Captivity, Gender, and the Traumatic Narrative

This paper is somewhat old and probably needs a lot of work, but it is an important one for me.  It is from one of the best classes i’ve ever taken, a comparative literature class called Trauma, Gender, Fiction taught by Katy Brundan.

Captivity, Gender, and the Traumatic Narrative

The narratives of trauma and captivity in The Woman in White and Beirut Nightmares challenge the idea that captivity as a trauma is neatly contained within the survivor’s body.  Throughout this paper I consider these novels tools for understanding how trauma and captivity work on both individual and cultural levels.  I also consider how the individual vs. cultural debate on trauma is gendered and reinforces different frameworks for thinking about power.  While some theorists have argued that limiting trauma to the individual experience is a way of depoliticizing cultural problems such as patriarchy, others argue that the idea of cultural trauma waters down the definition of trauma, taking power and entitlement away from survivors.  In this paper I attempt to look at trauma as both individual and cultural, exposing that the two frameworks for trauma are neither contradictory, redundant, nor completely compatible.  Through this exploration I consider how the feminist or gendered implications of either approach to trauma theory influence the boundary conditions of trauma. 

First I consider how captivity in each novel is gendered in relation to trauma.  Next I look at how the narratives of captivity work on both a cultural and an individual level, and I close the paper with considerations about resistance, and how questions of resistance influence the definitions of trauma, captivity, and the boundary conditions of both.


Captivity: A Foundation

Captivity might be considered an acute version of bell hooks’ definition of oppression, which is a limitation of choices.  Captivity is based on an extreme limitation of choices.  In Trauma and Recovery, feminist psychiatrist Judith Herman describes captivity as a condition which creates a certain kind of trauma: not a single terrorizing event, but a prolonged subjection to coercive control.  Captivity exists in both public and private spheres.  It can exist as a condition of war, of kidnapping, of prostitution, and most relevantly, as a condition of femininity.  Femininity, which may simply be considered “the quality or nature of the female sex,” is a social category which changes through historical and geographical contexts (Merriam-Webster).  The “quality and nature” of women is largely shaped by patriarchal constructions.  Since patriarchy is an organization of society dominated by men, women often become captives of the social agreements in that society and of individual men.  Social constructions of gender in these societies serve to emphasize the qualities of men’s power and women’s helplessness and limitations.

The Feminization of Captivity

Captivity is a method of control used in the oppression, domination and exploitation of women.  It has the traumatic affect of debilitating and disempowering women, to the point that they can easily be molded into societally given roles of femininity and in turn willingly mold each other into those roles. 

Since women’s captivity is a culturally pervasive phenomenon, one that is backed by economic, social, religious, and other institutions, it is rarely seen as captivity at all.  As Judith Herman writes, “A man’s home is his castle; rarely is it understood that the same home may be a prison for women and children” (Herman 74).  Captivity in the home goes unrecognized because, if it is not overtly socially sanctioned, societies are organized in ways which render such captivities invisible or unrecognizable.  Herman notes that “Children are rendered captive by their conditions of dependency.  Women are rendered captive by economic, social, psychological, and legal subordination, as well as by physical force” (Herman 74). 

Women are not only rendered captive by patriarchy, but they are trained to be easy targets.  Captivity is embedded in everyday cultural practices to the extent that it is no longer seen as captivity at all.  For this reason, traumatic instances of captivity such as abusive relationships or families often go unnoticed or unrecognized by the society at large.  Psychologists, who are active agents in cultural discourse and definition, have recognized war and other public catastrophes as real trauma while only in the last few decades recognized rape and violations within the private sphere as traumatic.

 The kind of captivity trauma in Beirut Nightmares has been considered legitimate trauma by the dominant discourse defining the term; however, the kind of captivity trauma in The Woman in White has not been recognized by dominant discourses.  While Beirut Nightmares is a story of war, The Woman in White depicts a woman who, in a very normal and culturally sanctified way, is passed from father to husband in marriage.  Nonetheless, both Ghada from Beirut Nightmares and Laura from The Woman in White experience the effects of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, a term Judith Herman used to describe the psychological after affects of captivity survivors.

Beirut Nightmares has a complicated relationship to gendered trauma, depicting some characters as feminized and others masculinized by the same captivity.  Ghada Samman opens the novel with a reference to hysteria, “So after ten minutes of hysterical running back and forth between the various rooms of the house…” which sets the stage for an underlying dialogue around gender and trauma throughout the novel.  Samman complicates the gendered relationship to trauma by masculinizing Ghada while feminizing Amin and Amm Fu’ad, as Ghada is an active agent throughout the book and Amin and Amm Fu’ad become as docile and meek as the caged animals who choose not to leave when given the chance.

The feminization of captivity in The Woman in White creates a trauma that, while just as real as Ghada Samman’s, is very different from hers and very much socially sanctified.  In The Woman in White, Laura is pre-trained to be a perfect captive by embodying the perfect femininity.  She is shy, frail, pale, meek, childish, passive and submissive.  Laura’s character reveals the cultural element of captivity and trauma.  Not only is captivity gendered in a way that most women have to endure it to some extent, but further that they are pre-trained to fit the role of the captive.

Cultural and Individual Captivity

Whole cultures or groups of people may experience captivity and all the traumas associated with it, but it may be normalized as a part of daily life.  Ron Eyerman writes in Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity, that “As opposed to psychological or physical trauma, which involves a wound and the experience of great emotional anguish by an individual, cultural trauma refers to a dramatic loss of identity and meaning, a tear in the social fabric, affecting a group of people that has achieved some degree of cohesion” (Eyerman, 2).  By this definition, events like the holocaust, slavery, or 9/11 can affect large groups of people in traumatic ways.  Identity based groups experience a crisis of meaning in reaction to a traumatic event, thus tearing the “social fabric” and losing group cohesion.  However, a discussion of gender oppression shakes this framework for thinking about cultural trauma.  For instance, in The Woman in White, Laura is subjected to anything from severe limitations to outright abuse, while those around her rationalize the treatment as a natural product of marriage, for her safety, or as simply as a result of her sex without any other justifications.  How can trauma and entrapment be justified as necessary for cultural cohesion?  Why is cultural trauma framed as something that breaks cultural cohesion?  Women’s experiences of trauma challenge this narrative, telling a story of captivity far different from those who have access to the dominant narrative.  Cultural cohesion, an idea that is not defined by women, is used to perpetuate their entrapment within patriarchal societies.

The boundary conditions, the definitions of and the extent that definition reaches, have been defined and redefined both through discussions of captivity and discussions of the private sphere.  While the most institutionally and culturally recognized definition of trauma is a single, overwhelming experience, this definition has been challenged on multiple fronts.  Judith Herman realized the need to make a distinction between single traumas and the multiple traumas experienced by those in captivity.  This definition helps us understand women’s experiences more fully, but it is still confined to the individual experience.  Laura Brown and Ann Cvectovich, however, broaden trauma to exist on the cultural level.  Trauma is not just a condition of the extreme experiences and the women experiencing them, but a condition of femininity under patriarchy at large.

The Perpetrator

Creating and maintaining captivity requires repetitive psychological trauma, “organized techniques of disempowerment and disconnection” (Herman 77).  It is often noted that the most disturbing aspect of the relationship of control created between the perpetrator and the captive is the apparent normality of the perpetrator.  Perpetrators often do not see anything wrong with themselves, and psychologists cannot often claim any kind of psychological ailment to have affected them.  The victim’s world view can be completely shaped and affected by the perpetrator, while the perpetrator’s psychology can go completely unquestioned by both the perpetrator and the victim as well as by society as a whole.  The perpetrator, “authoritarian, secretive, sometimes grandiose, and even paranoid… is nevertheless exquisitely sensitive to the realities of power and to social norms” (Herman 75).  The perpetrator’s first step is to create a “willing victim,” which he accomplishes by using “terror, intermittent reward, isolation, and enforced dependency” (Herman 83).  The final step in “breaking” his victim is to bring her to the point of self-betrayal and self-violation.  Political prisoners and prisoners of consciousness, often more prepared for and aware of techniques of captivity, resist isolation and maintain a sense of autonomy as long as possible.

The Narrative of Captivity

I want to look at the narrative of captivity that Judith Herman describes in Trauma and Recovery for two purposes.  The first is to consider how both novels fit into Herman’s narrative, and the second is connect the traumas to a cultural framework.  While it may seem strained to create a universalist narrative of the perpetrator, Herman writes that “The accounts of hostages, political prisoners, and survivors of concentration camps from every corner of the globe have an uncanny sameness…..  Even in domestic situations, where the batterer…has had no formal instructions in these techniques, he seems time and again to reinvent them” (Herman 76).

The perpetrator, to start, is more often than not considered completely normal by the standards of his culture.  This is a very important notion for linking individual and cultural trauma.  If the perpetrator is “normal,” he is simply exposing a disease which is already latent in that culture, that his apparent normality should actually be seen as a warning that something dreadfully wrong is normal in that culture.

The perpetrator consistently uses specific steps to gain total control. Among these steps are repetitive infliction of psychological trauma, destroying the person’s sense of self in relation to others, demolishing the person’s human connections, and bringing the person to the point of self-violation, absolute passivity and robotization.  The survivor, if she is lucky, realizes that any risk to maintain outside attachments, whether symbolic, mental, or real, is absolutely necessary for psychological autonomy and emotional survival (Herman 81).  When the perpetrator has total control of his victim, inside and out, he as won. 

On release from captivity, survivors face similar affects to those with PTSD, but due to the repetitive psychological harm, certain elements of the after-affects of the trauma are even more heightened.  Survivors will face an extreme avoidance constriction, avoiding certain aspects of life that remind them of the traumas they’ve endured, they will experience an obliteration of past and future, a limitation of the sphere of initiative, a sense of dehumanization, a limitation of characters that make up the story in their lives, and often a fear and hatred of their rescuers.

I’d like to talk about a few aspects of this narrative in relation to Ghada Samman’s Beirut Nightmares and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.  These include the destruction of the person’s sense of self in relation to others by demolishing human connections, dehumanization, and the limitation of characters.  Each of these characteristics exists on individual and cultural levels, thus normalizing their affects when seen in the broader society.

Both Laura from The Woman in White and Ghada from Beirut Nightmares experience the destruction of their sense of self in relation to others, and this happens in both novels by their human connections being demolished.  Judith Herman explains, “As long as the victim maintains any other human connection, the perpetrator’s power is limited.  It is for this reason that perpetrators universally seek to isolate their victims from any other source of information, material aid, or emotional support” (Herman 79).  In The Woman in White, a series of deceptions and violations are performed to separate Laura from her sister, Marian.  These include lying, drugging, reading their letters and diary, and locking the women in separate parts of the house.  Eliza Michelson, one of the housekeepers who takes on the narrative, quits Sir Percival’s service as the drama at Blackwater Park becomes exposed.  Sir Percival responds, “‘You have taken your own mean, underhand view of an innocent deception practiced on Lady Glyde, for her own good’” (Collins 401).  Throughout the novel, Sir Percival consistently defines what is for Laura’s own good according to his own motivations.  These actions fit easily within gendered social norms in which men tend to have more authority to decide what is for women’s own good than women do.  Because Sir Percival’s actions fit easily into a larger context of patriarchal power, oppression and trauma slide seamlessly into one another, and the difference between perpetrator and Baronet may only exist in the name.

One of the ways in which a perpetrator succeeds in having total control over his victim is by bringing her to the point of self-violation.  While there are many points at which Laura and Marian are locked up unwillingly, there are other points at which they lock themselves in.  The self created cages within Blackwater Park and after Blackwater Park are complex in that locking at once creates safety and a prison within a prison.  At one point Laura is the first to think of locking herself in her room, and Marian advocates it, writing “the locking of Laura’s door suggested to me the precaution of also locking my own door…” (Collins 308).  The locked door is at once a refuge and a cage within a cage.

There are many other instances of Laura’s and Marian’s outside connections being demolished or limited, each working together to create isolation and captivity at Backwater Park.  The book of Walter Hartright’s drawings is particularly meaningful, as Laura gives it up when she agrees to marry Sir Percival.  This book may not seem like a significant symbol of freedom, but as Judith Herman writes in her chapter on captivity, objects like Laura’s book of Walter’s paintings “preserve their sense of connection to others.  They understand that to lose these symbols of attachment is to lose themselves” (Herman 81).  Another symbolic object that contributes to a sense of self is clothing.  Laura finds herself trapped in an asylum wearing another woman’s clothing, called by another woman’s name, with nothing but her own conviction that she is Laura.  Similar to Sir Percival’s entitlement to decide what is and isn’t good for Laura, the asylum as an institution claims the entitlement to say who Laura is or who she is not.

In Beirut Nightmares, Ghada experiences the destruction of her sense of self in relation to others through symbolic and real human connections being demolished.  Throughout the book she has a deep fixation on the telephone.  At one point she describes calling and calling her lover who she knows is not alive.  And the phone, too, she knows has “died.”  Samman writes, “When at last the phone hadn’t rung even once all day, I felt the need to dial Yousif’s number—knowing ahead of time, of course, that I wouldn’t hear his voice.  This was a bad habit I’d got into lately.  I lifted the receiver, only to discover that the phone was dead” (Samman 187).  For Ghada, the phone is more than a simple object or instrument, but one of very few outlets for human connection.  Her fixation on the phone can be seen as an act of resistance to total psychological surrender caused by the isolation of captivity.  Similarly, Ghada endures extreme risk for a small bag with objects of symbolic attachment.  Samman writes, “if someone had impaled me with a sword at that moment, I would have kept right on going in pursuit of my lost bag” (Samman 363).  As in Laura’s story, risks such as Ghada’s, “which may appear heroic or foolish to outsiders, are undertaken for supremely pragmatic reasons” (Herman 81).  These objects and attempts to maintain a sense of human connection keep Ghada from total psychological surrender.

Another aspect of captivity that most survivors experience is dehumanization.  Herman writes that “Prisoners who have lived through this psychological state often describe themselves as having been reduced to a nonhuman life form” (Herman 84).  Both Laura and Ghada experience dehumanization to some extent, Laura being reduced to a child and Ghada to a robot.

Even after Laura’s captivity at Blackwater Park ends, even after her captivity in the asylum ends, she is still captive in her home with Marian and Walter.  She is still lied to and forced helpless by being excluded from all information and all contribution to the group’s survival.  Rightly so, she states that she is unhappy.  She says “Oh, don’t, don’t, don’t treat me like a child” (Collins 489)!  On hearing this, Walter continues to deceive her by creating an elaborate lie that she is selling her paintings, rather than deciding to treat her like an adult with agency of her own.  Walter’s and Marian’s actions toward Laura, so parallel to Count Fosco’s and Sir Percival’s, arguably contribute just as much to Laura’s trauma and captivity as the assumed enemies.

Of every narrative offered in The Woman in White, the object of the book never becomes the subject, never speaks for herself, and is rarely listened to.  Whether she is in the hands of Sir Percival, Count Fosco, Marian, or Walter Hartright, her subjectivity is far devalued against the other’s objectivity.  Mimicking Sir Percival’s language and attitude toward Laura, Walter writes, “It was hard sometimes to maintain our innocent deception, when she proudly brought out her purse to contribute her share toward the expenses, and wondered, with serious interest, whether she or I had earned the most that week” (Collins 490).  The repetition of the phrase “innocent deception” from Sir Percival’s mouth to Walter’s solidifies the notion that Sir Percival and Hartright are simply two sides of the same coin, both reducing Laura to an object without her own agency, both taking possession of her body and her freedom, both lying to her and keeping her locked up “for her own good.”

In Beirut Nightmares, dehumanization is a consistent, pervasive theme.  In the beginning of the novel Ghada describes herself mechanistically, “like a doll that’s been wound up and follows her pre-set course without stopping—even if she bumps into the edge of a rug or a chair leg, she keeps up her mechanical movements as if nothing has happened” (Sammon 2-3).  Progressively, the image of the doll takes more and more control of her body.  Pages later she writes,

“I began dismantling my body, detaching one limb after another as if I were a mannequin in a display window.  First I commanded my right leg to go to sleep, then my left.  Then, one at a time, I began ordering the remaining parts of my body to migrate out of time and space into the untamed expanses of the world of slumber” (Samman 17).


Finally, a narrative appears of a store mannequin speaking and acting as if alive.  Stereotypically beautiful, mistaken for a prostitute, neglected in her glass cage, she is eventually used as a decoy for misleading snipers, satisfied as she goes up in flames.  The story of the mannequin can be seen as parallel to Ghada’s struggles dealing with femininity and patriarchy in her cultural context.  While she fears she has been reduced to the state of the mannequin, a near meaningless martyr, her resistance comes as a resistance to the stifling role of femininity.

A third and final aspect of the captivity narrative that I will explore here is the reduction of characters in the survivor’s life.  Herman writes, “To the released prisoner, there is only one story: the story of atrocity.  And there are only a limited number of roles: one can be a perpetrator, a passive witness, an ally, or a rescuer” (Herman 92).  In both The Woman in White and Beirut Nightmares, the characters are limited to a reduced number of roles.

The Woman in White is organized around these limited roles.  The perpetrators are Sir Percival and Count Fosco; the passive witnesses are Mr. Fairlie, Mrs. Catherick, and Mrs. Rubelle; the ally is Marian; and the rescuer is Walter.  Some survivors, Herman explains, come to hate their rescuers more than their captors, and hate the passive witnesses the most of all.  Walter expresses a particular hatred for the passive witnesses, but Laura does not dislike Walter as survivors often would in this situation.  Arguably, Walter is quite hate-worthy, as he actually embodies enough qualities of a captor and perpetrator to be likened to Sir Percival Glyde.  However, a hatred of Walter must also come with a critique of captivity as a gendered phenomenon, in which every man can be a captor in a patriarchal society.

In Beirut Nightmares, Ghada Samman also depicts a limited number of characters.  Ghada juxtaposes her reality to the popular Arabic films of the day.  Sammon writes,

“In a situation like ours, the hero and the heroine would be expected to fall in love, then exchange amorous attentions under the pretext of fear….  The men would, of course, be expected to fight over the woman, who in turn would spend all her time crooning in front of a shuttered window, or beseeching the Almighty to let her true beloved triumph over the evil machinations of his foes.

            As for us, here we were…a woman, two men and a cadaver, with me playing all the parts except for that of the female.  After all, who but I had been leading the ‘cadaver transport operation’, comforting the afflicted and encouraging the fainthearted” (Samman 252).


For Ghada, there are two stories: one being the story of atrocity that Herman describes, and the other being the patriarchal narrative that reveals how trauma is popularly gendered.  In the first set of characters, Ghada is active enough in the process of claiming her freedom that she, as well as the military men, could be considered her own rescuer; the passive witnesses are the men of the house.  According to her set of characters—those of the Arabic film—the roles are entirely distorted: “here we were in the ‘theatre of life’, where the man goes stealing into the woman’s room because he’s frightened….  What a frightful injustice is done to women by cheap so-called ‘art’!  …When will women ever open their eyes to who they really are” (Samman 252)?  Samman’s juxtaposition of the Arabic film to the “theatre of life” exposes how male-dominance and captivity are wrapped up together, distorting men to be saviors and women to be passive recipients of their freedom.

The Boundary Conditions of Captivity

In conclusion for this paper, I want to explore how the boundary conditions of captivity are altered by the understanding that trauma and captivity are both individual and cultural.  The base definition of trauma has often been posited as an overwhelming experience, or an experience which causes dissociation, or an experience which is beyond the range of human capacity.  Judith Herman expanded the boundary conditions of these definitions by suggesting that prolonged traumatic events as experienced in captivity are different from single traumatic events, and survivors suffer from a different kind of post-traumatic stress.  Ann Cvectovich and Laura Brown take the boundary conditions of trauma even further by discussing the idea of “insidious trauma,” or “cultural trauma” which comes from “the traumatogenic effects of oppression” (Brown, 107).  Brown explains that many women who have never experienced direct trauma still live with symptoms of trauma: “we are hypervigilant to certain cues, avoid situations that we sense are high risk, go numb in response to overtures from men that might be friendly—but that might also be the first step toward our violation” (Brown 107).  Cvectovich further expands the boundary conditions of trauma by defining the term as a “socially situated political violence” (Cvectovich 3).  Rather than adding male violence against women and other political violences to an apolitical framework of trauma, Cvectovich considers political violence to be a starting place for talking about trauma.  Thus, she unapologetically takes the power of defining trauma away from the dominant narrators and into her own hands.

Women’s captivity breaks the framework of trauma in two ways.  First, as Herman has pointed out, captivity challenges the notion of trauma as a single overwhelming event.  Further, women’s captivity challenges the notion that captivity is individual, with clear boundaries and clear beginnings and endings, which Herman does not address but Cvetkovich and Brown do.  Women in patriarchal societies such as Laura and Ghada move fluidly in and out of traumatic forms of captivity, while insidious versions of that captivity are ever present.

To bring the paper to an end, I want to note that resistance also radically reshapes the boundary conditions of captivity.  Ghada’s resistance in Beirut Nightmares comes through active engagement with both pen and weapon, with escape and with refuge.  If Laura chose to resist her perpetual captivity, I would guess that her first awakening would be to the double-sided figure of Sir Percival and Walter Hartright.  For women and other oppressed groups, release from literal captivity does not mean release from insidious captivity.  Therefore, resistance will come not only in the form of escaping locked spaces, but also in escaping psychological domination, institutional authority, patriarchal inheritance laws, and so on.






Works Cited

Brown, Laura. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, 1995.

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Duke University Press, 2003.

Eyerman, Ron. Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the formation of African American identity. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

“femininity.” Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, Inc. 22 Mar. 2007. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/femininity>.

Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 1992.

Samman, Ghada. Beirut Nighmares. 1976.


1 Comment »

  1. This article was outstanding. I was able to following and understand every aspect of this article even after suffering a frontal lobe and left frontal lobe brain injury. It is very odd I had to find this article to fully understand if that is possible what Judith Herman was trying to express in 280 pages of Trauma and Recovery.

    Thank you.

    Comment by Shelley Olliver — August 31, 2008 @ 11:13 p08 | Reply

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