The Demonization of Ethel Rosenberg, by Adrienne Harris, appears in Trans-generational Trauma and the Other, a volume of essays published in 2017 psychoanalytically meditating on the question of the transgenerational transmission of trauma, metastasizing and alienated historical ghosts, and the inter-subjectivity of Big History.

Public Seminar spoke with Dr Harris – who is, among many other things, faculty and supervisor at New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis – about The Demonization of Ethel Rosenberg.


Public Seminar (PS): It’s clear from your essay, The Demonization of Ethel Rosenberg, that you began thinking about the significance of the McCarthy era trial on the transgenerational transmission of trauma prior to the Trump election win. How did the “new” politics of the spectacle dominating the contemporary moment shape, or re-shape, your writing of this piece? Put another way, what does the demonization of Ethel Rosenberg mean in the age of Trump?

Adrienne Harris (AH): It is so eerie to think of Ethel Rosenberg in the Trump era. Trump has this corrupt and unsurprising link to Roy Cohn (and therefore to McCarthy) so we see some of the same – actually the same – corrupt and dangerous figures now as we did then.

When I think of how I see the current situation in our culture and government, I think of the work of Yolanda Gampel, who coined the term ‘radioactive identifications’ to describe how our environment – literal, figurative, social, and political – is full of poisonous toxins which flood the psyche of the individual – they flood our dreams, our bodies and our somatic states. Patients have been feeling endangered, flooded and at risk. Therapists too. One important idea – which I first from Joel Whitebook in an Op Ed in the New York Times. Trump is waging an attack on reality, on our ability to think and reason. If we lose that capacity as individuals and as a culture, our vulnerability to fascism and to totalitarian regimes will be radically more serious, indeed catastrophic.

PS: Sue Grand and Jill Salberg – the editors of the collection, Trans-generational Trauma and the Other, in which we find your essay – mention that Emmanual Levinas is a lodestar for many of the contributors to the book. How does ethical responsibility, with a Levinasian flavor, figure in (relational) psychoanalysis today, and for you?

AH: I welcome Levinas as a lodestar. He is hard and demanding to follow. But he is inspiring, noting that we have a responsibility to ‘the other’ which we cannot avoid or escape or refuse. I like it that we have a ‘call’, we are enjoined to face our responsibilities.

PS: Would you mind sharing with us what you’re working on now?

AH: I am finishing a book on gender and sexuality and on clinical process – projects I have been addressing for the past decade. I love to write. It is containing and organizing for me. I am also working with my colleague Eyal Rozmarin on political/social/psychoanalytic pieces – short really – for a new section of Psychoanalytic Dialogues.

PS: What are you reading at the moment? Would you recommend that Public Seminar readers read this (these) book(s)?

AH: I am reading – for a writing project – Fanon, James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Very intense. And very different, though Baldwin and Fanon are almost the same generation. There’s so much love in Baldwin, and so much fierceness in Fanon. We need both.

PS: Can you tell us a little bit about your writing practice? Do you have any particular rituals that help you along the way in pursuing an idea from its infancy into a finished book or paper?

AH: Interesting question. I love to write. At this point in my life – late 70’s – I need to write early in the morning. What I tell my students about writing is that its really just like talking. Imagine who you are speaking to. Imagine a listener. Take a long time to edit. Things change, ideas change.

The Demonization of Ethel Rosenberg


On Saturday June 20th, 1953, my father announced, without warning or explanation, that I was not to read the newspapers on that day. The Toronto Globe and Mail, the Toronto Telegram, and the Toronto Star for that Saturday, summarily disappeared from the house. As a 12-year-old avid reader and student, I had a vague idea that this unexplained but draconian prohibition had something to do with death. I remember hunting through later editions of the newspapers, my father’s sanctions having made me actually now anxiously curious.

The material he sought to shield me from was the account of the death in the electric chair, of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, an execution that took place in Sing Sing, a prison in the town of Ossining along the bucolic Hudson River. After a number of years of trials, appeals, protests, and passionate argument about spying, the Cold War, and the death penalty, and a final last ditch attempt to stay the execution, the Rosenbergs were executed early on a Friday evening (8 p.m.), designed in a stunningly insensitive but surely not unconscious move in relation to the Sabbath (which would begin at 11 p.m.). This occurred as the state pursued the death of this couple relentlessly and despite a massive international movement arguing for clemency and basic justice.

Now after half a century and a life both of activism, of protest, of feminism, and of psychoanalysis, I can see that this trial and execution was a sequence of events, unfolding with inexorable horror, that marked the generation of the Rosenbergs’ peers but also my generation, the cohort of their children, Robert and Michael, who were 6 and 10 respectively at the time of their parents’ deaths. The arrest, trial, and execution of the Rosenbergs is the dark center of the postwar Cold War and McCarthyism hysteria that swept America. Blacklists, jobs and pensions lost, careers destroyed: these casualties are simply the most visible. The toll on the physical health, mental health, and on the psychic and political resilience of the wide spectrum of progressive persons who would have felt at risk is probably incalculable, certainly very far reaching.

The Cold War historian Ellen Schrecker (1999) describes the tactic of intimidation and hostile surveillance that dogged thousands of progressive and left wing Americans after the Second World War. At the heart of that activity was the execution for espionage of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Although others were suspected or even known to have passed information, no other arrests resulted in the death penalty or in execution. These deaths were the horrifying specter that caught the heart and mind of anyone on the left in that period, probably anyone even mildly progressive. This seems to have been, as many have argued, the government’s intention.

At the time, these events were highly traumatic, marking the consciousness of progressive persons worldwide. In this chapter I want to pursue the idea that these events cast a long dark shadow, operating at both conscious and unconscious levels. I believe that for my generation, the 1950s, including these events and these executions, are much more determinative than we had imagined. I include in this generational roll call people engaged in anti-war activism, civil rights work, second wave feminism, gay liberation, coming into political consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s, with the eruption of anti war protest and identity politics.

Even as the politics of the 1960s, cultural and more traditionally political, were seen as a break for freedom, as explosive change and cultural transformation, I think this tragic and difficult postwar and Cold War past followed us, haunted us, entered mind and heart, led us, and accompanied us. Nachtraglichkeit is the filter through which to see the impact of these events. Looking back at the context of the Cold War and postwar repressive environment and looking forward to the 1960s and the activism of civil rights, anti war work and feminism and gay liberation, the linked worlds of Old and New Left, I see the persistence, the reverberations, and the pervasive reach of this trial and these deaths. It might be better to think of the notion of caesura (Bion, 1962; Civitarese, 2008) to describe and frame the experience of continuity and discontinuity between the decades of the postwar and the years around and after 1968.

I am tracking intergenerational transmission of trauma at a social and cultural level, a pervasive climate of anxiety and surveillance and control that entered individual consciousnesses at deep and often unconscious levels. I think this period begins shortly after the end of the Second World War and continues into the 1960s. The degree to which these executions reached and entered the consciousness of many North American citizens, regardless of their political sensibilities, says something about the deep reach of the state, the capacity of the government to upend normalcy, family, decency, democracy, and the rule of law in the service of state power. This lesson was deep and sure and, given the anxiety-filled quality of life in the 1950s, particularly its anxious conformity, one sees how well this lesson worked.

There was one overwhelming message to progressives, to immigrants, to Jews, and to women, emergent from the relentless pursuit and murder of this couple, in particular, the wife in this couple, Ethel Rosenberg. It was a brutal and clear warning to shut down any political activism, to give up radicalism, progressive politics and, most crucially, the Communist Party. I think my personal story and the persistence of memory of these events is not at all unique, however it is personal. I am increasingly sure that the underground, less obvious anxieties of the postwar Cold War period are, to an important degree, bedrock for my cohort’s consciousness as a feminist, and bedrock to progressive political activism generally.

Two other concepts might be helpful here. Apprey (2015) writes about the unique presence of errands in the unconscious experience of individuals who carry out tasks for which they were often unaware they were marked and bidden. Apprey, I think, is bringing together nachtraglichkeit and interpellation to describe an errand targeted in the future but also, however it appears to be found, it has already been undertaken.

Abraham and Torok (1994) call these ‘encrypted identifications’. While these kinds of processes are primarily thought of as transmissions within families, it seems useful to imagine these errands as often social and collective in their effect, even while remaining often unconscious in their transmission. Andrea Ritter (2011) has written about the understanding of intergenerational transmission of trauma in Hungarian psychoanalysis since Ferenczi and notes that there, it was important to notice the effect of collective trauma in which individual traumatic transmissions were embedded. She cites the work of Veres who looked at the impact on very early archaic attachments, on the deep both paranoid and compensatory need to keep children safe, often at the expense of their individuation, when there was ongoing collective trauma. Each setting will have its own level of collective trauma, of course, and North American life has not been stained with the fascist and then totalitarian regimes that lasted half a century in Europe and in Russia. The Cold War period (and the postwar adjustment and reorganization) has its own character. In particular, I would say, this overriding frightening world of state control penetrated the consciousness of many political movements across many kinds of projects (anti-war, racism, identity politics, women’s rights, etc.). We might see the ongoing presence of collective trauma in contemporary crises around race and around the safety of women.

From the world of political science, Guralnik, Guralnik & Simeon (2010), and others have brought into psychoanalysis Althusser’s concept of interpellation. The execution of the Rosenbergs and the demonization of Ethel Rosenberg are forms of interpellative claim, an address from the state to citizen subjects that instructs, dictates, and in that process makes a subject. The subjects thus constituted, may resist, but will also trans- form the warning into a command, sensing, accepting, and also refusing and ignoring the dangers both predicted and already taken place.

The Rosenbergs’ Trial

The arrests and prosecution followed a usual course. A grand jury was called and in the aftermath of the testimony of about 40 persons, including Ethel, both Ethel and Julius were indicted on charges of espionage. The trial began on March 6th, 1951. Ethel’s brother and his wife (David and Ruth Greenglass) gave testimony implicating Julius primarily and thus both the Greenglasses were immune from prosecution. They had a new baby.

Political appeals and strong pleas for mercy were mounted. The newsreels often pictured the young Rosenberg children going to and from Sing Sing. One photo clip from the period shows them arriving at prison wearing Dodger caps. Perhaps these were conscious strategies linked to the appeals for humanity, and for clemency, by rendering the Rosenberg family human and American while the state built a picture of vicious, alien, Communist (and Jewish) criminals.

The trial and the political period in which it was set was dominated by figures like J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy and by a junior figure who became a violently conservative and repressive figure in American political life, Roy Cohn. The hatred of civil rights and gay rights and left progressive thought was virulent in certain parts of the larger culture but exemplified and embodied in these men. That we now know that Cohn and Hoover were also closeted gay men only adds to the sense of alienation and confusion. Some of this alienation is captured in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which in presenting the tragic heart of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, brings together the 1950s and the 1980s, the Cold War, and the social and medical tragedies of AIDS in a scene when the specter of Ethel Rosenberg arrives at the deathbed of Roy Cohn, dying of AIDS. A ghost, a visitation, a hallucination: this is nachtraglichkeit in action, the re-remembering and reconstituting of continuous traumatic effects even where we remember only isolated and fragmentary slices of history.

Amidst these intense political debates and battles of image and word, the Rosenbergs themselves remained silent. It was generally believed that Ethel was on trial, convicted, and under a death sentence in the hopes that the couple or at least she would break and name names. Neither one gave names. The many abuses and misuses of evidence in the trial and the passionate determination of the state and the government to convict and prosecute the Rosenbergs occupied historians and political theorists for decades. Much of the evolution of thinking about the Rosenbergs appeared in the wake of the Rosenberg children, named Meeropol for their adoptive parents, who emerged from obscurity to speak on their parents’ behalf and to write a book We Are Your Sons (1986).

To go back to that June Saturday in 1953, I of course hunted down a newspaper and read with great agitation a terrible account. Julius was executed first as it was said that he was weak and fragile emotionally and Ethel was stronger in temperament and more emotionally robust. I will return to this idea later.

I do remain puzzled as to what had alarmed my father. What was this? We were in Canada, a thousand miles from Sing Sing. My father was not at all political in any way I might discern. He was a veteran, marked by his time in the war, and yet, also, full of charm, easy going, more normally a newspaper reader of box scores and baseball stats. I think my father was expressing what must have been a pervasive feeling of horror, some deep, visceral fear triggered by the reports in press, radio, and movie news of the circumstances surrounding the execution of Ethel Rosenberg, a botched job that led to a gruesome and horrible death.

I think my father was reacting to the grotesque details of that execution, details that were, at the time, widely distributed. The decision to make these lurid and ghastly details public would have remained in the hands of the state, which had just discharged the execution. That decision surely was part of the politically motivated project of terrorization. As a result of repeated administration of electricity, and because she was too small for the equipment she was attached to, her death was slow and laborious and a grisly mess of smoke and burnt flesh. Ethel Rosenberg was almost literally burned at the stake.

Ethel Rosenberg

About Ethel’s constructed place in this story, there is increasingly less and less confusion. At the time of the trial, some observers took her silence for disdain and wickedness; her husband’s was seen as more enigmatic. Not initially arrested, she was by the time of the trial and certainly in the aftermath increasingly and bizarrely seen as the lynchpin, the wicked witch of Communism.

In retrospect, one sees how so many details of the prosecution and the trial were calculated and very often invented. A key element that figured in the trial was a jello box, which the prosecution claimed had been used as a signifier and identification mark for communications and meetings by the spies. There was no such box ever found so Roy Cohn held up a model jello box by way of illustration, but clearly also a way to insert a fabricated piece of evidence. It was a box of red jello. Think of this jello box as an element in a dream. This simple kitchen product, this simple American product, is used to pervert and attack America. I would read the deep agenda here as the project to identify and accuse and criminalize the immigrant, Jewish (jello was decidedly not kosher), Communist (red jello), and female (the domestic worker). Slowly, inexorably the woman comes to personify betrayal.

In looking more closely at how Ethel was positioned both in the legal discourse and in the public space, I see that Ethel is taken up as a projective object in many ways. Martyr, demonic woman secretly in control, mother, saint. Half a century of exposure to political analysis and opposition and decades of psychoanalysis have barely given me tools to think about the long shadow of that event in 1953 my father had wished to shield me from.

To read the chapter, in full, click here.

The Demonization of Ethel Rosenberg appears as chapter 4, page 85-101, in Trans-generational Trauma and the Other, edited by Sue Grand and Jill Salberg, and published in 2017. Permission to excerpt was provided by Taylor and Francis Group. Trans-generational Trauma and the Other can be purchased, at a discount on the Routledge website here.

Adrienne Harris, Ph.D. is Faculty and Supervisor at New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. She is on the faculty and is a supervisor at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California.