Other Voices, v.2, n.1 (February 2000)
Copyright © 2000, Renata Salecl, all rights reserved
The last decade has been the decade of testimonies. Social and psychological theories have widely discussed victims' traumas and the impact their reports of suffering have on the society as a whole. Discussions regarding the Holocaust have been concerned with the question of how to prevent future generations from forgetting the greatest crime of this century, while public debates on rape and other forms of sexual abuse have tried to bring people to greater awareness of these acts of violence.
What does it mean when we try to inscribe something in the public memory? Is this not an attempt to get the big Other to recognize a particular suffering? And, since we know very well from Lacan that the big Other actually does not exist, how can we then understand this overflow of testimonies? Is there in fact someone to listen to our reports, and if there is, what do we want from that agency?
In dealing with these questions, let me focus on one of the most controversial takes on the Holocaust: Binjamin Wilkomirski's Fragments, which claims to be an authentic memoir of a three- or four-year-old child's experience with the concentration camps. The author, now a musician living in Switzerland, believes himself to have been born around 1939 in Riga, Latvia. When he was three or four years old, his family was uprooted from their home, and after a period of flight in which he was a witness to his father's execution, Binjamin was separated from his brothers and his mother and transported to Majdanek, the first of several camps in which he spent the next four years.
Wilkomirski narrates his memoir from the perspective of a confused, frightened child in disjointed flashbacks, which vividly present life in the camps: the hardship imposed on inmates, the cruelty of the guards, the sickening realities of existence, the fear and guilt. There are powerful accounts in the book of bloodied rats crawling from bodies in the camps; of a woman, possibly his mother, giving him her last scrap of hardened bread; of babies who chewed their fingers to the bone before dying; and of his standing barefoot, ankle-deep in excrement in order to keep warm. Binjamin does not know why he survived. The only explanation that he can provide involves the kindness of an older boy named Jankl who slept with him on his mattress and who taught him survival techniques.
The book moves back and forth between the years within the death camps and the years in Switzerland making no distinction between the two experiences. Binjamin was first the victim of the Nazis' torture, but after the war he became the victim of the well-intentioned grown-ups who tried to convince him that he did not experience the Holocaust. His foster parents, for example, insisted that he abandon the strategies of self-protection which he had acquired in the Nazi camps. Although Binjamin was able to survive the horrors of the camps, he later felt completely powerless to cope with the banality of good intentions he was forced to endure in freedom. He thus concludes: "Friendly grown-ups are the most dangerous. They're best at fooling you."1 Even though people attempted to convince him that the concentration camp had only been a dream, he nevertheless believed that the camp was still hidden somewhere and that guards had merely disguised themselves as harmless people, retaining the ability to kill at anytime.
Fragments became an international bestseller, winning its author numerous awards. Now, it is more or less accepted that the book is a fraud. Swiss writer Daniel Ganzfried, a son of a Holocaust survivor, was first to claim that Wilkomirski was not born in Latvia, as his book says, but in Switzerland in 1941. The child of an unmarried Protestant woman, he was adopted by a Swiss couple who named him Bruno Doessekker. Ganzfried has found a birth certificate and other documents that indicate Doessekker spent the war years in Switzerland and started school in 1947, a year before Wilkomirski says he arrived in the country. To help substantiate his Jewish identity, Wilkomirski told Ganzfried he was circumcised. But Wilkomirski's ex-wife and an old girlfriend deny this fact.
After this revelation, many other Holocaust scholars have proclaimed the book a work of fiction; however, Wilkomirski still insists that he is telling the truth. He compares himself to Anne Frank whose diary was also for a long time suspected to be a fake.
This highly disputed memoir is the product of the so- called recovered memory therapy. The author himself admits that he was able to discover his "origins" only with the help of a therapist and detailed research on the victims of Holocaust.
It is well known how highly suggestive recovered memory therapy is: the therapist does not listen to the patient's free associations, but tries to lead the patient to remember some temporally forgotten trauma, which usually concerns an abuse suggested by the therapist himself as the possible cause of the patient's problems.
When a patient suddenly "remembers" that he or she has been victim of violence in the past, one of the main problems for the patient is how to convince others about the reality of his or her recovered memory and to get some repayment for the past traumas. In the cases of recovered memory of childhood sexual abuse, for example, the patient primarily wants his or her parents or other authority figures to recognize their guilt, to accept the accusations the patient is making and to show remorse for their "crimes."
Patients of recovered memory therapy usually have great problems with authorities. On the one hand, they complain either about the violence of the existing authorities in their childhood or their passivity in protecting them from the violence; on the other hand, they are quick to accept the therapist as the ultimate authority who is able to construct the most "violent" theories about the cause of their traumas. These problems with authorities that one finds in recovered memory therapy need to be analyzed in the context of the broader changes in today's society. Was not recovered memory therapy born precisely at the time when we had many dilemmas in regard to the status of authorities in contemporary society? The last decade has been marked by the decrease of the power of traditional authorities (father, state presidents, church leaders, etc.) and the emergence of the figures which appear as the obscene underside of traditional authorities—cult leaders, sexual abusers, etc. As has often been noted in psychoanalytic theory, the father as the symbolic bearer of the law became the popular imaginary replaced by the father of the primal horde, a man who has access to jouissance which is for other men inaccessible.
Recovered memory therapy tries to give an answer to these problems with authority. But the paradox is that its war against traditional authorities exposes precisely their obscene underside. It is not only that parents and teachers are presented as abusers who excessively enjoy, but the therapist him or herself takes on the role of a leader who finds immense enjoyment in inciting the stories of sexual abuse.
Going back to Wilkomirski's Fragments, we can say that here we also have the case of a man who is deeply troubled by authority. One of the most dramatic points in the book is the description of young Binjamin watching his father being killed by the militia. Wilkomirski writes: "Suddenly his face clenches, he turns away, he lifts his head high and opens his mouth wide as if he's going to scream out....No sound comes out of his mouth, but a big stream of something black shoots out of his neck as the transport squashes him with a big crack against the house.''2 It is striking that Wilkomirski, who in actuality never knew his father, develops such a vivid memory of the father's execution. It is as if the father failed in uttering a word, i.e. to represent the symbolic law—from his mouth comes a silent scream and a stream of blood instead of the voice of the authority. One can even speculate that it is because of this failure of the father to act in the symbolic that in his son's memory he becomes a squashed object. This trauma with the authorities not being up to their symbolic status continues in Wilkomirski's memoir—the real threat of the book is thus the disbelief in adults and fear of their "compassion."
Jonathan Kozol3, in his enthusiastic review points out that Fragments "poses questions asked by those who work with spiritually tormented children everywhere: How is a child's faith in human decency destroyed? Once destroyed, how can it be rebuilt? Or can it never be? What strategies do children learn in order to resist obliteration in the face of adult-generated evil?" Kozol even compares Fragments to Elie Weisel's Holocaust memoir Night, in which "a fellow inmate confides to Wiesel that he has 'more faith in Hitler' than in anybody else. Hitler, he says, is "the only one who's kept his promises...to the Jewish people." While Wilkomirski never tells us he had 'faith' in any of the brutal 'uniforms' of Majdanek, it is clear that he had more faith in the predictability of their behavior, once he understood it, than he ever felt in the allegedly kind people who believed they were befriending him in Switzerland. Indeed, for a long time, it appears, he had no faith that what was called 'the normal world' outside the concentration camps was even real." Wilkomirski thus doubts the reality of the outside world and has great mistrust in the people, while he never doubts the reality of his memory. One can speculate that Wilkomirski's trauma has to do with some event from his childhood, which is probably related to the fact that he never knew his parents. However, what is of interest for us is the way he had created his fantasy around the most traumatic event of this century—the Holocaust.
Why would one invent being a Holocaust survivor? Although we cannot give an account of the personal motives which caused Wilkomirski's act, we can nonetheless give a theory of how such testimony is grounded in changes in contemporary society. In recent years the growing obsession with memory and trauma has created an idea that one needs to constantly make oneself heard, while there is at the same time no one who can hear the revelations. It can even be speculated that it is precisely the inexistence of the agency which is to hear the subject that incited the testimony-industry, as well as recovered memory therapy. Lacanian psychoanalysis has widely discussed the changes in the perception of the big Other that happened in contemporary society. Jacques-Alain Miller and Eric Laurent4 have especially analyzed the emergence of the various ethical committees as an answer to the nonexistence of the big Other. As is well known from Lacan, the big Other as a coherent symbolic order does not exist; however, it nonetheless functions, i.e. the subjects' belief in it has a significant impact on their lives. Today, subjects identify less and less with social institutions, rituals and authorities, and instead are constantly searching for what is supposed to be behind the fictional character of the big Other. However, in this process of freeing the subject from the big Other, one can also observe the subject's anger and disappointment in regard to the very authority of the big Other. It thus appears as if it was not the subject who recognized that the big Other does not exist and that the authority is just a fraud, but that the big Other has somehow "betrayed" the subject. The father's authority, for example, revealed itself only as a mask of his impotence; the social rituals in institutions appear more and more as a farce. However, this apparent liberation of the subject from authority can also be understood as a "forced" choice that the subject had to make when he or she acknowledged the impotence of the authority.
The emergence of testimony and repressed memory should be analyzed precisely in light of the subject's changed relationship towards the big Other. First, one finds in today's society an emergence of new individualism. The subject is more and more perceived as a creator of his or her identity and identifies less and less with the values of his family, community, or state.
Linked to this ideology of the subject's self-creation is the perception that there is in the subject a truth, which only needs to be rediscovered, so that the subject will be able to be him or herself. But if some childhood experience shattered the core of the subject's identity, he or she will be deprived of authenticity. Here we thus come to the problem of recovered memory: in order to reinstall the subject's equilibrium, he or she has to remember the trauma, which undermined his or her identity. The purpose of therapy in this case is first to discover the original trauma and then to recreate the situation so that the subject's suffering is alleviated. Examples of such a therapeutic approach are often seen on various talk shows. Recently, Oprah Winfrey hosted the famous John Gray (author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus). Gray asked a young woman to close her eyes and remember which scene from her childhood is especially traumatic for her. The woman remembered that as a child she was often told by her father that she is stupid and now she continuously suffers from low self-esteem. Gray then asked the woman to return in her mind to the original childhood scene and imagine that her now dead father is standing next to her. With her eyes closed, the woman then tells the "father" that he was wrong in calling her stupid, that she actually does not believe in what he is saying and that she knows she is intelligent. After a moment of crying, catharsis happens—the woman opens her eyes, Gray hugs her as a good father and from now on her trauma is gone. With the help of the therapist, the woman was able not only to return to her past, but also to recreate this past so that the core of her trauma is gone. Here we thus have a belief that the subject's trauma can be exactly attributed to an event and with the help of the subject's imagination, the trauma can be annihilated. In this example, it is again the father who was not up to his symbolic function and with the help of the new father—the therapist—the damage done by the actual father is retroactively annihilated. Equally crucial is the fact that the actual father did not "hear" his daughter and did not understand his mistakes, however, the woman then finds in the therapist the ultimate believer—the person who not only takes her complaints seriously, but is with his therapy able to fix the past. The therapist thus appears as a new God-like creature—the compassionate almighty fixer.
It is well known that Freud insisted that there was no direct correlation between trauma and event. Many subjects can experience an event, but only some will develop a trauma linked to it; while it is also possible that the event never happened, but the trauma is nonetheless formed. When analyzing the link between trauma and an event, Freud also points out that the most traumatic thing for the subject is not the fact that an event actually happened, but that the subject did not anticipate it, was not prepared for it. Freud takes the example of a train crash.5 Someone who survived the accident might only later develop a trauma about it and becomes, for example, constantly haunted by the accident in his or her dreams. By creating an anxiety, these dreams try to make up for the lack of preparedness at the time of accident, since for Freud, it is precisely the anxiety of preparedness that presents the last shield from the shock. It is when this preparedness is lacking that the event results in a trauma.
When Lacan deals with the issue of trauma in Seminar I, he points out that "Trauma, insofar as it has a repressing action, intervenes after the fact (apres coup, nachtraglich). At this specific moment, something of the subject becomes detached from the symbolic world that he is engaged in integrating. From then on, it will no longer be something belonging to the subject. The subject will no longer speak of it, will no longer integrate it. Nevertheless, it will remain there, somewhere, spoken, if one can put it this way, by something the subject does not control."6 Here, of course, we have a different idea of trauma than in recovered memory therapy. While for the latter trauma is something that needs to be discovered with the help of the therapist and then possibly annihilated via a confrontation with the abuser or via a reconstruction of the original situation, which caused the trauma, for Lacan trauma is the hard kernel which has not been integrated into the symbolic: that is why the subject cannot speak about it, or refers to it as something external to him or her.
In Holocaust studies, it has often been noted that the survivors have great difficulties reporting on their experience in the concentration camps. The survivors often feel as if they have two identities: one related to their present lives, and another from the past traumatic experience. And however much they try to put their lives in order, they cannot get rid of this split. The survivors thus often report that they somehow live "beside" their experience of the Holocaust. One survivor, for example, says: "I have a feeling...that the 'self' who was in the camp isn't me, isn't the person who is here."7
While Wilkomirski knows that memory from early childhood must look like fragments in which events from various times and places are mixed up, he nonetheless has no doubt in the authenticity of his memory. He not only does not suffer from the split identity, he also does not show any feelings of alienation from the traumatic "self" from the past as other Holocaust survivors often do. But still greater difference between Wilkomirski and Holocaust survivors is found in their relations to those who are supposed to listen to their testimonies.
Dori Laub points out that the survivors fail to be authentic witnesses to themselves, i.e. they fail in recounting their stories, because the Holocaust was an event that actually produced no witnesses, because the "very circumstance of being inside the event ... made unthinkable the very notion that the witness could exist, that is, someone who could step outside of the coercively totalitarian and dehumanizing frame of reference in which the event was taking place, and provide an independent frame of reference through which the event could be observed."8 Laub further explains this lack of the witness by pointing out that "one has to conceive of the world of Holocaust as a world in which the very imagination of the Other was no longer possible. There was no longer an other to which one can say 'Thou' in the hope of being heard, of being recognized as a subject, of being answered. The historical reality of the Holocaust became, thus, a reality which extinguished philosophically the very possibility of address, the possibility of appealing, or of turning to, another. But when one cannot turn to 'you' one cannot say 'thou' even to oneself. The Holocaust created in this way a world in which one could not bear witness to oneself."9
Holocaust survivors often have great problems in recounting their stories precisely because the perception of the big Other as the coherent symbolic space in which their address can be inscribed has collapsed in the experience of the Holocaust. Thus even today, the survivors feel the lack of the Other which is to bear witness to their testimonies. But for Wilkomirski, the problem is not the collapse of the big Other. His main problem is how to make even with the individual others (various grown-ups who presented authorities in his life). With this obsession to counter the authorities who have betrayed him in his youth, Wilkomirski appears much more as a typical representative of our culture of complaint than as a Holocaust survivor for whom the very point from which one could address a complaint has collapsed. When one is complaining, one still presupposes that there is an Other who can answer, while in the Holocaust, this presupposition ceased to exist.
It might be hard to imagine that a person invents a memory of being a Holocaust survivor, while numerous proofs dispute this claim. Nonetheless, one needs to point out that the person with such recovered memory finds in his story special jouissance. The fact that the recovered memory therapy exposes the obscene underside of the authorities is usually perceived as a revelation of the hidden truth, which brings liberation to the subject. However, it is precisely the subject him or herself who finds special jouissance in this search for the jouissance of the authorities. The recovered memory therapy takes jouissance as the liberating truth, which can serve as the ground for morality, but the result of this endeavor is nothing but the promotion of violence.
The subject fantasizes about the jouissance of the Other, because he or she actually tries to supplement the deficiency in the functioning of the big Other. Similarly, the subject often takes upon him or herself guilt in order to keep the Other as a consistent order. The subject would thus often claim that he or she is guilty of a crime he or she never committed so that, for example, the authorities (father, leader, etc.) will not be exposed in their impotence.
What about Wilkomirski's problem with the big Other? The final enigma of his book is the following one: usually, we generate fantasies as a kind of shield to protect us from the unbearable trauma; here, however, the very ultimate traumatic experience, that of the Holocaust, is fantasized as a shield. But a shield from what? Perhaps, an unexpected comparison with The X-Files can be of some help here. As it was pointed out by Darian Leader10 in his Promises lovers make when it gets late, the fact that, in The X-Files, so many things happen "out there" (where the truth dwells: aliens threateni us) is strictly correlative to the fact that nothing (no sex) happens "down here," between the two heroes (Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny). The suspended paternal Law (which would render possible sex between the two heroes) "returns in the real," in the guise of the multitude of "undead" spectral apparitions which intervene in our ordinary lives. And the same goes for Wilkomirski: here too, the failure of the paternal function results in the fantasy of the most violent horrible event—the Holocaust.
So, we can conclude that the subject invents a traumatic memory because of the necessary inconsistency of the symbolic order and, especially, because of the inherent powerlessness of the authorities. While some people take upon themselves guilt for the crimes they never committed in order to prevent the anxiety provoking impotence of authorities being exposed, the example of Wilkomirski and other recovered memory cases show that the general dissolution of authority structures in today's society resulted in the idea that the subject is essentially a victim. Here, the attempt is no longer to cover up the impotence of authorities, but to further expose it. But, in such endeavor, we are often left with nothing but violence and obscenity, which emerges in the figures of new authorities like cult leaders, as well as some recovered memory therapists.
1. Binjamin Wilkomirski, Fragments (New York: Schocken Books, 1996), 78.
2. Ibid., 6, 7.
3. Cf. Jonathan Kozol, "Children of the Camps", The Nation, Oct. 26,1996.
4. Cf. Jacques-Alain Miller and Eric Laurent: "The Other Which Does Not Exist and its Ethical Committees", Almanac of Psychoanalysis, (Tel Aviv: G.I.E.P, 1998).
5. Cf. Sigmund Freud, "Beyond the Pleasure Principle", SE X.
6. Cf. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book 1 (New York: Norton, 1993), 191
7. Cf. Lawrence L. Langer, Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 5.
8. Cf. Shoshanna Felman and Dori Laub, M.D., Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York: Routledge, 1992), 81.
9. Ibid., 81, 82.
10. Cf. Darian Leader, Promises Lovers Make When It Gets Late (London: Faber, Faber, 1997).