Reductio ad traumatum

In 1933, two servant girls in Le Mans, France, Christine and Léa Papin, murdered two of their employers.(1) Madame Lancelin and her adult daughter were bludgeoned and knived repeatedly, to the point of unrecognisability. Each had their eyes gouged out. The Papin sisters had spent much of their young lives in institutional care. Their family had a history of incestuous abuse, and at least one of their relatives had died by suicide.

The subsequent court hearings for the sisters revolved around questions of whether the murders were the result of insanity, or whether this was, in fact, a case of malingering. For the French intelligentsia, writing at a time of intense social conflict, the murders were an expression of class hatred. (The Surrealist writers Eluard and Péret, for instance invoked Les Chants de Maldoror, blaming the bourgeoisie for the murders. De Beauvoir, among others, described the sisters as ‘martyrs’). Certainly, there could be no question that the sisters had suffered a difficult and probably highly traumatic background. Their working conditions were similarly demanding, and they had only a half-day off per week. In a context in which the inner contradictions of French – and European – society were rising violently to the surface, it is not difficult to see why some commentators might have ascribed the Papin sisters’ brutality to societal injustice.

To draw this conclusion, however, means to omit certain facts. The sisters had lived in the house of their employers for six years. They were quiet, even model servants, who had no known history of violence. Indeed, all of the parties involved had spent years together, under the same roof, without apparent incident. The gulf in class between the Papins and the Lancelins was abyssal, to be sure, but the latter were far from the harshest bourgeoisie of their time. Despite this, there was no uprising of similar episodes. Moreover, the maids told the courts that they actually had no grudge whatsoever against their employers. Christine, the elder of the Papin sisters, was asked why she had stripped the clothes from Mlle Lancelin, to which she replied – “I was looking for something that would have made me stronger”.

The theorisation of this infamous case by Jacques Lacan was that this was not a matter of class hatred, but of paranoid alienation and self-punishment. The murders had occurred precisely at a moment when power in the Lancelin household had failed, and Mme Lancelin reproached Christine Papin for not having done the ironing. This sisters themselves had no apparent clue as to their own motives, and, according to Lacan, were acting out a non-dit, something unspoken that underpinned their crime. Indeed, the relation between the sisters and the Lancelins was one of silence, since they did not speak with one another. At the heart of this characterisation of things by Lacan, whether one agrees with it or not, is an insistence on the sisters’ subjective positions being irreducible to their social situations, traumatogenic or otherwise. This assessment also contradicted a traditional view in psychiatry, namely, that such crimes were the outcome of ‘heredity’ or some other presumed biological degeneration.

The view of ‘heredity’ or biological pathogenesis has been strong in mental health, and remains fashionable (even axiomatic) in many circles. There was a necessary corrective from about the 1970s on (by my estimate) in the form of approaches which sought to emphasise the relations between psychopathology and the ‘social’, particularly when the latter was traumatic in nature. This was the era in which Freud was aggressively reproached by Masson for having moved beyond his ‘seduction’ theory of aetiology, and reproached similarly by others for having failed to construe Judge Schreber’s psychosis in terms of his allegedly traumatic upbringing. After years of political advocacy, this was the era of PTSD having finally been enshrined as an official DSM diagnosis. (2) Yet this was also the time of False Memory Syndrome, when trauma could be held (by some) to be self-evidently pathogenic, to the great detriment of patients who were indoctrinated into traumatic hypothesis for their own symptoms. In other words, if there are symptoms, so must there be a social explanation for them.

Whilst such practices have been outlawed to some extent (I refer to psychology in my native Australia), the risk continues when it comes to clinicians and theorists eliding subjectivity with a reduction to the ‘social’. It might be compassionate to acknowledge somebody’s difficult circumstances and history, but this compassion is misplaced if it sidesteps the singular, idiosyncratic responses that subjects construct in the face of their histories, traumatic or not.(3) The old adage – that it is no measure of ‘well-being’ to be well-adjusted to a sick society – has much to commend it, but only if we recall that ‘society’ is not just a monolith (or big Other, in Lacanian terms), but also operates in particular ways through specific agents and contingencies. Part of the confusion regarding these issues, in my opinion, stems from their very definitions.(4) Trauma is frequently ill-defined, and is used as shorthand or synonym for ‘bad stuff that’s happened’. God knows that there is plenty of the latter, but this is an impoverished conception next to the psychoanalytic definition, where trauma is that which exceeds representation. What might constitute this sort of trauma is not going to be deducible in advance for any given subject, and nor would its effects be expected to bypass language and subjectivity in the manner one finds in social reductionist aetiologies. After all, even the subjective effects of drugs – from SSRIs to alcohol or amphetamines – are incalculable in advance for any given subject, even when administered by a standard dose.
The upshot of this is, of course, that just as with biological correlates, thus it is with social or traumatic correlates: the subject is personally implicated in his or her suffering, which is irreducible to the sum of its correlates. And to be absolutely clear, what I am not proposing here is the sort of victim-blaming one finds in CBT (i.e. your suffering is caused by your own stupidity ‘cognitive distortions’), the formulations of which are remarkably compatible with neoliberal ideologies (e.g of deserving and undeserving poor).(5) Since psychoanalysis, by contrast, is non-directive, and presupposes an unconscious, there can be no question of blame when it comes to subjective implication. We may, after Foucault, observe that clinicians have inherited the traditional juridical roles of judging and sentencing (in the form of ‘assessing’ and ‘treating’), but they need not blithely accept these roles. Just as the biologically reductionist aetiologies are grossly inadequate, so are the socially reductionist. To borrow from a certain Slovenian entertainer, there is already the widespread phenomenon of subjects – in this case, neo-Nazi criminals – speaking ‘like a social worker’ when describing their own situations, and attributing their fascist positions to ‘diminished social mobility, rising insecurity, the disintegration of paternal authority’ and so on. This grotesquerie is an intensification of existing alienation, and does nothing to help anybody, whether we are speaking of clinical patients, or those struggling in oppressed classes of society.


  1. This account of the Papin sisters draws heavily from Roudinesco, E.(1997). Jacques Lacan. (Trans. B. Bray). Malden, MA: Polity.
  2. The inclusion of PTSD in the DSM-III is significant for at least two very contemporary reasons. First, it shows explicitly that inclusion is a matter of political struggle, not ‘scientific’ consensus. Second, whilst the DSM purports (ludicrously) to be ‘atheoretical’ with respect to aetiology, the inclusion of PTSD makes plain that at least this diagnostic category has an aetiology which is clearly marked in the diagnosis itself.
  3. Of course, ‘sympathy’ is, strictly speaking, enacted on behalf of the sympathiser, and only secondarily for his or her object.
  4. ‘Meaning’ is another ill-defined notion in psychology that deserves closer examination.
  5. I am sure many will be familiar with the politically conservative invocation of ‘responsibility’, for instance, which is always used as a means of laying blame. This is precisely the sort of formulation one encounters in coercive treatments, forensic psychology, CBT, etc. One might also consider the success of Pavlovian Behaviourism under Stalin another case in point.

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