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Who DID it?

July 25, 2010

Christian Jungersen: The Exception, translated from the Danish by Anna Paterson, 2006.

During the last century more people were killed in genocidal purges than in wars. As one of the characters in The Exception says, understanding and preventing genocide is the most important problem of our time. Jungersen tells a good story in the form of a thriller/mystery, and uses this story to convey information on genocide and motivate us to face the problem. While in many ways he succeeds, he fails in one big way.

Four women who work at the Danish Centre for Genocide Information become embroiled in worsening rounds of bullying and victimisation after two of them receive death threats. This is a micro-reflection of what happens in the killing fields, and shows how even those who study inhumanity can still be guilty of it, while remaining convinced that their behaviour is correct.

Jungersen is skilful at portraying this extreme version of office politics. He rotates the point of view between the women, so that we understand what drives each character to do what they do, as well as the dire impact of their actions on their colleagues. He shows how people use psychological insights as weapons against others rather than for their own self-awareness.

Jungersen uses various means to inform the reader about genocide. Several papers written by the characters are included, such as a series on the psychology of evil. These may put some readers off (one article is thirteen pages long), but they are well written summaries of the research and easy to follow. The ideas presented in these papers often reflect what is happening among the women at the time, with the connection unnoticed by the author of the paper.

The characters also give each other lectures while conversing or expound on theories of genocide when they go to parties. One of the women consults her GP, and he gives her a long lecture on bullying, evolving into a dissertation on human nature. As so often throughout the book, there is a clever touch – in this case we gather that the doctor bullies his receptionist.

These various blocks of information summarise the main investigations into genocidal behaviour, especially the question of how good, respectable citizens can participate in genocide and afterwards return to their normal life. A range of ideas are canvassed, including the tendency to accept authority, susceptibility to peer pressure, sense of responsibility to comrades, ease with which we identify with a group, and cognitive dissonance, by which our actions and roles shape our attitudes and convictions.

So, a worthy project wrapped in a thriller format that keeps us reading? Maybe, but Jungersen sabotages his own mission for the sake of a good story. Early in the novel he introduces the concept of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), in which an individual has at least two distinct personalities. This becomes a device for driving the story – to maintain the mystery it is very useful to have someone who forgets what they did while in another identity. The illness also becomes a metaphor for the good citizen who participates in genocide; it is as if they take on another identity for a period and then switch back to their former identity to resume their normal life. A psychologist in the book even says that all human beings have some level of DID.

The reader can easily conclude that it is DID that allows the troubles to unfold amongst the women, that it is mental illness that turns a person into a monster. Yet all the research shows that people who participate in genocide are no more likely to have mental illness than anyone else, and this is well documented within the novel. But overshadowing the information is the story, which points the finger at DID, and this allows us to use that old invalid excuse that perpetrators are insane, closing off our thinking about what is really happening, and allowing us to forget that the capacity for evil is in all of us, regardless of our mental health. It strengthens the prejudice and stigma that people with mental health issues have always had to deal with.

Christian Jungersen has been seduced by the power of story.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Claire Wood permalink
    July 25, 2010 6:11 pm

    Hi Bryce,

    It’s good to see a thoughtful review of Jungersen’s novel. I know other reviewers have leapt on Jungersen’s use of DID, but I do wonder whether in fact that is not just another of his devices to set us thinking. Although the character does seem to exhibit DID, she uses her own knowledge of the syndrome to implicate another. Never at any stage of the book do any of the characters really acknowledge the effect their words or actions, or their interpretation of other’s words or actions, in other words, is it part of human nature to exhibit what is called DID (a term I’d never heard of until I read the book) in order to not recognise one’s own negative behaviours and reactions? This then would place Jungersen’s use of the name of the syndrome outside the mental illness bracket, but then it leads to the problem of defining psychiatric illness. If a persons exhibits so-called DID symptoms in order to function positively within the world, can that be called psychiatric illness, if no harm comes to agent or others? I think this is a trick question and am not sure that. The other side of the coin takes into account what you have said, where do we drawn the line between dangerous psychotic behaviours and the mass insanity that seems to take control of ‘normal’ people at certain periods in history. Sorry this is so long, but it is an interesting question.

  2. Bryce permalink*
    July 26, 2010 9:26 am

    Thanks for the comments, Claire – they’ve helped me clarify my own reactions to Jungersen’s use of DID. It does seem to be part of human nature to not recognise our own negative behaviours, and this could be described as similar to what happens in DID. But Jungersen’s use of the term is not outside the mental illness bracket, because, by taking us inside the character’s head, he shows that the person does seem to have the clinical condition. And we should distinguish a characteristic of human nature that is DID-like from DID, because the idea of human failing, and of evil, can too easily be mixed up with the idea of mental illness. For the past hundred years or so, DID (under its old name of Multiple Personality Disorder) has been the main way that people with mental illness have been represented in popular culture, especially movies. In particular, people with mental illness have been seen as having a ‘split personality’, switching between good and evil alter egos. But what is actually being represented is a real aspect of human nature – we are all a Jekyll and Hyde, we have a capacity for good, and a capacity for evil. The clinical condition is something altogether different, usually not fitting this good/evil split. My concern is that, by giving his character an evil alter ego, Jungersen is continuing the past practice of projecting an integral part of our own human nature, a part that we don’t like, onto a sub-group – those with mental health issues.
    Phew! Enough for now, but I’ll think further about the other points you raised.

  3. Claire Wood permalink
    July 28, 2010 3:41 pm

    Thanks for your response Bryce. I won’t take up any further space. apologies for the glitches in my response, a ‘hot’ computer does strange things. Thanks for clarifying the DID thing – now it all is so much clearer.

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