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Dori Laub, MD, 1937-2018

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By M. Gerard Fromm, PhD, ABPPDistinguished Faculty in the Erikson Institute for Education and Research

Dori Laub, MD, one of the foremost psychoanalytic theorists on trauma, passed away on June 23, 2018. Dori Laub, MD, one of the foremost psychoanalytic theorists on trauma, passed away on June 23, 2018. A Fellow in psychiatry at Riggs from 1967-1969, Dori was clinical professor of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and in private practice in New Haven, Connecticut. Born in Czernowitz, Romania in 1937, Dori received his medical degree at the Hadassah Medical School at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and his master’s degree in clinical psychology at the Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. 

Dori was co-founder of the International Study Group for Trauma, Violence and Genocide and served as deputy director for trauma research at the Yale Genocide Studies Program. In 1979, he was the co-founder of the Holocaust Survivors Film Project Inc., which subsequently became the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale. Dori worked primarily with victims of massive psychic trauma. A Holocaust survivor himself, he published and lectured extensively on the multifaceted impact of the Holocaust on the lives of survivors and their children.

On October 21, 2016, Dori gave a plenary address at the Washington Conference on Trauma: Listening to Trauma: Insights and Actions in Washington, DC. The title of his presentation was, “Restoring the Internal Witness to Trauma: Testimony and Psychoanalysis.” He began with his own “journey:” the way in which his own Holocaust experience disappeared into a psychic and cultural “blind spot,” but then, through the intercession of a listener “who want(ed) to know,” how its horrific fragments could be lived through and given narrative form. Dori became deeply convinced that witnessing plays a crucial role in recovery from severe trauma.

This witnessing–by the survivor and the accompanying other–cannot be taken for granted. It requires the other to be “totally present to the survivor, and receive as well as experience” what is being transmitted. But to experience what has been hitherto unbearable is a perilous process for both parties. In therapy, “sweeping countertransference parapraxes” occur, as profound denial is met recurrently and firsthand: for example, the analyst’s “not knowing” for long periods of time that his patient’s family had the same Holocaust experience as his own. Severe traumatic experience “does away with dimensions of place and time. It all happens in the here and now.” Survival together is critical.

Testimony, as Dori saw it, is “a product of a dialogic interaction,” requiring the deep “presence,” activity and containment of the other. The dissociated Real becomes realized, but because the survivor is “relentlessly drawn to it and recoil(s) in terror when coming near it,” the “information” carried by the survivor-witness (Dori uses the evocative term “possession”) is “yet to be recorded and brought to an addressee, to a party interested in receiving.” Dori underlines the deep “yearning” in the survivor for that other, and the potential transformation of charged fragments into a terrible story that can be remembered, rather than simply re-lived, “and also…forgotten.”

Over the years, Dori became a co-witness for many deeply traumatized people, including for some hospitalized in Israel for years. His interviews with these psychiatric patients are astonishing. Chronic muteness and other psychotic symptomatology give way, in the face of his sustained, compassionate interest, to actual speech and to stories of their families’ Holocaust history, which–also astonishingly–is not in their extensive records. As the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips said, “People are only ever as mad as the other person is deaf” (1996, 34). 

Dori found in the Parisian psychoanalysts (and Erikson Scholars), Françoise Davoine and Jean-Max Gaudilliere, the theorists and clinical partners he needed to help him advance his own thinking, and perhaps to support his courage to discover things that, as the U2 song goes, must “be believed to be seen” (U2 2000). Their book, History Beyond Trauma, was profoundly important to him, as were they themselves as friends and testimony sharers. Indeed, Dori, Françoise and Jean-Max, along with many others, formed a deep bond through their connection to Riggs: with each other and with the many traumatized patients they have helped to become witnesses in the process of becoming fully alive people.  

Dori’s presentation (quoted throughout this piece) will be published in the fall of 2018 as a chapter in Healing Trauma: The Power of Listening, edited by Evelyn Jaffe Schreiber. He becomes now, to use one of his key concepts, an “inner thou” for all of us.     

References

Laub, Dori. 2018. "Restoring the Internal Witness to Trauma: Testimony and Psychoanalysis." In Healing Trauma: The Power of Listening, by Evelyn Jaffe Schreiber, ed. New York: IPBooks.

Phillips, Adam. 1996. Terrors and Experts.Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

U2. 2000. Walk On. Comp. U2.

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