A Note Before Proceeding


Every instrument in the symphony of my life is playing on key, in tune, and in concert right now. The course in self-assessment is ratifying my inner foundations, while the course in literary theory is teaching me to assess the literature, using Conrad's Heart of Darkness as a model, and the course in the literature of resistance and pain and injustice and atrocities is giving me the practicalities I need to be a valid witness ... and whether or not I teach at the community center this winter, I will - I know now - I will find ways to be a witness to the stories of others.

This is a thing I could not do before now. I knew I was not strong enough to stand as witness to the testimony of pain in this way. I wasn't born with the filter or the separator that makes some people so utterly capable of volunteering for Hospice or working in the cancer wards where children are the patients or doing art therapy for the PTSD sufferers. I couldn't do it, not because I didn't want to, and not because I would rather be deaf, blind, and dumb to the suffering of others ... I couldn't do it because I couldn't figure out how.

I know what bruises feel like in my body, and I know what injury means to my own loved ones. For them, I can stand as a witness and I can ratify and record their pain when they need a witness. But for strangers? For the people with whom I share no past? All I have ever been able to do for such people is -- well, nothing, really. And nothing else in my life pulls and tears at me like this knowledge - that I have done nothing. That I feel helpless to change such appalling inaction. I am ashamed of my cowardice and humbled by my helplessness.

But now -- because of this book required for The Literature of Resistance -- because it was written by a psychoanalyst and a lit professor who teamed up to "examine the nature and function of memory and the act of witnessing, both in their general relation to the acts of writing and reading, and in their particular relation to the Holocaust," and because in this book they have found a way to teach what they have learned, now I have tools. I'll have to practice to become any good at this, but here is what a witness needs to do for the one giving testimony. The list begins on p. 72.

  • Accept the sense of paralysis, brought about by the fear of merger with the atrocities being recounted.
  • Accept the sense of outrage and anger, unwittingly directed at the victim, knowing that this tearing apart is happening because of our inadequacy to respond and a consequent desire to make the pain the fault of the sufferer.
  • Accept the withdrawal and numbness in one's own reactions.
  • Know that the flood of awe and fear make it natural to endow the speaker with a kind of sanctity, and that this is a way to avoid the intimacy entailed in knowing.
  • Avoid hyperemotionality, which superficially looks like compassion, but in actuality floods the testifying victim in the defensive affectation of the listener.

and mostly ... for me, mostly ... for me, the missing piece ...

Avoid attempting "foreclosure through facts, through an obsession with factfinding; an absorbing interest in the factual details of the account which serve to circumvent the human experience."
I cried when I read that last night. I have hurt a lot of people by defending myself through my obsession with factfinding, and I could not figure out at the time what was happening. Now I know. And I find that I prefer honest regret and repentance to the horrible knowledge that I was only adding to someone's pain.

Thank you, Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub.

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