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interview with Johanna Mehan

FH:- Could you remember when you start thinking about trauma and traumatization?


Johanna Mehan: I was a student at Brandeis University, which is a Jewish university in the United States, and many of my professors were holocaust survivors and it was directly their experiences as it came through in the class room, I think that was the beginning of that series of reflections. But then when I adopted a little girl from China, and she had suffered very very badly. She was badly burned. She suffered from malnutrition and having to learn how to live with and love a child who was so badly damaged, that was when I began my own series of work on trauma and memory and inter-subjective recognition.


It was a real privilege for me to work there, because most of the professors I had were the last generation of a set of German intellectuals who had escaped and in one way or another wound up teaching at Brandeis and they were very educated in the traditions of German idealist philosophy and phenomenology and existentialism and that's how I came to be a philosopher in the first place.


FH: You studied philosophy?


Johanna Mehan: - Yes.


FH: On what point of your work are you now in in relation to to your experience, or having a child who is traumatized?


Johanna Mehan: Well no. I was working as a philosopher on the project of subjectivity. I was working on Habermas. I worked in Germany for a while. I came to Frankfurt while Habermas was there. So my interest was on theorizing a conception of the self, and it seemed to me that a fair amount of the work on the self did not take seriously the dimension of inter-subjectivity in infancy. So then I started working on that. One of the things that became very clear to me was that you couldn't give an account of trauma as a developmental account of a happy childhood produces untraumatized people, because what you have are social political conditions that create situations of trauma. So that to say, well, you know, it happens in childhood, is not a right account. So then I wanted to look at what happens in childhood and then what gets undone in the moment of trauma. So that's how the two pieces of my work came together: raising a child who had been badly traumatized led me to think about the way in which the early formation of the self is involved but the work on the holocaust made it very clear that trauma can undo subjectivity at any point in time, not just in childhood.