angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: violence

“Lest we forget”… what? Surely not just the fallen soldiers, but also the futility, waste, destruction and misery of war?

After my talks on Germany’s unique culture of ‘counter memorials’, I am often asked what I would do differently within our British culture of Remembrance. I am always reluctant to pass any kind of judgment on what is one of Britain’s most poignant occasions, for we are true experts in creating meaningful and visual spectacles of solemn ceremony, national pride and gratitude. But now, as the last witnesses of the two World Wars disappear, is it time to shift the emphasis of our remembrance culture from an almost exclusive focus on the fallen soldiers of those two wars to include a broader picture of the casualties and victims of war in general?

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The Royal British Legion’s poppy appeal seemed to think it is time, and this year asked the nation to Rethink Remembrance by recognising the sacrifices made by today’s generation too. I would go even further and shine a spotlight onto the ordinary women, children and elderly who are less obviously “heroic”, but no less brave, casualties of war. For they too pay the ultimate price. Then there are all those whose lives will be impacted for years to come by the losses of their soldier spouses, children or parents, plus the innocent victims of our wartime aggressions – the civilians of the enemy caught in the cross fire of our military strategies and sometimes dubious political decisions. And there are those who have been left physically or mentally scarred for life… who have lost homes, jobs, loved ones… the list is so long.

With our beautiful solemn rituals and sanitizing language, are we in danger of justifying war in a way that makes it an attractive option today? By calling all soldiers who died “fallen heroes” are we mis-using the words ‘heroes’ and ‘fall’, because thousands of them were just young men who were simply following orders to run into a storm of bullets and die a certain death as part of an ill-conceived campaign? Is that heroic, or could we now own the painful facts that it was a tragic misjudgment on the part of those in power with catastrophic results?

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Shrouds of the Somme, a moving new memorial by the artist Rob Heard, first displayed in Exeter and now on in Bristol, seems to me to get closer to the imagery and reality of war that can redress the gulf between the glory of victory and what in reality is generally a bloody, muddy mess. If our rhetoric could include a broader victim awareness along side our wholly justified practice of remembering and honouring those who died defending their countries, I wonder if we would be reminded of the futility, waste, destruction and total sadness of war and seek to avoid it with even more resolve ?

 

 

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An abundance of plays at the Edinburgh Festival revealing the shadow side of the alpha male psyche

Two shows at this year’s Edinburgh Festival left me feeling… well, strange. One was about a male ex-prisoner, the other about a female victim of rape. Light, cheery subject matters for me as always, but actually, intense and personal story telling abounded.

The first play was Doubting Thomas, created by multi-award winning director Jeremy Weller. The listings said: Thomas McCrudden, a man with a tortured and violent past but with hope for a different future, tells his own complex and moving story about abandonment and the stress of being forced to take on multiple roles, in Thomas’s own words, “…none of which were me! When I was growing up, I wasn’t able to accept love, and that created not just a man without a conscience or empathy. It created a monster.” 

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I sat in the front row of the little theatre, on the same level as the actors. Extreme violence was played out at my feet – at one point I had to move them in order not to inadvertently become part of the script and another of Thomas’s victims. Then, at the end, Thomas faces the audience and tells us to ‘ignore people like me at your peril. If they are released without having changed, without having been really seen, they will come to get YOU’. And with a jab of his finger he pointed at me and a couple of others in the front row to emphasise his point.

To be honest he picked the wrong person to jab his finger at as, what he said has of course been part of my message for decades, albeit expressed differently. And “seeing” prisoners is an essential part of my work. But coming from him in the wake of his displays of all too realistic anger and violence, I found myself suddenly devoid of any feeling towards him or his story and was left with a sense of discomfort instead. Why though?

The next day I saw Fabric. A Guardian Review described it thus: Nancy Sullivan is completely engaging and utterly heart-breaking as Leah who grew up dreaming of marriage and who thought she had found her prince in Ben. Abi Zakarian’s script for this one-woman piece is beautifully observed and funny too. What initially seems to be a whip-smart contemporary version of an Alan Bennett Talking Head turns into something far darker as romance gives way to reality and Leah’s life is stained in many different ways. Clever set and sound design, too, in a show that brings dirty little male secrets out into the light.

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Again I was in the front row. This time the violence inflicted on her was alluded to through brilliant use of the stage sets and story-telling by “Leah”. But I still felt like I was right there with her as she was anally raped in a filthy toilet by one of her husband’s friends. The people I was with left raving about both plays, and they were both genuinely good, but also after this one, I left feeling numb.

“… as romance gives way to reality”. Is a woman’s original vision of her life really so “romantic” and “reality” really so brutal? Maybe it is and maybe that is why now, on reflection, I realise I am full, like a Hoover bag that cannot take in any more. Like a brain that has fused through overload, a suitcase whose lid cannot close. All rendered useless. The violence of men that fills the news stories – from Isis and Boko Haram, to the war in Syria and terrorist attacks; the widespread rapes and treatment of women; the sexual abuse of children in the refugee camps… Then there are the stories of greed, egos and abuses of power – Philip Green, Putin and Boris Johnson; the counter-intuitive decisions on our planet, health and general well-being made by our largely (in this current government) male politicians…

I am tired of hearing about yet another cock-up or atrocity as a result of the largely patriarchal structures and values that exist in so much of the world. I am tired of seeing the on-going neglect and abuse of so much of what it means to be female. Of course I am not painting “men” per se as violent perpetrators, scammers and dickheads, nor “women” as delicate, innocent victims. And maybe my involvement with prisoners (95% of which are male) naturally exposes me more. But, as a woman who likes to keep informed, I feel a genuine sense of despair at being constantly confronted with the shadow side of the alpha male psyche as it is played out on the world stage, and the stages of our land, with women, children, the elderly, vulnerable and sick paying the price.

I clearly need a holiday…!

I haven’t worked with many terrorists during my prison years but there was one who for years I, and my class of eight male prisoners, called ‘Habibi’ – the word for ‘my darling’ as we later found out.

Behind every terrorist act is a human being with a grievance. Some will probably call me a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ for saying that, but one of the most important lessons I learnt from working and talking with countless criminals is that people themselves are not innately evil. Their deeds might be, but they themselves are not. That’s why many of the over-simplified, dualistic discourses in the recent ‘To bomb or not to bomb in Syria?’ debate really got under my skin. Action vs. Non-Action, Good vs. Evil, Right vs. Wrong…

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I have no first-hand experience of today’s terrorists (thank goodness) but in the nineties I did work closely with a Lebanese man awaiting trial for his major role in one of Germany’s biggest terrorist attacks in which five Kurdish politicians were blown up in a restaurant in Berlin in 1992. As a terrorist he was considered a potential danger and security hazard and kept in enforced isolation. So for him my art class became his only excursion from his cell. Why the authorities found it fitting to place him in my care when I myself was locked in the room with no beeper, no key, no guard, still puzzles me! He asked the group to call him Habibi, so obligingly we did. It was only many years later that I discovered that was the word for “my darling”.

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Back then you would have never associated Habibi (I will stick with that name for potential legal reasons) as looking like a typical terrorist. Today his big dark beard would possibly arouse an involuntary prejudice against a stereotype, but other than that he had smiling eyes, a polite and gentle demeanor and wore shorts and sandals. In an introductory exercise to my mural workshop I got the men to plant a painted seed into a painted earth and let it grow up into the (painted) sunlight. Habibi’s seed blossomed into a beautiful, expansive, healthy looking shrub with red flowers.

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He subsequently translated it onto the wall and then, with a newly found artistic confidence he painted another tree, and added birds. But these birds looked war torn with tatty feathers as if they were fleeing exploding bombs – the bombs that were tearing his country apart, or the bomb that he himself had helped plant? One bird painted with special care was sitting on a nest of five eggs. I couldn’t help but make a link to the five for whose deaths he was in part responsible.

One day Habibi entered the classroom looking like a freshly shorn sheep. He was trembling, in shock and somehow horrifyingly naked. I encouraged him to tell me, and subsequently draw, how he had come to lose the big dark beard that was both his religious and personal identity. This proved to be the trigger for a huge release of pent-up rage first against the prison guards, thirteen of whom had frog marched him out of his cell, chained him to a bed and, pinning him down, shaved off his beard. His rant didn’t stop there however. He raged on about the war in his country and how “they” were killing “his” children. He clearly felt his bombing activity to be justified. It was self-defense derived from a sense of total injustice and helplessness, a state in which he and his people were the victims not the perpetrators.

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Does this ring any bells? Is this not part of what is happening today – for both sides? Reacting to violence with violence perpetrates… well, more violence. And more innocent victims whose deaths need to be avenged. Of course it does, and as this progresses each side feels ever more justified in their violence. So when “taking action”, in itself a potentially positive thing, becomes synonymous with bombing and every other attempt to solve the problem is seen as taking no action, don’t our leaders too become advocators of the very eye-for-an-eye Old Testament mentality that we are trying to combat?

Armed with more national self-reflection, basic human psychology and a genuine will for peace, our leaders could become real leaders in their quest to find solutions for some of the worlds’ massive and complex problems. But for them to be that they need to act completely differently to the real terrorists.

 

 

 

What makes us act, or not act, in a violent way?

In the first half of this month I had an experience that showed me first hand what lies behind so many acts of violence, malice, destruction and aggression. What drives a person to put a seductively dark thought into action? And what stops them from actually doing so?

I felt badly wronged by someone close to me; disrespected and unfairly treated. The innate need to right the wrong sent my mind into overdrive plotting delicious forms of revenge with the creativity (or should I say destructivity?) and imagination that goes into producing an artwork. By indulging my dark fantasies I could re-write the narrative allowing my character to emerge in tact instead of in tatters.

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Through the countless conversations I have had with convicted criminals I became aware that it is precisely this sense of having been disrespected – “dissed” – that leads to so many brutal crimes. In his insightful article Pride, Guilt and Shame based on his work with violent prisoners in Broadmoor, (http://internationalpsychoanalysis.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/shamegilligan.pdf) James Gilligan, the psychologist, identifies that it is the desire to restore “pride, dignity and self-esteem” that lies behind the often fatal outbursts. Among gangs, respect is key and disrespect can be fatal. The human need to re-establish respect comes often at any cost, no matter how inhuman the means. In 1920’s / 30’s Germany, after the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the ground became fertile for a strong desire to restore face and respect with consequences more devastating than ever before.

In today’s digital world it would only have required one little tap of a finger for me to deliver a blow. I am lucky though. My upbringing and education equipped me with a moral compass, emotional literacy, self-discipline and a mind that can ‘understand’ or as they say in German, “verstehen”, a word which implies standing in the other person’s shoes. I am fortunate that I have access to infinite good examples of how to deal with (self-) destructive thoughts rather than exercise revenge.

So many people aren’t that fortunate. Their upbringing, religious convictions, lack of guidance or simply their experience of the world don’t equip them with what it takes to hold those thoughts in check. I believe that far behind the heinous acts that fill our newspapers actually lies a deeply hidden need to be understood, respected and seen; loved even. It’s so hard to do, but I know I want to try.

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