Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Genocide in Me: A Documentary

Vamik Volkan characterizes the intergenerational transmission of trauma as the psychological DNA that passes down from those who originally experienced the trauma but were not able to process it adequately, to their descendents who are then impelled to attend to the defeat, loss and humiliation of the earlier generation.

This is the context of the life of filmmaker, Araz Artinian, who is torn between loyalty to her community’s traumatic past and her desire to open her life to people and experiences of her own generation. The demands of her family and community are to sustain an Armenian identity which is dramatically walled off from odars, literally strangers or foreigners.

Her family’s experience of the 1915 Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks has held them hostage for more than 7o years. In some instances, it has even alienated them from other survivors. For example, Araz’s grandmother was pejoratively known as ‘the tricolor woman’ because she wore the colors of the Armenian flag on her head and her waistband. She was the object of ridicule by her neighbors. Such was her conviction of the necessity for remembering the atrocities of the past that she named her son, Araz’s father, ‘The Revenge of the Armenians’* and admonished him to never forget his identity.

Trauma destroys time, Robert Stolorow once told a patient. Stolorow was grounding his thinking in the idea that the present contains both the future and the past. “Experiences of trauma become freeze-framed into an eternal present in which one remains forever trapped.” Araz says as much in her statement “everything that happens in my life, goes back to 1915.”

The family enacted prohibitions to avoid losing their identities. They imposed these on the children, forbidding mixed marriages and insisting on observance of cultural markers. Araz’s family restrictions became ‘absolutisms’ which Stolorow defines as beliefs that are not open for discussion. Absolutisms constitute a na├»ve realism that allow us to experience the world as predictable and stable. Trauma, a major loss of innocence yields a rupture between the traumatized and those that are not; namely because the traumatized have first hand experience outside the boundaries of everyday normality.

Stolorow proposes that the isolating estrangement felt by survivors stems from a conviction that the traumatized and ‘normals’ live in separate and unbridgeable worlds. Araz wants to exit the ‘ghetto’ of her existence to open herself to others, to difference. She desires to do this while staying connected to an identity she described as ‘more than herself;’ This is an instance of what Stolorow would call “the contexuality of our sense of being and of the intersubjective contexts in which it can be lost and regained.”

Stolorow, R. (2007). Trauma and Human Existence. New York: The Analytic Press.
*Vrej-Armen Artinian. (photo: Ian Oliveri © InformAction Films inc. & Twenty Voices)

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