Witnessing Kaethe Weingarten

By John Soderlund









Kaethe Weingarten has been witnessing her fair share of trauma in the past few years. Not by accident, but because she has made it her business to model how to witness the trauma -or common shock, as she prefers to call it-of others. For it is in the act of witnessing, she suggests, that we have the capacity to break the devastating cycles of violence and recrimination which fuel large and small conflicts between people, groups and nations. New Therapist witnessed Weingarten during a recent visit to South Africa, where she introduced to local therapists her ideas about witnessing, violence and healing, due for publication in 2003 in a book entitled Common Shock: Everyday Witnessing and the Transformation of Violence.

"Witnessing" is a new and sometimes tricky concept for psychotherapists to incorporate into their clinical lexicon. After all, it's what therapists do only if they're unlucky enough to be subpoenaed to testify about something related to their work with a client. Right? Distinctly wrong, in fact.

Weingarten's concepts of witnessing tie together a multitude of disparate strands of therapeutic thought in a new formulation which can be a powerful tool for the bulk of the effects of common shock that therapists encounter daily. As therapists, we are witnesses, called upon to testify about the daily acts of violence that turn people into clients.

Weingarten argues that there is a widespread understanding of shocking events as two-point dramas. But the third position, that of the witness, and the effects on this witness, are seldom the focus of the work of psychologists.

As people in society, we are, she says, part of witness situations far more frequently than we think, usually in one of three positions in the "drama of everyday witnessing".

In any witnessing situation, there are, firstly, one or more witnesses who take in the event in question, the observers who are not directly affected by or effecting what happens. Secondly, there are the victims, which Weingarten says are usually people, but might even be a building, a city or an ideology. And thirdly, there are always perpetrators in everyday witnessing situations. Perpetrators can be processes, man-made or natural (like wars or hurricanes), they can be illnesses or, more obviously, people.

The result is what Weingarten calls "common shock". And while her definition of it maps reasonably closely onto that of the DSM IV R definition of trauma, she's actively chosen a new term.

"Common", she explains, "because these daily jolts are widespread and collective, or belonging to the community," but also because of the unsavoury associations the word "trauma" has assumed over the years:

"The DSM creates an individual as a patient. If the person has experienced trauma, it transforms the person from a victim of violence into a patient with a medical or psychiatric problem. In the U.S., services for refugees, for instance, from politically repressive regimes are doled out if, and according to whether, one has this diagnosis."

The pathways and consequences of common shock

Common shock, being common, comes through a range of pathways, says Weingarten. She identifies with a multitude of well-established psychological theories in delineating these pathways, but stresses everyday witnessing of events, one's past, illness and vertical transmission (the intergenerational transfer of common shock within families, communities or societies, see below) as the most pertinent. She has also identified the pathway of exposure to people in positions of authority, who impose their unresolved common shock on others who depend on them. Examples, she says, are police, healthcare workers or members of the clergy.

The results of common shock include the well-known biological ones (fight-or-flight response, hyper-arousal, clamminess, rapid heartbeat, etc.) and the equally well-understood psychological sequelae (anger, disbelief, fear, guilt, helplessness, sadness, shame, etc.).

But there are interpersonal and societal consequences as well. The interpersonal ones include secrecy and a reluctance to self-disclose, while the societal results are often an increase in cycles of violence as common shock is passed within and across groups.

Hand-me-down shock

Common shock doesn't stay with the direct perpetrators, witnesses and victims alone. There are a number of mechanisms for its transfer from one person or group to another. And this is not an old belief. In fact, the belief in the multi-generational transfer of common shock predates written history and is present in all cultures, Weingarten says.

As psychologists, we began paying attention to it with the study of holocaust survivors, where early work identified significant pathology in the children and their parents who survived the holocaust. Later work with holocaust survivors and Vietnam war veterans suggested that what was passed on had less to do with pathology than with themes, such as "the world is not safe"; "the future is uncertain"; "evil exists in the world"; and "my parents are fragile, despite outward experiences".

The key reason for all of this, says Weingarten, is that "large-scale, political processes end up inscribed on the bodies of individuals and affect individuals in their primary relationships. The causes of transgenerational transmission of trauma are primarily social and political: War, poverty, terror, economic disparities, inadequate education and health."

Although the mechanisms by which it takes place are diverse, one mechanism is societal and involves a large group identity. Drawing on the work of noted psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan, Weingarten says that groups and individuals identify with what Volkan calls a "chosen trauma", a rallying point for the community which becomes the focus of their struggle (see Stopping six centuries of violence, next page).

Continued on the next page ...


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