Psychology of Survivors

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Psychology of Survivors

Jewish survivors of the Holocaust were the first group of genocide victims to be systematically examined. Having an opportunity to follow their postwar adjustment for sixty years has enabled the rest of humanity to clearly understand the lifelong effects of such personal and group trauma.

Survivors of genocide are forever transformed. They speak of having lived three lives: their life before the genocide, their life during the genocide, and their life after the genocide. These individuals have experienced a shattering of basic human assumptions—that the world is safe, and that others will extend care and protection.

Memories of their terrifying experiences may involuntarily intrude on a daily basis. The sights, smells, and sensations associated with past trauma can be vividly recalled. At the same time survivors of genocide wish to move on with their life as rapidly and fully as possible. With many tragic exceptions they are successful at gathering the shattered remnants of their pregenocidal self, grafting them onto a postgenocidal self, and leading a relatively normal existence. However, unlike other victims of emotional traumas who wish to bury their past encounters with evil, survivors of genocide are committed to memory and the remembrance of all those who were lost.

Individuals who undergo extreme stress are often more psychologically vulnerable to future blows than nontraumatized persons. Furthermore, with increasing age survivors of genocide have more time to ruminate about past horrors, and this may diminish an already fragile sense of safety. On the other hand, many survivors of genocide develop an extraordinary life-long confidence in their ability to persevere through any adversity ("I survived that, I can survive anything!").

The most striking aftereffect of genocidal trauma is an ongoing, perennial sense of vulnerability. When asked "How did you survive?" most survivors answer, "Luck." Such a response acknowledges that many stronger and craftier people did not last, and that those who experienced countless close calls made split-second decisions based on little information, and witnessed the death of others who were less fortunate. The attribution of luck, may, however, have subtle implications. If one believes one is alive simply or mostly because of luck, one may live with considerable uneasiness. Just as life was given by chance, capriciousness may snatch it away.

Early reports on the impact of massive psychic trauma experienced by Holocaust survivors offered an extremely bleak picture. In 1964, after years of clinical experience in diagnosing and treating concentration camp survivors, William Niederland, a psychiatrist and a refugee from Nazi Germany, published a landmark study proclaiming the existence of a survivor syndrome. He listed a host of symptoms manifest in individuals who had survived Nazi persecution. They included chronic anxiety, fear of renewed persecution, depression, recurring nightmares, psychosomatic disorders, anhedonia (an inability to experience pleasure), social withdrawal, fatigue, hypochondria, an inability to concentrate, irritability, a hostile and mistrustful attitude toward the world, and a profound alteration of personal identity.

Other mental health professionals reported that survivors were overwhelmed by indelible and grotesque images of death. Survivors often isolated themselves because they believed no one could understand the horrors they had endured. They had been immersed in a different reality, the world of the Lager (camp), a world that would be absolutely incomprehensible to others. A sense of alienation naturally ensued.

The bleakest psychological snapshots of survivors of genocide are often taken soon after their ordeal, when the imprints of previous blows are most palpable, and when the individual has not yet accepted and adapted to a new life bereft of all those who were lost forever. However, most survivors suppress their post-trauma symptoms as they desperately want to get on with life once again, to look forward, not back. Indeed, the story of survivors of genocide is an example of human resilience and the primal desire to live as fully as possible.

It is important to note that, even when available, the great majority of genocide survivors never seek psychiatric treatment. Some survivors fear the transformation of a self-image predicated on a feeling of the uniqueness of one who has survived and conquered death to one who is mentally ill, from one who is unusually strong to one who is damaged. In addition, survivors do not wish to closely examine the compartmentalization of their past for fear of it spilling over uncontrollably onto their present reality. While fear, rage, and grief lurk in the background, the survivor attempts to keep him- or herself in the foreground, moving ahead to life and farther away from death. Survivors may unconsciously fear being blamed by a psychotherapist or other mental health professional for particular actions, or for their inactions during the genocide. Survivors are also convinced that no one who did not live in the midst of the genocide can possibly understand the motivation for their situational behavior or the psychological effects of those experiences.

Many victims of genocide suffer from what clinicians refer to as post-traumatic stress disorder. Having experienced intense fear, helplessness, and horror, these individuals live with recurrent, distressing recollections of the events, nightmares, flashbacks to past events that are felt so keenly it is as if they are occurring in the present, an oversensitivity to environmental cues reminiscent of the trauma, profound feelings of being different and subsequent estrangement from those who have not undergone savage cruelty, and a hypervigilence about new assaults on their person. Indeed, because their view of fellow human beings has become such a pessimistic one, victims of genocide assume that further brutalization is only a matter of time.

In order to truly understand the innocent victim of heinous crimes, one must know and appreciate the details of their experiences. Not all victims of a particular genocide endured the same brutalities or witnessed the same horrors. For example, during the reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, children were sometimes forced to kill their parents. In general, those parents whose children are genocidally murdered are often deeply impacted as well. The relationship of the perpetrator to the victim is important in determining the victim's reaction. In Rwanda the assaults were more devastating because they often came from neighbors and colleagues, people known to the sufferers.

Young children may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of violence because their coping mechanisms are undeveloped and their slight stature increases their sense of vulnerability. Traumatic effects may include anxiety, nightmares, fears of being alone, aggressive behavior, regression in toilet training and language, in addition to an inhibition of their natural drives for autonomy and the exploration of their environment. Very young children, in particular, require secure, sensitive, responsive caregivers in order to establish a basic sense of security and trust in the world. Without that foundation they may find it difficult to establish meaningful attachments later in life. If their parents were victims of genocide, these mothers and fathers may be too preoccupied with their own losses to provide these psychological essentials. During the genocide adolescent victims may psychologically fare somewhat better than adults because they do not fully appreciate the gravity of the situation and succeed in denying the improbability of survival. Even in perilous times teenagers are prone to feeling invincible and anticipate an unending life.

In addition to their permanently changed sense of self, survivors of genocide may have other experiences of uprootedness as well. Physical dislocation from their communal roots creates an additional loss of familiarity, continuity, and sense of security. Many of those who were religiously devout before the trauma lose a critical anchor and source of strength, namely their faith in God and that higher power's ability to protect and provide justice. On the other hand certain spiritual precepts may soften the blow. For example, a belief in karma may induce the calming sensation of inevitability.

Finally, one need not be personally brutalized in order to be traumatized. Witnessing violence perpetrated against another innocent may arouse intense fear and helplessness. One assumes, "If it could happen to that person, it could happen to me."

Survivor Guilt

Survivor guilt is the term used to describe the feelings of those who fortunately emerge from a disaster that mortally engulfs others. On an irrational level these individuals wince at their privileged escape from death's clutches. Guilt is the penance they pay for survival. Moreover, this penance contributes to them remaining mired in their hellish past.

Survivor guilt is most marked soon after the traumatic event. It is difficult to maintain an awareness of guilt feelings for a protracted period, particularly when one is keenly motivated to move forward with one's life. Most likely to feel the protracted discomfit of survivor guilt are those whose children were murdered while they felt powerless to intervene. Survivors not only torture themselves with memories of what they did in order to survive, but also what they failed to do in order to help others.

Survivors are haunted by the question: Why me? Often they are convinced that the best did not survive, and, they, therefore, are less deserving of life. Sole surviving members of a family are more likely to experience survivor guilt than those who were left with a parent or sibling.

Innocent human beings crave acknowledgment of the unwarranted pain induced by others. However, those survivors of genocide who did not experience the worst genocidal brutalities often inhibit themselves from speaking of their ordeals. This deference to those who survived worse circumstances prevents them from receiving any recognition of their suffering.

Transmission of Trauma

The traumatic impact of genocide extends beyond the victim to at least one succeeding generation. All children of survivors of genocide are affected in some manner, although the effects widely vary in their form and intensity. The debilitating effects of genocide on the second generation are clearly not as consuming as they may be for those who had direct contact with persecution. There is, moreover, a relationship between the severity of traumatic aftereffects on the parent (particularly the mother) and the child. The greater the pain evidenced by the parent, the more likely it is to infect the child.

Expectations of further assault are communicated by survivors to their children. The irrational, frightened reactions of survivors to seemingly benign stimuli may produce a generalized uneasiness in their offspring. Survivors' pessimistic view of humanity often induces mistrust and exaggerated fears in their children, particularly their daughters. Moreover, survivors' attempts to shield their children from anticipated harm can lead to an unhealthy overprotectiveness and interfere with the normal separation process that must occur between parent and child.

Survivors of genocide may look to their children to compensate for their losses. Survivor mothers, in particular, may live vicariously through their daughters. In an attempt to psychologically move away from the catastrophe as quickly as possible and begin a new life, survivors may enter poorly matched marriages, thereby increasing the pressures on their children to provide gratification to their parents. Preoccupied with their tragic past, survivors may have little empathy for the everyday, normal tribulations of their children ("You think that's a problem?"). For some survivors their depression, emotional numbness, and fear of future losses may prevent them from forging a deep, loving bond with anyone, including their own sons and daughters.

Survivors may inhibit the normal rebelliousness of their children by explicitly referring to their past ("How could you do this to me after all I have been through?") or using the implicit plea of their ongoing symptoms. Children of survivors may despair at not being able to relieve the pain of their parents or compensate for their losses. Not surprisingly, many children of survivors display an ambivalence when relating to their parent's traumatic past. Depression may result from an overidentification with the parent. On the other hand, in an attempt to shield themselves from the pain and vulnerability of a survivor, children may be prone to guilt feelings if they attempt to sever themselves from any psychological connection to the genocide.

It is of singular importance to the survivors of genocide that their losses and the cruelty to which they were subjected be recognized. When the perpetrators of genocide are brought to justice, the profound sense of injustice experienced by the survivor may be somewhat attenuated. Conversely, when there is no retribution, the psychic wounds of survivors fester even more. Unfortunately, the traumatic effects of genocide clearly extend even beyond the individual and the family. They infect group identity and perpetuate an ongoing sense of grievance and defensiveness as further assaults are expected. For survivors of genocide the world will never feel safe again.

SEE ALSO Collaboration; Psychology of Perpetrators


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Aaron Hass

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Psychology of Survivors

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