When it comes to human experiences, is ‘following the science’ always the right way to act?

For just over a year now, the world has been focused on ‘following the science’. And no doubt rightly so in many instances. Science is brilliant, in too many ways to list here. But… when it comes to human experience, its tools are often blunt, clunky or inadequate.

Sometimes, science lags behind human instinct or common sense. Sometimes, its microscopic focus loses sight of the macroscopic whole. Objective rationale overrides simple solutions seen by subjective understanding. Symptoms may be treated in isolation rather than as part of a highly intelligent organism. Other times, a phenomenon is too mind-boggling to be explained by logical process; love, death, black holes… That’s where art or religion, with their different toolset, have a go with varying degrees of success.

My recent TEDx talk – you can watch it here if you haven’t seen it yet – presents my experience of the transgenerational transmission of trauma or guilt. It’s an example of subjective experience gradually making its way to objective explanation. It is not a new idea. Way back, in Exodus Chapter 20, the bible talked of “…visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth generation.” In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Launcelot says, “Yes, truly; for, look you, the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.” And over the past fifty years or so, symptoms of inherited trauma/guilt have been documented in descendents of a wide range of people exposed to traumatic events. However… because science doesn’t have the ability to prove it happens – not yet at least – some dismiss examples of such transmissions as being impossible, coincidental, imagined, nonsense.

But does that mean that it doesn’t happen? Is science right… or simply behind?

Take Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), for example. Traumatic incidents have always been part of the human experience. And no doubt people all over the world have displayed symptoms of PTSD long before it was given a name. Yet the term ‘trauma’ only started to be explored at the end of the nineteenth century when Freud and his fellow pioneers of neurology and psychology considered it a diagnosis worthy of specialised treatment. When thousands of men returned from First World War fronts with psychological symptoms and medical conditions that had never been seen before, let alone explained, the British came up with the diagnosis of “shell shock.” Those who suffered from it were entitled to treatment – often hypnosis – and a disability pension. The sheer numbers, however, led the British General Staff to forbid the use of the term. Instead, “NYDN” (Not Yet Diagnosed, Nervous) was to be used and the afflicted were deemed undisciplined and lacking moral fibre. It wouldn’t be until 1941 with the publication of The traumatic neuroses of war by Abram Kardiner that it was recognised that any man could be affected by the atrocities of war and that traumatic symptoms were a normal response to an unbearable situation.

During the Second World War, psychiatrists continued to use hypnosis as treatment for trauma and veterans were offered improved practical and economic support. Psychological scars, however, were left unrecognised and untreated. From 1947, traumatic neuroses all but disappeared from official psychiatric language. 

The interest in trauma reignited in the seventies with the return of Vietnam war veterans who had such incapacitating symptoms that they were incapable of coping and functioning in civilian life. Many behaved violently towards their partners or became homeless and unemployable. But their symptoms continued to be labelled separately: alcoholism, substance misuse, depression, mood disorder or schizophrenia and treated accordingly, frequently without success. It was only when clinicians and mental health professionals working with Holocaust survivors, battered women, abused children and victims of accidents or rape collated their reports and discovered overwhelming similarities in their traumatised clients, that the range of behavioural, emotional and cognitive symptoms were combined into one psychological trauma diagnosis: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In 1980, after several rejections, this term would finally be included in the bible of psychology, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (third edition; DSM-III). 

For us today, it probably feels obvious that exposing men and women to abuse, war or anything that evokes extreme fear and helplessness would leave traumatic markers. And to a large degree science can now explain the mechanisms behind the process. That sense of ‘obviousness’ is how I have come to feel about the possibility of unresolved trauma or wrongdoing being passed onto the next generations, even though we don’t know how it happens. As I suggest in my TEDx talk, “our roots don’t just run backwards to our ancestors, but forwards to our children and those who come after. And if those roots are damaged or severed, what we hand on will also be impaired.

Many people have written to say my talk has resonated with their own experience of their forebears. But none of us can prove anything. And science will need time to develop the tools that can. Which probably means that the legacies of past familial, societal or historical traumas will not be taken into consideration when helping those afflicted by the often debilitating symptoms of depression, addiction, mental health… 

I think we need to be careful that this new emphasis on ‘following the science’ doesn’t pervade all areas of life. Even if we don’t yet understand the many complex ways in which transmission can occur, let’s give credence to the insights of people who have an innate or formally trained capacity to feel into a situation and ‘know‘ what’s right in the same way maternal instinct so often does. We have two sides to our brains for good reason. Currently the sceptical-until-proven logic of the left side largely prevails. But the non-verbal, intuitive right side has an equally valuable place, especially when it comes to imparting knowledge about our shared humanity. That’s an area where science often trails far behind.

I’d be interested to hear whether or not you think the experiences and insights I reveal in my TEDx talkFacing the past to liberate the future – need science to prove they are ‘real’?  

Related links:

The legacy of trauma: An emerging line of research is exploring how historical and cultural traumas affect survivors’ children for generations to come

Understanding and healing collective trauma – Thomas Hübl

Dr Gabor Maté: Transgenerational trauma, stressed environment and child’s diagnosis

Actions may speak louder than words, but words can lead to actions…

This first month of 2020 offered a veritable feast of potential inspiration for January’s blog. It was hard to choose. On the theme of prisons, there was BBC Two’s The Choir in which Gareth Malone has just two episodes to get young men in Aylesbury Young Offenders Institute to sing and viewers to cry. I know from experience, the latter was definitely easier. 

In cinemas, Jojo Rabbit, a risky, irreverent, bitter-sweet comedy about Hitler, breaks through taboos and somehow gets you laughing at the Nazis in ways they would have hated. Less amusing is Sam Mendes’s 1917, which, through its close-up filming method, dumps its audiences into the putteed boots and helmeted heads of two young British soldiers and sends them off on an impossible mission through hell. Within minutes one has snagged his hand on rusty barbed wire, a wound that alone would send all of us racing to A&E. But that is a mere scratch compared to what awaits him.

Another extraordinary BBC two-episoder, Lost Home Movies of Nazi Germany, gives deeper and more nuanced insights into both the lives and the beliefs of individuals living through those times. While Channel 4’s moving My grandparents’ War follows Kristen Scott Thomas and three other esteemed British actors as they uncover the brave roles their grandfathers played in the Second World War. 

2020 will be a year of 75th anniversaries relating to WW2 with more such documentaries, films, books (oh I wish mine too) and podcasts covering increasingly personal moments of suffering, bravery and evil. History has definitely shifted. No longer just a narrative of kings, politics and wars, it now hones in on the stories of individuals caught up in or affected by the decisions of their leaders. Our appetite to understand experiences from the two world wars has not abated, for they still touch us personally. But one day there will be no more contemporary witnesses to testify to the horrors, misery, fear and loss. No more survivors of the Shoah to remind us not to forget what can happen; to warn us that we are not immune.

Over the past five years there has been a 320% rise in Far-Right attacks globally. In 2018 alone, there were 387 violent anti-Semitic incidents – 35 in Germany, 68 in the UK… The Holocaust was clearly not enough to snuff out the thinking that leads to such evil. Which is why I have chosen last week’s commemoration of the 75thanniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and International Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem as my blog’s focus. There the overriding message of world leaders was of the necessity for vigilance to the language of hate, discrimination and prejudice. (The full speeches are on YouTube)

I have no doubt the Jewish speakers’ speeches in Jiddish were profound and extraordinary. And Prince Charles spoke movingly about the risk of the Holocaust being placed under a glass bubble within history and urged us to re-commit ourselves to tolerance and respect. (He speaks at 1:31:30) But it was once again the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the first ever German president to address guests at Yad Vashem, who, in my view, stole the show with his impossibly difficult and brave speech. I would like to include extracts from it here because, as we approach the thankfully silent bongs of Big Ben on 31st January, I believe his words are relevant to each and every one of us to act upon in our own little ways.

Opening his address (which starts at 1.49.20) with a Jewish blessing in seemingly fluent Hebrew, he continued in English, telling the tragic stories of four individuals murdered in the Holocaust. With the humility and honesty that has become a hallmark of German leaders at such occasions, he unflinchingly took responsibility on behalf of his country:

Germans deported them. Germans burnt numbers on their forearms. Germans tried to dehumanise them, to reduce them to numbers to erase all memory of them in the extermination camps. They did not succeed…. As human beings, they live on in our memory.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier talking at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem

Referring to the Yad Vashem monument, he continued, “I stand before this monument as a human being and as a German… and I bow in deepest sorrow.”

His reference to ‘human beings’ didn’t stop at the victims and those on the side of good: “The perpetrators were human beings,” he continued, lightly emphasising each of our potential to become perpetrators or victims. “They were Germans; those who murdered, those who helped in the murdering, and the many who silently towed the line… they were Germans. The industrial mass murder of 6 million Jews, the worst crime in the history of humanity – it was committed by my countrymen. The terrible war, which cost far more than 50 million lives, is originated from my country. Seventy-five years later, after the liberation of Asuchwitz, I stand before you all as President of Germany, and I stand here laden with the historical burden of guilt.”

Gulp… I don’t know if it moves you, but I know a little of just how heavy that burden is. But as anybody dealing with criminals and/or victims can attest to, genuine admissions of guilt and acts of apology, forgiveness, restorative justice or therapy offer opportunities for reconciliation, that powerfully healing balm for wounds which threaten to fester forever. Steinmeier knows this:

“At the same time, my heart is filled with gratitude… gratitude for the hands of the survivors stretched out to us, gratitude for the new trust given to us by people in Israel and across the world, gratitude that Jewish life is flourishing again in Germany. My soul is moved by this spirit of reconciliation… a spirit, which opened up a new and peaceful path for Germany and Israel; for Germany and Europe and the countries of the world.”

I love the way Germans can speak of ‘heart’ and ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ so effortlessly…

“The eternal flame at Yad Vashem does not go out. Germany’s responsibility does not expire. We want to live up to our responsibility. By this, dear friends, you should measure us. I stand before you grateful for this miracle of reconciliation and I wish I could say that our remembrance has made us immune to evil. Yes, we Germans remember, but sometimes it seems as though we understand the past better than the present. The spirits of evil are emerging in a new guise, presenting their anti-Semitic, racist, authoritarian thinking as an answer for the future, a new solution to new problems of our age. And I wish I could say we Germans have learnt from history once and for all. But I cannot say that when hatred is spreading…”

“Of course, our age is a different age, the words are not the same, the perpetrators are not the same, but it is the same evil. And there remains only one answer: Never again. Nie wieder. That is why there cannot be an end to remembrance…”

President Steinmeier and Prince Charles
President Steinmeier hugged by President Macron
President Steinmeier hugged by Avner Shalev, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate

I am so glad that President Steinmeier was given such heartfelt hugs on returning to his seat. After Prince Charles’s slightly awkward handshake and strained smile, President Macron looked him in the eyes and embraced him followed by Avner Shalev, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate, who looked like he would never let him go. Such displays of heart, soul and spirit warm me every time.

Further reading:

The Times of Israel: At Yad Vashem, German president says Germans haven’t learned lesson of Holocaust

The Telegraph: Holocaust is no mere ‘fact of history’: Prince Charles stands with world leaders against rise of anti-Semitism

The Guardian: The need to remember and retain the lessons of what became the Holocaust grows rather than diminishes. 

The New York Times: At Holocaust Memorial, a Survivor and Towering Moral Voice Says He ‘Cannot Forgive’

Standing in their footprints…

What is it that makes standing in the exact location of something historical, momentous or simply in the footprints of someone famous, so thrilling? Or horrifying? On Tuesday I was standing on a stage in the beautiful east coastal town of Aldeburgh ready to give one of my talks on Germany’s WW2 memorial culture when someone said, “You’re standing exactly where Bill Nighy stood last night”. It was tiny but there it was, a subtle tingle, a flutter of excitement. I like Bill Nighy and I liked knowing that I was so hot on his heels, talking in a venue in which he too had talked. But what’s really happening, what are our bodies or minds reacting to when we are in the presence even of such tenuous claims to fame or significance?

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“We write to understand…”

As I write my February blog, Sir Anthony Beevor, historian and bestselling author of epics such as “Berlin” and “Stalingrad”, is talking on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. I am humbled by his ongoing questioning of the facts in spite of his already huge achievements in bringing World War 2 to life in extraordinary detail. And I’m grateful for his admission of how hard it is to research this horrendous episode of history. His voice wobbles as he talks of reading the gruesome accounts of the rapes, murders and infinite human suffering. “We write to understand,” he says, emphasising the necessity for us to “learn the lessons of history”.

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What purpose does Holocaust Memorial Day serve for those generations who can’t “remember”?

On Monday I was invited to give my talk about Germany’s memorial culture of apology and atonement (read more) at Brighton College as part of their Holocaust Studies Week. One student asked a question being debated by current historians: “When can we let WW2 recede into the past like other episodes of history do?”

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Today, 27th January, is International Holocaust Memorial Day, the date that marks the day Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by Soviet troops in 1945. It is the day on which we are asked to remember the 11 million victims killed in the Holocaust – 6 million Jews and 5 million Soviet POWs, homosexuals, Sinti and Roma, mentally or physically disabled, Roman Catholics, political dissidents, ethnic Poles, Slavs and Ukrainians. All had become victims of the Nazi hatred that deemed them to be “Untermenschen”, literally ‘beneath’ or ‘below’ human; sub-humans. They were killed because they were seen to be a threat to the ideal world image that Hitler and his followers were striving to manifest.

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“German court sentences 94-year-old ‘Bookkeeper of Auschwitz’ to four years in prison.” Is this Justice? Or is this the German Judicial System’s attempt to atone for its appalling failure since WW2 to bring more of the real culprits to justice?

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This is an obvious choice of topic for my July blog for it touches on all my main themes: WW2 Germany, prison, punishment, forgiveness, redemption.

What we have here is a 94-year-old former SS officer whose job at the age of 21 was to sort the luggage of the new arrivals to Auschwitz and register the prisoners’ goods and valuables. Oskar Gröning was not a guard but a bookkeeper who counted the money the Nazis stole from the Jews. During the trial that started in May in the German city of Lüneburg he admitted: “It is without question that I am morally complicit in the murder of millions of Jews through my activities at Auschwitz. Before the victims, I also admit to this moral guilt here, with regret and humility. But as to the question whether I am criminally culpable, that’s for you to decide.” Today he was sentenced to 4 years in prison after the German Courts found him guilty of being accessory to murder of 300,000 people.

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