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Insights | Leaving the Shadow of Pain: Personal Reflections on Epistemology – IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

The essay argues that personal histories are linked to scholarly inquiry in the social sciences. This acknowledgement does not necessarily lead to less rigorous research but puts into question the notion of purely “objective” scholarship. Emphasis here is on commonalities in the human experience that goes beyond contemporary demands for positionality. Two of the central questions of this essay are: Who has a right to the truth? And how is truth telling connected with personal and national efforts at reconciliation? The essay offers reflections based on decades of research with victims of state violence and how this research is related to the personal history of the author.

Doris H. Gray
Professor of Gender Studies, Ex-Director, Hillary Clinton Center for Women’s Empowerment, Al Akhawayn University, Ifrane, Morocco; Honorary Professor, Roskilde University, Denmark. Email: graymorocco@anondeeta

Why do we do what we do? How do we connect a rather abstract scholarly inquiry to our life? And why is this important? I don’t presume to think that my life -or that of my family -is interesting to anyone other than myself. But our personal lives sometimes become witness to larger events that allow us to learn some lessons that shed light on larger, more universal themes.

Likewise, it is instructive to look at our personal life story to understand the trajectory of our scholarly inquiries. While there has been an emphasis on “objective” research in the social sciences, I argue along with, for example, R. Behar (2000) and K.G. Anderson(1996), that research in the social sciences is often linked to the biography of the researcher. This is not to argue that social science research must not be based on rigorous scholarly standards, it merely states that when humans study humans, there is a personal dimension that should be acknowledged. However, recognizing the impact of individual entanglements, be they cultural, social or personal, has on research is not the same as declaring positionality which frequently emphasizes otherness of the researcher vis-à-vis the studied population group.

Rather, I argue for an epistemology that starts with a presupposition of commonality and from there explores dimensions of difference. Such commonality was explored, for example, by Ernst Bloch(1955) in his Principle of Hope. This German Jewish philosopher postulated this in his three-volume work that he wrote in the aftermath of the Shoah which he escaped by fleeing to the United States(US). Bloch argued that humans possess an innate desire to strive for a utopian world and articulate this through philosophy, religion and –fatally –through misguided ideologies such as fascism or communism in the 20th century.

My own trajectory illustrates this connection between the personal and the professional.

Before becoming an academic, I worked as foreign correspondent in twenty-two African countries. During this tenure, I frequently had to cover corrupt regimes and interview corrupt, authoritarian leaders. My focus there was not on how corruption affected growth of a healthy economy –which it certainly does –but what does it mean for citizens if they cannot trust their governments? What does it do to the individuals when they know their leaders willfully deceive them for personal gain for themselves, their families, their ethnic or religious community etc.?When leadership is deceitful, it becomes the model for society. Even if individuals know the difference between truth and lie, there is an atmosphere that deception is OK. A pervasive sense of mistrust corrodes societal harmony and cohesiveness and eventually turns neighbors against each other.

If this true for society as a whole, how much more so more for a smaller unit, such as the family?

My preoccupation with truth telling, or its absence, is rooted in my family history.

I grew up in Germany. There always was an air of secrecy in our home. On my father’s side, we had no grandparents, no aunts, no uncles, no cousins. Our dad seemed to have come out of nowhere and was connected to no one but the family he and my mother created. What is more, his background was a taboo subject.

Only a few years before his death, when I was a mature adult, did he reveal that he was Jewish and had escaped the Shoah inside Germany by living precariously underground during the years of the Nazi regime. All his relatives were murdered in Auschwitz. Because he did not feel safe in the post-war years, he decided to keep his identity hidden from his children.

My father’s secrecy kept him distant from us. I never felt I could touch my dad, not physically and not emotionally. Hiding the truth about himself made perfect sense to him yet resulted in a somewhat dysfunctional family life.

The question is: Can there be a balance between the one who feels they need to keep a secret and the one who has a right to know?

With all that I know today about my father, I think there could have been a way for him to reveal his secret just enough for us to understand that he did what he did was for a reason. It does not have to be all or nothing.

The price for not telling the truth is high. It hurts the people you love. Not telling the truth hurts the one who is keeping a secret. It distorts their mind, it twists their sense of reality. One big secret leads to many little secrets.

Secrecy also keeps them from loving freely and being loved freely. What is more, the hidden pain gets passed from one generation to the next. The pain of trauma is multi-generational.

Not knowing the truth about my father instilled in me a sense of never feeling at ease. Because of the life-threatening persecution he experienced, he taught me not to trust authority –other than his own, of course –and to be suspicious of rules. That in Germany of all places where there is a rule for everything and orderliness is next to godliness.

Along arch to another time, another continent to the women in Tunisia who were persecuted, tortured and some raped under the dictatorial regime of Zine El AbidineBen Ali that was overthrown in January 2011. Though I do not share a common culture, language, religion with the women I interviewed, there is something they know about me and I know about them: secrets are damaging and truth can be dangerous.

Many victims of mass atrocities do not want to come forth with the truth about what happened to them. They have rebuilt their lives as best they could. Women who have been sexually violated do not want their husbands to know what happened to them, especially if they believe they are protecting their children by keeping their suffering to themselves. This is because in Tunisia, as in other Muslim majority countries, the honour of the family lies in the sexual virtue of the woman. Having been violated sexually brings shame to the entire family.

I have repeatedly encouraged these North African survivors to come forward with their stories but I do understand why some do not want to take that risk. What I have learnt though is that healing cannot occur in the absence of truth. Neither can forgiving and reconciliation. But it is possible to know the truth without knowing every detailed fact.

I do not know how a child can make a parent feel comfortable about coming forward with the truth. I am not sure what a state can do to make victims feel assured about their safety when telling the truth about mass atrocities.

Even if we understand why someone may choose to keep a big secret, we also need to acknowledge that they have a right to come forward or not. Their personal assessment of the risks involved in coming forward is highly subjective but has to be taken seriously. I have also learnt that when someone does reveal a few facts, this is only the tip of the iceberg. As a listener and researcher one should not assume that all that is revealed, is all there is to know.

How can victims come forward with the truth, even after regime change, when the state had so dismally failed and betrayed them?

When I conducted my interviews in the small country of Tunisia during which women would tell me their stories of torture, it happened several times that one of them would say to me: “Are one of us?” Of course, I had never spoken to them about my own past but the point is, the truth can be known in the absence of facts.

It is difficult to heal under the best of circumstances, such as a supportive family and friends, access to good medical care and counselling, but healing is slowed by a continued state of insecurity, poverty, and social mores that often place a measure of responsibility for crimes on victims.

In the absence of a stable, trustworthy state and judicial system how can people heal?

Though I have not conducted research in India, there are some parallels to Germany and Tunisia. Anytime there is a state of emergency –whether it is in Nazi Germanyorin Tunisia under the dictatorship or now worldwide due to COVID-19: national security becomes paramount at the price of tolerating abuse. Governments and societies, in general, are so overwhelmed that victims of abuse subsume their fate and remain silent. More specifically, violence against vulnerable individuals –often women -is again de-prioritized.

A system in crisis mode, such as caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, allows for cover-ups because individual trauma gets subsumed in a larger societal crisis.

What I believe would be necessary for individual healing to occur is: Keeping a big secret hurts the ones one most wishes to protect.

Understanding that when a survivor comes forward with some facts, it is usually only the tip of the iceberg.

Listening carefully is imperative because it validates a person’s life. The truth is worth being told and it is worth being listened to.

Showing remorse –someone in a position of authority needs to acknowledge the harm done and express remorse. A victim needs to hear: We are sorry, this should never have happened to you.

Though it does not cost anything and there is no tangible restitution, publicly recognizing and apologizing for the wrongs done to individuals is an important aspect in the healing process. It takes trauma victims out of their isolation. It allows trauma victims to shed their sense of shame and guilt. It allows trauma victims to affirm their self-worth and that they are valued members of the community. This is important for a country as a whole to move forward and successfully address a crisis.


Anderson, K.G. 2000. Intuitive Inquiry: Interpreting objective and subjective data. ReVision, 22: 31-30.
Behar, R. 1996. The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that breaks your heart. Boston: Beacon Press.
Bloch, E. 1955. Das Prinzip Hoffnung. Suhrkamp

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