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Trauma and Human ExistenceReview - Trauma and Human Existence
Autobiographical, Psychoanalytic, and Philosophical Reflections
by Robert D. Stolorow
Analytic Press, 2007
Review by Laura Cook
Jun 24th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 26)

In Trauma and human existence, Stolorow presents a 'contextualized' reading of the emotions, which situates trauma as central to the understanding of human existence. Although a 'short' book, Stolorow presents a detailed theoretical and personal account of mood, unconscious, temporality and therapeutic change which draws upon the thought of Gadamer, intersubjective theory, and primarily the philosophical work of Heidegger. As such, Trauma and human existence would be of interest to both practicing psychotherapists seeking to integrate philosophical insights into their work, and philosophers interested in the 'lived experience' of existentialist thought.

For Stolorow, the 'possibility of emotional trauma is built into the basic constitution of human existence' (p. xi) and the way in which it is permitted to emerge is largely governed by the relational context in which we find ourselves.

It is this necessary, contextualization of the human emotions which Stolorow attempts to emphasize, a position which stands in contrast to the prevailing myth of the 'isolated mind'. Early Freudian theory was characterized by the hydraulic metaphor, which posited the psyche as a species of container, struggling to regulate instinctual energies arising from within itself. Thus, In Freud's psychoanalytic theory, we see the threads of the Cartesian mind, the 'thinking thing' which observes an external world from which it is inherently estranged. We see this notion reflected in drive theory, in which psychical conflicts necessarily arise in the psyche's attempt to satisfy and manage its inherent requirements. Thus for Freud, defense mechanisms such as repression and projection are seen as an attempt to stop this 'container' being flooded with an excess of instinctual energy. Important in challenging this theory was Heidegger's account of being-in-the world, which spoke of Dasein (literally 'being there') rather than a self-determining 'I'. Thus, what was previously spoken of as the 'self' was recontextualized as always already embedded in the world, and in relationship with others. The term 'being-in-the-world' therefore describes the way in which we are necessarily engaged in a meaningful world, rather than as an isolated entity which comes to know the external world after first being aware of 'itself.' This view suggests a new perspective upon human emotions. Rather than a private response to external stimuli, an emotion is conceived of as both 'how feels and the situation within which one is feeling' (p. 2 emphasis mine.) Drawing upon Heidegger, Stolorow regards emotion as necessarily embedded in a situational context. It follows then, that a consideration of one's emotions without reference to the context in which they arise is unlikely to be therapeutic (if indeed we can conceive of such a move as possible or meaningful at all) for our emotions and cognitions are necessarily constituted by our being-in-the-world. How then, is it possible that our emotions can seem so private, and essentially at odds with the environment in which they arise? How are we to understand the insolating effect of painful emotions, if we do not conceive of some kind of container which fails to 'hold' them? Through an analysis of his own trauma, Stolorow attempts to answer these questions.

Stolorow recounts the deeply traumatic and painful experience of waking one morning to find his wife, Dede, lying dead across their bed, four weeks after she was diagnosed with cancer. At a conference eighteen months later, he describes looking round the room for his wife only to find her absent. Consumed by grief, it seemed to him that an 'unbridgeable gulf' (p. 14) had opened up, separating him from the rest of the world. Friends and colleagues at the conference, so vitalized and engaged with the world and each other, seemed to him like 'strange and alien beings.' On one hand, this experience of isolation, of finding ourselves and our emotions unshared by others seems to draw us towards the idea of ourselves as enclosed entities, who either choose to venture into the world of others, or to withdraw away from it. In this sense, trauma can reveals our own isolation from the world of others. However, this withdrawal at the same time reveals to us the fact of our everyday embeddedness in and with others. More importantly for Stolorow, it is not quite right to say that trauma occurs when the psyche becomes 'flooded' with an affect-state that it cannot inwardly regulate, but that trauma occurs when the we cannot find a relational home for such an affect. The feelings experienced by Stolorow at the conference were almost unendurable, because no one else could share them. Thus Stolorow:

Trauma is constituted in an intersubjective context in which severe emotional pain cannot find a relational home in which it can be held. In such a context, painful affect states become unendurable- that is, traumatic.

For Stolorow, the context in which an emotion is held is indivisibly linked with the way in which we experience it. In terms of developmental theory, a child met with misattuned responses to their pain may have a propensity to dissociate from or disavow affective reactions. Note here the contrast with the Freudian view of an ego not sufficiently strong to accommodate painful affect or instinctual frustrations, unable to be internally process such feelings. The therapeutic response to this view would be to assist the individual in 'making sense of' or 'decoding' their own behaviors in order to release tensions and reduce influence of defensive mechanisms. Since for Stolorow, trauma is defined as affect without a relational home, the implications for therapy are somewhat different. The therapeutic endeavor involves examining and 'staying with' affect in a way that allows it to be reintegrated into being-in-the-world. However, this both more subtle and profound than simply 'normalising' the affect, or finding new ways in which it might be expressed (although this, indeed, may form part of the therapy.) There is more than a reconciliation, since one's being-in-the-world following a traumatic event or loss is profoundly altered. Drawing on Heidegger's account of being-towards-death and the possibility for authenticity, Stolorow suggests that trauma opens up a space for us to be-in-the-world in a different way.

Stolorow's exploration of trauma and the context of human emotions is extremely thorough, detailed and at times deeply touching. Its relatively short length (51 pages) belies its complexity. For the reader more familiar with psychotherapeutic theory than philosophy, it may present a challenge. However, in my view, it is a challenge well worth taking up.

© 2008 Laura Cook

Laura Cook is a research student at the University of East Anglia, and a trainee Integrative Psychotherapeutic Counselor.  Her research interests include philosophy of psychopathology, modernist literature and psychoanalysis.  She is the editor of Applying Wittgenstein by Rupert Read, forthcoming with Continuum Books.


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