Heinz Weiss, Trauma, Guilt, and Reparation: the Path from Impasse to Development, trans. Ursula Haug (Routledge, 2019)

In a recent issue of the London Review of Books, the American historian Thomas Laqueur has a long essay in which he discusses Susan Neiman’s book, Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil. Laqueur disagrees with much of Neiman’s premise about the availability and applicability of lessons from post-war Germany to the United States, as the differences between both countries and their traumatic histories are too great. He argues that the Nazi past was relatively short and was, however inadequately, acknowledged through various programs of reparation and memorialization after 1945, whereas the US has done little of that as its legacy of slavery and racism has gone on not for twelve years but more than two centuries.

Into this discussion I want to introduce a new book by the German clinician, Heinz Weiss, and to argue that his approach may offer some of the first necessary steps needed for the legacy of slavery and racism—and all the traumatic memories of the same—to begin to move towards some healing. Weiss’s book, Trauma, Guilt, and Reparation: the Path from Impasse to Development, trans. Ursula Haug (Routledge, 2019) is short but powerfully argued in some unusual ways, not least the hermeneutical twist at the end.

It is important to note that when Weiss speaks of reparation, he does so in ways that differ from how most of us use and hear that word, not least in an American political context. For him, “reparation” is not repair and it is not atonement. It is also not a one-and-done experience. Reparation is “never quite finished” in part because (as we first learned from Freud) the originating “trauma knows neither time nor place” (p.2).

Rather, for Weiss, reparation may be best defined as open grieving without which there can be no healing, or indeed no development of any kind. Instead, the refusal to mourn and the inability to grieve are almost always replaced by guilt: “People who have been exposed to traumatic experiences are frequently plagued by agonizing guilt” (p.1). Guilt impedes clinical progress in individuals—which is Weiss’s focus—but also, I would argue (and a good deal of recent clinical literature would support) groups and collectives like a nation-state. Moreover, guilt is itself often hidden behind a posture of defensiveness and even hostility. We angrily protest in part to protect our guilt and avoid the difficult work of change. As the American psychoanalyst Robert Stoller said many years ago, “it is easier to feel guilty and to pay a prescribed price…than to change. In most of its forms, guilt is a bargain we strike with ourselves. Its presence indicates we have decided that doing what we should is too much trouble.”

That guilt can become cyclical, part of what Freud first recognized as a repetition compulsion in which we become stuck, remembering and repeating (i.e., acting out) but never working through the traumatic memories. On-going African-American encounters with police ending in violence and death are proof of a uniquely American repetition compulsion on a large scale.

What can be done about this? Weiss notes at the outset the importance of a realistic and honest assessment: the damage has been done and “in most cases is irretrievably irreparable” (p.1). We cannot go back and fix the past, or erase all the decades and centuries of trauma that it has marked us with. What we can do is to disrupt the cycle: “the repetition compulsion can only be overcome when processes of reparation gradually emerge to re-balance and limit the damage to the internal world.” It was, Weiss recognizes, the unique contribution of Freud and psychoanalysis to recognize that trauma is always the place where outer events and inner meaning come together. It is in the internal world of the psyche—both individual and collective—where the damage lives on long after the original trauma. The only way to begin to heal that world is “to achieve an acknowledgement of loss” (p.1).

Acknowledgement of loss raises, of course, all kinds of issues, and the complexity and messiness of these is magnified in when talking about transgenerational trauma on a broad national and cultural level. Here, as on the individual level, there is good reason to believe that not all losses need to be aired, and some probably should not be. Sensitive clinicians are acutely aware, when dealing with severely traumatized patients, that sometimes raising traumatic memories too soon, or in too much detail, can actually do harm and set therapy back. Is it possible to believe that doing so on a larger scale may require similar cautions and caveats?

Weiss would seem to suggest so when, later in the book, he makes his hermeneutical turn in a way that this reviewer never expected. Here he draws openly on one of the most important hermeneutical philosophers of the last century, Paul Ricoeur, especially the latter’s notions of “containing forgetting” and “heavy forgiveness” which he discussed in one of his last books, Memory, History, Forgetting, which appeared in English translation in 2004, a year before Ricoeur died.

The discussion of Ricoeur is preceded in places by a very skillful use of some of the insights of Melanie Klein, a pioneer in child therapy who spent her most productive years practicing in England until her death in 1960. Among her insights was an awareness of the dangers of children, whose emotional needs may have been deprived, lapsing into forms of emotional repair that are “manic” and “omnipotent.” These almost invariably make things worse, and often create new problems, too.

There is an argument to be made that much of the outpouring after the death this year of George Floyd was manic and wrathful, and some of the calls to defund the police an attempt at omnipotence born out of decades, centuries, and generations of unprocessed pain, grief, rage, and trauma going back to the foundations of slavery in this country. Understandable though those reactions were and are, they may in fact make it less likely that there is a cultural reckoning with slavery in an effective, open, and honest way. As Weiss notes based on his clinical experience, “grievance and wrath rendered the processing of guilt very difficult for a long time” (p.61). Arguably that is no less true—indeed, more true—on a large cultural scale.

If we are stuck, as a culture, in a cycle of repetitive violence and resulting rage, all of it connected to unprocessed trauma, how can we move forward? At the end of his book, Weiss returns to Ricoeur to find a way through traumatic “remembering” (which is Freud’s term for unprocessed and almost mindlessly repeated action) which gets tripped up in one of two ways: it remains stuck in cycles of repetitive acting out, or it engages in a “destructive forgetting” which seeks to obliterate what is most painful.

Instead of this, Ricoeur speaks of a “containing forgetting.” Some things are allowed to be forgotten, but within a container that also holds those things we must not forget. To find such a balance remains one of the very rare ways in which we might find a “new working relationship towards guilt and loss.”

That, however, is not enough, and having made an unexpected hermeneutical turn in his book, Weiss ends on a surprising theological note when, in chapter 7, he briefly introduces Augustine and Aquinas on gratitude, arguing that if we follow the logic of the Jewish Klein, whose views on gratitude are singular among psychoanalysts, then reparation cannot be manic or omnipotent but must be an ongoing eucharistia. We give thanks for healing now begun but without wiping out the wounds in much the same way Christian imagery continues to show the resurrected Christ with all the scars of trauma on His body.

In sum, this is a short but powerful and important book that judiciously sifts classical psychoanalytic thought along with contemporary traumatology, and does so in philosophically and even theologically compelling ways.

A.A.J. DeVille, Ph.D., is associate professor and director of humanities at the University of Saint Francis, Ft. Wayne, IN where he is also pursuing post-graduate training in psychotherapy with a view towards licensure and clinical practice focusing on trauma. His most recent book is Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power (Angelico, 2019). His Married Priests in the Catholic Church should be in print in early 2020 from the University of Notre Dame Press. He is at work on a new monograph, Theology After Freud.