Dear Mr. Cyrulnik,
I would have loved to start this letter with “Dear Boris”, as if I were already part of your life, as if I mattered to you. Not so much so that I could have a discussion with you or share an opinion on your latest book. More so that I could listen to you; so that I could benefit from your kind, rational and measured presence, from your well-chosen words and deep understanding of the human heart and mind. So maybe I would learn from your serene aura; so I could copy your calm and accepting attitude not only towards the weaknesses of the human spirit but also toward the strength of the resilience capacity inhabiting our brain.
The first time I encountered your writing was ten years ago at five in the morning in a taxi crossing the silent streets of Paris. I did not feel like talking, but the taxi driver was in a chatty mood. He explained to me that he owned and ran a contemporary art gallery by day, only driving his taxi at night to be able to finance his passion. Suddenly I was listening. He led me through his life from his very difficult childhood to his current multitasking role. And as I started wondering how he had overcome his early trauma, he opened the glove box above the passenger seat. This little corner was full of books written by one single person: you. He then said one word: “resilience” and wrote down a few titles. I went back home inspired.
As far as I can remember, I have always been drawn to testimonies of survival and surviving instincts. Primo Levi, Germaine Tillon, Aaron Applefeld, Robert Antelme, Holocaust Survivor literature is a constant landmark in my inner literature landscape. I have always wondered why. At first, I was convinced that I had this strong duty to remember, that I had to read so I would know, so I could, should it happen again, read the signs in advance and prevent such a dreadful fate. But at some point, I found an additional reason. I was looking for a plan, a recipe to overcome the worst, a terrible fate I feared. The more I read, the less I was convinced I had either the guts or the psychological resources to grow up and negotiate the few ordeals I had experienced as a child, even much less to cope with adult life.
Until I read about the Resilience concept. A neuropsychiatrist and a survivor yourself, you spent your life working on mental coping strategies. You published many studies in the medical arena and later, books for much broader audiences. If I had to mention one title, it would be your last publication: Sauve-toi, la vie t’appelle (Quite Literally: Flee, Life is calling you), where you explain through the lens of your own trauma, the tortuous ways our memory and mind work. Born in 1937, you detail how your second birth happened in 1944 the day you were arrested. Until late in your life, you feared and repressed the memories of this day. But somehow, they haunted you, they motivated your life choices, drove your relationships with people, even dictated the words you used. Until you were left with no other option than to confront those memories. In this book, you dissected your souvenirs recollections, to see if they matched what really happened. During the war and afterward, you guide us through trauma mechanisms, memory superposition and confusion; all of the maneuvers that allowed you to move forward, to become a neuropsychiatrist and to bury your trauma, and finally come to terms with the souvenirs of your experiences.
Each time I finished one of your books, I got some reassurance. The human brain, or should I say my brain, was to be trusted. Suddenly my own behaviors had some explanations. They weren’t abnormal, just my own way of coping, my very own survival strategy. On my own little level, I was already a survivor. It limited my fears and improved the bit of trust I had in me. It made me stronger, or at least a bit less fearful of the future.
Thank you Mr. Cyrulnik, I owe you.
CYRULNIK Boris, Sauve-toi, la vie t’appelle, 2012, Editions Odile Jacob, Paris.
This book being a very recent publication, it has not yet been published in English, but certainly will as per most of Cyrulnik’s books. In the meantime, you can read The down of meaning, 1992, Mcgraw-Hill, New-York or Resilience: How your inner strength can set you free from the past, 2011, Tarcher Editions, New-York.
This post is the result of a writing exercise initiated by my friend E. to take me out of the writing hole I had put myself into. Thanks!!