Dr. Aimee Pozorski is an eclectic force in the English Department at Central Connecticut State University. Over the last fourteen years, the Wisconsin native has taught a plethora of English courses that highlight her research in trauma, including Thesis Writing Workshop, Contemporary American Literature, and Psychology. She regularly lectures in the US and Europe on the intersection of trauma theory and American literature.
We sent Blue Muse staff writer Clarissa Torres to discuss Pozorski’s contributions in trauma theory, Philip Roth scholarship, and the contemporary American novel.
“I didn’t expect the extensive amount of work I found when I googled Aimee. She has tons of books on trauma theory, a video on C-SPAN, and even a previous interview on a beauty blog. Walking into her office in the newly built Willard-Diloretto English department, colorful photo frames and paperbacks create a vibrant aura against the gray of her six bookshelves. A student-drawn portrait of Philip Roth looms over the space. She greets me with a smile; it’s refreshing and ironic how someone who’s life work is centered around pain can exude so much joy.”
What was it like growing up in Wisconsin?
Green Bay, where I grew up, is really homogeneous. People are kind of born there, go to school there, raise their families there, so it creates the sense of a tight-knit community, but it really felt stifling and suffocating for me. I got my master’s degree in Milwaukee and that felt a little better. I was living in a city. I like being around diverse communities and on my own around people who think in very open-minded ways.
And how was your transition to Connecticut?
It was another shift to move to Connecticut. Having raised a son here, I now know why. I’m trying to kind of figure out how to keep my Wisconsin identity, but not alienate everybody around me, including the total strangers, who ask me simple things like, ‘How are you?’ and I will actually mean it and give a twenty-minute answer. Also, it’s amazing to be two hours from New York and two hours from Boston. So, it was a shift, but in a really good way that felt comfortable and felt like I’m home here.
You grew up Catholic in Wisconsin. Are you still practicing at all?
Although I am no longer a practicing Catholic, there are still aspects of my Catholic education that have influenced my career and my identity as a scholar. For example, in Catholic school, what we had to do was read for an hour in religion class every day. We read books of the Bible and then unpacked them, explicated them and had our own argument about what was going on in a particular passage. It made me a good reader and it made me value aesthetics and pretty things. And of course, the Catholic guilt that just never goes away, right? [Laughing] It’s also just the sense that I’m always guilty. The priest used to say there’s a stain on your soul. The soul starts crystal white, super pure, but for every bad thought you have, every teeny bad thing you do, you get a black mark. And so to this day, I feel like, what color is my soul—do you know what I’m saying?
Religious education can leave a mark.
I’m also super neurotic and worried about what I’m saying and how people are reacting to me or what they’re misinterpreting about me. And so, I think the Catholicism had something to do with that as well. [Laughing] Although probably every person raised in a religious tradition might say something similar. I’m not sure.
Along with your PhD, you got your certificate in Psychoanalytic Studies. Was it something that you were interested in before, or was it something that didn’t click for you until you went for your PhD?
I went to Emory University to focus on trauma studies in American literature. That’s where I learned about the Psychoanalytic Studies program, and that is a program celebrated for bringing together all kinds of people from all different disciplines. So, it was medical doctors, psychiatrists, historians, psychologists, literary studies people, women’s studies people, film studies people; we all got into a room once a week or every other week and talked about our work. When I met the people in that program I realized that I wanted to formalize my training. So that meant taking some extra classes, that meant going to the psychoanalytic institute, and just studying psychiatry and psychoanalysis with people who have MD’s, who would really work as analysts. So we talked about theory a lot, but also how it applies to the real-world situations. And in my case, it was also a way of understanding how to talk about literature in new ways.
And so to this day, I feel like, what color is my soul—do you know what I’m saying?
And you’ve done so much since then with Philip Roth, who recently passed away. Did trauma theory lead you to Roth?
Generally, Roth criticism before 2003 understood his work in one of two ways: greatest American post World War II writer and American Jewish writer. So, one of the things that I wanted to say after reading all this trauma theory is that we could understand him a third way. I mean, obviously there are more than three ways to understand Roth, but I wanted to propose another way, which was to think about him as a writer of American history as traumatic from the beginning. So that was the way that I was able to make my mark, and I just kind of kept going with Roth. And that’s another thing that I wanted to add, that comes from my training in psychoanalysis theory, which is dead on commitment to close reading. I didn’t see a lot of that in Roth studies generally. His sentences are amazing. They stand up to close reading in all these interesting and surprising ways.
And you developed a personal relationship with him?
Yeah, it was totally accidental, and my research had nothing to do with my meeting Roth. But it was through Dr. Gigliotti [English Professor at Central Connecticut State University] who worked with the research librarian in Litchfield. She [the research librarian] asked Dr. Gigliotti if he knew of anybody who could give a lecture series in Litchfield. Then one day the phone rang, and she said that Roth had asked her if she could go to his house to reorganize his book shelves, three rooms of his library, after a major renovation. She couldn’t make it, so she asked if she could pass along my name and I said absolutely. A couple of hours later, Mr. Philip Roth was calling my cell asking if I could meet him the following Saturday to reorganize his books. So I didn’t say anything about my professional life or personal life or my job, but he knew my name and he happens to be really good at Googling.
So, he Googled me and found out that I was at the time president of the Philip Roth Society. I brought him a copy of my first book, and I said read the preface and maybe a little bit of this chapter. Everything else is garbage, but I just hope you know [laughing] how much you mean to me and everybody at the Roth society.
And speaking of Roth, in your article, Confronting the C Word, you talk more about Roth’s work and how it gives us language to help us talk about Cancer. Narrative medicine is mentioned a lot. Can you explain a bit what that is?
Yes! So, reading Roth alongside trauma, I started looking at his representations, of women with illness. It’s not always women, but I became really interested in his representation of vulnerable people or disenfranchised people, people without a voice, and so one of the things that really struck me is his representation of women with cancer. That took me a little bit away from trauma studies and into narrative medicine, because that then gave me a language for talking about representation of people who are sick, or terminally ill in the case of his characters. It turns out that trauma theory and narrative medicine share a connection around this value for ethics and witnessing the suffering of another.
So, in narrative medicine you’ll see references to Caruth, who says that we must bear witness to those without a voice, and so I was able to kind of pivot from trauma theory to narrative medicine and to use narrative medicine in reading Roth in saying we must pay attention to these voices. I read that as kind of parallel to our social environment or our culture in which people seem not to want to engage with narratives of the ill, or in our personal lives either. I feel like we don’t have a language for it. We certainly don’t have a healthcare system that can adequately treat the ill. So going to Roth again, I found a way to articulate that which was bothering me about the world, generally.
Right, and your previous work has been on the Holocaust in Bonfire in Summer Camp , and some work on 9/11 in Falling After 9/11. What lead you to now start talking about illness?
What they have in common is inability for people to acknowledge or address what is going on. So in terms of Philip Roth’s representation of American history, I argue that he’s looking back to say look, we have not been able to talk about our founding trauma, which is establishing a country based on freedom for everybody and equal rights. And so, we keep making the same mistakes. The fact that we are not talking about that kind of perpetuates the problem we see, and I think Roth represents that very well. Then again, in terms of the HIV/AIDS representation, it’s the same thing. Authors in the ’80s and ’90s were responding in various real ways to the realities of their illness, but nobody wanted to hear it. So as a critic of narrative medicine and trauma theory, I pull them back. I look back thirty years and hold them up and say let’s think about ourselves as ethical witnesses and address these concerns of the sick.
I became really interested in his representation of vulnerable people or disenfranchised people, people without a voice.
And that’s what your newest project, HIV/AIDS Representation: Forty Years Later, is going to about, right? Addressing these concerns.
Absolutely. The concerns are social, they’re political, they’re historical, they’re medical. But what I love about literary studies or these theoretical models is that it helps us to understand, where and when language fails, and what to do in response.
And how exactly did that project come about?
I was reading Borrowed Time, which is Paul Monette’s 1988 memoir, in which he uses words like the unforeseen, accident. He talks about what it means to receive an HIV, or a full-blown AIDS diagnoses in the mid-1980s. And what that meant for him, and for his lover—his lover got diagnosed first—is to be written off as a disenfranchised minority who did not matter, who was not worth the resources of the nation. And basically, they kind of understood it as a death sentence.
At the same time, I was reading an essay in Caruth’s collection called “Trauma: Explorations in Memory,” in which she interviews AIDs activists who say it’s easy to think about trauma as articulating an event in history that is not predicted, but what we want to think about is what it means to articulate trauma as a social trauma. That is, it is foreseen as this point, we know the realities. Poets like Rafael Campo, they all seem to be saying the same thing, which is let’s pay attention to the realities. Let’s talk about illness and kind of think about the ways in which institutional forces have failed us.
So, with all these projects that you have and the extensive amount of work you’re currently doing, including a quick trip to a conference in Europe this week, why did you choose to become a professor?
So, I started as premed, and then I was an education major, and I think I did physical therapy, and all I really wanted to do was read and write and talk. I love the idea of bringing a backpack to work every day and talking about books with people. So, I didn’t really understand a path at the time. I knew I kept wanting to go to school for literature so I could continue to report to a campus and see people who are like me, [laughing] who love to read and to write. It wasn’t until I got to the end of the road, with the last credential I could get, where there was no more school, when you learn you must make a living somehow, right? My husband said, if you trust me and come with me to Connecticut I think there will be a job there, and there was. I applied, and then I kind of found my home. But it turned out that I wasn’t a writer or a researcher until I was a teacher first.
Thank you to the Blue Muse staff for all of the important cultural work that you do. Thank you to Clarissa Torres for all the time spent on this interview!
What a fabulous interview with Professor Pozorski. Thanks for expanding my understanding of her work!