OPINION: A TRAUMATIZED BUT RESILIENT COMMUNITY

MARY TATOSSIAN, SPECIAL TO MONTREAL GAZETTEMore from Mary Tatossian,
Special to Montreal Gazette
Published on: April 23, 2015
Last Updated: April 23, 2015 2:17 PM EDT

A woman holds a candle during a religious service at the cathedral
in Etchmiadzin, outside Yerevan, on April 23, 2015, ahead of the
canonization ceremony for the Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide.

Armenians prepare to commemorate on April 24 a hundred years since 1.5
million of their kin were massacred by Ottoman forces, as a fierce
dispute still rages with Turkey over Ankara's refusal to recognize
the mass murder as genocide.

KAREN MINASYAN / AFP/Getty Images SHAREADJUSTCOMMENTPRINT

Some of you who don't share my heritage may not realize just how
close to home the atrocities you are hearing about, as we mark
the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, are for Armenian
families in Montreal and around the world. The genocide has touched
every Armenian one way or another. We have all lost someone. We've
all heard the horror stories. The victims you are hearing about were
real people. We have their photographs in our family albums.

I'm proud to tell you about my great-uncle, Archbishop Nerses
Tanielian. With his flaming red hair and long beard, he looked like
the twin of my late brother Armand. I've been told he was a sight
for sore eyes, riding confidently on his white horse, assuring the
safe passage of women and children under attack by the Turks. And
the reward for his bravery? He was captured, tortured and crucified,
as a deterrent to others.

Both of my maternal grandparents were genocide survivors.

Sadly, my dad comes from a generation of men who were never open
about their feelings, so I don't have all the details regarding his
side of the family, but, I do know that they, too, were affected.

It's a well-documented fact that war and genocide can have an impact on
mental health. One study I read stated that "the prevalence of mental
illness is associated with the degree of trauma, and the availability
of physical and emotional support."

Back in 1915, society was not into "emotional support." Talking about
"your feelings" is a modern luxury, and it was the last thing on the
minds of genocide survivors who, after all their trauma and suffering,
then had to deal with the challenges of the Great Depression in
the 1930s.

Psychology is a fairly modern science, one that until the mid-1970s
classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. They had no notion of
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder a century ago. Back then, there were
no antidepressants. So try to imagine how depression, night-terrors
and so on were seen and treated.

Imagine you are a child, and you witnessing your parents, the people
you look up to most for protection, suffering from night terrors.

Sudden screaming wakes you up in the middle of the night. Startled,
you jump up and out of your bed. You run into your parents' bedroom
for protection but instead, you find your father in his undershirt
and boxers sitting at the edge of the bed, in a cold sweat, neck bent,
looking down at his feet, trembling with fear. Your mom has her hand
lovingly on his shoulder. You have no idea what's happening. Your
father tilts his head back and sees you standing in the doorway.

Afraid to look weak, he flinches his shoulder to get your mom's hand
off and he screams at both you, to "get out!" of the room. Again,
you just don't understand. Because you can't understand.

Children seeing their parents suffer instinctively try to step up
to protect the weaker parent and are forced to mature unnaturally
fast, too heavy a burden for any small child's shoulders to bear. No
child should be forced to endure such feelings of helplessness and
inadequacy.

Or imagine a child of a survivor watching dad drink his life away,
just to forget, even for a moment, the horrors they've experienced
and witnessed. My mom did. Or, imagine, coming home from school
only to learn that your mom jumped off the building you call home
because she could no longer take the pain. My dad did. Now imagine
this on a much larger scale. Not just an isolated incident, but an
emotional consequence suffered by an entire nation. Imagine growing up
hearing all the stories and meeting other people of the same descent in
different countries, with similar stories and experiences. Now imagine
people telling you it never happened, saying it's all a big lie.

I recently read an article by Lisa Katz suggesting a "psychological
profile" for children of Holocaust survivors, and I believe the same
conclusions can be applied to Armenians of the diaspora.

While trauma can be transmitted across the generations, so can
resilience. Traits like adaptability, initiative and tenacity that
enabled people to survive the genocide may have been passed on to
their children. Studies have shown that survivors and their children
have a tendency to be task-oriented and hard workers. They also know
how to cope with and adapt to challenges.

Strong family values are another positive characteristic displayed
by many survivors and their children. A polarization based on shared
injuries exists in the community. On the one hand, there is shame over
being a victim, and a need to keep defence mechanisms on active alert.

On the other hand, there is a need for understanding and recognition.

I wouldn't be who I am today if it were not for my brave ancestors. I
am proud of my heritage! We are the sum of our past.

Edmund Burke once said: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of
evil is for good men to do nothing."

Part of me, can't help but wonder, what if ... what if, at that time,
the world had taken the time to listen to cries of the Armenian
victims desperately pleading for mercy? What if the Turks had been
firmly reprimanded for their heinous crimes, what would have happened?

What if the U.S. Secretary of State did something upon receipt of
the July 16, 1915 "confidential telegraph" sent by U.S. Ambassador to
Turkey Henry Morgenthau? Nipping it in the bud before it had turned
into a full-fledged genocide? If the Turks had been sternly punished
at that time, would the Nazis have had the audacity to start their
own mass extermination campaign? Would other, more recent genocides
have taken place if measures had been taken in 1915?

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the best deterrent to
crime is the certainty of punishment. Given that the actual aggressors
are long dead, the time for punishment may have come and gone. But
Turkey still needs to acknowledge the evil, premeditated deeds of
its Ottoman forefathers.

Throughout the years, politicians lobbying for votes from the Armenian
community have promised that if elected they would help to have the
1915 Armenian Genocide recognized. But once in power, time and again,
each reneged. I never imagined this day would come.

The genocide is increasingly being recognized, including by Pope
Francis.

I guess the genocide deniers weren't counting on our tenacity and
our resilience.

I am elated, and feel privileged to witness the beginning of our
healing process as a people.

Anything is possible. All you need is tenacity, and putting your
minds together to work as one toward a common goal -- even if it
takes 100 years.

1915, Never Again!

Mary Tatossian lives in Montreal.

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