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Laub, D. Auerhahn, N.C. (1989). Failed Empathy—A Central Theme in the Survivor's Holocaust Experience. Psychoanal. Psychol., 6(4):377-400.

(1989). Psychoanalytic Psychology, 6(4):377-400

Failed Empathy—A Central Theme in the Survivor's Holocaust Experience

Dori Laub, M.D. and Nanette C. Auerhahn, Ph.D.

In this article, we concern ourselves with massive traumatic events deliberately inflicted on individuals by fellow human beings. Specifically, we focus on the Holocaust and the fact that massive failure of the environment to mediate needs, as in genocide, will throw into question the existence of empathy, human communication, and ultimately one's own humanity, to which any mirroring ceases to exist. Such a life experience will represent, to the survivor of trauma, failure of a responsive empathic agent or function. Because it is precisely representations of need-satisfying interactions that provide the basis for links between personal existence and social connectedness, undermining the individual's representation of the need-mediating context will deconstruct the link between self and other. Destruction of the victim's representational matrix of interpersonal relatedness results in a vulnerability and loneliness in his or her internal world representation which is the sine qua non of man-made trauma.

Trust in the world includes … the certainty that the other person will spare me … that he will respect my physical and metaphysical being. The expectation of help … is … one of the fundamental experiences of human beings … But with the first blow … against which there can be no defense and which no helping hand will ward off … (one) can no longer feel at home in the world … (Amery, 1966/1980, pp. 28-29, 40)

Psychic trauma can broadly be conceived of as falling into two categories: (a) traumata in which events conspire against the individual (e.g., natural disasters, illnesses, accidents), and (b) traumata in which other persons deliberately


Requests for reprints should be sent to Dori Laub, MD, 30 Ranch Road, Woodbridge, CT 06525.

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