It turns out that all the positive thinking tricks that Edith Eger used to survive in the camp with her sister Magda are not so helpful later on as she tries to cope with the after effects of trauma and prevent it from harming her children.
This Christmas, I received the gift of a book which I will count as a priceless treasure. It broaches the issue of psychological trauma head on and comes out on the other side with a human way of processing things. The book is called “The Choice” and it was authored by Edith Eger, a Hungarian Jewess, who survived Auchwitz (just about) and took a long time to tell her story. Her book was only published in 2017.
When I arrived into the Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand during 1986, the malevolent presence of the Khmer Rouge was still tangible. Fear and insecurity crippled people’s thinking processes. I remember listening to stories where a family member routinely described the death and disappearance of other family members in a passionless, robotic manner which prevented any real sharing in sadness or grief.
People were still surviving as isolated monads and were only slowly readjusting from horrific trauma to relative peace.
Over the past few years, I have read many books which have broached these issues in various ways. Among those which have lingered in the memory longest are “The Book Thief” by Marcus Zuzak and “In the Shadow of the Banyan” by Vaddey Ratner.
What really impressed me about Edith Eger’s life-story in “The Choice” was its rigorous honesty in self-examination. I found a resonance similar to testimonies of people who have recovered from long-term debilitating addictions or violent abuse of different types. There is no hint of false romanticism on these pages.
Once the young Edith is asked by Dr. Mengele to perform a ballet dance for him which she does even though she knows that it was he who had ordered the killing of her mother. Eger describes how the malevolent power of evil infiltrated the lives of the innocent in Auchwitz and somehow managed to remain buried in painful memories inside her mind that were never aired or shared. Later panic attacks would occur in response to sounds or sights like sirens or train carriages etc.
Eger also describes life in Communist Hungary after “liberation”. She explains her dramatic and brave decision to emigrate to America with nothing, rather than to Israel where the family wealth had already been sent. Her husband Bela followed her. She works in manual labour for a few years like so many other immigrants. Slowly she finds her way to study and eventually to Psychiatry. Victor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” played a role in her spiritual journey.
However it is clear in her personal care for the individual “troubled” patients, that she finds her own way. Firstly, she helps these individuals to understand themselves more deeply. Then, secondly, she comes to understand herself more deeply by thinking about what they said. She argues that we need to recognize how both “feelings” and “thinking” are influencing or controlling our behavior patterns. This process of sharing and analysis can itself be traumatic as the feelings can be explosive or dangerous. However only by a patient sharing and re-sharing of these feelings in a human relationship can we rediscover wholeness in our wounded humanity.
The thinking patterns also need to be analysed and examined. It is interesting to note that the most important question to be answered deep down is “What do I really want”. Once I have crossed the stormy sea of tumultuous feelings and so can see clearly what I really want and am striving for, the next question falls into place easily. Are my present behavior patterns helping or hindering my journey towards what I want or not? In most cases the answer is no. So change is required. Hence “The Choice”. It is mine to make and I have the power to make it. No one else can make it for me. While her perspective is medical and scientific, a remote faith perspective remains. At one point Dr. Eger will say, “I do not just receive patients. I feel that they are sent to me”. When all else fails, she will pray.
One of the most moving passages in the book is where the mature Dr. Edith Eger returns to Auschwitz for a visit and remembers everything. Here she describes her own actions and her own innocent mistake which resulted in the death of her mother. Many Cambodians have shared with me their traumatic experiences during the Khmer Rouge time and how their family members died or were killed. Yet, I have not heard someone say “I really regret what I did during the Khmer Rouge time”.
The Khmer artist, Vann Nath, led a deep reflection on the evil of the Khmer Rouge in a documentary on the notorious S21 Tuol Slaeng prison. It was hard for his former guards to take responsibility for their actions even under his gentle questioning.
The real strength of Dr. Eger’s book is that it invites to take a radical personal responsibility for our choices in life. Each new day offer us a choice to grow up or to grow down.