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Trauma in Psychohistory

The Journal of Psychohistory V. 26, N. 3, Winter 1999

This paper is a brief account of recent theoretical developments in two domains of psychoanalytic knowledge. The domains in question are those of trauma psychology and of psychohistory. Trauma psychology identifies a theoretical framework that I have constructed in the course of my clinical work with individuals suffering from posttraumatic conditions (Emery et al. 1993; Emery, 1996, 1997). I will be defining some of its characteristics below. Psychohistory's framework has been well stated in the works of deMause (1982, 1996, 1997).

These two frameworks represent an extension of psychoanalytic knowledge and are compatible with existing frameworks. They benefit from preexisting models of psychoanalytic theory such as dream-psychology, oedipal psychology, psychosocial theory and self-psychology. Furthermore, they profit from each other through a process of mutual enrichment in a way that I plan to illustrate. Some of the terminology used is borrowed from these preexisting models. Some of the terminology is altered to accommodate the paradigm shift from a "drive-based psychology to a trauma-based psychology" (deMause 1996, p. 116).

Such a paradigm shift allows for the recognition of some commonality in the characteristics of trauma psychology on the one hand and of psychohistory on the other. The commonality is primarily attributed to the sharing of the conception of consciousness. This conception occupies a central position in the framework of trauma psychology. It replaces the conception of drive which occupies a central position in the preexisting psychoanalytic models. This discourse about a paradigm shift is contained within the context of the two basic assumptions of psychoanalysis as stated by Freud in the Outline of Psychoanalysis (Freud 1940 [1938], Vol. 23).


Let us consider it self-evident that conceptual domains that derive their content from Freud's two basic assumptions of psychoanalysis are part and parcel of the psychoanalytic discourse.

Freud wrote: "We know two kinds of things about what we call our psyche (or mental life)…its bodily organ and scene of action, the brain (or nervous system)," (p. 144) and secondly, "our acts of consciousness" (p. 145). These two things are specific references to the physical and mental aspects of human consciousness. Freud goes on to explain: "We assume that mental life is the function of an apparatus to which we ascribe the characteristic of being extended in space." I will refer to this characteristic as space consciousness. Secondly, referring to our acts of consciousness, he wrote: "We have arrived at our knowledge of this psychical apparatus by studying the individual development of human beings." I will refer to such knowledge as the experience of time consciousness.

From this understanding of the two basic assumptions, it is germane to conclude with the following two notions: (1) The scene of action of consciousness is contained in the image of the body and its extension in space. (2) Our acts of consciousness develop over time, in stages and are subjected to psychodynamic alterations. The study of individual development is a matter for trauma psychology. It is a given within the psychohistorical framework (deMause 1982) that a group of individuals does not represent a psychological entity. It represents a group of individuals who share states of consciousness. I will state here—considering the dominant role that the conception of group fantasies serve in the psychohistorical context—that I consider fantasies as one of the modalities of consciousness.

I suggest therefore that our common focus be on the dynamics of consciousness, that the conception of consciousness be central to our discourse as it has been for some scientists from other disciplines (Hunt 1995), and that we contain our thinking within the context of the two basic assumptions of psychoanalysis.


It follows the logic of this way of thinking to state that the main characteristic of trauma psychology is its focus on consciousness. Topographically, consciousness is divided into two regions, space consciousness and time consciousness (Emery 1997). Space consciousness originates in the imagery of the body in relation to its own environment and to the extension of that environment. Time consciousness originates in the experience of psychic or trauma work. The emphasis on the experience of trauma work instead of drive or emotions reflects the paradigm shift from cathectic psychodynamics to structural psychodynamics.

Some of the other characteristics of trauma psychology to be mentioned are: (1) as suggested, its differentiation from and its need for cathectic psychodynamics; (2) the formation of consciousness through the building of psychic structures, i.e., trauma work; (3) the formation of consciousness which establishes a symbiotic relationship between the physical aspect of consciousness—the first assumption - and the mental aspect of consciousness—the second assumption.

1. Freud differentiated between two kinds of mental activity. In a 1915 addition to the text of the second essay on sexuality, he wrote: "…between the ages of three and five…children…begin to show signs of the activity which may be ascribed to the instinct of knowledge or research. This instinct cannot be counted among the elementary instinctual components, nor can it be classified as exclusively belonging to sexuality" (Freud 1953, p. 194). The modality of thinking designated as fantasy is thus absorbed in a more inclusive modality of thinking designated as consciousness. The need for cathectic dynamics is confined to the impact narcissistic interests have on the alterations of consciousness.

2. Secondly, Freud referred to dream-work as the essence of dreaming (Freud 1953, p. 500). I refer to trauma-work as the essence of trauma (Emery 1997). The conceptual transformation of the mechanisms of dream-work into the mechanisms of trauma-work follows the same line of thinking. The mechanism of condensation is incorporated in and replaced by the mechanism of image formation. Brett and Ostroff (1985) were the first to consider the concept of imagery to be in a central position in the diagnostic entity of PTSD. Horowitz defines images as "any thought representation that has a sensory quality. Images can involve the senses of seeing, hearing, smell, taste, touch and movement." (Horowtiz 1995, p. 3). Avoidance of censorship is replaced by reality-testing, mental representability by the formation of scenarios, and secondary revision by symbolic representation. Symbolization is the "vehicle…for thinking," wrote Aragno (1997, p.160). These four, simultaneous mechanisms are those of trauma work and eventuate in states of consciousness.

3. The third characteristic of trauma psychology is that inherent in the formation of consciousness is the existence of a symbiotic relationship between the physical and mental aspects of thinking. The flow of verbal communication travels through the mutual sharing of consciousness.


The spatial way I chose to express myself in defining the symbiotic relationship between the physical and the mental is a result of realizing a commonality between trauma psychology and psychohistory. The incorporation of "fetal psychology" within the framework of psychohistory, as discussed by deMause (1996, p. 357), is an inspired conceptual contribution. The flow of sensory communication travels through the bloodline between the mother and the fetus. The image of the uterine space that is evoked by these comments can be considered prototypical of consciousness-sharing between individuals in somewhat the same way that the infantile psychosexual trauma is considered prototypical of later hysterical trauma.

I will illustrate what I mean by referring to Hitler's basic assumption in Mein Kampf (Hitler 1939). He wrote: "Common blood belongs in a common Reich." (p. 3). The mental image that this fundamental statement evokes is that of a spatial extension of uterine space. He wrote at least the first volume in the small space of his prison cell. He killed himself in the small space of his bunker, aborting his life while bleeding to death. The meaning of the poisoning of Eva Braun may be part and parcel of his thinking from the days of his stay in Vienna when, as proposed by deMause (1996 p. 344), "the blood poison delusion was formed…and he (had) made plans to kidnap (Stephanie) and then murder her and commit suicide in order to join with her in death." Hitler's earlier adolescent fantasies belonging to the region of time consciousness led to his restaging in actuality an identical scenario under different traumatic circumstances, the murder of the woman and his suicide. Space consciousness dominated his thinking. He raped the consciousness of many of his fellow countrymen. Pathological racism, the narcissistic overvaluation of the bloodline, leads to overextension of space consciousness and is the cause of much violence.

Another human happening that occurs in a small space is the analytic relationship. The flow of communication travels through the consciousness of the transference and countertransference. Beyond being an opportunity for reconstruction of our emotional development, the analytic setting is a restaging of the uterine environment—a nourishing and nurturing event. Psychosexual development in the context of successive relationships enhances time consciousness, and leads in time to the emotional intimacy of physical sexual intercourse—the opposite of the behaviors solely based on images and perception belonging to space consciousness.


Erikson mentioned that "to Freud, the via regia to mental life had been the dream. For me, children's play became the first via regia to an understanding of growing man's conflicts and triumphs, his repetitive working through of the past and his creative self-renewal in truly playful moments." (Erikson 1975, p. 39). For me, the via regia is consciousness, the psychic structure. The study of its alterations leads to the understanding of the psychodynamics of man's thinking, and consequently of man's behaviors.

The paradigm shift from a "drive-based psychology to a trauma-based psychology" indicates the necessity to move our thinking from "the scientific imagery of (this) century" (Erikson 1975, p. 40) to the scientific imagery of the next century. Erikson "…felt dimly whether an image of man reconstructed primarily on the basis of observation in the clinical laboratory might not lack what, in man's total existence, leads outward from self-centeredness to the mutuality of love and commonality…from the unconscious to the enigma of consciousness" (p. 39).


Erikson's reference to the enigma of consciousness is an invitation to restage the riddle of the Sphinx. The Theban legend has it that he who answered the riddle properly would not be devoured by the Sphinx, a creature pictured as having a voice and being half human—the head—and half animal—the rest of the body. The question, as you may recall, was of the somatic order: "Who has a voice and is four-legged, two-legged and three-legged?" The Greek legend has it that Oedipus provided the right answer: MAN.

The psychoanalytic legend modified the question and presented it in this personal way: "Where do children come from?" The form the question took was a result of the understanding of children's fantasies.

Now the question can be asked within the context of the "social order" (Erikson 1975, p. 39) and relates to the enigma of shared consciousness: "Who has the genetic capacity to simultaneously stand on the four mechanisms of consciousness?" The answer remains: MAN.

Paul E. Emery, M.D., is a practicing psychiatrist. He can be reached at 718 Smyth Road, Manchester, NH 03104, USA .
Presented at the 21st Annual Convention of the International Psychohistorical Association, June 3-5, 1998, New York, New York.

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deMause L, Foundations of Psychohistory. New York: Creative Books, 1982

_______ Restaging Early Traumas in War and Social Violence. 1996, vol. 23(4), pp 344-392

_______ "The Psychogenic Theory of History." The Journal of Psychohistory 1997, vol. 25(2), pp 112-183

Emery P, Emery V, Berry N., "Trauma Psychology: A Psychoanalytic Model and Approach." Journal Social Behavior Personal 1993 (Special Issue); 9(5), pp. 29-48

Emery P, "The inner world in the outer world: The phenomenology of posttraumatic stress disorder from a psychoanalytic perspective." Journal of American Academy of Psychoanalysis 1996; 24(2), pp 273-291

_______ "Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Traumas." Trauma Response 1997; vol.III, No. 2, Spring/Summer

Erikson EH., Life History and the Historical Moment. New York: W. W. Norton and Co, 1975

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_______ An Outline of Psychoanalysis, S.E. (1940[1938]) 23, pp 144-207

_______ Three Essays on Sexuality. S.E. (1953[1905]) 7, pp 135-243

Hitler A., Mein Kampf. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1939

Horowitz MJ, Image Formation and Psychotherapy. New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc, 1995

Hunt HT, On the Nature of Consciousness. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1995

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