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Laub, D. Auerhahn, N.C. (1993). Knowing and not Knowing Massive Psychic Trauma: Forms of Traumatic Memory. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 74:287-302.

(1993). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 74:287-302

Knowing and not Knowing Massive Psychic Trauma: Forms of Traumatic Memory

Dori Laub and Nanette C. Auerhahn


It is in the nature of trauma to elude knowledge, both because of deficit and defence. Massive trauma cannot be grasped because there are neither words nor categories of thought adequate to its representation; knowledge of trauma is also fiercely defended against, as it poses a momentous threat to psychic integrity. Yet knowing nevertheless occurs on some level, often in restricted or defensive forms.

This paper sets forth various forms of knowing and not knowing massive historical trauma as manifested in clinical symptomatology, transference phenomena, life themes and witnessing narratives. Metaphor is also mentioned as yet another form of knowing and addressing trauma, available primarily to those who have not been directly affected as victims nor as family members of victims. The different forms imply a continuum of progressively more integrated and subjectively owned levels of knowing, directly related to the actual and psychological distance from the traumatic event. Illustrations drawn from clinical and testimonial settings are given for each level of knowing described, and implications for therapeutic strategy are discussed.

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