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09/12/2014 12:23 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2014

Review Essay: Out There by Sarah Stark

Deployed in Iraq in 2008, Navy psychiatrist Russell Carr searched the internet for psychoanalytic literature that would help him understand and reach the experiences of traumatized soldiers, and he came upon my book, Trauma and Human Existence (Stolorow, 2007).

In an article that Carr (2011) subsequently wrote, he describes how his encounter with my ideas fundamentally transformed his approach to combat-related trauma: "In my remaining months in Iraq, I read Stolorow's book repeatedly, carrying it with me as I traveled between forward operating bases and outposts" (p. 474). In addition to supplying him with guiding ideas, the book seemed to provide him with what psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott calls a transitional object, a symbolic blanket of comfort, as Sarah Stark calls such objects in the novel under review.

When Sarah Stark learned of my work on emotional trauma, she contacted me to see whether I might be interested in reviewing Out There, which she described as "the story of mostly-Native Jefferson Long Soldier returning home to New Mexico after two tours of duty in Iraq. Believing that the novel he carried with him (One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez) saved his life, Jefferson borrows his cousin's motorcycle and rides to Mexico City to find the great writer." The remarkable parallel between Carr's use of my book and Jefferson's use of Marquez's book, both in the context of combat-related trauma suffered in Iraq, intrigued me, so I accepted the assignment. I anticipated that Stark's novel might contain rich and valuable descriptions of the experience of combat-related trauma, and I was not disappointed.

In my book I contend that the essence of emotional trauma lies in the shattering of what I call the absolutisms of everyday life:

"When a person says to a friend, 'I'll see you later,' or a parent says to a child at bedtime, 'I'll see you in the morning,' these are statements, like delusions, whose validity is not open for discussion. Such absolutisms are the basis for a kind of naive realism and optimism that allow one to function in the world, experienced as stable and predictable. It is in the essence of emotional trauma that it shatters these absolutisms, a catastrophic loss of innocence that permanently alters one's sense of being-in-the-world. Massive deconstruction of the absolutisms of everyday life exposes the inescapable contingency of existence on a universe that is random and unpredictable and in which no safety or continuity of being can be assured." (Stolorow, 2007, p. 16)

Stark evocatively captures this profound and pervasive sense of endangerment and existential vulnerability in the novel's second paragraph, describing Jefferson's experience of reentry at the Albuquerque airport:

"It was not a matter of hoping it was safe out. It was not a matter of being careful or identifying the exit signs or saying his prayers or dodging bullets. There were definitely snipers in the airport, explosive tumbleweeds on the highway, insurgents in stolen minivans, undercover extremists buying lattes in front of him and single mothers wired for explosives behind. A whole non-war-zone world on the brink of apocalypse."

A second essential characteristic of emotional trauma is the profound sense of isolation and aloneness that inevitably accompanies it:

"[T]he traumatized person cannot help but perceive aspects of existence that lie well outside the absolutized horizons of normal everydayness. It is in this sense that the worlds of traumatized persons are felt to be fundamentally incommensurable with those of others, the deep chasm in which an anguished sense of estrangement and solitude takes form." (Stolorow, 2007, p. 16)

This sense of alienation from the everyday world is captured in a line that Jefferson borrowed from the Marquez novel (which Jefferson continued to carry with him, his "blanket of comfort," hidden under his shirt), uttered by a soldier when he was asked where he had been upon returning home from 20 years of civil war: "Out there, an incomprehensible faraway place. As in, You cannot understand where I have been." Jefferson often chants these words, especially when he feels misunderstood, and they of course became the basis for the title of Stark's novel. He began chanting lines from Marquez's novel in response the first of 41 deaths of comrades that he witnessed at close range.

A third essential characteristic is trauma's impact on the experience of time or temporality. Trauma devastatingly disrupts the linearity of ordinary, everyday temporality, the sense of stretching-along from the past to an open future:

"Experiences of emotional trauma become freeze-framed into an eternal present in which one remains forever trapped, or to which one is condemned to be perpetually returned ... by life's slings and arrows.... In the region of trauma all duration or stretching along collapses, past becomes present, and future loses all meaning other than endless repetition." (Stolorow, 2007, p. 20)

"Because trauma so profoundly modifies the universal or shared structure of temporality, the traumatized person quite literally lives in another kind of reality, an experiential world felt to be incommensurable with those of others.... This felt incommensurability, in turn, contributes to the sense of alienation and estrangement from other human beings that typically haunts the traumatized person. Torn from the communal fabric of being-in-time, trauma remains insulated from human dialogue." (p. 20)

Stark's second chapter gives a brief but compelling description of Jefferson's traumatic temporality: Although his body was unscathed, "some large, unidentified piece of his spirit--he didn't know where it was, or how long it had been missing--had remained behind." And later, in chapter 7, "Now that he was home, he feared that time was not passing...." The unspeakable horrors of combat had been seared into his being.

The agonizing sense of estrangement experienced by traumatized persons spawns a longing for what I (Stolorow, 2007) call a sibling in the same darkness -- for a bond of existential kinship with another traumatized soul who knows the experience of having one's emotional world shattered and who thereby can be a context of emotional understanding.

Jefferson found this kinship-in-darkness in a character in Marquez's novel and in Marquez himself, just as I believe Russell Carr found it in me, for I had used my own experience of a traumatic loss as the principal "clinical" example in the book he carried with him in Iraq. Jefferson longs to be with his savior, the writer who understands his life.

When Jefferson feels grossly misunderstood by a VA psychiatrist during his sole appointment with her, he decides to embark upon a quest to find his brother-in-darkness, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The remainder of the book is in large part devoted to the vicissitudes of this quest, his adventures punctuated by memories of combat traumas and losses, accompanied by the chanting of lines from Marquez's novel. "A day without sad tears is a good reason for journeying," he chants while making his way.

The book ends with Jefferson's poem and tribute, "Out There," an experiential collage composed by Jefferson during his journey, which, when he finds Marquez, he chants to him while telling his story of trauma. Being a work of fiction, the novel has a happy ending, with Jefferson returning home miraculously healed.

I am grateful to Sarah Stark for writing a novel that so beautifully and grippingly illustrates the essential features of emotional trauma.

References

Carr, R. B. (2011). Combat and human existence: Toward an intersubjective approach to combat-related PTSD. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 28(4), 471-496.

Stolorow, R. D. (2007). Trauma and Human Existence: Autobiographical, Psychoanalytic, and Philosophical Reflections. New York: Routledge.