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Children in Genocide:
Extreme traumatization and affect regulation

This book, containing untold suffering by children caught in the midst of extreme social violence, gives voice to their unthinkable, unspeakable experience and makes this into a telling psychoanalytic story. It is a story of how the developing minds of these children grapple with the memories the experiences of genocide create and the triumphs and debilities which the struggle can leave in its wake. Kaplan listens with her psychoanalytic 'third' ear but, remarkably, also gives scientific consideration to what she is hearing and follows through her sophisticated theoretical analysis with a grounded theory-based qualitative study.

Peter Fonagy


Foreword by Arnold H Modell

A distinguished anthropologist once said: “humanity is a species that can live only in terms of meaning it itself must invent”. We who are witness to the horrors of the Holocaust and other genocides such as in Rwanda can only attempt to make meaning of this horrendous history. The enormous outpouring of books related to the Holocaust attests to the endeavour to understand that which is beyond all understanding. Human beings, when deprived of their humanity, teach us how the human soul, the self, can be preserved when threatened with extinction. If there is anything positive to be gained from all of this horror, it is that small measure of understanding.

Suzanne Kaplan, by immersing herself in the horrendous experiences of the survivors of the Holocaust and genocide in Rwanda, showed that listening—which must have been extremely painful—is in itself an act of courage. The atrocities committed in Rwanda, solely for one’s ethnicity, resemble the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Despite this emotional cost, she was able to enter into the narrative of these survivors yet retain her clear-sightedness and conceptual clarity.

Bearing witness is a gift. For me, what was most striking in the accounts of those who were children when they became victims of the Holocaust is the fact that the memory of their traumatic experience was retained in exquisite, almost novelistic detail. Massive denial or repression was not in evidence. What is of significance is that these individuals were not only survivors, but as adults were able to establish relatively normal lives. In contrast is the report of Dori Laub (2005), who interviewed individuals who managed to stay alive during the Holocaust but were subsequently hospitalized in Europe and later hospitalized in Israel and diagnosed as psychotic. Many of these patients were silent and did not speak to anyone. What is of great significance is the fact that these victims did not remember their experience. Laub reports that there is an underlying common thread to all of them, and that is that the memories of their experiences have been massively erased. It is if they have forgotten everything that had happened to them, as if the experience of massive trauma never took place. It was, Laub reports, as if the memory was registered and kept frozen in a different part of the brain that had no access to consciousness.

The striking difference between these two groups is that those survivors who managed to reach Sweden, whom Kaplan interviewed and coordinated under the auspices of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, retained a complex and nuanced narrative of their experience. Not only did they remember their suffering during the Holocaust, but a least one interviewee used memory to recall a sense of self that existed prior to the Holocaust. He described how “a rock of salvation for me” was his ability to recall within his mind over and over again the happy memory of his family celebrating Passover before the Shoah. (The evidence of a survivor’s ability to retain a complex, contextually accurate memory of his or her traumatic experience can be seen in the interviews with Emilia that are recorded in the Appendix.)

 Those survivors who became psychotic lost the narrative of their trauma, while those survivors who established relatively normal lives retained a narrative of their traumatized self. From this we can conclude that the retrieval of the memory of feelings is essential for the survival of the self. The self is maintained through narrative affective memory. For reasons that are unclear, those survivors who ended up as psychotic patients in Israel did not retain the capacity to preserve their narrative memory of their horrendous trauma.

One may argue that those survivors who became psychotic lost narrative memory because of some cognitive process related to their psychosis. I suspect, however, that it was the other way around—that they became psychotic because they lost their narrative memory. Although they were diagnosed as schizophrenic, Laub questions that diagnosis and reports no specific symptoms such as hallucinations that are characteristic of that illness.

A non-specific “functional” psychosis would fit my hypothesis. This is not to imply that those survivors who found safety in Sweden escaped damage to their sense of self. In reading these interviews, one has to remind oneself that one is not listening to the voices of children, but to the voices of adults recalling their childhood. It is as if the I who experienced the trauma is not differentiated in age from the I recalling the memory of the trauma. Normally when one thinks of oneself as a child, the adult self and the childhood self are clearly differentiated.

Our sense of self is commonly an integrated though an uneven procession of former selves, which we recognize as the same as well as distinct. The massive trauma of the Holocaust has clearly interfered with this process. There has been a collapse in the time dimension of the self. Kaplan has observed this phenomenon throughout all of these narratives. One survivor said: “I can’t have a child because I’m a child myself.” Many survivors seem to be age-disoriented and therefore cannot judge their own age and also the age of their relatives. From this we can infer that massive trauma disrupts the sense of continuity of the self from which our experience of time is derived. There is much about this process that remains unknown, but I suspect that these histories are witness to a failure of what Freud described as Nachträglichkeit, the failure to recontextualize or re-categorize memory, in which metaphor plays a salient part (Modell, 2003). It may be that, normally, the process of recontextualizing memory provides a sense of the continuity of the self and contributes to our experience of the expansion of time. Kaplan introduces two organizing conceptual principles: perforating and space creating. The concept perforating is consistent with Freud’s theory of trauma, which was later elaborated by Anzieu’s conception of the skin ego (Anzieu, 1985). Both Anzieu and Freud focus upon the effect of trauma on the ego or the self. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud thought of the self as a protective envelope, shield, or membrane.

Freud wrote: “protection against stimuli is an almost more important function for the living organism than the reception of stimuli” (Freud, 1920g, p. 27). He also said: “we described as traumatic any excitations from outside which are powerful enough to break through the protective shield. This seems to me that the concept of trauma necessarily implies a connection of this kind with the breach in an otherwise efficacious barrier against stimuli” (italics added). Anzieu extended Freud’s theory of trauma by focusing on the skin as an example of the envelope of the self.

Kaplan’s interviews provide countless painful descriptions of the envelope of the child’s self being repeatedly penetrated by the perpetrators. The penetration of stimuli through the skin is particularly relevant in Holocaust survivors. Mothers commonly protect children and induce a sense of safety through holding and touching, all of which contributes to a feeling of warmth. These survivors suffered enormously as children from the cold and the continual invasion of body lice. Furthermore, the bodily self, the skin ego, was invaded and violated by the perpetrators, who removed their clothing and jewellery. The skin ego is not only a protective barrier, but is also an affirmation of self-hood through the selective expression of bodily adornment. Children’s jewellery, in addition, is also a concrete reminder, a talisman, of a tie to one’s family. Therefore, the removal of clothing and jewellery is a further step towards dehumanization. Penetration of the self, in resilient children, may be compensated for by attempts at restoration of the self. Psychological survival may depend upon another process that Kaplan describes as space creating: an attempt by the victim to restore a sense of self, and a sense of self that relates to others.

From Kaplan’s theory I would understand space creating to consist of two different processes. The first is to create a boundary around the self that allows one to think and to fantasize, which in turn reaffirms one’s own existence. The other function is to reaffirm the self through making contact with members of the group. Kaplan notes the children’s preoccupation with the facial expression of the adults. Bonds are established through eye contact, but scanning the face of others can also be used as an early warning signal. In both instances, eye contact reinforces a social bond.

The other’s recognition of the self is necessary for self-affirmation. Kaplan reports that one survivor heard her neighbours say: “‘I wonder what she is thinking about.’ I remember that my reaction was, ‘What do they mean, thinking, I’m not thinking anything. What do you do when you think? What does that mean?’ Then it suddenly occurred to me that ‘maybe that’s what I am doing after all, when I sit here not saying anything but still talking to myself in my own head, maybe that’s what thinking is’.” This survivor felt affirmed by the other’s recognition that she was a thinking human being. Thinking is what selves do. If one thinks, one still exists. Kaplan recognizes that feeling is a form of knowing, and that trauma profoundly disrupts this cognitive process.

The relation between feeling, memory, and knowing is extremely complex. I believe that metaphor is the currency of the emotional mind. We use memory to categorize experience, and in turn the affect categories that we establish in our minds are organized in accordance with metaphoric similarities and differences (Modell, 2003). In health, our past experiences are re-categorized, which Freud described as Nachträglichkeit. In trauma, this metaphoric process, which accepts the simultaneity of sameness and difference, is degraded. Recognizing the simultaneity of sameness and difference is implicit when one, as an adult, remembers oneself as a child. This capacity appears to be lost in many of the survivors. This loss, in Holocaust survivors, of the capacity to think metaphorically was previously observed by Grubrich-Simitis (1984).

I believe that this cognitive failure has contributed to the lack of continuity in the sense of self that Kaplan reports as age distortion. I look upon Children in Genocide as a gift to the reader that represents an outstanding act of courage on the part of its author, Suzanne Kaplan.

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Review: Children in Genocide: Extreme traumatization

                 and affect regulation



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