Emotional Storytelling after Stressful Experiences

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.

Comments 3

  1. December 6, 2010

    Oh, Melanie, you bring up such profound and challenging issues in a clear and articulate form. Thank you.

    I agree completely that the truth needs to be told and that as many perspectives as possible need to be available.

    At the same time, I believe that more study and work needs to be done in terms of people's readiness to hear these stories. I believe that all of us need to be able to know ourselves and evaluate our present condition well enough so we can take in knowledge and metabolize it rather than be traumatized by it or rush to denial.

    Dr. Elie Wiesel is a wise, emotionally resilient and kind man who seems to know how to present these terrible stories in a way people can hear them. I'd like to see more written about how we can clear ourselves of defenses and strengthen ourselves at the same time so we can listen deeply to these stories and grow from the knowledge of the human condition they contain.

    Thank you again for posting this. It's a pleasure to get to know you and your work.

    Joanna Poppink, MFT
    Los Angeles psychotherapist
    author: Healing Your Hungry Heart

  2. December 8, 2010

    Thank you for being a warm, knowledgable and supportive colleague and for reaching out to me. You're absolutely correct about the tendency of people to deny overwhelming stories. By doing that, they led the victimization continue unchecked. We see this in many recent events in the news, such as the Church's initial reactions to abusing priests, the ongoing cyberbullying and bullying of gay youth, leading to suicides, and the fact that many children continue to be sexually abused by people that the family trusts. One of our responsibilities as therapists is to overcome our own natural tendencies to deny so we can protect and educate. Persistence and patience are key. As well as helping victims to have a voice and drawing a line in the sand saying certain things are not acceptable in a civilized society.

  3. January 11, 2011

    It appears that the ripples from the victimization rock spread far. There is more support than ever for the victims.

    But I'm wondering when there will be an equal amount of support for the 2nd, 3rd and 4th waves – those people affected by the event and suffering from the acute and severe frustration of not being able to do something to stop it.

    I used to read a lot of 'should'a-could'a-would'a' after serious events. Now I see more "why?". And how could this of happened?!

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