The Unspeakable: Trauma Affected Narratives


Written by: Lorinda Tang – Deakin University


As a survivor of trauma, and a writer depicting traumatized characters, it seems timely to consider the ‘unspeakable’ in creative practice. The unspeakable conundrum operates on two levels: for survivors, it is the ‘conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud’ (Herman 1992: 1); for writers, it is ‘the explicit admission of the inadequacy of language … [that] points to the overwhelming, soul-destroying quality of [an] experience’ and lowers the audience’s expectations of narrative structure and form (Stampfl 2014: 15, 21).

According to the American Psychiatric Association, trauma has been defined as the experience of ‘actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence’ (2013: 271). In this definition, it may be experienced directly, indirectly (through knowing family or close friends have experienced trauma), or vicariously. Trauma is not determined or measured by an event. Rather, trauma relates to an individual’s experience of an event, and any post-traumatic symptoms consequently experienced (American Psychiatric Association 2013: 271).
For some, having their experience diagnosed or defined as trauma can be itself a traumatic event, as it may seem to generalize their experience and/or make it reductive. Trauma survivors can tend to share patterns of symptoms, and traumatic events follow certain trends, but no experience of trauma is ever the same as another, because no one can ever occupy the same chronotope—the time-space of the self’s existence, within which it perceives, thinks and acts, and which is relative to every other entity (Bakhtin 1981: 84; Holquist 2002: 20, 21, 33)—as the person who lives the trauma, and there can never be a duplication of all the surrounding contexts (personality, socialization, culture, etc). Trauma is an utterly unique and isolating experience.

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My particular interest is interpersonal trauma. I use ‘interpersonal trauma’ to describe harm caused within significant relationships. Domestic violence, sexual abuse and/or assault, and institutional bullying predominate this kind of trauma. Interpersonal trauma is often literally unspeakable, because of posttraumatic symptoms (such as post-traumatic stress disorder), and/or because victims are disempowered, younger, less educated or otherwise marginalized, and because a characteristic of having experienced interpersonal trauma is the loss of agency. The unspeakable in narrative can be literal, when the writer is a traumatized person, but it may also be ethical (for example, to avoid harm or misappropriation), or strategic, if used as a narrative device.

The Unspeakability of Trauma

… I still can’t understand however hard I try, [it] is still beyond my reach, hidden in the very depths of my flesh, blind as a newborn child. It’s the area on whose brink the silence begins.
What happens there is silence, the slow travail of my whole life. I’m still there, watching … as far away from the mystery now as I was then (Duras 1984: 25).

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In literary trauma theory, trauma is framed as ‘a breach in the mind’s experience of time, self and the world’ that constitutes a wound (Caruth 1996: 3). For classical trauma theorists in this lineage, and particularly Caruth, trauma has been defined by its unspeakability (Balaev 2008: 151). Caruth asserts that ‘massive trauma precludes all representation because the ordinary mechanisms of consciousness and memory are temporarily destroyed … the traumatic event [is] dissociated from normal mental processes of cognition … and only returns belatedly’ in the form of post-traumatic symptoms (Leys 2000: 266).

In the process of hearing spoken testimony of the Holocaust, Laub directly observed the unspeakable conundrum that survivors confront, describing it as: an imperative to tell and thus come to know one’s story … Yet no amount of telling seems ever to do justice to this inner compulsion. There are never enough words, or the right words, there is never enough time, or the right time, and never enough listening or the right listening to articulate the story that cannot be fully captured in thought, memory and speech … Yet the ‘not telling’ of the story serves as a perpetuation of its tyranny. The event becomes more and more distorted in their silent retention and pervasively to invade and contaminate the survivor’s daily life (Felman and Laub 1992: 78, 79).

Other theorists, such as Mandel recognize that spoken trauma encompasses ‘acute silences and epistemological gaps that reflect the impact of traumatic experience on the speaker’s psyche’ (Mandel 2006: 100). The unspeakable, for survivors, may be more objectively related to the limitations of language to convey the horror of trauma (or, one could say, the affect of trauma) than the capacity to relate the actual traumatic event. This small shift in emphasis, from a lack in the speaker to a lack in language itself, is significant.

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Literary trauma theory is moving away from understanding trauma as unrepresentable (Balaev 2014: 1). Stampfl contends that ‘trauma’ itself is the name of a realm of experience large and diverse enough to require a pluralistic conception of the unspeakable … that recognises the trope’s alternative or even antithetical possibilities’ (2014: 16, 25).

For Stampfl, the unspeakable should be considered a ‘phase in the process of traumatisation’ because ‘traumatisation need not necessarily conclude in a state of involuntary, deeply conflicted silence’ (2014: 16). This view fits with Laub’s understanding of restoration through testimony and witness, and is consistent with clinical treatments of trauma. From this perspective, Duras’s retellings may be described as a rebellion against traumatic silence: she is wrestling with her own psychic wound, trying to wrangle it into a form with which she can truly grapple, and perhaps escape, or at least have some relief from.


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