War, Terror, Trauma and the Tales That Treat Them

by deerinthexenonarclights

(In honour of tommorrows screening of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close I thought I might dust off this old essay of mine. I don’t know if its any good but the process was probably the most enjoyable that I’ve had writing a piece of theory. )

The catharsis of fiction: Narrative therapy as a coping mechanism in the works of Foer and Vonnegut.

In their books on the psychological devastation of war, Slaughterhouse-Five and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, respective authors Kurt Vonnegut and Jonathon Safran Foer both portray protagonists, in Billy Pilgrim and Oskar Schell, who suffer from intense mental trauma due to their personal involvement in the conflicts of their time. Although the nature of war; its technology, logistics and guidelines, did change dramatically during the fifty plus years separating the settings of the two texts the horrific events at their core are remarkably similar, as is the way that the two victims attempt to deal with the ripples and repercussions caused by these tragedies. In his novel Vonnegut gives us a fractured look into the mind of a man broken by his first hand experiences during the Second World War, in particular the unimaginable destruction during the bombing of Dresden. Foer on the other hand tells the more modern story of a boy orphaned by the events of 9/11 and his attempts to avoid the realities of a post 9/11 world. Although the perspectives and politics vary greatly between the novels both of these protagonists have had their lives forever changed by one distinct and unknowable moment, surviving a massacre.  Both Oskar and Billy are left traumatised by a combination of Post-traumatic stress disorder, Survivors guilt and a sudden loss of control but as psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton argues that “above all the survivor’s preoccupation is with meaning. How can I understand this vastly death-saturated event? And if I can’t understand it, I can’t understand or deal with the rest of my life.[i]” It is this unending cycle of fixation and avoidance stemming from traumatic events that so debilitates many of its sufferers, however in both of these texts the protagonists and their authors – who wrote the texts under the inspiration of the same trauma as their characters – unknowingly implement a particularly relevant coping mechanism in and through their novels as a way of finding meaning and breaching the cycle, that being narrative therapy.

The basic idea behind narrative therapy is that of ‘re-authoring[ii]’; wherein victims of trauma, such as soldiers or casualties of war, attempt to heal their psychological wounds by personally re – narrativizing and thus gaining dominion over the traumatic event through familiarisation and imbued meaning. Although ‘no disaster, no matter how great, has any inherent meaning.’ we are, as Robert Jay Lifton argues ‘meaning-hungry creatures.’ It is because of this inherent tension in reality that we ‘must create meaning every moment of our lives, but all the more so with the kinds of tragedies that absolutely destroy and disrupt lives. The flow of history is a series of survivals and of meaning structures that we create and recreate.[iii]’ There are many different reasons why an event could be traumatic but in the cases shown in the two texts, Dresden and 9/11, the trauma stems from this events incongruous and overpowering nature. They are both tragedies of a scale so grand that we cannot palate them as a part of our own personal reality, they cannot fit meaningfully into our universe and so when they are forced upon us by the fates we, as human beings, simply fail to accept them. This failure of comprehension doesn’t, however, equate to a failure of impact. In fact the victim’s innate inability to directly face their trauma appears only to bolster its effects. This is precisely why narrative therapy is considered to be such a relevant solution to an otherwise enigmatic affliction; it allows the victims of trauma to transform these incompatible memories into something much more homogenous, moulding these events to fit a certain narrative formula is in a way healthy gentrification. As Judith Hermann, esteemed trauma psychologist, points out, this ‘… act of narrativizing is a necessary step for victims of violent experience to begin the work of recovery.’ ‘The work of reconstruction’, she notes, ‘actually transforms the traumatic memory, so that it can be integrated into the survivor’s life story.[iv]

This is not to say that instances of unintegrated trauma simply disappear from the victim’s mental landscape once the present experience is over. The repression of trauma is not a concrete solution; it is instead a kind of psychic procrastination. Even though the traumatic memory itself may seem gone it is simply sitting in an incorporeal state, allowing its roots to trouble the victims psyche without any surface showing. This subtle kind of interference is what allows the traumatic memory to directly influence the actions of the victim, because in seeking to forget such a memory one must actively recall it. A symptom of what is termed ironic process – a theory best described, and perhaps coined, by Frederick Dostoevsky who said this in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, ‘Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.’ The unfortunate dichotomy of remembrance and forgetting highlighted by Ironic Process theory is vital to Freud’s own theory of repression and repetition. He found that victims of trauma who were unable to consciously confront their memories held a tendency to ‘re-enact the scene of trauma over and over and over again.’ He also held the belief that ‘such repetitions may reflect a self-conscious effort to dominate the traumatic event. … But when the repetition is not a conscious re-enactment of the traumatic event, the fact of repetition points towards neuroses. This is an important distinction to make in regards to many of the variations of narrative therapy shown in and around these two texts because a great deal of the trauma’s influence on the two protagonists is sub-conscious and thus neurotic but their reaction to it is not.

The most straightforward impact of the massacres on Billy and Oskar is in the way they react to their surroundings, the way in which they are unable to cope emotionally with the most everyday of occurrences simply because of the aforementioned survivor’s guilt. Billy Pilgrim seems to live a life of fatalistic apathy, he is a man who could ‘scarcely distinguish between sleep and wakefulness’ and found ‘no important differences either, between walking and standing still.[v]’ What may at first seem like apathy in Billy is actually a series of traits symptomatic of large scale repression and internalisation, wherein one attempt to forget or remove oneself altogether once the level of traumatic memory overpowers that of the positive ones. This long term repression is referenced explicitly in the extract of Away in a Manger that is used as an epigraph for the novel, ‘But the little lord Jesus, no crying he makes.[vi]’ Throughout the novel Billy is portrayed as a Christ-like figure and is never seen registering any of the war’s tragedy on an emotional level, perhaps replacing any personal connection to the deceased with the general and distancing memento mori ‘So it Goes.’ While this tearless and apathetic persona is maintained throughout the majority of the text there are certain key moments in which Billy’s control shatters, confirming that this persona was in fact a facade, the most powerful of which follows : ‘They made Billy get out of the wagon and come look at the horses. When Billy saw the condition of his means of transportations he burst into tears. He hadn’t cried about anything else in the war.’

Oskar’s trauma, however, affects him in a slightly different manner; it corrupts his minds overactive imagination into something much more malignant. New York City life is perverted into a kind of nightmare reality with the entire associated minutia becoming wicked and dangerous.  ‘There was a lot of stuff that made me panicky, like suspension bridges, germs, airplanes, fireworks, Arab people on the subway (even though I’m not racist), Arab people in restaurants and coffee shops and other public places, scaffolding, sewers and subway grates, bags without owners, shoes, people with moustaches, smoke, knots, tall buildings, turbans . . . It was worst at night.[vii]’ Oskar’s brain -and in part our own- has been hardwired by 9/11, and the posthumous paranoia present in the city after the fact, to configure stories of terrorism out of an otherwise innocent stream of objects because subconsciously it seeks that notion of Freudian repetition. The destruction of the World Trade Centre and, more importantly, his personal family unit occurred in a manner that disallows all concepts of logic, meaning and therefore closure; which is, for a curious child such as Oskar, completely unsatisfactory. The events of ‘The worst day[viii]’ -as Oskar euphemistically refers to September 11, unable even to name it lest that somehow confirms its reality – have stunted him, in a way he is living his life as if stuck on September 12. It is because of this that his mind strives for re-creation; so that it can either prevent, understand or become accustomed to the otherwise alien feeling to which the event is attached.   Although Oskar veers very close at times, Caciedo argues that ‘retelling the story need not be neurosis and is positively therapeutic if it works towards making the teller or the reader conscious of the past and therefore able to work against the cause of the trauma[ix]’. While it is uncertain whether or not Oskar ever ascertains this consciousness that Caciedo refers to he does find another way to prevent his fictional fears and fixations from crippling him completely, he uses his mind against itself.

Freud in his study on trauma argues that ‘children can master a powerful impression far more thoroughly by being active then by merely experiencing it passively[x]’, it is this potential for narrative mastery that allows Oskar to cope with the mental impact of his trauma. Instead of simply allowing these visions to overwhelm him Oskar uses their power, his imagination, to twist them into something productive. A prime example of this being the time when he is forced into riding an elevator, one of his greatest fears. ‘I squeezed Mr. Black’s hand, and I couldn’t stop inventing: the elevator cables snapping, the elevator falling, a trampoline at the bottom, us shooting back up, the roof opening like a cereal box, us flying toward parts of the universe that not even Stephen Hawking was sure about…[xi]’ Although his initial reaction is to picture himself falling, a relevant image given his fixation on the powerful photographs of The Falling Man, he doesn’t simply let the story end at the elevators collapse but instead fictionalises a rather grand solution. The key to these inventions is the manner in which they distance themselves from the starting point exponentially with each step. This is because the defence mechanism also relies heavily on the stories ability to distract Oskar’s mind, which would otherwise return to negative thoughts if left unattended. Oskar compares his mind in this way to the teeth of beavers, ‘People think they cut down trees so they can build dams, but in reality it’s because their teeth never stop growing, and if they didn’t constantly file them down by cutting through all of those trees, their teeth would start to grow into their own faces, which would kill them.[xii]’ For Oskar this storytelling is necessary to keep his thoughts filed down and under control, the reinstatement of the latter bears a special significance for Oskar because it simultaneously restores the self-control that was lost in the face of 9/11.

The most powerful of Oscar’s inventions, however, is the one that he is unaware of inventing, The Black key. Rather than face the voids left by the fall of the towers and his father Oskar immerses himself with a quest, an attempt in part to enact in reality the same positive twist that he applies to the fictional tragedies that befall him. To Oskar the key is of great importance; to him it seems to be a symbolic representation of logic, as if placing it in the lost lock will somehow restore order to a world that is now spiralling into chaos and so he devotes his entire being to finding its solution. Unbeknownst to him it is actually the quest itself, rather than the goal, that restores meaning to his existence. A fact which Oskar is brutally confronted with upon finding the owner of the lock, ‘“Don’t make it short.” I said … I wanted to make the story as long as I could, because I was afraid of its end.[xiii]

Billy Pilgrim’s narrativizing on the other hand is a lot more passive than Oskar’s, his trauma is embedded deep within his psyche and so his stories of it must also reside on this subconscious level. In order to cope with the dystopian world of death and destruction surrounding him Billy must, as Stanley Schatt describes, “invent a heaven out of 20th century materials, where Good Technology triumphs over Bad Technology. His scripture is Science Fiction, Man’s last, good fantasy.[xiv]’ This science-fiction heaven that Billy creates is Tralfamadore, the alien planet to which he is abducted mid way through the novel. The people of Tralfamadore see ‘time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains.’ ‘All time is all time’ they say. ‘It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is.[xv]’ Understanding the deterministic philosophy of this fictional race is vital to understanding Billy’s state of mind; they are his creation and as the book states, ‘There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully.[xvi]’ In this case Billy is the author and in the Tralfamadorians he has created a race of people who are able to do exactly what he could not and justify it. Through their unique perspective the Tralfamadorians have become at peace with their powerlessness, they scoff at the thoughts of free will and correlation. To them Dresden has no meaning, ‘it simply is’ and that’s fine; ‘[They] speak from the position of psychobabble therapy: Don’t dwell on the bad moments; don’t worry, be happy.[xvii]’ Billy has created the Tralfamadorians as utopic beings, as his ultimate aspiration, and seeing their fatalistic contentment he tries to mimic them by removing himself from time; from its notion of cause and effect and the control that this brings.

Unfortunately, however, such an attempt to distance oneself from reality via fiction is inherently flawed. By using narrative as a method of escaping, rather than confronting, his trauma Billy is simply furthering the pressure of his repression rather than alleviating it. Peebles argues that ‘That kind of narrativizing domesticates the horror, and with some horrific subjects the domestication is unacceptable.[xviii]’ In theory the gentrification of events such as 9/11 or Dresden sounds abhorrent, but as analysis of these two texts shows, for direct victims it may in fact be the only viable coping method. Certainly deifying the events only raises their scale, making them harder for people to assimilate. Therapeutically speaking the main question for these traumatised survivors is still ‘How can I understand this vastly death-saturated event?[xix]’ and the only answer of psychologists and the subconscious seems to be; through reduction into a more familiar narrative arc, one with three acts and a meaningful conclusion. For, as Caciedo argues, ‘That is what mythology is –‘lies’ that organise the data of the senses so that we can believe that we have a place in the universe privileged by understanding.[xx]


[i] Robert Jay Lifton. (2009). Tugging Meaning out of Trauma. Available: http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reportsitem.aspx?id=101983. Last accessed 4th of June, 2010.

[ii] Alice Morgan (2000). What is Narrative Therapy? London: Gecko. 5-6.

[iii] Robert Jay Lifton. (2009). Tugging Meaning out of Trauma. Available: http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reportsitem.aspx?id=101983. Last accessed 4th of June, 2010.

[iv] (Peebles, S 2005 ‘Fighting to Understand: Violence, Form and Truth-claims in Lesy, Vonnegut, and Herr’, Philogical Quarterly, vol. 84, no.4, Fall, pp.491-492)

[v] Kurt Vonnegut (2000). Slaughterhouse – Five. Great Britain: Vintage. p25.

[vi] Kurt Vonnegut (2000). Slaughterhouse – Five. Great Britain: Vintage. p0.

[vii] Jonathon Safran Foer (2006). Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. New York: First Mariner. p36.

[viii] Jonathon Safran Foer (2006). Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. New York: First Mariner. p12.

[ix] (Caciedo, A 2005, “’You Must Remember This’: Trauma and Memory in Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five”’, Critique, vol.46, iss. 4, p.362)

[x] (Caciedo, A 2005, “’You Must Remember This’: Trauma and Memory in Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five”’, Critique, vol.46, iss. 4, p.361)

[xi] Jonathon Safran Foer (2006). Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. New York: First Mariner. p244

[xii] Jonathon Safran Foer (2006). Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. New York: First Mariner. p36

[xiii] Jonathon Safran Foer (2006). Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. New York: First Mariner. p297

[xiv] Stanley Schatt, “Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Chapter 4: Vonnegut’s Dresden Novel: Slaughterhouse-Five.”, In Twayne’s United States Authors Series Online. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1999

[xv] Kurt Vonnegut (2000). Slaughterhouse – Five. Great Britain: Vintage. p34.

[xvi] Kurt Vonnegut (2000). Slaughterhouse – Five. Great Britain: Vintage. p64.

[xvii] (Caciedo, A 2005, “’You Must Remember This’: Trauma and Memory in Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five”’, Critique, vol.46, iss. 4, p.361)

[xviii] (Peebles, S 2005 ‘Fighting to Understand: Violence, Form and Truth-claims in Lesy, Vonnegut, and Herr’, Philogical Quarterly, vol. 84, no.4, Fall, pp.491-492)

[xix] Robert Jay Lifton. (2009). Tugging Meaning out of Trauma. Available: http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reportsitem.aspx?id=101983. Last accessed 4th of June, 2010.

[xx] (Caciedo, A 2005, “’You Must Remember This’: Trauma and Memory in Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five”’, Critique, vol.46, iss. 4, p.362)

Annotated Bibliography


’You Must Remember This’: Trauma and Memory in Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five”

Alberto Caciedo’s article on Slaughterhouse-Five really clarified for me the origin, nature and impact of trauma on a person’s psyche and the difficulties in expressing that through a text. He manages to explain in palatable terms the reasoning behind trauma, something that is hard to understand having never been in such a situation myself. This explanation was further emphasised by his abridged and analytical use of Freud’s theories which detail the specific mental phenomena of trauma and the effects these can have on a person’s life. The most influential element of the article however was the section in which he discusses mythologising as a coping method for Trauma victims. This idea eventually formed the basis of my essay.

Philomela Revisited: Traumatic Iconicity in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Codde’s article introduced to me the notion of the writer as participant in this narrativizing. Throughout the piece he chronicles the real life parallels between Jonathon and Oskar and the way in which they both exhibit a tendency to use their imaginations to fill the otherwise gaping void left by trauma. He also discussed the critiques and drawbacks to this method of therapy as shown in Oskar’s grandparents, an idea that would help to complicate and flesh out my thoughts on the theory.

Fighting to Understand: Violence, Form and Truth-claims in Lesy, Vonnegut, and Herr

In his article Peebles goes to great depths to detail the violent dichotomy at the heart of trauma, the fighting desires of remembrance and forgetting. She discusses the way in which these two competing forces are the central driving force behind a lot of the actions undertaken by victims of Post traumatic Stress Disorder and the way in which this applies to Vonnegut as the writer of Slaughterhouse – Five. She also introduced the first direct critique to narrative therapy that I had read, forcing me to re-evaluate the effectiveness of the argument thus far.
Tugging Meaning out of Trauma

During my research for the essay I found it necessary to source the opinions of contemporary psychologists in order to get a better grasp on the reality of trauma as opposed to its representations, which are handled more than adequately within the reader. I found the discussion very illuminating, it really confirmed a lot of incorporeal assumptions that I had about Trauma psychology and its link to storytelling. The sections devoted to discussing Survivor’s guilt and the role of the Journalist in War were also rather relevant even though I hadn’t previously thought of them in conjunction with Narrative therapy.

This Lousy Little Book: The Genesis and Development of Slaughterhouse-Five as Revealed in Chapter One

Although the concepts introduced in this article didn’t make the final essay they still deeply inspired my thinking towards the topic of Narrative therapy, especially in relation to the authors of the texts. Vonnegut’s novel is aesthetically unique in a number of ways, one of the most blatant being the way he introduces himself not only as an inspiration for Billy Pilgrim but as a character standing alongside him. This kind of fourth wall breaking move is symptomatic of the post-modern movement of the time but it also reveals the nature of the connection between Kurt and this story, the re-telling of which was obviously an important moment for him.

The Wake of Terror: Don Delillo’s “In The Ruins of The Future,” “Baader-Meinhof,” and Falling Man

Even though its relevance to my texts is insubstantial at best – there is some connection through 9/11 but that’s all – I felt that this article presented the most thought provoking discussion on the relationship between memory and repression in the reader. A discussion that directly inspired the direction in which I eventually took the sections of my essay that dealt with this issue. It appears that despite the large variance of scale, situations and roles within these situations the final effect of trauma is somehow globalised, despite its somewhat uninterpretable manner.

Ferocious Alphabets: Michael Herr’s “Dispatches”

This article doesn’t explicitly deal with the issue that I am focusing my essay on, nor does the text it cites involve the trauma familiar to that of the two I am studying. There is however something to be learnt from the antithesis of your topic; the portrayal of the small scale traumas and their blatant repression in Dispatches provides a useful reflection to juxtapose with the content of my texts.

This article in particular focuses on the power of the written word in America’s army during Vietnam, the way in which it can decide the fate of an individual soldier and determine the flow of the war as a whole. This is at its core a similar concept to that of my essay, although it approaches the topic from a different perspective.