Tag Archives: trauma

“I Strangle Her”: Trauma and Memory in House of Cards

In a genuine portrayal of the long-term effects sexual assault can have on victims, Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in the popular television series House of Cards echoed the statements of many authors we have read in class. While many media portrayals of sexual assault go for shock value, showing the attack or the flashbacks the victim experiences immediately after the attack, few have provided such brave insight into the experience of victims many years after the attack. For many, the memory of their terrible experience remains present, something they have to “strangle” every day to keep it from terrorizing their consciousness; it is an irrevocable memory, persistent and intrusive. This trauma, it seems, can haunt survivors as long as they live.

In the episode, it is revealed that Claire, the strong-willed, “ice bitch” wife to Vice President and HOC protagonist Frank Underwood, was raped by her boyfriend in college when she meets him again at a pinning ceremony for his military service. For one of the first times, we see the resolute Claire struggle a bit, but she holds strong through the ceremony.  Later, in an unusual showing of vulnerability, she speaks about how she has worked to silence the memories she has.

“Every time I think of her pinned down like that, I strangle her, Francis. So she doesn’t strangle me. I have to. We have to. The alternative is – it’s unlivable.”

Claire, it appears, rebuilt her sense of self following her attack by hardening herself off to the trauma, refusing to let the memory invade her present consciousness. In such a way, her anger has fueled her; she found strength in her silence, building a life of power and influence (however ruthless that influence may be), unwilling to let her attacker keep her from realizing her goals. Her actions reflect much of the complexity of trauma described by Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery.  As irrevocable memory, Claire’s attack will forever be present in her consciousness, and to deal with the trauma, she appears locked in constriction, a state of altered, numbed consciousness in which a survivor experiences a sense of detached calm. This is evident in her behavior and the way she refers to herself experiencing trauma in the third person, stating “…I strangle her, Francis. So she doesn’t strangle me,” as though she is observing the trauma she experienced during the attack and every subsequent time it comes up again in memory from outside her body, feeling that “the event is not happening to her”. Perhaps this is the root of her “ice bitch” mentality; to protect herself from painful intrusion, she remains continually in such a state of detached constriction.  However, luckily for her, it seems, she has been able to utilize this detached nature to exert power within the political sphere, and in this way she has achieved much success.

But what is justice for Claire? It’s clear that no legal justice occurred in this situation, nor does it appear that Claire has spoken with anyone about it other than those very close to her. Whether she refrained from speaking out about her attack because of her own desires or because she knew it would likely be unsuccessful to come forward is unknown. Yet it seems her trauma drives her; after experiencing something so awful, she learned to block the memory out, putting her head down and working hard and strong until she became the influential political figure she is at present. She is together, controlled, powerful – that is, until she meets her attacker again at the ceremony and later when, in a media interview, she is drawn into revealing her attack – but at what cost? As the news of her attack begins to circulate, she finds herself at the other end of a personal “devil’s choice,” and it is unclear as to whether the decision to achieve traditional justice by coming forward is worth the risk to her career and emotional well-being after years of pushing the memory away. Sharing a traumatic story is extremely hard for anyone, especially a prominent public figure like Claire who will surely have to contend with many media attacks. Is gaining a more traditional sense of justice by telling her story really worth it? While she was hardened by “strangling” the memory of her attack, she did come out a stronger woman, and viewers may wonder whether through her success she achieved her own form of justice, unconventional but just as salient for her.  At the end of the day, isn’t that salience, regardless of whether or not we can classify it as “justice,” what really matters?

Regardless, I am pleased with what House of Cards’s writers have presented in this storyline and the tough questions they are motivating viewers like me to think through. True justice isn’t “one size fits all,” and we must push ourselves to ask these questions in the aftermath of traumatic situations like Claire’s to determine what is right and what is just for the victim.


Bevernage, Berber. “Introduction.” History, Memory, and State-sponsored Violence: Time and Justice. New York: Routledge, 2012. 1-19. Print.

Herman, Judith Lewis. “Trauma.” Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. London: Pandora, 1992.  Print.

Willimon, Beau. “Chapter 15.” House of Cards. Netflix. 14 Feb. 2014. Television.


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Trauma: The Question of Representation and Memorialization

After reading Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda for class, I found myself thinking about representation and memorialization of the genocide in Rwanda and other tragic events. What makes a successful representation and how do they work to memorialize what happened in Rwanda for the victims and for future genocide prevention? I hope to explore that idea here.

We have read much on the complexity of the idea of telling and issues of whether it helps or hurts in victims’ search for justice and closure. While truth-telling can be incredibly therapeutic to victims, helping them to feel liberated (to at least a certain extent) from the holds of their traumatic pasts, sharing one’s memories is a very hard thing to do, both emotionally and logistically. How does one transmit memories (especially those as awful as what happened in Rwanda) in a way that doesn’t reduce, decontextualize, or otherwise alter them? Perfect transmission is impossible. Victim’s memories deteriorate over time and, more importantly, interpretation of victims’ narratives by outsiders is inevitably altered by their unique analytical lenses. Such was the problem for Yvonne Khutwane and many others who testified at the South African TRC. Despite her diverse experience of harm during apartheid, Khutwane’s experience was reduced by the setup of the testimony interview to the point that it was only analyzed under the frame of sexual violation, an aspect of her experience she did not even intend to discuss. This reduced and decontextualized her narrative, presenting important implications for the efficacy of storytelling. Additionally, sharing one’s story can also have undesirable effects in that it often appears to consign the events to the past. Storytelling has adopted a certain character of finality, a sense that sharing stories puts the traumatic events of the past into a box that can be locked away. In this way the act of storytelling seems to imply both that victims and society have moved past the trauma and that it no longer can have an effect on the present, implications that are both problematic.

Representing a tragedy like Rwanda, as a form of such truth-telling, is hard. How does one adequately describe or portray the enormity of the horrific crimes against humanity that occurred? The only way, it seems to me, after much mulling of my thoughts on my plane ride home for break, is to present the memories of victims and the events that occurred across a wide variety of mediums and through the experiences of a wide variety of victims and onlookers. Each individual memorialization will inevitably be inadequate to the weight of what occurred, but only by creating a diverse presentation of voices and approaches can we do our best to capture and understand the broad magnitude of what happened.  Having a variety of experiences and a variety of approaches, from interviews to songs and films to paintings and murals and statues to graphic novels like Deogratias, best encourages active interpretation of the past. By challenging ourselves to think of the tragedy through a myriad of lenses in a myriad of non-reducing ways, we can best gain a nuanced understanding of the events that occurred in a way that hopefully encourages active participation in their prevention in future. With such a broad approach to memorialization, we can hope to best present the stories of victims in a non-reducing, non-finalizing way that helps them achieve justice and closure and prevents future trauma.


Works Cited

Ross, Fiona. “Narrative Threads.” Bearing Witness: Women and the Truth and Reconcliation Commission in South Africa. London: Pluto, 2003. 82-102. 

Stassen, John-Phillippe. Deogratias, A Tale of Rwanda. Macmillan, 2006.




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