Strangely enough, this same thought (“even if we were to tell it, we would not be believed”) arose in the form of nocturnal dreams produced by the prisoners’ despair. Almost all the survivors, orally or in their written memoirs, remember a dream which frequently recurred during the nights of imprisonment, varied in its detail but uniform in its substance: they had had returned home and with passion and relief were describing their past sufferings, addressing themselves to a loved one, and were not believed, indeed were not even listened to. In the most typical (and cruelest) form, the interlocutor turned and left in silence.

Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved


In this paper I make an effort to blend with my theoretical perspective some of my experience traveling in many parts of the world to places where my colleagues are struggling with the effects of violence and collective trauma either in the present or its aftermath. In addition to psychoanalytic thinking I will bring some of my experience with dialogue in the Middle East to bear on these issues.[1] This represents an effort to show the possibilities for applying psychoanalytically derived concepts to social phenomena, and suggest ways in which recognition theory can be used to grasp deep psychological structures within both collective and individual processes.

In relation to the psychological consequences of collective trauma I have conceived of the failure of recognition as the problem of the “failed witness.” This idea refers to a failure of those not involved in the acts of injury to serve the function of acknowledging and actively countering or repairing the suffering and injury that they encounter as observers in the social world. This function is a crucial part of what I call the “moral third.”

The psychological position of the third, from which the violations of lawful behavior and dehumanization can be witnessed or repaired, is a fragile one. Here I undertake to ask, What makes that position of acknowledgment possible, what prevents it? What perpetuates dissociation in regard to the suffering of others (“the Other”), or even in regard to the fate of those we claim to acknowledge, claim as our own people? This paper considers the obstacles to knowing and witnessing in terms of the psychological processes involved; it considers the breakdown and restoration of the capacity to hold the connection with suffering, including our own.

I also discuss how our identification with the suffering of others can be interfered with by the identity of victimhood, in which a dissociated fear of forfeiting recognition plays a great role. In the victim position it becomes difficult to discern the difference between that form of recognition that extends universally and that which privileges one’s own self-protection. Overcoming this requires a trust or belief in a form of the Third that would make it possible to move beyond self-interest to identification with the Other.

I will consider how certain forms of acknowledgment and remorse between perpetrator and victims transform relations of powerlessness into those of agency. Ultimately these efforts to dignify and heal suffering also serve to affirm the possibility of lawful social behavior and responsibility for fellow human beings; they have a political meaning. The social recognition of trauma is not only healing for individuals, it promotes agency and gives weight to ethical considerations within the social discourse. The insights of psychoanalytic recognition theory should ultimately contribute to both awareness of interdependence and attachment to the social whole as well as the respect for the rights and needs of unique and different individuals (Allen, 2008; see also Honneth, 1992).

Embodied and disembodied acknowledgment:

Father Michael Lapsley was speaking at a conference at the University of the Free State in South Africa on the sequelae of the truth and reconciliation process, “Engaging the Other.” Father Lapsley, who had had his hands blown off by a letter bomb as retaliation for his activism in the ANC against apartheid, began his speech by saying that what every victim of trauma wants and needs is acknowledgment. I was surprised by my reaction, how relieving his “acknowledgment of acknowledgment” was for me. Even though I had already spent so much time writing about acknowledgment as an analyst and had even developed a project to create dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians based on the idea of acknowledging injury and injustice, I nonetheless received his statement as if it were a vital confirmation I had been missing. Or as if I were hearing the idea afresh, as if indeed his testimony and experience lent to ita vital, wholly embodied meaning.

Psychoanalysts are long accustomed to noticing whether words seem empty and hollow, or embodied and resonant, i.e. whether they express something already “known” in an intellectual sense, or whether they seem transmitted and apprehended with the affective force of the new, a force that reverberates throughout the many chambers of the mind and even within the body. I was now having the experience that something I thought I “knew” and even promulgated could be charged with greater meaning through being embodied by a person who has lived his convictions in the midst of great suffering and conflict. Indeed, a part of his body has been sacrificed. It was clear that he himself was aware of how the very act of speaking his need and that of others for acknowledgment was performative, would have an impact on the listener who would be able to identify with Father Lapsley precisely because he refused to deny his suffering and insisted it be dignified.

The question as to the responsibility of individuals who are not directly implicated in violence and suffering but nonetheless informed of it daily by the media is not one that I intend to take up philosophically. There are many ethical questions implied in such a notion of witnessing (see Margalit, 2002) social and psychological (Ullman, 2006), relating to how and whether attention is paid. My scope here is limited to the question of the psychological forces in play when such attention is granted or withheld. I proceed from the pragmatic view that “we” (who are not suffering this violence) can fail or succeed in the call to confirm through witnessing the knowledge of terrible things that others have witnessed, whether or not we are in a position to provide justice for the victims. This matter of dignifying and validating with our attention — acknowledgment — is so often impeded by reactions of denial and dissociation that it seems well worth asking what this giving or denying of acknowledgment entails. What kind of connection between self and other is implied by this giving or denying? What are the obstacles and prohibitions on “knowing terrible things” (Bragin, 2003; Cohen, 2002)? What processes are involved in identifying with the injury of others, what determines whether such identifications are activated on behalf of witnessing or merely supporting violence, what determines how and when the world witnesses or denies the importance of injuries that are suffered “Elsewhere.”

Much of my thinking derives from experience in the Middle East where violence is committed in our name — it is often a fantasy not fact that this suffering is far away or not our responsibility. The process of reflecting on collective trauma is part of the daily practice of my colleagues in Israel and Palestine. In speaking of those having endured such trauma there is something to be learned not only from victims but those who have engaged in harming, and have recognized the moral trauma it entails. And as in the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa, having been called to account or brought to justice, have even engaged in social healing with and provided acknowledgement for their victims. Such instances of confrontation and engagement have deepened our understanding of the healing of collective trauma (see Hetherington) despite their limitations, as revealed by critical discussions of commissions aiming at truth or reconciliation after civil war, genocide, dictatorship and terror (Thomas, N. 2010; Hayner, 2002). There have been two contradictory outcomes of the process, as Hamber (2008; Hamber and Wilson, 2002) notes: the painful experiences of victims giving testimony to truth commissions where they feel perpetrators continue to be given a free pass and they feel insecurely held; the positive experiences of testifying and being heard, and even in some cases survivors of violence who have been transformed by encounters with their former enemies, or perpetrators being a vital source of acknowledgment for their victims.[2]

The psychological theorist to whom I turn to think about such processes emerged from the post-Apartheid efforts at reconciliation with a vital perspective on how both victims and perpetrators can be transformed. Pumla Goboda-Madikizela’s reflections as a Black psychologist at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have provided a framework for thinking about the more radical possibilities of reconciliation. Her writing is known, in particular her work dialoging with the security service chief Eugene de Kock, A Human Being Died That Night, but I have also learned from her spoken narratives of affectively embodied encounters with people giving testimony in the form of their personal stories about the traumatic events during apartheid and its aftermath. Combining the experiences in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa with studies of other reconciliation processes and engagement between former victims and perpetrators led Goboda-Madikizela to value the story telling approach (Bar-On 2008) in which people share their experiences with collective and historical trauma in small groups and oppression, which becomes a way of testifying and allowing others to witness. I begin these reflections with a story which I decided to write about despite my hesitations because it seemed to resonate with Gobodo-Madikizela’s perspective on the role of embodiment, that is to say identification with body connection and intimacy in the reconciliation of victim and perpetrator. My aim here is to understand the role of these identifications in overcoming the helpless bystander position, active witnessing and acknowledgement, and thus to theorize the repair of the moral third at a societal level.

These events occurred on the day shortly after Christmas 2008 on which the war on Gaza, that Israelis called Operation Cast Lead, began. It so happened I was supposed to be going to Miami to spend two days on the beach. My son reached me on my cell phone in a taxi on my way to the hotel; he wanted to alert me that Gaza was being bombarded, as he knew that I had connections with people there. I immediately called my friend Dr. Eyad el Sarraj, founder of the Community Mental Health Programme in Gaza, with whom I had spent the last 5 years working on The Acknowledgment Project between Palestinian and Israeli mental health workers. During that time I traveled to Gaza where I saw the conditions on the ground and met with the colleagues who were going to join the project, but we had also met many times in Tel Aviv where he was being treated for cancer and developed a warm friendship. He was a man so extraordinary and admirable, even to his “enemy,” that he could mediate between opposing factions in Palestine, speak with leaders of Israeli security, advocate for the Geneva Accords in the ministries of Europe and for non-violence with the militants in his home country; he could even bring to tears an Israeli soldier who was threatening to take away his identity card and beat him to with his demand that the young man show him his face so he could see that a human being was doing this. Despite his political stature and vast obligations, he found room for a personal friendship that crossed all borders of difference.

When I called Eyad’s mobile phone there was never any certainty of what would be going on at the other end of the line: once I found him waiting in line to cross the checkpoint into Egypt at Rafah. We were cut off mid-sentence as I heard voices in the background, and on the following day he let me know by email that his phone had been confiscated by the soldiers as he passed through. But often enough, despite having a privileged pass, he like hundreds of others simply had to turn back. Even when dangerous things were happening, he managed to sound contained and unflappable.

I was surprised that I managed to get through to Gaza on the phone, and within moments I was reassured that Eyad was alright, but I was hearing a different quality in his usually calm voice as he reported that the situation was indeed terrible, he was listening to the bombs falling, the windows were shaking and breaking as shells landed nearby, that it was devastating everything with a force far beyond anything they had lived through before. When we hung up I was shaken, all I could think of to do was go on line to see how to send medical aid through the Israeli Physicians for Human Rights. And then since I could think of no more, went out to the beach.

When I got to the beach I had a very strange and overwhelming experience: as I walked onto the sand I found myself uneasily scanning the beach which was full of white people, and realized I was looking for, as my internal voice seemed to be saying, “other dark skinned people like myself.” I felt something not quite verbalized like “I am all alone here, there are only white people, no other people of color on this beach.” As I heard this thought spoken in my mind, a reply came, this also not quite in words, “Wait a minute, YOU are white not brown” — but this did not alter my feeling, my self state or my search. The self state in which I was identified with my brown-skinned friend, identified so completely that I was stepping inside his skin. I could be aware of this strangeness to my other self, to reality — I could witness it, but I did not cease to feel it.

Clearly, I was undergoing a particular form of dissociation due to my helpless feeling of being unable to protect a person I deeply cared for; finding myself outside or altered is perhaps possible through a mechanism similar to the one that allows an abuse victim to leave her body and watch herself from the ceiling. In thinking about it now, I consider the exposure through identification with a loved person to such violence had a traumatic effect of dissolving the protective wall that normally stands between oneself and the events happening far away, even when they are felt to be quite horrible. True, after my visit to Gaza I had suffered physical shock and a powerful sense of alienation and separation from those around me who were sitting in safety — ordinary conversation in a café seemed unreal in the wake of talking with families whose homes had been blasted by missiles, driving through no-mans-land at night surrounded by tanks and passing through the enormous steel turnstiles of the checkpoint under search lights. But that reaction was based on my own direct experience of fear; this was based on vicarious trauma, identification with someone far away, yet emotionally close to me.

Striking was the form my identification took, one that had a specific social context and meaning in terms of race, skin, and the line between the drowned and the saved. It was as if I were being transformed from a familiar “safe white self” into one of the unsafe, unprotected people — refugees, migrants, camp or prison inmates — who can be abandoned or attacked with impunity because the world does not value their lives. I felt the world was abandoning the trapped people of Gaza to their fate, that they were written off as unworthy of saving, and that I identified with that position in some way without my usual defenses running interference. I wanted to understand the meaning of this identification, recognizing that my reaction was not necessarily identical with people actually being bombarded or suffering being outcast, ignored or mistreated because of their color or social position. It was not even congruent with what I felt as a Jew living in Germany, because there, in fact, my anxiety was based on an identity that set me apart, one that was actually “mine” and predictable in the context. In this case my reaction had more to do with a specific alienation from those who live in the safety of denial on the sunny beach while others are cast into the horror of destruction. The safe group’s obliviousness to — read by me as denial of — suffering and atrocities occurring “Elsewhere” (Cohen, 2002) was the threat to my emotional reality.

This experience of identifying with “the Other” who is not saved had changed my relationship to the line of demarcation between the saved and the endangered, one I was familiar with from working with those who have experienced severe trauma. That demarcation often prevents trauma victims from feeling the empathy or witnessing responses of those wishing to help them. (The sense of alienation felt by combatants from those outside the battle zone is well known, as is the vicarious traumatization of those who work in the field of human rights or therapy with victims of abuse and persecution [see Rothschild, 2005]). What was important here was less the line between perpetrators and victims than the line created by denial, lack of acknowledgment, between those who live in a safe protected world and those who are left to perish without recourse or resources. It is this division that I now want to interrogate further, in particular hoping this moment of dissolving identification might shed some light on how we operate when we live as those who are relatively safe, protected, “not the other.”

For me, growing up in Washington D.C., a racially segregated Southern city in post-war America, the sense of some humans being marginal and imperiled while others are safe and privileged was a defining experience. Despite my family background and youthful activism, I also was clearly identified as White: where I went to school, where I could dine, which hospital I could go to when ill, and which neighborhood I lived in were all still determined by race. In this situation there was ample opportunity to experience what it is to identify with the “Other” while still being privileged, to choose to be a bystander or an actor, to comply with or challenge the prevailing norms, and to feel guilty for doing too little while being made an outsider for doing too much.

During both the women’s liberation movement as well in the civil rights movement, many problematic aspects of claiming victimhood or guilty efforts to divest oneself of being on the side of privilege and whiteness became apparent. As a feminist I gradually grasped the politically damaging effects of the victim position even as I had in the civil rights movement already seen the fruitlessness of guilt as an effort to counter a perpetrator identity. Once I became a psychoanalyst, I hoped to be able to investigate the problematic of victim-perpetrator-bystander relations in a more useful way.

This is a piece of work I first undertook in Bonds of Love (Benjamin, 1988). Responding to the interesting historical juxtaposition feminists like myself experienced, the duality of victimhood and guilt in relation to a politics of liberation, together with my immersion in psychoanalysis, I began to analyze the source of reversals in complementary relations. I looked to a way to deconstruct rather than reverse the binary of doer and done-to and conceptualize a position in which victims of oppression can demand liberation and empowerment without retaliatory reversal of power relations. The politics of liberation had begun to seem inextricable from such reversals, and thus the idea of reconciliation as introduced in South Africa suggested a different way of dealing with the collective trauma of oppression. The study of reconciliation processes offered a clearer delineation of the difference between guilt and responsible acknowledge. It clarified that the effort to override guilty identifications with the perpetrator or oppressor class by adopting a counter-identification in the form of moral indignation is very different from identification with suffering as an empathic witness. Although some form of indignation and anger is absolutely essential, it became clear how this moralism became a manic defense, employed in the service of repudiating identifications with the aggressor. Intersubjective theory, the perspective I developed in “Beyond Doer and Done-To” (Benjamin, 2004) seemed relevant to the work of differentiating forms of healing collective trauma from actions that preserve the binary opposition between oppressed and oppressor through reversal, leading to cycles of victims becoming perpetrators.

So I am going to try to track my development of the third position, aiming to create a theoretical framework for understanding more about that moment of changing my skin, re-aligning identification based on intimacy with the one who suffered. This state of, shall we call it primal witnessing, will be seen as rooted in the primary embodied relations of recognition and attachment, that is, in the rhythmic third.

Ullmann (2006), working in the strife of the Israeli occupation as a member of the checkpoint watch as well as a psychoanalyst has made an important case for this kind of witnessing in which one is implicated, shares risk, acknowledges being part of the web in which the other is caught. I want to recast our thinking about what might constitute an ethical position in relation to the other using a notion of the moral third grounded in the rhythmic and not only the symbolic dimension of thirdness (Benjamin, 2004) — one which includes the conditions for witnessing based on a level of primal identification rather than mere knowledge of what is right (Ullman, 2011; Benjamin, 2011).

I found the idea of the third or thirdness to be the most useful one to characterize the position that transcends the complementarity of doer and done-to. I have also specified the idea of a “moral third” which functions to acknowledge violations of lawful behavior, affirming the reality of how things are in contrast to how they ought to be, thereby fostering truth and affirming lawfulness.

In general, the term “third” refers to a position that transcends binaries, such as splitting of “good v. bad,” Us v. Them. In other words, a position in which we own the ordinarily split positions of perpetrator and victim, bad and good. However, good and bad refer to psychologically complex constellations, not merely righteous versus wrongdoing but clean, safe and pure versus abject, contaminating, dangerous. There is more implied in the ability to hold opposites than merely recognizing one’s own capacity for destructiveness or wrong action. There must also be an ability to tolerate the possible incursion of the badness that has been identified with the other into the good that has been identified with the self: the so-called primitive or early feelings of discarding and projecting that which is abject, fecal, disgusting in the human body have to be countered by an acceptance of bodily or psychological weakness within self and other. Otherwise what dominates is the powerful impulse to project it outward into a vile and dangerous Other who must be kept out of the self and excluded from the group at all costs (see Theweleit, 1987;88). Preserving the safe pure realm of Us against the impure, dangerous Them makes violent action appear “good” rather than “bad,” and so confuses the notions of right and wrong.

These considerations of purity and danger, primal badness and goodness require developing a more complex notion of the moral third. It is necessary to carry the concept of the third further into the territory of other binaries shaped by unconscious fantasy and fears of bodily disintegration (see Theweleit, 1987; 1988). The idea of recognizing the other needs to include transcending the binary between weak and strong, vulnerable and protected, discarded and dignified, helpless and powerful. The Other serves the subject by embodying the discarded abject elements. Too often the negatives in this binary are opposed by ostensibly positive values that are primarily defensive, e.g. invulnerable, triumphant. The projective identification of what is bad or impure inside the self thus accompanies the perversion of its opposite term and in its repudiation of the weak, vulnerable, discarded Other the self is made grandiose, self-righteous, and devoid of empathy.

However, by the same token the self that does not discard or split off weakness and vulnerability and instead poses a demand for acknowledgment of humanity can dignify suffering. Thus Father Lapsley or Eyad Sarraj exemplifies the action of dignifying: in a sense, they show the way in which the embodied subject, not purified morally or physically, can overcome the splitting into discarded and dignified. This perspective leads to a notion of an emotionally grounded or embodied moral third based on a level of primal identification with the split off aspects of vulnerability and weakness rather than merely knowledge of “right and wrong,” rejection of the defensive use of hatred or violence.

In order to have such a notion of an emotionally grounded or embodied moral third we must include yet another aspect: maintaining a sense of the multiplicity of our identifications and the ambiguity of the positions we take up. The less able we are to genuinely identify with all parts of self, the more we leave unchallenged our own propensity to identify with one side of the doer-done to opposition, the more abstract our entry into other’s experiences and the more likely we are to turn the moral third of seeking truth and lawfulness into mere moralizing. So the embodied moral third is especially relevant to transcending binaries such as weak and strong through multiplicity of identifications. As I suggested earlier, the penetration of our psyches with these visceral binaries are as critical to understanding the outcome of collective trauma and failures of recognition as the global psychic position of complementarity between doer and done-to, kill or be killed. Indeed, we should note that whereas those complementarities admit of no positive reversal, the reversal in favor of dignifying suffering has potential for transforming social relations and restoring the moral third.

To continue reading, click here for part 3.


[1] From 2004 to 2010 I worked with groups of Israelis and Palestinians in the mental health and community service fields to create a project for mutual acknowledgment (see Benjamin, 2009), a project under the auspices of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme and with the help and inspiration of Dr. Eyad el Sarraj who served as co-director of the project. During that time I traveled repeatedly to both Israel and the Palestinian territories, visiting project members individually and in smaller groups, observing as they tried to work with difficult conditions on the ground. Despite the fragility of the connection between the groups caused not only by periods of violence but also the difficulties of travel and communication, which prevented most Gaza members from attending the actual workshops, a link was established that was maintained by participants even during wartime. I am deeply grateful to workshop leaders Judith Thomson and Adin Thayer, to Uri Hadar and Yitzhak Mendelsohn for leading the Israeli team, to Mustafa Qossoqsi and Bassam Abu Omar for leading the Palestinian team, and to Avi Berman and Miriam Berger for helping with the original proposal, as well as to the Norwegian Council on Mental Health and Foreign Ministry for the grant that enabled our meetings. In addition, to all the participants and the international team members who contributed to enriching a challenging but rewarding learning environment.

[2] The literature on this subject is vast. I draw especially on the work of ILAS in Chile with torture survivors (Cordal, 2005; Cordal, Mailer et al, 2010; Castillo & Cordal 2014); Bar-On (1995; 2008) Laub and Auerhahn (1989; 1993), Felman and Laub 1992 regarding Holocaust survivors; Antje Krog, Hamber (2008) , Goboda-Madikizela (2002; 2003) regarding South Africa;; Qouta & Sarraj (Qouta et al 1995)) regarding Palestine; Hetherington (2008) and Verwoerdt + Little (2008) regarding Northern Ireland; Herman (1992) and Van der Kolk (2014) on trauma, Minnow (1998) and Hayner on restorative justice.