French neuropsychiatrist Cyrulnik (Arts and Social Sciences/Univ. of Toulon; Talking of Love on the Edge of a Precipice, 2005, etc.) presents narratives of childhood trauma, seeking to tap into the human ability to cope with incredible adversity.
How do young children who have endured horrendous hardship—e.g., abuse by caretakers, internment in concentration camps, witnessing their parents’ murders—rebound to become healthy, even optimistic adults? The author, whose own parents were deported to Nazi concentration camps, looks at numerous examples of trauma in this loosely organized narrative of human possibility. “A child who has survived an extreme situation,” writes Cyrulnik, “is shaped like an oxymoron: his guilt is innocent, his pride is shameful, and his heroism is cowardly.” The environment around such a resilient child is to his development—he is loved out of disgust or admiration. “We love victims so long as they remain wretched because it makes us feel good when we help them,” writes the author with typical bluntness. Cyrulnik provides numerous examples of trauma and abuse: youths interned at Drancy, Vietnamese boat people dispersed to France, Ethiopian refugees in Winnipeg, orphans isolated and deprived in institutions in Romania, Russia and China. The author also looks at the trauma of exiles, giving rise to isolation and assimilation; survivors wracked by guilt; orphans “set free” in their creativity by the death of their parents; and children numbed by the tragedies of war. Some of the typical responses of traumatized children are sublimation, emotional self-control, altruism, use of humor as a defense, aggression, precocious maturity and recurrent depression. Cyrulnik writes that we can learn from these children, who experience spectacular recovery when put in a healthy, stimulating, supportive environment, and even make strong emotional bonds. Rendering their memories into stories is a crucial way to cope, while secrets and collective amnesia are insidious and hurtful.
Deliberative reflections, both more academic and more provocative than the usual self-help guidebook.