Book review of ‘I already work (I just don’t get paid for it)’ by Lynn Berger, Part 2

As announced in Part 1, I will elaborate in this blog on my objections to an approach that argues that caring for very young children does not necessarily have to be done by women, because men can do it just as well. In other words, I will discuss the difference between equality and equity.

I talked to two people about the booklet ‘I already work (I just don’t get paid for it)’. One of them said this about it: “In all those social discussions about men and women, rich and poor, practically and academically trained, as far as I am concerned, the distinction between equality and equity falls seriously short. Equality is simply not an issue in many cases, and the pursuit of it in my view threatens to jeopardize the unique value of everyone. In this case it has to do with femininity, not the feminine qualities that men can just as well possess, but just the female body, which entails a certain role, in this case aimed at those little kiddies.”
The other said this: “What I do miss in her book is your question: what does the child want?” Put more specifically, my question usually is: “What does the child need?” That is an essential difference, but I know the questioner well and I know that is what is meant.

The content of these comments was exactly what I too had concerns about while reading: again it is about what men and women *want* and hardly about what the immature child *needs*. I wholeheartedly share Berger’s statement that ‘capitalism parasitizes on unpaid care labour’ (p. 65). In addition, however, as a society we are all parasitizing on the current and future well-being of children and on their health now and in the future, if once again we forget, in this welcome and important discussion, to speak about what their needs are, based on the biological blueprint and the evolutionary legacy. We really need to face those needs; the evidence is overwhelming.

I watched the aforementioned film ‘In Utero’ as part of the lunch webinar of ‘Alles is Gezondheid’ (‘All is Health’), which took place on 16th May 2023 and in which, based on the film, Tessa Roseboom and Anna Verwaal talked about the influence of prenatal conditions on adult life (see also here). It that conversation, it was again made clear how much the mother’s body plays an incomparable role and cannot simply be equated with what a father has to offer a newborn baby. If we want to guide a healthy new generation to adulthood, we will really have to take into account what our children need. They certainly ‘benefit from a rich variety of role models, parenting styles and caregivers’ (p. 71) and it is also sadly true that ‘many families are not a safe, warm, or loving place to grow up in at all’ (ibid.) . That is precisely why it is indeed ‘a collective responsibility’ (ibid.) to organise society in such a way that children do not grow up with toxic stress. However, the question is whether ‘childcare (…) as a basic provision’ is a place where ‘every child gets the chance to develop to the best of his ability’ (p. 74). For some children, daycare will indeed be a better place than home. If so, that is very sad. This requires, with great urgency, dedicated care for the parents, so that they can increase their skills. This often requires trauma healing. For many other children, especially in the early, vulnerable years when the child is still so small and immature, the very best place will be home, especially when parents are stable and well-regulated and don’t have to be constantly stressed about the most basic issues in life, such as a decently paid job, an affordable home, and utilities that don’t go at the expense of the weekly healthy groceries.

When we look at the division of labour from such a perspective, at the struggle between paid and unpaid work, at the call for financial and social recognition for care work in the home environment, we see that health and division of labour have a strong political character and are not only an individual responsibility. It is therefore time to no longer depoliticize health by pretending it is an exclusively personal responsibility. It is a pity that on the one hand this booklet so clearly and so rightly shows the link between policy influences and the division of labour, while on the other hand it seems to overlook the fact that not everything can be redistributed, that some tasks can really be better done by mothers and that it has nothing to do with equality and everything to do with equity. True emancipation and true resistance to exploitation by the capitalist system require us to recognise that not everything can be expressed in money. Moreover, true resistance to discrimination exists by the grace of recognising differences. After all, if everyone is equal, ‘discriminare’ (the Latin word for ‘to make a distinction’) is not possible.

To begin with, all this requires that we develop an awareness of the fact that something does not only have value if you can put a price tag on it. Moreover, true emancipation requires recognition of the value of inequality, without compromising equity. On the contrary, there is an intrinsic value in the diversity of tasks and skills, because it ensures that everything that is necessary for the proper functioning of a family, a local community or a nation, gets done. Can we see those unique contributions, without judgment, without jealousy of what the other can or does? Can we shift our appreciation from ‘ego’ to ‘eco’, from ‘what do I want?’ to ‘what does the child need?’ Certainly, that is a challenge, but if we succeed, then we will really see what ‘works’. And if that is a triggering thought, then there is personal inner ‘work’ to do. The fear we experience when someone else can possibly do something better than ourselves is not innate. That fear was learned in a social dynamic in which those differences were not warmly welcomed. That means we can also unlearn that.

In 3. Berger gives five suggestions for ‘a rich, full and caring existence’ (p. 64):

  1. Change the working week (and make it shorter or organise it differently).
  2. Improve leave for all parents (and not just mothers).
  3. Make childcare a basic provision for children (with free, high-quality care).
  4. Take better care of informal carers (so that they can also take good care of themselves and the value of their efforts becomes clear, literally and figuratively).
  5. Change your view on care (and speak up to relatives and colleagues about arrangements that contribute to this, since ‘performance’ is not only about ‘getting the best out of yourself’, but also about ‘contributing something for someone else’ ( p.80)).

All this is necessary, Berger argues, because ‘people, families, households, communities, entire societies are nowhere without the endless work that maintains, repairs, and sustains them’ (p. 82), without the ‘work that makes all other work possible’ (p. 14). That is a conclusion I drew decades ago. Also in my work I usually make a comment about it when mothers say that they ‘stopped working’ after the birth of a child. I then propose an alternative wording, namely that they have given up their paid job outside the home because they are working at home. In that context, I would like to add a sixth suggestion:

  1. Choose the child’s perspective and as you organise your daily life, ask yourself, ‘if I were my child, what would I need to feel safe and seen?’

That is where it starts, with self-reflection, with acknowledgment, too, of the pain that we as adults often still carry with us in our own inner child. As the awareness grows that much of what we do is linked to unmet needs from our own childhood, it becomes easier to see that many behaviours and the need for recognition from others stem from survival strategies. That may be an ‘uncomfortable truth’, as mentioned in ‘In Utero’, but growth is often accompanied by discomfort. However, let us not pass that discomfort on to our growing children, but let us face it in an adult way and take it on our adult shoulders. And if that load is too heavy for the carrying capacity, we can ask for help. That, too, is an extremely mature attitude, one that leads to us becoming better equipped for any job, paid or unpaid!

Book review of ‘I already work (I just don’t get paid for it)’ by Lynn Berger, Part 1

A pleasantly long train journey in the ‘Silence’-compartment, followed by a Sunday evening with tea and something sweet… that was the time I needed to read Lynn Berger’s fascinating essay, which has appeared in mini-book form with the title ‘I already work (I just don’t get paid for it)’. The argument has just under 100 pages on slightly larger than A6 format and no fewer than 150 references. Anyone who wants to read more about the subject of ‘paid and unpaid work’ can therefore go ahead. It is always a pleasure to see that an argument is well substantiated.

Berger herself speaks in her final statements of ‘a small essay on a big subject’ (p. 85) and she has a very good point: her long list of literature references supports that position. There are a huge number of perspectives from which you can look at (lack of) remuneration for work. The fact that the lack of financial and social appreciation for certain activities means that they are not counted in the Gross Domestic Product, has all kinds of policy and psychosocial consequences and causes that are insufficiently recognised.
Incidentally, despite the long list, there is still a great deal of literature that has remained unnamed that could greatly increase the insight into this entire subject. I will get back to this.

The booklet is divided into three parts:

  1. The work that makes all other work possible
  2. Part-time country the Netherlands: a short history
  3. The struggle for our livelihood

In 1. we get an overview of statistical data on work, vacancies, division of labour between men and women, informal care, government expenditure in various social sectors and an explanation of the tension between paid and unpaid work. This also stimulates the discussion about what that actually is, ‘work’: what do we mean by it? When do we call certain activities ‘work’? It is a relief to hear Berger argue that despite the fact that many activities are not seen as work because they are unpaid, they are nevertheless of inestimable value: ‘Without this work there is no economy’ ( p. 18), because many of these tasks are work ‘that maintains, repairs and advances society’ (p. 14). Berger mentions a few terms from the public debate about unpaid work and puts them in quotation marks: ‘part-time decadence’, ‘part-time princesses’, ‘participatory society’. She ends this part with the conclusion that caring for others is also work.

In 2. Berger provides an overview of how the division of labour has shifted over the centuries from a home situation where everything happened (household, taking care of children, growing crops, herding livestock, producing food, practicing crafts), to industrialized settings leading to specialisation and division of ‘caring at home’ and ‘producing elsewhere’. She sums it up this way: ‘This is how capitalism profited from unpaid work, without supporting it’ (p. 29). Subsequently, the breadwinner model and the welfare state developed, both ‘entirely based on the nuclear family in which the man earned the money and the woman took unpaid care of children, the elderly and sick relatives’ (p. 30). She explains this on the basis of the subordination of women and the work they often performed through the centuries. This was legally encouraged by making women ‘incapacitated’ and denying them the right to paid work and firing them as soon as they married.

Towards the end of 2. Certain themes appear that give me a sense of friction. For example, Berger speaks somewhat condescendingly about the Dutch tendency to find two or three days at the childcare facility enough for the young child. It should be much more normal, she argues, to just take your child there full-time, so that you have your hands free for any work, especially paid work. She rightly notes that the emancipation of some groups of women goes over the backs of other women, for example when highly paid women buy help for the household and children. This help is often provided by poorly paid, undeclared women (sometimes immigrants who elsewhere have left their own families), who therefore have no social benefits and do not accrue a pension (p. 46). She seems to encourage women’s emancipation, but unfortunately I do not read a plea for the emancipation of the baby.

About maternity leave, she says that it is often too short and ends at a time when a mother is not yet ready to hand over her fragile baby: ‘[A]nd thus she chooses a parttime job, so that she can also have a few days to take care of her baby herself’ (p. 47). And that this leads to a limitation of the mother’s salary is referred to as the ‘baby fine’ (p. 48). That is not her term; I am aware of that, but all in all I think it is becoming a somewhat difficult story, also in combination with the term ‘maternity ideology’, ‘the belief that children benefit most from the dedicated, full-time care of their mother’ (p. 30) and the ‘paternity ideology’, ‘the belief that the ideal father is one who earns enough money to support an entire family’ (p. 31). Berger says these ideologies are persistent and limiting because ‘everyone [brings] into the world the hormonal, neurological, and psychological mechanisms involved in care’ (p. 57). That may be true, but on the assertion that it has nothing to do with their character or nature that women ‘care more, easier and faster’ (p. 58), I would like to express a friendly but sincere and resounding ‘No’. That babies need their mother, is not an ideology; that is a biological given.

I am a strong supporter of equity between men and women. From my point of view, however, I think it is important to be alert about confusing equity and equality. Men and women are not equal. The female body is biologically essentially different from the male body in terms of structure and functioning. Just this week I watched the film ‘In Utero’ again after a number of years, about what a child experiences in the womb (see also here). This is the field of pre- and perinatal psychology and deals with the impact of maternal physiology on the developing foetus. Once the baby is born, full of imprints of the mother’s emotional life, which has reached the unborn child through sounds and hormones, the baby is supposed to go to the breast. There, the child’s stomach, brain and immune system are fed with everything babies need to achieve optimal development. That, too, is a very fine and carefully tuned hormonal process to which the father’s body contributes little to nothing. (Yo, man: deal with it!) Sure, he protects mother and child from negative outside influences and that is also a crucial task. However, he is not equal to the mother and the baby will simply be worse off without the mother’s breast and body.

The familiarity of the mother’s body, in which the baby has been for months, is helpful in developing a sense of security and self-regulation. All the hormonal changes that the pregnant, birthing, lactating female body goes through mean that she is optimally equipped to become sensitively attuned to (the needs and expectations of) the baby. Fathers can certainly learn a lot in that area, but there are also things they simply cannot do, namely carrying, giving birth and breastfeeding. In reference 115, Berger rightly quotes ‘Mothers and Others’, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s wonderful book on alloparenting (shared parenting), but I don’t know if she also read all the passages about the influence of breastfeeding and lactation on bonding, well-being and health. Blaffer says valuable and essential things about that. Next to this title, I have a nice library of other authors who have something to say about breastfeeding. Berger is very welcome to come and take a peek.

Next week I will have a closer look at the difference between equity and equality and what that means for caring for young children.



Book review ‘From madness to Wisdom’ by Iris van Zomeren

Through her beautiful email to ACE Aware NL I came into contact with the author of the book ‘From madness to Wisdom – The autobiographical life story of Iris van Zomeren’. We agreed that I would review it for the website. Iris sent it to me and as soon as I started reading it I was fascinated. (See also our book page; titles in alphabetical order of authors’ last names.)

The book begins with a foreword by psychotherapist Rachporn Sangkasaad Taal. She tells how she met Iris, who had already gone through all kinds of therapy. She writes that she is impressed by the post-traumatic growth (PTG) that Iris has achieved. With her introduction she makes it clear that the book is about a very tumultuous life, but to really understand how much lack of safety there was for Iris, reading cover-to-cover is the best thing you can do.

The book is written narratively, with lots of personal dialogues and exchanges between Iris and other main characters. That means that you as a reader are sucked into the poignant events. In addition, so much is explained in the field of psychological and emotional trauma healing processes that probably almost everyone can derive valuable insights from it. Iris takes the reader along on the journey she has made and we see her slowly but surely ‘breaking open’, blossoming, giving light and air to what she has endured. The intergenerationality is also evident: her parents were both damaged in their own childhood and the healing work that Iris is now doing has a positive effect not only for herself, but also for others in her family line. As a reader, you witness her deep self-examination and her harrowing recovery process; with how she writes, Iris invites you to “hold space” for that.

Iris starts with a sketch of her family situation, with parents with a background of domestic violence and sexual abuse, among other things. There is a lot that gets handed down to Iris and the other kids through intergenerational transmission. That is so intense that Iris can only survive by freezing and suppressing emotions and memories. With more trauma sensitivity, several adults could probably have picked up on signals, but Iris, like many children, is alone with her pain and despair.

In 38 often concise chapters she guides us through her experiences and in many chapters explanations are included in clear boxes about certain terms that are discussed in the text. This makes it easy for the reader who is new to the topic to follow unfamiliar concepts. Where relevant, Iris has included passages from letters, correspondence and diaries; these can be recognised by being written in italics.

Around the age of twelve, Iris starts to rebel more and more against the home situation, which leads to complex coping strategies. She finds no understanding at home; her parents lack the ability to acknowledge and address their own role in the problems. As a result, Iris loses the connection with her authentic self and an existential gloom arises.
Around the age of twenty, some of her painful experiences begin to emerge, but the time is not yet ripe and the sense of security is not yet sufficient to face everything. That sense of security does arise when she is in her early thirties and meets Erik, the love of her life. With him beside her, more and more of the trauma hidden in her emerges. It is a tough road and more and more she experiences a huge rage; this also puts pressure on her relationship with Erik. However, she notices that the anger also has a very good side and that it helps her to regain her self-esteem, her dignity, to undo the “in-dignation”.* As a result, she gradually and increasingly comes into contact with the underlying injuries. The realisation grows that anger does not have to be an obstacle, but can be a gateway to get in touch with yourself. Iris describes it beautifully: “You tend to see the anger as disorienting when in essence it is reorienting” (p. 62).

The desire for contact with her family of origin remains, but it also turns out to be very complicated again and again. This is mainly because the other family members continue to completely deny the events of the past. This is a phenomenon experienced by many people who want to address abuse and neglect within the family. There is often a great taboo on the subject, which makes restoring family relationships difficult and often temporarily or permanently impossible.

After two bizarre and very intense experiences, she comes closer to the origin of her trauma. Through a clearly described, very intensive therapy process, she becomes aware of how different sub-personalities have carried the trauma for her.

As many discover during their healing journey, a long-lasting need remains to seek the love you should have received as a child in places and with people where it cannot be found. The acceptance that that lack of the past can never again be compensated for, is often intense. It deserves mourning and processing time, time in which you learn to refocus, to see that what was not possible before, is possible now: choosing a social environment that can be with your pain and that sees your courage and your potential at the same time. Within a setting that is safe, nurturing, supportive and stimulating, the ‘detoxification process’ (p. 161) can still take place, a process necessary to return to your healthy core and from there to see and experience life in a new light.

With all the post-traumatic growth she is going through, Iris is increasingly successful in tracing the origins of the events of the past. Feeling through, seeing through and living through the old pain creates more and more compassion, not only towards other victims, but also towards the perpetrators of the past. Compassion is also in the foreground when she meets people from her childhood, with whom she enters into a conversation about what was going on for her at the time. This helps her experience the reality of her past more powerfully. She also increasingly experiences that the body, with all apparently ‘dysfunctional’ reactions, provides wise solutions to survive in circumstances that far exceed the comprehension, pain threshold and capacity a child has. The pain is stored in the most basic parts of the brain and in the cell memory of the body. The pain can therefore not be healed through cognitive insight alone. The body is allowed to speak, is allowed to tell the life story, supported by forms of therapy that are helpful.

Iris ends her book with the following observation: “Of course it is not the case that old things no longer arise, but there is less and less resistance in me and much more patience. And this patience is not a method, but the result of my intense healing process” (p. 303).

I see in that conclusion a beautiful link with the recently discussed book by Viktor Frankl. In his vision, happiness is not a goal, but the result of experiencing meaning in life. Iris says her patience was not a goal, but the result of her healing process. It is remarkable that life values such as patience and happiness seem to require profound processes in order to develop. They seem like a goal, but they turn out to be the result of something else, namely a deeply lived experience of recognition, acceptance and meaningful connection with the Self and the Other.

It seems that the great mandate and moral appeal which powerfully emerge from this book, are aimed at adults: the more courage they muster to face their own demons, the more likely they are to not pass on the evil spirits to the next generation. Working on your own trauma recovery is therefore an immense gift for your children and grandchildren. The cover-up culture with regard to family secrets, which Iris talks about in her book, can then undergo a fundamental change. This requires sincere compassion, so that judgment and shame do not have such a dominant place as is often still the case today. With her book, Iris has made an important contribution to that much-needed openness about the lifelong impact of domestic violence and abuse on the young child. Anyone who is (or has been) involved in this will be able to find, in addition to valuable insights, a lot of recognition, acknowledgment and also comfort and hope in this book. With more social awareness about this, we can ensure that our children do not have to go through madness to come to wisdom. They may then keep their childlike, often oh so wise giftedness and let it develop further.
This book, in which Iris has captured her life story in a poignant way, can be very helpful for those who are looking for knowledge about and possibilities for healing trauma.

*In this blog with Jet Markink we spoke about ‘de-guiltify’; both words, to ‘de-guiltify’ and to undo the ‘in-dignation’, are important aspects of the trauma healing process.

Book review ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ by Viktor E. Frankl, Part 2 (final)

Last week, we made a start with a review of Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ and discussed what was dealt with in Part 1 of the book. Different aspects of finding meaning are the topic of Part 2 of the book, where logotherapy is discussed in a nutshell.

Logotherapy is sometimes called the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy. Where Sigmund Freud focused on ‘the will to pleasure’ (psychoanalysis) and Alfred Adler on ‘the will to power’ (individual psychology), Viktor Frankl focused on ‘the will to  meaning’ (logotherapy), as meaning in life turns out to be the primary motivational force for most people. This is also what the increasingly mainstream concept of Positive Health notices. Of its six dimensions (Bodily Functions, Mental Functions & Perceptions, Spiritual Dimension, Quality of life, Social & Societal Participation, and Daily Functioning) the spiritual aspects turn out to be most often mentioned as what really matters. People can have chronic health issues, but as long as those are fairly well dealt with and they have meaning and purpose in life, they generally consider themselves healthy. If physical health is overall good, but meaning is missing, people give much more despondent descriptions of how they are. The more meaning people can discern in their lives, the bigger the chances that health and happiness flow from that. Those are then not goals in themselves, but the consequence of having found meaning and purpose in life and of being able to contribute to something bigger than one’s own life. In Nietzsche’s words, quoted by Frankl: ‘He who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how’ (p.109, author’s italics).

Without such a sense of meaning, Frankl writes, people can experience ‘existential frustration’. Not feeling challenged, but bored and useless, is understandably hard, he maintains, and deserves attention, instead of medication:

Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease. It may well be that interpreting the first in terms of the latter motivates a doctor to bury his patient’s existential despair under a heap of tranquilizing drugs (p.108, author’s italics).

In other words: healthcare providers should take the worries of their patients seriously when it comes to them not seeing enough or even any meaning in life anymore. Frankl sees three different layers of meaning in life: ‘1) by creating a work or doing a deed (work); 2) by experiencing something or encountering someone (love); and 3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering (mental strength)’ (p.115). The sense of meaninglessness, ‘resulting from a frustration of our existential needs which (…) has become a universal phenomenon in our industrial societies’ (p.141) can create an ‘existential vacuum’, often more widespread in places where spiritual, ceremonial, professional and familial traditions have gone lost. This can lead people ‘to do what other people do (conformism) or (…) what other people wish [them] to do (totalitarianism)’ (p.111).
Logotherapy’s aim is ‘neither teaching nor preaching’ (p.114), but to help people broaden their views and find their own meaning in life and thus the logotherapist ‘will never permit the patient to pass to the doctor the responsibility of judging’. A beautiful explanation is this one: ‘A painter tries to convey to us a picture of the world as he sees it; an ophthalmologist tries to enable us to see the world as it really is’ (p.114,115). Logotherapy encourages clients to find the potential meaning of their life and Frankl terms this ‘the self-transcendence of human existence’. Only when we can truly feel and see this, we will be able to reach self-actualisation, ‘as a side-effect of self-transcendence’ (p. 115). This especially applies to difficult circumstances, when things look hopeless.

For what then [when fate cannot be changed] matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation (…) we are challenged to change ourselves (p.116).

We are called upon, however, to relieve suffering if possible, because to ‘suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic’ (p. 117). What is needed for this is to find the ‘super-meaning’, not ‘to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear [the] incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms. Logos is deeper than logic’ (p.122, author’s italics).
We can never be fully free from difficult conditions, so true freedom, in Frankl’s view, is the ‘freedom to take a stand toward the conditions’ (p.132), a route towards self-determination. This is typically human, because: ‘Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary’ (p.133). If meaninglessness drives us crazy, it merely proves our humanness, Frankl says. This ties in with a quote from Krishnamurti’s work: ‘It is no sign of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’  That is not to say it is always easy. We can, for many different reasons, fall prey to ‘give-up-itis’ (p.141), losing all hope because we no longer focus on the remaining meaningfulness of life. Thus, we may lose all ability to deal with the suffering.
There is, however, a ‘difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness’ (p.152). Bearing whatever fate with dignity means rising above and growing beyond ourselves and thus increasing peace and wellbeing in the world.

That is hopeful, indeed. Compassionately exploring with people who grieve and suffer, the things that still make their life worthwhile may support them in finding the way back to their purpose and happiness. Seeing all this so impressively well laid-out by someone with a history like Frankl’s, is a humbling read.

Book review ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ by Viktor E. Frankl

A little booklet it is, in its 2004 paperback version, but a crucial message it contains and so a classic it became. Originally, the book was written and published in 1946 with the title ‘Ein Psycholog erlebt das Konzentrationslager’ (‘A Psychologist Survives the Concentration Camp’) and then in 1978, with the English translation, it got its new title, that aptly summarises the book: how to find meaning in even the most ghastly plights.
Viktor Frankl was born in Vienna in 1905 and died there in 1997. He studied Medicine there, specialising in neurology and psychiatry. He focused on depression and suicide and the knowledge and insights this brought him, he took with him when he was deported first to Theresienstadt (1942) and later to Auschwitz and Dachau (1944). The book basically consists of two parts. Part 1 is an account of his stay and travails in the concentration camps and Part 2 is an explanation of ‘logotherapy’, the psychotherapeutic method he developed already before the Second World War, but that he meticulously described and practised post-war after his return to Vienna.

Logotherapy is sometimes called the ‘Theory of Meaning’, because at its core it deals with the question of how to find meaning (logos meaning ‘word’ or ‘meaning’), to remain resilient in the face of adversity and injustice. There may be many reasons to lose hope and faith, and one may be robbed of personal freedom, but there is one freedom, in Frankl’s view, that cannot be taken away from any person: the choice to decide how to respond to external circumstances. In the context of ACEs this is quite relevant, seeing that the essence of trauma is losing the connection to one’s true self. If there are ways to nurture that connection and remain authentic, it is important to share those with people who have (had) to go through dire circumstances.
At first, Frankl wanted to write the book anonymously, but he changed his mind and felt he had to ‘have the courage to state [his] convictions openly’ (p.20).

His first-hand description of the proceedings in the camps is impressive. Most readers will have something of a general knowledge about what these tragic places were like, but the clarity with which Frankl looks back at it, is admirable. Those circumstances were so dreadful that he writes one can hardly blame people ‘for trying to dope themselves’ (p.24), either with alcohol or by any other possible means.
He describes the phases people would go through upon entering the camp: shock (at first paired with painful emotions like longing, pity, horror, and disgust), apathy (emotional death, not caring anymore, an attempt at self-protection), and lastly the psychological response after liberation.
This third and last stage was difficult in the sense that joy had to be ‘relearned’: ‘The pressure which had been on [the prisoner’s] mind for years was released at last [and] his desire to speak was irresistible’ (p.96). Frankl describes this process as ‘from that war of nerves to mental peace’ again (p.97). Ideally this is done very slowly, step by step, so as to prevent ‘moral deformity’ in the form of revenge being taken and doing harm to (properties of) offenders.
We can see a parallel here with other kinds of trauma: feeling happy again, letting go of pain and loss, can be difficult, if those have been your developmental habitat for a lifetime.

The biggest part of the book, however, is focused on the second stage, that of apathy and how to either deal with or prevent it. Some people were able to achieve ‘spiritual life to deepen’ (p.47), Frankl writes:

They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature (p.47).

He describes it as the ‘survival of the sensitive’. What under normal circumstances might be described as dissociation could under severe adversity be seen as identification with the riches of inner life by drawing on previous experiences such as love and joy and gratitude, humour and curiosity. All of this is what we could see as ‘the wisdom of trauma’, using the mind’s abilities to survive the unbearable present. It also means that the more abundant those previous positive experiences are, the greater the likelihood of people being able to draw on them, or, put differently, to manifest resilience. Frankl says: ‘An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior’ (p.32). In line with this were prisoners’ efforts to disappear in the crowd, so as not to draw attention to themselves, whereas in normal life, people may love to be seen and recognised for their unique individuality. Tiny pockets of privacy and solitude were considered pure luxury, moments to connect to Self again (p.61).

Yet, humans are not merely the product of biopsychosocial factors, Frankl states, pointing to the emotional, spiritual dimension of mankind. Throughout all of life, ‘everything can be taken from a man, but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstance, to choose one’s own way. (…) It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful’ (p.75,76). Remaining ‘brave, dignified and unselfish’ (p. 76) within the suffering, while nurturing hope and faith for better times to come, can give a deeper meaning to life. It can even lead a person to reach immense personal and spiritual growth.

Next week, we will discuss Part 2 of the book.