Book Review – Summer 2017

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Review of Alpert, J. L., & Goren, E. R., (Eds.). (2017). Psychoanalysis, Trauma, and Community: History and Contemporary Reappraisals. New York:  Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Using examples of psychoanalytically-based community and social interventions from the past and present, editors Judie Alpert and Elizabeth Goren have compiled an extremely timely book for this complex and challenging period of history.  Their goal in producing Psychoanalysis, Trauma, and Community: History and Contemporary Reappraisals is to present psychoanalysis and its practitioners from a different perspective, not only as clinicians who treat individual clients in private practice settings but who also engage in significant social and community outreach efforts both at home and abroad.  They have gathered a group of distinguished analysts who describe their work in different settings, ranging from the major wars and political conflicts of this century and their associated atrocities (i.e., the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the disappeared in Argentina, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict) to the devastation that accompanies major disasters, such as the Indonesian Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, to the aftermath of terrorist attacks such as September 11th, to communities beset by chronic poverty, to those in which racism and oppression are endemic. The authors describe how they have used a psychoanalytic lens to understand these traumatic circumstances and psychoanalytic principles and theory to develop responses and services.  The innovations included in this text include taking testimony privately and in public settings, documentary film-making, social intervention, on-sight interviewing, education and skill-building through workshops, and mediation of ethno-racial and political conflicts. Also discussed are the challenges in implementing such novel interventions and the impact on the practitioner.

The imperative of social justice and the global fight against oppression, violence, poverty and economic disparity (among other issues) pervades this work.  The title of the first chapter, written by the co-editors says it all: “Expanding our analytic identity: The inclusion of a larger social perspective.” They are careful to note that the appropriateness of social activism on the part of analysts has been controversial and, even today, is not accepted by all. Nevertheless, the authors suggest that the terrorist attack of 9/11 was a major turning point and the catalyst for many contemporary efforts. As they introduce these efforts, they reach back over the course of this century and credit a number of analysts and other mental health professionals whose work was socially-geared, important, and unfortunately often under-recognized as to its significance. Here it is given its due as the foundation for the contemporary upsurge. Serving as the “book-ends” of this volume are a chapter by Dr. Dori Laub and an interview conducted by the co-editors of Dr. Robert J. Lifton, among the most notable of these individuals and pioneers in investigating the social mechanisms of atrocities and their individual and collective impact. The authors also trace the history of the mental health movement in the US to include more social and community awareness: the recognition that mental health is not solely subjective but is profoundly impacted by one’s social surround and the development of community-based resources and mental health centers in response to the need for services.  Increased acknowledgment of intergenerational and historical trauma and their dynamics also form a backdrop to the book and move the impact of trauma away from only the personal.

Gourguechon (2011), in her recent call for action, listed seven distinct ways that “citizen” analysts can participate for the public good: (1) psychoanalytic social commentary; (2) psychoanalytic social advocacy; (3) psychoanalysis in the community; (4) psychoanalysis of the community; (5) psychoanalytic interpretation in the academy; (6) using data to promote social change; and (7) developing theory of applying psychoanalytic thought to culture.  All of these are illustrated in the chapters that make up this volume, including the fact that there is often considerable overlap between the different categories. The co-editors use this listing to organize the book into four parts: (1) Receiving testimony; (2) Therapeutic encounters outside the frame; (3) Facilitating collective mourning; and (4) Psychoanalytic scholarship and activism.

This book is especially pertinent for Division 56 members and anyone involved in social justice efforts on a collective rather than an individual scale. In a sense, it is another call to action, this time by the first president of the Division, Dr. Judie Alpert and her co-editor, Dr. Elizabeth Goren. They were both in NYC during 9/11 and its aftermath and saw firsthand the devastating impact and the lasting consequences, including personal and community resilience. They also shared in the efforts of the community to comfort and care for those directly involved, their loved ones, and the community at large. As trauma theory and modes of intervention continue to develop, they must move beyond only the treatment of the individual to the community as the context and the focus of more broad-based intervention.  Bloom (1995), a psychiatrist social activist wrote about the “germ theory” of trauma and argues for a paradigm shift in mental health, away from the strictly personal and pathological on which the medical model is founded, replaced by one that takes the social context of trauma and its impact into consideration. She writes that the social context of trauma must be addressed in order to begin to eradicate its occurrence.  Like the co-editors and the authors included in this book, she decries the loss of the social in mental health, particularly the loss of and social therapeutic milieu emphasis in psychiatry that was “in vogue” when she trained and was overtaken by the biologic/medical emphasis of the past few decades.

Efforts such as those described here are yet another area where Division 56 and its members can take a leadership role and have an impact on the larger society as members work against oppression, violence, and conflict and towards equality and respect for all. As noted by the authors of these chapters, such interventions are complex and require additional planning and training. They might also be best implemented by teams rather than individuals as the personal toll of the work can be challenging and difficult to emotionally metabolize and common group goals, commitment, and support are extremely significant. At present, several of these types of efforts are underway at home and abroad, led by current leaders of the Division and by other members. It is my hope that these individuals will follow the lead of this book and provide education and training to Division members and others on how to engage at a social and community level, outside of the traditional office setting.  The need is enormous and, in today’s contentious times, seems to be growing. Psychoanalysis and the mental health professions have much to offer in alleviating human suffering as the result of traumatic circumstances and atrocities, as this book attests to. Brava to the co-editors!

Christine A. Courtois, PhD, ABPP Psychologist, Private Practice, Washington, DC, retired

Consultant and Trainer, Trauma Psychology and Treatment

Author, Healing the Incest Wound, Treatment of Complex Trauma


Bloom, S. L. (1995). The germ theory of trauma: The impossibility of ethica;  neutrality. In B. H. Stamm (Ed.), Secondary Traumatic Stress: Self-Care Issues for Clinicians, Researchers, and Educators (pp. 257-276). Brooklandville, MD: Sidran Foundation.

Gourguechon, P. (2011). The citizen psychoanalyst: Psychoanalysis, social commentary, and social advocacy. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 59(3), 445-470.