Can Autography Overcome the Cycle of Trauma?

In the PBS documentary on Auschwitz, they juxtaposed the interviews of an SS guard and a partisan to show how neither side (decades after the war) felt regret about having killed. The SS guard said he thought he was protecting Germany from the Jews, and the partisan was fighting the Germans.

Clearly, the partisan (I don’t remember if he was Jewish or Polish or Czech – I would need to look this up) was justified in fighting the Germans – the Nazis were waging a war of extermination upon him and his family and their lives. A lack of remorse on his part is very understandable. But the SS guard appeared to realize that the Jews had never threatened Germany, though maybe his “realization” was only rhetorical or intellectual or something I imagined (I don’t think he ever said it outright). Still, no regrets. And I believe he made that pretty clear, that his conscience was clear.

Obviously, nothing can condone or “forgive” what the Nazis (this SS guard included) inflicted upon millions of innocents. But the question I have is why. How is it that “Hitler’s willing executioners,” to use Goldhagen’s term (see LaCapra), could be so capable of murder?

This is a place where I feel contemporary trauma studies has probably not sufficiently addressed the mentality of the perpetrator. I’m curious about the set of external circumstances and intrinsic culture that led to not only a hatred of the Jews, but to a complete inability to treat the people going through those “selections” as human beings. To view them as weeds to be pulled or vermin to be culled. We must understand what enabled any group of people to do this if we are to prevent a repetition of history.

The main reason for my concern is not academic. I seem similar trends in hatred occurring today, in the United States. There is of course the “latent” racism that has been with us since before the Declaration of Independence, those assumptions that African slaves were not “fully” human. This, however, has been significantly mitigated by Civil Rights movement. We certainly don’t see parity or “equality” just yet, but there’s progress. More alarming now, to me, is the movement against undocumented immigrants. Donald Trump’s description of undocumented immigrants as “rapists” and “murderers” is representative of the brutal ignorance surrounding these discourses.

What I find most alarming is the blatant disregard for the level of human suffering that has led so many millions to flee Latin America in search of safety and opportunity in the U.S.
I believe that part of the reason for the lack of sympathy is the lack of autography – we can’t hear the narratives of undocumented immigrants because to speak up is to risk deportation. And it’s not like these narratives would receive the level of reception that’s probably needed – Adam Sandler’s movie Spanglish features an undocumented mother and daughter, but that’s hardly something we emphasize when thinking about the movie. (Though perhaps it is a positive sign that a comedic movie could include undocumented immigration as not just something that happens in the movie, but a key component of the mother’s care for her daughter and the daughter’s subsequent identity?)

The direction I was going with this was to wonder if maybe autography could help us “break free” of traditions of oppression. But I’m still looking at it from the victim’s perspective rather than the perpetrator’s vantage. And I think it is important (per standpoint) to understand that perpetrators generally don’t have “perspective” on situations – at least, not a comprehensive perspective that incorporates the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of others. Instead, the perpetrator acts from a vantage point – a position of power or influence that precludes the need for outside perspective. This isn’t to say that no perpetrator’s have perspective, or that perpetrator’s never have perspective – it’s more that the kind of abusive victimization we see with trauma studies is normally committed without concern for the suffering of the victim. The perpetrator’s vantage is a narcissistic vantage, a position that places the desires (or often whims) of the self ahead of the needs of the “other.” (Julie Gregory’s Sickened provides a powerful example of a mother so needy for attention that she would threaten suicide, starve her children, and lie about them in order to draw in sympathy for her “plight.” The memoir Mommy Dearest might also be a good place to look for an example of this.)

Here, though, we need to differentiate between willing perpetrators and unwilling participants. As we see in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, American soldiers in Vietnam were willing to burn an entire town to the ground after the death of one of their own. This would be a crime – in the U.S. military today, this kind of behavior would generally be punishable offense under UCMJ. Unless, of course, we’re talking Fallujah, where an entire city could be leveled in response to the crimes of the insurgents. Or My Lai, where the atrocities were so terrible that an American helicopter pilot ordered his gunner to prepare to fire on American troops, and yet only 2LT William Calley was ever charged and convicted, but he was then released for house arrest (see Wikipedia). Turning to similar cases, Lines like “We had to destroy the village to save it” (_________) or “We must kill the Indian to save him” (________) reveal the self-centered or Anglo-centric perspective of the perpetrator’s vantage.

So in a better world, autography might help overcome this kind of self-centered, brutal infliction of personal wont upon the lives of others. And we have somewhat seen this in the case of Sarah Winnemucca’s Ponca Tour, as Malea Powell’s “survivance (survival+resistance)” illustrates – by touring the country and sharing her story, Winnemucca was able to draw attention to the plight of Native Americans and help raise funds and (perhaps) change federal policies toward American Indian tribes. But we have to keep in mind two things:

  • Winnemucca’s narratives adopted the strong Christian overtones that would have appealed to her white audiences.
  • Winnemucca risked little in telling her story, as far as I can tell (i.e. she wasn’t heckled off the stage…though this is likely in large part because she was speaking with New England audiences who were already predisposed to favorably receive a Native American narrative. White audiences in the other parts of the country may have been far more hostile.)
  • Both of these issues are complicated in the case of undocumented immigrants, however, because the strong Catholic family values of immigrants remain overlooked by many anti-immigrant audiences, and the risk of speaking up is deportation (including the deportation of children who may have no memories of the “native” land, and little knowledge of Spanish.) As J. Elizabeth Clark relates in “The Digital Imperative,” she once threatened to fail a student if the student shared her undocumented status online as part of a classroom assignment – she was afraid that the risk to the student far outweighed the apparent benefits of learning to share writing online (31).

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