Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s memoir has riveted generations of readers with its descriptions of life in Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival. Between 1942 and 1945 Frankl labored in four different camps, including Auschwitz, while his parents, brother, and pregnant wife perished. Based on his own experience and the experiences of others he treated later in his practice, Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. Frankl’s theory-known as logotherapy, from the Greek word logos (“meaning”)-holds that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, as Freud maintained, but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful.
After watching a short biography on Viktor Frankl I was fascinated by his life story and sought out Man’s Search for Meaning to learn more about his experiences and his theories on psychology. I was particularly drawn to the notion of meaningful suffering and understanding suffering as something as much a part of life as the positive things. It’s also hard not to be compelled by the question of how someone could find meaning to their life in a situation as dire as a Nazi concentration camp. I saw the book not just as an opportunity to learn, but also gain a new perspective on life for myself.
The book opens with the section “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” which is a fairly self-explanatory as an autobiographical story. Much of it details daily life, living conditions, the work they were put through, and the things Frankl had to do to ensure survival. Though rarely described too graphically, the conditions and cruelty he and others went through are haunting. There’s a matter-of-factness to the way he writes about these events that makes them doubly effective. At one point he recounts how he and another inmate were dismayed that they missed being put on a truck to get exchanged for some POWs, apparently due to an error with the list. They found out later that those people were herded into huts at another nearby camp, which were promptly burned to the ground with them inside. I was struck by this revelation, but Frankl does not linger on this.
A lot of nuanced detail to camp life and how it was structured is explained as well, much of which I did not know. For instance, among the inmate population there were “kapos” appointed by the SS who would “supervise” and in turn abuse their fellow inmates for personal gain. There were also the small pleasures one could get, such as convincing the man serving soup to ladle from the bottom of the pot so that the watered-down broth might have some peas in it. He explains how some inmates were saintly, others barbaric, and all suffering and just struggling to survive. He poignantly highlights how we still have the freedom of choice in our behaviour in any situation; that we are not solely affected the environment we find ourselves in. If behaviour truly could not be helped you would not see both good and bad among those suffering, the response would be uniform.
His account is made more insightful by the way he analyzes the psychology of the inmates themselves, through self-reflection as well as observation of others. He specifically identifies the psychological reactions experienced by all inmates to some degree, from shock during their initial arrival into the camp, to apathy after adjusting to this existence of suffering, to reactions of depersonalization, moral deformity, bitterness, and disillusionment if they manage to survive and find liberation. He describes the notable stature of those who had given up, succumbing to satisfying immediate pleasures and inaction, as well as the mindsets he put himself in to endure: focusing on those he loves, his hopes of seeing them and his home again, and imagining himself years in the future lecturing on his very experiences in the camp (which of course he eventually did) as a way to grant himself reprieve from his nightmarish present. It’s uplifting in spite of the suffering because it shows how even in the worst of situations hope and spirit can persevere.
The section that follows his story is “Logotherapy in a Nutshell” which expands upon his theory in greater detail for the average reader. This section was first included in a revised edition of the book in 1962, 16 years after original publication. It is an accessible and concise look at his theory, making it easier for someone with no experience studying psychology (like me) to understand. There were still some jargon and terms that went a little over my head, as one might expect, but I never found myself lost. This section gave more concrete form to the ideas expressed in his story, which I found useful. I also really enjoyed hearing about how logotherapy has helped people he has encountered since his liberation, as well as the ways it can be applied to your life and the way you perceive it.
Man’s Search for Meaning is a book I think everyone should read at least once. I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t speak to better alternatives or what might now be considered wrong or inaccurate academically, but it certainly spoke to me in a profound way as a person. It’s not a book I’d say has all the answers, but rather gives you the tools to answers those questions for yourself. It’s also a powerful exploration of one of modern history’s greatest atrocities told from the perspective of a victim. It’s simply an invaluable read.
My rating: 5 out of 5