Hidden Anxiety and the Conspiracy of Silence Suffered By the Families of Armenian Genocide Survivors: An Interview with Armenian Psychologist Dr. Jack Danielian


By Marni Pilafian
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

EXETER, N.H. — An Armenian psychologist did not have to look far to discover the effects of the Armenian Genocide on survivors’ families. He looked instead at his own childhood.Growing up in Methuen, Mass., he was among the second generation of Armenian-American grandchildren born of survivors of the Genocide. Dr. Jack Danielian remembers this episode:

“An 8-year-old boy hears a terrifying wail emanating from a female visitor in another room having coffee with the boy’s parents and grandparents. The wail is followed by prolonged sobbing, which then is followed by an equally prolonged silence. The woman is a victim- survivor of the Armenian Genocide and a participant in the Death March, arriving in this country a shell of her former self. She is thoroughly trapped in the dangerous and potentially lethal world between terror and nothingness, despite seemingly involved in an innocuous social situation.

Without awareness, the boy is also trapped between hearing and not-hearing, between knowing and not-knowing. Despite belonging to a close-knit family, the 8-year-old does not enter the coffee room to seek explanation or reassurance from his family. And neither the boy nor his parents ever bring up the experience again.”

Working for more than 30 years in private practice in New York and New Hampshire as well as teaching at universities, Danielian has spent years coming to terms with the hidden anxiety of victims of genocide. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Harvard University, PhD in psychology from Columbia University and taught psychology for four years, becoming an associate professor.While still in New York, he undertook postdoctoral psychoanalytic training at the American Institute for Psychoanalysis, of the Karen Horney Psychoanalytic Institute and Center, and was certified in 1975. After retirement from private practice in 2001, Danielian was appointed the dean of that same institute.

I interviewed Danielian to highlight the significance of his research in two of his groundbreaking articles, “Hidden Anxiety,” in 2007, and his most recent work, “A Century of Silence: Terror and the Armenian Genocide,” published in September by the American Journal of Psychoanalysis. His work impacts the feelings and experiences of many Armenian families who are the survivors and offspring of the Armenian Genocide.

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MP: Was your early research and writing involved with the Armenian culture?

JD: I published research from the 1970s through the 1990s on cultural cognition, intercultural communication through role playing, and developing culturally non-biased criteria for measurements in research, as well as a paper on cognitive ethnocentrism, and Armenian cultural identity: problems of Western definition. Finally, I focused on “Hidden Anxiety” of families of the genocide survivors, presented in 2007 in Yerevan at the Second International Medical Congress of Armenia.

MP: What prompted you to research the subject of the effects of the Armenian Genocide on families of the survivors?

JD: As a psychoanalyst I was aware of the high degree of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Armenia due to the devastating earthquake in 1988 and the difficult war with Azerbaijan.

MP: How do you define PTSD?

JD: PTSD is an abbreviation for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a diagnosis made when the trauma causes debilitating symptoms (nightmares, flashbacks, memory loss, hyperarousal, disconnection).

MP: How do you define “trauma” in this sense?

JD: Psychologists and psychiatrists use the term “trauma” to describe an emotional wound caused by violence, abuse, fear or mistreatment. Trauma can be hidden or more obvious. Unspoken trauma has a strong potential to affect other members of the family unit, something which we call “contagion.”

MP: What was your purpose in presenting your first paper in Armenia, “Hidden Anxiety?”

JD: In the way I used it, hidden anxiety refers to PTSD with delayed onset. Until the symptoms emerge, which can take weeks, months or years, neither the person nor anyone else knows that the person is suffering from trauma. Anxiety that is hidden presents an even greater diagnostic challenge for the practitioner and is often under-diagnosed. It creates great distress for the patient. We become most aware of hidden anxiety not by what is said but by what is not said. The patient may leave out key parts of history, often history having to do with loss. In addition to aches and pains and headaches, this hidden anxiety hides behind these symptoms and displays itself in the patient’s verbal and emotional cues, and grief hides behind the anxiety. Grief is often expressed narrowly, yet is a crucial part of being able to deal with loss.

MP: What other symptoms of hidden anxiety can occur?

JD: Trauma-induced anxiety can rear its head in family conflicts, natural disasters or exposure to the violence of war. Symptoms can occur months or years later. PTSD can cause patients to feel humiliated, finding that nothing is wrong with them, yet they are unable to function in life. Since they cannot separate themselves from their physical and mental ailments, this dissociation causes both patient, spouse and offspring to misunderstand what is wrong with them. Armenians are no stranger to these dynamics.

MP: And the children of the survivors are also affected by the patient’s trauma, as well as the second generation?

JD: Yes, the hidden “transgenerational impact” of the trauma can take its toll on generations to come, with continued dissociation of symptoms. Neither patient nor offspring will know what is wrong. Thus, the “conspiracy of silence” may not be limited only to survivors. Offspring often participate without being aware they are doing so. Note that in PTSD, memory is fractured so that fragments from the past and present are intertwined. The family’s past becomes the present.

MP: What would be the offspring’s symptoms?

JD: Secondary traumatization involving survivor’s guilt, shame, sense of worthlessness and often a sharply diminished capacity to tolerate mourning or grief can exist in hidden form. For the first generation (children of the victims) both the conspiracy of silence and the trauma itself will be an intense presence. The victims cannot tell their “stories” and therefore their pain cannot be understood or, at times, their behavior accepted.

MP: How much of the family progeny can be affected by this anxiety?

JD: It is likely that “conspiracy of silence” affects younger members of the second, third, and fourth generation the most. They can sense that something has happened in the family which is not to be talked about. In other words, without conscious knowledge, unintegrated trauma can affect first, second, third, and even fourth generations — from grandparent to parent to child and to great-grandchild.

MP: What would be the difference in impact between the affects of hidden anxiety on the first generation of children and the second generation of grandchildren?

JD: There is a significant difference! The first generation of children has turned inward to gain sustenance from family, society, and the Armenian Church and traditions or from religion in general.

MP: What about the second and third generations of grandchildren?

JD: The second and I suspect the third generation of grandchildren have turned and are turning outward — they are demanding answers from the outside world. What was a private, hidden opposition turns into a public, social and political posture.

MP: And all these reactions from these generations are linked to trauma?

JD: Yes! All these responses are inter-generationally linked to earlier trauma.

MP: Can we eventually heal? As family members?

JD: Yes. We observe both hurting and healing occurring as Armenians work their way back from multiple levels of trauma. Dealing with the emotional trauma of the Armenian Genocide, victimized Armenian families will eventually heal with or without Turkish acknowledgment.

MP: Can you say the same for the Turkish people? Will they also heal?

JD: I don’t believe I can say the same for the perpetrators of such crimes, and for those who remain in denial or continue to feel no remorse.

MP: How do you define “denial?”

JD: Denial is a term used to describe how a person, either consciously or unconsciously, does not or cannot acknowledge that anything bad has happened.

MP: So this is where your research on hidden anxiety and the “Conspiracy of Silence” continues?

JD: Yes, once the hidden anxiety is identified, mental health professionals must provide care and to encourage cultural and family support.

MP: Are there any mental health programs to seek professional help with these issues in Armenia?

JD: Doctors Without Borders’ psychosocial program in Armenia has been very helpful in following up with appropriate mental health care. The Armenian Ministry of Health is continuing its work.

MP: Following your previous work in hidden anxiety, last year you wrote a paper focusing more on the effect of terror from genocide, which is being published this month [September] in the American Journal of Psychoanalysis. Please explain the title, “A Century of Silence”?

JD: Oh, because silence is often thundering and I wanted to highlight just how intensely true this was of the Armenian Genocide and how damaging this is for survivors and survivor families. Of course it’s not quite 100 years yet but close enough [95 years]. As you know I talk about the silence of perpetrators and denialists but also, for very different reasons, the traumatized silence of victims.

MP: Can you define more specifically the psychological concept of the “conspiracy of silence?”

JD: Conspiracy of silence is a term used to describe how families or people in an ethnic or national group have all gotten the sub-conscious message that no one is to bring up anything about the trauma that anyone has suffered in the family or group. While never discussing it, everyone just knows it should never be talked about.

MP: I read your article. The examples of shame, degradation, humiliation and torture were horrific and despicable. Emotionally it was difficult for me to read. Was it necessary to include all those eyewitness-documented accounts and book excerpts?

JD: We witness here the wound of genocide in victim and victim-advocates, in all its terror and in all its frightening silence. My purpose in contributing to the literature on genocide has not been to add further historical detail but to engage in a psychodynamic effort to confront the ominous “silence of terror,” or expressed otherwise, to “give voice to a pain with no name.” Some have called the intergenerational transmission of trauma — a process of encryption.

MP: What do you mean by “encryption?”

JD: The terror is “encrypted” in one’s vital center, bypassing words, thoughts, communication, voice or emotional rendering. Through such a wordless process, memory is fractured and derealization ensues. What is probably most frightening about the traumatic examples I have cited is the profound muteness it engenders in both victim and victim-advocate, survivor or by-stander. All parties are left with varying levels of distancing, disconnecting, disavowing, derealizing, dissociation and possible denial. Ultimately the self is left painfully alone.

MP: When does the healing begin?

JD: Healing begins when the “conspiracy of silence is broken.” In turn, the silence itself can only be broken when another human being can become an intimate witness to the terror lying behind the re-enactment and to the repetitive repercussions of that terror. To a trauma victim, the reinstatement of memory depends vitally on the presence of a “protective other,” such as a psychoanalyst or therapist.

MP: You were the 8-year-old unknowingly participating in the re-enactment of the traumatic experience told at the beginning of this interview. Yet as a psychoanalyst, how do you gain access to others’ traumatic experience?

JD: As treating psychoanalysts, the most access we can gain to such trauma-related enactments is also the most dynamically challenging: the analyst’s capacity to subjectively immerse in the patient’s terror without losing boundaries or the treatment frame. The subjectivity of terror can call up all manner of counter-transference in the analyst or dynamic therapist. At times, survival will trump treatment. Yet the capacity to immerse in terror is crucial to the treatment of victims-and, equally so, to the treatment of victimizers. When immersion is achieved, traumatized patients can sense the “oneness” of the inner experience unfolding with the protective other. A deep human presence, which Horney called wholeheartedness, confronts the encryption.

MP: Can this “encryption” of distorted memories or beliefs be reversed?

JD: Encryption is manipulated by the victimizer of terror and genocide. The victimizer attempts to reverse responsibility to the victim and to induce the malignant belief that no one would ever believe, no one would ever understand or care about the victim.

MP: So you are saying that one method to achieve this destruction of memory is to reverse responsibility?

JD: Yes. Through accumulative violent exploitation of a victim, the victim begins to take on the shameful responsibility of the perpetrator [victimizer]. He thinks to himself, “No human could be this bad; it must be that I am a much worse person that I thought and without knowing it. I am responsible for bringing out the worst in this other person.” Perpetrators then see themselves as victim and victims as perpetrators.

MP: How does the perpetrator avoid responsibility for his acts?

JD: The psychology of perpetrators indicates that they will engage in massive denial of responsibility, even in the face of irrefutable evidence. Terror and denial are handmaidens to a process of malignant derealization of the truth; it is intended to desensitize victims and allow for further genocidal violence to peoples in the future. My research mentions a long line of survivors, families, bystander witnesses and journalists who are all subject in varying degrees to this derealization and its attendant desensitization.

MP: Does this lead to a conspiracy of silence of the victims?

JD: Yes. After repeated torture, sexual, physical and emotional exploitation, a “lifelong bond of silence” with the victims’ population endures. Generations of survivor families and their advocates are left to wonder if the genocide ever happened or to believe it is being remembered wrong or to believe that it is being maliciously misrepresented. The unending goal is to create a deep psychological alteration to induce a permanent silence.

MP: Without mentioning the horrific documented examples in your article of physical torture and despicable mental manipulation during the genocidal years, I noted that the resulting discrimination in Turkey against people of Armenian descent continues to this day. Government jobs go to people who can prove they do not have a converted Christian ancestor; Armenians have been forced to change their surnames to conform to Turkish names; and the crime of “insulting Turkishness” prevents most Armenians from speaking or acting out against these unfair practices. In fact, the degrading term, “rejects of the sword” was given to the Armenian survivors of the Genocide. Is that a further example of humiliation of victims?

JD: To quote [Prof. Roubina] Peroomian, the term is a “loaded phrase that carries the history of a nation, the state of mind and psychological disposition of the survivors of a great catastrophe” and how these victims are perceived by perpetrators of that catastrophe. The message is clear: such Armenians survived only because they were not worthy of the noble Turkish sword. I must stress the importance of psychological study of such perpetrators to deepen our understanding of how insidious mechanisms to dehumanize survivors can reinforce terror in those survivors.

MP: Your article does bring up some positive examples of change for the better in the past five years: Turkish scholars and Turkish-Armenian writers and lawyers are speaking up (in spite of threats of repercussions and the crime against Turkishness), breaking the grim silence of their own families and from witnesses’ accounts. You state, “The wall is beginning to crumble.”

JD: All elements of the silence seem to be coming forth: diasporan Armenians, Turkish- Armenian survivors, and a select group of human rights experts.

MP: Are we as a people moving beyond genocide?

JD: Not yet. It is not possible to move beyond genocide until the crime is named. In doing so, perhaps it will help to identify some predictable and unpredictable accounts by perpetrators themselves.

MP: How can Armenians and other nations get the world to react to genocide, get the United Nations to help eradicate it, the US Congress to ratify the Armenian Genocide Resolution if so many politicians are turning a deaf ear to human rights? Others seem detached and take an objective view. Is there a better option?

JD: The best option is a difficult course, of speaking for those who cannot speak, in effect of choosing memory over forgetting. In every genocide, the experience must be transcended to re-establish one’s sense of human values, one’s sense of humanity and one’s sense of the human spirit.

MP: So until the Armenian Genocide is officially called a “genocide” can we assume the Turkish government is succeeding, in spite of some examples of hopeful expression, to continue its conspiracy of silence?

JD: A larger truth about the genocidal impulse is emerging from all this: that every genocide is connected to every other genocide. This insight is critical to the process. Prospective perpetrators “probe the conscience, solidarity and resolve of the rest of the world,” states [historian Vahakn] Dadrian. Thus each genocide is a dress rehearsal for each succeeding genocide awaiting only a calculation of evidence of any counter-pressures that can be brought to bear on the perpetrators.

MP: What can you offer about the genocides of today?

JD: Genocides in Cambodia, Kurdistan, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Congo and others have followed that of the Armenian Genocide and the Jewish Holocaust. There is denial among the positions of the United States and Western powers that continues to this day.

MP: And what is this other phenomenon called “pingpong denial”?

JD: Over and over the public does not get properly alerted by its government and the government then proceeds to cite a lack of public support for action. Samantha Powers calls this ping-pong denial a deliberate circular relationship between political leaders and public opinion. Protesters get frustrated by politicians and eventually shrug their shoulders. This is a description of derealization, between “knowing and not knowing” that promotes incredulity. Cumulative spells of derealization can lead to a disempowering estrangement of feelings not only toward others, but toward oneself.

MP: Then what is the final message here?

JD: In learning about a genocide, not even a bystander can escape its consequences. We must be ever vigilant.

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