Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996


Trauma and Self

Charles B. Strozier and Michael Flynn (editors)
Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield
ISBN 0 8476 8229 3 (pb); 0 8476 8228 5 (hb)
$22.95 (pb); $58.50 (hb)
xvi + 303 pp.

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Trauma and Self is a collection of papers which began life as a volume of honorary essays for Robert Lifton. As such the major themes in his work form the starting point for most of the authors here: the meaning of trauma, the symbolization of death in our lives and ideas of self. There is a strong current of psychoanalytic thinking in Lifton's work and many of the essays engage with psychoanalytic ideas of narrative: what the stories we tell ourselves and each other are, the power these stories have and the rhetorical strategies they employ to produce their effects.

In all, there are twenty-three papers in the book, arranged into three sections. Space does not permit a full listing, but a flavour can be given. The first section, Trauma, includes an essay on abuse and memory by Judith Herman and one on the experience of being adopted by Betty Jean Lifton. The second section, Broken Connections, extends the idea of trauma as an unsymbolized break in continuity to social and historical spheres. It includes papers by Norman Birnbaum, 'Socialism and Human Nature', looking at future prospects for socialism, and Margaret Singer, 'Thought Reform Today', on techniques used by cults to suppress an individual's sense of self in environments of ideological totalism. The third and largest section of the book, Self and Transformation, covers a variety of topics including feminist ideas of self (Cynthia Epstein's 'The Protean Woman: Anxiety and Opportunity'), contemporary Japanese identities (Takeo Doi's 'The Japanese Psyche: Myth and Reality') and the role of the law in constructing and legitimating narratives (Peter Brooks' 'Illicit Stories').

As can be seen from the small selection of essays mentioned, the scope of Trauma and Self is wide. This has its particular pleasures: despite its multi-authored breadth, there is enough of a thematic unity in the different essays (in their diverse responses to Robert Lifton) that the book does work as a whole; and it is certainly enjoyable to see familiar ideas take on new guises in unfamiliar fields. However, the format of short essays from many areas also provides some of the book's frustrations: one wonders whether research in some disciplines is duplicating existing work. For example, Takeo Doi discusses the emotional dependency an infant feels for its mother, which is the model for a type of positively connoted dependent love called amae in Japanese. Amae is said to be the basis for some friendships and wider social relationships in Japan, and this is contrasted with the situation in the West, where dependency is rarely characterized other than negatively. Given the limits of such a short paper, I was left unsure as to whether the author was unaware of the extensive literature on attachment in children and adults by John Bowlby and others, or was merely constrained by lack of space not to engage with this. My curiosity wasn't assuaged by the brief biographical listing of contributors: Takeo Doi is omitted from this.

Inevitably in such a collection, the quality of the essays is mixed. Peter Brooks' 'Illicit Stories' is a typically tightly written consideration of victim impact statements in the American courts and the effect these have on 'the narrative construction' of trials - in particular the influence they have on sentencing, literally a vital consideration in states with capital punishment. Judith Herman's 'Crime and Memory' is an interesting, well referenced review of how memory is affected by trauma, touching on neurobiology, psychoanalysis and empirical research into the memory of PTSD sufferers. It concludes with a plea (which to my mind cannot be repeated often enough) for the recognition that 'the pursuit of truth in memory' of necessity takes different forms when the goal of truth is healing, justice or empirical fact: a truth in the consulting room cannot be simply transferred to the court nor vice versa.

Other essays are less good. Lionel Tiger's 'Robert Jay Lifton and Biology' is under- argued, over-generalized and unreferenced; David Riesman's article on confidentiality in appointment procedures in American universities may be of interest to those involved in these processes, but for the rest of us can only make us grateful that we are not.

In all, Trauma and Self is a mixed bag in terms of content, coverage and quality, but most people with an interest in Lifton's work should find something of value here.

Guy Undrill
University of Bristol

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996