Psychohistory: The Terrible Beauty of the Confluence of History and Psychology
Lyn Williams-Keeler, M.A.
Royal Ottawa Hospital
Ottawa, Ontario Canada

In the introduction to the first printing of his book about the tribulations of Vietnam veterans, Home From The War, Robert Jay Lifton, perhaps inadvertently and certainly personally, defined "psychohistory" (Lifton, 1973). In discussing the previous eighteen years of his "psychological investigations of historical issues", he ruminates that his endeavour "halfway along, came to be known as psychohistory." At about this same time, in the early seventies, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a writer of personal and impassioned history of contemporary Soviet studies, allowed his GULAG Archipelago to be released in the West. The subtitle to his comprehensive study of hundreds of inmates of the repressive Soviet penal system is An Experiment in Literary Investigation. Both authors, the latter seeking to record an indelible truth of suffering in history and the former attempting to explore a "trinity of psychobiological universals" (including guilt and cultural determinations interwoven with contemporary historical elements), deal with the larger theme of psychohistory:-the psychological impact of being exposed to a trauma precipitated by being in a place and time of historical significance.

The study of psychohistory is, however, a discomforting business at best. Lifton refers to one reason for this when he underlines the need for what he refers to as "articulated subjectivity" in the psychohistorian, or the deliberate intrusion of the investigator in an empathetic role in working with participants (Fontana et al. would add "agents, targets and witnesses" [Fontana et al., 1992]) in a traumatic event in history. Charles Figley would later name this sometimes overwhelming subjective response to stories of horror, terror and helplessness as "Compassion Fatigue" and he has written of his strong sense that the most empathetic therapists are the most vulnerable to compassion stress (Figley, 1995). Solzhenitsyn adds another uncomfortable rigour for such studies of the confluence of trauma with history, with his insistence on the cleansing ritual of revealing as much of the truth about the rationale, imposition and impact of suffering, as possible. His dedication to his monumental work on the GULAG reads

      I dedicate this

      to all those who did not live to tell it.

      And may they please forgive me

      for not having seen it all

      not remembered it all,

      for not having divined all of it.

For Dostoyevsky, this would be the natural course of his fictional masterpieces--the purification of character through the absorption of illuminating suffering. For the psychohistorian, it is a field of investigation under constant objective and subjective challenge. The source material is what can be respectfully referred to as "survival literature." In the written or verbal testimony of those who have endured the hell-on-earth of an Auschwitz, or a Kolyma camp, or a My Lai, the psychohistorian will look for the truth in the telling of suffering. It may well be impossible to disentangle this truth from a moral mandate to reveal the shattering impact on the psyche of the larger-than-life event. The psychohistorian defends the rightful place of such suffering in the footnotes of history, and also enlightens the trauma therapist about the historical context in which the trauma was endured.

This is not an easy task. The "historian-half' of the psychohistorian must be prepared to shed a purist view of historical truth and expand his/her boundaries of imaginable horror and terror. There must be a recognition of the profound dictates from the very souls of survivors of historical trauma to ensure that the story they tell is so compelling that the "never again" vow is on the lips of every member of the audience or readership. There is generally no need to do more than be faithful to the truth of their experience and the experiences of those they witnessed in their suffering. Witnessing breakdowns or assaults of the "physical integrity of self' or others is now considered evidence of confrontation with a traumatic stressor, according to the description of Criterion A of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the DSM-IV (APA, 1994).

For historians, this perception of traumatic reality is acknowledged to be influenced by many factors, including the temperament of the witness and the current prevailing situation of deprivation or physical pain. The psychohistorian must be willing to view the individual in distress as intimately connected to two often conflicting worlds that will be influenced not only by his/her personal psychological history, but also by his/her perception of both the microcosmic world in which the trauma was endured and the larger macrocosm of the society that generated or sustained the microcosm or "world of hurt". It is assumed that the healing from the psychological impact of the exposure to trauma takes place in the therapeutic safety of the alliance between therapist and client: a microcosm of its own that is influenced by the larger recovery environment of other emotional attachments for the client.

Historians, by and large, prefer if the poets record the emotional pain of history sustained by its survivors. Poets have demonstrated a remarkable capacity for this but some of the best are writing their own psychohistory - their own reflections of their personal experiences of survival and of madness. Siegfried Sassoon wrote of his exposure to the trenches of WWI:

      When thoughts you've gagged all day come back to scare you;

      And its been proved that soldiers don't go mad

      Unless they lose control of ugly thoughts

      That drive them to jabber among the trees.


      why, you can hear the guns.

      Hark! Thud, thud, thud, -- quite soft.. .they never cease -

      Those whispering guns - 0 Christ, I want to go out

      And screech at them to stop - I'm going crazy;

      I'm going stark, starring mad because of the guns.

In his eloquent study of the survival literature of both the Holocaust and the GULAG, Terence Des Pres argues compellingly for the recognition of the survivor's scream of anguish and psychic pain: "In the literature of survival we find an image of things so grim, so heartbreaking , so starkly unbearable, that inevitably the survivors scream begins to be our own. When this happens the role of spectator is no longer enough" (Des Pres, 1976). How to deal with this source material and exactly what role, beyond that of spectator and scribe, to assume when confronted by the survivor's enduring agony, is the dilemma of the psychohistorian.

Then along comes a book of the psychological pain of history set in the discipline of the DSM-IV description of PTSD: Soldier's Heart. Here is the melding of psychology (Sarah Hansel, one of the editors, is a clinical psychologist) and history (Ron Zaczek, the principal editor, is a Vietnam Veteran - a helicopter crew chief). In this book of poems, letters and reports from survivors of the Second World War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, the editors have endeavoured to structure the "symptoms" referred to in the letters to the editors, within the rubric of the symptom constellations of PTSD, as described in the DSM-IV. In a section entitled "Intrusion," there is this description of a flashback and a somatic memory fragment that can be instantly associated with the emotional history of the Vietnam War for many veterans:

      And whether I am awake, or asleep, Out from the depths, like a crazed demon, it comes. Unmercifully, all enveloping and soul possessing it comes, it comes, it so damn surely comes. You are flung back as if it were happening right then. The smell, the flashes, the concussions, the explosions, the smell, the smell, the God awful smell of powder and flesh and blood and screaming and crying and swearing

Ursano, (1992) in a commentary on the paper by Fontana et al. which describes and ascribes different levels of intensity of PTSD symptoms to those who have inadvertently played differing roles in their entrapment in traumatic history, discusses his belief that the meaning of trauma shifts in time with regard to the personal perception of risk, threat, and responsibility. In effect, this is the subtle invocation of the study of a person's HIS-Story or HER-Story. The meaning of a trauma becomes integrated not only in the social history of the times, but also in the private recording devices of the individual spirit to withstand and to make sense of the chaos of meaning which is trauma. Perhaps this too is the venue of the psychohistorian, who truly seeks to comprehend and vivify the intimate connection of trauma and history. This humanistic concept of psychohistory which requires a willingness to venture into the depths of the horror of personal and historical terror, is particularly clearly revealed in this poem about the Holocaust by Edward Bond (Schiff, 1995):


We--even our subjective self--

Are products of history

Of political changes

In history two things join

our will and things beyond our will

We remain human only by changing

Each generation must create its own humanity.


Bond, E. in Holocaust Poetry, Compiled by H. Schiff, St Martin's Press, New York: 1995, p.155.

Des Pres, T. The Survivor. Oxford University Press, New York: 1976, p.49.

Figley, C. (Ed). Compassion Fatigue, Bruner/Mazel, New York: 1995.

Fontana, A., Rosenheck, R., Bret, J. (1992). War Zone Traumas and PTSD Symptomatology. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 180:12.

Lifton, R.J. Home From the War Vietnam Veterans Neither Victims nor Executioners, Basic Books, New York: 1973.

Rice, M. in Soldier's Heart Survivors' Views of Combat Trauma, S. Hansel, A. Steidle, G. Zaczek, R. Zaczek (Eds). The Sidran Press, Lutherville, Maryland: 1995, p.32.

Sassoon, S. "Repression of War Experience", in The War Poets. R. Giddings (Ed), Orion Books, New York: 1988, p.142.

Solzhenitsyn, A.I. GULAG Archipelago 1918-1956. Dedication, Harper and Row, New York:


Ursano, R., Kao, T.C., Fullerton, C. (1992). PTSD and Meaning: Structuring Human Chaos. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 180:12.

©1997 by The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, Inc.