by Austin Sarat, Nadav Davidovitch, and Michal Alberstein (eds). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007. 336pp. Cloth. $60.00. ISBN: 9780804754057.

Reviewed by Dimitri A. Bogazianos, Division of Criminal Justice, California State University, Sacramento. Email: dbogazia [at]


At its heart, TRAUMA AND MEMORY makes one crucial argument: collective memory, whether conceived of as trauma or, simply, “history,” fundamentally takes work. The observation that individuals, families, ethnic groups, whole cultures, and the sociopolitical institutions that negotiate, and often dictate the relations between them, are increasingly re-imagining and re-writing their histories according to the ever-increasing reach of trauma is the primary concern undergirding the contributions. Of course, the book does more than simply make one argument, and, as the editors – Austin Sarat, Nadav Davidovitch, and Michal Alberstein – make clear in their Introduction, an equally strong theme running throughout the volume is that what should be remembered is always a political choice with serious consequences for those whose memories have not been emphasized. And, once such memories have been “worked-up,” they must then be put to work, and, more often than not, wind up working in the interests of some at the expense of others.

Indeed, Part II of the volume focuses on identities, and examines issues that Parts III and IV fill out later. In Chapter 2, “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder of the Virtual Kind: Trauma and Resilience in Post-9/11 America,” Allan Young argues – after sketching the ways in which the definition of PTSD in the United States was expanded in the wake of Vietnam and efforts to better understand and help victims of sexual abuse – that a “new variety of PTSD has emerged” in the US since 9/11. Young suggests, however, that this new variety of PTSD should not be seen as an aberration, but, rather, as part of a long history of re-definition that started in the 1800s, and, through the War on Terror and the real-time footage of national disasters now digitally available, has come to produce more diffused, collective forms that have affected “an entire nation.”

The suggestion that trauma is now understood to affect such large groups of people reveals an important concern running throughout many of the contributions, if only implicitly: that trauma, in fact, is an essential element in nation-building, past and present. Indeed, the next chapter, “Female Trouble,” switches focus from national to personal and back again by analyzing the degree to which trauma “lies at the very foundation of relations between men and women in the West” (p.50). In it, Ariella Azoulay makes a provocative turn, arguing that trauma is the paradigmatic example of rape, rather than the other way around, which is the more common assumption. Azoulay suggests that rape is part of the infrastructure of the Enlightenment, and stems from an initial “abandonment” of [*758] women that can be seen, for example, in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which, by implying that “those acts or actions that it does not discuss are allowed,” therefore, “paved the road for doing harm to women” (p.53). For Azoulay, actual physical sexual assaults are second-level events experienced by individual women, which are first structured by the universal female experience of abandonment.

The next chapter, “The Trauma of al-Nakba: Collective Memory and the Rise of Palestinian National Identity,” describes how multiple senses of Palestinian identity existed prior to the al-Nakba – the 1948 creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, which resulted in the massive displacement of those living there – and were articulated primarily by anti-Zionist writers based in the cities. In it, Issam Nassar argues that the 1967 occupation of Gaza and the West Bank allowed for the effective appropriation of the al-Nakba trauma, and, in his words, “deprived those who lived the al-Nakba experience of their ‘Palestinianness’” (p.75). Being Palestinian is now “universally” understood to revolve only around the territorial claims of those in Gaza and the West Bank, rather than the larger collective experience of displacement, as well as the dreams of returning to the cities that those originally cast out still retain.

Switching from the textual to the visual, the next chapter, “Trauma-Image: The Elephant Experience,” uses ELEPHANT – a film by Gus Van Sant, which was loosely based on the Columbine massacre – to suggest that alternative ways of visually representing trauma are possible if they adhere to a dialectical process of “looking without showing, and seeing without demonstration” (p.85). According to Roei Amit, this method creates “an image that is visible but opaque, flat but a simultaneously complex presence” (p.85). Ultimately, Amit suggests that films which focus on the inherently processual nature of trauma are better suited to capture its perhaps ineffable qualities than are films that attempt to didactically explain it.

While Part II focuses primarily on identities, Part III addresses the institutional means by which such traumatic experiences are acknowledged, exacerbated, and, it is often hoped, healed. In Chapter 6, “Trauma and Justice: The Moral Grammar of Trauma Discourse from Wilhelmine Germany to Post-Apartheid South Africa,” Jose´ Brunner teases out an important theme: trauma is, by definition, a disorder that has an “external” cause, and, therefore, inherently implies issues of responsibility, blame, and justice. It is a medical diagnosis with immediate legal repercussions. And, as every law and society scholar since the realists has argued, the legal is also inherently political. For Brunner, then, the legitimacy of victimhood first depends on successful political agitation. In his words, “The politics of trauma and victimhood is competitive” (p.107). Paradoxically, however, the transitional form of justice exemplified by post-Apartheid South Africa’s reconciliation efforts – which also, according to Brunner, exemplifies the move to postmodern forms of governance more generally – de-medicalized trauma, and, strangely, put victims in the position of having to become forgivers, which endowed them with power, but, also, the [*759] “responsibility of overcoming his or her victimhood” (p.112).

Chapter Seven, “Public Health, Law, and Traumatic Collective Experiences: The Case of Mass Ringworm Irradiations,” continues the investigation of such paradoxical consequences of legal efforts at healing. Looking at Israel’s massive efforts to irradiate new immigrants against ringworm during the 1950s, Nadav Davidovitch and Avital Margalit examine the problematic use of eugenics, and the promotion of the “new Jew” as techniques of nation-building. For many survivors, undergoing state-enforced treatment, which included isolation and quarantine, was reminiscent of the camps. And, in the following decades, a number of epidemiologists found that those who had undergone the irradiation had higher than normal incidences of cancer. After the first legal cases were brought by victims of the program in the 1980s, the limitations of the law in healing such trauma became clear: in continuing to separate the social from the legal, the “needs in the symbolic dimension of a social healing process” (p.147) remained, simply, unfulfilled. As Davidovitch and Margalit suggest, then, taking alternatives to legal compensation seriously – such as establishing centers devoted to the memory of traumatic events as well as taking personal testimonies of those affected most – is crucial to the process of collective healing.

Sarah Willen’s “‘Illegality,’ Mass Deportation, and the Threat of Violent Arrest: Structural Violence and Social Suffering in the Lives of Undocumented Migrant Workers in Israel” continues the examination of trauma in the service of Israel’s state-building practices. What a number of contributors suggest, Willen asks directly: If so many phenomena can be seen as trauma, “is it not reasonable to wonder whether the concept of trauma itself might be in danger of losing its capacity to facilitate understanding of the dynamics and lived experience of human suffering?” (p.171). While continuing to find relevance in the term, Willen prefers the more anthropologically-informed notion of “social suffering” when analyzing the collective experience of the approximately 200,000 migrant workers who came to Israel in the 1980s and ‘90s, and who, according to Willen, not only filled the labor gap left by Palestinians denied access in the wake of the second intifada, but also became central to a new campaign of criminalization fundamentally concerned with the possible threat that permanent settlements of non-Jews might pose to the security of the nation. Because many of the workers were from Third World countries, Willen argues, their obvious phenotypic traits have made them more visible, and, hence, easier to round up by the police. The effects of such efforts have been devastating, leaving families without parents, and communities without the informal bonds that provide their necessary infrastructures. The campaign, in essence, has relied on overlapping violences – structural, symbolic, and, most important in Willen’s argument, the physical violence that inheres as ever-present threat whenever police agencies are so heavily involved in social engineering.

The next two chapters focus on similar issues concerning the collusion – explicit and implicit – of the professions in the legitimization of the “science” behind [*760] Nazi practices, as well as the equally troubling denial of this complicity after the fact. In the first of these contributions, “Trauma, Memory, and Euthanasia at the Nuremberg Medical Trial, 1946-1947,” Etienne Lepicard asks a deceptively simple question: Why has there been far more worldwide concern with Nazi experimentation practices rather than its euthanasia program, which, by all accounts, killed far more people? Lepicard answers this important question by suggesting that the parsing-out of euthanasia from the rubric of eugenics has been, in effect, “a political way of coping with the trauma” (p.217), and has functioned implicitly to deny that eugenics was ever considered a valid medical science, even while the historical record clearly shows otherwise.

In the second of these chapters, “Trauma or Responsibility?: Memories and Historiographies of Nazi Psychiatry in Postwar Germany,” Volker Roelcke continues the examination of the professions, and argues that the problem of Nazi science in the post-war years became focused on individual, supposedly deranged Nazis, rather than the much more complicated and problematic complicity of psychiatry in the worldwide eugenics movement. During the aftermath of WWII, therefore, euthanasia and forced sterilization were re-defined by the medical professions as having been forced upon them by the Nazis, rather than being seen as having occurred amid a global climate that was already favorable to such theories.

The next chapter, “Trauma, Retribution, and Forgiveness: Should War Criminals Go Free?” begins the last section of the volume, which focuses more specifically on the possibilities of healing and forgiveness. In it, Daniel Statman, departing from the more historical orientation of the other contributions, focuses on the philosophical issue of justice in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and, as the title suggests, asks the following question: Would setting war criminals from both sides free heal wounds, or, perhaps unintentionally, make things worse? Statman concludes that letting those clearly deserving of punishment go free, even in the interest of reconciliation, would be morally wrong, and that such efforts, if they are to have lasting effects, must be a matter of heart. In his words, “The path to reconciliation must be pursued through a process that reinforces the moral commitments of the parties involved, not one which condones or provides affirmation of moral atrocities” (p.258).

In an analysis of the foreign films FESTEN and THE SON, the next chapter, “The Secrets of Mediation and Trauma in Contemporary Film: A Search from the Perspective of Restorative Justice,” returns to the visual representation of trauma, and makes an interesting observation: alternative filmmaking – of which both films are examples – can also be in the service of envisioning alternatives to legal and medical approaches to healing trauma. Michael Alberstein argues that the healing represented in both films does not rely on formal rule-following, but, because the traumas occur to individuals within family contexts, suggests not only that evil is often banal, but also that recovery can occur within the everyday by regular folk who, in fact, may be better placed to deal with it alternatively. [*761] Alberstein ultimately suggests that recovery is not a one-size-fits-all affair, and that social and individual pre-requisites – such as equality before the law – must be in place before alternatives to legal and medical approaches can begin their healing work.

In the last contribution, “Healing Stories in Law and Literature,” Shulamit Almog moves away from structure, state, and policy, and towards the actual ways in which “trauma narratives” themselves are created through language. Because human beings comprehend the world around them primarily through stories, Almog asks, “what singles out trauma narratives from a poetic vantage point?” (p.292). Legal contexts, by requiring victims to articulate stories in specific ways, often do injustice to the victims. While the law requires stories with clear starts and ends, trauma narratives are fragmented, and progress in fits and spurts as the victims come to terms with what has occurred, re-orienting themselves to their abuse narratively. It is like, in Almog’s words, a “violent encounter between law and art” (p.294). Different poetics – the inclusion, exclusion, and stringing together of facts – are required, therefore, at different points in that progression. For Almog, however, both forms of storytelling are essential to justice, and must find ways to co-exist.

As a whole, this volume is a provocative examination of violence, suffering, and reconciliation, and will be of interest to those who are concerned with their interconnected nature, and are open to the analysis of such issues from multiple disciplinary perspectives.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Dimitri A. Bogazianos.