Carolyn J. Dean


On her book Aversion and Erasure: The Fate of the Victim after the Holocaust

Cover Interview of February 01, 2011


The book is about how we judge victims in an era of unending violence and increased attention to global human rights.  It shows that attitudes toward victims have a history, and that views about victims have changed over time and are deeply rooted in cultural norms about suffering as well as dignity.

What does it mean that we find victims who suffer with dignity more attractive than victims who don’t?  What does it mean that we don’t mind it when perpetrators, torn apart by their own experiences, weep openly—but we are rendered uncomfortable when victims do the same?

I don’t mean that each and every person has this experience: many of us feel like weeping when we see the carnage created by a suicide bombing and the grieving and shocked faces of the survivors.  I mean instead that in all I have read, I detect a strong cultural bias toward aversion when confronted with victims who act as if they have suffered.

We want our victims to be reasonable or very distant. We don’t want vengeful, angry, emotionally stunted victims unable to overcome some of their experiences.  We know, for example, how long it has taken the US military to recognize the psychological suffering imposed on men and women in war.

I think it is very important to explore these biases as we challenge ourselves to help those who suffer, including those in our midst.  Why is it that we don’t always want to see suffering, and what are the biases that allow us to turn away?

In order to answer these questions, I felt that I had to establish that we did often turn away, that we turned away not simply because we were weary of media images (though that is part of it too).  I felt that I had to understand how attitudes toward victims were shaped historically and how interpretations of the Holocaust of European Jewry were central to shaping those attitudes.

© 2010 Carolyn J. Dean