Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Untangling the Trauma Knot: Autoethnography and Annie Ernaux's Shame

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Untangling the Trauma Knot: Autoethnography and Annie Ernaux's Shame

Article excerpt

Distinguishing between three approaches to trauma recovery--repression, scriptotherapy, and autoethnography--this essay interrogates the trend to promote repression as a means of coping. Instead, it offers autoethnography, specifically Annie Ernaux's Shame, as an effective method for reconfiguring the cultural and psychological convergences that surround trauma and for attenuating repetition.

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In a provocative essay, "Repress Yourself," Lauren Slater, controversial psychologist and memoirist, discusses new research that suggests that rather than spending years in talk therapy, "traumatized people may be better off repressing the experience than illuminating it in therapy." Indeed, Slater observes, researchers have "begun to question the accepted tenets of trauma treatment, which have at their center the healing power of story" (50). She provides a useful history of trauma therapy: "Trauma [...] is seen as a rupture in the long line of language that constructs who we are. The goal of treatment has traditionally been, therefore, to expand the story so that it can accommodate a series of unexpected scenes [...] to move memories from nonverbal brain regions to verbal ones, where they can be integrated into the life story" (51). Slater herself has used scriptotherapy--"the process of writing out and writing through traumatic experience in the mode of therapeutic reenactment" (Henke xii)--effectively, and it would seem, beneficially, producing three memoirs and two collections of highly personal essays. Although she has worked rigorously and creatively to untangle her trauma-laden past and integrate painful memories into compelling, best-selling stories, she frankly asserts: "Let me tell you this. I've had my fair share of traumas--I'm sure you have, too--and if I could learn to tamp them down and thereby prune my thorny lived-out-loud life a little, I'd be more than happy to. Go ahead. Give me a lock and key" (Slater 52). However, she does temper her embrace of repression as cure by suggesting, "In the end, we may need to parse repression, nuance it, so that we understand it as a force with potentially healthful and unhealthful aspects." Nevertheless, as she concludes "Repress Yourself," she marshals the authority of Freud, noting that the progenitor of psychoanalysis himself "once defined repression quite benignly as a refocusing of attention away from unpleasant ideas." Though some must and will return again to the shadow of the trauma, others, Slater asserts, would do best to fashion lids and "prop them proudly on top of our hurting heads" (53).

I would like to interrogate this psychoanalytic trend to promote repression as a means of coping with trauma, foregrounding the impracticality of such a practice for many trauma survivors. Instead, I want to examine and promote the psychological benefits of memoir writing and scriptotherapy. The memoir Shame by Annie Ernaux can serve as an example of how one might go about writing a trauma memoir--one that deviates from narrative by employing a methodology from anthropology. Drawing on the work of Ernaux, Geertz, Freud, and Sartre, I argue that autoethnography can provide a means to overcome the compulsion to repeat the trauma by allowing the autoethnographer to delineate and analyze the social circumstances that allowed the trauma to occur. Rather than repeating, "This terrible thing happened to me," without resolution, the memoirist/autoethnographer who asks, "How could this have happened to me?" can find a way to accommodate the trauma memory not as an ongoing, debilitating memory, but as an adverse but understandable outcome of a unique social context. In addition, autoethnography allows the postmodern memoirist to better examine the plurality of codes that create our multiple selves. As a method for analysis, it can provide the memoirist with a multifaceted perspective that can be both illuminating and therapeutic.

Slater is not alone in her skepticism of the talking cure. …

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