Trauma, Narrative, and the Absence of Closure
By Covell Meyskens
In this paper, some of the relationships between trauma, bearing witness, healing, and narrative are articulated in light of the ideas of Brison, Laub, and Brown.
A traumatic event ruptures, if not utterly demolishes, one’s sense of self. One loses one’s bearings in the world as well as one’s sense of how to bear the world. What previously had been taken for granted as normal or given, after the traumatic event (or series of events), comes into question. The ability to hold onto such cherished and comforting illusions as the beliefs that life is in one’s own hands, that life is for a reason, that one is safe, that life is stable and predictable, have become tenuous, if not utterly impossible.
Bearing witness to trauma is a crucial step in recovering from the crushing horror, the irrevocable gap, and the blaring silence that trauma inflicts upon one’s identity. In the act of bearing witness, one externalizes the trauma. In this simple, and yet not so simple, act, one abandons the futile attempt(s) to hide from that which one cannot hide. The horrific, spectral violence of trauma, that repeatedly and uncontrollably ravishes one’s body and soul, is given voice, is given a sense (or senses), becomes other and confrontable, and eventually even becomes a reconcilable or bearable aspect of one’s life. In other words, through externalization –opening oneself up and narrating one’s story for an other (internal or external) – trauma is no longer silently holed away, confined to the psychic prison of the traumatized individual, haunting the individual with involuntary and debilitating assaults.
Witnessing is not however a clean, clear-cut escape or a complete liberation from the psychic chains and walls incurred by trauma. One does not just tell one’s story once, and then, all of a sudden, everything is okay and all the pieces are put back to together again. On the other hand, one does open a way to healing and to reconstructing one’s life by knocking down some of the psychic barriers of the traumatic prison through the endowment of the reverberating and resonating horrors of trauma with a narrating voice (or voices).
The process of narrating one’s story of trauma is a lifelong process. One tells and retells one’s story. Depending upon to whom, in what context, for what reason, at what stage in one’s recovery, one tells one’s story, one will represent the story in a different light. The regimented, credible story one testifies in the courtroom is different than the fragmented narrative one howls to one’s lover in the throes of agony and despair. One’s story is not a stagnant, unchanging, one-sided block. It is rather fluid, malleable, and re-interpretable according to one’s mood, one’s context, and one’s multiple positions (mother, wife, professor, white individual, white female, white heterosexual female, etc) in the socius.
The process of narrating one’s story is without end, without resolution, and without closure. Yet, in spite of the absence of closure, the traumatized can still go on living. With “resilience, the capacity to carry on, alive in the present, unbound by dread or regret (Aftermath p.117)”, the traumatized can declare, even when the absurd seems to reign supreme, “Let’s see what happens next (Aftermath p.117).”