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Caruth, C. (1991). Introduction. Am. Imago, 48(1):1-12.

(1991). American Imago, 48(1):1-12


Cathy Caruth

In the years since Vietnam, the fields of psychiatry, psychoanalysis and sociology have taken a renewed interest in the problem of trauma. In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association finally officially acknowledged the long-recognized but frequently ignored phenomenon under the title “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD), which included the symptoms of what had previously been called shell shock, combat stress, delayed stress syndrome, and traumatic neurosis, and referred to responses to both human and natural catastrophes.1 On the one hand, this classification and its attendant official acknowledgement of a pathology has provided a category of diagnosis so powerful that it has seemed to engulf everything around it: suddenly responses not only to combat and to natural catastrophes but also to rape, child abuse, and a number of other violent occurrences have been understood in terms of PTSD, and diagnoses of some dissociative disorders have also been switched to that of trauma. On the other hand, this powerful new tool has provided anything but a solid explanation of disease: indeed, the impact of trauma as a concept and a category, if it has helped diagnosis, has done so only at the cost of a fundamental disruption in our received modes of understanding and of cure, and a challenge to our very comprehension of what constitutes pathology. This can be seen in the debates that surround “category A” of the American Psychiatric Association's definition of PTSD (involving an event “outside the range of usual human experience”): how closely PTSD must be tied to specific kinds of events; or in the psychoanalytic problem of whether trauma is indeed pathological in the usual sense, in relation to distortions caused by desires, wishes and repressions.

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