Since we first evolved the ability of cognitive thought, humanity has been on a quest to understand itself, our desires as much as our shortcomings shaping the cannon of what is modern psychology, the study of the human mind. Psychology, for the most part, exists to explain to us what goes wrong in the mind, what chemical imbalance leads to mental – and possibly moral – degeneration. Explaining away abnormal behavior with medical reasoning alleviates the fear surrounding the behavior, removing the illness from the realm of the unknown. But what do we do when there is no medical way to explain away the atrocious behavior of some, no way to adequately say that a few weekly meetings and a prescription pad could have prevented the internal imbalances of an individual from translating into outer pain and suffering? In short, what do we do when there is no medical proof that someone is simply crazy?
A Human Being Died That Night is an attempt to answer these questions by narrowing the psychological argument and analyzing the perpetrators of political violence as reflections of an abnormal social environment rather than scientific case studies of abnormal brain function. In other words, South African psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is not interested in placing a label such as “antisocial” (a legitimate psychological condition best illustrated by Hannibal Lecter) on people like Eugene de Kock and other of South Africa’s apartheid political culprits. What Pumla uses her expertise for in writing this memoir is to analyze social environment – specifically skewed social environment – and how it relates to the psychological condition. She discusses the act of “psychological splitting” as a way of explaining repugnant behavior in this context, as well as an essential tool for those who actively participate in healing.
In her first meeting with Eugene de Kock at Pretoria Central Prison, Pumla sees a man seemingly broken by the gravity of his past actions. He refers to his guilt over his part in the death of three black policemen and his personal apology to their wives. Pumla reveals that with tears in his eyes and a breaking voice that de Kock reveals, “”I wish I could do much more than say I’m sorry. I wish there was a way of bringing their bodies back alive. I wish I could say ‘here are your husbands’… but unfortunately… I have to live with it”” (32). At this expression of what appears to be genuine remorse, the words of a truly conflicted man torn apart by his deplorable past, Pumla reaches out to touch his shaking hand, a natural, human to human gesture used to comfort anyone who is suffering. But realizing who she has just touched, Pumla draws back, wondering if her gesturehad“actually crossed the line from compassion, which maintains a measure of distance, to actually identifying with de Kock” (33). A few weeks later, at a public hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, de Kock, who was brought in for testimony, asks to speak to Pumla, in which he tells her: “That was my trigger hand you touched” (39).
In this simple phrase, de Kock floods Pumla with “so many confusing and contradictory messages” (39). Is this the statement of a leper, an acknowledgement of the compassion shown, a thanking for being treated as a human despite being undeserving of such compassion? Or is de Kock truly a Hannibal Lecter, flaunting such a statement as a provocation, taunting Pumla’s weakness in pretending to see through him? At this point, Pumla cannot make it out any better than the rest of us and attributes the statement, either way it was intended, as a form of “psychological splitting.” Pumla comes to the conclusion that whether the “trigger hand” statement was from the heart of a metaphoric leper or a Hannibal Lecter, it expresses an extreme sense of anxiety in de Kock over her act of touching him. She states: “his way of communicating his anxiety about my gesture was to ‘split off’ thehandfrom the rest of his body, to excise the part that did the killing, as if the ‘trigger hand’ had gone off on a killing rampage by itself” (41). Pumla calls psychological splitting of this sort a desperate attempt by a perpetrator of evil deeds to separate themselves from the deeds, removing their humanity from the action. Despite her own anguish over her relationship to de Kock thus far, Pumla uses her own humanity to see his struggle, that he is clearly “a person broken into bits struggling to achieve some sense of wholeness” (41).
The act of psychological splitting in this context conjures images of monsters, people who have found disturbing ways to rationalize their own horrific deeds – or perhaps just find a way to live with them – by separating themselves from the humanity of their victims. De Kock’s hand does not contain his soul, therefore it can take the blame while his soul remains clean. To create a separation from another human being in any context may seem deplorable, but in the context of tragedy, this form of separation is as essential for agents of compassion as it is for agents of death. Paramedics, for example, cannot allow themselves to be shaken by direct contact with those clinging to their thread of life if they are to be effective at saving lives. My mother is a nurse and therefore has seen endless pain and death over her career as an agent of compassion. She has told me that inorderto help someone, you cannot allow yourself to become emotionally invested in their fate. The goal is to help them, but if a nurse were to beak down in tears over the deteriorating condition of a patient they have connected with, how effective can he or she be at treating the others? Furthermore, when one is in a position of administering medical aid, what good are their tears to someone in anguish? In this sense, splitting of the psychological self is essential in order to reach positive goals. Emotional investment in the life of another human being eventually leads to sorrow. We can cry for our ailing family members by their hospital beds because the medical staff treating them does not.
Pumla herself finds she must learn the ability that medical professionals have mastered as she listens to the testimonies of victims appearing before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She recounts an incident in which Mrs. Khutwane shares her traumatic sexual assault by a white soldier in the back of an army truck. Pumla is deeply affected by this story as it stirs in her memories of her own near-rape two decades prior, an incident she was luckily able to escape from before such a revulsion could occur, but none the less an incident of extreme trauma in her own life. Pumla states that in hearing Mrs. Khutwane’s testimony, “I reexperienced my own trauma in that near tragedy…. the shame of helplessness, and the humiliation all seem like a painful stab deepinside.The feeling was so intense that I choked with tears” (91). Pumla says she had to be soothed by a touch from a fellow committee member to bring her back to her senses, leading her to ask herself, “how could I fulfill my role on the TRC if I allowed myself to be affected by victims’ testimonies” (92). In this context, learning the art of “psychological splitting” is not an act of heartlessness but an absolute necessity for the mental well being of the facilitator. Pumla and the other committee members could not possibly aid the victims of apartheid era atrocities, could not possibly bear to hear the testimony of the perpetrators as well as the victims, if they allowed themselves to be partial. “Any demonstration of emotion was interpreted as bias,” Pulma states. “Many of us who served on the TRC…continue to struggle with closure, in part because we had to deny our own emotions in order to contain the pain of the victims who appeared before us” (94).
The act of psychological splitting serves agents of compassion as aptly as it serves agents of death and destruction, for to truly help the victims of human rights violations requires as much detachment as it does to commit acts of atrocious violence. Those with the ability to aid the suffering have as much excess of humanity as those who inflict pain lack humanity in the instant they violate the sanctity of human life. For those like paramedics, nurses, or facilitators of human rights committees, learning to detach is not an inhuman act but an act of self preservation and recognition of the fact that what the suffering need from them is strength, not tears. In Pumla’s case, and the other members of the TRC, detachment was nearly impossible, for the facilitators were themselves victims of apartheid’s pain, the same pain inflicted by men like Eugene de Kock, who, despite a thousand heartfelt apologies and expressions of remorse, stands as a testament of the haunting reality that a human being died the night he took each life that stains his soul….. and that human being was himself.