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Thursday, 15 September 2011

Book Review: Resilience by Boris Cyrulnik

Boris Cyrulnik is a French psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who has worked with deeply traumatised children in Rwanda and Columbia, children who have survived genocide or served as soldiers. I mention this because Cyrulnik himself points out that an individual's traumatic history is often revealed in his or her choice of career, and Cyrulnik's history is certainly traumatic: a child during the Second World War, he evaded the Nazis by working on a farm, whilst his parents, like thousands of other French Jews, were arrested by the French police and deported to Auschwitz where they were murdered by the Nazis. Cyrulnik says that after the war nobody wanted to hear his story, it didn't fit with France's need for de Gaulle's narrative of resistance and liberation. So, like numerous victims, before and since, Cyrulnik adapted to his environment and developed a secret history, 'splitting' his personality into acceptable and unacceptable parts until the day when he would have enough strength to tell the whole story. There is a subtext here, and an insight into the French 'collective unconscious', still coming to terms with the events of the Second World War. Cyrulnik points out that cultures often need a narrative that negates the true horror of things. Thus the French war in Algeria, which resulted in the death of 28,000 French soldiers, was termed a 'policing operation' and the conflict in Northern Ireland, with over 3,500 deaths was known as the "Troubles".

Narratives are important for Cyrulnik, they have the ability to defend an individual, as well as a culture, from the horror of things. Cyrulnik's style is aphoristic and discursive so there is no bulleted list of protective factors contributing to a child's resilience, instead Cyrulnik argues that, 'Biological and developmental forces are articulated with a social context to create a self-representation that allows the subject to see his or her life in historical terms' (51). It is the historical perspective that offers redemption: 'The things I've been through. I've come one hell of a long way. It wasn't always an easy journey' (51). The trauma of the victim is reframed as the triumph of the survivor, victor in the face of death! So, Cyrulnik's message is an optimistic one because he believes our histories do not determine our fate, that many individuals experience traumatic events in childhood and go on to live happy and meaningful lives. Like another psychotherapy optimist, Bill O'Hanlon, Cyrulnik argues that the wounds we suffer have the potential to give our lives substance and meaning, they are, or can be, to use Cyrulnik's metaphor, the grit in the oyster that transforms into a pearl.

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