Chapter 9 – Trauma

Chapter summary

Speaking about trauma has traditionally been regarded as a therapeutic practice, so oral historians are obliged to step into this field with great care. The collection of trauma narratives (or narratives emerging from crisis) has spawned some distinctive methodological, conceptual and ethical approaches which in turn have pushed at the boundaries of oral history practice and interpretation. This chapter engages with a range of trauma oral history from collective crisis (such as genocides and wars) to the individual (such as sexual abuse). It outlines what is understood by trauma in the psycho-medical sense and considers the impact of trauma on the ways in which survivors are able to narrate their stories. It also discusses the ethical dimensions of conducting interviews with those who have experienced trauma and the impact on all those involved in the enterprise.

Discussion points

  1. What are the key considerations for an oral historian embarking upon crisis oral history?
  2. What are the key signs of a narrative shaped by trauma?
  3. Does the historian require different interpretive techniques to analyse a trauma narrative?
  4. What is the role of the oral historian in crisis scenarios? Does the oral historian have any place at all in this context?


A: Collection of oral histories arising from mass violence including interviews with Holocaust survivors, victims of the Rwandan genocide and African refugee children.

B: The Holocaust Survivors’ Film Project at Yale University.

C: The Voice/Vision Holocaust survivor Oral History Archive (which contains the testimony of Agi Rubin).

D: Boston College Project: an oral history project on the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ which became a test case for the confidentiality of material gathered.

Further reading

  • C. Caruth (ed), Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Baltimore, Maryland, 1995)
  • M. Cave and S.M. Sloan (eds), Listening on the Edge: Oral History in the Aftermath of Crisis (Oxford, 2014)
  • G. Dawson, Making Peace with the Past: Memory, Trauma and the Irish Troubles (Manchester, 2007)
  • E. Jessee, ‘The limits of oral history: ethics and methodology amid highly politicized research settings’, The Oral History Review, 38:2 (2011), pp.287–307
  • K.L. Rogers, S. Leydesdorff and G. Dawson (eds), Trauma and Life Stories: International Perspectives (London, 1999)