By Lee, JeeEun( Phillips Academy 12)
Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull illuminates the different paths humanity may take to cope with heinous acts of violence and the resulting wounds. Krog points out that while victims of various crimes of apartheid in South Africa displayed a high level of distress and anguish after the event, statements given before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission revealed that the perpetrators of those crimes also suffered equally traumatic effects. In fact, the oppressors became “victims of fragmentation” as they existed in a conflicted state of two opposing forces—they inflicted harm on others and at the same time, these bestial and barbaric acts destroyed their own humanity (p.99). In the face of this traumatic reality, some perpetrators turned to forgetfulness to palliate the pain of fragmentation, while others painfully preserved and accepted the traumatic memory, manifesting a two-fold irony. Denial through forgetfulness initially may allow room for personal rest and rejuvenation, but it only exacerbates self-disintegration in the end. By contrast, although actively preserving memories results in immediate emotional anguish and the reliving of the pain, it enables one to begin the healing.
The underlying tenets of the Pragmatic Truth Theory can help explain the coping mechanisms of some oppressors who resorted to memory loss in response to trauma. This theory claims that truth has no cognitive value; that “victims” of trauma naturally personalize reality in a way that “maximizes their emotional well-being,” or inversely, minimizes emotional discomfort regardless of the verisimilitude of those beliefs (p.261). When objective reality is too difficult to bear, the development of subjective truth allows an individual to change his or her memory of events as a protective mechanism. Altering, distorting, or omitting memory—be it willfully or subconsciously—then discharges the need to re-experience the pain of a traumatic incident, at least in the immediate sense. To demonstrate this phenomenon, Hechter, an infamous torturer said he cannot remember what he did. He testified, “I can [remember] the electrocution… I can remember after it was told to me. But it was completely out of my thought… I consciously banned these things from my thoughts… I haven’t thought about it for ten years…”(p.119). Seeking comfort by avoiding direct ownership of his actions, Hechter consciously refused to remember the actual act of torture, despite being able to remember smaller details like “the path . . . the chalky white road” (p.119). As a result, he had ten years of respite underneath a delicate, yet perhaps fragile, veneer of sanitized truth. Similarly, in order to guard against the “phantom of shame,” Benzien, another torturer, also reconstructed an idealized version of reality that is missing the memories of his crimes. As he failed to recall the acts, “he [only] purse[d] his lips,” involuntarily uttering words of denial (p.95). His therapist, Kotze reported that Benzien’s denial of reality is not as consciously willed as Hechtor’s, since his behaviors were driven by a subconscious mechanism of self-preservation (p.95). Whether out of conscious thought or subconscious reaction, both men found denial to be the most expedient and visible way to create a protective, if incomplete, truth. By banishing the role of a violent oppressor from their memory, they strived to appease the fragmentation of identity. However, trying to stay “whole” in this manner proved futile and illusory, since the relief from reality turned out to be only temporary. Krog reaffirms, “You bring your own version of the truth to the merciless arena of the past—only in this way does the past become thinkable, the world become habitable … [as a] mechanism in yourself that allows you to accept distortions” (p.112).
While dismissal through forgetfulness initially appears to be a convenient remedy to cope with trauma, the initial comfort eventually ends, only to exacerbate the disintegration of identity. Harkening back to the process of creating subjective truth, Krog identifies “the mechanism in yourself” to be problematic because of the fragility of subjective truth in the face of objective reality (p.112). For example, Benzien could not continue to deny his guilt precisely because his memory was so unreliable. He said, “If you say we assaulted you in the combi, then I would concede that in all probability we did”(p.95). Consequently, the tenuous nature of his self-ameliorating denial rendered it necessary to face the trauma he so desperately tried to avoid. His misled dependence on memory loss culminated in unforeseen repercussions—not only must he contend with a fragmented sense of self, but he must also live with uncertainty, for everything that he thinks is “true” can be questioned. This phenomenon is particularly salient in Hechtor’s experience. As a result of submerging himself in his own version of the truth, he suffered more through psychological and emotional psychosis like split personality disorder and escalated feelings of self-loathing. Colliding with indisputable reality marked the end of the initial comfort both men first enjoyed, revealing how feckless their forgetfulness is as a solution, as their fragmented states became aggravated.
Inversely, preserving traumatic memory hinders immediate emotional comfort because trauma must be constantly revisited and relived; however, only through that direct confrontation can one accomplish permanent restoration of the self. Krog acknowledges the necessary pain inherent in the preservation of complete memory and its accurate rendering: “Pursuing truth or living with trauma with courage should prove detrimental to our emotional well-being” (p.262). Paul van Vuuren best illustrates the emotional toll of such a decision by saying, “It is not easy to sit in this chair. You expose your soul to the nation. And they look at me and think I am a monster…” (p.117). Preservation of memory, indeed, requires taking full responsibility of one’s past actions, even if one is judged as being odious. Added to the burden of assuming full responsibility is the burden of accurate testimony that “leaves most of us physically exhausted and mentally frayed” (p.51). The difficult task of reproducing the painful moment involves “the eye plung[ing] into the mouth,” or the dilemma of accurately portraying traumatic reality using the blunt instrument of verbal expression (p.42). Using the “mouth” impedes adequate articulation, requiring a constant re-visitation and reliving of the ineffable past experience. Krog explains, “Pain destroys language and this brings about an immediate reversion to a prelinguistic language… to remember the past” (p.57). Paul van Vuuren exemplifies how the very inadequacy of language frustrates his will by saying, “The victims’ lawyer says we must talk to them, but it is difficult… I feel so sorry for him… so I mean you can’t get past that… but I mean what the hell does one do?” (p.117). Language could not encapsulate the enormity of his anguish or remorse; mere words were too shallow to convey the magnitude of his trauma and the depth of his pain. The harder he tried to “get past” “empty words,” to express his remorse, the more he must relive his actions, perpetuating their existence in his memory. Numerous others testified that articulating their actions “fights [their] tongue” and that “it destroys… words” (p.39). Taking on the gravity of blame and the resulting shame that lies squarely on their shoulders, as well as struggling with the inadequacy of language, the perpetrators who chose to acknowledge their true memories must deal with “a heart that is broken and tears in [their] eyes” (p.62).
Despite the initial difficulty and pain that acknowledging the truth and thus preserving it entails, doing so creates the potential for redemption and restoration of the self. Krog explains, “This particular memory at last captured in words can no longer haunt you, push you around, bewilder you, because you have taken control of it” (p.57). Krog describes how by virtue of truthful expression, one’s emotions lose control over the self, and the self is empowered over the past. Tim condemned his eighteen years of forgetfulness and silence as “a prison” governed by the “tyranny of silence” that the repressed memory had engendered (p.193). In that prison, he essentially became a stranger to himself. However, the very painful realization of his responsibility and the preservation of truth liberated him from that emotional confinement and helped to “reconcile myself to myself” as two fragmented parts recombine to restore his whole identity (p.193). Put simply, his testimony “enable[d] healing to happen” (193). Indeed, as Mr. Sikwepere acknowledged, “What has brought my sight back, my eyesight back is to come back here and tell the story … what has been making me sick all the time is the fact that I couldn’t tell my story” (p.43). Had Sikwepere failed in reconstituting his memory and recounting his tale, he would have remained “blind” and in the darkness of the repressed memory. Ironically, it is precisely the pain of admission and articulation that initiates the healing process; psychological wounds are not just buried, but brought to light, allowing new skin to emerge and heal.
The dissolution of the apartheid system of government in South Africa was touted as the end of an unjust and tyrannical regime. To engender reconciliation within each individual, Krog’s work contends that trauma’s pain must be confronted by those who suffered from it as victims, but even more so by its perpetrators. Avoiding the harsh truth buries those wounds just under the surface, not actually healing them. Distorting or obliterating memory’s truth may momentarily free oneself of the burden of immediate pain, but it ultimately confines one to an endless cycle of fragmentation. Inversely, preserving the past and embracing its inherent pain permanently liberates oneself from further fragmentation and brings about true restoration. As Krog concludes, “To seize the surge of language by its soft, bare skull” is tantamount to “[wrapping] you in words so that the future inherits you . . . you who once whispered beside me in the dark” (p.38). Ultimately, while those remaining in the “darkness” of forgetfulness will always be susceptible to misgivings about the past, those who courageously embrace their trauma will transcend its “surge” to see the new light of future.