“The Why Factor”: Cultural memory and PTSD

BBC’s The Why Factor posted two short podcasts (18 minutes each) on trauma — one on cultural memories of traumatic events and the other on Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Photo: Screen Shot of BBS Program "Cultural Memory"
Click on graphic to access podcast.

“Cultural Memory” explores how societies respond collectively to traumatic memories, such as war and extreme human rights violations, which often involves silencing memories of the past as well as controlling how the past is narrated.

Controlling how the past is narrated is frequently about creating power. As an example, the podcast looks at how aggressors invent narratives that in effect erase human rights violations, which out of fear and the want to survive people uphold as truth.

The podcast makes the case that forgetting trauma may not be as much a psychological response as it is a political one. Such “forgetting” can go on for as much as thirty years, and often until a younger generation feels hampered by the silences and begins to construct an alternative reality not weighed down by denials of the past.

“Cultural Memory” questions if remembering trauma contributes to healing, and at least one person interviewed believed asking people to dredge up memories of human rights violations causes unnecessary pain. I certainly understand his sentiment; it’s hard to watch people suffer. Yet fear thrives in silence, and the extreme power differentials that lead to human rights abuses thrive on both fear and silence.

Traumatic stress is often an intergenerational phenomenon, and thus we must be careful about the fears and defenses we pass to the next generation, especially given that our fears often encumber their efforts at living without the effects of trauma. Furthermore, there is now much known about treating trauma, including putting off remembering traumatic events until the person feels resilient enough and safe enough to discuss these memories. Trauma-trained therapists generally see healing from trauma as a three stage process. Recalling memories of trauma, and grieving their impact, comes later in the therapeutic process — well after emotional regulation and distress tolerance are established. Some people choose not to remember, and that’s okay too. But I think all people who have suffered human rights abuses deserve to feel safe in their bodies, and often this does involve some remembering of what occurred.

Photo: Screen Shot of BBC Program "PTSD"
Click on graphic to access podcast.

 The Why Factor podcast “PTSD” discusses some of the controversies surrounding this diagnosis. I found their discussion of the cross cultural limits on applying PTSD most interesting. I have had an interest in this topic for sometime now. With my father (he was a psychiatrist) I published an article that looked at culture and depression, and I have also written about the problem of applying PTSD to non-Western cultures in a blog post as well as in an encyclopedia entry. Part of the reason I prefer the term trauma to PTSD is because I want to avoid the baggage that comes with DSM diagnoses. Admittedly, trauma has its own baggage, and in my current research project I am searching for an alternative framework that is more culturally sensitive.

Although The Why Factor’s “PTSD” is informative, I would like to see a broader scope taken when looking at case studies of this disorder. The podcast focuses on two people, one who developed PTSD in response to a natural disaster and another who developed PTSD in response to serving as a medic during wartime. I found both cases interesting, but I was also disappointed that the podcast omitted interviewing someone who had PTSD resulting from interpersonal violence, since it is also one of the most common causes of PTSD. For example, according to Maj. General Patrick Cammaert, former UN Peacekeeping commander in DR Congo, “It is now more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier in modern conflict,” since so many women are brutally raped and murdered in conflict areas. Discussions of PTSD like this podcast really need to broaden their focus and start including the long-term impact of family violence, child abuse, and sexual violence when discussing PTSD.

© 2013 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).


  1. ptsdjedi says:

    Hi Laura,

    I was involved in the BBC Why Factor PTSD documentary in your post.

    My PTSD was a result of the Asian tsunami, which is discussed in the documentary. My life has moved forward since the treatment, it’s not ideal but it’s manageable. There are still bad days but I’m trying to focus on the good.

    I have just started a blog, to share my story and raise awareness of PTSD. In order try to highlight the countless men, women and children who suffer trauma in silence. And, how with greater understanding and early and accurate diagnosis we can genuinely support those that suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.


    • Laura K Kerr says:

      Thanks so much for sharing your blog. I admire your commitment to helping others get the appropriate treatment for PTSD. I agree that focusing on the good is necessary when there has been a great loss like yours.

      I realize today is the anniversary of the Asian tsunami that occurred nine years ago (December 26, 2004). The anniversary of a traumatic event can make focusing on the good difficult. At such times it is often important to increase self-care, and hopefully spend time with people who share your loss and can be supportive. As you rightly point out, suffering in silence is not good for any of us.

      I wish you the best of luck in your important work. You certainly have much you can teach all of us.

      • ptsdjedi says:

        Thank you so much for all your kind words.

        I appreciate your concern and advice, regarding the tsunami anniversary. I must admit today wasn’t easy, I found the morning really difficult after a sleepless night, hence the depressing Anniversary Post.

        However, like you recommended, I looked after myself by surrounding myself with good people through out the day. Fortunately I’m backpacking through Thailand, which has given me the opportunity to connect with people who genuinely understand the impact of what happened.

        I might have had a bad night but today was a positive,

        Thanks again

        • Laura K Kerr says:

          So glad you have people to be with during the anniversary.

          Mindfulness is at the core of the latest trauma treatments. Taking life moment by moment, day by day, we learn to see differently, and with hope. You seem to grasp this wisdom naturally.

  2. Kamilla Vaski says:

    It is certainly true that trauma is passed from one generation to the next. It took me decades to begin to be able to process what happened to me. My parents lived through WWll and also had extremely traumatic childhoods. Our family dynamic was extremely damaging and now we have reached a kind of reckoning point, where I have to understand that there are some family members with whom I will never have a real relationship, and continuing to try to do so will destroy my own happiness. This after decades of the debilitating effects of trauma on my own life. Recent therapy has helped me, including the practice of mindfulness, which I used to be able to do without giving it a name.

    • Laura K Kerr says:

      Thank you for sharing some of your experiences, Kamilla. As you point out, it can take incredibly long to work through the impact of adverse childhood experiences (which I believe should include a parent who was a war veteran). So wonderful that you are in a place where mindfulness gives you peace. This isn’t necessarily true of everyone, especially when first beginning to work through past traumas.

      Its very saddening when parents can’t make the changes needed to stop their damaging and destructive ways. Yet we all deserve to feel safe in our relationships. Nevertheless, it’s very difficult to walk away from family, even if it is the best thing for you.

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