Trauma in The Godfather

Trauma as a Repetitive Revenge

By: Charlotte Cruze

            Michael Corleone, of Francis Ford Coppola’s, The Godfather, is a figure traumatized by the loss of his ideal life. As a member of the Corleone family, one of the “five families” involved in New York’s mafia ring, and the son of Vito Corleone, the Don, or leader, of the family, Michael represents the struggle between legitimate and illegitimate means of achieving the American Dream. In his naiveté, Michael believes that he can escape the family business and separate himself from the Corleones; an illusion that begins to rupture when Michael gets word of his father’s attempted assassination. The trauma caused by this rupture builds and metastasizes inside of Michael to ultimately present itself in the form of revenge.

Michael’s trauma can, in part, be traced back to the loss of the life he had made and imagined for himself. This, according to Adam Phillips in his essay, Just Rage, is what can be called Michael’s ideal life: the one “in which everything works”[1], the one in which Michael is not involved in the mob, and the one in which his father is still alive. The film sets Michael up as a character on the outskirts of the family. He is not involved in the family business, he does not dress like them, and he dates a woman, Kay Adams, who is more of a WASP than a traditional Italian. Michael is a decorated war hero, as evidenced by the military uniform he wears at his sister’s wedding while the rest of his family dresses in tuxedos. Not only does his attire separate him from his family, but he sits outside with Kay while the rest of the Corleones work with Vito inside; drawing an obvious boundary between Michael and the his mafia ties. Furthermore, when Kay inquires about Michael’s family business, he is quick to tell her, “That’s my family, Kay, that’s not me.” Following the wedding scenes, Michael and Kay are shown visiting movie theatres in Manhattan and going Christmas shopping. Both of these activities represent Michael as an average, law-abiding citizen who is not so different from most New Yorkers and American citizens. Taking all of this into account, it becomes obvious that Michael’s ideal life consists outside of the confines of the Corleone family business and within the bounds of normative American society.

Phillips explains that a betrayal of the ideal life is what leads to revenge, but I want to add to his argument, using Cathy Caruth’s work, Unclaimed Experience, that there is a third component to Phillips explanation: trauma; a quiet wound that lies in between the betrayal and the action. It is a response to the loss and the motivation for each subsequent act of revenge. By first pinpointing the instances in which Michael suffers from trauma, it is clear that the trauma experienced by this character has resulted in revenge.

Michael’s first site of trauma is the way in which he finds out that his father has been shot. He is walking down the street after leaving a movie with Kay, engaging in a light hearted and flirtatious dialogue, when Kay sees a newspaper headline describing Vito’s attempted assassination. Michael is forced to learn of the threat to his father’s life in a moment in which he least expects it. Caruth explains this aspect of trauma as something that has been “experienced too soon, too unexpectedly, to be fully known and is therefore not available to the consciousness until it imposes itself again”[2]. It is the very aspect of not knowing that traumatizes Michael about this incident. He was, seemingly, the last to know and the news came to him out of nowhere and before he could prepare a reaction.

Following this initial instance of trauma, Michael goes to the Corleone home to spend time with his family and attempt to help. It is painfully obvious in this situation that he is, again, an outsider. He can do almost nothing in the way of helping his father. His brothers assign him to mundane tasks, such as standing by the phone, in order to give him a false sense of importance. Michael, frustrated by this treatment, decides to go visit his father at the hospital. There, he finds his unconscious father alone with no guards and susceptible to fatal attacks from the Corleone’s enemies. It is here that Michael jumps into action. He takes control of the situation, moves his father to a new, hidden room, and teaches Enzo, a baker, to stand guard at the hospital with him and to look as if they both have guns. Once the police see that Vito has guards by his side, they attempt to have Michael stand down in an interaction that results with Mark McCluskey, the police chief, punching Michael in the face and breaking his jaw.

This is a critical moment not only in the film, but also in the story of Michael’s trauma. It is here, when his initial pain and confusion towards his father’s shooting, turns into full-blown trauma. Both Caruth and Phillips discuss a rupture to the shield against harmful stimuli that one has set up for oneself; a blow to the barrier that protects one’s ideal life. Caruth explains this shield:

Unlike the body, however, the barrier of consciousness is a barrier of sensation and knowledge that protects the organism by placing stimulation within an ordered experience of time. What causes trauma, then, is a shock that appears to work very much like a bodily threat but is in fact a break in the mind’s experience of time. [3]

In this scene, Michael is the victim of a blunt, physical trauma that symbolically represents his psychological trauma. As mentioned before, Michael was a member of the U.S. Army and he was a law-abiding citizen. However, here, Michael is faced with another man in uniform – the uniform of the country that Michael was charged with protecting – who punches Michael in the face. This results not only in a blow to his face, but to his ideal life as a man who is respected by, and does not get in scuffles with, the law. It is here where Michael’s true rupture takes place: in a moment of “fright” in which “the lack of preparedness to take in a stimulus that come too quickly”[4] creates a wound that cannot be healed.

This scene is prefaced by a humiliation felt by Michael. Leading up to Michael visiting the hospital, he is feeling humiliated at the Corleone home. He is unable to help the family due to his “good boy” status and is an outsider who had to find out about his own father’s near death experience through the newspaper. He is ignored, which, according to Phillips, is serious “cause for rage”[5]. This scene suggests that Michael’s trauma is bound up with humiliation. Phillips explains that rage, and therefore revenge, are behaviors that betray one’s deepest hopes for their ideal life. “I am humiliated at that moment when I can no longer bear – that is, rationalize – the disparity between who I seem to be and who I want to be”[6]. Michael had been leading his life under the impression that he was happy to separate himself from his family, and perhaps his father, but these instances have opened up a part of him that is humiliated by his lack of importance in these relationships. His rage and acts of revenge are due to the humiliation he has suffered by being thought of as an unimportant outsider to the Corleone business.

However, before the blow administered to his face, Michael was unable to make meaning of both the trauma and the humiliation. According to Phillips, “a wound is a pure gift of meaning”[7], and, as cited by Caruth, the word trauma is Greek for “wound.” This wound to Michael’s face then serves as the motivation for Michael’s future actions of revenge; it has given him purpose. Phillips explains, “The revenger is purpose incarnate…he knows both that something can be done and what to do. The average revenger, once he has been injured, knows what his life is for; he knows what interests him, for a wound is like…a vocation.”[8] He goes on to say that, once this purpose has been discovered, revenge has the power to turn “rupture into story.”[9] The wound gives trauma a voice and is perhaps essential for its recognition. According to Caruth, “it is always the story of a wound that cries out, that addresses us in the attempt to tell us of a reality or truth that is not otherwise available.”[10] The wound speaks for the trauma as it occurs at the point of rupture. For Michael, rupture and trauma occur in the same instant. Without this break in the narrative of Michael’s story, he may have continued to believe in the existence of his ideal life and have never been awakened to the trauma awaiting him inside the Corleone family business. This awakening prompts Michael to make sense of his trauma through revenge, which gives meaning to his broken, ideal life, and serves as a way to cope with the trauma of losing it.

Before discussing Michael’s paths of revenge, it is important to note that the opening monologue of the film alludes to this concept. On the day of Connie Corleone’s wedding, an undertaker named Amerigo Bonasera comes to Vito and asks him to kill a group of boys that have maimed his daughter:

When I went to the hospital her nose was broken, her jaw was shattered, held together by wire. She couldn’t even weep because of the pain, but I wept. Why did I weep? She was the light, the love of my life, beautiful girl, now she will never be beautiful again. I went to the police like a good American…the judge suspended the sentence…they went free that very day! I stood in the courtroom like a fool, and those two bastards, they smiled at me. And I said to my wife, for justice, we must go to Don Corleone.

In the first three minutes of the film, the viewers are primed to the idea that trauma will manifest in the form of revenge. Bonasera is deeply pained, humiliated, and traumatized by the loss of his daughter’s beauty and is struggling with “inarticulate theories of justice” which are “articulated, acted out, in revenge.”[11] Vito denies Bonasera the death of these men, saying, “We’re not murderers, despite what this undertaker would think.” This assertion from Vito directly contrasts the way that Michael leads the family once he is made Don. It perhaps implies that it is not a precedent of murder that prompts Michael’s killing sprees, but it is truly an act spawned by his own trauma.

Michael, armed with the gift of meaning that is his broken jaw, returns to the Corleones and voices his desire for revenge. Michael decides to kill McCluskey and Sollozzo at a restaurant meeting in a dramatic act of vengeance. For Michael, this killing is as close to justice as he will get for the attempted murder of his father, the blow administered to his face, and the loss of his ideal life. This scene is the final solidification of his trauma because if Michael goes through with these murders, there is no going back to his imagined life.

The viewers find Michael in an Italian restaurant in the Bronx where his family members have planted a handgun in the bathroom. Michael is to sit at dinner with the two men, put them at ease, then ask to go to the bathroom. On his way back, he is to “come out firing.” This scene represents the solidification of Michael’s trauma, but also implies, through the gun found in the bathroom, that he still has time to escape the Corleone mafia and return to his previous life by flushing the gun away and washing his hands of the situation. Instead, Michael goes to the bathroom, retrieves the gun, does not wash his hands, and heads back to the meeting. As he sits at the table, gun in pocket, his mind begins to slow down. The background sound of the train is amplified as if to drown out the surrounding stimulus. Time slows, which Caruth explains, in the language of trauma, as “a break in the mind’s experience of time.”[12] Michael finally pulls the trigger, killing both McCluskey and Sollozzo, and gets up to leave the restaurant, but hesitates in dropping the gun, which he was instructed to do immediately upon firing. This is perhaps a symptom of his trauma. Trauma is often not “experienced in time” and “has not yet been fully known.”[13] Michael’s hesitation to drop the gun very well may be evidence that he has not yet been fully able to comprehend the irreversible changes he has made to his life in such a small sliver of time. He has yet to accept that he has killed these men and therefore has trouble progressing to the next step. He is wounded by the contradiction of his knowing and not knowing: the revenge helping him to create meaning, yet the very trauma creating an inexplicable confusion.

Michael’s three-tiered traumatic experience, beginning with the news of his father’s injury, pushed forward by the blow from McCluskey, and solidified with the murder of McCluskey and Sollozzo, can be seen as a type of awakening from Michael’s idyllic dream of life. In Caruth’s essay, she works to explain a Freudian dream had by a father about his dead son, and its subsequent awakening, to examine trauma:

A father has been watching beside his child’s sickbed for days and nights on end. After the child had died, he went into the next room to lie down, but left the door open so that he could see from his bedroom into the room in which his child’s body was laid out, with tall candles standing round it. An old man had been engaged to keep watch over it, and sat beside the body murmuring prayers. After a few hours’ sleep, the father had a dream that his child was standing beside his bed, caught him by the arm and whispered to him reproachfully: “Father, don’t you see I’m burning?”[14]

The father then wakes to see that the candles have knocked over onto the boy’s bed and have been burning his corpse. By waking up, the father, who in his dream inhabited a reality in which his son was still alive, is forced to return to the harsh world where his son is only a corpse. This dream theory relates to Michael and Vito. In a reversal of roles, Vito is a sleeping father who suffers no trauma and Michael is a son who suffers the trauma of the story’s father. For Michael and Vito, the victim of the trauma is the stark opposite to that of the story. It can be argued, then, that Michael’s ideal life, in which he rejects his identity as a Corleone, is something of a dream state. Much like the father, who “dreams rather than wake up…because he cannot face the knowledge of the child’s death while he is awake,”[15] Michael creates an illusion that he is not a Corleone to save himself the trauma. The dream then works as wish fulfillment, a reality in which Michael is not the product of the environment, but the environment is a product of him.

It is, however, the “burning” or injury of his father that knocks him out of his “dream.” His awakening to the reality that he is a Corleone comes when he fears the loss of his father. He cannot deny the fear and anguish he feels at the idea of losing him, much like the father in Freud’s story fears the loss of his child, which knocks both out of their dreamlike illusions. When Michael pulls the trigger to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey, he is, once and for all, roused out of his sleep. He has irrevocably entered a reality in which his ideal life is dead, his father is sick, and he must flee the country and leave his American girlfriend, Kay. Michael’s trauma, then, can be placed in his awakening, in his very interpretation of the way his life will now be led. Caruth explains this “crisis of life” saying,

Is the trauma the encounter with death, or the ongoing experience of having survived it? At the core of these stories, I would suggest, is thus a kind of double telling, the oscillation between a crisis of death and the correlative crisis of life: between the story of the unbearable nature of an event and the story of the unbearable nature of its survival.[16]

Looking at Michael’s trauma in this way, it is evident that his entire life, upon awakening to its new reality, is a crisis of how to make meaning of his survival. His life is sudenly far from where he anticipated, and therefore, must use these wounds, these “gifts of meanings,” as ways to move forward and combat the ambiguity of his very existence. It is easy to see, then, why Michael turns to such fantastic acts of revenge.

Michael’s largest acts of revenge take place after his father’s death and once Michael is made Don. In an attempt for revenge against the other heads of the five families who had aimed to have Michael killed, Michael has each one of them assassinated during the baptism of his niece, where he is made Godfather. These acts of revenge present themselves in a way that is repetitive and reminiscent of the trauma of Michael’s previous killings. As the murders are taking place, Michael is being washed of his sins, by a near-direct nod to the placement of the gun used to kill McCluskey and Sollozzo in the bathroom. Both killings have an aspect of cleansing to them, perhaps implying revenge that is justified in eliminating the contaminants; as a way to get rid of the filth and undesirable aspects of life by which Michael is surrounded. Additionally, the repetitive way in which the baptism murders are carried out serve as a testament to Michael’s trauma.

Consciousness, once faced with the possibility of its death, can do nothing but repeat the destructive event over and over again. Indeed, these examples suggest that the shape of individual lives, the history of the traumatized individual, is nothing other than the determined repetition of the event of destruction.[17]

If Michael’s trauma was solidified through the murder of McCluskey and Sollozzo, then it makes sense that these events must repeat themselves in his life. The repetition of the revenge is key to assigning it meaning as a symptom of trauma and as a subconscious coping mechanism for Michael. “Repetition, in other words, is not simply the attempt to grasp that one has almost died but, more fundamentally and enigmatically, the very attempt to claim one’s own survival.”[18] Michael was able to survive the death of his ideal life and the very repetition of that death helps to reassure him of his ultimate survival. He must repeat these actions in order to give his current life meaning and to assure himself that he truly is alive.

Ultimately, Michael is a character inextricably bound with trauma. A man once convinced his destiny was to lead a law-abiding life as an upstanding American citizen, Michael was forced to awaken from that dream and confront the reality of his identity as a Corleone. He is haunted by his trauma, “the way it was precisely not known in the first instant,” which has allowed it to “return to haunt [him] later on.”[19] Michael’s behavior is evidence of a link between trauma and revenge. An often silent and concealed reaction, trauma hid itself inside of Michael’s subconscious with its only sign of existence manifesting in his acts of revenge. Perhaps what is most traumatizing to Michael, then, is his own ignorance to the true desires of his mind, namely, his persistence identify himself apart from the Corleone family. Therefore, Michael’s ignorance of his own mind serves as his greatest source of trauma.


Works Cited:

Adam Philips. “Just Rage.” The Beast in the Nursery (1999).

Cathy Caruth. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. Print.


[1] Adam Philips. “Just Rage.” The Beast in the Nursery (1999): 121

[2] Cathy Caruth. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. Print: 4.

[3] Ibid., 61.

[4] Ibid., 62.

[5] Philips, Just Rage, 128.

[6] Ibid., 122.

[7] Ibid., 126

[8] Ibid., 126

[9] Ibid., 126

[10] Caruth, Unclaimed Experience, 4

[11] Philips, Just Rage, 126

[12] Caruth, Unclaimed Experience, 61

[13] Ibid., 62

[14] Ibid., 93

[15] Ibid., 95

[16] Ibid., 7

[17] Ibid., 63

[18] Ibid., 64

[19] Ibid., 4