Art Paper on Literary Depiction of Post-Memory Trauma

Trauma is one of the most common and ubiquitous psychological issues in the world. Trauma is an emotional reaction to any stressful or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope with the event. There are numerous forms of trauma as people respond differently to different stressful experiences. The severity of a stressful or disturbing event that an individual experience determines the type of trauma one suffers from. Forms of trauma range from mild forms such as anxiety and depression to severe forms such as post-traumatic disorder (PTSD) and post-memory trauma. Highly disturbing or grotesque experiences lead to the development of post-memory trauma which is inter-generational in nature therefore the trauma is passed on from traumatic individuals to their children. Memories of severely traumatic events live on to shape and define the lives of individuals who were not there to experience them through the sharing of grotesque post-memories, stories, and pictures of the traumatic events.

Marianne Hirsch, a professor of comparative literature and gender studies, coined the term post-memory trauma. In her book The Generation of Post-memory Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, Hirsch sheds light on the concept of post-memory trauma. Post-memory refers to the relationship that one generation bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of their preceding generation to experiences they are only aware of through stories, images, and behaviors passed down from the preceding generation (Hirsch p. 24). Hirsch argues that children of survivors and their contemporaries inherit grotesque and disturbing histories not through their personal recollection but through haunting post-memories that trickle down from the stories, images, and objects of the actual survivors (Hirsch, p. 32). Post-memory trauma is always transmitted so deep into the collective psyche of the later generations of trauma survivors that they form part of the later generations’ memories. Inherited memories that constitute post-memory trauma puts at risk the collective life story of an entire generation as their perspective in life is marred by traumatic events their ancestors endured.

There are several books based on the life-impacting effects of post-memories trauma. Most of the books based on post-memories trauma canvass major traumatic events in world history such as the World Wars and the Holocaust. The literary texts whose plots or character development are based on the concept of post-memory trauma tend to reanimate the past creatively without appropriating or distorting it (Hirsch p. 78). Art Spiegelman’s comic book Maus: A Survivor’s Tale and Chang-Rae Lee’s novel A Gesture Life are two good examples of literature books based on the psychological concept of post-memory trauma. The two books both rely on the concept of post-memory trauma in their character development and plot.

Doc. Hata from Chang-Lee’s novel A Gesture Life and Vladek Spiegelman from Art Spiegelman’s comic book A Survivor’s Tale, both experienced trauma during the Second World War. According to the comic, A Survivor’s Tale, Vladek Spiegelman is a Polish Jew who suffers several traumatic events during the Second World War. Before the Second World War Vladek Spiegelman was a businessman involved in the trade of textiles in Poland (Spiegelman, p. 25). According to (Spiegelman, p. 27), Vladek had a relatively active social life as he dated two women before eventually settling on marrying, Anja, who came from a rich family. Soon after their marriage, Vladek got sponsored by his rich father in law to open a textile factory. His successful life story is however cut short when Hitler’s Germany declares war on Poland in 1939. Vladek gets conscripted in the army and within a short period of training is deemed battle-ready and sent to the battlefront (Spiegelman, p. 139). During a short stint at the battlefront, Vladek kills an opposing soldier and is soon captured by the Germans as a prisoner of war. Vladek is subjected to horrendous torture as a German prisoner of war but is however later released after months in prison. During his imprisonment Vladek narrates his worry and concern for her wife whom he had left all alone in their home town of Sosnowiec (Spiegelman, p. 147). After his return and reunion with his wife, Anja, Vladek hears news of the anti-Semitism sentiments being spewed by the Nazis and the local Poland Catholic faithful. Alarmed, he convinces his wife to send their only son, Richieu, born while Vladek was in prison, to live with his aunt Tosha in a different ghetto far from theirs.

Soon after, the Nazis begin their mop-up of the Jews. The Nazis confiscate businesses owned by the Jews and round up all the Polish Jews for transportation to extermination camps. When Tosha hears of the Nazi’s arrival in her ghetto she gives both her children and Richieu poison before taking her own life too to avoid being sent to the concentration camps (Spiegelman, p. 178). On hearing the news of their son’s death the Spiegelmans are devastated and traumatized and plan to escape Poland. In a bid to escape Poland Vladek organizes for their, both Vladek and Anja, smuggling out of Poland by a group of black market associates he knew during his earlier days as a textile businessman. However, during their escape from Poland one of Vladek’s former associates in the black market business rats them out to local Nazi officials and they are arrested (Spiegelman, p. 181). Vladek is taken to Auschwitz where the Jews are being exterminated while his wife is taken to a nearby concentration camp Birkenau. Vladek is subjected to torture and inhumane treatment during his first days in Auschwitz. Things, however, change when he makes friends with one of the German guards whom he offers to teach English in return for special treatments and favors. Vladek is later released when the Russian forces overrun their camp and he reunites with a similarly traumatized Anja.

Doc Hata is conscripted into the Japanese army upon the onset of the Second World War and is given the name Lieutenant Kurohata. In the army Lieutenant Kurohata is made in charge of the comfort women, sex slaves, tasked with maintaining the morale of the Japanese male soldiers. Doc. Hata soon identifies a Korean woman, Kkutaeh, who is both beautiful and complicated and falls in love with her. To protect her from being abused by the other soldiers Kurohata hides Kkutaeh in a special room. One night, Lieutenant Kurohata consummates her love for Kkutaeh but upon completing his act realizes that Kkutaeh did not consent to his actions (Lee, p. 178). Lieutenant Kurohata leaves Kkutaeh’s room feeling guilty but consoles himself by saying that at least he did the act at night (Lee, p. 179). Later, one of the superior officers of the Japanese army Captain Ono notices Kurohata. Captain Ono invites Kkutaeh to his room and proceeds to force herself on her. This action infuriates Kkutaeh who picks Captain Ono’s gun in a moment of rage and fatally shoots him. Lieutenant Kurohata is the first to reach the scene and Kurohata confesses shooting Captain Ono to him and asks Lieutenant Kurohata to shoot her. In a surprising show of faith, Lieutenant Kurohata decides against killing her with the hope that they will all outlive the war and get married (Lee, p. 213). Later Kurohata is revealed to be the murder of Captain Ono and is fatally raped by forty Japanese soldiers. This traumatic event is witnessed by Lieutenant Kurohata who becomes extremely traumatized.

Art Spiegelman and Sunny who are both children of Vladek Spiegelman and Doc Hata respectively suffer from post-memory trauma. Art Spiegelman, the son of Vladek Spiegelman, for the purpose of writing the comic book, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, asks his father to narrate his life story. The comic book later becomes a major success making Art rich in the process and this disturbs him psychologically. Art becomes guilty about making a success out of a comic book based on a story and experience that he did not undergo (Spiegelman, p. 152). He therefore, seeks the help of a psychologist, Pavel, who is also a Holocaust survivor for psychological therapeutic interventions. Art Spiegelman’s post-memory trauma is well evident in his frosty relationship with his father Vladek. Art at first hates his father and calls him a murder when he learns that Vladek burnt his dead mother’s diary about the holocaust (Spiegelman, p. 225). Through the help of his psychologist, Pavel, and the numerous interactive sessions and conversations with his father Art recovers from his post-memory trauma issues.

Sunny is the adopted daughter of Doc. Hata who grows quite disillusioned with his father’s erratic behavior. Sunny quickly notices his father’s strange behavior of always trying too hard to fit in and grows resentful of him. According to Lee (p. 134), Sunny observes that with their fancy big house, store and all Doc. Hata makes a whole life out of gestures and politeness (Lee, p. 154). Sunny develops post-memory trauma from the withdrawn, cold and reserved actions of Doc. Hata and becomes undisciplined and delinquent. She moves out of his father’s palatial home and moves in with a gang of thugs. Sunny gets herself pregnant and Doc. Hata forces her to commit an abortion. This makes Sunny quite mad of her dad and her disciplinary issue worsens as a result. After the abortion, she permanently moves out of Doc. Hata’s house to live with his boyfriend a member of a local gang. During one of the brawls Sunny witnesses, a murder committed by a member of his boyfriend’s gang and this draws the attention of the police to her. Doc. Hata however, uses his influence with the local police to ensure that Sunny remains free. After several years Doc. Hata traces Sunny, now a mother with a son, to explain his withdrawn behavior. He apologizes and asks to be allowed to raise his grandson. In the end, both father and daughter share their experiences to deal with their different forms of trauma.

Post-memory trauma is a genuine form of trauma that affects the children of trauma survivors. By sharing details about the traumatic events that they survived, parents pass on their trauma unknowingly to their children. Post-memory trauma though found mostly in literary texts affects numerous kids and generations of trauma survivors thus affecting their unique life stories and perspectives.



Works Cited

Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust. Columbia University Press, 2012.,

Lee, Chang-Rae. A gesture life. Granta Books, 2001.,

Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A survivor’s tale. Vol. 2. Pantheon, 1991.,