Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Children in Genocide: Extreme Traumatization and the 'Affect Propeller'1

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Children in Genocide: Extreme Traumatization and the 'Affect Propeller'1

Article excerpt

The author bases this paper on extensive research concerning children in genocide with a starting point in the Holocaust and in the genocide in Rwanda 1994. She demonstrates indicators for psychological phenomena concerning the child survivors' affect regulating that appeared in life histories presented in videotaped in-depth interviews. The psychological phenomena concern experiences of persecution and ways of coming to terms with recurring memory images and affects. The interviews that have been analysed in detail form a basis for an emerging conceptual model about trauma- and generational-linking processes within each individual-the 'affect propeller'. An overall conclusion from this study is that past traumatic experiences are recovered not as memories in the usual sense of the word, but as affects invading the present. Accordingly, affects seem to tell the story of the past traumatic experiences.

Keywords: extreme traumatization, child survivors, affect regulation, memory, space creating, revenge


There is an accelerating interest in the interdisciplinary aspects of understanding the roots of genocide as well as the consequences for the traumatized. Studies of affect regulation of the victims and, specifically, the psychic experiences of children after genocide have, however, been under-represented until now in research.

Extensive videotaped interviews have been carried out by the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation [internet]. As a co-ordinator in Sweden for this project, I saw the archive as a unique research resource. My aim is to find indicators for, and to analyse, psychological phenomena that emerged in the life stories recalled by survivors who were themselves children during genocide. In psychoanalytical practice, and in research within an interdisciplinary university department,2 I hope to develop the knowledge about children and extreme traumatization.

My interest began when I conducted extensive interviews with two women who survived the Holocaust. They were both 8 years old when their native countries were occupied. The traumatization seems to have been a central factor in their attitude towards having children of their own. They actively abstained from giving birth. One of them, Anna, said with a loud voice, 'I did abortions twice because I was a child myself'.3 This statement is the basis for posing an important question that has remained of great importance: What was the significance of a child's own age and conception of age during and after the genocide when it came to the possibility of maintaining the feeling of having inner links to significant persons, and how might these inner links serve as a lifeline to allow the creation of links to the next generation? The theme of reproduction seems to be like a 'focal point', with links to different traumatic experiences during the persecutions resulting in the child survivors abstaining from giving birth-or, on the contrary, choosing to have many children, which I interpret as two sides of the same coin. This issue led me to study more life histories recounted by women and men who had survived the Holocaust as children (Kaplan, 2000, 2002) and, later, teenagers who survived the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. What I saw as a break in reproduction manifested itself later as being an important aspect of a 'generational collapse'.

My point of departure is 40 videotaped interviews with child survivors from the Holocaust and 12 videotaped interviews with teenagers conducted in Rwanda. In analysing the interviews, an opportunity has arisen to be aware of psychological phenomena for which the survivors might not have 'thought of' seeking psychotherapeutic help (if they at all have had the opportunity), since their life history contains invading affects and memory images that they only want to forget. The interviews can thus be seen as a complement to experiences from psychoanalytic work. It is about situations that we cannot imagine experiencing ourselves, 'unimaginable primitive affects' in the words of Grubrich-Simitis (1984). …

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