Memory . . . trauma . . . memory of trauma . . . traumatic memory . . . repentance . . . remorse . . . forgiveness . . . ‘unforgivableness’ . . . guilt . . . connection . . . and back to memory: These words represent the ramblings of my mind as it wanders aimlessly over my recollections of having read A Damaged Mirror a few short months ago. I observe the meanderings of my mind as I let Yael Shahar’s and Ovadya ben Malka’s story engulf me once more.
A Damaged Mirror is the story of a trauma survivor’s descent into the hell of his memories, and back to the land of the living. We follow the journey of Ovadya ben Malka as he struggles with memories of Birkenau, and Yael Shahar’s efforts to complete his journey and make him whole.
How can any of us know if what we remember resembles the truth of things we ourselves experienced? This, indeed, is one of the questions explored in this book. Perhaps our memories come back to us as metaphors. Perhaps parts of our memories come back to us as accurate recordings of what really happened. We can never know. Because even if we compare our memories with others who were there with us at the time, we discover how differently we each experienced the exact same thing.
For me, the exactness of memory is not important; what is important is what we do with what we remember.
I am reviewing this book from my professional stance. As a trauma therapist, I worked daily with clients who sought my help in turning traumatic memories into memories of trauma: the former are life-restricting and the latter are life-permitting and life-reaffirming. We see that evolution occurring to some extent over the course of this book.
In the very first chapter, Ovadya ben Malka speaks of his past:
So I have forgotten many things, though they come up again under the odd stimulus. Little things.
The “odd stimulus” refers, of course, to triggers. Triggers come in many forms: tone of voice, facial expressions of another person, a colour, a phrase of music, a smell, a whoosh of coolness as someone moves past you and stirs up the air; anything registered by any of our senses can be a trigger. A trigger can also be a thought or feeling that suddenly emerges, apparently out of nowhere, inside your mind or body. And most importantly — the “little things.” It is the “little things” that make each memory unique and personal — the little things that someone making up a story would most likely not think of telling.
Ovadya relates to the alterability of memory with time and “the frailty of the material on which it is written”. I agree and disagree – memory does alter, but not with time alone, it alters with repeated recollection and retelling of the content of the memory – unprocessed flashbacks and nightmares are generally unmodified subjective imprintings, even if they are not exact replicas of the events. And every time you describe or work with them, they change in small ways, generally in ways that promote healing, even if it does not feel that way, if you stick it out long enough. The material onto which memories are written is so very far from fragile – our human brains are resilient and strong.
Traumatic Experience and Its Aftermath
Throughout the book I was pleased to see the accurate portrayal of trauma. The symptoms were interwoven into the story without being jarring (in other words, without showing up suddenly and intrusively as they do in real life), something that allows the reader to contemplate their meaning and impact without being overwhelmed. The story is already intense enough without that.
Our author appears to have suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Of course nobody should make a diagnosis based on a narrative in a book, but if we consider the three axes of symptoms characterizing PTSD we can see how this fits:
1. Intrusive symptoms: flashbacks, nightmares;
2. Hypervigilance: being afraid of surprises and therefore always aware of what is going on around you – noticing the smallest changes in voice inflection or facial gestures of others, and more;
3. Dissociative symptoms: feeling cut off from oneself to varying degrees, for example, an unusually high pain threshold, feeling emotionally numb much of the time, having a sense of watching yourself from the side rather than being IN yourself.
We can say that the last two symptoms above are residuals from the trauma experience itself whereas the first emerges only after the traumatic events are over.
Flashbacks and nightmares are experienced as intrusive and uncontrollable. “Turning off” the flashback and forcibly waking up from a nightmare midway through it are instinctual, but they are ineffective means to control them. In fact, control comes when we give up any idea of control, and decide, instead, to let the traumatic memories be . . . to watch them and follow them through until the end of that particular event. This is more frightening than words can ever express. But the memories lose their control over us when we let them tell the story we fear, because within that story is likely a little piece that we have been trying to wipe out of our minds forever: something we cannot bear to “know” or to feel because we fear that the knowing or feeling would kill us in a way that the perpetrator never could.
This is just the task facing Ovadya: he must eventually allow the memory to play out. But is he really there at that point? Is he alive at all? This question hangs in the air throughout the book. The reader can be forgiven for getting lost in the murky space between death and life. That too is part of the story.
* * * * *
While the symptoms of PTSD are evident throughout, that is not really the point of this book, I think. It provides veracity for the narrative, yet if this were a story only of trauma, it would not have the impact that it does. This is a story about choice and responsibility under traumatic circumstances. It deals with the question of the possibility for forgiveness and redemption.
I would like to focus on the aspect of trauma that leads to the need for forgiveness in this particular case.
Selected for the Birkenau Sonderkommando, seventeen-year-old Ovadya collaborated in the killing of Jews in order to save his own skin. Put like that, it is legitimate to ask why, or if, the issue of forgiveness should even arise. However, we must consider the circumstances under which he operated before we pass judgement; he writes:
Deep down, I know that my humanity is limited by necessity, and that I can be made to do anything for the sake of a little more life.
In other words, he felt could be made to do anything because he was willing to do anything in order to take the next breath. Others may have chosen to die and probably some did.
In Milgram’s famous psychology experiment (1963), the one that provided the basis upon which informed consent is now required for all studies involving human participants, many people were shown to be relatively easily pressed to do things under duress that go against their own moral values. If scientists in a laboratory provided sufficient authority to take away individuals’ sense of personal agency, then how much more so Nazis in uniforms, when the entire environment was controlled by those Nazis!
We would all like to think that if we had participated in Milgram’s experiment, we would have been the ones to have said “no” to the request that we increase the electric charge applied to the research confederate feigning screams in the next room. However, when the cost of noncompliance is your own death, the issue is not so easily set aside with the facile claim that we certainly would NOT have acted as Ovadya did.
The question is: did Ovadya have a choice? He considers this issue repeatedly:
. . . if I could have acted otherwise, I’m guilty. If I couldn’t – if I was reduced to this because my will to resist was broken – then I’m ashamed.
Anyway, the illusion of choice was just that – an illusion.
Control issues are central to the experience of trauma, both at the time of the traumatic events and later, in one’s inner world, long after the actually danger has passed. I described this above re flashbacks and nightmares. Ovadya relates to his helplessness when confronted with the memories of what had happened and what he had done:
I have no control over memory. It’s fair to say that mostly it controls me. There are behaviors that I am ashamed of but over which I have no control.
Observe how this mirrors the sense of lack of control that characterized the trauma conditions when they occurred:
. . . there was no control. What happens is that we try to believe that we had some control in order not to feel powerlessness.
And in another place:
You can’t have it both ways. Either you have control, in which case you are not a victim, or you have no control, in which case you feel the shame of a slave. The truth is probably somewhere in between.
“The truth is probably somewhere in between?”; perhaps it lies somewhere else entirely. Trying to believe that one has some measure of control is one cognitive means by which we mitigate the impact of helplessness and try to cope with a totally hopeless situation. Lack of control over one’s own behaviours is unbearable.
Lack of control also brings guilt, and we may be willing to take great risks to alleviate the guilt and feel less like an accomplice to murder:
And so I went out of my way to bump into this guy [a guard]. And naturally, he did exactly what I expected him to do. He spent the next little while putting me in my place [a beating]. And that was exactly what I wanted, to be put in my place – in order to demonstrate that my place was with my own people and not with the enemy.
What an elegant resolution of the impasse this was!
At the same time, it is important to recognize the fact that control is illusory even when we are not experiencing a traumatic situation; trauma, perhaps, shines too strong a light on the natural human condition of control-lessness. We cannot control other peoples’ actions, thoughts or feelings. We cannot control the consequences of our own actions or inaction because there are other elements at work that determine the exact reactions of our personal universes to what we do or desist from doing.
The only thing we can control is what we ourselves choose to do in response to the sometimes benign and often impossible conditions in which we find ourselves. It is not true to say that Ovadya did not have a choice. He could have chosen death. He chose life. He had no control over the conditions that led him to be in that agonizing situation, but he could, in fact, have chosen death.
This is essentially no different in kind (while vastly different in degree) from the choice a man makes to participate in the gang rape of a vulnerable woman – he feels he cannot bear the humiliation and rejection on the part of his fellows if he were to obey his own moral compass. He may even fear that their violence could reach deadly proportions if he were to attempt to protect the victim rather than participate in the vile acts. Yet we hold him responsible in a court of law and send him to jail. The bystander who does nothing to stop violence can also be charged with being an accomplice.
Should we judge Ovadya by any other standard?
Ovadia’s tortured soul gives him no rest as he carries his guilt and need for judgement forward into an uncertain future. He deserves the serious consideration he is afforded in this book. I do believe in forgiveness and redemption, as does Judaism, and that is based upon admission of guilt and taking responsibility for one’s actions in clearly laid-down precepts that Ovadya’s soul learns through working with a unique teacher.
I want to forgive Ovadya, because I would like people to choose life over death. If we all agreed to roll over and die, there would be none of us left.
I can imagine Ovadya’s soul suffering excruciating pain at the memories of what he agreed to do to survive another day. Yet, at the same time, I can imagine the excruciating pain of one who perhaps chose to die rather than participate in the machinery of murder of his fellow Jews.
Let us, therefore, consider the overwhelming guilt of a different young Jewish soul who, unlike Ovadya, made the decision not to cooperate with the Nazis in order to not share in the killing of his fellow Jews. In other words, someone who made the decision to die at once rather than to survive by any means possible for as long as possible. Upon his death, that young man’s soul was suddenly flooded with images of the children he was supposed to have borne had he made the choice to live. So in choosing to die he “killed” his own unborn offspring and all that they may have accomplished in this world. And perhaps this best demonstrates the impossibility of Ovadya’s situation – damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
* * * * *
This is a book that lives inside you and continues to challenge you. Just when you think you have something figured out and you understand its message, your musing can shift focus and take you into a different corner of your mind where your thinking regenerates in altered form such that different questions arise. You can go back and re-read the book, if you want, or you can trust your own mind to re-work your memory of it in ways that are meaningful for you.
Even if one is not able to accept the more “spiritual” side of the author’s experience, that does not change the working through process one iota. It would not make this a less powerful book. It would not reduce the significance of the questions it raises regarding human nature when people are under duress and the resultant post-duress soul-searching of those brave ones who face the truths of their lives and ask for honest assessment of their choices.
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371–378.