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 an event. There are several trauma types associated with the diverse range of emotional reactions in human beings. The severity of a stressful or disturbing event experienced by an individual determines the type of trauma they undergo. The several types 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 experiences lead to the development of post-memory trauma, which is inter-generational in nature. Therefore post-memory trauma is passed on from traumatic individuals to their children. Through the sharing of post-memories, stories, and pictures of the traumatic events memories of severely traumatizing events shape and define the lives of individuals who were not there to experience them. Post-memory trauma is passed on from one generation to another, and hence, if not properly managed, it can ruin the perspectives, behavior, and life stories of younger generations.
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 and collective trauma of their preceding generation to experiences learned through stories and behaviors passed down from the preceding generation (Hirsch 24). Hirsch argues that survivor’s children 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 survivors (Hirsch, 32). Post-memory trauma forms part of the younger generations’ memories as the traumatic events are transmitted into the collective psyche of the latter generations of trauma survivors. The collective life story of an entire generation is put at risk by the inherited memories that constitute post-memory trauma.
The myriad impacts of post-memory trauma are documented in detail in most literary and psychology works. Most of the literary 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 78). Art Spiegelman’s comic book, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, and Chang-Rae Lee’s novel, A Gesture Life, are examples of literature books based on the psychological concept of post-memory trauma. The books rely on the concept of post-memory trauma in their character development and plot. Doc. Hata, a character in Chang-Lee’s novel, and Vladek Spiegelman, a character in Art Spiegelman’s comic book, both experienced trauma during the Second World War. According to 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 25). According to Spiegelman, Vladek had a relatively active social life as he dated two women before eventually settling down with Anja, a girl from a rich family (27). Soon after their marriage, Vladek was sponsored by his rich father-in-law to open a textile factory. However, his successful life story is cut short when Hitler’s Germany declares war on Poland in 1939.
Vladek is conscripted in the army and within a short spell of training, he is deemed battle-ready and sent to the battlefront (Spiegelman 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. He is, however, later released after months in prison. During his imprisonment Vladek narrates his worry and concern for his wife whom he had left all alone in their home town of Sosnowiec (Spiegelman 147). After his return and reunion with his wife, 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 to avoid being sent to the concentration camps (Spiegelman 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 to be smuggled out of Poland together with his wife 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 181). Vladek is taken to Auschwitz where the Jews were being exterminated while his wife was 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 put 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; he 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 has sex with Kkutaeh. However, upon completing his act, he realizes that Kkutaeh did not consent to his actions (Lee 178). Lieutenant Kurohata leaves Kkutaeh’s room feeling guilty but consoles himself by asserting that at least he did the act at night (Lee 179). Later, one of the superior officers of the Japanese army, Captain Ono, notices Kurohata. Captain Ono invites Kkutaeh to his room and forces himself 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 to shooting Captain Ono to him and asks him to shoot her. In a surprising show of faith, Lieutenant Kurohata decides against killing her with the hope that they would both outlive the war and get married (Lee 213). Later, Kurohata is identified as the murderer of Captain Ono and is fatally raped by forty Japanese soldiers. This 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 his comic book, 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 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. At first, he hates his father and calls him a murderer when he learns that Vladek burnt his dead mother’s diary about the holocaust (Spiegelman 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. She grows quite disillusioned with her father’s erratic behavior. Sunny quickly notices his father’s strange behavior of trying too hard to fit in, and she becomes resentful of him. According to Lee, Sunny observes that through their fancy big house, Doc. Hata makes a whole life out of gestures and politeness (Lee 154). Sunny develops post-memory trauma from the withdrawn, cold, and reserved actions of Doc. Hata. She becomes undisciplined and delinquent. She moves out of her father’s palatial home and moves in with a gang of thugs. Sunny gets pregnant, and Doc. Hata forces her to commit an abortion. This makes Sunny quite irritated at 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 her boyfriend, a member of a local gang. During a brawl, Sunny witnesses a murder committed by a member of her boyfriend’s gang, and this draws the attention of the police to her. Doc. Hata, however, uses his influence with the local police to free Sunny. 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 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 various young generations of trauma survivors thus affecting their unique life stories and perspectives.
Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Post memory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust. Columbia University Press, 2012. https://b-ok.cc/book/5207217/dc5c1f
Lee, Chang-Rae. A gesture life. Granta Books, 2001. https://b-ok.cc/book/3768719/a73bc3
Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A survivor’s tale. Vol. 2. Pantheon, 1991. https://b-ok.cc/book/1172334/1b3e06