I’m posting this on kind of a whim, but I just finished writing the preface to my doctoral dissertation, and I think it’s a decent piece of writing about the challenges of working on an unimaginably horrible part of history, so I wanted to slap it up here. Especially since I’m not 100% sure I’ll finish this thing (I think I probably will) so what the hell.
My dissertation in question deals with three Nazi death camps – Bełźec, Sobibór, and Treblinka – and how they can be used to explain the relationship between Foucault’s concept of heterotopia and the dangerous idea of utopia. Basically, I’m looking at the camps as separate spaces in which one reality is destroyed so another one can be created.
It’s not the easiest thing to write about. So my advisor said “okay, write about that.” I did and here it is.
This all began, believe it or not, with mice.
I was in junior high school. I don’t recall now what year it was; what I do recall is that I was a strange and inward-looking kid, ill-suited to an social life for which I had been ill-prepared. Many if not most people recall feelings of awkward isolation as children, but some of us experience it in greater degrees of intensity than others, and my experience was intense. This wasn’t the fault of any person in particular; it’s what you should probably expect when you cross the emotional upheaval of adolescence with burgeoning mental illness. Not long before, I had been diagnosed with both Attention Deficit Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (a delightful symptom of which was compulsively gouging wounds in my skin) What happened on this day—which I swear I’m going to return to, the day with the mice—wasn’t a direct result of those things, but to the extent that mental illness shapes the disposition of children as a whole, I have to think it played a part.
Okay. Let’s get back to the mice.
A lot of my classmates spent free time outside. I tended to spend mine in the computer lab—or, even better, in the library. I was attending a private Quaker school by then, and I guess the collection must not have been as closely curated as a public school’s might have been (I found some fairly scandalous stuff now and then in terms of sexual content) because frequently I stumbled on things that a lot of people would likely deem too adult for a kid at the tender age of ten or eleven, not in terms of sexual content so much as in terms of violence. In terms of depictions of just how cruel human beings can be to one another.
So that afternoon, I found Art Spiegelman’s masterwork Maus.
You see it, right? Kid finds comic book (I had no idea what a graphic novel was and if I had known I would have had no idea why the distinction matters), kid has this kid-idea of what comic books are, kid sees anthropomorphic mice on the cover (kid has always loved anthropomorphic animals), kid picks up the book and cracks it open.
Kid’s life is never the same.