The Choice

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.

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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.

Where the Crawdads Sing

At Christmas, my sister sent me a novel to read.  The title was “Where the Crawdads Sing” and it was written by Delia Owens.   It takes place along the coast of North Carolina. The novel tells the story of Kya, a girl who was abandoned in the marsh by her mother, her siblings and finally by her father when she was still only a small child. 

At Christmas, my sister sent me a novel to read.  The title was “Where the Crawdads Sing” and it was written by Delia Owens.   It takes place along the coast of North Carolina. The novel tells the story of Kya, a girl who was abandoned in the marsh by her mother, her siblings and finally by her father when she was still only a small child.  “Jumpin”, an old Black man running a small store helps her.Abandoned-Cabin-Picture-Of-Jean-Lafitte-Swamp-Tours

The unusual strength of this novel is that we learn to discover the beauty, mystery and interior life of the plants and animals of the marsh through Kya’s eyes as she fends for herself to survive there alone. The author describes Kya’s resilience and deep isolation leading to severe and crippling loneliness in a sensitive and credible manner.  At the same time the author describes the prejudice and negative judgments that the local people demonstrate towards her.  With the help of one childhood friend, Tate, Kya learns to read and to express herself and her scientific curiosity in paintings. 1-Francis-Marion-saltmarsh-edited-KG-580x390

While the novel beautifully describes life in the marsh and almost becomes an ode to its natural preciousness, it also portrays the harshness of a life of poverty on the edges of society with an acuity similar to that of Barbara Kingsolver and Marilynne Robinson.

However while I found the characters credible and varied, I felt that they were somehow more caricatures than real people.  In English literature, the novels “Middlemarch” and “the Portrait of a Lady”, portray loneliness among a variety of real characters to the most depth.  In this sense prize-winning modern novels, like “Where the Crawdads Sing”, pale in comparison.

The novel could open a reflection on the more general theme of abandonment of remote rural farmers by a technologically connected society that is no longer human.  I still remember visiting former Cambodian soldiers in remote rural areas who had suffered mine injuries and were disabled.  While some flourished with the love of their family or spouse to envelop them, some were abandoned to survive on their own.  I still remember one man, a double amputee, sitting on his remote shack on stilts breaking down in tears as he described how his wife had abandoned him and left him all alone. where-the-crawdads-sing-8.jpg

Social Anxiety and Shyness

It is clear that many Cambodian young people experience high levels of stress. Many are fearful and will not speak in public. It is at least possible that respect for authority has been so strongly internalized by them that it has become a paralysis, preventing the young people from acting creatively and freely in society.

A friend of mine recommended a book by Gillian Butler entitled “Overcoming Social Anxiety and Shyness”.  I finished it this morning.  It was a good read.

It seems that there are many people who suffer silently from a paralyzing fear of certain type of social events (yours truly included) and the book accurately describes the thoughts, feelings and behavior patterns of those caught in the cycle of these types of fear.  In a simple but clear manner the author lays out a few simple clear self-help strategies to encourage people first to face and then to overcome these paralyzing fears.

The first strategy is to reduce self-consciousness by steering one’s attention away from the inner emotional turmoil to the actual context in which one is actually experiencing paralysis.  The second strategy is to alter the “automatic” thinking processes triggered by the event, especially the negative ones.  The third strategy is to try to do things a little differently by not engaging in “avoidance” behaviours.  These strategies will eventually encourage a growth in confidence in one’s ability to “weather the storms”.    The book develops each of these strategies in considerable detail.   Each strategy is accompanied by a work-sheet so that one can work through the steps in a methodical manner. Continue reading “Social Anxiety and Shyness”

Normal People and The Essex Serpent

Both novels are exquisite works of art, even if annoying. Normal People provides an almost forensic insight into the emotional lives of educated Irish young people interacting with each other as if social media is a stage on which our performances are measured. The novel rings true in this way. The Essex Serpent attempts to immerse us in Victorian world but despite the best efforts of the author, the novel seems to deal with the clash between faith and reason with a contemporary mindset.

Last month, I read two novels at the same time.  The first one – Normal People, by Irish author Sally Rooney annoyed me so much that I had to put it away for a while in favour of the second one, The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry from England.  In the end, it was interesting to read both of these novels from the perspective of Cambodia just at the time when the Brexit negotiations have stalled on the question of the Irish backstop.

 

Both novels are exquisite works of art, even if annoying.  Normal People provides an almost forensic insight into the emotional lives of educated Irish young people interacting with each other as if social media is a stage on which our performances are measured. The novel rings true in this way.  The Essex Serpent attempts to immerse us in Victorian world but despite the best efforts of the author, the novel seems to deal with the clash between faith and reason with a contemporary mindset.

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However, it seems to me that the characters in Sarah Perry’s novel are well drawn and more interesting in their differences than are the two main characters in Sally Rooney’s novel.  The love affair between Connell and Marianne provides the fil conducteur, or connecting thread, of this novel. The other characters in the book are only interesting to the extent that they contribute to the main storyline.  The love affair between Cora and William provides the fil conducteur for the Essex Serpent but most of the other characters are actually interesting people with subplots of their own that provide further insights into the society of the place and time.

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Nevertheless, after reading Normal People, I came away with the impression that social media is making Irish young people narcissistic in the sense that their whole lives seem to play out on a stage where those outside the realm of social media simply do not figure.  It is as if half the world no longer exists.  The young people could be living in a cocoon where their well-educated souls are dying of suffocation. The question of the displacement of religious faith from the centre of their lives is only addressed tangentially by references to funerals and Christmas.

 

 

In relation to the Essex Serpent, I also felt that the fascination with the past hides a desire for a lost stability and consensus that the polite conflict between faith and reason used to provide.  However, there is no sense of a benevolent Providence guiding events as is found in the novels of Dickens, the Brontés and George Eliot or indeed of a malevolent destiny guiding them as in the novels of Hardy.

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In fact, it is precisely the loss of this wider worldview that seems common to both novels and marks them out as products of the post-modern age.  A friend of mine from home recently sent me a link to a TED talk by Johann Hari on how we may be misunderstanding addiction.   His central point is that those suffering from addictions feel trapped inside a cage where the only relief is their drug.  The cage is some kind of affective isolation or abandonment where “normal” social interaction with loving others is no longer possible.  The drug is the coping mechanism that produces the artificial “high”. So to love our friends out of their addiction, we need to focus our attention on the cage itself, not the drug.

Social media is becoming perhaps an intoxicating narcotic that we ingest daily without realising the harm that we are doing to ourselves.  We do not recognise the cage in which, slowly and imperceptibly, we are choosing to live.

In the Shadow of the Banyan

Both the accounts of the Khmer family life in the city and cruel deportation to a beautiful countryside ring true. Raami’s father has communicated a love for Khmer legends and poems which then serve as the structure of meaning for Raami, while she tries to fathom what is happening to her and her family.

 

Ten days ago, our Battambang Book Club reflected on the novel “In the Shadow of the Banyan” by Vaddey Ratner.  We had an interesting and fruitful discussion on this Khmer novel in English about the tragedy that occurred in Cambodia once the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh in April 1975.

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In a curious twist of fate, we realized that this novel is not well known in Cambodia but is appreciated more for its literary quality abroad.  For example, the novel is not available in a cheap version at the Russian market in Phnom Penh unlike most other significant books on Cambodian history.

Perhaps the genre of historical fiction is not considered as reliable as autobiographical accounts in re-discovering historical truth.  This issue has come up also in my blogs on “The Memory Stones” and on “Milkman”.  In the “Shadow of the Banyan” is nonetheless a wonderful work of art for a number of reasons.

Continue reading “In the Shadow of the Banyan”

Washington Black

The novel throws light on the warps in human personality caused by complicity with slavery. The shadows of this awful past still mark friendships today.

This novel, by Esi Edugyan, was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2018.  It is an unusual novel by its attention to historical detail.  It is a novel about the limits of love and friendship set in the context of slavery.

Esi Edugyan for NOW Magazine.

It starts by describing the life of a young slave on a plantation in Barbados in 1830.  His name is Washington Black.  The prose descriptions of life on the plantation are vivid and harsh.  Washington experiences both wanton cruelty and motherly protection.  When the plantation owner’s brother (Titch) arrives to carry out further scientific research, Washington becomes his technical assistant.  The story of this relationship provides the central focus of the novel.

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In an extraordinary escape from a violent death, the unlikely pair flee the island in a balloon, land on a boat and end up searching for the long-lost father in the Arctic.  The wonderful descriptive and realistic prose help to carry the reader along this strange journey from extreme heat to extreme cold.  The wildness of nature is reflected in the wildness of emotions experienced by Washington as he finds himself abandoned by Titch.

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Yet Washington finds love and direction in the Arctic and with the help of another scientist and his daughter makes his way to London to set up a Marine Museum.   At the end of a journey, Washington rediscovers Titch in Morocco at the edge of the desert engaged in more scientific research.

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This novel reflects on the complexity involved in human friendships.  The expectations and hopes in the partner are never fulfilled and one is left with a frustrating sense of incompleteness.  It could be argued that while Washington was abandoned by Titch, Washington inadvertently abandoned Big Kit, back on the plantation, whom he finally discovers through old slave records, to be his own mother.

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The novel throws light on the warps in human personality caused by complicity with slavery.  The  shadows of this awful past still mark friendships today.

 

“Unsheltered”

The novel “Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver does not perhaps reach the literary heights of “The Poisonwood Bible” or “The Bean Trees”. Yet Kingsolver’s latest work still packs a prophetic punch.

The novel “Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver does not perhaps reach the literary heights of “The Poisonwood Bible” or “The Bean Trees”.  Yet Kingsolver’s latest work still packs a prophetic punch.

Two parallel stories unfold in the same place with over a one hundred year gap between them.  In the modern story, Willa Knox, an endearing and unorthodox grandmother, tries to guide her disparate family through the loss of financial security and middle-class status.  Despite long years of toil at third level teaching and journalism, the family is sinking slowly below the poverty level.  The rabidly conservative great Grand-father is terminally ill and requires constant attention. Willa has two children, her darling son Zeke and her rebel daughter Tig.  Zeke’s wife commits suicide and leaves Willa with a grand-son to take care of.

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Kingsolver’s description of this family, of a happy marriage in an unhappy world, is deft, poignant and profound.  The restoration of the sacred family space that is constantly being invaded by work obligations through computer and smart-phone is Willa’s crowning achievement even while she appears to fail.  The radical ecological position of the rebel daughter, Tig, slowly seems more and more coherent while the compromised capitalist position of the dutiful son Zeke becomes morally bankrupt as time moves on.   Tig’s own transformation into caring mother of her abandoned nephew confirms this moral turn around.

The second story revolves around a progressive school teacher, Thatcher Greenwood, who befriends a scientist, Mary Treat, who is researching plants and animals of the area.  The prose in this second story feels more clunky and labored in comparison to the smooth flow and rich family dialogue of the first story.  Yet the effort to unravel the historical origins of the physical houses being lived in serves to emphasize the failure of the Utopian vision of a new society in Vineland.

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Both stories underline the conviction that all modern families are headed into an ecological “Armageddon” from which there can be no escape and no shelter.

In this sense, “Unsheltered” is a prophetic novel.  After reading it, one is faced with a choice.  One can opt for the radical position of Tig, and refuse all compromise with the capitalist economy of consumption. Or one can opt for the compromise position of Zeke to work for the survival of the fittest. There is no more in-between possible.  Either way ecological disaster is only around the corner.

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