The photographs to the left are part of a photo essay titled “Potency” by Nina Maria Kleivan. Its intent is to question how innocent children become pinicles of evil. The photographer is the daughter of a a member of the Norweigian WWII resistance who eventually was captured and placed in a German concentration camp. As a child her anger at what her father suffered was so intense that she carried around the name of one of her father’s prison guards in hopes of one day killing him. As a new mother she was struck by the innocence of children and then by the seeming innocence of dictators. “When all you see is a picture, Stalin could’ve been anyone’s kind grandfather. You can’t see the millions of people on his conscience or what a paranoid, dreadful human being he was.” she tells HaAretz.

Evil doesn’t always “look evil”. We come to associate the dress of Hilter or Mussilini or Idi Amin or Sadaam Huessein with evil because of a life long chain of choices. Those choices lead to personal actions and even world events that define a person. The actions and their outcomes, not the clothes make a dictator or a rapist.

Yet when we as a society finally acknowledge evil, we tend to look at the outside. The characteristic dress of the perpetrator becomes the symbol of evil and the process by which evil comes to be is lost. We forget that any of us, making the a certain chain of choices in a certain social context could be perpetrators of evil. In Klevian’s words to HaAretz:

We all begin life the same. We all have every opportunity ahead of us. To do good, or inexplicable evil. You need to be conscious that your actions have consequences that impact on your fellow human beings. The people I let my daughter portray didn’t give a damn about the human cost, the casualties, their thoughts caused. The responsibility is yours alone. You can’t throw it away – as a parent, as human beings – and say that you just followed orders.

Klevian raises important questions: where does evil come from? How does innocence become a symbol of evil? Unfortunately, much of the on-line debate has centered on whether a mother should or should not dress her child up in the clothes of dictators. When all one sees is a picture of a baby, it appears that all one sees is the baby. The child succeeds as a symbol of innocence, but fails as a symbol of choice.

We lose the tension between the grandfatherly picture of Stalin and the mass graves of the Stalinist purges carried out on his direct command. The clothes of an adult Hilter or Milosevic represent their choices because adults are actors in control of their life. Infants do not choose their clothes. At best their clothes represent the choices of their parents and the influence those parents will eventually have over the child’s life.

So is this an essay on the role of a parent in shaping a child’s moral identity? No, because at some point children become adults. They become moral agents in their own right and responsible for their own choices. The evil that so apalls us is the product of adult choices. Evil parents don’t always raise evil kids. In fact, childhood experiences of evil can bring out the best in human beings rather than the worst.

Dressing the child in the clothes of despot also fails as a symbol of the danger of following commands. Childhood in fact represents the one stage in life where following commands may lead to more rather than less morality. Most of society sees a child’s ability to follow commands as an essential step in moral training and development. How many times does a child share food or toys because their mother or father insisted that they do? Some children are naturally generous and outgoing. Others need to be encouraged.

Furthermore, the despots portrayed in Klevian’s photos were the ones who issued the commands. They were in full control of their moral agency and chose to use it to draw lines between friend and foe. All who supported them lived. All who opposed them were candidates for death. Of course they looked like kindly grandfathers. To the people they saw as friends, they were.

Survivor Journeys

A story well told can change lives.
This first group of stories show brief snapshots of the journeys of survivors who have been able to transcend their trauma and connect it to larger themes of human existence: faith, aesthetics, social action, those suffering in previous times or in other cultures and locations.

This next group of stories represent the experiences and insights of survivors at many different stages of processing. It takes a life time to absorb the unimaginable. Initially there is shock. Then there is pain and sadness and sometimes despair. And then slowly, slowly meaning, hope, and vision. Much of what is experienced is beyond words, so survivors and their friends will often draw on music, art, poetry, as well as story telling to evoke what cannot be said. Even after the initial shock and pain is well past, survivors continue to reflect on their world in new ways.

If trauma and loss happen for the first time late in life, professional self-confidence is sometimes shaken to the depths but along side of the self-doubt and insecurity, there may be an intense drive to blend professional identity and experience. Survivors attacked late in high school, during college, or well into parenthood and professions often use their developing public identity to change public policy, work on missions of compassion, or change the face of art and journalism.

If exposure to human-inflicted horror happens early and often enough an entire personality can fracture into pieces and a lifetime may be spent converting the mosaic of self into a whole picture. But even a fractured personality can be driven to look beyond themselves to do immense good for those around them.

Sometimes telling the story of what happened can take great courage. The public at large, defense lawyers and the justice system have not always been kind to those who tell stories of violence. The survivors in the list below have been willing to testify in open court, sometimes at great risk to themselves.

Survivors often feel like outcasts. Their experience is so different from what we expect from life that it can be very hard to talk about. We also have a social and psychological need to emotionally distance ourselves from things that remind us that one can do all the right things and still be attacked. This further isolates survivors.

Violent crime and terror can happen to anyone, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, the successful and the marginal. Celebrity survivors often go public with their stories in hopes that survivors will be embolded to tell their stories and get what help they need to process it. They also hope society at large will be more accepting of survivors and invest more money in both prevention and helping people with the aftermath.

Celebrity is no guarentee of healing. Like those who have told their stories in forums across the web, celebrity survivors who have gone public with their stories are at many different stages of processing their experience.

Poetry and prayers

The mystery of hope. Sting’s version of this eerie medieval carol for Christmas and the Feast of the Annunciation celebrates Mary, mother of Jesus. But old songs can have new interpretations. Its haunting music and dark images mixing innocence and awe celebrate the potential of any woman who has lived through horrible circumstances and stills finds ways to bring hope into the world.

In these words we can see not just Mary, but all women:

For know a Blessed Mother thou shalt be,
All generations laud and honor thee
Thy Son shall be Immanuel, by seers foretold.
Most highly favoured Lady! Gloria!

Immanuel means “God with us”. The wisdom of a woman who has survived her circumstances is a wisdom as deep as life itself. She brings life into the world through this wisdom, both in the way it shapes her actions and the way it shapes her words and all future choices. This wisdom goes beyond the wisdom of her own generation, because it touches all those she nurtures. They in turn carry it forward to those they touch, like angels carrying God’s message of hope into the world.

Survivors at Work

Though we often think of victims of violent crime and terror attacks as “people in need of help”, in reality, being faced with the worst of human behavior is a source of tremendous creativity. To counter the isolation created by an unimaginable encounter with evil, survivors often need to reach out to other survivors or place their experiences in a larger world context. They are a fertile hot bed of social innovation.

This innovation ripples outward in ever greater concentric circles of influence. It starts with the survivors (or in some case murder victims). Then it moves on to their friends and families who both grieve with them and try to find meaning in what should never be. The wisdom and courage of these primary and secondary survivors ripples out yet further to professionals that work with them, both to help them tell their story and to provide a hand of compassion to those still overwhelmed by the aftermath of the unthinkable. Sometimes the casual observer is so moved by someones courage or inspired by their insights. They too are inspired to creative efforts to organize people and resources to improve our society and the way we live as individuals within it.

Communicating truths about the unthinkable to others is a centuries old challenge. It requires a close integration of observation, self-honesty, and the best skills available. At its both it is both universal and deeply personal. There should be no surprise that many survivors are drawn to develop or use existing professional skills to communicate their experiences and wisdom. Below are just a few of the survivors who have made successful and sometimes award winning efforts to help others learn from their experiences with the unimaginable.