Memory  /  Explainer

Can Historians Be Traumatized by History?

Their secondhand experience of past horrors can debilitate them.

The phenomenon of the historian traumatized by history remains unstudied and is not widely known. Yet anyone who has documented depravity knows the symptoms. After writing a book on the Armenian Genocide, a process that took me five years, I found it impossible to slip comfortably into sleep. All kinds of catastrophes visited me—still visit me—in that space before dreams: ugly visions, jarring scenes from my research. And I am not alone. In several extensive interviews I conducted with historians working across different subjects, and in the responses to a questionnaire I distributed to a dozen scholars (most of whom were reluctant to speak publicly about these most personal experiences), I discovered a reservoir of pain that reveals itself through symptoms familiar to anyone diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder: insomnia, rapid weight gain or loss, abuse of booze or pills, unexplainable anger or fear, paralyzing anxieties. Some reactions are more subtle: the sudden unwillingness to watch a particular film or read graphic news reports; claustrophobia in a crowd.

Traditionally, we’ve supposed that these kinds of reactions would afflict only firsthand witnesses to violence: the victims, the bystanders, maybe the journalists. And we are blessed with a rich literature of witness; every mass traumatic event has its own set of survivors elevated by personal experience into authorities. Historians, by contrast, have neither seen nor heard the catastrophes they study—they’ve reached them through imagination and immersion.

Can you be traumatized by something experienced only secondhand? According to a psychoanalytic framework, trauma is a shock so overwhelming that it cannot be mentally processed. It shreds our psychic defenses, compromising our customs, ideologies, religious beliefs, moral systems, rituals, close relationships, even the body itself. When stripped of its organizational protection, the mind struggles to assimilate things that would otherwise seem normal, futilely trying to make sense of that which it finds incomprehensible. All kinds of destructive and alienating behaviors result.