Mental Pain and Social Trauma

Panel Report: International Psychoanalytical Association Congress, Prague 2013

Phillida B. Rosnick, Ph.D.
International Journal of Psychoanalysis

(2013). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 94(6):1200-1202

Mental Pain and Social Trauma

Phillida Rosnick

“Society is only partially civilized,” Tomas Plaenkers stated to open this panel's exploration of trauma in all its shapes and shades: from exogenous to endogenous, from the horrific to the subtle, from cataclysmic to the quotidian. The speakers explored the sequelae that war, immigration, torture and other atrocities visit on the psyches of individuals, their families, and their offspring, often for generations, as well as the everyday trauma of living in the present.

With the use of brief and poignant clinical vignettes, Sverre Varvin portrayed the long-term impact that horrific social events can cause, well after the traumatic event, and often to the offspring of the traumatized individual; events such as deaths through genocide, war, civil war, state organized persecution; mass relocations either through internal displacement or forced evacuations to other countries; organized rape of women and men, torture, trafficking, economic warfare, hardship and deprivation.

Traumatic experiences interrupt the individual's capacity to contain into a meaningful narrative what happened, and thus “live in the psyche as dissociated states outside time, never experienced in an emotional meaningful way but lived as an ever present presence or a dreaded future”. Anticipating Akhtar's paper on immigrants, Varvin reported that persistent attacks against one's religious or ethnic or racial identity can disrupt the traumatized individual's capacity to restore intrapsychic cohesion through membership in their group. Similarly, massive social trauma destroys the individual's participation in social/cultural context: the disruption of transmission of social codes, folk tales, rites of passage, moral challenges thus depriving the individual of opportunities to resolve, among other things, Oedipal conflicts.

Dr. Varvin suggested three steps to interrupt transgenerational transmission of trauma: rehabilitation and treatment of individuals and groups; social recognition of traumatized individuals and groups and, finally, working through on a social and political level. Using postwar Germany as an example, he cited the capacity of social systems to aid in working through the pain inflicted by the war: “I think that there are good reasons to say that the inability of a society to work with, work on and work through social atrocities of the past may act as latent fuel that can be set on fire under destabilizing societal conditions … These not worked through massive social traumatizing contexts are working as time-bombs.”

Varvin ended with a powerful vignette of a woman in a paranoid state many years after she lost a child who had been abducted and killed by an invading army. In her paranoid state she believed her living children would not care for her, indeed wished to harm her. With the help of a therapist, she was able ultimately to find a place where she could remember her lost child, use that place to memorialize the lost child, and finally, at long last, to grieve her loss. Following this experience she was able to rejoin her family: to love and be loved by them.

Salman Akhtar's paper, The mental pain of minorities, delved into the cumulative trauma to which those who live in a minority culture are exposed. A minority is “defined by the relative weakness of its social praxis, the lack of its governmental representation, the unfairness of the judiciary towards it, and the distorted gaze of the so-called majority on it.”


18 Moderator: Tomas Plaenkers (Germany). Panellists: Sverre Varvin (Norway), Salman Akhtar (USA), Leopold Nosek, (Brazil).

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Societies long for a minority group ‘to act as a container’ (Bion) of unmetabolized anxieties in to which depressive and paranoid fantasies can be projected. Thus minorities are unconsciously needed yet often consciously not wanted; the attitudes of the majority oscillating between “benign neglect and malignant prejudice.” The minority's experience is, reciprocally, either of invisibility or hyper-visibility. The immigrant suffers from a disruption of the figure/ground relationship to his surround: “Trying to fit in, one loses oneself. Holding on to oneself, one gets ruptured from the surround. One is either more aware or less aware of oneself than one needs to be.” Minority cultures can meld into the culture of the majority as in the melting pot metaphor, or can retain their own cultural, religious, ethnic differences and traditions while participating fully in the socio-political life of their host country as in the ideal of multiculturalism.

Akhtar described instances of the host country's majority “silencing” the immigrant's participation for fear of being overpowered or replaced by the immigrant's culture. Even so-called democratic nations prevent the full political and social immersion of their minority groups out of prejudice and hatred. When a member of a minority does succeed, the internal and external burdens are heavy. Overcoming or living with the unconscious guilt of surpassing those left behind can inhibit one's ambitions and dull one's competitive spirit. Once successful, this person becomes either an icon or a target, but, at the very least, hypervisible. As such, the individual can lose their bearings and sense of belonging, all of which can rob the ego of necessary support and enrichment. Constant working through of superego pressures against internalized injunctions against success (from identification with majority attitudes), combined with Oedipal conflicts can overtax the psyche.

Ameliorative measures suggested by Akhtar overlap with those suggested by Varvin. They included providing access to or restoring full civil rights to minorities, acknowledging the majority's role in the minority's problems, accepting the minority's culture and including minority figures and culture in the social iconography of the majority.

With microscopic focus on the “present”, Leopold Nosek made real for the listener what being in a traumatic state is like. He located the “trauma of the present” at the point at which symbolization fails and neurosis fails. Any event can be traumatic, if the mind has not the sufficiency to elaborate and contain what is felt to be excess: “The excess will be the ‘formlessness’ that spreads through the mind, creating in its functioning disturbances that will appear in the clinical setting as action or transference.” Bion's (1962) ideas of beta elements and the failure of containment are implicit and explicit throughout this paper as well as Green's (1999) idea of the negative.

Nosek identified the trauma of the present in our changing experience of time, by pointing to the rapidly increasing speed of transformation required of contemporary mankind: “[It] has snatched from us the time to build the meanings necessary and the oneiric reserve to support life and survival in the present.” This psychic compression he considered responsible for pathologies such as anorexia, bulimia, panic states and narcissistic syndromes, in which myth making, fantasy making, and symbolization are absent: “They are the illnesses of action.” He asked us to become the builders of psyches, no longer the interpreters of psyches. Absence of meaning, the lack of dreams and memory, requires analysts to become the builders of mind, dreams, and memories. The demands of everyday life in a world without meanings, with a flattened and adumbrated unconscious, are traumatic: “Meaning arises in the interior of relations through the construction and destruction of connections between sensitive intuitions and memories. It will appear as an ember, and its transposition to language will make it obsolete.” Nosek found the absence of meaning as “darkness, which is not the absence of light but the presence of the obscure.” It is the present, not the traumatic past, which Nosek said patients find traumatic: “The relationship between the present and memories is governed by a dialectic tension: while obscuring the present, memories are the present, the filter through which our vision is constituted. They are also, in their fragmentation, raw material for building the new. Trauma and neurosis need to be seen in this pair and in this perpetual movement. The present is excess and, therefore, dark. Deciphering the excess implies the firm will to transform the dark not into absence, but into the real that is awaiting authorship, into the intuition awaiting form.”

For the analyst, leaving oneself open to being inhabited by the foreign, formless, darkness of the patient's traumatic experience of the present is to let oneself be traumatized and to experience the infinite without having to define or habituate it.

The discussion opened with a dialogue between the three speakers and a clarification of what “trauma” means: Varvin stated it is another word for “too much.” “Trauma is the end of time. There is not the future.” Akhtar added that trauma is not a singular concept; consider shock trauma and cumulative trauma, strain trauma. Transgenerational transmission is not restricted to painful events, but also to the absence of positive events, for example, love, poetry, heroes, memories, and rites. Nosek stated that the potential of time is traumatic, is painful. Prudy Gourguechon, referencing the recent practice in the United States of racial profiling as well as the killing of Trayvon Martin, spoke about the majority's indifference to the pain of the African American experience, and added that to deny the minority's experience is to deny the minority in oneself: the weak, the frightened, the small. The discussion ended with examples given of minority culture's heroes being represented in majority art and memorials in the likenesses

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of the majority culture, silencing and eradicating the minority identity. Maria Cohen from Argentina spoke about the creative possibility of being an outsider by reminding the audience that Freud was a minority and might never have developed psychoanalysis had he been in the majority.


Bion W (1962). Learning from experience. London: Karnac, 1984. [→]

Green A (1999). The work of the negative, Weller A, translator. London: Free Association Books. [→]

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