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Recognition of the Armenian Genocide, the perspective of a psychoanalyst


Standpoint of Diaspora


Recognition of the Armenian Genocide, the perspective of a psychoanalyst

Hélène Piralian


Hélène Piralian


In order to understand the absolute necessity of recognizing the genocide of Armenians, despite the time elapsed which seems to make it more distant, we need to take into account its specificities and the psychic effect it caused – on descendants of both Armenians and Turks, whose destinies are intertwined.

The main characteristic of the genocidal enterprise, beyond murdering the members of a group, is to wipe out the entire group by annihilating all of its members – not only in the present time, but in the past and the future – thereby clearly revealing that its goal, beyond the murder of the living, is the total destruction of their descendants. This is what denial actively maintains, and it is also why this crime is not subject to a statute of limitations.

The fate of a missing person is tragic since he continues to be neither alive nor dead for his loved ones and his mourning thus remains forever suspended. But even more tragic is the fate of a missing person in events such as a genocide, whose disappearance was programmed and organized, then accompanied, beyond the denial, by the erasure of the disappearance itself – i.e. of that person’s very existence. At this stage, the lost one becomes more than missing – he becomes the person “who never existed,”[1] thus depriving his descendants not only of mourning him but also of ascendancy since the missing person’s being existent is denied.

This may explain the relentless efforts and obsession of survivors to bear witness and their fear that the death of the last living witness will mean that the whole group is at risk of disappearing, of vanishing into nothingness.

Facing that prospect, it would seem that the only way for survivors to keep their lost ones from non-existence and prevent their permanent disappearance is to offer their own bodies as graves for those that have been continually excluded from the human order. As for the heirs of survivors, they may be caught in the double impossibility of having their own lives since they must be loyal not only to the lost ones but also to the survivors who preceded them and were the first bearers of that impossible mourning. This is how the workings of genocidal destruction are continued from one generation to the next if nothing is set in motion to stop it. In this case it seems that rather than a passing on of a legacy, there is a transfer to the next generation of an impossible legacy, or a failure to pass it on. 

This is why I will put the question of “passing on a legacy” in those terms: After a genocide, how can one restore the way that experience is passed on so that survivors may live something other than survival? How can their heirs be allowed to live something other than “presentifying” the lost ones by merging with them and embodying their pain, to prevent them from disappearing? 

Indeed, to maintain the catastrophe in the present time, to embody it, is a way to offer oneself as proof that it did take place. As a counterpart however, any way out of the genocidal murder and the grief associated with it is made impossible or even forbidden for the heir of that legacy. Because not maintaining or ceasing to maintain the visibility of the annihilated victims would turn the survivor or the heir into an accomplice of that annihilation.

Hence this question: how can the individual break out of those confines which are only a place of survival and where life is lived solely to maintain the visibility of someone else’s murder?

This question could be reworded as follows: how can survivors and their heirs pull the “genocided” dead out of non existence and reinstate them as people who have lived in order to then “bury” them as dead ancestors, thus passing on a generational legacy without abandoning it to nothingness?

In the first place, survivors and their heirs need to be able to think that breaking out of the genocidal world is not a form of betrayal or abandonment. This is why it is imperative that the existence of the genocide, its “having taken place” be recognized and written in the history of Turkey, and why pleas for recognition coming from other governments are so meaningful. Just as important is the criminalization of denial since it maintains the genocidal murder active upon the current descendants of that genocide by making any real or symbolic funeral impossible. This lack of burial forces these survivors and their heirs to keep embodying in the present time both the lost ones and the genocide itself. 

There is another important stage in mourning the deceased: it is the revival or re-personification of the lost ones which would bring them out of the anonymous crowd of victims and turn them again into individuals – once each of them has been given back the specificities of his or her unique identity as a living person. [2]

As long as their lost ones are amalgamated with the mass of all the other lost strangers, the identifications made by the survivors can only be made to an abstract and impersonal lost one as well as to, so to speak, an integrated body of insurmountable, impossible-to-heal pain.

Therefore, the individuation of the survivor can only remain on hold, caught in the nets of death and pain of lost bodies that became timeless and immortal. He thus finds himself loaded with a monstrous, impossible-to-repay debt, the trap of a community of the dead that he must support at all cost. In that respect, he occupies an extreme ethical position.

The survivor’s self – i.e. what belongs to him as such – may only be built again after restoring the individualities of the lost ones, opening the possibility of differentiation and separation. The survivor could then, supported by the elements found concerning his lost ones, attach his own signifiers in connection with those of the lost ones who have been “found again.”

Breaking out of mere survival, in this case, would mean being able to reinstate the lost ones as living then as dead, which would in turn free their children from being survivors bearing an impossible grief to become simply the heirs of other human beings. The genocide could then stop its timeless repetition by leaving the present time to belong once and for all to history.

Meeting and losing again would in this case be simultaneous. The lost ones would be found again only as lost people, found in order to be possibly, necessarily lost because they would at last become ancestors like any others.

The process that I just described happens to all Armenians – whether they are from Armenia, from the Diaspora, from Turkey or crypto-Armenians – and also to the Turks who are increasingly aware of it and, what’s more, express it publicly.

This is what Fethiye Çetin wrote about in The Book of my Grandmother: “What I had just discovered did not match at all with what I knew. All the knowledge that I had held until then was suddenly in a chaos, my values were shattered, my brain was aching with pain and confusion, I was afraid that my head would burst and splash its contents all around me.” [3] In that book, Fethiye recounts how her grand-mother told her that she was Armenian and about everything she saw and experienced during the genocide. Fethiye Çetin thus discovers herself to be Armeno-Turkish and a descendant of a crypto-Armenian survivor.

In conclusion, it seems that for all those people caught – however differently – in the annihilating process of the genocide, its recognition, which would allow for a re-emergence and then proper mourning of the lost ones, would be a founding act of repair. Repairing would make it possible, beyond the present time, for the coming generations of Armenians and Turks to write their future in a common, living history.

It is urgent that the heirs to the genocide, each in their own place, get interested in the others in order to put a stop to the lies, so that each and everyone may reconnect with his origins –  and sometimes mixed background – in order to rebuild his identity as a distinct person in a mutual relationship with the others.


[1] For further development see Hélène Piralian, Génocide et transmission. Sauver la Mort, sortir du meurtre, l’harmattan, 1994. and Génocide, disparition, déni. La traversée des deuils, l’Harmattan, 2007.

[2] In The Lost, the memoir in which Daniel Mendelsohn tells us about his search for those in his family who disappeared in the Holocaust, the author writes at a crucial moment of discovery: “I was reminded the more forcefully that they had been specific people with specific deaths . . . they were once, themselves, specific, the subjects of their own lives and deaths.”

[3] My Grandmother : An Armenian-Turkish Memoir, Actes Sud, 2012

Armenian genocide : recognition and reparations


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