Trauma and Memory in E.L. Doctorow’s "The Book of Daniel"

“Trauma is not locatable in the simple violent or original event in an individual’s past, but rather in the way its very unassimilated nature—the way it was precisely not known in the first instance—returns to haunt the survivor later on” - Cathy Caruth.

[A selection of several editions of E.L. Doctorow’s novel The Book of Daniel (1971)]

The study of trauma and memory in American fiction has been initiated by Literary trauma theory or Trauma studies, whose main concern is the psychological analysis of fictional characters after being exposed to traumatic experiences and how these experiences impact their memory. In this article, a comprehensive study of the protagonist of The Book of Daniel (1971) by E.L. Doctorow aims to demonstrate the metafictional effect of trauma in historical narratives and explore the psychodynamics of memory.

Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (1971) retraces the American historical event of the execution of the Rosenbergs—the Communist couple who were accused of being spies working for the Soviet nuclear program against the USA—in 1953. In a fictionalized version of the Rosenbergs' actual execution, portrayed by the fictional characters Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, Doctorow’s protagonist, Daniel Lewin, recounts the story of his traumatic past and the death of his parents. The Book of Daniel (1971) is what Ferrández (2020) qualifies as “a revenge story”, “a tale of a survivor”, and “a history dissertation” through which Daniel confesses to the readership the impact of his parents’ execution by electrocution on his life and that of his sister, Susan. Thanks to Daniel’s testimony, Doctorow tackles the theme of trauma and memory by exposing the psychological and emotional aspect of his character throughout the historical narrative of Daniel. In this sense, it is Susan’s attempt to commit suicide fifteen years after the Isaacsons' execution, that prompts Daniel to “re-create or abreact through narrative recall”, states Balaev (2012), in a desperate attempt to find solace and heal from the trauma he endured in his life.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg during their trial for espionage in New York, 1951 [Photograph]

In his childhood, Daniel is exposed to disturbing events that pave the way to the establishment of his "mental disorder" in adulthood. His social background plays a significant role in his struggle to become a self-accomplished man; he lives in poverty, suffers an unloving grandmother, sees his father being maltreated by the “right-wing fanatics”, and witnesses his parents' arrest for an alleged crime. Consequently, Daniel and Susan are homeless and have to live with a careless aunt for a short period of time before they are sent to an orphanage. Although Daniel and his sister are lucky enough to have been adopted by a foster family named the Lewins, Daniel suffers from the absence of his parents and keeps visiting them in prison.

After the execution of his parents, Daniel realizes that he and his little sister are now orphans and have been left on their own. Doctorow’s protagonist, thus, is confronted with a hard reality—that the death of his parents was not natural, but rather planned and organized by the government for a crime for which the Isaacsons had not been proven guilty, explains Ferrández (2020). As a consequence, Daniel is overwhelmed by feelings of “outrage” and cannot go through a grieving process to accept his parents' death. This situation leaves Daniel and his little sister “alone” and “defenseless” in a murderous society that is the source of their orphanhood. In other words, no matter how Daniel strives to find a way to soothe the pain and powerlessness inside him, the sudden and traumatic event that led to the death of his parents “denies Daniel any possibility of ever achieving moral closure since he cannot be certain of their guilt” (Ferrández, 2014).

A demonstration in Paris in 1953, calling for the pardon of the Rosenbergs [Photograph]

The succession of these painful events impacted Daniel’s psyche, describes Ferrández (2014), building on Bessel Van der Kolk’s trauma theory, since it engendered trauma in his life from an early age, leading him to be in a state of helplessness and disempowerment. In fact, Daniel’s helplessness is illustrated when he is unable to prevent his little sister Susan from contemplating suicide. This leads us to analyze Daniel’s traumatic past in order to comprehend the psychodynamics of his mind. Balaev (2012) explains that having to undergo a traumatic event is seen by trauma theorists as “a timeless void that “shatters” identity”, generating severe side effects or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on the person’s psyche. For instance, Daniel confesses to having nightmares when he was a child, and refers to his fear of abandonment.

“I was afraid to go to sleep. I had terrible nightmares which I couldn’t remember except in waking from them in terror and suffocation. I was terrified that if I went to sleep, the house would burn down, or that my parents would go away somewhere without telling us". (E.L. Docotorow, pp. 105).

The reaction to an “unprepared” disturbing event is accompanied by a “a long-lasting muteness” and a “lack of knowledge” in relation to the disturbing event itself, producing an “unexpected emotional shock” or what Bessel Van der Kolk refers to as ‘speechless terror’, claims Balaev (2012). In these terms, Daniel's childhood identity is so deeply affected by the traumatic effect of his parents’ execution that it destabilizes his mind, inducing an “unexpected ferocity that language fails to code it.” (Balaev, 2012). Furthermore, children are the most sensitive to trauma because they are young and unprotected against the violence, terror, fear, and shock produced by the traumatic event. Accordingly, the traumatic effect of the incident affects the child’s psyche, disturbs the development of their “life coping skills”, and possibly leads them to follow a dysfunctional parenting model, argues Ferrández (2014) when expanding on Laurie Vickroy’s theory of the effect of trauma on children.

[ROSENBERG EXECUTION, 1953. Headline from the Los Angeles Times, 20 June 1953, reporting the previous day’s execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for spying]

“I suppose you think I can’t do the electrocution. I know there is a you. There has always been a you. YOU: I will show you that I can do the electrocution. First they led in my father. They had rightly conceived that my mother was the stronger. All factors had to be considered. They wanted the thing done with as little fuss as possible. They wanted it to go smoothly. It is not a pleasant job, executing people, and they wanted to do it with dispatch”. (E.L. Docotorow, pp. 275).

Many years after the death of his parents, Daniel is still obsessed by the manner in which Paul and Rochelle Isaacson died. The fact that his parents were electrocuted keeps haunting his memory as he struggles to write about their execution in his dissertation, striving to visualize and imagine how it looked and how his parents felt. Words like “electrocution” and “electricity” recur throughout the book to reflect the feelings of horror, shock, indignation, and helplessness experienced by Daniel as an adult. It is for this reason that Daniel never accepted that his sister, Susan, should undergo the shock therapy proposed by her psychiatrist, in order to heal her, somehow, from her deteriorating health condition. The mention of the shock therapy reminds him of the death of his parents by “electrocution”, implying a largely similar method using “a strong electric current” through “electrodes” on the “earlobes”, “shoulders”, “nipples”, “bellybutton”, “genitals”, “knees”, “toes” and “soles of the feet” until electricity reaches the “nervous system of the patient.” (Doctorow, 2007, pp.193).

The two young sons of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg take part in a giant demonstration in front of the White House asking presidential clemency for their parents [Photograph]

At some point, the remembrance of the traumatic event of the death of his parents paves the way for Daniel to become more skeptical, paranoiac, and hateful towards politics, in part also due to the events that took place after the Isaacsons were arrested. Ferrández (2014) explains that a large number of the Isaacsons' friends—members of the Communist Party—became unfriendly and hostile towards Daniel’s parents. For instance, they “did not hesitate to erase their names from the membership list right after their arrest, fearing that their conviction would be detrimental to North-American communism”, states Ferrández (2014). Consequently, all these events deeply impacted Daniel making him more “disturbed” as both his “identity and memory remain confused and divided” by his traumatic past. Balaev (2012) explains that “cognitive chaos” and a “possible division of consciousness” are direct “responses to trauma” as a means of coping with the traumatic event. In Daniel’s case, writing his dissertation remains the only way to “remember the past” through “repetitive flashbacks”, and can be considered an alternative way to “narrativize the event” in an attempt to incorporate the traumatic events of his past into, what the French psychologist Pierre Janet calls, “normal memory”.

However, Daniel is unable to forget about the horror and trauma of his past and this is marked by the “historiographic interludes”, argues Ferrández (2014). Correspondingly, the narrative shifts from one topic to another to reflect the protagonist's endeavor to acknowledge his "mental disorder" and his psychological struggle to forget about what happened to his parents . Through his historical narrative depicted as “timeless”, “non-linear”, “fragmented”, “chaotic”, and embedded with “constant jumps in time and place”, Daniel deals with themes related to the “Soviet politics”, the “Cold War”, “treason and tyranny”, “traitors and the law”, and “astrology”, all made to interrupt his remembrance and narration of his past. For instance, Doctorow uses the “random shifts of voice”, precisely from first-person to third-person narration to highlight the flexible position of his protagonist in the narrative. In other words, according to Ferrández (2020), Doctorow’s narrative style moves from a “homodiegetic (also autodiegetic in this case)” mode of narration to a “heterodiegetic” mode of narration to emphasize Gérard Genette’s notion of “interpolated narration”. While the former implies the narrator is in the same position as the protagonist in the narrative, the latter detaches the narrator from the story, leaving the protagonist on his own. This method of narration can be also analyzed from a Literary trauma perspective by adopting dissociation as a means of fighting the traumatic effect of the event on Daniel’s psyche.

Demonstrators carry signs pleading for clemency for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. [Photograph]

“Dissociation is represented in fiction, often associated with trauma, but fictional representations do not necessarily indicate that dissociation is the only response to trauma”. (Balaev, 2012)

As a survivor of trauma, Doctorow’s protagonist is trapped in a state of anhedonia, whereby he finds himself resisting the fragments of his traumatic past, and repressing them in order to forget about the horror he went through. Therefore, Daniel dissociates any traumatic memory of his past as an act of forgetfulness in an effort to survive despite the haunting effect of trauma. Nonetheless, his sister’s attempt to commit suicide comes to remind him of the true existence of these traumatic events in his childhood, and so remembrance and “abreaction”, represented through narration, inevitably become a therapy. Accordingly, when striving to reconstruct fragments of his past as an attempt to remember what happened to him, Daniel re-experiences through his historical narrative the feelings provoked by trauma, including “intense fear”, “helplessness”, “loss of control” and “threat of annihilation”. Daniel’s historical dissertation, Ferrández (2020) explains building on Sandra Gilbert’s notion of “writing wrong”, is considered to be a “survivor writing” and, thus, it is an act of imagining the events that took place before and during his parents’ execution. Since the narrative requires imagination and is not an exact recounting of how the traumatic event happened, it renders it, according to Doctorow, a “false document”. Hence, it is due to the trauma experienced during his childhood and into his adulthood that Daniel is unable to remember exactly what happened during that period of time, and, consequently, he tries to rebuild and recollect the shattered parts of his fragmented identity through writing.

“ ‘false’ memory allows for the only ‘true’ testimony to trauma” Naomi Morgenstern. (Ferrández, 2020, pp.84)

All things considered, the use of Trauma studies in the analysis of Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (1971) opens the gate for a thorough analysis of the psychological profile of a survivor of trauma, portrayed in the character of Daniel Lewin. Through the historical dissertation written by Daniel throughout the book, Doctorow presents a fictionalized version of American society in the 1960s, exposing the socio-political problems and its repercussions on the Isaacson family. The metafictional aspect in Doctorow’s novel leaves the reader questioning Daniel’s testimony as either a “false document” of his story or rather a true version of his traumatic past, albeit fragmented and distorted.

Image Sources

AP. (n.d.). Ethel and Julius Rosenberg during their trial for espionage in New York, 1951 [Photograph].

[A selection of several editions of E.L. Doctorow’s novel The Book of Daniel]. (2014, July 1). Https://Prezi.Com.

Keystone/Getty. (2015, September 15). A demonstration in Paris in 1953, calling for the pardon of the Rosenbergs [Photograph]. Theguardian.Com.

[ROSENBERG EXECUTION, 1953. Headline from the Los Angeles Times, 20 June 1953, reporting the previous day’s execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for spying]. (n.d.). Pinterest.Com.

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images. (2018, June 19). The two young sons of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg take part in a giant demonstration in front of the White House asking presidential clemency for their parents [Photograph].

Demonstrators carry signs pleading for clemency for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. (2018, June 18). [Photograph]. Https://Landmarkevents.Org.


Balaev, M. (2012). Trauma Theory and Its Discontents The Potentials of Pluralism. In The Nature of Trauma in American Novels (pp. 3–40). Northwestern University Press.

Doctorow, E. L. (2007). The Book of Daniel. Random House Trade Paperback Edition.

Ferrández San Miguel, M. (2020). The Book of Daniel A Memoir Gone Awry. In Trauma, Gender and Ethics in the Works of E.L. Doctorow (pp. 72–105). Routledge.ía%20Ferrández%20San%20Miguel%20-%20Trauma%2C%20Gender%20and%20Ethics%20in%20the%20Works%20of%20E.L.%20Doctorow-Routledge%20%282020%29.pdf

Ferrández, M. (2014). Branded in his Mind: Trauma, Violence and Memory in E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel. Nordic Journal of English Studies, 13(4), 1–19.

Additional Readings

Bottaro, A., & Gans, S. (2021, August 3). What Is Anhedonia? Retrieved January 20, 2022, from

Fritscher, L., & Gans, S. (2020, June 15). Understanding Fear of Abandonment. Retrieved January 19, 2022, from

Hartney, E., & Susman, D. (2020, November 20). What Is Dissociation? Retrieved January 18, 2022, from

Herman, L., & Vervaeck, B. (2005). Handbook of Narrative Analysis (L. Herman & B. Vervaeck, Eds.). University of Nebraska Press.

Mambrol, N. (2018, December 19). Trauma Studies. Https://Literariness.Org. Retrieved January 17, 2022, from

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (n.d.). Shock Therapy. Retrieved January 18, 2022, from

Tull, M., & Marsh, A. (2021, October 2). Understanding PTSD in Children. Retrieved January 18, 2022, from (n.d.). homodiegetic. In Retrieved January 20, 2022, from

——————————————. heterodiegetic. In Retrieved January 20, 2022, from

Author Photo

Neyra Behi

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