Popular Trauma Culture: Selling the Pain of Others in the Mass Media

Popular Trauma Culture: Selling the Pain of Others in the Mass Media

Popular Trauma Culture: Selling the Pain of Others in the Mass Media

Popular Trauma Culture: Selling the Pain of Others in the Mass Media


In Popular Trauma Culture, Anne Rothe argues that American Holocaust discourse has a particular plot structure--characterized by a melodramatic conflict between good and evil and embodied in the core characters of victim/survivor and perpetrator--and that it provides the paradigm for representing personal experiences of pain and suffering in the mass media. The book begins with an analysis of Holocaust clichés, including its political appropriation, the notion of vicarious victimhood, the so-called victim talk rhetoric, and the infusion of the composite survivor figure with Social Darwinism. Readers then explore the embodiment of popular trauma culture in two core mass media genres: daytime TV talk shows and misery memoirs.

Rothe conveys how victimhood and suffering are cast as trauma kitsch on talk shows like Oprah and as trauma camp on modern-day freak shows like Springer. The discussion also encompasses the first scholarly analysis of misery memoirs, the popular literary genre that has been widely critiqued in journalism as pornographic depictions of extreme violence. Currently considered the largest growth sector in book publishing worldwide, many of these works are also fabricated. And since forgeries reflect the cultural entities that are most revered, the book concludes with an examination of fake misery memoirs.


As it matters more who is speaking when scholarship extends beyond the theoretical and empirical to the ethical realm, let me briefly make my subject position explicit here. Having spent my first eighteen years in East Germany has made me critical of capitalism’s many injustices but also appreciative of democracy, despite its flaws. The democratic ideal of freedom of thought, though never absolute, allowed me to think, speak, and write uninhibited by political pressures. Furthermore, the virtual absence of the Holocaust from East German collective memory, which I have critiqued elsewhere, has shaped my thinking on Holocaust commemoration, because it made me critically aware of the political appropriation of the past.

Another significant influence official East German memory had on me may be best conveyed via a story-within-a-story anecdote. My friend Eran mentioned one day that a fellow graduate student had asked to borrow his car while Eran went home to Israel for the summer. He had agreed but asked that the student from the former West Germany clean it inside and out before returning the car. When he did not appear keen to do so, Eran joked: “But don’t you know, Arbeit macht frei.” My bewilderment at his clever but atypically unkind and ethically dubious comment was reinforced by knowing that Eran’s father had survived Auschwitz. To my astonished question why he had never tried anything like this on me, Eran spontaneously replied: “It wouldn’t have worked on you.” Beyond having spent about a third of my life and the vast majority of my adulthood in the United States, I believe it is my East German upbringing that makes my thinking about Holocaust commemoration free from the oxymoronic sense of vicarious guilt that many (former) West Germans, even of the second and third postwar generation, still experience.

My critical stance toward official Holocaust memory was also influenced by the fact that I only learned about the small concentration camp, a satellite work camp of Neuengamme, that had existed outside my home town of NeustadtGlewe, when I read John Roth and Carol Rittner’s volume of Holocaust testimony Different Voices in Stephanie Hammer’s Holocaust seminar. After some local history research, I found Lilli Kopecky, who had come to the camp on a death march from Auschwitz and was liberated there. Like myself at the time, Lilli was . . .

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