March 2018
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BOOK REVIEWS
BOOK REVIEW: OUT OF MY GREAT SORROWS
Ani McHugh, Delran High School, Delran, New Jersey, USA

When I began teaching high school English in 2001, many veteran educators graciously offered me their classroom materials, their professional and personal support, and their guidance. But no piece of advice stands out more than the suggestion I heard most frequently: that because educational trends, theories, and mandates come and go, I should ignore all the noise, decide what I knew was best for my students, and “just close the door and teach.” Doing so, as I understood it, would be both act of self-preservation and a way to protect my students from outside forces that were thought to have no place in the classroom. And though I agreed with and subscribed to this advice early on in my career, I recognized, fairly quickly, just how flawed a message it really was—and how much of a disservice we do to teachers and students if we ignore the ways in which social and political issues and education are inextricably linked.

The current political climate in the United States, which has exposed many Americans’ overt hostilities toward issues of social justice, has compelled me to reflect even more—beyond an academic sense—on my students’ diverse backgrounds and needs, and on the extent to which social justice issues affect our everyday environment, and on my own identity.

My father is, as far as he knows, of one hundred percent Irish descent, and my mother, as far as she knows, is of one hundred percent Armenian descent. Since both these ethnicities have embedded in their genes legacies of historical injustice and oppression, I am particularly attuned to these matters—but it is the Armenian side that is occupying my thoughts, these days, since my mother, Susan Arpajian Jolley, and my uncle, her brother, Allan Arpajian have published an incisive and moving account of the Armenian situation in a book entitled Out of My Great Sorrows: The Armenian Genocide and Artist Mary Zakarian (Routledge, 2017).


The book’s cover art is Mary’s self-portrait.

Mary Zakarian is my great aunt, my grandmother’s sister: practically part of my immediate family. This book, which combines biography, history, and memoir, has given me new insight into the painful legacy of the Armenian people, who to this day are seeking justice for, and acknowledgement of, a genocide perpetrated a hundred years ago in the Ottoman Empire. As the authors, Arpajian and Jolley, write in the introduction to their book, “the political and psychological effects of this event remain an open wound to descendants of both victims and perpetrators despite the passage of time” (xv). Lest anyone question why a hundred-year-old event has significance to us today, consider this 1939 statement by Hitler to his generals, justifying the invasion of Poland: “Accordingly, I have placed my death-hand formations in readiness—for the present only in the East—with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” (Berger, 2002, p. 166, emphasis added) To this day, the Armenian Genocide remains unacknowledged by the Turkish government (Hovannisian, 2003, p. 2), and this is precisely the reason why we must actively seek to identify and prevent injustice on a global scale.

For those who are unfamiliar, the Genocide of 1915 was an instance of ethnic cleansing in which a million and half Armenians were either murdered, tortured, and sent on death marches into the Syrian desert, at the direction of the Ottoman regime (Peroomian, 2012). The political situation at the time was complex, as the Ottoman Empire was crumbling, World War I was breaking out, and nationalism was on the rise world-wide. (For a comprehensive explanation of the situation see Akçam, 2006.) But Arpajian and Jolley distill the situation into understandable terms for non–historians, and also explain how easily, under certain conditions, injustices of the worst sort can be perpetrated.


Zakarian considered “My Mother’s Endless Lament” (oil on canvas, early 1970s), which represents the never-ending suffering of the genocide survivor, to be her most important work.

At the heart of this book is the legacy of trauma. My great grandmother, Mary’s mother, Arek Zakarian, suffered unimaginable losses and abuse from the time of the genocide, in 1915, until she was able to find safe passage to the United States in 1923. During those eight long years, Arek witnessed the murder of her husband and the beheading of her two small sons, ages two and four. She wandered through a wasteland, subjected, as are all women in genocide, to sexual abuse. It is no small victory that she survived and was able to remarry in America and raise a second family. While Out of My Great Sorrows devotes one chapter to Arek’s story, and another to my great grandfather, Moses Zakarian, who suffered his own losses, the focus remains on Mary, a sensitive child who grew up under the shadow of the Genocide and her mother’s suffering. As the book explains, posttraumatic stress disorder affects not only the survivor or trauma, but also succeeding generations. While Arek remained largely silent about her experiences, her children inherited her trauma nevertheless. The authors cite the chapter from Plight and Fate of Women During and Following Genocide in which Rubina Peroomian states that horrifying memories “remain alive in the next generation and the one after that” (18).

While Out of My Great Sorrows examines Mary Zakarian’s artistic development and showcases her powerful portraits of her parents and her vibrant still life studies, it is the examination of Mary’s psyche that is most compelling. In Philadelphia during the Great Depression, she and her family suffered not only monetary poverty but also psychological difficulties brought on by the fact that they were refugees of war and genocide. Mary herself experienced survivor guilt, the feeling that her own pleasure and happiness was a betrayal to her mother’s pain. She harbored ambivalent feelings about her mother, which led her to question her own worth and her religious faith. She had difficult relationships, suffered from agoraphobia, hypochondria, and generalized anxiety. All these conditions are symptoms of PTSD, and not unlike symptoms of actual survivors.

Nevertheless, Mary was a successful artist and beloved teacher. Formally trained at Moore College of Art and Design and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, she started her own art school, the Zakarian School of Art, in her studio in Philadelphia in 1971. She exhibited her work on the east coast and sold hundreds of paintings in her lifetime. Later in her life, she became an advocate for genocide awareness, speaking on the topic and relating her family’s story and its psychological impact on her art. While her successes were gratifying, she remained mired too much of the time in depression and anxiety. The authors of Out of My Great Sorrows are clear in explaining that one cause of Mary’s difficulties was her innate temperament, but that much can also be attributed to the unresolved issues of oppression, injustice and grief of the Armenian people.

Mary specialized in portraits of oppressed, marginalized, and disenfranchised people. Leaving this legacy in her art clearly shows her own concern with social justice. As the authors write in a chapter entitled “Celebrating Everyman, “She portrayed a virtual rainbow of humanity…Her art expresses the transience of earthly life and yet the simultaneous permanence of the spirit” (166). Their last chapter evaluates the role of tragedy and trauma on her work: “The Armenian Genocide, the propulsive force at the source of Zakarian’s art, is a psychic wound that will not heal…But the catastrophe—not just of 1915 but the entire history of this ‘nation’—like anything negative in human experience, is both a destroyer and a creator. An oppressed and victimized group’s wish, whether conscious or not, is that the suffering endured will make them greater than they would have been in its absence...This, in a nutshell, is tragedy on the vast stage of history. Man is beaten but is somehow superior to the forces that have brought him down” (183).

Needless to say, I have known my Aunt Mary all my life—and the primary identity I will always assign to her is that of a loving aunt. However, this book has helped me understand her, my family, and the legacy of people who have suffered massive injustice. Perhaps most importantly, it has served as a reminder that we cannot successfully educate our children if we “just close our doors” to the injustice that plagues our world. By studying the psychology of survivors of trauma, whether they be Armenian, African American, Irish, Jewish, or any of the myriad other ethnicities who have suffered oppression and injustice, educators and students can gain understanding of other people and of the world—and we, as educators, can better understand our students, their diverse needs, and the critical place that issues of social justice have in our classrooms. In this regard, Out of My Great Sorrows: The Armenian Genocide and Artist Mary Zakarian can aid us in the pursuit of social justice.

References

Akçam, T. (2006). A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility. New York, NY: Metropolitan Books.

Arpajian, A. & Jolley, S.A. (2016). Out of My Great Sorrows: The Armenian Genocide and Artist Mary Zakarian. New Brunswick (USA) and London (UK): Transaction Publishers.

Berger, R.J. (2002). Fathoming the Holocaust: A Social Problems Approach. New Brunswick (USA) and London (UK): Transaction Publishers.

Hovannisian, R.G. (2003). Confronting the Armenian Genocide. In R.G. Hovannisian (Ed.), Looking Backward, Moving Forward (pp. 1-7). New Brunswick (USA) and London (UK): Transaction Publishers.

Peroomian, R. Women and the Armenian Genocide. (2009). In Totten, S. (Ed.), Plight and Fate of Women During and Following Genocide (pp. 7-24). New Brunswick (USA) and London (UK): Transaction Publishers.


Ani McHugh is a high school English teacher in Delran, New Jersey. She holds a B.A. in English from Ursinus College and an M.Ed. from East Stroudsburg University.

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