Silence That Heals
Leslie Dwyer, Indonesianist specialist in post-conflict and my doctoral chair, recently gave a compelling paper on "Silence."
Leslie challenged our western assumption that talking is better than not talking. Furthermore that only through speaking that we participate in the world around us.
People participate through all other kinds of mediums. The participate through their work, contribution, music, art or simply acting as witness. She encouraged us to look at people use silence and to become curious rather than assume something is wrong.
Spending some time with genocide survivors in Indonesia, I saw some examples of how people use silence. I asked a victim how he handled seeing one of his torturers on a daily basis.
He said, "I just smile and wave. In not saying anything I feel superior. Like in the end, I won."
For him, saying nothing is winning. He does not seek therapy talk groups. He seemed only to want to to walk around his neighborhood vindicated.
Silence can be celebrated as a way to navigate problematic histories. She challenges the assumption that we always need to talk it through. That sometimes being able to live together and flourish in the now, requires dropping the recurrent narrative about the past.
Silence That Hurts
But for everything there is a season; silence can hurt. France's forty-plus year repression of its WWII collaboration denied the experience of the deportees and other victims of the collaboration.
When I ask survivors what it was like to return to France after the war they tell me it was horrible. They were told to make their own way and take care of themselves.
The Netherlands so deeply repressed and silenced their participation in genocide that when survivors returned home, they had to pay the electric and water bills for the Nazis that occupied their homes while they suffered in Death Camps. Only now, in 2014, are the few remaining survivors being returned that money.
Little Stories Born of Silence
"Words wreak havoc when they find a name for what had up to then been lived namelessly." - Jean Paul Sartre
State-sponsored narratives that delete atrocious chapters, like Indonesia's on-going repression of the 1965 and the U.S.' minimal in-depth discussion of the atomic bomb, will rarely be challenged or toppled by large counter-narratives. Individuals do not have the power of the state to speak out. Instead they may choose silence or little stories.
Little stories like the invoices recently found in the Netherlands archives proving survivors had to pay for bills or Indonesian grandmothers talking about their torture or the round-up of their husbands can begin to break apart state-sanctionned silences.
These little stories came out of the long-held silences. In the case of the Holocaust, I find these stories often emerged once people had retired, completed their careers and raised their children. Everyone was taken care of and they had nothing left to lose by speaking. So they spoke.
They tell their "little" stories, they write their memoirs, and they speak to school groups. Like wildflowers, once they amass to hundreds or thousands they transform the landscape. They do not erase the mountains of master narratives, they simply distract from them. No, they say, that is not the story this is the story.
These little stories draw us in because we can connect to them emotionally. The state narratives are often cold and flat.They might make us feel right or justified but they rarely crack us open to our fullest humanity.
This week, around mother's day, a woman told me how her mom took her and her sister across the Pyrenees during World War II. She then went on to free her husband from a death camp. Courage. Tenacity...in Silence.
More on silence coming next post. In the meantime, for Leslie's talk click here.