I recently said to my wife that with all the books that I have reviewed for the Cape Times this year, I was still hoping to read one that “blew my mind”, then “The Choice” landed on my desk. It is my personal choice as my Read of 2017, what a book!
Here’s my review of it:
In 1944, when she was sixteen, Edith Eger was sent to Auschwitz, where she was made to dance for the infamous Josef Mengele. Over the coming months, her courage helped her sister to survive and led to her won rescue during a death march. When their camp was finally liberated, Edith was pulled from a pile of bodies, barely alive.
Today, Hungarian-born Clinical psychologist, Dr. Edith Eger maintains a busy clinical practice in La Jolla, California, holds a faculty appointment at the University of California—San Diego, and also serves as a consultant for the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy in resiliency training and the treatment of PTSD. She regularly gives lectures around the country and abroad.
In her memoir, The Choice, she draws on her experience of the Holocaust and the remarkable stories of those she has helped ever since, she shows how true freedom becomes possible once we confront our suffering.
There have been many excellent Holocaust memoirs and on that criterion alone, The Choice would easily stand up there with the best. But there is so much more to this particular memoir.
For decades since their liberation, many survivors were emotionally unable to share their stories. Dr Eger has been able to go a considerable distance further than just sharing her Holocaust story, she has used her experiences and story to help others, with the aim of “helping each of us escape the prisons of our own minds.”
The Auschwitz part of her story is a harrowing, emotional, uplifting account of the trauma she endured during and after the war. There were passages in the narrative with such emotional impact that I had to pause before being able to continue reading.
The choices Eger made that contributed to her ultimate survival are many. “The more choices you have the more doors that are open for you.”
Just one example: When she was made to dance for Josef Mengele, she discovered a piece of wisdom that she has never forgotten:
“I will never know what miracle of grace allows me this insight. It will save my life many times, even after the horror is over. I can see that Dr Mengele, the seasoned killer who just this morning murdered my mother, is more pitiful than me. I am free in my mind, which he can never be. He will always have to live with what he has done. He is more prisoner than I am. As I close my routine with a final, graceful split. I pray, but it isn’t myself I pray for. I pray for him. I pray for his sake, that he won’t have the need to kill me.”
After liberation, she understands that there will be doctors to help the survivors repair their physical health. But no one will explain the psychological dimension of recovery. It will be many years before she begins to understand that.
In 1966, Eger is handed a copy of Viktor Frankl’s “’Man’s Search for Meaning” and one particular passage has a profound impact on her:
“Everything can be taken from a man, but one thing: the last of the human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Every moment is a choice. No matter how frustrating or boring or constraining or painful or oppressive our experience, we can always choose how to respond. And finally I begin to understand that too have a choice. This realization will change my life.
But Eger’s post-war interaction with the subject of the Holocaust is extraordinary. In particular, the chapters, Then Hitler Won and Leave a Stone, deal with such immense issues and personal choices, they literally stopped me in my tracks and gasping for breath and I had to stop reading and reflect on things about which I had strong personal convictions, before being able to continue reading. .
“If we are stuck in the past, we are living in a prison of our own making. Freedom is about choice, about choosing compassion, humor, optimism, intuition, curiosity, and self-expression. And to be free is to live in the present”.
An interviewer noted that she had been able to overcome her past. She said that she hadn’t but she that she had learned to come to terms with it.
The second part of The Choice features stories of Dr Eger’s patients’ transformations through therapy. These too make for engrossing reading and it is fascinating to see how she draws on the knowledge gained through her own experiences, to benefit her patients.
In her own words: “I began to formulate a new relationship with my own trauma. It wasn’t something to silence, suppress, avoid, negate. It was a well I could draw on, a deep source of understanding and intuition about my patients, their pain, and the path to healing.”
“If I understand the whole of my life, it is that sometimes the worst moments in our lives, the moments that set us spinning with ugly desires, that threaten to engulf us with the sheer impossibility of the pain we must endure, are in fact the moments that bring us to understand our worth. It is as if we become aware of ourselves as a bridge between all that has been and all that will be. We become aware of all we have received and what we can choose – or choose not – to perpetuate. Our painful experiences aren’t a liability, they are a gift. They give us perspective and meaning, an opportunity to find our unique purpose and our strength.”
As psychologist Philip Zimbardo writes in his Foreword to The Choice: “Her book is a universal message of hope and possibility to all who are trying to free themselves from pain and suffering. Whether imprisoned by bad marriages, destructive families, or jobs they hate, or imprisoned within the barbed wire of self-limiting beliefs that trap them in their own minds, readers will learn from this book that they can choose to embrace joy and freedom regardless of their circumstances.”
The Choice is a tour de force of non-fiction writing, an important book whose content should in some way or another resonate with everyone who reads it. It is a book that demands to be read more than once.