Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (c. 1590) is a story of revenge and rape. Titus murders Tamora’s son. Tamora then has her other two sons revenge their brother’s death by raping Titus’ daughter Lavinia. Afterwards, they mutilate Lavinia, severing her tongue and hands to keep her from testifying against them.
During Shakespeare’s era (and in some parts of the world today), rape was not an injury to the woman, but an indignity suffered by her husband, father, or brothers. In their article, “Let Them Satisfy Thus Lust on Thee: Titus Andronicus as Window Into Societal Views of Rape and PTSD,” Kaitlyn Regehr and Cheryl Regehr point out, “the term rape itself is derived from the Latin raptus, meaning theft of property.” In Shakespeare’s original version of the play, “Titus and not Lavinia is the victim of the crime, it is his suffering that is important.” Lavinia, like many survivors of rape, is silenced not only by her perpetrators, but also by prevailing mores. (2011, p. 2)
In their article, Regehr and Regehr discuss how a modern production of Titus Andronicus deviates from Shakespeare’s original version by including Lavinia’s reaction to her rape. Regehr and Regehr see modern discourse on trauma and trauma-based treatment radically changing perceptions of rape survivors. It seems even Shakespeare can’t escape the glimmer of hope cast by the trauma model.
Rape Becomes Treatable Reactions
Regehr and Regehr looked at two productions of Titus Andronicus: Jane Howell’s 1985 BBC production, which strayed little from the original text, and Julie Taymor’s 1999 film, which adapted the play to a modern context. Regehr and Regehr identified an important revision in the portrayal of Lavinia between these two films — from silent victim in Howell’s production, to active agent of her own recovery in Taymor’s film. They also saw a shift in the discourse on rape during this period.
In the 1980s, rape was for the first time categorized as a traumatic experience. Reactions to rape were medicalized and associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Rape victims, rather than scorned or silenced, were depicted as injured and needing support. And by the 1990s, PTSD gained widespread recognition as a response to trauma that benefitted from professional interventions.
Like Shakespeare’s original version of Titus Andronicus, Howell’s 1985 film silences Lavinia and the horror surrounding her circumstance. As Regehr and Regehr point out, at that time, even though the mental health field and advocacy groups were creating spaces and opportunities for survivors to address their traumas, the public still largely ignored the inner worlds and ravaged lives of rape survivors.
However, fourteen years later — a speck of time given the long history of silencing rape survivors — Taymor’s Titus Andronicus highlights Lavinia’s inner terror and her efforts at recovery, mirroring the greater awareness of the tragic effects of rape and the resilience displayed through efforts to heal.
Of course, these are only two versions of one play, thus not a thorough analysis of the societal impact of the trauma model. Nevertheless, Regehr and Regehr’s emphasis on the significance of recovery seems accurate.
Perhaps many are resistant to acknowledging another’s suffering when they fail to believe anything can be done to alleviate pain, or change the conditions that cause the traumatic event. Regehr and Regehr point out that Taymor’s version of Titus Andronicus was distributed in 1999, seven years after Judith Herman’s landmark Trauma and Recovery. More than any other book on the topic of trauma, Herman’s Trauma and Recovery resonated with the hope survivors and professionals were experiencing through the dissemination and application of the trauma model.
Trauma and Recovery not only unflinchingly examines the inequities in power that often make traumas like rape possible, but it also outlines what it takes to heal them. In her book, Herman shares a non-pathologizing discourse that identifies general responses to traumatic experiences as varying as rape, war, domestic violence, and childhood abuse. She also describes the different stages of trauma recovery, which are still considered the standard of care.
The discourse of Trauma and Recovery, and the trauma model in general, isn’t as much a way to talk about real incidences of trauma as it is a method for understanding reactions to trauma. The sad truth is most people don’t want to hear stories of rape. Much like Titus Andronicus, these narratives are often perceived as gruesome and disturbing. Furthermore, talking about a trauma like rape can sometimes overwhelm the survivor. Often traumatic stress reactions must be dealt with before the survivor feels safe enough to discuss in detail the traumatic event. Thus addressing reactions to rape is a lot easier for everyone, especially when something can be done to reduce suffering.
The Hopeful Side of Epigenetics
With the recent focus on the intergenerational transmission of trauma, the enduring effects of recovery work are often overlooked. Yet at least theoretically, the effects of recovery work should also be transmitted, just like any other form of hard-earned resilience.
The changes Regehr and Regehr distill between Howell’s and Taymor’s versions of Titus Andronicus are part of an epigenetics of resilience in-the-making, one based on a willingness to witness the suffering of others as well as our own traumatic wounds.
In an interview titled “How Trauma and Resilience Cross Generations,” Dr. Rachel Yehuda, Director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, said that epigenetic reactions initiated by traumatic events irrevocably changed people on a physiological level, which supports what many people say about themselves after they have gone through a traumatic event. I’m different now. I’m not the person I used to be.
A similar, albeit more hopeful attitude emerges with recovery, and people say similar things. I’ve changed. The trauma is behind me now.
Unlike the traumatic event, which upends life in an instant, recovery takes time and continued commitment. But the effects are also enduring, and change survivors, families, communities, and society. Like hope itself, recovery work truly makes a difference.
Herman, Judith. 1997. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: BasicBooks.
Regehr, Kaitlyn and Regehr, Cheryl. 2011. “Let them satisfy thus lust on thee: Titus Andronicus as window into societal views of rape and PTSD. Traumatology, 15 December 2011(Online).
© 2015 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).