All memory is individual, unreproducible – it dies with each person. What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with the pictures that lock the story in our minds.
― Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others
In her final book published the year before her death, Susan Sontag explores the individual and communal experiences of viewing horrific war photographs or images of individual torture. These images, one part artifact and one part mirror, remind us of the real human capacity to be horrible to others. These are images of human events. As artifacts, they are archival from the moment of their capture. There is no easy way to repair or salvage the events they depict. We can interact with the artifacts. We can read them. Because they are artifacts, they lose much of their context. Sontag ends by highlighting the incommensurability between the experiences of the observer and the experience of the sufferer. There is no “we” shared between the one suffering and the observer of suffering. The image contains nothing that we can change and remarkably little that we can deeply know.
The largest and most convincing body of evidence of our capacity to be horrible to each other is stored as raw sensory information in limbic brains of the billions of people who have experienced unspeakable horror directly. Most of this awfulness is from no man’s war, but you’ll never convince the nervous system of that. Overwhelming horror is horror. Horrible things that come that should not come are horror. The warm things that should come but do not are a different but often equal horror. The evidence of human cruelty is already inside us, but we go out of our way not to see it… as if our happiness depends on not seeing it. But, we’re not happy. We know things that we cannot allow ourselves to know. We’re not alone in the conspiracy to ignore it. Trauma is the largest public health crisis in the history of the western world and we’re just starting to face it. We are just starting to see it. The same cultures that traumatize us construct obstacles to visibility and obstacles to healing by leaning against those most cultural of emotions: shame, humiliation, judgment, and pitty.
It’s remarkable how image-like or how video-like trauma is stored. The way the eye is a camera in the same way the body is a film. Trauma may be containered, but it will not be archived. When trauma seeps into vision and into the body years or decades after the imprint, the image isn’t an artifact at all. It’s a reexperiencing. There is no time. Trauma seeping is the closest thing that we have to time travel and no one wants to go. The destination is both predictable and horrible. It’s one of the truest things that people with trauma know. Surrounding the raw sensory memory of the trauma is a relatively intact ego state of the person at the time the trauma happened. Trauma is raw unprocessed memory encoded inside an old frozen version of the self. Trauma ensures that we contain multitudes. The truth of our experiences is nonsensible. None of it has been adaptively metabolized into the rest of the self. It sits containered in the limbic brain like a restless animal or it weeps into all parts of the self like an infected and fevered wound. Trauma is the horror that we get to keep experiencing, despite the urgent desire to let the past be in the past.
Rita is not the first client to tell me that she was severely abused under a Christmas tree before the age of ten. Where others have a model train, she has this. She has many other images related to her father that she reexperiences that are much worse. At sixteen she fell in love with the first man to come around who was old enough and resourceful enough to rescue her. But, he could also be horrible when he was drunk. He was often drunk. At least one of her early miscarriages was from his beatings.
Like nearly everyone I work with, she does not come to see me because of what happened to her when Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter was president. She comes to me because she is having one or two distressing symptoms that are making her life unmanageable right now. She is on fire with a symptom and wants some help with the fire. In her case, it’s high anxiety and panic attacks. She has astonishingly little insight into the relationship between current symptoms and what her limbic brain carries. Nearly zero. Like all of my clients who have carried untreated trauma for decades, she has multiple autoimmune diseases. In her case, rheumatoid arthritis and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
She has been in counseling for much of her adult life. She has had many psychiatric hospitalizations spanning nearly 40 years. I’m the first therapist to have a conversation with her about trauma. She is shocked to learn that I will diagnose her with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. The only thing she knows about PTSD is its connection with war and she is quick to tell me that she has rarely been out of northeast Ohio. In fact, she had Christmas as a child in a house less than a mile from where we sit in my clinic. In the past (including at my own clinic where her clinical assessments clearly document a horrific past) she has been treated medically for bipolar disorders (for the mood swings), schizophrenia (because of the flashbacks and dissociation), panic disorder (when triggered), personality disorders (for periods of cutting), major depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, sleep disorders, social anxiety, and adjustment disorder. No prior therapist treated her trauma or even saw her trauma—the single problem that clearly accounts for all of her mental health symptoms and has wrecked her physical health.
She was my client for about a year before getting healthy enough to move out of the area and going back to school in her late 50s. While she is still in need of continued trauma-informed mental health services, she is no longer on fire from what she has survived. In that year, we worked using EMDR Therapy to fully reprocess most of the stuck and raw sensory memories of her childhood and young adult years. Those memories no longer cause a catastrophe in her body. They do not seep directly into mood. She no longer has flashbacks or panic attacks. She can sleep much better. Bad memories feel like they happened when they did (instead of happening right now). She can hold in her mind and experience in her body an idea of Christmas this year that is deeply okay and can contain something resembling hope.
Nothing happened to Karen. In 45 years, no single unspeakably terrible event happened to her. No one snuck into her room. No one abducted her. She never believed that she was about to die. But she’s not okay. Her body isn’t okay. She has autoimmune diseases too. She is highly anxious a lot of the time. Sometimes she is severely depressed. Her relationships even with “good” men do not end well. She is easily triggered and profoundly insecure. Her symptoms look a lot like Rita’s. She doesn’t trust people. She is not comfortable in her own skin or in busy lobbies.
Karen has the other trauma. It doesn’t have a name—at least not one that many are likely to know. It’s not in any edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Yet, trauma-informed therapists know this type of wounding well and understand it deeply. When she was born, she was born with needs. Biological needs. Both parents were poorly positioned to meet her needs, probably because of their own past traumas. She needed attunement and affection. She needed encouragement. She needed a deep sense of connection and safety. She received none of this. Her mother deeply resented her for being born, yet her mother relied on her for comfort and support. When her mother was triggered by something (anything), Karen was blamed. Even before starting school, she wasn’t allowed to show her emotions without immediately being told that her feelings are illegitimate, wrong, and evidence of deep and dispositional defect. She grew up in the impossible position of being simultaneously “too much” and not good enough. Stuck in the double-bind of having needs that she couldn’t get met and the inability to extinguish those needs, she soon learned to go away on the inside… deep into that dark space that doesn’t have a name. She practiced appearing to be okay.
She has also been in and out of therapy all of her adult life. She is quick to acknowledge that very little of it has ever been helpful. She was unable to talk any of it away. She has some insight that connects the existential loneliness of her childhood to her current misery. That loneliness is what gets triggered when things get triggered. But she has no insight into how that kind of existential loneliness might get better.
Her recovery using EMDR Therapy focused on reprocessing the experience of her childhood wounding. While it is tempting to describe these memories as video-like or photo-like, they are so because they come as raw sensory reexperiences. They are relived through the topography of the family home: spending half of an afternoon sitting on the floor of a dark closet or under her bed–wanting to be left alone and also deeply upset that no one noticed she was missing. Or, sitting on the couch after coming home from immunizations and hearing her mother say, “you cried like a little baby and I am so embarrassed of you.” Or, finding artwork that she made for her father in the trash beside the kitchen sink on the very day she brought it home. In our work together, these reexperiences come. These memories are the times of self-rupture. Karen notices them. Good things come from that noticing. She is able to see whose fault this is. Soon, she is able to extend deep empathy to her younger self for having big needs that she could neither fill nor fully extinguish. Slowly, things that had always been triggering now feel less so. Her mother is old and ill. Now Karen checks on her, despite the fact that her mother has not changed. Things that have always felt like real arrows now feel like Nerf arrows. Karen is more and more okay. She has more of her own gravity. Near the end of a recent reprocessing session, she was able to imagine walking through all parts of the childhood home. She opened each dark early-1980s curtain, one by one, seeing how the whole place looks now as the light spreads into every corner of every room.
What if We can “Fix” the Image?
In focusing on war photography, Sontag leaves us in a double-bind. We acknowledge the horror while also recognizing that there is nothing that we can do to repair it. It’s horrible. It’s fixed. It’s archival. It’s completely over. And to make everything worse, there is astonishingly little that we can know about the experience of the person undergoing the suffering.
“We” – this “we” is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through – don’t understand. We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine. That’s what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right.
― Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others
But, what if there is something that “we” can do about stored images of terror that are millions of times more common and more influential than those war photos stored under someone’s copyright or in a file folder? Life is wounding for all of us. Live long enough and you’ll lose everything that your young heart loved. These images that we hold in our own heads about our own suffering can be reprocessed using modern trauma recovery methods and made much less horrible. I sit five feet from people all day every day as they do this. We move one memory (or cluster of memories) at a time from limbic brain activation into normal memory. Into normal, okay, memory. We do this with very little language. We do this safely. Efficiently. We turn something unspeakably horrible into a point of resilience. And when deep healing comes, it comes everywhere and all at once. That is my experience being an EMDR trauma therapist and also being a client who has received this therapy.
In as many ways as I can, I’m trying to spread the news that trauma does not have to continue to make a mess of inner life. It does not have to continue being a double bind. It does not have to be the bad inheritance that we continue to pass down. The war can finally end. There is something that we can do about it. We can salvage the self from the picture of horror. As we reprocess the experience, we can see the pain pass straight through and come completely out. This time that wound is self-sealing and will not infect.
As long as there is life, “we” can do this.