I spent twenty-five years in psychiatry, the last eleven as a psychologist. In the 1990s I worked for five years in the acute ward at Lillhagen Hospital in Gothenburg and had many sessions with people under threat of deportation; these were cases in which linguistic analysis – as it is called – had been the decisive factor in the official refusal of permission to remain in Sweden. Linguistic analysis is the controversial and much criticised method used by the Swedish Migration Agency in its attempts to determine whether a refugee actually comes from the country she or he claims to have come from.

For several months during this time I was talking to a girl of African origin in her late teens. The staff of the ward knew little more about her than that her application for asylum had been rejected, and that she was about to be deported. She had undergone linguistic analysis in French, her second language, and been informed that the conclusion was that she did not come from the country she claimed. How this linguistic analysis was carried out was something of a mystery since her primary symptoms were that she did not speak at all, and did nothing but stare at the wall while lying semi-recumbent in a hospital bed. Or perhaps she had spoken to some extent before the analysis, and become mute afterwards. Maybe she had felt under suspicion and experienced the linguistic analysis as an interrogation or accusation: ‘Anything you say may be used against you.’

All that remained for her was humanity’s last legal resort – the right to remain silent. Doctors and psychiatric nurses had been trying without success for a week or so to get her to say something. Now it was my turn. I led her into a consulting room, sat her in a chair and began asking questions, sometimes in Swedish, sometimes in French: Do you know where you are? What’s your name? Do you have any family? Would you like a glass of water? Did you sleep last night? My goodness, look at that rain! And now the sun’s shining! If you understand what I’m saying, just nod.

Since she didn’t answer, indeed made no response at all, I started to do the talking myself, telling her things such as that I knew her application for asylum had been rejected; that she was in a psychiatric clinic; that it was now summer in Sweden. She didn’t even look at me, just rocked catatonically back and forth in her chair. Our second conversation began in the same way, but at one point I asked her: Est-ce que tu penses que tu es folle? Do you think that you are mad? At last she looked up and gave some sign of contact. I repeated the question, which she clearly found painful; it had probably finally sunk in that she was in a psychiatric hospital, and presenting the condition psychiatrists call ‘stupor’.

She started crying then and was finally able, haltingly and in fragments, at length, but also very carefully, to tell a story that was as unspeakably sad and brutal as it is possible to imagine. When she was fourteen years old her parents had been shot in front of her; her brothers had tried to run away but had probably been killed, and she herself had been locked in a cellar where for a month she had been repeatedly raped by her jailers until she eventually managed to escape through a ventilation hole.

Did I have any reason to doubt this young woman? It was quite obvious that the Swedish Migration Agency had disbelieved her. According to the linguistic analysis, she came from a neighbouring, more peaceful country than the one she had named.

There are a number of fundamental questions we need to ask ourselves when we meet and work with vulnerable people. What are the criteria of truth in a conversation? Are all statements either true or false? If a refugee who has been persecuted and tortured finds herself in a situation that feels like an interrogation, is her ability to express herself affected? What are the linguistic effects of trauma? Why is silence, or enigmatic obscurity, so often the linguistic expression of trauma? To what extent is silence a performance, a protest perhaps, and when is silence a symptom?

One of the basic concepts of psychoanalysis is that the neurotic symptom is a compromise between an impulse and the defence against the impulse. The impulse can only express itself by disguise, by paraphrase. In other words, the symptom may be viewed as a metaphor. In his 1917 series of lectures Freud used the following allegory:

Let us therefore compare the system of the unconscious to a large entrance hall, in which the mental impulses jostle one another like separate individuals. Adjoining this entrance hall there is a second, narrower, room – a kind of drawing room – in which consciousness, too, resides. But on the threshold between these two rooms a watchman performs his function: he examines the different mental impulses, acts as a censor, and will not admit them into the drawing room if they displease him . . .

Thus the neurotic symptom is a way of trying to articulate the forbidden in a different way, as a kind of condensed compromise produced in the struggle between internal irreconcilable wills.

If the neurotic symptom is a coded message which, nevertheless, it is sometimes possible to understand and interpret, the main symptoms of the trauma sufferer – recurring flashbacks and nightmares – are of a different, more literal, quality. They are transparent: victims of violence dream of the violence they have suffered, or possibly of certain details surrounding that violence. The symptoms of the trauma sufferer derive from history, not from the unconscious. But trauma is also characterised by a silence, a secretiveness, an unwillingness to tell the story.

How are we to understand the difficulties, and reluctance, faced by victims of trauma when they are asked to tell their stories? Cathy Caruth, in her important anthology Trauma: Explorations in Memory, writes that truth for the victim of trauma does not reside in simple brutal facts but rather in the way that the traumatising event defies comprehension: ‘The flashback or traumatic re-enactment conveys, that is, both the truth of an event, and the truth of its incomprehensibility.’

Thus trauma is not a catalogued memory, an archived event, but a contradictory force which has no proper location within the psyche. Classifying it is beyond both human experience and the possibilities of language. Trauma lies beyond simple memory, which is why it returns as involuntary thoughts and flashbacks.

A fundamental difficulty when dealing with survivors of trauma is finding the strength to linger on the silent, enigmatic literalness of the traumatic event without eliminating the force and truth of the experience. As Emily Dickinson expresses it:

If any ask me why –
’Twere easier to die –
Than tell –

Psychologists and therapists, not to mention artists, journalists and employees of the Migration Agency who want to study the effects of trauma, should at least have some understanding of how to avoid undermining trauma testimony with well-intended language. They must be aware of how their engagement can become a burden, one more horrific experience among the many already suffered.

Victims of trauma are faced with a dilemma: they may experience opening up and speaking about the trauma as a surrender of the most tangible reality in their lives. This, the refusal to let go and give up the object, is at the heart of trauma, its great and perhaps only defence – one that it shares with melancholia. This was one of the things that was at stake when the health workers were trying to help the African girl.

‘The staff say that you just sit in your room all day every day.’


‘What do you do there?’


‘Do you daydream about things?’


‘Do you think about anything?’


‘Are you sad? Do you cry sometimes? Do you think about your parents?’


‘Do you sleep? Do you walk around? Do you just sit and look?’

‘I look.’

‘What do you look at?’


And that, we might add, is precisely what she had tried to do when she was locked in the cellar. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud writes: ‘But I am not aware that the patients suffering from traumatic neuroses are much occupied in waking life with the recollection of what happened to them. They perhaps strive rather not to think of it.’

The view of the Swedish Immigration Agency is that some people who apply for refugee status do not tell the truth about where they come from. There are normally about 2,000 calls for linguistic analysis per year in Sweden. The basis of such an analysis is a recording lasting some fifteen minutes in which the asylum seeker is interviewed, usually by telephone, about his or her origin and way of life. Then it is up to a linguistic analyst from the country in question – or at least from the region – to decide whether the applicant is from the specified area, or not. Where possible, the language analysed is the asylum seeker’s mother tongue, but often the interview must take place in their second language, which is almost always French or English.

Linguistic analysis, which has been in use in Sweden since 1993, has been widely scrutinised. In 2014 the Swedish Migration Board, as it was called then, was severely criticised by the UK Supreme Court, for instance, which pointed both to the defective analytic methodology and to clearly substandard reporting. An international network of legal linguists, the International Association of Forensic Linguists, has warned the authorities not to determine asylum seekers’ nationality on the basis of speech alone.

Let us think for a moment about the relationship between language and geography. Consider, for instance, such basic issues as class, education, dialect, or even just the importance of family background when it comes to pronunciation and vocabulary. Remember that refugees often come from parts of the world where many different languages are spoken, or where one and the same language is spoken in a number of countries. It becomes quite obvious that linguistic analysis should only be approached with the utmost care and caution, if at all.

To this, we should also add a criticism from the psychological perspective: trauma involves a crisis in relation to language and to truth. The fact that what occurred is experienced as too much makes it difficult to remember and to understand what really happened: the victim of trauma has reason to mistrust language itself as well as his or her interlocutors, since there is a risk that the subject will be abused or her experience disparaged. Thus, the essence of real trauma lies in its incomprehensibility – if it can be understood, then it arguably isn’t trauma. A reading of linguistic analysis reports makes it quite clear that hesitant speech, latency in response, memory problems – precisely the things that characterise the speech of those who suffer from trauma or depression – are regularly interpreted as dissimulation and lies.

What are the chances, then, for the traumatic event to be given a linguistic, artistic and potentially therapeutic and healing form? I would argue that a fundamental problem of trauma is that it runs the risk of presenting itself, or being forced to present itself, as a cliché, as self-exploitation, or, worse still, as a combination of both – a sentimental playing to the gallery. I agree with literary critic Shoshana Felman when she writes that in the same way that literature is often trivialised by literary interpretation, trauma is often trivialised by psychoanalytic attempts to psychologise.

Claude Lanzmann, the director of the Holocaust documentary Shoah, talked about the obscenity of the question, ‘Why have the Jews been killed?’ Whichever explanation historians and psychologists may choose (unemployment in Germany, Hitler’s childhood, his disciplinarian father, the historic persecution of Jews), the question itself, according to Lanzmann, is both limiting and indecent. The refusal to understand is, for him, an ethical imperative. In the case of the girl threatened with deportation, I would argue that the obscenity takes something like the following form: ‘We believe that you are telling the truth. We believe you when you say that you saw your parents killed when you were fourteen years old and that you were raped hundreds of times – so now you will be allowed to stay in Sweden.’

The fear that their traumatic experiences will be denigrated and belittled is perhaps most obvious among Holocaust survivors, who sometimes voice the feeling that they belong to a special group of Geheimnisträger – bearers of secrets. But it is a common fear found in all clinical settings dealing with trauma, and presumably also in their literary equivalents. I think of trauma as waging a sort of war to avoid banal interpretations. Let me propose six tools used in this struggle:

1) Condensation: to express oneself in terms difficult to understand, cryptically even, and never – or only very discreetly – mention the trauma in concrete terms.

2) Displacement: to talk or write about details secondary to what was truly traumatising, making them, implicitly or otherwise, carry the symbolic load of the trauma.

3) Simplification: to approach and name the event as simply, clearly, honestly and in as neutral a way as possible, in a manner that may seem emotionally disconnected.

4) Ignorance: to disregard knowledge and deny all understanding and explanation of the trauma. To approach the traumatic event with a consciously naive and unknowing gaze in order to allow a retelling of the story.

5) Excess: to express oneself too much, to talk at length, be long-winded, boring or overly detailed, thus excluding the possibility of dialogue. The subtext is, you are asking me for the most important part, but I can only give you everything.

6) Implacability: to refuse cooperation, community, comprehension or readability. Or, quite simply, to refuse to speak.

The work of the American Jewish objectivist poet Charles Reznikoff (1894–1976) tells us something about the potential of literature on trauma. In his long and unfinished work Testimony: The United States of America, 1885–1915: Recitative, he strove for forty years to pare down, simultaneously condensing and simplifying, American law reports from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His aim was a new kind of poem in which the course of events, and nothing but the course of events, would be present in its purest form. In an interview Reznikoff said the following:

Michael Hofmann | On Europe