Mickey Mouse gas masks and wonderlands: constructing ideas of trauma within exhibitions about children and war.
This article considers the implications of these collisions and the processes of transformation by exploring how such exhibitions construct wartime children, represent their trauma, and transform their testimonies into stories for mass consumption. It interrogates the tensions produced by seemingly oppositional discourses of trauma and entertainment that are foregrounded in the aims of these exhibitions, including the homogenization of children and war, the problematic identification of a tangible story and storyteller, and the question of what exactly counts as testimony. As well, because all these exhibitions rely on letters, diaries, props, and videos as testimonial accounts of conflict, making the story of children and wartime experience readable as a malleable composition, the article also considers the extent to which these exhibitions construct contemporary ideas of national identity out of past traumas in the form of diachronic discourse. My study relies on recent work within the fields of trauma and testimony, Holocaust texis for and about children, and childhood autobiography in order to consider the purpose and the target audience of such exhibitions and how they function within particular socio-cultural contexts.
The consideration in this study of childhood testimony as a form of exhibition coincides with the current opposition to war memorials in the United Kingdom. In 2012, British Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a speech at the Imperial War Museum in which he announced a fifty-million-pound plan to mark the centenary of the First World War in 2014 with "a commemoration that captures our national spirit, in every corner of the country." This centenary, which Cameron declared would "provide the foundations upon which to build an enduring cultural and educational legacy" that puts "young people front and centre," has more recently been opposed by the No Glory Campaign in an open letter published in August 2013. "[D]isturbed" by these plans to celebrate what is alternatively believed to have been a "military disaster and a human catastrophe" ("Open"), this group of academics and well-known media figures will hold their own political and educational campaign in 2014, investigating the role of political power as a hindrance to peace. My study falls within the scope of this opposition, not as a promise of resolution but as part of an ongoing investigation into the contextual framing of children and war within contemporary cultural discourse.
Children, War, and Performance
Created to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, the Imperial War Museum exhibition "The Children's War" purported to offer insights into the perspective of children who had lived through that worldwide conflict. Disruptions to family life were placed at the forefront of the exhibition through the life-sized reconstruction of a two storey house from the 1940s, which allowed visitors to engage with the contents of each room interactively. Visitors had the opportunity to understand the realities of children separated from their parents by reading displays of sentimental letters written by evacuated children to their servicemen fathers and to learn about a number of government initiatives designed to ensure that wartime children were nourished properly in spite of rationing. An additional initiative, "Operation Pied Piper," which evacuated children (and their mothers if possible) from industrial cities to rural communities in order to escape air raids, was not only displayed prominently throughout the exhibition but was also interwoven into the testimonies, reconstructions, and posters that spanned the period. Visitors could also discover a number of mementoes of the period--including a Mickey Mouse Gas Mask (2)--before being presented, as they exited the house, with pictures and films of people celebrating VE Day in 1945 and expressing their hopes for the future.
Yet, despite the promise that the exhibition would offer visitors greater insight into the experience of war through the eyes of evacuated children, the fact that the lives of wartime children were detailed in subsections organized around the themes of protection, evacuation, education, nutrition, and home life hinted at the role of fabrication in the replication of real events. These framing devices illuminated the extent to which the point of view of children was, in fact, an expression of adult anxieties about young people that stemmed specifically from an overwhelming concern for the survival of a future generation and, in turn, for the preservation of the national and international identity of Britain. Moreover, these children were represented as a homogeneous and accessible group despite the multiple voices conveyed through testimonies and props. Oppositional differences were essentially nonexistent given the way that all testimonies and props were arranged as working toward a cohesive pattern of compatibility, sustaining each theme. Known and fixed, these children could therefore be protected. But something further was at work in this construction: the homogenization and the accessibility of these representations of wartime children allowed for the presentation of an accessible and larger national story.
In The Children's War: The Second World War through the Eyes of the Children of Britain, a book commissioned by the Imperial War Museum as an official companion to the exhibition, Juliet Gardner offers the following statement regarding the aims and purpose of the exhibition:
The Children's War is now everyone's war. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, all those who have clear memories of the Second World War are in their mid-sixties at least. It is their memories of those six long years that increasingly encapsulate the story of the Home Front, in books, radio and television programmes. They pass the stories on to generations who have no personal memory of that time but who are avid to know how it was in the first, though typically not the last, war that put civilians--children included--centre stage on the battleground that was the Home Front between 1939 and 1945. (6)
Gardner's summary epitomizes the three primary conventions that all the exhibitions within this study use, albeit in various ways. First, she highlights the ways in which the experiences of wartime children, represented in diaries, testimonies, and other archival paraphernalia, are transformed into collective memory. Second, she foregrounds the uses of wartime children as nodal points in the intergenerational transference of collective memory: the bodies of children are the terrain on which collective memory is negotiated. Third, her use of the term "centre stage" signals the performative aspects of exhibition culture, which includes not only the performances of visitors interacting with the exhibits but also the performative conditions of collective memory. Here it is useful to invoke and extrapolate from Judith Butler's account of gender performativity in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex." For Butler, gender is not an essential or a biological property of the body, but rather is produced through the iterations and reiterations of discursively produced habits and practices (5). In a similar vein, collective memory is the product of repetition and reiteration: here, the "Children's War" exhibition acted as the stage on which children's wartime experiences were performatively rendered and thus transformed into collective memory.
A follow-up exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, "Once upon a Wartime," took the objective of producing collective memory and the idea of performativity even further by interweaving "real" war events with well-known war novels for and about children. Spanning both World Wars, this exhibition included objects that were presumed to have inspired several classic war stories including Michael Morpurgo's War Horse, Nina Bawden's Carrie's War, Ian Serailler's The Silver Sword, and Robert Westhall's The Machine Gunners. Not only were objects displayed alongside background information about these well-known texts, but they also appeared in juxtaposition to other materials such as toys, posters, furniture, and more recent artifacts (including a script from Steven Spielberg's 2011 film adaptation of War Horse and a jacket worn during its filming). As with "The Children's War," the network of representations in this exhibition had as its focus wartime children, who were also exhibited as subjects of deprivation, separation, the trenches, the blitz, and concentration camps. The displays for each novel included a dedicated section that encouraged visitors to explore war-related themes such as loyalty, separation, excitement, and survival, and challenged them to occupy imaginatively the dilemmas facing fictional characters. Finally, near the exit of the exhibition, visitors were presented with a painting of the historical football match between British and German troops in 1914.
Diane Lees, general director of the Imperial War Museum, explained the objective of the exhibition in a press release:
War has inspired authors of children's stories for generations and we're delighted to draw together some of the very best examples in Once upon a Wartime. IWM London is the museum of everyone's story so focusing on these extraordinary fictional accounts of conflict is an innovative, and we hope successful, way of helping children, and adults, understand the experience of war. ("Once")
Crucially, Lees's comments foreground an intention to provide a seamless readable transmission of experience between wartime children and contemporary visitors of all ages, a transmission that ignores the polyphonic narrative and the boundaries between reality, fiction, and metafiction. (3) Indeed, this press release claimed that the exhibit "delves into the pages of well-loved books, bringing stories of war dramatically to life," adding that, "[b]y immersing visitors in the stories," the exhibition "aims to illuminate the experience of war through a child's eyes" ("Once").
At odds with the notion that the exhibition consisted of "everyone's story" was the fact that several "stories" were at work simultaneously. This contradiction made the artifice of the homogeneous ideal of the child more obvious than in the first exhibition. Reviews of the exhibition also tapped into this issue: "All kids will definitely love the carefully coordinated wonderland of war stories," predicted Charlotte Crow in History Today, whereas Rachel Hayward, in Culture (24), cautioned that "Once upon a Wartime" was "certainly a hard hitting exhibition [that] deals with much darker childhood experiences--so just go prepared." The press release and these reviews suggest that audience, childhood, and war are all simple and obvious categories within a shared framework of meaning, categories that can be represented in fiction in unproblematic ways. These claims, however, do not hold up to scrutiny.
The claim made in the press release that the exhibit "bring[s] stories of war dramatically to life" suggests some thorny questions. Which stories? The ones written on "the pages of well-loved books" or the ones contained in print and oral testimonies? If the purpose of the exhibition is to bring either or both to life, were they dormant prior to their arrangement within the exhibition? The quest to bring stories "to life" illustrates the importance of visibility in the presentation of historical and cultural artifacts to the public. The promise that the exhibition will "illuminate the experience of war through a child's eyes" also privileges the visual but, as well, grants accessibility through a child's perspective, rendering as a non-issue the complexities of locating such a figure within the blending of fiction, testimony, and visitor experience. Critics such as Jacqueline Rose and Karin Lesnik-Oberstein have pointed out the impossibility of creating the perspective of "the child" within children's literature. In these exhibits, the attempt to fix such a single perspective and to represent it as an accessible and obvious point of view ignores the ways in which the meaning of childhood is socially constructed.
By the same token, Hayward's review, particularly its promise that the exhibit "will transport you back to your childhood as you relive" the experiences of characters in Bawden's and Seraillier's texts, is noteworthy for its problematic slide between seeing another's experience and sharing that experience.
It appears to claim that childhood itself is made accessible as a universal experience that can be fictionalized, contained, and retrieved through the selective arrangement of testimonial objects and narratives. But, while there is an idea of an easily encapsulated childhood operative in Hayward's review of this exhibition, there is also the apparently contradictory recommendation that visitors "go prepared" for this "hard-hitting exhibition" on some "much darker childhood experiences." If the unfamiliar rather than the familiar is, in fact, being presented in the exhibition, how can visitors prepare for such an encounter? And if visitors can somehow prepare for it, how unfamiliar can the unfamiliar actually be?
What is implied in Hayward's recommendation is the supposedly commonsensical expectation that adults accrue emotional resilience throughout the course of their lives and that inexperienced children are more susceptible to trauma. This expectation has been challenged by many studies of the representation of childhood in children's literature, sociology, and history, including those by such authors as Rose, Lesnik-Oberstein, Philippe Aries, and Chris Jenks, all of whom point to the central discourse of "innocence" in Western constructions of childhood since the Enlightenment. Wartime children occupy positions outside of this ideology, hence Hayward's concern that the "darker" experiences of childhood represented in the exhibition will be unsettling for child and adult visitors alike.
Moreover, the notion that these childhood experiences are a difficult form of socio-cultural discourse creates a link between wartime children and sexually abused children, in that the appearance of both kinds of children are managed through familiar media narratives. As Sam Warner argues in Understanding the Effects of Child Sexual Abuse, "Over the past twenty years the mass media around the westernized world has demonstrated a sustained interest in the sexual abuse of children.... [M]uch of this coverage is formed within well-rehearsed narratives that provide familiar, if superficially shifting, depictions of abuse and victims" (49). (4) "[F]amiliar" and "well-rehearsed narratives" are also used to manage the ideas of children and war in these exhibitions. Without promising to restore children to the ideology of childhood innocence, these narratives surrounding wartime children and sexually abused children provide a means of processing the traumatized child via a rehearsed or at least prepared narrative of distress. Crow's approving reference to "carefully coordinated wonderlands" alludes to the regulation required to present as speakable the disorienting performance of the wartime child.
Out of all the reviews I have located on educational, cultural, and historical websites, only Anna Faherty's in Strategic Content has challenged the effectiveness of the exhibition and the clarity of its articulation:
Is this an exhibition about the power of stories to express the experience of war? Is it about the variety and veracity (or falsity) of stories about war? Is it about the need for people to tell stories to make sense of conflict? Is it about the inspiration and development of fictional works? Or is it about five different experiences of war, handily strung together through some pre-existing and well-tested narratives? In a sense, it's about all these things.
Although Faherty does not elaborate on the relationship between the "well-tested" narratives of these stories and "the need for people to tell stories to make sense of conflict," her comments imply that the exhibition is indicative of a cultural practice aimed at managing traumatic discourse surrounding children. The response of one eleven-year-old visitor to her visit to "Once upon a Wartime" suggests the way in which the management of this discourse depends on a blurring of fact and fiction:
There was a separate room for each story. In the entrance to each room, there was one sign telling us what the book was about and another explaining where the story came from and where the author got his/her inspiration from. Also, there were displays of true stories that children had actually written at the time.... There were also props in the display boxes--for example, a teddy bear that Carrie or Nick may have taken with them when they were evacuated in Carrie's War (in fact, this is Nina Bawden's own bear). A lot of photos were also there for us to see. I started to get a sense of how a child must feel during wartime, thanks to the Imperial War Museum. (qtd. in Crow)
This chaotic summary captures the disjunction between what the exhibition claimed to achieve and its component parts. Here, the child visitor indiscriminately moves between the factual and the fictional in her account of an experiential encounter with "everybody's story."
The blurring of fact and fiction is also evident in the permanent exhibition at the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, the third exhibit under discussion here. Although the Belgian exhibition is not focused specifically on wartime children in the way that the British exhibitions are, a well-circulated account by Michael Morpurgo of his visit to the museum in the company of a twelve-year-old girl reveals the ways in which wartime children are embedded in the broader exhibition. This interactive exhibition consists of over 150 biographies of First World War survivors as well as various installations. Positioning himself as guide to his young companion, Morpurgo observes:
In the cemetery, perhaps, it was some use for her to have me there. I did what I could to set the graves in some kind of historical context....
But, once we were inside the museum, my role as historical guide was redundant. From the moment we entered, words and photographs, film and sound, sculptures paintings, artefacts and models told of how, nearly a century ago, men went mad all over Europe. There is a sense of personal involvement in all this. On entering the museum, visitors are encouraged to choose a real character whose story they can follow through the war. Walking beside me, Flora is absorbed in the life of a Dutch girl, six years old when the war broke out, and orphaned shortly afterwards. ("Pity")
As Morpurgo's comments reveal, these exhibitions are not simply about wartime children, but rather are concerned with making those children visible through the vast collection of artifacts and props that were previously unavailable for public consumption. Morpurgo's remarks illustrate two alternative mechanisms of visibility: the supplemented, whereby an explanatory guide is required to secure meaning, and the automatic, whereby the text on display simply "speaks" for and about itself.
This automatic mechanism is distinguished by its interactive resonance and apparent transparency, making it possible for young Flora not only to absorb but to adopt the "life" of a six-year-old "character" of war by engaging visually with texts, images, and artifacts. Crucially, this strategy facilitates the visitor experience of the exhibition and ensures that visitors experience the significance of events and traumas viscerally. Moreover, the kind of visual interaction encouraged by these exhibits brings to mind issues raised by Christine Wilkie-Stibbs in her study The Outside Child in and Out of the Book. She identifies "outside" children as those who have "been physically removed from their home, especially if that move is involuntary" (26) and investigates twentieth-century perceptions of such displacement within textual narratives. Using adoption as an example, she draws a parallel between memory, testimony, and the visible condition in a way that is applicable to the functioning of these exhibitions: because "[m]ost adoptions occur at an early age for the child ..., being adopted is a relatively 'invisible' condition" (97). According to Wilkie-Stibbs, being adopted during infancy is associated with a limited psychological disturbance, which contributes to this "invisibility." Although Wilkie-Stibbs does not explore the idea of invisibility in relation to memory, it seems plausible that the condition of invisibility is linked to the condition of silence in such cases. Adopted infants are silenced because neither infant nor observer can discern the experience of adoption through the marking of a memory that can be articulated. The condition of visibility is also the condition of an articulable narrative or memory through which the experience becomes discursive and malleable.
The graves in Flanders are also silent and so require the supplementation of narrative. This is the function of the written texts, testimonies, and government acts such as Operation Pied Piper. The visibility that makes these texts appear to function automatically also makes them transferrable. Flora effectively becomes co-owner of the wartime child's story and experience that she follows, transformed as she is from a visitor to the recipient of a speakable rather than aphonous "psychological disturbance." In doing so, furthermore, Flora becomes a site of recognition through which the operational narratives of silenced and visible adoptions are made readable within the context of a widespread chartering of historical events and national identity.
In representing wartime children, all three exhibitions blur fact and fiction as a means of working toward making the stories of wartime children accessible to all visitors. But the question remains as to why it is that children are chosen as gateways through which to explore discourses of war.
Trauma and Psychic Excess
The exhibitions manage the children they represent within a discursive oscillation between entertainment and testimonies that both projects and circulates the distress of war. This practice lends itself well to a paradoxical process of simultaneously treating and reiterating historical traumas on a national scale. Moreover, the negotiation of selfhood in terms of distressing events and experiences depends on the accessibility of a visible condition.
The process as a whole is reminiscent of the ways in which trauma victims are treated. According to Sigmund Freud in "Beyond the Pleasure Principle," the identification and the treatment process of traumatic neurosis hinge on establishing the traumatic event as a visible condition via the articulation of discursive memory. It is one of the ironies of the First World War that the horrific shell shock suffered by far too many soldiers allowed for the development of psychoanalysis. Written in the immediate aftermath of the war, Freud's essay notes that "[a] condition has long been known and described which occurs after severe mechanical concussions, railway disasters and other accidents involving a risk to life; it has been given the name of 'traumatic neurosis.' The terrible war which has just ended gave rise to a great number of illnesses of this kind" (12). According to Freud, psychological trauma is typically the consequence of physical accidents and of violent events such as war. While the memory of events can be repressed, triggers such as sounds, smells, or images can cause the event to be experienced again as if for the first time.
As Freud argues, events that are said to have caused "traumatic neurosis" cannot be resigned to the past, since doing so would weaken a patient's "conviction" and, therefore, the ability to be treated (18). In terms of treatment, it is necessary for repressed material to be made available by having it restored to memory and to the reiterations of language.
War children are a useful portal to the exploration of war exactly because they have been made to appear polyvocal rather than inaudible. Within exhibitions such as those analyzed in this article, wartime experiences are repeatedly performed within installations in order to create a contemporary collective war experience. Repeating these ideas within a contemporary setting--when done in a precautionary way, another characteristic of these exhibitions--is therapeutic, in Freud's reasoning:
The physician cannot as a rule spare his patient this phase of treatment. He must get him to re-experience some portion of his forgotten life, but must see to it, on the other hand, that the patient retains some degree of aloofness, which will enable him, in spite of everything, to recognise that what appears to be reality is in fact only a reflection of a forgotten past. If this can be successfully achieved, the patient's sense of conviction is won, together with the therapeutic success that is dependent on it. (19)
Rather than being oppositional, then, performance and "threat" function as complementary elements of the regulated framework within which the exhibitions are organized. The "wonderlands" of war work because they negotiate distance and proximity through a performative practice, allowing visitors to interact with the exhibitions while at the same time maintaining a degree of "aloofness."
As revealed in Morpurgo's account of his experience at the Flanders museum with a young friend, Flora is said to have "absorbed" the life of a character in a way that affixes an interchangeable dimension to the wartime experience of the actual six year old child whose story this allegedly is. The press release for "Once upon a Time" urges visitors to "[p]ull up a chair" as a way of performing the scenes of fictional wartime children said to represent the stories of actual wartime children. The distress of war is thus made manageable via such re-enactments that work toward establishing a "degree of aloofness."
But who is the "patient" in this scene of therapy? I have already argued that the polyphonic voices invoked in the exhibitions contribute to the construction of both wartime and contemporary children as a homogeneous category; there is also a sublimation of the individual patient into the collective. In these exhibits, the collective comes in the form of multiple narratives of transference with which the visitor can interact via testimonies and props. Through their interactions with these narratives, visitors are positioned and accumulated into the idea that this is "everyone's war." The patient, in other words, is everyone and no one in particular, and it is this abstraction that allows the traumas of a nation to be circulated safely and collectively in various guises.
Freud's theory of trauma has been the point of departure for other recent cultural approaches to trauma and collective memory. Situating the bodies of wartime children within these theories will help me to explain more fully how, as a construct, children facilitate the aims of the war exhibitions.
The Collective and the Individual: Technologies of Memory
Establishing an idea of the collective in light of national traumas depends on the discursive testimonies of survivors. Before dealing with the validity of these testimonies, it is necessary first to identify how survivors become representative bodies and what is represented in their testimonies. Marita Sturken deals with this issue in her analysis of how collective memory within culture is constructed in relation to traumatic events, such as, for example, the 1980s cultural phenomena of recovered memories and child sexual abuse, the Vietnam War, and the AIDS epidemic: as she notes, "The survivor as a figure of wisdom and moral authority emerged in the wake of World War II and now stands as a signifier of a moral standard, someone who must be listened to" ("Remembering" 116). The children depicted in the war exhibitions are constructed as such a "moral standard," because they are depicted as idealized children and because their experiences are sustained through narratives that can be heard, as I have already argued. The weight of their authority enables them to become vehicles through which traumatic narratives can be transferred. As Judith Herman remarks, the cultural significance of survivors is that they restore connections "between the public and private worlds, between the individual and community" (2-3).
In questioning how these connections between individual and community occur, making it possible for cultures to embody particular traumas collectively, Sturken identifies the importance of memory as providing "the very core of identity" (Tangled 1).
This emphasis on the survivor as one who "must be listened to" is said to transform individual memories into cultural ones. Yet, as Sturken States, this act of subsumption is a complicated political process:
To define a memory as cultural is, in effect, to enter into a debate about what that memory means. This process does not efface the individual but rather involves the interaction of individuals in the creation of cultural meaning. Cultural memory is a field of cultural negotiation through which different stories vie for a place in history. (Tangled 1)
In other words, the creation and definition of cultural memory is subject to the identification of representative survivors who can speak or be made to speak about a particular traumatic experience. In the war exhibitions, surviving children appear as such figures of authority who can articulate the cultural meaning and significance of war.
In Tangled Memories, Sturken observes that memories generated by such bodies are made transmissible through what she calls "technologies of memory," which take the form of "objects, images, and representations ... through which memories are shared, produced, and given meaning" (9). Because of their ability to embody and transfer memories, Sturken argues, these technologies are effectively "implicated in the power dynamics of memory's production" (10). Although Sturken does not include exhibitions of war children in her study of war monuments, memorials, and docudramas, such exhibitions can certainly be interpreted as a hybrid of the cultural productions with which her study is concerned. All of these genres rely on technologies of memory in the form of objects, installations, letters, and literature as a means of conveying and constructing cultural memory, identity, and a communal "story." In considering how wartime children are made manifest as bodies on which testimonial accounts can be written and articulated, it is also necessary to consider what is being spoken and transferred in the creation of national identity within contemporary culture.
Exposing an isolated incident of contemporary cultural practice has not been the aim of this article, but rather, by investigating the role of testimony within war exhibitions for children, in its various forms, I have attempted to identify its growing use as a mechanism through which personal histories are unquestionably recounted, confirmed, and transferred. In Testimony: Crises of
Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, written in collaboration with Dori Laub, Shoshana Felman identifies the widespread use of testimonies within contemporary culture while also questioning its justification:
What the testimony does not offer is, however, a completed statement, a totalizable account of those events. In the testimony, language is in process and in trial, it does not possess itself as a conclusion, as the constatation of a verdict or the self-transparency of knowledge. Testimony is, in other words, a discursive practice, as opposed to a pure theory.... Why has testimony in effect become at once so central and so omnipresent in our recent cultural accounts of ourselves? (5, 6)
In other words, contrary to what the organizers of the war exhibitions as well as the reviewers of the exhibition have claimed, testimony cannot validate experience. It is "discursive" rather than conclusive, yet it is this very fluidity that allows testimonies to be arranged, child bodies to become figures of authority, and stories to be transmitted. In short, the testimonies of children are used in a performance aimed at accessing "cultural accounts of ourselves."
The truth about what is being accessed cannot be certified because the language in testimony "is in process and in trial," as Felman suggests. The exhibitions illustrate, however, that constructing a portal of access to the experience of wartime is privileged over dealing with the question of truth, which is simply taken to inhere within the surviving bodies of the wartime children on which testimony is written. Elsewhere in Testimony, Laub notes that "the listener to trauma comes to be a participant and a co-owner of the traumatic event: through his very listening, he comes to partially experience trauma in himself" (57). Put together with Sturken's observation that it is "the interaction of individuals" that creates cultural memory, Laub's idea of participation and ownership offers a further explanation of how "cultural accounts of ourselves" are determined by traumatic events such as war. All three of the exhibitions I discuss here illustrate the attempt to create such cultural accounts through the shared ownership of trauma.
Why has the construction of this cultural account become such a predominant concern at present? Answering this question is beyond the scope of this article, but Roger Luckhurst's observation that "extremity and survival are privileged markers of identity" (2) now suggests a place to begin such an inquiry.
Holocaust Literature: The Paradox of Constructing Memories and Remembering
Holocaust literature for and about children has attracted attention from scholars working in the fields of children's literature, cultural studies, psychoanalysis, and social history. Indeed, according to Kenneth Kidd, in his article entitled "'A' Is for Auschwitz: Psychoanalysis, Trauma Theory, and the 'Children's Literature of Atrocity/" "for better and for worse, psychoanalysis and children's literature have been mutually enabling, alongside and through academic trauma theory, which rewrites the 'crisis' of representation in signal ways" (122). In this article, Kidd attempts to understand the shifting attitude within culture, from shielding children from such atrocities toward a determined desire to expose them to such events through literature. Drawing on the work of Felman and others regarding the power of testimony in contemporary culture, he argues that there is an urgent need within the post-Holocaust and post-9/11 era to provide children with literature that can help them deal with such traumatic events.
Although Kidd questions the effect of accessing past traumas through testimonies (referring once again to depictions of the Holocaust in children's literature), he acknowledges nonetheless that both psychoanalysis and children's literature work together to make the "crisis of representation" accessible and safely transferrable to child readers in particularly scripted ways. The "well-rehearsed narrative" of children and trauma common to the discourses of sexual abuse, war, and the Holocaust, Kidd argues, is a narrative in which a sense of urgency is accompanied by a desire to construct appropriate forms and responses.
Scripting appropriate Holocaust literature for children is an enterprise recommended by Elizabeth R. Baer, who identifies the need to create carefully constructed narratives about the Holocaust that would instill a conscious responsibility within child readers to prevent such events from occurring in the future. Highlighting the contemporary emergence of neo-Nazi movements and a resurgence of white supremacy in American culture, Baer States:
It calls upon us to make judicious choices in sharing the horrors of the Shoah with young readers. It calls for a consciousness on our part of the crucial need to confront the evil, to contextualize it, to warn children, and to provide them with a framework for consciousness, for making moral choices and for taking personal responsibility. Finally, it calls upon us to recognize the seeming paradox of the Holocaust being at once "unspeakable" and yet something that must be spoken about, not necessarily to make it meaningful but to make its reality imaginatively possible so that the next generation is vigilant about the hatred inside all of us. (391)
Baer acknowledges that she understands imagined child readers as a uniform body that can and should be moulded as a way of confronting past wrongs and preventing future wrongs. Further, she perceives this process to be not only unproblematic but of global importance in addressing the "hatred" that is innate in "all of us."
Baer's boundless faith in this cultural project is developed through a four-step plan that she hopes future writers of Holocaust literature for children will keep in mind while producing their work. These guidelines are said "to be both descriptive of the best children's books on this topic and prescriptive for adult use in selecting texts" for children (384). For Baer, qualifying as appropriate texts are those that "grapple directly with the evil of the Holocaust" (384), "present the Holocaust in its proper context of complexity" (384), "convey ... a warning about the dangers of racism and anti-Semitism, and of complacency" (385), and "create in the child reader a consciousness, a 'memory,' and a sense of personal responsibility regarding prejudice, hatred, and racial discrimination" (385). Baer's "algorithm" includes an open admission that trauma narratives can be made to cater to the needs of fixed and knowable imagined child readers. Furthermore, this list of demands promotes the idea that such narratives can represent evil, racism, and prejudice in terms that leave no room for negotiation or question.
As my analysis of the war exhibitions and their attempts to construct uniformity in various ways will have made obvious, I have many concerns about Baer's prescriptions. Nevertheless, the final demand on Baer's list is one that invokes in a particularly useful way the paradoxical cultural attempt simultaneously to access past events and to create a dominant story through testimony.
Cultural Identity and the Child Body
The pervasive relationship within cultural discourse between children and trauma has been taken up by Kate Douglas in her book Contesting Childhood, in which she analyzes the impact of contemporary representations of childhood autobiographies on ways of thinking about childhood. As a point of departure, she draws our attention to the idea that "[t]he most notable and perhaps most infamous publishing trend of the 1990s was the autobiography of childhood" (1). The narratives about sexual abuse are a predominant case study in her book and coincide chronologically with Warner's identification of heightened media discourses about child sexual abuse at the time (46).
Child figures are given credence within these texts as survivors who establish a portal through which the private and public domains of traumatic memories can be negotiated. As Douglas argues, "These writers position themselves, and are positioned in their promotion, as people who have written against trauma. This act of writing, or breaking silences via autobiography, is celebrated because it has potency beyond the individual" (78). As active figures who break silences, children gain meaning as bodies of transference that generate collective ownership of and participation in the articulation of traumatic experience.
Because survivors are writing their way out of the uncanny silence of traumatic experience into public discourse through testimony, they are promoted much in the same way in which survivors of the Second World War have become people who "must be listened to," according to Sturken.
The power of the narrative style of autobiography is its generation of the idea of authenticity. The "teller" is unmediated in a sense that, under close scrutiny, the exhibitions and Baer's Holocaust texts clearly are not, in spite of their attempts to construct the illusion of being so. Obviously, this type of retrospective narrative is also subject to questions about truth and accuracy, dependent as they are on memory and recollection and on the narrative tropes of "well-rehearsed narratives" to which Warner refers. The autobiographical trend Douglas discusses, however, serves to illustrate the importance of children to the maintenance and circulation of traumatic discourse. As Douglas States, "Autobiographical writings are used to legitimate experiences and to mediate the confrontational transmission of personal narratives into public life and socio-cultural history" (108).
A "legitimate" body of meaning that speaks through silences and that articulates transferrable traumas informing collective consciousness: this can stand as a summary of what the three war exhibitions aim to achieve. Through an approach to truth that merges fact, fiction, and metafiction in a seamless dialogue, the exhibitions purport to represent a collective story. This story, moreover, is written on the bodies of wartime children and articulated through testimony while also providing palatable entertainment that ensures the lively circulation of such narratives. As Freud notes, the essential relationship between play and trauma is that both provide "convincing proof that, even under the dominance of the pleasure principle, there are ways and means enough of making what is in itself unpleasurable into a subject to be recollected and worked over in the mind" (1 7). The enunciation of this economy is not a novel practice, but a product of a continued tradition.
As made evident by Operation Pied Piper and Mickey Mouse Gas Masks, narrative attempts to construct a sense of "aloofness" from potential traumatic effects on the younger population were also undertaken during the war. This is "our story," as Gardner suggests, and it is a story that articulates a national autobiography written on the body of wartime children.
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Baer, Elizabeth R. "A New Algorithm in Evil: Children's Literature in a Post-Holocaust World." Lion and the Unicorn 24.3 (2000): 378-401. Print.
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Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.
Cameron, David. "Speech at Imperial War Museum on First World War Centenary Plans." Gov.uk. Government Digital Service, 11 Oct. 2012. Web. 12 Oct. 2013.
Crow, Charlotte. "First Impressions: Once upon a Wartime." History Today. N.p., 15 Feb. 2011. Web. 12 Oct. 2013.
Douglas, Kate. Contesting Childhood: Autobiography, Trauma, and Memory. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2010. Print.
Faherty, Anna. "Once upon a Wartime at the Imperial War Museum." Strategic Content. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2013.
Felman, Shoshana. "Education and Crisis, Or the Vicissitudes of Teaching." Felman and Laub 1-56.
Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.
Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 1 8: 1912-1922; Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Group Psychology and Other Works. Ed. James Strachey. London: Vintage, 2001. Print.
Gardner, Juliet. The Children's War: The Second World War through the Eyes of the Children of Britain. London: Portrait, 2005. Print.
Hayward, Rachel. "Once upon a Wartime: Classic War Stories for Children Arrives at Imperial War Museum." Culture 24. N.p., 11 Feb. 2011. Web. 12 Oct. 2013.
Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence--from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. 1992. New York: Basic, 1997. Print.
Jenks, Chris. Childhood. London: Routledge, 1996. Print. Key Ideas.
Kidd, Kenneth. "'A' Is for Auschwitz: Psychoanalysis, Trauma Theory, and the 'Children's Literature of Atrocity.'" Children's Literature 33 (2005): 120-49. Print.
Laub, Dori. "Bearing Witness or the Vicissitudes of Listening." Felman and Laub 57-74.
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Morpurgo, Michael. "The Pity of War." Intelligent Life 4.3 (2011): n. pag. Web. 12 Oct. 2013.
--. War Horse. 1982. New York: Scholastic, 2010. Print.
"Once upon a Wartime: Classic War Stories for Children." Press release. Imperial War Museum. N.p., 2011. Web. 12 Oct. 2013.
"Open Letter: How Should We Remember the First World War?" No Glory in War 1914-1918. N.p., 14 Aug. 2013. Web. 12 Oct. 2013.
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Seraillier, Ian. The Silver Sword. 1956. London: Cape, 2006. Print. Sturken, Marita. "The Remembering of Forgetting: Recovered Memory and the Question of Experience." Social Text 57 (1998): 103-25. Web. 12 Oct. 2013.
--. Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997. Print. Warner, Sam. Understanding the Effects of Child Sexual Abuse: Feminist Revolutions in Theory, Research, and Practice. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.
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(1) British artist Paul Nash (1889-1946) was officially appointed as a war artist by the War Propaganda Bureau of England in 1917. German artist Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945) was forced to resign from her post at the Prussian Academy of Arts due to her campaign work against the Nazi Party, and although her work was banned from museums and art galleries, the Nazi Party used some of it as part of its propaganda campaign.
(2) In the United States, the Disney-designed Mickey Mouse Gas Mask was created both as a protective measure and also to provide a toy that might allay the panic that children were said to experience during air raids (Brown 18-19). This object was characterized by the iconic ears and nose as well as by the image of Mickey Mouse on the gas filter. The British version kept the name but reduced the Mickey references to the distinctive red and blue.
(3) In his aforementioned speech announcing plans for the centenary celebration of the First World War, Cameron also advocated the importance of war literature in establishing a conscious cultural awareness of war, citing the work of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Grave, Sebastian Faulks, Pat Baker, and Michael Morpurgo.
(4) The discursive socio-cultural similarities between war veterans and the sexually abused were introduced and analyzed by Judith Herman in her book Trauma and Recovery.
Frosoulla Kofterou was awarded a B.A. (Hons.) in English literature and psychology at Middlesex University. A subsequent M.A. in English literature at the University of Westminster led to four years of teaching experience before she undertook a second Master's in Children's Literature at the University of Reading. She is now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of the West of England (Bristol), where her dissertation traces the paradigm shift from religious to scientific discourse in "castaway fictions" for and about children from the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries.
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|Publication:||Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2013|
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