Can Historians Be Traumatized by History?
It is bad advice to say that politics, sex, and religion ought to be kept out of polite conversation, but nobody wants you to bring up a genocide at a dinner party. “The extent to which my research is ‘dark’ and therefore not polite dinner conversation means I’m repeatedly isolated in piecing through the material,” Elena Gallina, a Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford and researcher of sexual violence in wartime, told me. The burden of the work, of “sitting with the facts and figures,” as Gallina put it, “is made heavier by societal distaste for these things.” Where is the historian to go with her condition? It’s difficult to raise the problem over coffee, at faculty meetings, with students or publishers. Other disciplines have found ways, however insufficient, of containing and treating vicarious trauma. Psychotherapists are obliged to undergo supervision, where they discuss their clients; they may choose to see their own therapist. Social or medical workers can have their mental needs tended by their institutions.
But there is little recourse for the historian—beyond whatever mental health care they are eligible for at their institutions—in part because their trauma is so specific and so little understood, and their bosses and administrators are unlikely to offer comforting shoulders. Awareness of vicarious trauma, however, is growing in other related fields. A 2003 study revealed, for instance, that lawyers who work with criminal defendants or victims of domestic violence suffer secondary trauma and burnout at significantly higher rates than those who provide other “frontline” services. And in a world first, a state court in Australia awarded 180,000 Australian dollars in damages to a journalist who broke down after she spent 10 years reporting on court cases dealing with violent crime. Her employers, the court found, had breached their “duty of care to staff” by not providing her with any psychiatric support.
At worst, historians’ confessions of mental anguish are met with dismissal: Edward Gibbon wasn’t vicariously traumatized by writing The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—so what are you, weak? In countries with privatized health care systems, scholars openly discussing their traumas might risk not receiving care, not being granted insurance, or compromising the professional networks they belong to, which depend on mutually enforced silence. “This spells the end of our professional pseudo-neutrality,” the clinician Chaim Shatan warned when first identifying the syndrome that would later be called vicarious trauma, “a departure from our long-cherished tradition of emotional imperturbability.”
Many historians, especially those working in academia, are taught that neutrality in all things is a first principle never to be violated. Some historians criticized Iris Chang, for example, for getting too close to her subject, for being too emotionally open to the material. But the cool, analytical distance the discipline recommends can very easily slip into dissociation, to too much distance—a way to ward off the possibility of vicarious trauma. Dissociation, as the psychoanalyst Richard Gartner writes, is usually “maladaptive, developing into an individual’s go-to defense against feelings of anxiety.” It leaves people “with only a partial understanding” of whatever they’re trying to make sense of. The balance between objective detachment and empathetic understanding—both essential for the practice of history—can be very difficult to attain.