- Reviewed by
This lucid and deeply engaging book provides rich insight into what it is to survive extreme violence and recreate life in the aftermath. Set against the backdrop of the Bosnian war, the book follows the story of a Bosniak doctor, Esad Boskailo, who survives six concentration camps and goes on to qualify as a psychiatrist working with trauma survivors in the US. The book is a collaborative project, with human rights journalist Julia Lieblich telling Boskailo’s story. It raises issues about the difficulty of talking about terror, of bearing witness to and writing about trauma, and of the risks of “retraumatisation.” The authors skillfully and sensitively weave the human experience of terror with selected literature on psychology and trauma. The book is primarily situated with reference to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which we are told resonates deeply with Boskailo’s own search for meaning after terror. A compelling read, the book’s strength lies in its accessibility to a wide audience and ability to intimately engage with the reader at a “human level.” The book is emotionally challenging at points, but this only adds to its value and importance.
The book is divided into two substantive sections. The first section, which is focused on Boskailo’s life during the war, is utterly compelling. It gives rich insight into survival through terror, as it follows Boskailo’s everyday experience inside the Croat-run concentration camps. This section details the graphic and often harrowing psychological and physical torture inflicted on the detainees. Prisoners were dehumanized and ritually humiliated by the guards for sadistic gratification. For instance, we are provided with the stark example of a vulnerable schizophrenic Bosniak prisoner who is pumped up with steroids by the guards and goaded to beat and kill fellow prisoners. He is ultimately found hanging in his cell.
Uncertainty, fear, and a sense of disempowerment mark the experience of detention. The example of a prisoner who wakes up every morning with bite marks on his body, as a result of trying to bite himself to death through the night, illustrates the emotional trauma that the experience of torture and detention entails. Intimate sociality becomes central to survival: we are told of inmates sleeping with arms and legs touching for reassurance, and we learn about the nature of relationships between the prisoners themselves, and between the prisoners and the guards.
The second section follows Boskailo’s journey to piece together his life after violence. In addition to his family, an important component of Boskailo’s own quest for meaning after terror is in finding work as a psychiatrist helping other trauma survivors. This section sets out a number of individual case-studies of Boskailo’s patients. These powerful personal stories “humanize” the implications of trauma to the reader as we learn about the diverse ways in which survivors deal with the legacies of terror and recreate life in the aftermath. The case studies show the limits of medical interventions [End Page 242] alone. Central to “healing” after terror, we are told, is finding meaning—a reason to live—after trauma. This meaning is shown to be anchored in the social and material world—through finding meaningful work, family, friends, social activism, and so on. In this section Boskailo further addresses the question of what it is to treat trauma survivors while being a survivor himself. He asserts the importance of the quality of the relationship between therapist and survivor, which must be built on trust and empathy.
Boskailo’s story is told in fragments, which illustrates the fragmented nature of traumatic memories. But somewhat surprisingly, a discussion on the vagaries of memory; its influence on narratives of violence and implications for life in the aftermath, is lacking. A powerful theme that is woven through the book is that of intimate social relationships, the betrayal of intimacy, and its implications for rebuilding life after terror. The Croat torturers who guard the concentration camps are Boskailo’s former...