Learning Center
Plans & pricing Sign in
Sign Out

Traumatic Stress An Overview


									         Culture and the Experience of Collective Trauma

  When culture functions well, it buffers members from at least some of
the disruptive impact and consequences of collective trauma, as the
international research literature attests. Abu Heim, Quota, Thabet and El
Sarraj (1993), for example, find that a strong commitment to Palestinian
cultural values and world view offers psychological protection to many of
the children in Gaza where armed conflict with the Israelis is a feature of
everyday life. Swartz and Levett (1989) observe similar buffering effects
of cultural commitment for Black children living under the repressive
regime of apartheid in South Africa. In their interviews with a small
sample of elderly Armenian survivors of the Turkish genocide, Kalayjian,
Shahinian, Gergerian and Saraydarian (1996) also find that strong
religious belief and fierce pride in cultural identity mitigate, to some
extent, the otherwise devastating grief and outrage that survivors
experience to this day.

                                                          Jump to first page
   Cultural stories, myths and legends that have as themes the
    mastery of past events of collective trauma also may be
    used a resource by members of a culture who are currently
    experiencing collective trauma. Uyehara (1980-1981)
    analyzes the Horehore-Bushi type of Japanese folksong that
    developed among immigrant laborers in Hawaii. Its themes
    of the trauma of plantation life and the longing for homeland
    are offset by a leitmotif of persistence in the face of hardship
    and, ultimately, independence and success. A source of
    comfort and inspiration to the immigrants who composed
    them, the songs also serve as
   a cultural resource for later Japanese generations coping
    with other types of collective trauma.

                                                      Jump to first page
There is at least one example of a subculture "borrowing" a
collective traumatic event in order to create its own sustaining
and comforting myth during a time of chronic, even
unrelenting, trauma. In April 1912, the luxury liner Titanic
struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sunk in the north
Atlantic, killing 1500 of its passengers and crew, and
challenging the western world's belief in God and its faith in
technology. Today, more is known about that disaster than
ever before, but the story that the immensely popular film, the
Broadway musical and the plethora of recently published
books do not tell is about the appropriation of the disaster by

                                                   Jump to first page
None of the ill-fated ship's passengers were African-
American, nor any of its crew, but as Weisbord (1994) points
out both southern and northern Blacks, traumatized by
virulent racism and demoralized by persistent poverty, made
the Titanic disaster the subject of a toast, an oral narrative. In
a Harlem version of the toast, Shine, a dark-skinned Black,
worked aboard the luxury liner as a stoker. As the ship began
to sink, and the wealthy white passengers began to panic and
then die, he used his superior athletic skills to break down an
iron door and swim to safety, ignoring along the way the
captain's wife who offered him sexual favors for his help, and
an elderly millionaire who offered cash. The toast is not only a
narrative through which contempt for White society is
expressed, but a wholly constructed myth about the triumph of
the race in the face of prejudice, hatred and temptation.

                                                    Jump to first page
Other cultural artifacts also serve that function. During
World War II, approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans
were confined in relocation camps. Caught between the
demand to show allegiance to their country of birth by
renouncing their cultural heritage, and the temptation to
embrace their heritage even while risking expulsion from
their country, many of the detainees felt demoralized,
confused and powerless. But the paintings and sketches of
the camps' artists provided images of dignity and efficacy
and, perhaps most importantly, also celebrated the richness
and the strength of the very dual cultural identity, that of
Japanese-American, that under conditions of internment
had become the source of so much anxiety and even
shame for the detainees (Kuramitsu, 1995).

                                               Jump to first page
                 When Culture Fails

As deVries (1996) points out, culture is a "double-edged
  sword" (p. 400). Because it acts as a buffer and supportive
  system, its members are dependent upon it to give their
  lives meaning and direction. Collective trauma, by its very
  definition, poses a direct assault on the continuity and
  integrity of the cultural system. At times, however, those
  disruptions are so unexpected as to have been entirely
  unforeseen. Two examples from different parts of the
  world about two subtle, yet insidious, disruptions provide
  that insight.

                                                Jump to first page
In 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred. The worst in a
series of nuclear disasters throughout the world, the explosions in
the Chernobyl plant released hundreds of tons of radioactive dust
and dispersed it across Europe and Scandinavia. A million acres of
forest were contaminated and vast tracts of land will remain
uninhabitable for thousands of years. The human toll of "this new
species of trouble," as Erickson (1994, p. 141) refers to it, is
inestimable. To date, over a half a million people who either were
involved in the clean-up or were living nearby are sick or dead, and it
is estimated that over $50 billion will be needed to address the future
health needs of the over 4 million people who continue to live in the
most seriously contaminated areas including the Ukraine where
Sappa and Mordovenko (1993) surveyed students who were 11 to 12
years old at the time of the nuclear disaster. Although most of the
students agree that the ultimate consequences of the disaster will
take years to assess, 57% express no real concerns about nuclear
accidents and think that existing nuclear plants should remain open,
and 11% feel that more should be built.

                                                        Jump to first page
It is tempting, of course, to dismiss this quite surprising finding as nothing
more than the product of adolescent folly and ignorance, but Van Den
Hout, Havenaar and Meikler-Iljina (1995) offer a compelling interpretation
of Soviet life from which the impact of collective trauma on the cultural
stock of knowledge may be surmised. Every culture provides its members
with a stock of knowledge about the way it works and a set of meanings
that makes sense of that work. At times, a collective traumatic event is so
overpowering, so shattering, that it tests that stock of knowledge and if that
cultural system can offer no real explanation for the event or its aftermath,
the members of the culture are left epistemically disempowered, that is,
they are at a loss to explain what happened and why, and to derive any
meaning from their own suffering. Under the political and social conditions
of propaganda, disinformation and lies that followed the Chernobyl
disaster, the already depleted stock of knowledge could not be
replenished because the people's distrust of government and the official
press led them to reject all information about the disaster--even factual
and life-saving information--as exaggerated or untrue. From this brief
discussion of the sociopolitical context of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster
an alternative explanation for the surprising responses of the Ukrainian
students begins to emerge: they may be evidence of the kind of epistemic
disempowerment that at times occurs when a collective trauma tests a
cultural stock of knowledge and finds it wanting.
                                                             Jump to first page
The Irish potato famine provides another example of the
unexpected disruption to culture that can occur in the face of
collective trauma. Over the four awful years of "the Great Hunger,"
nearly half of the Irish population either died from famine-related
diseases or emigrated to escape their plight. The personal toll of
the famine was enormous and tragic, of course, but it is its
altogether unexpected impact on the Gaelic language that is of
interest here. Language is the primary means for communicating
culture and for socializing new generations. As preliterate people,
the Irish poor were devoted to the oral tradition, using stories,
songs and verse to express and transmit a rich and vigorous
traditional culture. But their language was one of the victims
of the famine. A disproportionate number of those who died or
emigrated were Gaelic-speakers. By the famine's end, only
300,000 monoglot Gaelic-speakers were left in the country and
over successive generations English spread rapidly as the
association between the Gaelic language and poverty and
ignorance was firmly forged in the collective consciousness
(Miller, 1985).

                                                   Jump to first page
The steady Anglicization of Ireland over the 150 years after the famine
     created what the Irish refer to as "the Great Silence," an ever-widening
     linguistic and cultural gap between each successive generation.
     Increasingly cut off from all that is communicatedby native language--
     tradition, identity and sense of place--post-famine generations left their
     homeland and sought their dreams abroad, with increasingly profound
     socioeconomic and political consequences for their native country.
At times, an entire culture is compromised by collective trauma, leaving its
     members vulnerable to the psychological sequelae so familiar to
     experts in traumatic stress. The immediate aftermath of the Exxon
     Valdez oil spill provides that unsettling insight. In March 1989, the
     Exxon Valdez poured over a quarter of a million barrels of crude oil into
     Alaska's Prince William Sound,
killing innumerable fish, seals, sea birds, otters and whales and destroying
     the livelihoods of native Aleut and non-native fishing communities. In
     their study of community residents, Palinkas, Downs, Patterson and
     Russell (1993)
find that native Aleuts were over twice as likely to have experienced PTSD
     and generalized anxiety disorder than were the non-natives because
     the natural resources destroyed by the oil spill are more than just an
     economic commodity to them—they are the crux of Aleut identity, social
     organization and ideology, and are the symbols through which native
                                                                  Jump to first page
     culture is transmitted to future generations.
   Finally, it is important to consider another cultural failure,
    this one so systemic that it is most descriptively termed
    cultural disintegration. As Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia and
    other places around the world tragically reveal, civil wars,
    ethnic cleansings, revolutions and mass expulsions and
    exoduses disarticulate cultural systems and reduce them
    to meaningless customs, pointless rituals and vague
    collective memories. As deVries (1996) points out, the
    disintegration of culture inevitably gives rise to fierce
    nationalism, tribalism and fundamentalism, all regressive
    forces that act to "release individuals behaviorally and
   from an intolerable complexity that cannot be managed or
    used in a more productive way" (p. 407). When culture no
    longer can provide identity and meaning, it is these kinds
    of regressive forces that rush in to fill the vacuum.

                                                     Jump to first page

   Although much yet needs to be learned about cultural
    disintegration and its repercussion on individuals, deVries
    (1996) offers some interesting, albeit disturbing, insights.
    He suggests that when culture disintegrates, the
    individual's problems will be proportional to it, with the
    avenues of personal vulnerability following the routes
    vacated by the culture. Thus, "paranoia
   substitutes for trust; aggression replaces nurturance and
    support; identity confusion or a negative identity substitutes
    for a positive identity" (p. 408). While this hypothesis does
    not seem to bode well for too many people around the
    world today, history also shows that once the collective
    traumatic event recedes or ends completely, people almost
    always reconstruct on the remnants of the culture upon
    which they had been so dependent.

                                                    Jump to first page
Culture and the Resolution of Trauma

Culture not only functions to buffer its members from the devastating
   impact of collective trauma, but it also provides the devices that
   facilitate the process of healing. One such device is ritual. The
   interest of sociologists and Anthropologists in the function and
   structure of ritual is well detailed in their respective literatures
   which describe ritual as a process that shapes the
expression of emotion, guides behavior, and offers meaning and
   closure even while it strengthens the link of the individual to the
   social group and to the culture at large (Durkheim, 1961; Turner,
   1967). For traumatized individuals whose emotions may be labile
   and behavior immoderate, who have an existential need for
   meaning and sense, and whose bonds with others and with
the culture may have been torn, ritual can play an integral role in

                                                             Jump to first page
Research on racial minority veterans of the Vietnam War provide that insight.
   Parson (1985) was one of the first to call attention to the "tripartic
   adaptational dilemma" of minority veterans who must come to terms with
   their bicultural identity, confront institutional racism, and work through the
   traumatic echoes of the war. For African-American veterans he advocates
   the use of "post-traumatic psychocultural therapy" (PTpsyCT) that
   focuses on each prong of his adaptational dilemma and even historicizes
   institutional racism by addressing the experience and legacy of slavery.
For American Indian veterans, participation in cultural rituals provides a
   helpful adjunct to more traditional psychotherapy. One such Navajo ritual,
   the Enemy Way, lasts for seven days and involves family, clan and
   community members in a ceremony that restores harmony, balance and
   connection to the traumatized Navajo veteran. As Manson et al. (1990)
   explain, the greatest
relevance of such culturally specific healing practices lies in their meaning-
   making function--they make sense of the traumatic event and the
   individual's responses to it through the use of familiar cultural symbols
   and activities, and by reference to the cultural belief system and world

                                                                 Jump to first page

   An insight into the psychological consequences of the failure to enact
    cultural rituals during and after a collective traumatic event is provided
    by research on refugee groups. Here, the concept of "cultural
    bereavement" is important to appreciate. Eisenbruch (1991), who
    coined the term, describes cultural bereavement as the experience of
    the uprooted person or group resulting from
   loss of social structures, cultural values and self-identity (p. 674). His
    own work with Cambodian refugees shows that those who sought
    refuge in the United States tend to have more persistent post-traumatic
    symptomatology than those who fled to Australia where there is less
    pressure to conform and assimilate, and more tolerance for the
    performance of cultural rituals that
   serve to heal the psychic wounds of civil war and geographic

                                                               Jump to first page
   Cultural bereavement is observed in other refugee
    groups as well. Harrell-Bond and Wilson (1990) find that
    many who fled the civil war in Mozambique are unable to
    work through the trauma of displacement because they
    continue to feel haunted by the spirits of dead relatives
    for whom they had not been able to carry out culturally
    prescribed burial rituals. For the Beta Israel, as
   Ethiopian Jews prefer to be called, rituals associated
    with the land are at the heart of their culture. Their recent
    emigration to Israel deprived them of land ownership and
    thus rendered meaningless the rituals that engender
    their social cohesion and reaffirm their cultural identity.
    Schindler (1993) notes the attenuated grief and
    mourning of the Beta Israel emigres even several years
    after their dramatic air lift into Israel, and attributes it to
    the loss of these unifying and identifying rituals.

                                                    Jump to first page

   It is also important to consider the plight of those who, because of the
    marginalizing effects of prejudice, itself a chronic collective trauma,
    are routinely and systematically denied access to and participation in
    the restorative rituals, roles and practices of the larger White culture.
    Penck and Allen (1991), for example, find a higher and more
    persistent rate of PTSD
   among African-American Vietnam War veterans which they attribute,
    in large part, to the marginalizing effects of chronic racism. Loo (1994)
    finds the same for Asian-American veterans and theorizes that their
    marginalization upon return to the United States systematically
    excludes them from the cultural rituals and roles that will aid in their
    healing. War is not the only collective trauma that reveals this insight.
    In their study of the survivors of the savage Buffalo Creek flood,
    Green, Lindy, Grace and Glessner (1990) conclude that the one of
    the variables that explains the late onset of PTSD in African-American
    survivors is the resurfacing of "the usual prejudicial attitudes" (p. 57)
    that work to keep them from full participation in the restorative rituals
    and roles that a decade after the flood had served White survivors
    quite well.

                                                             Jump to first page

   The AIDS epidemic is a collective trauma, as Erickson defines it, and to
    date has taken more lives than were lost fighting the war in Vietnam. The
    patchwork quilt that commemorates in individual three by six foot panels
    just a fraction of those who died increases in size with the losses from
    the epidemic; now so large, it barely can be experienced all at once. But
    when it is, culture is recreated. Rituals have emerged from the showings
    of this cultural artifact (Hawkins, 1993). The wearing of white clothing by
    those who first unfolded the panels for display over a decade ago, a
    purely functional choice so as to distinguish them from the viewers, now
    is a tradition invested with symbolic significance. The process of folding
    and unfolding the panels, the reading of
   the names, the singing of the hymn "Amazing Grace," and the candlelight
    procession of viewers representing the spectrum of religion, race,
    economic class and sexual orientation, but brought together by loss, are
    testimony to the centripetal force of collective trauma.

                                                             Jump to first page
   In the wake of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building
    in Oklahoma City, the centripetal force of collective trauma
    also is observed. The sheer horror of the event, the
    violence of the deaths of ordinary people performing
    routine, everyday functions, carry a message "that death
    can occur arbitrarily and unfairly. . .and suggests severe
    limits to our cultural promise of safety and
   control" (Haney, Leimer & Lowery, 1997, p. 169). In the
    face of this type of devastating event, the emotional
    response of even those not directly affected is so
    overwhelming, and the cultural stock of knowledge so
    inadequate to explain and offer meaning, that traditional
    cultural death rituals lose their usefulness and can feel
    empty and meaningless.

                                                   Jump to first page
   One response to their inadequacy is the creation of what
    Haney, Leimer and Lowery (1994, p. 161) refer to as
    "spontaneous memorials," that is, the collection of
    mementos, usually of a symbolic nature, that people
    bring to and leave at the site of the collective traumatic
    event. The wire mesh fence surrounding the area where
    the Murrah Federal Building once stood is covered
   with flowers, hand-made signs, toys, letters and poems,
    and other mementos, and even now, three years after
    the event, is still a site of pilgrimage. But it is also the site
    of the recreation of culture. The spontaneous memorial
    represents people's efforts to create a new, meaningful
    and public ritual that acknowledges the grief and fear of
    the larger community, lifts constraints on the duration of
    mourning and the expression of emotion, and offers the
    role of mourner to anyone who participates.

                                                      Jump to first page
   This article examined collective traumas around the
    world for the insights they provide about the role that
    culture plays in shaping the experience of collective
    trauma, and in facilitating recovery from these
    unexpected ruptures in social life. Since it was
    Erickson's work that inspired this "research errand," it
    is his conclusion that can be cited to best summarize
    the insights this paper has uncovered: "The
    experience of trauma, at its worst, can mean not only
    a loss of confidence in the self but a loss of confidence
    in the scaffolding of family and community, in the
    structures of human government, in the larger logics
    by which humankind lives, and in the ways of nature
    itself" (p. 242).

                                                 Jump to first page

To top