Accounts of a Troubled Past: Psychology, History, and Texts of Experience

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Abstract

The article considers the contribution that discursive psychology can make to the study of accounts of a troubled past, using, as relevant examples, testimonies of Holocaust survivors and confessions of collaboration with the secret police in communist Eastern Europe. Survivor testimonies and confessions of former informants are analyzed as instances of public remembering which straddle historical and psychological enquiries: they are, at the same time, stories of individual fates, replete with references to psychological states, motives, and cognitions, and discourses of history, part of a socially and institutionally mediated collective struggle with a painful, unsettling, or traumatic past. Also, the examples point to two different ways in which archives are relevant to the study of human experience. In the case of Holocaust survivor testimony, personal recollections are usually documented to be systematically archived and made part of the official record of the past, while in the case of collaboration with the security services, it is the opening of the ‘official’ archives, and the fallout from this development, that made the confessions and public apologies necessary. The article argues that discursive psychology’s emphasis on remembering as a dynamic, performative, and rhetorical practice, situated in a specific social and historical context, offers a particularly productive way of exploring the interplay between personal experience and the institutional production of historical knowledge, helping to address some of the challenges encountered by psychologists and historians interested in researching accounts of troubled past.

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