only "the belief that one can be oneself in
relation to others" but one "may lose the sense that [one] has any self at all."169
Dissociation, often diagnosed as the most common representative symptom of
trauma, points to the surreal feeling of disorientation people feel toward themselves and
the world after the fundamental psychological landscape crumbles under their feet. They
are left clueless about how to cope with the hostile forces threatening to annihilate them
at any minute. As a result, disparate sensory data become foregrounded and remain
distinctive without any logical, meaningful connection between them, since overall
psychological background serving as the integrating force of different elements of the self
no longer exists.
As Doris Brothers, a Kohutian psychoanalyst specializing in treatment of trauma
survivors, argues, in many traumatic incidents, "the psychic adhesive" integrating the self
and selfobject fantasies dissolves, making survivors no longer able to be themselves or
trust and rely on themselves. "Trauma," in other words, "loosens this glue, crippling
psychological life" and leaves them "plunged into a nightmare world of self-
fragmentation in which sanity, indeed the very continuity of existence, can no longer be
taken for granted."170
The Holocaust is a quintessential example of trauma that illustrates many
detrimental effects of the prolonged attack on selfhood. Desubjectification is at the core
of Holocaust experience and it is a type of what Robert Jay Lifton calls the "perversion
of meaning" that affirms one's sense of self by destroying others. The Nazis used the
constant degradation and lack of autonomy in concentration camps as a means of
annihilating the humanity of the Jews. 17 As Dominic LaCapra explains, Nazi ideology
needed a demonized outsider group that could be perceived as a threatening Other and
hence help stabilize the insecure inner solidarity in post-World War I Germany. The Jew
conveniently served as the projectivee carrier of anxieties "or a "phantasmatic cause of
Behind Nazi ideology and its obsession with a pure "racial hygiene" lies a complex
and morbid group psychology that reflects a humiliated people's narcissistic fury and a
desperate need for an easy target for the pent-up aggression they could not give vent to
due to post-World War I international sanctions. In other words, the Holocaust was the
Nazis' witch hunt by which they implemented their will and desire to start over and
restore the old glory of the Volk at the expense of the innocent Jews. Lifton insightfully
analyzes this intergroup dynamic: "You cannot kill large numbers of people except with a
claim to virtue, so that killing on a large scale is always an attempt at affirming the life
power of one's own group."173 To achieve this purpose, the Nazis made the Jews
"vermin" that needed to be exterminated and subjected them to a systematic total
degradation whereby the targets of their assault would lose their identity as human
beings. By doing so, the Nazis could obviate or alleviate any feelings of guilt or revulsion
against their atrocious crime. As Freud says in "Group Psychology and the Analysis of
the Ego," not only positively shared emotional ties strengthen group solidarity. A shared
hatred toward a particular group or entity functions in the same manner.174 Additionally,
anti-Semites could also rid themselves of negative or ambivalent feelings toward their
ideal or leader and consolidate their ties to the group by unleashing their aggression
against outsiders and sadistically destroying Jews' integrity as human beings.
Desubjectification was the key to their extermination policy that exacted a heavy toll on
Due to its desubjectifying nature, trauma for its victims is an irrevocable experience
of violation and violence that strips the layers of the self integral for maintaining their
identity as human beings. In the total ruins of their psychological landscape, those
persecuted by the Nazis could not feel that they were the same people they used to be.
Since they had to break ties with others and drift off from their ontological mooring in
their arduous efforts for survival, a majority of Holocaust survivors were bound to feel
that their identities were canceled. In his book Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on
Humanity, Primo Levi reflects on his life in Auschwitz and succinctly explains how the
uprooted and degraded concentration camp inmates had to "lie on the bottom" and
become "hollow" men:
Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of
his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, everything he possesses: he will be a
hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for
he who loses all often easily loses himself ... It is in this way that one can
understand the double sense of the term 'extermination camp,' and it is now clear
what we seek to express with the phrase: 'to lie on the bottom.'175
The "bottom" here functions to highlight metaphorically both the unfathomable
depth of inmates' despair and their sunken moral state after their demolition as men.
Elsewhere, Levi refers to the dismally inhumane condition of concentration camps as
"the gray zone" where people have to suspend any kind of moral judgement as irrelevant.
In this gray zone, each individual is turned into "a thousand sealed off monads" and has
to struggle to survive by all means without a communal sense of solidarity with others.176
This desolate situation exemplifies what Judith Herman defines as the two core
experiences common to all types of trauma: disempowerment and disconnection from
others.177 In the confines of Nazi camps, where "the struggle to survive is without
respite," Levi notes, "everyone is desperately and ferociously alone."178
Under a traumatic circumstance, along with the shrunken, impoverished social and
moral horizon, the temporal dimension constituting people's ontological landscape
undergoes a radical change. The Holocaust, in particular, is unique in that the
accumulated effects of assault and persecution over a relatively long period of time
produce a highly distorted perception of time in survivors. The Holocaust survivors often
report how their traumatic ordeal during the war makes them feel as if their current lives
do not belong to them, even after a long time has already elapsed. Often "fixated" on or
"possessed" by the harrowing past, they find living in the present moment extremely
difficult or almost impossible. For instance, Artur Sammler, Saul Bellow's Jewish
protagonist in Mr. Sammler 's Planet, who survives Nazi rule by hiding in a mausoleum,
feels so misplaced in time and removed from the busy life around him in New York that
he thinks of himself "separated from the rest of his species" or simply "not a man of the
times." Sammler's aloofness and disorientation is so excessive that Shula, his frustrated
and concerned daughter, wishes "to implicate him and bring him back, to bind him and
keep him in the world beside her."179
Sometimes survivors take a completely opposite approach to life and immerse
themselves in a morbidly excessive concern with the "here and now." Their obsession
with the "here and now" and their blind drive to live in the present, however, is just a
convenient coverup or shield against the overwhelming emotions associated with their
past. By focusing on the present moment, they try to block out the intrusion of past pains
and memories. But this defense mechanism cannot be successful and often comes with a
high price, making them emotionally flat or unable to enjoy any pleasure in life. Henry
Krystal explains this "anhedonia" or "an impairment of the ability to experience
gratification" as the common affective disorder found in trauma patients that often
manifests itself in their masochistic tendencies.180 One representative example is Sol
Nazerman, another lonely Holocaust survivor in Edward Lewis Wallant's The
Pawnbroker, who, after the death of his entire family, alienated himself from the world
and focused on money, in his opinion the only guarantee of security in life. "'Next to the
speed of light second only to that I would rank money,'" he claims. Thus, when his
distressed mistress questions his claim that they survived the Nazi-imposed Hell and asks
"'Have you escaped?'" he tersely dismisses her by replying, "'You are a hysterical
woman.'" And then he shouts to her this advice reflecting his extremely myopic, present-
based philosophy: "'Grab what you need without mooning and sighing. Take, do, act!
Life is the here and now. Focus on what is before you. Bear down, push away whoever
impedes you. Take what you need; money, relief, peace."'181
Survivors' warped sense of time is one of the telling symptoms testifying to their
broken narrative of the self. To explain the everlasting distortion of time that plagues
their present life, survivors often recall their past and clarify why it is so difficult for
them to adjust to the "normal" flow of time. In their reminiscences they often show how,
with their past forgotten and the future uncertain under the Nazi rule, only the present
moment used to consume them entirely. "Do you know how one says 'never' in camp
slang?" Levi asks. And he answers, "tomorrow morning."182 It is highly ironic that these
people, who were compelled to live in the present under constant threats of annihilation,
now cannot let go of their painful past and live their life in the peaceful present.
When the only certainty in the provisional existence is "here and now" and the
strenuous struggle for survival demands their entire energy, people in a threatening
predicament often lose sight of what to live for or even what to fall back on as the
reminder of their life before the catastrophe. In this respect, Viktor E. Frankl, another
concentration camp survivor who later developed a unique, meaning-centered
psychotherapeutic approach called "logotherapy," explains the existence in the
abominable camp setting as a "provisional existence of unknown limit."183 Driven to live
in an existential vacuum of the eternally doomed present, these victims lose not only their
identity but their humanity. Literature about Nazi concentration camp inmates abounds
with the stories about "Muselmdnner," those "irreversibly exhausted, worn out prisoners
close to death" who were no longer part of the living and often referred to as living
corpses. 184 The emaciated bodies of Muselmdnner were the derelict relics of the broken
self-narratives of those people who were now stuck in the meaningless present. Stasis and
fragmentation dominate the traumatized and their constricting life condition, which has
shriveled to unpredictable, fleeting moments. In contrast, movement and integration
create, support, and maintain a healthy psychological landscape, enabling the self-
narrative to progress along with the natural lapse of time.
Along with a static, distorted conception of time, another symptom of trauma that
illustrates the severity of the hardships survivors had to go through is extreme
somatization. It also determines their coping mechanisms even long after their survival.
As in other traumatic experiences, the broken connections with others and other
uprooting ordeals often produce a radically different self-perception in Holocaust
survivors. This newly forged perception is often entirely body-based and highly
fragmentary. Specifically, since a severe deprivation of basic necessity and the prolonged
exposure to abuse usually leaves no margin for thought, their notion of the self, after a
series of repeated assaults and severe deprivation, dwindles considerably, to such an
extent that a mere part of their body often substitutes for their whole self-concept.
Holocaust testimonies are replete with people's testimony where survivors express
their bewildering shock at finding themselves reduced to "a hungry stomach," "a burning
throat" or "a pounding heart." Or as Delbo's remark illustrates, those in an extremely dire
situation may perceive themselves in such a degraded way as to equate themselves to
only "a sack which needs periodic refilling."185 Additionally, after the catastrophe is over,
somatization also becomes a psychological coping mechanism for many survivors of
different types of trauma. Since the extremely powerful and overwhelming affective
responses are not allowed or may jeopardize their chance of survival, they learn to make
it through the ordeal by, as Levi would phrase, "hollowing" themselves. In more clinical
terms, Robert Jay Lifton explains this phenomenon as "psychic numbing" or "closing
off." According to Lifton, this "diminished capacity to feel" is "at the heart of the
traumatic syndrome," and survivors "undergo a reversible form of psychic death in order
to avoid a permanent physical or psychic death."186 In the wake of trauma, only "the body
keeps the score."187 Only the nonverbal, embodied memories testify to the near-death
horror and remain as a symptom of the unacknowledged, unintegrated life experience and
the precluded mourning for the loss and pain.
The incidents of extreme somatization all point to the process of unmaking of the
self. "The boundaries of my body are also the boundaries of my self," maintains Jean
Amery, former resistance member and ex-prisoner of a Nazi concentration camp, as he
reflects on his experience of torture by the Gestapo. Our corporeality demarcates the
outmost limit of our self. The violation of this boundary by torture, assault, or intentional
affliction of severe deprivation, as Amery explains, is "like a rape."188 As one critic notes,
unlike violence that does not imply any systemized locus of action and the designated
target, violation is a carefully planned social act with a specific target and poses a
fundamental existential dilemma for the violated, for the latter is "not merely invaded by
another, but literally taken."189 Those perpetrating this boundary violation deconstruct the
agency of victims and impose their own will. As Elaine Scarry also argues in her
discussion of torture in her book The Body in Pain, "the physical pain is so incontestably
real" that it is often maliciously used by those who want to convert this "quality of
'incontestable reality'" into "the fiction of [their own] power" in the process of inflicting
pain on others.190
At the root of any trauma is the violation of the fundamental boundary of the self
whose intactness is mandatory for survival on both the physical and the psychological
levels. To have one's identity canceled to such an extent that one's corporeality becomes
the only tangible anchoring point of the self is a highly painful and excruciatingly
degrading experience. Shame and guilt, the repressed aggression turned inward,
accompany this "truncated self' or "the self reduced to pure body, and thence to a
certain blankness."191 Hence, for the survivors of the Holocaust, their deeply humiliating
and self-fragmenting experience is basically "a story of a dirty wound," as Lawrence
Langer states in reference to former Auschwitz inmate Charlotte Delbo's wartime
ordeal.192 Or as Langer argues in his research on Holocaust testimonials, the Holocaust
for survivors is inseparable from their own "anguished," "humiliated," or "tainted"
memory that constantly haunts them.193 Because of the deep, long-term repercussions of
the life-threatening incident, survival of trauma comes with a high cost. Studies of
numerous cases of post-traumatic stress disorder show that survival itself often depends
on "a paradoxical killing of the self by the self in order to keep the self alive."194 One
survivor of the Holocaust survivor thus remarks, "I'm not alive. I died in Auschwitz but
no one knows it."195
Trauma, Narrative, and Mourning in Holocaust Literature
If the Holocaust is a traumatic experience of disconnection, fragmentation, and
stasis that traps survivors in the repetitive reliving of their painful past and hinders them
from resuming their suspended self-narratives, how can they overcome the gripping force
of their trauma? What does it mean to struggle to survive this odd "survival" that often
involves "a paradoxical killing of the self by the self'? In the ruins of the basic
ontological landscape of selfhood, is it really possible for the survivors of the Holocaust