Real Trauma

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A real trauma has an exogenous cause and its disturbing, even disruptive effect is immediate and manifest.

This has been the usual definition of trauma ever since its adoption in a surgical context in 1855: The word always denoted a bodily injury, but its meaning was soon expanded to alone cover the state of shock or stupor induced by that injury. The adjective real has no meaning save by way of contrast with the psychoanalytic notion of psychical trauma. Freud used it to qualify not the trauma per se but rather those childhood scenes of seduction, which according to his theory of seduction, constituted the first moment of the trauma.

Although he abandoned this theory, thereby promoting the ideas of unconscious fantasy and psychic reality, Freud argued unwaveringly for the existence of real violent events and their pathogenic effects. By contrast, the majority of his immediate followers, failing to assimilate the oscillation throughout Freud's work between reality and fantasy, gave precedence to fantasy, to the omnipotence of thought, and evinced a distinct distrust of reality. Present-day analysts tend to pay more attention to the real event in its traumatic brutality, while recognizing that this does not free them from the task of thoroughly following the fantasy activity which that reality sets in motion; they espouse the economic view of the trauma, as set forth by Freud in 1920, according to which the nature and intensity of a traumatic event can make it highly disruptive in its effects.

The underlying problem here, so often debated, is the nature of internal as opposed to external reality, an issue that occasioned a profound disagreement between Freud and Ferenczi. Even if the impact of realityof the "bedrock" of biology and of event-governed historyis inescapable, there can be no question, despite all that, of reducing the trauma to a strictly objective reality.

Talk of real trauma might suggest that there is such a thing as fictitious, imaginary, or even "fraudulent" traumas. The term is somewhat questionable therefore, and is in fact little used in psychoanalysis. Quite obviously, any trauma, whatever its origin, is distinctly "real" in its effects.

FranÇoise Brette

See also : Construction de l'espace analytique, La ; Internal/external reality; Trauma.


Ferenczi, Sándor. (1931). Child analysis in the analysis of adults. In Final contributions to the problems and methods of psycho-analysis. London: Hogarth/Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1955.

. (1933 [1932]). Confusion of tongues between adults and the child. In Final contributions to the problems and methods of psycho-analysis. London: Hogarth/Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1955.

Freud, Sigmund. (1896c). The aetiology of hysteria. SE, 3: 186-221.

. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.

Freud, Sigmund, and Sándor Ferenczi. (1993-2000). The correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Sándor Ferenczi. (Eva Brabant, et al., Eds., Peter T. Hoffer Trans.; 3 volumes) Cambridge, MA/London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.