Special Issue: Thinking About Denial

Now available from History Workshop Journal is a special issue dedicated to “Thinking About Denial.” Articles that may especially interest AHP readers are listed below, but the full issue is more than worth checking out.

“Thinking About Denial,” by Catherine Hall and Daniel Pick. The abstract reads as follows:

This essay considers the frequent and varied uses of ‘denial’ in modern political discourse, suggests the specific psychoanalytic meanings the term has acquired and asks how useful this Freudian concept may be for historians. It notes the debates among historians over the uses of psychoanalysis, but argues that concepts such as ‘denial’, ‘disavowal’, ‘splitting’ and ‘negation’ can help us to understand both individual and group behaviour. The authors dwell, especially, on ‘disavowal’ and argue it can provide a particularly useful basis for exploring how and why states of knowing and not knowing co-exist. Historical examples are utilized to explore these states of mind: most briefly, a fragment from a report about the war criminals, produced by an American psychiatrist at the Nuremberg Trial; at greater length, the political arguments and historical writings of an eighteenth-century slave-owner; and finally, a case in a borough of London in the late-twentieth-century, where the neglect, abuse and murder of a child was shockingly ‘missed’ by a succession of social agencies and individuals, who had evidence of the violence available to them.

“‘Wounds of the Heart’: Psychiatric Trauma and Denial in Hiroshima,” by Ran Zwigenberg. Abstract:

Wounds of the Heart”: Psychiatric Trauma and American Denial in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1962 a young Jewish-American psychiatrist by the name of Robert J. Lifton met Kubo Yoshitoshi, a Hiroshima based psychiatrist. Lifton was aiming to learn from Kubo about his research into A-bomb survivors’ psychological trauma. The meeting, however, was far from a success, with Lifton, who later became a leading researcher on war trauma, remarking, “I found our talk curiously unsatisfying, and it was hard to tell exactly what he was after in his studies.” Although Kubo’s research was not inconsequential, it is easy to understand Lifton’s frustration. In the previous seventeen years only a handful of researchers, either Japanese or American, tackled the psychological consequences of the bomb. This was a very different picture form the situation of research on Holocaust survivors, which produced a significant body of research by the 1960’s. The failure of the medical establishment in both countries to tackle psychological issues was to a large extent the result of the systematic denial of long-term psychological effects of the nuclear bomb by the American government and the complicity of the majority of American psychiatrists who worked on the topic with nuclear and civil defense research. Coupled with American military censorship and limits on medical studies by the occupation authorities, as well as survivors’ wariness to talk of their suffering, this campaign of denial resulted in a complete lack of psychiatric care for hibakusha. In contrast to the case of Holocaust survivors, who also met with similar denials by the German medical establishment, Japanese psychiatrists mounted no counter campaign to fight for their patients’ rights, and conducted no large scale research until the nineteen nineties. Focusing on the work of Kubo Yoshitoshi in Japan, on one hand, and the American researchers who preceded Lifton, on the other, this paper will examine the reaction of the psychiatrists to the A-bomb’s psychological impact and how cold war politics and the difficulty of studying A-bomb disease resulted in very different history in the cases of Holocaust and A-bomb traumas.

“The Romani Minority, Coercive Sterilization, and Languages of Denial in the Czech Lands,” by Sarah Marks. Abstract:

Sterilizations of Romani women in socialist Czechoslovakia, either carried out without proper consent, or coerced through substantial financial incentive, were first reported in 1978. Yet these practices did not end with the fall of communism, and it took until 2005 for this to be officially acknowledged by the Czech government. This article draws on published and unpublished documents, as well as oral history interviews, to trace the history of efforts to expose such practices, ‘come to terms’ with their existence, and change social attitudes in relation to the Romani minority in the Czech lands. These exposures have uncovered instances of denial, and have also offered up a variety of ways of understanding the mental and social mechanisms that might have enabled silences, refusals or disavowals with regard to human rights abuses. Under Communism, dissidents associated with Charter 77 elaborated these through the philosophical concepts of phenomenology; after the transition to democracy, a more psychological and therapeutic language came to the fore. I argue that the Czech case suggests that the historiography of denial and disavowal could be enriched by looking beyond the framework of psychoanalysis: by taking into account how historical actors, sometimes with opposing worldviews, have comprehended these processes within the languages of their own culture and period.

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About Jacy Young

Jacy Young recently completed a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She earned her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.

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