Early US Literature

Home » Reflective Essays » “Thro’ Great Difficulty and Trouble”: The Role of Trauma in Elizabeth Hanson’s Captivity Narrative

“Thro’ Great Difficulty and Trouble”: The Role of Trauma in Elizabeth Hanson’s Captivity Narrative

Women’s Indian captivity narratives, often biased and rooted in the ideology of assumptions of racial superiority, additionally operate as examples of trauma’s intrusion on textual form and content. The tone and demeanor of most captivity narratives do not lend themselves to the symptomology of hyper-arousal and intrusion in the form of flashbacks and nightmares typically present in traumatic reactions; however, trauma theory is a useful lens through which we might consider the function of passivity and stoicism in captive women’s narratives of violence and loss.

Elizabeth Hanson’s captivity narrative is noted for its examples of an “affecting portrayal of a passive, victimized heroine and its use of a spare style” (Derounian-Stodola 63); both of which are unexpected characteristics of a narrative marked by multiple instances of interpersonal violence. The difficulties in determining what portion of this passivity we can attribute to the expected stoicism of the wife of “a stiff Quaker” (Derounian-Stodola 63) and the narrative idiosyncrasies of questionable authorship generate a number of questions about the accuracy of analysis and the lens through which we read Hanson’s tone and reaction. Psychiatrist Judith Herman’s definitive 1992 text, Trauma and Recovery, posits “In situations of captivity, the perpetrator becomes the most powerful person in the life of the victim, and the psychology of the victim is shaped by the actions and the beliefs of the perpetrator” (75). Hanson’s willingness to recognize her Master’s positive attributes, including his willingness to carry her infant, on one hand, operates as a surprising example of white recognition of Indian humanity. However, in considering her Master’s abusive behavior, Hanson justifies his actions, “…observ[ing] when-ever he was in such a Temper, he wanted Food, and was pinched with Hunger” (73). This justification of violence may have a basis in “Stockholm Syndrome,” or a captive’s identification with one’s captor.

Throughout Hanson’s narrative we are given examples of her seeming under reaction to a number of experiences that “breach the attachments of family, friendship, love and community” (Herman 51). In describing her child’s murder and the Abenaki who “knockt its Brains out” (67), Hanson’s assertion, “I bore this as well as I could, nor daring to appear disturb’d, or shew much Uneasiness, lest they should do the same to the other [child]” (67), operates as one of the hallmarks of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The use of avoidance and reduced emotional affect, as well as the dichotomous possibilities of “experience[ing] intense emotion but without clear memory of the event, or […] remember[ing] everything in detail but without emotion” (Herman 34) ultimately allow the captive to endure her ordeal while retaining a sense of psychological integrity. Hanson’s narrative lends itself to a number of readings, including as an example of Quaker stoicism, or even as a feminist text reacting against the use of hysteria or melodramatic reporting of her captivity; however, trauma theory helps elucidate Hanson’s surprising absence of emotional engagement with her narrative.

Works Cited

Hanson, Elizabeth. “God’s Mercy Surmounting Man’s cruelty, Exemplified in the Captivity and Redemption of Elizabeth Hanson.” Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives. Ed. Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola. New York: Penguin, 1998. 66-79. Print.

Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 1992. Print.

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