I’ve just added a new reading list of trauma writing – Holocaust and Gulag memoirs, mainly. I don’t really want to get into the absolute hornets’ nest of issues surrounding trauma studies as I’m still recovering from my MA, but something’s been bothering me.
I remember reading an article a while ago about the rise of misery memoirs (MMs) and feeling a certain sneeriness towards that genre – all those books with blurry photos of wide-eyed children hugging their knees on the cover. Then there was that spate of fakes being uncovered – I can’t remember any of the names, I wasn’t that interested – and the whole thing began to die down.
Then a while ago this question struck me: why do I sneer slightly at MM readers and yet feel drawn to reading Holocaust and Gulag memoirs? I know there is a big difference but it’s difficult to articulate. What worries me is the question of motive – if readers of MMs seem a bit suspect, what of the people who read Holocaust memoirs?
The article I read about MMs (unfortunately I can’t find it; it was a couple of years ago) seemed to imply that MMs are read for slightly grubby reasons. A motive of sordid prurience, although that seems shaky ground on which to base an industry. The overtly-stated reason for reading them, the reason their publishers would have us believe, is the old ‘triumph of the human spirit over adversity’ chesnut. This is also the message we were meant to take away when Holocaust and Gulag memoirs first started coming out, although now the attempt to draw a moral from the horror is seen almost as a betrayal of the hardships depicted in these works. I certainly wasn’t reading trauma writing to learn that the human spirit can triumph over evil. One Holocaust survivor – who escapes me temporarily – said that human beings are capable of withstanding more than they should ever have to withstand. But only a tiny minority of people survived the Holocaust and it seems wrong to imply that they did so purely because their ‘spirit triumphed’ whereas the deads’ spirits did not.
So why do I feel drawn to these works? Are my motives any loftier than the readers of MMs? There is something horribly fascinating about descriptions of just how awful humanity can get, but I think I can say truthfully that I am not so interested in the depiction of textbook evil, sadistic guards as I am in the prisoners who faced them. On a very superficial level, reading trauma writing gives me perspective on my own life: nothing seems bad in comparison. On an intellectual level, I’m interested in the mechanics of ethics in extreme conditions – what ethical drives persist in extreme situations. On an historical level, I feel a sense of duty towards those who suffered these events, survivors and dead alike, to perpetuate the memory, to study the effects, to attempt a limited understanding.
Misery memoirs are different because they involve one single story of inhumanity and survival, whereas Gulag and Holocaust narratives reveal what was a whole subculture, a society of extremity. They are incomparable in scale and atrocity; it’s impossible to fit either one on to a spectrum of events that includes any event other than itself. I think that, fundamentally, I’m drawn to read about them because I can’t believe they could ever have happened even though I know they did happen. The misery memoir as a genre does not contain much in the way of complexity. The bad guys are evil and sadistic and the good guys are children, or straight-up-and-down victims. They’re understandable in a way that Gulag or Holocaust writing never is. I’m not drawn to read MMs because isolated cruelties I can understand; they are at the far end of a spectrum of experience which includes my own life. I think that’s the difference.