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Children in genocide: Extreme traumatization and affect regulation
By Suzanne Kaplan
Reviewed by Barbara Mattsson
Reaching retirement, war children — those who were children during the Second World War — have begun to look back and are now finally trying to work through their experiences. A large number of associations devoted to war children all over Europe bear witness to this phenomenon. Many of them seek understanding and recognition of their harsh experiences, whereas others want to be able to forget.
On the initiative of the Shoa Foundation, the Jewish children who came to Sweden from various camps, ghettos or hiding places after the war have been interviewed as adults. Suzanne Kaplan was engaged in this task at an early stage and in 2002 collected her conclusions in her doctoral dissertation, “Child survivors in the holocaust”. She has now expanded her thoughts in a new book, Children in genocide, published 2008 by the International Psychoanalysis Library, a fact that must be seen as an important acknowledgement of her scientific work.
To some extent, the two volumes cover the same material, but in the present published book, her ideas and original hypotheses have grown into a theory about trauma and affect regulation. The book also contains new material primarily from Kaplan’s encounters with children after the recent genocide in Rwanda and a description of the historical background to the conflict between Hutus and Tutsis. In her report from her interviews with young boys who survived this war, she has been able to elucidate how they have dealt with their frightful experiences.
In her dissertation, Kaplan analyzed her interview material qualitatively, applying the methodology of Grounded theory. She emphasized the importance of being open, avoiding the use of ready-made hypotheses.
Although her starting point was psychoanalytical, she endeavored to avoid ready-made concepts or a psychoanalytical vocabulary. She tried to find her own terms for the common factors she found in the children’s experiences. There, she introduced the concepts of generational collapse versus generational linking as a basis for processing the material. Her description of these phenomena makes it possible for all of us to get a picture of the dreadful consequences of genocide and of the healing mechanisms that may possibly be discerned as time passes.
Children of the Holocaust not only lost the link to their parents and the experience of their own childhood, they also lost contact with family history. Generational collapse denotes a departure from the cultural sphere to which one belongs. This was accompanied by a break in thought processes and the experience of self.
It became a violation, a gash in life that the survivor would be forced to work with for the rest of his life.
Kaplan used the term generational linking to describe a path a traumatized person may have to work through and/or stand what may otherwise be unbearable.
In her new book, Suzanne Kaplan emphasizes that many of the psychological reactions to extermination are the same, regardless of cultural background. The usefulness of her concepts is confirmed by the fact that in other contexts, they may also illuminate events in the lives of vulnerable children. This applies to all those who have been displaced against their will and suffered the destruction of the basic structure of their daily network. Although, for example, Finnish children evacuated to Sweden during World War II did not go through the same category of experiences as the child survivors of the Holocaust, described by Kaplan, there are elements in her account that make one sensitive to children’s experiences in the Finnish case as well.
There, too, children were suddenly separated from their parents and found themselves in a strange environment.
This is the fate of many children in wars. Besides Finnish children during World War 2, there were also, for example, those evacuated from London. In all of war-time Europe, it was often the rule rather than the exception that children were sent away from places which were considered dangerous or were exposed to bombing.
Generational collapse and generational linking are the basis for the formation of the theory that Kaplan presents. Within this framework, she develops two key ideas that she calls perforation and space creation.
Perforation means that something has been shattered inside the individual. Like Anzieu, Kaplan speaks of the psychic shell. When perforation occurs, the psychic shell may be said to have become full of holes, caused by sensations it has not been possible to mentalize, i.e., to reflect about. These sensations may derive from real, threatening situations that the individual has registered but not been able to defend himself against, or even put into words: harsh voices, unpleasant smells, atrocities. Among other things, perforation can be seen as a distortion in age perception leading to a sense of breakdown in one’s own life cycle. Then various selves, which cannot be integrated, may arise within the personality: for example, someone who is small and afraid and someone who comforts small brothers and sisters or even takes care of confused parents.
Kaplan regards space creation as the opposite of perforation. She stresses the importance of listening to how children use space in order to create distance to a current threat by means of their own thoughts and deeds. In the interviews, she noted moments in which a person, as a child or as an adult, created links to inner objects – reliable persons or things – in order to consciously or unconsciously counteract a sense of vulnerability. The traumatized individual thus attempts to reach integration in his or her personality. Kaplan regards these efforts as strategies or creative processes that emerge from the child’s need for psychic survival.
Thinking or acting occur under their own conditions, e.g., in the form of inner or outer resistance. Sometimes, the children Kaplan interviewed could remember, for example, traditions within the family, and be strengthened by what had previously been unifying experiences. Kaplan gives examples of how some children had short moments when they could look out through a window or a hole in a fence and fix their gaze on something outside. In order to counteract the reality of a cooped-up feeling, they could then dream or fantasize about something that was in another place and unrelated to loss or danger. Momentary resourcefulness in different situations could also be an important factor in space creation.
Kaplan makes use of Winnicott’s idea about a potential psychic space that constitutes a bridge between the distance and proximity to the mother. Here, the transitional object and the transitional area function as a defense against anxiety. Space can sometimes be created in which the individual feels alive, even under desperate conditions. Kaplan also takes up the question of resilience. She formerly opposed this concept, but now believes that the possibility to create one’s own psychic space under difficult circumstances may be an expression of resilience and that it provides an opportunity for survival. Space creation in turn opens the door to generational linking, i.e, to various reparative possibilities.
One of the major conclusions in her thesis was that those who were children during the Holocaust have sustained damage to their perception of parenthood.
She continues to see this break in the reproduction cycle as a decisive part of the trauma. However, in the new book, she gives an account of a Rwandan boy who survived the genocide and who after considerable help was able to renounce his desire for revenge and think of himself as having his own future with his own children.
The theory concerning affect regulation is particularly important in the new book. Kaplan has adapted the material from the previously reported individual testimonies and created a model for evaluating and understanding how traumatic memories are recalled.
She has gone further and designed an analytical tool for the assessment of trauma-related affects. Every meeting with trauma later in life can activate various reactions and defenses, everything from persecuting thoughts and the desire for revenge to creative solutions.
One kind of reaction seldom reigns supreme but can vary from one time to another. She notes a variable pattern of reactions that exhibit different degrees of working through. Personal interviews, narratives or psychotherapy sessions may contain several kinds of reactions to trauma. She mentions affect invasion, affect isolation, activation and symbolization, which in turn, when defenses are unintegrated, may lead to paranoid reactions, somatic reactions, dissociation, or to unbearable anxiety.
Affect invasion can take the form of panic-stricken weeping or laughter denoting a physical reaction and possibly a reiteration of a trauma where the unendurable is present. Affect isolation is characterized by a dissociated, ready-made narrative, which may mean that working through of the trauma is firmly blocked or that individual’s control of the traumatic affect holds and may offer some opportunity for action. Kaplan describes affect activation as verbally expressed anxiety and affect symbolization as a condition in which trauma is presented in words, perhaps metaphorically, and in which pain may be bearable. These reactions may lead on to strategies where the dominating patterns may be glimpsed. Affect regulation is attached to various linking processes, either to trauma linking where parts of the trauma are re-experienced as a part of the present, or to a more reparative generational linkage. Working through trauma is an ever ongoing process. Kaplan has collected into a graphic model the various manifestations of affect regulation and linking that can be found within every individual and calls thismodel the “affect propeller”.
The “affect propeller” provides a framework for a visual and intellectual understanding of the many-faceted pattern of reactions a person may develop when recollecting or working through traumatic memories.
The ability to regulate affects is a motivating factor for development. The loss of the ability to regulate affects and impulses, which can be an obstacle to continued psychic development and integration, may reflect extreme traumatization.
A new project, which Kaplan describes in her recent book, deals with chronically hospitalized patients who have survived the Holocaust and are now in mental hospitals in Israel. She explains how they give the appearance of having forgotten everything they have experienced; they deny that the Holocaust has ever happened and therefore maintain that it is not worth talking about. These patients provide a completely different picture than, for example, those individuals whom Kaplan interviewed in Sweden, that is, survivors who have somehow managed to live on. It seems as though the affects of the mentally ill may have been encapsulated and that their stories have completely come to a halt so that symbolization and associations are lacking. They have wiped out their conscious memories and have probably not received help with verbalizing their trauma at an early stage.
Just as with Kaplan’s primary concepts from her dissertation, the affect-propeller model may be useful when we meet traumatized people in various connections.
It may help the listener, for example, the psychotherapist, to better and more unambiguously discern various nuances in the patient’s narrative. The “affect propeller” may, as Kaplan emphasizes, also give the therapist a picture of the direction of the psychotherapy and provide help following up affective nuances in the analytic process and thus assist the patient to find new solutions in handling his or her trauma. There is an assumption that the therapist actively approaches the traumatic experiences.
Kaplan compares her theory with previously established psychoanalytical concepts. Her primary source is Winnicott, but also Bion, Fonagy, and Modell, among others, are cited. Her work is an example of how one can work both psychoanalytically and scientifically.
She combines the individual and the subjective in the interviews so that the result is a complex and rich theoretical treatment of the questions addressed.
Kaplan writes specifically of children exposed to genocide. But, as already mentioned, her theory is also useful for those who meet other children who have fared badly. It provides concepts and perspectives that might otherwise be difficult to weave in and apply.
What I am now thinking of concerns children who have lost contact with their home, their environment and their roots, as for example is the case with children who have been adopted from a strange environment.
Kaplan’s theories have an extended, universal validity and are applicable to all those who have encountered war or the heartless cruelty of others. Her work alsopoints the way to possibilities for treatment and working through.
Björneborgsvägen 5 O
Scandinavian Psychoanalytic Review, vol. 32, nr. 1 (2009)