Monthly Archives: January 2018

Survivor Cafe: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory

by Elizabeth Rosner

Everyone copes with trauma in their own way, including the way they share their (hi)stories of trauma with others. However, there does seem to be a generational pattern of how trauma is passed from parents to children to grandchildren, and so on throughout human history. As a member of the second generation after holocaust survivors, Elizabeth Rosner has the experience of living with stories told and untold about the horrors her parents experienced during WWII. Her own experience listening to her parents, traveling to holocaust memorial sites, and bearing witness to the stories of survivors and children of survivors informs her understanding of not only the way families understand their past, but also the way communities, societies, and countries make sense of their collective past. Throughout her writing, she focuses primarily on the experience of holocaust survivors, but also delves into the stories of holocaust perpetrators (and their progeny), atom bomb survivors, refugees and genocide survivors, others who have experienced collective trauma. The themes she finds throughout these (hi)stories testify to both the indomitability and fragility of the human spirit, and the way that, spoken or unspoken, trauma is shared by more than those who are directly affected.

“Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory” by Elizabeth Rosner is part memoir, part exploration of the limited research available on epigenetics and the generational transmission of trauma. Rosner’s writing is centered on anecdotes, her own experience and the experiences of others that lead to informed speculation about what happens when parents do and do not tell their trauma history to their children, and what pieces of the full story are told. She takes a holistic view by including the story of holocaust survivors, their children and grandchildren, and also holocaust perpetrators and their children and grandchildren, questioning not only the ways people are hurt, but also the ways people are hurt by hurting others. Her writing is full of prose and vulnerable honesty, making her anecdotes compelling and emotionally-laden. Although her honesty reveals deeply painful truths about humanity and society, it is also imbued with a profound sense of hope. At times the stories she shares are so overwhelming it can be hard to connect with the emotional content of the book, which emphasizes Rosner’s point that we must bear witness to the suffering of others if we are to collectively do anything to reduce the amount of suffering in the world.

I was expecting something with a little more research to it, but the human stories are always more compelling than the numbers and statistics behind research. This book reinforces many of the anecdotes I hear through my work, and many of the speculations I have about how trauma is held and shared both for the person directly impacted and by those close to the trauma survivor. Her holistic perspective, including holocaust perpetrators, feels neither forced nor contrived, but necessary and balanced. The whole book is authentic and compelling. I highly recommend reading this one. 

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The Golden Compass

by Philip Pullman

Lyra Belacqua leads a carefree life under the protection of the Scholars at Oxford. She enjoys running over rooftops, playing in the clay down by the riverbeds, and getting into general mischief with her friends and her constant companion, Pantalaimon, her daemon. She knows to shape up when her uncle, Lord Asriel, turns up for an occasional visit. During one of these rare opportunities, she decides to sneak into the Retiring Room to see what goes on in this secret space. She hears about the unfamiliar and enticing world of the North, about Dust, about armored bears, and the political games and wars waged by the Church. Although she begs Lord Asriel to take her, and he declines, she finds another way North. After spending a few months with the mysterious Mrs. Coulter, Lyra determines to run away to save her friend Roger from whatever fate awaits him in the North. She joins the Gyptians, who seek to rescue children that have been stolen, supposedly to have their daemon cut away. With the help of others beyond her wildest dreams – witches, an aeronaut, an armored bear – Lyra’s loyalty and courage are tested time and again as she learns shocking truths in search of answers.

“The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman is the first book in “His Dark Materials” trilogy. Pullman sets a frantic pace for the plot that pulls the reader along throughout the entire book. He entices readers by dropping pieces of information and hints about something big (and likely insidious) without fully resolving any gaps in knowledge or providing definitive answers. This strategy is reinforced through Lyra’s learning as a character. The reader learns what Lyra learns, and though the reader can draw their own conclusions from the text, Pullman’s selective sharing of information means that the reader often comes to the same conclusions as Lyra. Pullman creates a fantastic world for Lyra, from Oxford up to the North, that feels familiar enough to make Lyra relatable, and also so magical that the adventures of Lyra and her companions are thrilling and unpredictable. A central theme throughout the novel is the transition from youth to adulthood, and Lyra is on the cusp of adolescence. By casting Lyra as the lead character, Pullman instills her perspective with importance and weight, showing that even with her youthful outlook, she has a significant role to play in political goings-on.

I first read this book over a decade ago, and decided to re-read it because I heard that Pullman wrote the series in response to Narnia, where children are forced to leave magic behind when they reach adolescence. The adventures are very different between the Pevensie children and Lyra, as is the role of religion. I got caught up in the plot and didn’t spend much time reflecting on the role of the Church in Lyra’s world, so my note to myself is to slow down and digest more of the between-the-lines story next time I read it. Thrilling story, grand adventures, and worth the read for any audience.

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