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Can Historians Be Traumatized by History?

Their secondhand experience of past horrors can debilitate them.

Armenian-genocide by Worlds Direction,This work has been marked as dedicated to the public domain.

In 1997, the historian Iris Chang published her important, incendiary book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. It was a vital work of salvage, resurrecting for a new generation the half-forgotten savagery unleashed on Chinese citizens by the Japanese Imperial Army during its march across Republican China in 1937. An unmatched researcher and unyielding advocate, always elegantly besuited, Chang was embraced by many Chinese and Chinese-Americans who hadn’t known much more about the slaughter at Nanking than what they heard as family lore. For them, Chang’s devotion to unearthing buried memory was redemptive, and they elevated her into a kind of oracle.

Perhaps surprisingly, Chang’s efforts resonated far beyond the people whose lives had been directly touched by the soldiers’ crimes; The Rape of Nanking became a bestseller in the United States. Filled with exhaustive depictions of the most depraved forms of cruelty ever enacted, it seemed an unlikely hit. Consider the following account of the Imperial Army’s sexual violence, representative but hardly the most shocking:

Perhaps one of the most brutal forms of Japanese entertainment was the impalement of vaginas. In the streets of Nanking, corpses of women lay with their legs splayed open, their orifices pierced by wooden rods, twigs, and weeds.… [One] Japanese soldier who raped a young woman thrust a beer bottle into her and shot her. Another rape victim was found with a golf stick rammed into her.… Little girls were raped so brutally that some could not walk for weeks afterwards. Many required surgery; others died.… In some cases, the Japanese sliced open the vaginas of preteen girls in order to ravish them more effectively.

To write the book, Chang had suspended herself for years in the ruins of 1930s Manchuria, a far cry from mild Sunnyvale, California, where she lived. Her approach was rigorous to the point of obsession. She considered every artifact, no matter how mundane or horrible, necessary evidence: the statement of the trembling witness, the matter-of-fact diplomatic cable, confessions, diaries, reels of film, photographs all the grimmer for having no color, scholarly accounts, the deadening data of death tolls. Most important were the interviews Chang (who trained as a journalist) conducted with living survivors, some of whom still bore scars or limps. “I spent several hours with each one, getting the details of their experiences on videotape,” Chang explained of her method. “Some became overwrought with emotion during the interviews and broke down into tears.”

Everything Chang documented she had to review; ponder; return to throughout the stages of writing, editing, and proofing; and finally talk about, in the hundreds of lectures she gave across the world. It became, Chang admitted, “almost impossible to separate myself from the tragedy.… The stress of writing this book and living with this horror on a daily basis caused my weight to plummet. I had to write it, if it was the last thing I ever did in my life.” That she had previously struggled with depression did not make it easier. Her mother, Ying-Ying Chang, observed her daughter’s despair: “Iris told us that the most difficult thing was to read one case after another of the atrocities…. She read hundreds of such cases. She felt numb after a while. She told me she sometimes had to get up and away from the documents to take a deep breath. She felt suffocated and in pain.”

Seven years after The Rape of Nanking appeared, Chang was recording the stories of Filipinos and Americans who had endured another Japanese war crime, the 1942 Bataan Death March. Several months into the research, on a November morning in 2004, she left her sleeping husband and child at home, drove west into the oaky hills of Santa Clara County, and, on a lonely gravel road, shot herself. She was 36 years old.

The phenomenon of the historian traumatized by history remains unstudied and is not widely known. Yet anyone who has documented depravity knows the symptoms. After writing a book on the Armenian Genocide, a process that took me five years, I found it impossible to slip comfortably into sleep. All kinds of catastrophes visited me—still visit me—in that space before dreams: ugly visions, jarring scenes from my research. And I am not alone. In several extensive interviews I conducted with historians working across different subjects, and in the responses to a questionnaire I distributed to a dozen scholars (most of whom were reluctant to speak publicly about these most personal experiences), I discovered a reservoir of pain that reveals itself through symptoms familiar to anyone diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder: insomnia, rapid weight gain or loss, abuse of booze or pills, unexplainable anger or fear, paralyzing anxieties. Some reactions are more subtle: the sudden unwillingness to watch a particular film or read graphic news reports; claustrophobia in a crowd.

Traditionally, we’ve supposed that these kinds of reactions would afflict only firsthand witnesses to violence: the victims, the bystanders, maybe the journalists. And we are blessed with a rich literature of witness; every mass traumatic event has its own set of survivors elevated by personal experience into authorities. Historians, by contrast, have neither seen nor heard the catastrophes they study—they’ve reached them through imagination and immersion.

Can you be traumatized by something experienced only secondhand? According to a psychoanalytic framework, trauma is a shock so overwhelming that it cannot be mentally processed. It shreds our psychic defenses, compromising our customs, ideologies, religious beliefs, moral systems, rituals, close relationships, even the body itself. When stripped of its organizational protection, the mind struggles to assimilate things that would otherwise seem normal, futilely trying to make sense of that which it finds incomprehensible. All kinds of destructive and alienating behaviors result.

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As first responders to and theorizers of trauma, psychotherapists and other mental health professionals are dangerously close to the sources of the pain they treat. The first hint that therapists might become traumatized by close interaction with their patients was raised by Chaim Shatan, a clinician-activist who worked closely with veterans ravaged by the Vietnam War. “We should be forewarned,” he wrote in an influential 1973 article. “We, too, may have nightmares; we, too, may be unable to sleep, unable to talk normally to other people for days or weeks. Once we professionals admit the knowledge of the veterans into our awareness, we are changed in fundamental ways.” In 1995, the clinical psychologists Karen Saakvitne and Laurie Anne Pearlman gave a name to the disorder Shatan identified: “vicarious trauma.”

Only in recent decades have psychotherapists sketched the borders between vicarious trauma and the more well-known problems of “burnout” and “compassion fatigue,” which constitute a sympathetic identification with a traumatized person. Such reactions can be repaired by sleep, exercise, a holiday, the company of loved ones. Vicarious traumas, by contrast, cut much deeper than emotional exhaustion, and are not so easily healed. The therapists are not subject to that moment of terror, but they feel it as though they had been. They become infected, as it were, as horrors are psychologically transmitted from one person to another.

Crucial to the process of vicarious traumatization is imagination, the engine of empathy and “the best guide,” in the words of the psychoanalyst Ghislaine Boulanger, “to entering experience that is beyond recognition.” For historians, documenting the past without imagination is impossible. It is the key to re-creating the ambience of other lives and the method by which scholars probe alternative futures. In his posthumous 1946 work, The Idea of History, R.G. Collingwood insisted imagination was the historian’s chief tool. Hannah Arendt called it an “inner compass,” a way to “catch a glimpse of the always frightening light of truth.”