Sunday, June 23, 2013


I've been reading the work of French psychoanalyst Boris Cyrulnik on "resilience theory."  In his book Resilience (2009), Cyrulnik analyzes how survivors manage to cope with traumatic events and carve out meaningful lives for themselves.

Cyrulnik's work began to take shape in the aftermath of World War II.  Cyrulnik himself was a survivor: he was orphaned when his parents were sent to a concentration camp, mistreated by his foster family, and eventually enlisted by the French Resistance as a "runner"--someone who carried message to French soldiers and fighters.

He was seven years old at the time.

Resilience focuses predominantly on the experience of children: the child-soldiers in Africa, the children who have witnessed genocide, the survivors of the Holocaust and the Gulags, victims of child-abuse.

Cyrulnik is fascinated by the fact that, of the many who have been traumatized, many have not been victimized.  They have found ways of coping with the horrific events of their lives and are no more bitter or depressed than other adults who have endured far, far less.

Although this is not the norm, of course, it is a substantial phenomenon.  Cyrulnik argues that the tendency to emphasize the lifelong effects of trauma (pain, depression, suicide), overlooks the phenomenon of human resilience.

It is more common than we might think.  People survive the unthinkable. 

As Cyrulnik acknowledges, his work walks a fine line.  Because he feels that psychoanalysts and neuroscientists have not placed enough emphasis on the human capacity for resilience, he has frequently come under fire for implying that trauma "doesn't really matter."

After all, if people get over it eventually, it couldn't have really been that bad, could it?

Yes, it could.  Cyrulnik is not saying this--or anything like it--at all.  His concern is that we risk "re-victimizing" victims when we suggest that there is one way of coping with trauma, one storyline or narrative that we wish to hear.

When we label victims as simply lifelong "victims," without considering the possibility that they may have found ways of making sense of their experience of senseless violence, we silence them.  And for those who have experienced trauma, silence is a double-edged sword: it can protect, but it can also harm. 

In particular, Cyrulnik notes a commonality among children who survive an experience of trauma:
almost all the children who did survive very quickly elaborated "theories of life" that combined dreams and intellectualization.  Almost all resilient children have to answer two questions.  Asking "Why do I have to suffer so much?" encourages them to intellectualize.  "How am I going to manage to be happy despite it all?" is an invitation to dream. (15)
When "this inner determinant of resilience" is given "a helping hand" by external factors, Cyrulnik notes, "the prognosis for these children is not unfavourable" (15-16).  They don't just "survive"--they learn how to live productive--and even happy--lives.

When traumatized individuals fail to establish a "link... between their inner and outer worlds," they may survive, but they tend to suffer more in later life.  They struggle to make sense of what happened to them in the wake of the life they continue to live.

Trauma and its survival, Cyrulnik argues, are best comprehended by notions of ambivalence and through oxymorons--that is, through the combination of apparent contradictions.  Much of our day-to-day life is structured in such a way that we don't acknowledge these contradictions.

Instead, we seek to eliminate or resolve them in moral and spiritual truisms that are then imposed on the world at large, irrespective of distinct cultural contexts and differences.  As Cyrulnik points out,
As a general rule, education tries to get rid of ambivalence.  We must love our neighbors and forgive them everything, just as it is morally right to hate our enemies and drive them away.  All becomes clear and our controlled ambivalence allows us to express a code of pure interactions: we either love or hate, and we have to choose between the two if we are to be at ease with ourselves. (22)
By contrast, a worldview and way of life that embraces ambivalence--and in many cases, this is what trauma survivors must try to construct--requires the joining of contradictory emotions.

Thus, Cyrulnik claims that "In a world of 'cold cruelty' it is the poet who is the superman," because it is the poet who can join inner and outer worlds in figures of ambivalence (24).

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