Trauma and Human Existence: Autobiographical, Psychoanalytic, and Philosophical Reflections (Book Review)

Author:  Stolorow, Robert
Publisher: Analytic Press
Reviewed By: Nancy Vanderheide, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3 (Summer 2008), pp. 78=79

The essential embeddedness of emotional life in relational contexts serves as the central foundation of the substantial contribution to the psychoanalytic canon made by Robert Stolorow and his collaborators. In his latest book, Trauma and Human Existence, Stolorow expands on that theme, underscoring the contextual embeddedness of the experience of trauma, and posits by way of a carefully reasoned argument that encountering the traumatic is an inherent constituent of human existence.

This book, an “autobiographical, psychoanalytic, and philosophical reflection,” as the subtitle denotes, takes the reader step-by-step through some of Stolorow’s most remarkable thinking to date. Weaving his love affair with philosophy, which recently gave birth to a doctorate in Philosophy from the University of California at Riverside, with his decades-long passion for positioning affect, and now, emotional trauma, within a relational, contextual field, Stolorow accomplishes a lot in a surprisingly brief treatise. The nature of emotional trauma, as encountered in his psychoanalytic theorizing and writing, his consulting room, and his own tragic and painfully profound experience of traumatic loss, takes shape in the pages of this book as both a central event around which experience becomes enduringly organized as well as a basic feature of our very being.

The devastating emotional aftermath of the sudden death of his young wife after her shocking cancer diagnosis altered the trajectory of Stolorow’s life and writing career. Struggling to endure and make sense of the terrible feelings of alienation, isolation and uncanniness that afflict many trauma survivors, Stolorow writes of finding a measure of comfort only in the company of a few with whom he shared a common history of traumatic loss. In one of his many significant theoretical disagreements with Kohut’s self psychology, Stolorow maintains that selfobject longings for kinship arise in reaction to trauma.

Trauma, the author writes, is an experience of unbearable affect which, in developmental contexts, is unbearable due to the absence of empathic, consoling caregivers who allow for the mentalization and integration of emotional experiences for which there are not yet words. Similarly, intolerable affect states incurred later in life also require a relational home in which the emotions that so overwhelm the survivor are welcomed with open and relatively unflinching arms. Such an emotional dwelling place is often difficult to come by for many reasons, not the least of which is the human tendency towards dissociation, delineated in helpful detail by Bromberg (1998, 2006) and Boulanger (2007). In the absence of a relational home, the survivor is doomed to exist in an isolating hell where reminders of his or her alienation from the other inhabitants of the earth are easily encountered. Thus, Stolorow argues, trauma is essentially contextual in nature. His own trauma is immeasurably lessened, as poignantly shown in chapter 5, when his current wife, Julia Schwartz, lovingly folds both Bob and his grief into her heart on a Christmas morning years after Dede’s death. In helping him grasp the significance immortalized in a poem he wrote about their young daughter, Emily, she enables him to place more of his loss into a living narrative that brings shattered pieces of his experience together. This is the heart of effective trauma work, and Julia, a gifted analyst in her own right, accomplishes it beautifully. (Julia, not incidentally, painted the cover art for the book, aptly entitled, “Siblings in the Darkness.”)

Stolorow builds a platform for the articulation of his contention that the possibility of emotional trauma is a given aspect of our existence by invoking Martin Heidegger, whose brand of Continental philosophy resonates closely with Stolorow’s most highly favored constructs, contextuality and affectivity. Stolorow draws from Heidegger’s most influential work, his complex and arduous 1927 tome Being and Time, the theme of which is the meaning of Being, or, more precisely, the investigation of what it means to be (Heidegger indicates with a capital “B” those inhabitants of the planet for whom existence is an issue, i.e., human Beings). One can well imagine that the co-author of Contexts of Being delights in his scholarly kinship with a philosopher whose commitment to human embeddedness in context is literally spelled out in his use of the compound expression “Being-in-the-world” to denote the unitary phenomenon of existence in context. Similarly, a literal translation of Heidegger’s befindlichkeit as “how one finds oneselfness” has clear parallels to Stolorow’s belief in the contextual nature of affect. Befindlichkeit denotes not only how one feels (affect), but, also, the situation in which one find’s oneself feeling what one feels (the contexts of attunement and mal-attunement in which affect is felt).

Having established this area of commonality in Heidegger’s work and his own form of phenomenological, existential psychoanalytic theory, Stolorow goes on to delineate the ways in which the philosopher’s views on anxiety parallel his thinking about trauma, laying much of the groundwork for his proposition that emotional trauma is written into the very nature of our existence. Along the way, he provides the reader with “the absolutisms of everyday life,” and the “ontological unconscious,” concepts that denote key experiences of trauma survivors.

Trauma rips the comforting veil of denial concealing life’s implacable contingencies from the eyes of those shattered by catastrophe, removing the unquestioned illusion of safety most people depend on to navigate through life. According to Stolorow, the isolating sense that one is alone among one’s fellows in no longer being shielded by such absolutisms of everyday life, renders a state of alienation understood only by others similarly afflicted. Heidegger uses “anxiety” to refer to the state of mind of one whose Being-in-the-world, no longer operating under the illusion of safety, is now oriented towards the inevitability of death that is an inherent component of one’s life. This authentic mode of Being is not merely an intellectual exercise; rather, it is a visceral understanding that death is “always already” a constituent of one’s life, regardless of whether it is happening in the present moment.

With the “ontological unconscious,” Stolorow adds to the three forms of unconscious previously articulated in his intersubjective systems theory, namely, the pre-reflective unconscious, the dynamic unconscious, and the unvalidated unconscious. He derives this new classification from ontology, the study of being. Much as, developmentally, the child’s affect states that meet with misattunement are remanded to the dynamic unconscious lest they damage the ties to the caregiver, affect states crucial to one’s sense of self are banished to the ontological unconscious in the absence of a welcoming emotional home. Stolorow draws on his own experience to depict the intersubjective contextuality of the sense of being, “When my traumatized states could not find a home, I became deadened, and my world became dulled. When such a home became once again present, I came alive, and the vividness of my world returned.”

Also in service of the thesis of the book is Stolorow’s courageous assertion of the relationality of death. Whereas Heidegger posits an unremittingly non-relational characterization of death, as it is a phenomenon that finally differentiates the individual from the interchangeable entities comprising “das Man,” Stolorow follows another path. Death is first and foremost experienced as something that happens to others. Thus our relationship to death is such that we inevitably experience it in the context of our relationship to others.

Through this unabashedly personal account, Stolorow demonstrates the relevance of Heidegger’s phenomenological, existential philosophy to an understanding of trauma’s indelible impact on the survivor of catastrophic loss. His own experience mirrors that of countless others whose ability to find comfort and solace after such devastation is contingent upon the presence of a relational home for their seemingly insurmountable pain. Stolorow’s subjectivity shines through as the context for his theorizing, of course, and readers will draw their own conclusions as to its generalizability.

Though often dense, and at times poignantly heart wrenching, this brief treatise is immensely readable. The first chapters reiterate and expand on major premises of the intersubjective systems theorists in a succinct review. Subsequent chapters delve into the products of Stolorow’s more recent, deep immersion in the work of Heidegger. A previous introduction to Heidegger, whose writings are notoriously difficult, is useful though not essential in comprehending Stolorow’s chapter on anxiety, authenticity and trauma, incorporating as he does Heidegger’s unconventional use of terminology in constructing his own arguments. Long a devotee of the philosophical underpinnings of psychoanalytic thought, Stolorow demonstrates once again the value in such considerations. Unsurprisingly, he makes a valuable contribution to the psychoanalytic literature on trauma and its vicissitudes.

Nancy Vanderheide

References

Boulanger, G. (2007). Wounded by reality. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press
Bromberg, P. (1998). Standing in the spaces. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press
Bromberg, P. (2006). Awakening the dreamer. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press,

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