“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.
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).