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- Interview -

Boris Cyrulnik

The freedom to reinvent oneself


A psychiastrist and psychoanalyst renowned for his writings on resilience, Boris Cyrulnik recently authored La nuit, j’écrirai des soleils (At night, I would write suns) published by Odile Jacob. Suns that help us reinvent the traumatic events of our lives, release us from their grip and leave us free to move on with our lives.

Do words give us the power to reinvent a traumatic experience and free ourselves from it?
Yes, words are creations that transform reality. When we experience a happy or unhappy event, we feel a sense of happiness, sadness or horror. If we want to share it, we must verbalize this feeling. However, we choose different words according to whether we are talking to a police officer, a doctor or a friend. That doesn’t mean we are lying to anyone and what we are saying isn’t true, yet it varies and adapts to situations. It is both creative and liberating.

Do other modes of artistic expression, such as painting or music, have the same liberating capacity?
Absolutely. Human beings have the unfortunate characteristic of suffering twice. Once by the actual blows they receive, and again through the representation of such blows. If they don’t talk about it but instead continue mulling over their misfortune, they end up walking the depression treadmill. It is therefore necessary to work on post-traumatic stress disorder so as to prevent the horror from repeating itself and the traumatic memory from becoming stronger. This can be done by talking with a trusted individual such as a mother, a spouse or a psychotherapist... Through words, a film, a drawing or any other creative act, people can regain a sense of security, begin to feel better, reclaim ownership of the representation of what happened to them and free themselves from being submissive to their past. They can even have fun participating in this artistic process. Whether it is a novel, a poem, a comic book or a painting, they are thus making something out of their misfortune and thereby altering the suffering the second time around.

Many artists feel that creation is a necessity, an urgency, without necessarily appreciating the resilience that results from it. Is the approach as effective when it is not conscious?
Definitely. Quite naturally, most injured people some day try to tell others what happened to them. And even if they are not aware of the associated benefits, it is a psychological process that enables them to redesign the representation of a painful event in order to continue their life journey. But this process is rarely immediate. First of all, the injured person goes through a phase of denial. They grit their teeth and cannot “recount”, because that would awaken the suffering which is still too intense. But if this moment lasts too long, they begin to brood and their condition worsens. They become desocialized and lock themselves in the prison of the past.

The writer John Le Carré tried to bury his pain and forget it throughout his entire life, yet he never freed himself from it. On the contrary, it grew ceaselessly in the shadows, before forcefully resurging much later…
Yes, a trauma never goes away. While it may be buried, it leaves an indelible imprint on the brain, which can now even be photographed via neuroimaging techniques! If the required work is never done on this injury, it may reappear at any time. Many older people remained in denial for a long time because it was too difficult to speak out, or because the cultural stereotypes of the time prevented them from doing so, or because they could not bear to return to the violence of remembrance. Yet the past remains inscribed and when the (immediate) working memory begins to fade as they age, more distant memories of this kind return in force. If they have not been metamorphosed by speech, writing, psychotherapy or any other process of transformation, they can reawaken buried suffering 50 to 60 years earlier. This is the subject of John Le Carré’s autobiographical essay The Pigeon Tunnel (published by Viking), written at the age of 84 and in which he discusses childhood traumas.

For different reasons, the writer Primo Levi did not succeed in freeing himself from his suffering, even though he recalled the horrors experienced at Auschwitz in his book If This Is a Man.
Primo Levi was a very intelligent man, endowed with great literary talent, but he did not reshape the representation of the horror he experienced. Through his hyper-realistic narrative, he analyzed it and dissected it down to the last detail, to the point where it became untenable, an approach that only strengthened his traumatic memory and ended up with him taking his own life. In an entirely different approach, after wanting to die in Ravensbrück, resistance fighter and ethnologist Germaine Tillion transformed her unbearable suffering into a truculent and humorous work: The Campworker goes to Hell, an operetta inspired by Offenbach!

When they free themselves from their traumas through creation, artists also receive public recognition. Does this make the process more effective than keeping one’s words or works to oneself?  
There are indeed two aspects here. As an elaboration, artistic work is a source of resilience. Writing a manuscript and putting it in your drawer because it is too personal may be enough, but not always, because healing from trauma also often requires a work of resocialization that is enabled by disseminating the work. By way of example, for a very long period, victims of incest did not dare speak out for fear of being despised or, worse still, accused of complicity! Yet this has begun to change, notably thanks to Eva Thomas, who was one of the first women to testify in a very well-written account: Le sang des mots (The blood of words), published by Mentha Editions. Her novel was the starting point for an amendment of the law. This woman, helped by the lawyers supporting her, has changed society. She triggered a process of resilience for herself, a much greater opportunity for advocacy for other women, and she engaged in a process of resocialization. She did something positive with her injury. She freed herself from it and she took pride in doing so.

Jean Genet wrote almost all his books in prison... Do we sometimes have to be deprived of freedom in order to create?
He even deliberately committed petty theft to be locked up and then escape through words! You need a framework of thought, in order to break free of it. Jean Genet did not have this. Like Jean-Paul Sartre – one of his ardent admirers – he might well have said “having had no father, I enjoyed every liberty”. And it turns out this can be very scary! Especially when you were abandoned at birth and have no landmarks. Just as the total absence of freedom is a tragic choice – that of dictatorship, which forces blind obedience and numbs the psyche – in the same way total freedom opens the doors to doubt, reflection and risk-taking. Between the two lies the concept of a framework, to which some people aspire in order to break out of it. This may take the form of the OULIPO (A Primer in Potential Literature) literary movement that led Georges Pérec to write his book La disparition (A Void) (published by Gallimard) without the letter “e”. It may be expressed through “a poem in Alexandrine verse or synesthesia” when stimulating the inspiration of the poet Arthur Rimbaud. It may take the more radical form of prison, when it serves to unleash Jean Genet’s literary escapes.

Are we all free to rebuild ourselves at some point?
Resilience is not always achieved, but it is always possible, and creativity is its most beautiful and effective weapon.

Based on an interview by Michèle Wouters
Photos © DRFP

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