A Bosnian genocide survivor and a human rights journalist confront terror, loss, and what it takes to heal.
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It seems wrong to say that a book about genocide is beautiful, and yet there is so much beauty in Wounded I Am More Awake: Finding Meaning after Terror, the co-creation of human rights journalist Julia Lieblich and psychiatrist Esad Boškailo. Boškailo is a survivor of the Bosnian genocide. He spent more than a year in Croatian concentration camps, sometimes with former friends as guards. He witnessed murder, torture, and madness. He treated the wounds of a fellow prisoner who tried to bite himself to death at night; he watched as guards turned increasingly sadistic. Madness comes in many forms, and it has no interest in the difference between victims and perpetrators.
Yet this slim volume is full of so much more than suffering. Here there is poetry: he and his fellow prisoners pass time memorizing Goethe and Baudelaire, the Persian poet Omar Khayam and Bosnian writers Aleksa Šantić and Mak Dizdar, line by line. They sing sevdah, songs of lost love, at night.
Here, there is also healing. Boškailo, trained as a doctor, responds to the self-inflicted wounds of his bunkmate not only by administering makeshift medicine, but by listening. It’s the first hint we have in this biography of the trajectory of Boškailo’s post-war self. He will reunite with his family in America; he will translate, with a skepticism akin to mistrust, between refugees and a psychologist in Chicago; and then he will become a psychiatrist himself.
The book is the product of conversations between Boškailo and Lieblich over several years, and Lieblich offers something many writers miss: the long and telling arc of aftermath. In another writer’s hands, Boškailo’s story might end with his survival, or perhaps his family reunion. In Lieblich’s telling, there’s more. We listen as Boškailo thinks through his patients’ cases, and we watch as he tries to help them accept their loss and envision their own “after”. He grapples, in the words of Victor Frankl—another genocide survivor and psychiatrist—with “the will to meaning,” for himself and with his patients. Together, Lieblich and Boškailo face that challenge as well, and remind us that survival is so much more than enduring suffering.
—Jina Moore for Guernica
Guernica: How did this book get started?
Leiblich: I was giving a talk at the International Society for Trauma and Stress Studies [conference] on how journalists should treat survivors of trauma, and Esad was in the audience. I told the audience members I’d given up pretending that journalists could protect survivors from the aftermath of remembering. I gave three examples: an Afghan woman who lost her son and couldn’t talk to me without having headaches and a North American nun who was tortured in Guatemala, who had flashbacks soon after we spoke. The last example was an amputee in Sierra Leone who couldn’t sleep for weeks after we spoke. He said to me, “Trauma is a special kind of insanity.” And I added to that, “Storytelling is a courageous act.”
Boškailo: When I came from the concentration camp directly to Chicago, for a few years I didn’t even think that I should write anything, but then a lot of people asked me, “Why don’t you write a book?” I read Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning several times; I felt a connection with him. I was a doctor detained in several concentration camps for over a year, and then I was working in the mental health field for many years in Chicago. I said, “I don’t need to write a book—he said everything there.” When I heard Julia’s presentation, I liked it, and I approached her afterward. We had coffee, me and my wife and Julia, and we agreed to go on.
His home, where I was staying, was his sanctuary, and he couldn’t talk about it even in the vicinity of his family. So we started doing stealth interviews at night on the telephone.
Guernica: I imagine there were challenges in this project right from the start. You’re geographically distant, with Esad in Arizona and Julia in Illinois. You don’t share a first language, a native culture, or the experience of surviving atrocity. How did you approach working together?
Lieblich: The first thing I did was go to Phoenix to work with Esad and his family. He kept promising me, “I’ll be home by lunch time and we’ll work all night.” Every day he would get home really late. Then he’d say, “Tomorrow.” It turned out that we never talked in Phoenix, and I realized that this—his home where I was staying—was his sanctuary, and I was bringing in stories of horror, and he couldn’t talk about it even in the vicinity of his family. So we started doing stealth interviews at night on the telephone.
Boškailo: The phone conversations were much easier for me because I didn’t have to look anybody in the face. One of the difficulties for me was that when we were in Bosnia, we visited Srebrenica, the city where more than eight thousand people were killed over a few days. We attended a funeral for 307 people, fifteen years after. The families were there, mothers and sisters crying over a few bones. That was difficult. I know by my own intellectual thinking that Julia is a journalist. She wants to ask me more and more. It was difficult for her to stop asking questions, and I wanted not to talk about it, at all, period.
Lieblich: Talking on the phone was surprisingly freeing. Which didn’t mean we didn’t always want to cancel. It’s hard to talk about such stuff. The first time I read something to Esad from the book, he soon after had a panic attack. It’s very, very tough for a survivor to tell a story.
Boškailo: When Julia sent me a draft of the first couple pages by email, it was difficult for me to read. I looked and I read it, and—this is classic; I can explain it now, but at the time I didn’t think that way—I had a classic re-experience, one of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. I was re-experiencing what happened when I was reading the story about me.
Guernica: Did you factor that risk into your decision to write your story?
Boškailo: I don’t plan much. I had the idea before we started working for at least a year, in my mind somewhere, that I needed a writer to work with me. Not just a writer, but somebody who I felt maybe knew something about trauma, someone who could understand. I had realized that I could not actually talk that easily to people that either didn’t know, or didn’t have similar experience. I didn’t trust them. I didn’t feel comfortable. I felt there was no way that our vocabulary would allow me to talk about my experience.
At the same time, it was so easy for me to talk with friends from the camp. We just talked about camp, even told jokes, and stuff like that. It was much easier, safer actually. That’s why when I saw that Julia had experience working with these survivors, I thought, maybe there is a connection.
Guernica: The book is so intimate. It reads like Esad’s autobiography. But it’s written in the third person, and occasionally, Julia as storyteller makes an appearance on the page. How did you end up with this form?
Boškailo: We started differently. Originally, it was designed that I would be telling the story, in the first person. We initially recognized that if I said it was a book about myself, it’s always—it’s dangerous, there was a possibility to produce the feeling that I was like a hero, writing “I did this, how I did that.” And I tried to avoid that. I didn’t want to say that my story was any different than the fifty or sixty thousand Bosnians captured in concentration camps. In this type of writing, I avoided that. Other books about camps are written as if they knew how things would go, as if they were heroes. And I’m not a hero.
Lieblich: There’s another reason. The second part of the book didn’t work as well in first person. The second part of the book is about Esad and his patients, how he became a psychiatrist and how he helps patients with their trauma. It helped to have an observer when it came to talking about the patients. The third person also allowed me to be more descriptive than Esad would ever be.
Boškailo: I agree with that.
Lieblich: I don’t think he would have talked about roses by the gate where the guards were unless I asked a lot of questions.
Boškailo: That’s true. I like that.
Lieblich: You know what was tough? When Esad said, “We were all in the camp and shooting started,” and I had to ask questions like, “Was the floor made of cement?” All these mundane questions to be able to set a scene in the context of these terrible stories. I had to know if the place they were staying was red brick or white brick, whether there were flowers.
Boškailo: That’s not easy, and the process was long. We did talk for several years. We made excuses sometimes not to talk, and I needed a few days to process. If the process was short, that would be much more difficult.
Guernica: Was the idea for the second half, about Esad working with his patients, always there?
Boškailo: Yes, yes. I wanted to offer the psychiatric and psychological community and other people some ideas about how to deal with severe trauma. In the United States, the psychiatric community is divided between those who believe people who are traumatized shouldn’t work with trauma, and those who support it. I was told this before; I still hear people talking about it.
I was really happy when Dr. Robert Jay Lifton—who is one of the first psychiatrists who started to work with trauma—he told me, and I quote, “I hope you are using experience in helping others.” He is my hero. When he told me that that, I was completely sure.
Guernica: It’s interesting that in the mental health community there’s this division. Do you explain your position to people?
Boškailo: I strongly believe that it’s my advantage. I do not share my story with patients, but it is an advantage. You have to believe me about this, you have to. When I see the patients—when they start talking about events in their recent life, and the way they talk and the way they sit—there are some things I recognize. I recognize pervious trauma, and I ask about that directly. “What happened to you?” They say, “How did you know? I saw many doctors. Nobody asked me this.”
Guernica: Even before your formal psychiatric training, in the camps, you were helping people survive. You were trained as a medical doctor, but you started listening at night to men who couldn’t sleep.
Guernica: Where did you find the emotional reserves for that?
Boškailo: That’s my natural reaction as a doctor, to help. We are trained to think, “How can I help here?” I had always wanted to be psychiatrist. This man was sitting next to me—the one who took a big chunk of his muscles from the left arm. He wanted bite himself to death, and he was bleeding, and I had to stop the bleeding.
A doctor before had told her, “You lost your vision, but you still have your legs and arms.” He tried to rationalize for her. But that doesn’t help. It’s emotional loss. You cannot rationalize about emotions.
So I spent nights talking to him and to some other people. That also was helping me—we are always selfish—it was helping me to say, “I have a role. I don’t accept that I’m just a prisoner. I’m still a human being.” I wanted to show that. It was a combination of being there, being a human being, and I have to always think I was really strong, most of the time.
Guernica: There’s a stunning moment in the book when Esad talks with a husband and wife who’d survived Auschwitz. In the book, Julia quotes Esad as saying, “Never did they ask, ‘Was it bad enough?’”
Lieblich: That was the toughest question I had to ask Esad. I knew that there would be people who would say these were not death camps. For me to say to him—and I didn’t ask him the first year or the second year—“What would you say to people who say, ‘This was not Auschwitz. This was not the death camp.’” To me that was a really risky thing to ask because it could suggest that I didn’t think it was bad enough.
Boškailo: It’s a concept we have in psychiatry. It can be very dangerous for a patient to compare one patient’s trauma to another. I had a patient who lost her vision; she couldn’t drive, she couldn’t work. A doctor before had told her, “You lost your vision, but you still have your legs and arms.” He tried to rationalize for her. But that doesn’t help. It’s emotional loss. You cannot rationalize about emotions. We are all different people.
Lieblich: While I was working on this book, I lost my mother and I went through a divorce. Esad started including those things in his litany of traumas. “When a person is confined to a concentration camp or loses a parent or goes through the trauma of a divorce…” he would say. I thought that was very kind.
Guernica: But this question, “Was it bad enough?” also preoccupies so many ways of trying to understand what happened. It’s part of determining whether a massacre “counts” as a genocide. It’s part of getting a story on the front page of the news, or provoking a meaningful intervention from the international community.
Boškailo: You’re very right. That’s one of the reasons I was kind of skeptical of the international court, because they’re using that kind of language, of what is bad enough.
Lieblich: But there is a hierarchy of trauma. Sometimes I think that survivors of severe trauma are so generous, and they also don’t want to be isolated, so they act as if it’s all the same. It would be terrible to tell a blind woman that it’s better than not having a leg, and I certainly think the U.S. should have acted on the case of Bosnia. But some traumas are worse.
Boškailo: My thinking is completely different. I operate in a very individualistic environment. I’m at the stage of my life where I believe that every single individual in this world—even including a child who is dying right now at this moment in Somalia, while we are sitting here with extra food—it’s the same as somebody who survived Auschwitz. For me, it’s the same. It’s not personal. If you lose your child, it doesn’t really matter that ten thousand people somewhere else have died. Not to you. I understand your point, Julia: you’re talking about activists. I also respect your point, that being activists and showing the magnitude of trauma in the world is huge. But for me, I don’t think this way.
Guernica: The book, though, suggests that your thoughts on justice have changed over time.
Boškailo: Yes. It was a kind of transformation. Initially, I was so angry at the international community. I’m still angry, though not with the same intensity. This was happening in the twentieth century, in the middle of Europe, sixty years after World War II. Do I care about having them alive, or about having somebody in jail? I asked, “Who cares about justice?”
I felt the world was not fair to us. [For so long], Karadzic was free, and I was so angry. Over time, when those [responsible were arrested and] started getting thirty years in prison, thirty-five years in prison, I felt a little bit better. And at this moment, I strongly believe that it is very important to put them in jail for a long time. It is a little piece of relief. Not completely. You know that after World War II, the Nuremberg process was a priority for the international community. Nuremberg happened immediately. We didn’t have this. We are twenty years later, and Karadzic is bullshitting everybody, today, including the international court. So I believe it is important to let them stay in prison for a long time. It’s a little piece of relief.
He said, “When you start singing our sevdah and reading our poetry, and when I’m able to make good art, nice beautiful art like I did before, it means we are healed.”
Guernica: In the second half of the book, you treat people with war experiences, including an Iraqi man preoccupied with finally finding a lasting pharmaceutical cure for his pain. You tell him, “I have no pills for loss.” Instead, you help him name his losses, and try to help him enjoy again the things he enjoyed before. This is a big theme in this section of the book: accepting what you can never recover and enjoying again what you can. Why is this idea important to you?
Boškailo: I learned that from my friend Ismet in Chicago, who I visited at his home. He’s a known artist, very good, famous in Bosnia. In Chicago, his art was animals with fire in their mouths—dragons—it was crazy, and kind of scary. I asked, “Well, what is that?” He asked me, “Can you sing sevdah?” I said no. I really couldn’t. He said, “When you start singing our sevdah and reading our poetry, and when I’m able to make good art, nice beautiful art like I did before, it means we are healed.”
Guernica: Have you been able to accept your own loss?
Boškailo: You’ve got me on this one. I didn’t expect it from you. It’s important in my work, because I help them to know what they lost, to put it in the words, to process, that’s what I help them with. But my loss, I’m still working on it. I’m emotionally doing fine, but I will die not understanding why I had to go through this.
In the 1980s, I saw my grandfather dying. He was eighty-five years old. I was in medical school. He was in a concentration camp in Italy during World War II, and he died swearing in Italian. He was dying for two or three days, delirious, and he was swearing. At that time, when I was in camp, his story helped me. I love my grandfather, and I was thinking, “Okay, he did it, he had a full life and kids. He was a good guy. He was able to function.” I decided, “I’m going to live with it. I’m not going to forget it. I’m not going to minimize it. I’m going to talk about it for other people to hear, and I will be fine.”