This is an excerpt from my chapter entitled Emotional Storytelling After Stressful Experiences in the Handbook of Positive Psychology edited by Snyder and Lopez, published by Oxford University Press, 2002. This work is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
Dr. Elie Wiesel; a Heroic Emotional Storyteller
Elie Wiesel, an American Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor of Eastern European descent is an internationally recognized writer, teacher, and scholar, who dedicated his life to raising awareness about the Holocaust and about the importance of actively speaking up against human rights violations and genocide, wherever in the world these may occur. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to human rights, and he has been an inspiration to other leading humanitarian figures, including Oprah Winfrey, whose moving visit with Dr. Wiesel to Auschwitz was broadcast on her program in 2006. Dr Wiesel’s novel Night, which was translated into English in 1960, is an autobiographical account of his deportation in 1944 as a young boy to the concentration camp, Auschwitz-Berkenau, along with his whole family. His mother and younger sister were taken away upon arrival and he never saw them again. He remained with his father until the latter, too, died in Berkenau several years later.
Night has become the defining chronicle of the inhumanity and evil of the Holocaust. In the following excerpt, Dr. Wiesel describes his difficulty in finding words to describe such horrors and the motivation to bear witness that finally gave him the courage to write about his Holocaust experiences:
Convinced that this period in history would be judged one day, I knew that I must bear witness…Was there a way to describe the last journey in sealed cattle cars, the last voyage toward the unknown? Or the discovery of a demented and glacial universe where to be inhuman was human, where disciplined, educated men in uniform came to kill, and innocent children and weary old men came to die? Or the countless separations on a single fiery night, the tearing apart of entire families, entire communities?…
Only those who experienced Auschwitz know what it was. Others will never know… But would they at least understand?… having lived through this experience, one could not keep silent no matter how difficult, if not impossible, it was to speak…The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future (From Preface to the New Translation of Night by Elie Wiesel, 1997).
Why we need to tell our stories of trauma
Despite the difficulty in finding words to describe these unimaginable experiences, Dr.Wiesel felt a moral obligation to testify and bear witness on behalf of his own family members and other victims and survivors. He wrote to convey the horrors of Auschwitz to those who had not experienced it, and to motivate societies to actively oppose human rights violations; so that future generations could be protected from such a fate. It is not in the traumatic events themselves that Dr Wiesel finds meaning, but in the potential power of his words to evoke outrage and empathy, thereby motivating others to act to prevent a recurrence.
This, then, is one of the potential benefits of emotional storytelling after stressful experiences. It can transform one’s experience from a personal tragedy to a collective moral account. In their potential ability to touch the humanity and hearts of other people, to provoke moral indignation, instill compassion, and inspire action, words can provide the writer with a sense of purpose and potential control over future events that can counteract the helplessness and loss of meaning which characterize the experience of victimization.