Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War by Grace M. Cho vividly raises the question of whether the author’s approach to trauma transmission is marked by a somatic illiteracy that (a) masks the organic bodily processes by which trauma imprints are transmitted across generations, and (b) blinds her to the existence of powerful new methods of healing trauma imprints invented in the past twenty-five years. “Somatic illiteracy” can be defined as an almost complete ignorance of the mechanisms by which our bodies function as a vehicle of communication and a platform for emotions. In social research, this ignorance is based on a systematic disinterest in such functions fostered by the out-of-body thinking that is the foundation of one’s epistemology. The accounts of bodily processes which are used are marked by a the primacy of imagined elements over organic processes, the complete reversal of the relationship in the “realist” view.
There is in fact a voluminous literature on the organic bodily processes of intergenerational transmission of information. Cho does not refer to this literature, and the literature she does refer to is also completely ignorant of any organic mechanisms of transmission. So, this is a conscious choice. The literature is neglected because the role of the body is discounted a priori, as a feature of the author’s worldview.
In her extensive discussion of transgenerational transmission of trauma, she refers to it as “unconscious”, “ghosted” and “phantomatic”. She and the authors she refers to ignore the fact that even psychoanalytic researchers routinely identify “unconscious communication” as “communication through bodily expression”. [1998. Transgenerational Transmission and Chosen Traumas, by Vamik. D. Volkan, M.D.] She notes that Korean women of the diaspora carry a vision of what they did not see and what an earlier generation saw but could not say they saw, as if this not being able to say is the same as not being able to communicate what they saw (experienced). Such a view of the human communication process—omitting the manifold signals used by the organic body, and which are pervasive and intimate in the mother-child relationship -- is a perfect example of somatic illiteracy.
Once we restore the primacy of the organic over the imaginary, the whole account of intergenerational transmission of trauma is transformed entirely, giving us valuable details of the process, and valuable details of the healing process.
According to Cho’s out-of-body thinking, healing is to occur by employing exercises of language: “new writing/methods for grasping the materialities and temporalities of bodies, “auto-ethnographies”. This claim is a stunning and dangerous half-truth. Techniques such as experimental writing bring the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder into consciousness. This is a possible beginning of healing, but it is far from its completion. The traumatized individual still experiences the symptoms described at length by authors such as Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery.
These symptoms are, generally, the loss of control over the occurrence of hyper-arousal and hypo-arousal of one’s emotional repertoire. Hyper-arousal is the kicking in of the sympathetic nervous system – exaggerated startle reflexes, breaks in consciousness, sharp mood swings, chronic fear. Hypo-arousal is “shut-down” -- a relative decrease in heart rate and respiration and a decrease in exterior sensory awareness, sometimes described as a dreamlike state of consciousness.
This also raises the question of what do we mean by “healing”, what do we mean by “health”? When we recognize the validity of our somatic existence, “healing” is the ability to return voluntarily to the social engagement state of consciousness from the states of hyper-arousal and hypo-arousal that characterize our response to overwhelming stimuli. “Health” is comfortable access to this “social engagement state”. In everyday language we refer to this as “being in our body”. [See Trauma and the Body, by Pat Ogden et al. (W.W.Norton, 2006), pp. 26-40.)]
We can give a biological description of the social engagement state:
The social engagement system has a control component in the cortex (i.e., upper motor neurons) that regulates brainstem nuclei (i.e., lower motor neurons) to control eyelid opening (e.g., looking), facial muscles (e.g., emotional expression), middle ear muscles (e.g., extracting human voice from background noise), muscle of mastication (e.g., ingestion), laryngeal and pharyngeal muscles (e.g., prosody) and head tilting and turning muscles (e.g., social gesture and orientation). (Porges, 2003b, p. 35)
Ogden then adds, “Collectively, these components of the social engagement system enable rapid engagement and disengagement with the environment and in social relationships by regulating heart rate without mobilizing the sympathetic nervous system.” (p. 30)
Out-of-body thinkers are fully aware that experimental writings bring the symptoms of PTSD to the surface of consciousness, but they do not recognize them as such. They are aware that the symptoms are traumatizing.
They note that the experimental forms of writing that mean to capture trauma often present the subject in blanks or hesitations—a topographic formulation of forgetting, loss, uncertainty, disavowal and defensiveness. These writings can take a nonlinear, disconnected form, using multiple voices. They can fluctuate out of objective facts to subjective memory, weaving in and out of the cold facts of the forgotten war and engaging in dream sequences that both attract and hypnotize the reader.
They do not recognize that these nonlinear, disconnected forms, with blanks and hesitations, having multiple voices, fluctuating between objective facts and subjective memory and engaging in dream sequences are precisely the presentation of the symptoms of PTSD that, now that they are accessible to consciousness, can be treated by the various methods currently being developed by body-centered practitioners.
Purely language techniques are the products of mid-twentieth century French structuralists such as Lacan, Deleuze and Derrida, for whom identity was the result of language, whereas we now know as a settled scientific conclusion that individual identity begins long before the acquisition of language, before the awareness of sexual desire, in the pre-linguistic sensory experiences of an individual’s somatic boundary (the skin). The structuralists’ dissociated consciousness had no direct access to their own embodiment, and their time had almost no knowledge of the sensory components of human knowledge. They had to do all introspection through language.
But, in the last two decades of the twentieth century a body of work arose on the direct access mammals have to their own somatic processes and the consequent discovery of sub-cortical awareness. Schools of trauma treatment trauma such as Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing, Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing, and the Hakomi practices of Ron Kurtz and Pat Ogden share the observation that trauma is a biological event, namely, an overwhelm of certain information-processing channels in the organic body. The blockages created by these overwhelming experiences are physiological in nature and cannot be accessed directly by the functions of the neo-cortex.
Sensori-motor practice has learned is that these blockages can be readily accessed through sub-cortical awareness, inner body sensing. No language, no neo-cortical thinking. Just going inside and sensing. In this practice, “It doesn’t matter what the treatment is as long as people are paying attention to the body and working with the nervous system directly to help bring back self-regulation. And the most self-regulating of all systems are the lower brain structures that govern life in the body.” [Raja Selvam, Santa Barbara Graduate Institute]
[This lack of access to the sub-cortex is, by the way, the source of out-of-body thinkers’ tone of frustration and panic at the failures of “memory” (i.e., linguistic memory) and their fondness for the term “ghost” and “haunt” in accounting for the persistence of trauma imprints. Since they have no awareness of the organic source of symptoms, they are all completely mysterious, “ghostly”.]
Experimental writing is indeed an “unlearning not to speak”, an important social and cultural step in healing. But it does not occur to out-of-body thinking that the motivation to speak is actually generated by the presence in the organic body of blocked channels of information transmission. Any form of unlearning not to speak starts to bring traumatic imprints from their suppressed, forgotten, state. Sensori-motor theory notes that the core of trauma imprint is blockage. An organic bodily channel for processing information has been blocked, and for healing to occur, the information must move through the blockage. Becoming consciously aware of the blockage is a key step in releasing it.
However, sensori-motor practice also knows that an incautious recognition of the original imprint can cause, not healing, but re-enactment. The subject simply experiences the original overwhelm all over again, and the symptoms can be damaging.
This is true of intergenerational trauma as well as other forms. Although the second generation has not experienced the original events in their own bodies, they do carry in their own bodies the somatic imprints of those events , imprints that have been transmitted to them by the manifold bodily signals sent by their parental generation.
So, Cho successfully contributes to ending the collective amnesia that has long concealed the traumatization of her mother’s generation. And in doing so she brings to the surface of consciousness certain symptoms which can now be treated. However, the symptoms she so forcefully calls to our attention cannot be treated further within the confines of a somatic illiteracy that obscures both the mechanisms of intergenerational transmission and of healing trauma imprints.