09 June 2007
Gampel, Yolanda: Ces parents qui vivent à travers moi. Edité en France, par Fayard, 2005.
In the first place, I had to ask myself the following question: does one have the right, or even the possibility, to consider reviewing a book like this when one is not Jewish oneself, or when one has not suffered the losses which were the basis and motivation for writing it? In other words, how can one feel one’s way into the frame of mind of the author, a Jew, when one is not oneself Jewish?
Then I said to myself − and I know that it is an answer that may only be valid for me − that there exist other Holocausts, other Shoahs, on earth; and that they have always existed, on a large or small scale. Gampel is copncerned, in principle, with all manifestations of violence, and not just the monstrosity of the extermination of the Jews by the followers of Hitler. She mentions other cases of extermination towards the end of her book. And I allowed myself to go further, thinking that, after all, the Shoah was experienced individually by those who were subjected to it, and by the descendants of the survivors. It is only from a distance, owing to the magnitude of the number, that a group is considered as an ensemble. Seen from close up, the group is always a collection of individuals. In the present case, it concerns those whose destiny seems more common owing to its gratuitousness, the fatality of the final destination, and the exorbitant enormity of the number. But for the individuals − if one thinks of all those who have suffered from wars, as active or passive participants, of those sent to concentration camps, of women who have been maltreated or raped, in an even more traumatic way in peaceful times than in wartime, or of maltreated children, and if one thinks even of alcoholics, when they are brought together in a treatment group, with their tendency to reject responsibility onto others − one can find individual holocausts which help us to relativise things a bit and not to take the Shoah as an absolute. This was how I found the means to propose a critical review of this book.
The book Yolanda Gampel offers us here very probably emerges from her personal feelings, either a need to express herself as a Jew or, equally, to give a forum to very personal experiences in her work as a therapist and psychoanalyst. After all, she places part of the therapeutic value of her work with the descendants of people who suffered from the Shoah in catharsis, in expression, in the search for means of revealing what one suffered, in an isolated way. As a Jewish émigré in Israel, it is possible that neither she nor any of her close relations suffered directly from the Shoah − though I am merely supposing this, for I do not know − but she surely cannot be indifferent to it or consider it simply as a clinical fact. It is a book that comes from the soul, and it is for this reason, that is, for its testimonial value, that I recommend it. As for its clinical value, this is more debatable; at any rate, it is at least necessary to put the book back into its context. Gampel’s general theoretical orientation seems quite clear and I am going to devote a few words to this in a moment.
I shall begin with an exposition of the content and principal hypotheses put forward in the book.
As I have already said, it is a book of testimony, with accounts of cases of children who, as the children or grandchildren of survivors of the extermination of the Jews in Nazi Europe, present symptoms that Gampel considers to be linked to the child’s identification with the traumas suffered by his or her elders. The often hidden, secret and disguised sufferings of the grandparents or parents, stemming from the impossibility of giving expression to them and of speaking about them, making them people with hidden psychic states, reappear, according to the author, and are reactualised by the descendants, while preserving the secret of their origins. These origins have led them to live, within themselves, the horrors of dispossession, deportation, the loss of loved ones in the Nazi extermination camps, survival and emigration, and rupture with the past.
First of all, then, Gampel presents actual experiences, in the form of brief vignettes, generally involving children born in conditions of freedom, and relates them to the antecedents of their parents or grandparents. She then formulates the hypothesis that, just as radioactivity remains present everywhere in the atmosphere for generations and generations, compromising decisively everyone’s lives, so does the violence that one has suffered, especially when it is gratuitous and remains lodged in the individual, and is transmitted transgenerationally. Gampel speaks of objects hoarded in children’s personalities, with their attendant clinical consequences; the latter correspond to frozen mournings, like the psychic holes in the ancestors who suffered from the Shoah, the Holocaust which cannot be worked through. This is also a way of keeping alive those who have disappeared, or alternatively of keeping alive within oneself those aspects of personality and suffering that the grandparents and parents excluded from their consciousness, or were unaware of, but which are nonetheless still present in their unconscious and find expression in the psychic disturbances more openly expressed by the children. The author traces in parallel the need for, and failure of, the symbolisation of these aspects. What is not symbolised becomes demonised, that is a source of disturbance. She also tries to differentiate the children’s identification with aspects projected into them from a transposition in the past, but unfortunately she only outlines this point, rather than proposing a more thorough discussion.
The book also contains a chapter of clear and simple considerations on the importance of the forename attributed to the child, which is already related to the role assigned to him in fantasy in the parents’ unconscious minds.
After the initial brief expositions of clinical cases, the book then draws on two much more detailed accounts of treatments by the author of child patients, using the method of free association with the aid of drawings in which both patient and analyst participate. Gampel applies the procedure of the squiggle game, following Winnicott, who, moreover, is fully present in the author’s theoretical orientation with his idea of transitional space. The drawings done during these sessions, and the technique of free association employed with them, are set out in detail for these two interesting cases, seen in an optimistic light, with I would even say a bit too much indulgence shown towards herself by the therapist. For example, she seems to have no doubts as to the orientation that she adopts with her associations, thanks to which she claims to direct those of the child. Now, I think it would be necessary to be more cautious here.
After these expositions, the book concludes with accounts of experiences in which Gampel has participated with groups of maltreated women in Bosnia, or with Palestinian colleagues with whom she has worked in the context of group collaborations on both sides of the border. This last part is confined to a chapter of the book which allows us to see how Gampel has been mobilised by her Jewish ancestry and by her sense of belonging to a nation and country which suffers and also imposes such harsh ordeals on others. It becomes clear that as a Jew one cannot remain neutral or distance oneself, and that she has had to play an active part.
As a work that bears witness to Gampel’s activism, this book is interesting and moving. As for its clinical value, this will probably depend on how mobilised one feels about these events. This mobilisation may or may not lead us to discover, in the antecedents within the families that are so imposing and striking, the explanation for what takes places at the clinical level. I think that it is possible not to insist quite so massively, as the author does, on the sufferings of the past, and also to try to explain what happens to these children in terms of their present life, or even in terms of parental aspects unconnected with the Shoah, and to maintain towards them a more detached, less militant attitude. The hypothesis of radioactivity does not suffice to explain a clinical fact that seems evident, and even barely succeeds in signalling its presence – namely, the importance of the transmission of aspects of the personality and of symptoms and, in general, of intergenerational psychopathology. I think that while the squiggle procedure can be useful in gaining a child’s confidence, it does not constitute a method of treatment. The same may be said of the conception of catharsis, which is also present in the author’s orientation, but does not seem sufficient to explain the paths of symbolisation of these aspects in the children’s unconscious minds.
In general, this book presents the virtues of that which is rooted in emotion, in feeling, that is, freshness, direct writing, simplicity, impact and honesty. As for the theoretical side, I am more reserved and I have the feeling that it would have been necessary to provide more thorough and rigorous elaborations; or broader clinical studies, not just based on the author’s inspiration, however powerful it may be. One would like Gampel to question her personal disposition a bit in identifying herself so directly with the families’ experience. One would also wish Gampel to broaden her work, so as to give space equally to the effects on the lives of children of daily violence, as it is most experienced most probably, I imagine, in present daily life in the state of Israel, and also by the Palestinians. But one must nonetheless thank Yolanda Gampel for this book which makes for stimulating and pleasant reading.
Pere Beà, Barcelone.