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Terrence Des Pres

by Robert Prince, Ph.D., Series Editor

After the events of 9/11, it seemed urgent that the next contribution to this series address trauma. The theme of trauma runs like Ariadne's thread through the maze of psychoanalytic history, its twists and turns, 'actual' neurosis, the seduction ypotheses, confusion of tongues, defining successive psychoanalytic eras. We turned to Dr. Ghislaine Boulanger, asking her to select a "turning point" paper. She has been researching and working with adults and children who have suffered psychic trauma since 1977. She was a member of a research team investigating the effect of combat on Vietnam veterans whose work led to the establishment of Vietnam Veteran's Centers across the country at a time that post traumatic stress disorder was not very well known. Dr. Boulanger tells the anecdote that when she proposed the topic of trauma for her doctoral dissertation, her program chair told her it was an inappropriate topic for psychologists, better left to social workers and sociologists. Dr. Boulanger served on the advisory panel for revising the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for DSM III-R. She has written two ground breaking articles (Boulanger, 2002a, 2002b) which are absolute "must reads" for anyone working with victims of trauma.

Dr. Boulanger's selection is an inspired one. She chooses a slim volume, The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps written by an author, Terrence Des Press, who is not formally a psychoanalyst. Rather, he was a member of the English faculty at Colgate University from 1973 until his premature death in 1987, where he taught the literature of the Holocaust. Although deeply psychoanalytic in spirit, Des Pres takes a critic's eye to the psychoanalytical understanding of both the survivor and the witness to survivorhood. Des Pres output was limited to two other volumes, one on politics and poetry in the 20th Century, the other a collection of essays, and the introductions to several other works. The Survivor has been widely acclaimed. Carolyn Forche (1981) dedicates the last poem in her collection to Des Pres. It includes the lines:
I was not yet in your life when you turned
the bullet toward the empty hole in yourself
and whispered: finish this or die.
But you lived and what you wrote became
The Survivor, that act of contrition for despair:
They turned to face the worst
Straight-on, without sentiment or hope,
Simply to keep watch over life.

Des Pres asks not only about the experience of humanity in extremis but also its meaning. His answers suggest that psychoanalysis had gotten both wrong. In her masterful discussion, Dr. Boulanger demonstrates why she has chosen this chapter, "Us and Them" as a 'turning point" in the psychoanalytic literature.


Boulanger,G. (2002a). The Cost of Survival: Psychoanalysis and adult onset trauma, Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 38: 17-44.

Boulanger,G. (2002b). Wounded by reality: The collapse of the self in adult onset trauma, Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 38: 45-76.

Forche, C. The Country Between Us. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1981.

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Division of Psychoanalysis 2006