What Broken Souls Can Teach
By Will Joyner
Confronted daily with frontline news accounts of war, terror, torture, suffering, and death, I find it increasingly difficult to read, or recommend, even widely acclaimed books about the human cost of international conflict. As much as I feel obligated to stay informed on these all-too-contemporary subjects, I despair that I will ever be truly informed to any effective purpose. One of the large achievements of Wounded I Am More Awake: Finding Meaning after Terror is that its authors—the human rights journalist Julia Lieblich (MTS ’92) and the psychiatrist Esad Boškailo—have found graceful ways to allow a reader to contemplate the very private emotional effects of brutal events without becoming an uneasy voyeur.
This is not to say that the book’s content is anything other than harrowing. Wounded I Am More Awake is, first of all, the story of how Boškailo, as a young Bosnian physician in the early 1990s, endured a year in six Croatian concentration camps, subject to extreme random violence and increasingly dehumanizing conditions, often at the hands of former neighbors and even friends. The narrative remains emotionally jarring as it proceeds to relate how Boškailo, post war, managed to move with his wife and children to the United States, to explore the frightening dimensions of his own trauma with a therapist whom he had to struggle to trust, and then to train in psychiatry in order to treat other trauma victims.
His purpose eventually became not so much to help his clients to triumph over their worst experiences—”triumph” is a word that is gruesome in these circumstances—but to cope, to interact, to work, to live on, as he does. In the second half of the book, several of these cases are detailed, and the portraits of slow, imperfect healing—which, more or less, reflect the ups and downs of Boškailo’s own recovery and therapeutic education—are deeply moving.
One of the wisest choices Lieblich and Boškailo made in planning the book was to be transparent about their creative relationship. Although each of their names is in the byline, Lieblich is clearly the writer. In fact, she goes so far as to write in the first person—not to emphasize her own place in the process, certainly, but to make clear her ever-present awareness that there are significant difficulties in any other person taking part in the project of telling Boškailo’s story, as well as no real chance of fully understanding it. In this way, she is a highly effective counterpart and, for the reader, a guide—someone who, like most of us, is not a victim, but who has become professionally adept at interviewing survivors of horrific acts. (Boškailo approached Lieblich to suggest the book project after hearing her speak at a public panel on the delicacy of such interviews. They fairly quickly agreed to go forward, but the project ended up taking several years, because of geographical hurdles after Boškailo moved to Arizona from Chicago, where Lieblich is now a professor at Loyola University, and, more tellingly, because of issues of trust and rekindled suffering and panic.)
Another wise decision in the construction of the book was to include regular references to the work of noted twentieth-century experts in the field of trauma psychiatry, especially Robert Jay Lifton and the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, whose great work Man’s Search for Meaning echoes in the subtitle of Wounded I Am More Awake and in the therapeutic approach Boškailo ends up adapting to present times. These references link our contemporary world of conflict to that of the mid-twentieth century in an odd but reassuring way; many of us, after all, are more familiar with historical analysis of the Holocaust and Hiroshima than we are with the shattering of Yugoslavia, and this broader context creates a greater resonance as Boškailo and Lieblich explain the timelessness of such therapeutic goals as Frankl’s “tragic optimism.”
In fact, actually reading Man’s Search for Meaning was a crucial step for Boškailo, newly transplanted with his family to Chicago, as he fitfully tried to imagine a future life for himself. At first after being freed, he had carefully avoided literature about the Holocaust. “Now,” Lieblich writes, “he wanted to be immersed in the stories of people who had put pen to paper in an effort to understand the unfathomable” (79). He is astounded that Frankl’s descriptions of Nazi concentrations are so similar to the pictures still vivid in his own mind, and he seizes on Frankl’s insights as genuine, “alive,” and therefore personally useful.
“Frankl believed in the possibility of maintaining one’s dignity even in the camp,” Lieblich writes, “and of choosing one’s attitude toward the suffering that few escape in this life. Boškailo had never told anyone, but he was secretly proud of the fact that he had never hit another man. . . . He had never taken another man’s food and had rarely raised his voice during month after month of frustration. He hoped he had suffered bravely” (80).
Being able to articulate this pride, if only to himself, gave Boškailo the basis for practical hope in a better future; his moods improved, and he began to pay more attention to his new surroundings.
At about the same time, he realized that he had already been engaged in his own therapy: A gifted woman named Mary Fabri, perhaps realizing that Boškailo was not ready to view himself as a “patient,” had asked him to work as a translator for her as she worked with other trauma victims from Bosnia. Over the course of several years, working with Fabri as both translator and subject, he regained better mental health and found the will to become a psychiatrist who would specialize in the kind of trauma he himself had undergone.
Wounded I Am More Awake goes on to show Boškailo in more recent times, using his training to help others as a psychiatrist in Phoenix, where he is now a clinical associate professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. The vignettes of encounters with his patients are rendered beautifully by Lieblich, who is careful to tie the drama of small successes to insights Boškailo, against such high odds, has been able to borrow, modify, and utilize exponentially: the immorality of “professional neutrality,” for example, or the inappropriateness of the words “recover” and “acceptance.” (“I prefer the word ‘integration’ because it does not suggest we will ever be free of trauma’s grip,” Boškailo says, “or that a broken soul will ever really be unbroken” )
Perhaps the central insight that is revealed in these pages, however, is one that Boškailo gained during his therapeutic work with Mary Fabri back in Chicago—one that, by extension, allowed him eventually to seek out Lieblich. “Early on,” she writes of Boškailo, “he thought he would be a stellar psychiatrist simply because he had survived. But he learned from Fabri that a person does not have to survive extreme trauma to be a good therapist. The patient is the ultimate teacher about trauma, and a good therapist is a good listener” (81).
Another way to conclude that we, as readers, might be able to share in this extraordinary book’s lessons, to some worthy effect, is simply to listen to the lines of poetry, by Mak Dizdar, from which its title is taken: They whisper around to me that my life has been in vain / They do not know that so wounded I am more awake.
Will Joyner, a former editor of the Bulletin, writes regularly on religion and arts subjects.