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Dr. James Reid Discusses Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Armenian Genocide Narratives

Barlow Der Mugrdechian

Reid2Many people have studied the history of the Armenian Genocide, but few have sought to understand more deeply the trauma suffered by survivors.

Dr. James Reid, a Tsakopoulos Research Fellow from Sacramento, has spent the last twenty years studying the psychological consequences traceable in the narratives written by survivors of the Armenian genocide. These survivors suffered for decades after they had lost family and friends in the genocidal purge of the Ottoman Turkish state beginning in 1915. What was the cause of their suffering? Aside from having seen their family and friends annihilated in very gruesome ways, the event traumatized them deeply and irrevocably. The survivors experienced shock, and then a full array of post-shock symptoms today called by psychologists Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD].

On Tuesday, April 26, Dr. Reid presented a penetrating and innovative talk on “The Armenian Genocide and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Armenian Genocide Survivor Narratives,” as part of the Armenian Studies Program Spring 2005 Lecture series, held in the Peters Auditorium in the University Business Center on the Fresno State campus.

It was an Armenian Genocide conference held in 1979 which impelled Dr. Reid to first consider the trauma suffered by the Armenians. The panel members had addressed the scholarly, scientific, or political issues, but none had explored the heart of the matter. In Dr. Reid’s words, “Not one of the panel members had made the attempt to comprehend the inner history of the universal trauma suffered by Armenians during World War I.”

The conference, and in particular an exchange between an 80 year old survivor of the Genocide and the participants, led to a twenty year search for the deeper cause of anger and isolation suffered by survivors.

Along the way Dr. Reid had his own brush with trauma, when he received death threats from a Muslim student at a university where he taught in 1994. The psychological legacy of that event led him to a deeper understanding of the mental anguish suffered by genocide survivors.

Dr. Reid’s main thesis was that genocide survivors suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The central symptom of PTSD is the afflicted one’s response to death and especially the threat of death.

According to Dr. Reid, everyone who endured and survived the terror of the genocide suffered from this symptom regardless of the extent to which other anxiety and PTSD symptoms afflicted them. The PTSD symptoms point to the long-term suffering of the Armenian community for generations after the annihilation of Armenia.

Survivor memoirs and personal writings were used as the basis for the study. Dr. Reid cited several examples of memoirs to illustrate his presentation, in particular: Kerop Bedoukian’s Some of Us Survived and Vartan Hartunian’s Neither to Laugh Nor to Weep, as well as individual accounts from Armenian oral histories. He also used examples from Pontic Greek survivors to give a wider comparative view of the subject.

Dr. Reid examined one of the primary events of the genocide– the death march–from a psychological vantage point. The person’s response to the threat of a violent death is the central psychological aspect of the genocide survivor experience. He explained that one reason many collapsed and died during the death march, aside from murder and physical torture, was that they could not endure psychologically after a certain point in the ongoing trauma of the death march. He also explained that the need to comprehend the survivors’ psychological response to genocide and the threat of death is important for succeeding generations of Armenians as well as the world community.

Why is it important to understand the psychological response to genocide and war? According to Dr. Reid, trauma and shock are universals that can occur in any time and place and it is necessary, to recognize that even with cultural and religion differences, most people of past times and at present will react in a psychologically universal way.

In Dr. Reid’s view, the lesson of Armenian and Greek survivors–those with strength to write about their ordeals–is that the perpetrator cannot win psychologically if the victim-survivor will not acquiesce to his bullying sadism. These survivors may suffer from the effects of their trauma for their entire life. The strength of mind to assert the will to live and life’s priority over death can help to defeat the “Angel of Death” spectre that forms the central symptom of post traumatic stress disorder.

Dr. Reid holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA and has written several books, including Crisis of the Ottoman Empire: Prelude to Collapse, 1839-1878.

The presentation was co-sponsored by the Armenian Studies Program, Armenian Students Organization, Department of Psychology, and the Psi Chi Honor Society in Psychology.