Thursday, February 23, 2012


Author's note: Many of the photos below are extremely graphic.

I have suffered from nightmares since before I can remember.  My mom has told me that I used to wake up as a toddler with what my pediatrician diagnosed as “night terrors”.  I remember always being afraid to go to sleep. I am still not sure what set this off, or even if there is a catalytic event or root cause, whathaveyou- I just know that a) I was always scared in my bed at night; b) I woke up screaming not infrequently from the time I was a toddler until I got a dog and trained her as an emotional support animal based on my doctor’s recommendation at the age of twenty-five; c) that my parents got zero sleep while I was young (my ever sensitive father has pinned their divorce on my proclivity for nighttime hysterics...classy).  

While I can’t pin point a specific nexus for my nightmares, when I was slogging through style 'processing' the aftermath of my rape Dr. Phil style (read: having mild existential crisis realizing that from age 15-25 the majority of my actions- overeating, defensive attitude, self-defeating behaviors- had been an attempt to avoid confronting my feelings of powerlessness about the assault) my nightmares reached a fever pitch.  On and off for two years my partner had to endure me waking up alternatively screaming, sobbing, or so soaked in cold sweat that I would have to change PJs and sopping wet sheets between 2-4am.  With the help of our good friends at Pfizer and my dog this has greatly subsided. 

Now that the imagined terrors have, for the most part, subsided (I still have them from time to time, but have a better tool kit to deal with them now*), I apparently have mental bandwidth to entertain horrors that are more plausible.  

Jessica Stern, one of the world’s preeminent researchers on terrorism, has written extensively that one of the side effects of the aftermath of being sexually assaulted was an ability to disassociate herself emotionally in terrifying situations.  She attributes some of her ability tointerview terrorists and study the topic extensively to the fact that she can detach her intellectual processing abilities from her emotional responses.  For the ten years between being assaulted (date rape by my first boyfriend, for those of you who fall into the asinine ‘forcible rape’ distinction camp) and coming to grips with the emotional toll it took on me, I completely iced over my ability to feel.  This had many, many fun side effects- destructive overeating to the point of pre-diabetes and high blood pressure meds at age 19, lashing out horrifically at my mom and sister, hyper defensiveness in my personal relationships- but it also seems to have forged a distinct ability to detach myself in academic settings when studying particularly disturbing social phenomena.
I remember being completely calm and feeling numb, almost clinical, walking through Tuol Sleng, S-21, in downtown Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where Pol Pot’s regime processed an estimated 14,000 people- including children- who were put to death in the killing fields just outside of the city.   It was a purely fact finding exercise. Staring at skulls and photos of wives and children of government ministers who were killed in Pol Pot’s “pull the grass up by the roots” strategy to avoid the risk of having family members later avenge the killing of their husbands and fathers, I felt a detached calmness.  Being in the space where ministers and other ‘enemies of the state’ where held, in what had previously functioned as a public high school, I had no goose bumps, felt no shock.  I felt no nothing.  Flat line.   
Artistic depiction of Khmer Rouge soldiers 'pulling the grass up by the roots'.  In this case, perfecting their aim on moving targets using children for practice.
In case it's not clear what is happening in above's a close up.

Stalin's network of GULAG camps
 I recently visited the GULAG History Museum (GULAG is an acronym for the Soviet bureaucratic institution, Glavnoe Upravlenie ispravitel’no-trudovykh LAGerei- Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps) in downtown Moscow.  Couched between some of the highest end restaurants and shops in the city, caddy corner to a Louis Vuitton boutique, this tiny museum houses artifacts of a few of the estimated 20 million people that Stalin exiled to the outermost regions of Russia for crimes ranging from being a suspected threat to communism (including one war hero who had been awarded multiple medals of valor for his service during the Great Patriotic War- WWII- a year prior to his imprisonment) to stealing a bottle of vodka at 14 years old.

Comrade Stalin watching over a camp.
Men and teenaged boys were put to work building a network of railways that would link the northern regions of the country- ostensibly for the purpose of securing the northern border (from polar bears???)- actions many academics now theorize were intended to link the systems of GULAG prison camps scattered about the vast expanse of the country.

Women, often imprisoned along with their young children, were
Survivor's depiction of hearings.
shut into vast bread baking factories and manufacturing plants, frequently never to be united or know the fate of the husbands, fathers, brothers, nephews and friends who had been carted off under the pretense of protecting the state.  One man featured in a (very well produced) documentary presented by the museum was taken one year after he and his wife were married, six days after their son was born.  He was charged in the morning, and by the evening was 70 kilometers outside of Moscow. He has never seen his wife or son since.

Survivor's depiction of camp interior.
 Staring up at artwork made by former prisoners, peering through glass displays at baby shoes of a little girl who grew up in the camps from age two until adolescence, and walking through the replica of a camp bunker, the only response I could muster was to mutter “same story, different locale” to the friends who had joined my expedition to the museum.  I don’t know that this is actually due to an ability to detach when confronted with horrific information, or that I simply have lost the ability to be shocked by the fact that human beings can inflict such atrocities against their fellows after witnessing so much evidence.   

GULAG survivor's depiction of executions.

I distinctly remember taking out from the library each and every book I could find on snakes- the only animal that freaks me out- when I was in second grade.  If only I could know everything about them, then they wouldn’t be as scary.  My possibly morbid quest to engage academically with mass violence is motivated by a desire to demystify, and thus find an antidote, to the root causes of genocide and repression. Getting to the bottom of what catalyzes such actions- and keeps others from blowing the whistle on such actions- must yield a remedy to future horrors.


 Perhaps the answer is no.  Perhaps simply knowing about history is not enough to avoid repeating it again. It’s not like mass violence is not still happening, albeit perhaps in less efficient or organized forms, in parts of the world today. Despite museums, memorials, and education programs exist to plead “never again”, it seems that the world repeatedly stands by while the powerful smite those who present a threat to their stranglehold on authority. 
Memorial to victims of Pol Pot's S-21.
It’s something to lose sleep over.

*I am happy to share some of the resources I have found helpful.  Please feel free to email me if you are struggling with nightmares or PTSD related symptoms.

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