"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, January 3, 2020

Trauma in the Soviet Union and Beyond

I recently mentioned how much I have learned and continue to learn from Robert Jay Lifton. This short note is a supplement to that, drawing your attention to a book which I have just finished: Beyond Invisible Walls: the Psychological Legacy of Soviet Trauma, eds. Jacob D. Lindy and R.J. Lifton and  (Routledge, 2001).

This is a unique collection both in its origins and its contents--as well as structure. The book brought together clinicians from the former Soviet Union (though Ukraine is a major absence here), including Russia and Armenia, as well as other Eastern Bloc countries, including Romania (easily the most harrowing chapter in the book) and Eastern Germany. Clinicians discussed not only particular cases and their history, but also the history of psychology and psychiatry in the Soviet context, and how often those disciplines were used and abused for political purposes--e.g., "enemies of the revolution" were bogusly diagnosed as "psychotic" (etc.) and drugged and hospitalized against their will.

The chapters on Romania, Armenia especially, and Russia slightly, all touch briefly on the role that Orthodox Christianity plays and played in

In addition, perhaps the most outstanding feature of the book is that all the cases of individual patients are told by clinicians, and then discussed by others, with the counter-transference being front and centre and often given as much space as the case history. Normally this would be bad clinical practice, but what becomes clear is that even "professionals" like therapists were so badly caught up in and themselves traumatized by the Soviet experience that any attempt at working with patients immediately raised floods of issues in themselves.

Lacking in most cases remotely adequate access to supervision or even to other therapists whom they could trust, these therapists also engaged in the dissociation and splitting so characteristic of traumatized people. Since so much was forbidden in former USSR, inhibiting patients from openly sharing all details, the counter-transference becomes even more important as it raises things the pt. cannot or will not talk about not just individually but collectively. Thus the counter-transference is not just personal to therapist, but expresses something of what Jung famously called the collective unconscious. As a result, as Jacob Lindy’s chapter, “Invisible Walls,” notes, clinicians and survivors both are thrust into the role of understanding the “historical implications” of the trauma under question, and clinicians “find themselves in the role of psychohistorian, for the stories of trauma often contain information about our times that is not otherwise available” (197).

What is clearly available, however, thanks to this book and more recent research, is an awareness--Lindy again--that "in Russia and throughout Eastern Europe, the impact of political trauma has been so pervasive for three generations as to have affected nearly every family” (198). That trauma, though, is vast and still poorly understood, as Lifton notes in his conclusion: Soviet “trauma operates on many levels and its complexities defy our ordinary categories. It lacks the structure and limits of a discrete disaster such as an earthquake….The effects reverberate over years or even decades….What we are discussing here is on the order of a sustained catastrophe that never goes away.”

Part of the challenge Lifton sees in conclusion is that in the West both the clinical categories of PTSD and some semi-literate and popular acceptance of the same, has gained a foothold in last 30 years, but not so in East: “the concept of PTSD as a legitimate medical condition does not match easily with the stoic, suppressive, minimizing adaptations to trauma and loss” Part of my lecture for next June will be to tackle this issue and to suggest that Eastern Christian spiritual, theological, and liturgical resources have much to offer.

To do so, I will be drawing on another book just finished--about which more another time: Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery. The Aftermath of Violence--From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. This book, rightly, is a landmark and has been translated into multiple languages. It is pellucid in its clarity and cogency, which is not a small thing if you know how many books in the social sciences are so atrociously written. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Anonymous comments are never approved. Use your real name and say something intelligent.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...