The Texas After Violence Project (TAVP) was founded in 2007 by criminal defense attorney Walter Long to provide information to the public via oral histories on community violence and capital punishment. Its current headquarters are located at 611 South Congress Avenue in Austin, Texas. I chose to intern at this organization because forms of violence to the body lie at the heart of my interests in medical anthropology. During my internship, I was supervised by Program Director Rebecca Lorins, Ph.D., whose background is in oral history and film.
TAVP works with people (or “narrators”) in Texas whose lives were affected by a violent act, such as murder or execution. The organization interviews these narrators, who may be law enforcement, judges, attorneys, family members of victims, family members of offenders, or community activists, and creates oral histories that are archived in partnership with the University of Texas Libraries’ Human Rights Documentation Initiative in both video and transcript form. Today, TAVP also offers workshops on the issues provided by their work and archive to any interested institutions.
TAVP also operates on the efforts of interns from local universities from a variety of disciplines and volunteers. These individuals are trained and educated through the lens of the organization’s mission. Since TAVP is an archiving project, interns and volunteers are familiarized with filming equipment and video editing software. Training on the Glifos software, which is used by the University of Texas Libraries’ Human Rights Documentation Initiative in partnership with TAVP, is also necessary to preserve and provide the oral histories to the public. To work at TAVP, it is also vital to understand the practice of oral history and have a base knowledge of the Texas Capital System. Interns and volunteers may transcribe oral histories or edit film to transition the interviews to public status. They may also help in researching potential future narrators for the project.
It is important that interns have a basic understanding of trauma working at TAVP, since in working with oral histories, we bring ourselves into relationships with individuals who are traumatized. Cathy Caruth puts trauma in its general definition as “the response to an unexpected or overwhelming violent event or events that are not fully grasped as they occur, but return later in repeated flashbacks, nightmares, and other repetitive phenomena” (1996:91). These traumatic events can vary from individual events, such as sexual assault, to large-scale events like the Holocaust and involve threats to lives or bodies that produce feelings of terror and helplessness and a sense of loss of control (Yoder 2005:10). Whether it is collective or individual, trauma can be seen as a sociopolitical event, a physical and emotional experience, a psycho-physiological process, and a “narrative theme” in explanations of individual and social suffering (Kirmayer, Lemelson and Barad 2007:1).
There are many signs of trauma, such as tonic immobility or one’s inability to speak and think clearly. Trauma can also produce a vicious cycle of trauma, creating further victimhood or violence (Yoder 2005:30). For example, an individual who is traumatized from abuse can in turn abuse another individual. After learning the basics of trauma, I came to see how the Texas Capital System produces trauma for all actors involved in the process. I came to understand it as an endless cycle of structural violence.
Despite training on trauma and handling traumatic material at TAVP, I would be dishonest if I said I did not have strong emotional reactions while transcribing and listening to interviews. I personally research “dark” material by society’s standards and voluntarily immerse myself in global issues of violence against the body and the disenfranchised, yet there are days when people who look into the dark realities of human behavior are at the time themselves vulnerable and subject to being affected by the material.
Narrators for TAVP can sometimes have difficulty in recalling their stories surrounding trauma in the Texas Capital System. Ryan LaMothe (2001) wrote about people who experienced and remembered trauma without developing neurotic symptoms. Yet, although these individuals do not experience neurosis, their severe trauma creates difficulty in their ability to make use of language in constructing their experience and communicating it to others. LaMothe claims, “severe trauma results in a form of knowing that is disastrous and consequently haunting to persons who continue to remember and speak affectively about their experiences” (2001:544). A person’s fixation or haunting of trauma is a type of non-defensive dissociation present in their speaking about trauma and is also haunting to the listener or therapist who now has to live with it. The most vivid example of this phenomenon was in fact the oral history of a very young death row prison guard. In trying to explain how surreal it was for him to work on Death Row, the reason for his wanting to interview and what he wanted listeners to know, his speech completely slowed down and he seemed almost catatonic, staring into the camera without words. Although I find it to be the richest oral history I encountered at TAVP, it is also terribly haunting.
- Caruth, Cathy. 1996. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
- LaMothe, Ryan. 2001. “Freud’s Unfortunates: Reflections on Haunted Beings Who Know the Disaster of Severe Trauma.” American Journal of Psychotherapy 55(4):543-563.
- Kirmayer, Laurence J., Robert Lemelson, and Mark Barad. 2007.Understanding Trauma: Integrating Biological, Clinical, and Cultural Perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Yoder, Carolyn. 2005. The Little Book of Trauma Healing. Intercourse: Good Books.