International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Psychological Trauma and World Literature

Posted 1 October 2007 in StressPoints by ISTSS

James Agee’s autobiographical novel, “A Death in the Family,” was left uncompleted at the time of his own death in 1955. At least two versions of it have been published; one of these was highly edited while the other, closer to Agee’s original manuscript, contains the wording below. In this passage, young Rufus, who has been regularly teased by older boys, again faces his antagonists who have, in the past, tormented him by pretending that they have forgotten who he is. Rufus yearns for their acceptance. His father has just died. While he is too young to understand the full import of his loss, Rufus senses that his father’s death has somehow made him special. As this passage begins Rufus is in his front yard and the older boys approach him:

“…the nearer they came but were yet at a distance, the more gray, sober air was charged with the great energy and with a sense of glory and of the danger, and deeper and more exciting the silence became, and the more tall, proud, shy and exposed he felt; so that as they came still nearer he once again felt his face break into a wide smile, with which he had nothing to do, and feeling that there was something deeply wrong in such a smile, tried his best to quieten his face and told them, shyly and proudly, ‘My daddy’s dead.’”

James Agee, “A Death in the Family,” 1938. Amsco School Publications, New York, NY, p221. 

 

 

Passages from literature can capture poignant truths about trauma and its survivors which might be difficult to glean from years of clinical or research work. ISTSS members are invited to share a favorite passage or quote from literature that may not be well known, but which offers insight about the psychological effects of trauma or paths of healing. Send submissions to Harold Kudler and Howard Lipke at istsslit@aol.com.