Inquiries into Trauma and History in Imbi Paju’s Memories Denied


Leena Kurvet-Käosaar

Tallinn University

Narva mnt. 25, 10120 Tallinn,




Why tell this story now, so many years after WW II? In all wars the shelling eventually stops, most wounds heal, memories fade. But wartime terror is only the beginning of stories. The small boy with arms raised in the face of guns, the girl forced to witness rape if they survive, all have to live with their terrible knowledge. For more than forty years, my own life was constricted by shame, anger and guilt.

(Agate Nesaule, A Woman in Amber)


By opening these pathologies of history to the extent that I am able in this moment and at this time, I am attempting to re-create the lost era which surrounded my mother and her contemporaries, but which has sunk into silence and been deprived of consolation.

(Imbi Paju, Tõrjutud mälestused)



Agate Nesaule’s A Woman in Amber (1995) and Imbi Paju’s Tõrjutud mälestused (Memories Denied, 2007), published more than ten years apart, seek, via narratives of different genre and thematic focus, to draw attention to several blind spots of history and (collective) memory of the Second World War and its aftermath in the Baltic States. Addressed both to the Baltic communities as well as to wider international readerships, these two books by two Baltic women of different generations voice a call for an exploration of the haunting quality of the memories of the Second World War, of history as a wound that needs to be properly treated in order for it to heal (Gruppo 2005, quoted in Paju 2007: 5). Both authors enter the debates about the moods of representation of Baltic memory and history and their ethical implications as if belatedly, self-consciously seeking to (re)open the pathways into the past with a distinctive emphasis on what both believe has been ignored and/or silenced and neglected before.

On the most basic and general level, it is the hurtfulness of the experience of the Second World War and its aftermath (forced emigration to the West, repressive measures of both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia including deportations, persecutions, murders, uncontrolled violence, destruction of national communities and its material basis in the Baltic States, etc.) that both authors via two intensely personal narratives seek to come to terms with. For both, it is not only the range of experience itself that constitutes hurt but as importantly the decades-long silences surrounding them, continuing well into the temporal and cultural contexts of the emergence and consolidation of the Baltic discourses of the experience of the Second World War and its aftermath.1

A Woman in Amber and Tõrjutud mälestused also stand out among many other testimonial Baltic accounts dealing WW II and its aftermath via their emphasis on the need to consider history and memory from a gendered point of view.2 For both, it is in particular the experience of women that has been marginalized in the discourses of the memory of the war. “‘Other things happened to women, terrible things, more destructive in their own way’” Nesaule has her protagonist’s mother utter in the novel during a debate in the Latvian émigré community over who suffered more, men or women (Nesaule 1995: 182). Arguing that during the Soviet occupation, in particular during the war and the multiple repressions of the Soviet regime following it, “women had to be exterminated because they [were] the bearers of life, and under patriarchal principles, the property of the enemy,” Imbi Paju points out that nevertheless, “no historian has ever made any lists of women exterminated during the Soviet occupation” (Paju 2007: 268). While Nesaule’s focus is more narrowly on a particular type of experience of hurt women had to suffer, that of sexual violence, Imbi Paju, although also considering this particular topic, also argues for the need of the inclusion of women’s traumatic experience on a more general scale in the considerations of the memory of the Second World War and its aftermath in order to initiate what she calls “an alleviation of the pain [of history, a movement toward] a calmer and happier memory” (Paju 2007: 270). As long as silence cuts into the process of (full) remembering, the past continues to hurt and the process of mourning and recovery can not take place, Nesaule and Paju in a different manner argue for in their work.

Although highlighting the need to address the unhealed wounds of memory and to probe into the silences surrounding them for long decades, the processes of narration in both works make visible the extremely complicated nature of such oeuvre that is strewn with many ethical dilemmas all of which can never be ultimately resolved in the text. In the current article, I will take a closer look on the textual processes of coming to terms with historical trauma and strategies of positioning the female voice in Imbi Paju’s Tõrjutud mälestused (Memories Denied)3 in relation to Dominick LaCapra’s arguments on the vicissitudes of writing trauma (see LaCapra 1998, 2001, 2004).

Memories Denied sees as its objective an initiation of “memory work” that the author, an Estonian journalist Imbi Paju working in Finland, feels has not been properly carried out in relation to the legacy of the repressions of the Soviet (Stalinist) regime in Estonia. The author’s engagement with the topic of the book can be traced back to her own life, the fate of her family, most centrally her mother and her aunt, her mother’s twin sister who were arrested at the age of 18, prosecuted as ‘bandits’ and as the ‘enemy of the people’ and deported to Siberia in 1948. Memories Denied is not Imbi Paju’s first attempt in the consideration of the repressions of the Soviet regime: in 2005 she directed a documentary bearing the same title, in her book explaining her motivation for making the film in the following manner:


I was born five years after Mother’s release from prison camp. At the age of forty, I began making a documentary film entitled Memories Denied about the story of my mother and her twin sister. I wanted something lasting from my mother’s life, something that would create a new sense of continuity. I believe that any kind of pain that is recreated in film, in a book, in a work of art, changes the source of its meaning, creating a new event. The screen is like a mirror in which the viewer does not directly see oneself; what the viewer sees gives birth to a feeling, which in turn creates an experience, an experience through which the viewer becomes a participant in the process of laying open this pain (Paju 2007: 15).


In their treatment of the nature of the regime as well as the systematic and psychologically crippling hurt it inflicted, the documentary and the book overlap to a certain extent, yet the book also can be viewed (and is viewed by the author) as a continuation of the film, as an attempt to go further into the possibilities of coming to terms with the traumatic past and, via what the author refers to as memory work (also as mourning work) to overcome it at least to a certain extent:


After completing the film Memories Denied, I felt that had amassed so many materials, feelings and experiences that I would have to discontinue my “work of memory.” I had to clean this “overgrown grave”4 before I could truly mourn, before I could achieve a real understanding of the preceding generations’ simple hopes and endeavours for a better life (Paju 2007: 81).


For Imbi Paju, it is not only the range of experience itself that constitutes hurt but as importantly the decades-long silences surrounding the violent, hurting and deconstructive experience. In fear of further repressions, “the people who had survived the Siberian forced labour camps and persecutions kept their painful memories to themselves [throughout the Soviet occupation]” (Paju 2007: 13). Furthermore, in Paju’s opinion, it is as importantly the fragility, partial or near complete absence of a full frame of memory, deliberately brought about by the Soviet regime, that even more than the actual traumatic events may have caused the cultural and individual trauma, the effects of which have continued well into the temporal and cultural contexts of the emergence and consolidation of the Estonian discourses of the experience of the Soviet repressions.

One of the objectives of Memories Denied is explaining and outlining the horrendous nature of the Soviet regime and the hurt it inflicted on Estonians to the wider international readership. Appearing first in Finland in Finnish in 2006 and only a year later in Estonian, the book has also been published in Sweden and its English translation has also been completed. The table of contents of the book gives an idea of the structure of the book that guides the reader through Estonian history starting with the declaration of independence on February 24 1924, the War of Independence following it, briefly touching upon the establishment of democratic constitution in Estonia to continue in detail with the occupation of Estonia by the Soviet Union in 1940-1941 and 1944-1991 with a focus on the persecutory practices of the Soviet regime (murders, arrests, psychological and physical torture, rape, deportation, the operation of the so-called extermination battalions). Inserted into the outline of historical events are the life stories of Imbi Paju’s own family and those of various others, including, for example, that of Matti Päts, the grandchild of Konstantin Päts, who was Estonian President before occupation. The personal narratives and historical events are positioned with the help of the author’s reflections on and conceptualizations of history and memory, carried out with the help of various historians, writers and philosophers (B. Gruppo, W. Benjamin, F. Dosse, M. de Certeau and others).

Memories Denied is a complicated project where various authorial agendas, realized in the book with a varying degree of success, merge into one another. This becomes evident upon submitting the book to generic categorization. The author relies on her own experience as the daughter of a woman who, together with her twin sister, survived deportation but was traumatized by it and suffered from the consequences of that experience for most of her adult life. This enables a generic positioning of the book within the framework of testimonial writing. The author has also familiarized herself with an impressive amount of KGB and NKVD files that concern the persecution of her mother as well as other people whose stories have been included in the book. In addition, similarly to the documentary, the book also provides an overview of the occupation of Estonia by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and the repressions of both regimes (although the overall focus is on the repressions of the Soviet regime) across many decades. For an eye of the historian, both Imbi Paju’s work with the documents of the period as well as the observations she makes and the conclusions she draws on the basis of this work as well as her overviews can be perhaps be perceived lacking in systematicity of approach and solidity of conclusions.


Historiographic endeavors

While not passing as historiography for a historian, it has not, I believe, also been the aim of the author to write a history book despite the fact that she has considered it important to employ historiographic research methodology. The author’s research into the documents of the Soviet regime can be viewed as an attempt to come to terms with the logic of the penal frameworks of the totalitarian system, an attempt doomed to fail as her detailed research only reveals the arbitrariness and utter unreliability of the documentary basis of the operation of the regime.

In his discussion of the kind of historiographic research that would suit the consideration of trauma, LaCapra refers to a research tendency or strategy that he refers to as objectionalist. In LaCapra’s view such strategy that tends to “marginalize or even eliminate the role of empathy, dialogic exchange and affective (in contrast to narrowly cognitive) response in general” is highly undesirable and should be avoided (2001: 38). According to LaCapra, such objectifying strategy “may well assume a radical divide between objectivity,” i.e. the treatment of the other by objectification and “subjectivity /…/ attributed to contemporaries or the historian’s own self” (2001: 39). LaCapra further relates such objectificational tendencies in contemporary historiography to the “phenomenon of numbing in trauma itself” (2001: 39-40) and proposes empathy as a counterforce to numbing. Although the kind of historiogrpahic research carried out in Memories Denied certainly cannot be viewed as objectionalist in itself, Imbi Paju uses this textual strategy for pointing out the impasses of excessive captialization of historiogrpahic research within the traditional disciplinary confines that not only harbour the risk of excluding the affective, dialogic and empathic aspects but can produce doubtful results within that very disciplinary framework itself. This danger in particularly strong if such research strategy is employed without a problematization of the reliability of the documentary sources of the Soviet regime and without an attempt of an inclusion of documentary materials providing counterevidence.

As importantly, however, the author points to different kinds of limits of historiographic research where traumatic events are concerned. Historiographic research, in Dominick LaCapra’s view, always involves establishing “truth claims based on evidence” (2001: 5). In the case at hand the only truth claim that the author manages to establish is that documentary research does not yield an understanding of the penal logic of the Soviet regime beyond its utter arbitrariness that the regime successfully employed in creating an overall atmosphere of fear and insecurity that was instrumental in subjugating the populations of the occupied countries to the regime. Such conclusion can be looked upon as a kind of impasse and with regard to the emphasis of the work on the traumatic quality of the history of occupation raises the issue of coping with trauma within the framework of “the actual reliving or compulsive acting out of the past” (LaCapra 2001: 143) and “working through” via the process of, “gaining a critical distance on a problem” (LaCapra 2001: 143). In my opinion, the reason for generic ambivalence of Memories Denied, its merging of the historiographic and testimonial writing, rather than pointing to the shortcomings of the work, functions in the work as a textual strategy of copying with the traumatic past, initiating and the supporting the processes of working through.


Memories Denied as a trauma narrative

The question of different conceptualisations of trauma and the applicability of different theoretical frameworks relating to trauma to Memories Denied constitutes a separate range of issues that I only touch upon in a cursory manner, as it does not concern directly the primary focus of the current article. Over the past 10-15 years, trauma has become one of the central conceptual frameworks of history, social sciences, psychology, medicine, and literary studies for tackling the individual and cultural implications of a variety of events, situations, phenomena that have caused long-term suffering of high degree manifesting itself in the life of an individual or a group in a certain manner. Primary among the historical events that have been interpreted within the framework of trauma is the Holocaust (Hodgkin and Radstone 2003: 98). More recent research in the field of trauma studies indicates a widening of the concept to include, on a more general level, the events in history that can be characterized by the long-term presence of “political terror, systematic oppression, and genocide in former totalitarian and authoritative regimes” (Leyersdorf et al 2004: 10). At the heart of the concept of trauma, traced back to Freud, in particular his study of Jewish history, Moses and Monotheism (1939), is a hurtful, overwhelming and life-threatening (often catastrophic) event or situation that cannot be fully perceived at the moment of its occurrence. Of this event or situation there is no (proper) memory; it only manifests itself later via “traumatic re-experiencing” (Caruth 1996: 10) that often appears in the form of involuntary recurring intrusive thoughts, images, backlashes, and nightmares (Caruth 1995: 4) that owes its disturbing and destructive impact largely also to the fact that the trauma victim has no access to the primary experience that caused the trauma. Trauma symptoms also include a re-experiencing of the horrors of the past through internal shifts back in time and space (a failure to distinguish between the past and the present) (Felman and Laub 1991: 14-15), “the numbing of general responsiveness to the external world and a hyper-alertness to certain stimuli” (Leyersdorf et al 2004: 5) and “the loss of various motor skills and a general closing off of the spirit as the mind tries to insulate itself from further harm” (Erikson 1995: 184, see also Vickroy 2002; 3,5 and Benezer 2004: 34-35 for the characteristic features of trauma narratives).

Imbi Paju’s account the experience of the repressions of the Stalinist regime of her mother demonstrates clearly the traumatic quality of it within the theoretical framework of trauma. The author of Memories Denied recalls her childhood memory of the nightmares that invaded her mother’s sleep and caused the author as a little girl a great distress (Paju 2007: 15), the loss of the sense of smell of her mother as a result of starvation and stress she suffered from in Siberia (Paju 2007: 88) as well as the many instances when her mother would as if freeze when sipping her coffee at the kitchen table, unaware of her surroundings, as if drawn back into the past from which she wished but didn’t know how to escape from (Paju 2007: 239). In the opening footings of the film that are also repeated in the book, the author highlights as the triggering force for her in-depth investigation of the Estonians’ hurtful and detrimental experience of the Soviet regime that exact experience, in particular her helpless witnessing of her mother’s nightmares, the reasons of which she was able to fully comprehend only upon the initiation of her own memory work, that laid the foundation for the documentary and the book.

A positioning strategy where the author herself as a second-generation witness of the repressions is implicated in the events, in turn, raises the issue of the extent to which Memories Denied can be viewed as the author’s own trauma narrative or, to be more exact, the narrative of coming to terms with trauma. The author herself confirms such view to a certain extent at the end of the book by a reference of the Estonian psychologist Heino Noor who himself also heavily suffered from the repressions of the Soviet regime, quoting his opinion that “consequences of unshared traumatic memory carry over into at least the third generation, causing bizarre and unanticipated metamorphoses” and expressing her gratitude to “[her] mother and all the other people who have suffered under the occupations for their courage to speak up” (Paju 2007: 270).

However, Memories Denied is not merely a testimony of the author or a collection of testimonies of a group of people selected by the author. Imbi Paju makes it clear both at the beginning of the film and the book that the hurt inflicted by decades of silence and repressed memories does not only concern the author, her family or authors of other narratives included in the book but the nation as a whole. The author refers to her mother’s nightmares and “the forced labour camps and death camps [that] filtered into [her] subconscious through [her] mother’s dreams” as “the untold story of all Estonian society” (Paju 2007: 15) that the whole nation needs to address in order to come to terms with the painful past and to move on from it.

In particular the foreign reader of Memories Denied can, upon reading the book come to the conclusion that very little has been done in Estonia to rehabilitate and commemorate the victims of the Soviet regime before. This is certainly not true. As I pointed out earlier, in the end of the 1980’s several large-scale oral history projects were carried out in Estonia that have continued well into the present day. By initiating a large number of public calls for submitting personal narratives and publishing multiple volumes of personal narratives, among them a monumental three-volume anthology Eesti rahva elulood (Lives of the Estonian People)5 the Estonian Literary Museum and Estonian Life Stories Association have played a leading role. In the late 1980’s an Estonian playwright and director Merle Karusoo started directing documentary plays based on the life stories of Estonians, focusing on the consequences of the Soviet regime. The productions made by an alternative theatre group called The Pirgu Developmental Centre (that was founded by Karusoo) were based on interviews and life-stories conducted and gathered by the members of group, “breaking down barriers of silence, distrust and denial” along the way (Karusoo 1999: 13).6

However, keeping in mind that Paju’s emphasis is very clearly on attempts to formulate what is most hurtful and traumatic about the past, the notion of ‘denied memory’ acquires a new meaning also in the Estonian context. My own research into trauma and the deportation narratives of Baltic women has revealed the often rather wide gap between the harsh and excruciating nature of the experience of deportation on the one hand and its sometimes almost nonexistent impact of it on the mental frame of mind and outlook on life of the deportees as elaborated in the narratives. This seems to point toward careful selectiveness and (self)censorship in the composition of the stories. The deportation narratives of the Baltic women involve many situations and events that, especially when present in extreme format in the authors’ lives, can be viewed as traumatic.7 However, the traumatic quality of the experience of deportation is rarely highlighted in the narratives; rather the emphasis is on both personal and collective survival. One aspect that certainly has to be kept in mind is the availability of different conceptual frameworks to the authors of the stories. As a concept and as a therapeutic practice trauma was most likely a completely unfamiliar notion to the authors of the deportation stories in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. It is currently still only at the beginning of the process of entering the socio-cultural context of Estonia and the Baltic States in general. With its clear and accessible setup of a conceptual basis for a public forum on the traumatic quality of the memories of the Stalinist regime, Memories Denied is certainly a solid and welcome contribution.

However, the extremely scant evidence found in the deportation stories about the hurting quality of the experience does not only imply the absence of a conceptual frame but, more importantly, the presence of a normative model to which the stories had to be adapted. An important aspect of the narratives is the visible textual effort to prove that despite the extreme harshness and inhumanness of the deportation experience, the goal of this penal practice of the Soviet regime – extinguishing national identity, culture, community and the belief in democratic values – was not realized. Representing the deportation experience as traumatic would admit to being victimized by the experience, to being (at least partially) unable to cope with it, which, in turn, would also testify to the partial success of the objectives of the penal practises of the Soviet regime. Memories Denied offers a different view of the consequences of the Soviet regime that brought about “a disruption of traditions, an economic catastrophe” but most importantly, “an abrupt and unexpected change in morality” that Paju considers “a loss which is still felt in this country that has now restored its independence” (Paju 2007: 18). Memories Denied that sees its goal a movement toward “calmer and happier memory” (Paju 2007: 270) opens with a long quotation by the Chilean historian Bruno Gruppo on the nature of cultural trauma emphasizing how “violence and terror disrupt social bonds in their entirety, force people to withdraw within themselves, cause fear and distrust. /…/ Dictatorship always leaves a trace on [the whole] society” (Gruppo 2005, quoted in Paju 2007: 5). It is the force of that trace, “the shadow of the Gulag” (Paju 2007: 18), the residues of which Imbi Paju still believes to be looming over Estonians that she attempts to articulate and come to terms with in Memories Denied.


Empathic unsettlement

Taking as my first starting point the application and relative failure of historiographic research carried out in Memories Denied and as my second, the author’s own implicatedness in the events described, I will proceed with an elaboration of LaCapra’s notion of empathic unsettlement (or empathy) as a desirable subject position for writing trauma and an analysis of the interrogation of subject positions in Memories Denied. In critical consideration of trauma, the need for responsiveness to the traumatic experience of others (in particular of victims) implies not the mere appropriation of experience but, instead, a positioning strategy that LaCapra refers to as empathic unsettlement which both problematizes “positivistic or formalistic accounts that deny one’s transferential implication in the problems considered” (2001: 78) and resist full identification with and appropriation of the experience of the other that LaCapra also refers to as “surrogate victimhood” (2001: 78) and views as extremely undesirable for various reasons. Firstly, such mode of thought can be viewed as a repetitive reenactment of trauma, an acting out that keeps folding back on itself without a trajectory of overcoming trauma. Secondly, uncritical identification with the other can also be viewed as a disrespect for the other, a refusal or a failure to be “as attentive as possible to the voices of others whose alterity is recognized” (LaCapra 2001: 40).

LaCapra defines empathy as “a virtual but not a vicarious experience in that the historian puts his/herself in the other’s position without taking the other’s place. It involves affective response to the other, and affective voice interacts with difference as well as with critical distancing and analysis in historiography” (2004: 65, also 2001: 40-41).8 In his elaboration of the concept that LaCapra takes up in several of his works (see, e.g. LapCapra 1998, 2001, 2004), he does not inclusively discuss the position of the historian, but, within a wider framework also that of the observer and the inquirer that also includes, e.g. Claude Lanzsman’s position as the director of Shoah that LaCapra is critical of (see LaCapra 1998: 95-138, 2001: 146-147). However, even if the elaboration of the notion of empathic unsettlement is limited to the position of the historian, the question of his/her subject position can nevertheless be wrought with multiple tensions as LaCapra himself also points out by voicing the need for a clear definition of what he calls “the initial subject position” in the consideration of the Holocaust, for example that of “a survivor, the child of survivors, a Jew, a Palestinian, a German or an Austrian,” etc. (2001: 40). However, whichever the position, in the course of an inquiry into a traumatic event, there raises the need for “work[ing] over and through initial subject positions” (2001: 41) and “submit[ting] them to critical testing that may either change or in certain ways validate them” (2001: 41).

The narrative strategies of Memories Denied, in my opinion, allows for a comparison with LaCapra’s notion of the empathic unsettlement on various levels. Firstly, Paju’s narrative markedly resists “a denial of the transferential implications in the problems considered” (2001: 78), highlighting instead not only the inevitable involvedness in the residues of the past of Estonians but also the need for an admittance of such state and taking responsibility for it via the initiation of the processes of memory work and mourning work that are instrumental in overcoming the historical trauma. Relying on the French historian F. Dosse, Paju outlines the need for individuals “to break through the screen of memories and confront their pain and mourning” (Paju 2007: 16), reminding her reader that such “‘work of mourning’ helps to create distance, and the necessity of such ‘work’ indicates that the normal functioning of memory can be guaranteed only if painful images can be eliminated and forgotten” (Dosse 2006: 93, quoted in Paju 2007: 16).

Furthermore, by voicing a call for what she refers to as “a completely new opportunity for historical work” (2007: 58) Paju advocates a constructive approach to trauma with a focus not on ‘acting out’ but on ‘working through.’ Such process of working through for Paju also entails the process of reviewing one’s initial subject positions on a scale that is somewhat different from those outlined by LaCapra. If LaCapra’s main concern is the avoidance of the position of “surrogate victimhood” (2001: 78) but more generally also “the indiscriminate generalization of historical trauma into the idea of a wound culture or the notion that everyone is somehow a victim (2001: 77), for Paju an essential prerogative for successfully initiating the process of mourning work is one’s admitance of the loss that has to take place on individual as well as on public level.

Imbi Paju articulates as her most powerful motivation for making the film and writing the book her mother’s nightmares that in adulthood she interpretes as markers of traumatic experience that her mother’s has been unable to overcome. Due to the lack of a space of utterance, a context where her story that she may or may not remember could be told, it has been supressed in her subconscious, casting a dark and harmful shadow not only on her own life but as importantly also on the life of her daughter and other family members. However, as the silences have been so pervasive and enduring, the process of healing cannot take place merely in the private sphere, within the relatively secure context of the immediate familial circle but has to be articuated on the public level with establishing a forum and involving the nation as a whole. Paju’s documentary and book are an attempt at creating such forum. Although this is not made fully evident in the film and the book, the author views as particularly vulnerable the position of women whose traumatic experience of the repressions could often involve several taboo areas, such as, for example, sexual violence (or even experience where it could be implied) that even in contemporary social context of Estonia has not been viewed as an appropriate topic to be submitted either to thorough historical investigation neither to any discussion in public context.


Positionings of the voice in Memories Denied

Paju’s presentation of her mother’s story both in the documentary and in the book is worth a more detailed consideration in terms of the strategies of the subject position of the author as well as in terms of how the narration entails an “affective response to the other” (in the case at hand, the mother of the narrator), and how the “affective voice interacts with difference as well as with critical distancing and analysis in historiography” (LaCapra 2004: 65, also 2001: 40-41).

A particularly interesting positioning process, in my opinion, takes place at the opening footings of the film via the use of double frames that introduce the cinematographic narrative. The film opens with a scene of Imbi Paju’s mother walking at the gates of the prison were she and her twin sister were taken for interrogation after her arrest in 1948 when they were only 18 years old. The viewer sees an elderly very homely and lovely woman looking at the now shabby and neglected building, with crumbling walls and pieces of barbed wire still intact with a tense, worried look. After minutes of silence the viewer hears her voice that accompanies her visit to the prison but is not uttered at that very moment. In a plain and everyday manner she explains (to her daughter) that she “simply does not wish” to speak about her experience of the arrest or other repressions following it as “life has made her cautious [and she] does not want to reveal everything” (Paju 2005). In paradoxic manner, the film that is an attempt to tell the story of the director’s mother, is simultaneously presented as an endeouvre that goes as is aganst that very wish. Of course, if Imbi Paju’s mother would have firmly refused any revelation (that even her confirmation of her wish of not to speak doubtfully also is), the film in such format certainly could not have been made.

The second framing of the film, coming right after the scene described above that contains the daughter’s account of her disturbing childhood memories of her mother’s nightmares, reveals the authorial agenda of the film: an extended and wideranging investigation into the cause of the mother’s nightmares for the sake of peace of mind perhaps more even of the daughter than of the mother. Furthermore, it cannot but escape an attentive viewer that the second framing does exactly what the mother in the first framing wishes not to do: to reveal in detail her experience of the repressions. The viewer does not learn about the hurtfullness of the supressed memory via the mother but instead, via the daugther. In LaCapra’s terms, can one observe here a “respect for the other and the realization that the experience of the other is not one’s own” (2001: 40) or is what is taking place here claiming “the right to the victim’s voice or subject position” (2001: 78)? In a sense, perhaps even the very possibility of formulating this question in this manner is problematic. One the one hand, the relationship between the mother and the daughter does not necessarily always entail a binary opposition between self and other. One the other, in the role of the director who is in charge of the cinematographic process, the daughter inevitably both distances herself from her mother and assumes a position of power over her as she becomes a filter via which her mother’s memories will take shape in the film. The opening of the film is cinematographically extremely effective as it places the viewer her/himself on the position of an affective response to the other; the very intimate and personal beginning of the film draws the viewer into it, makes him/her feel empathy both for the mother and the daughter. At the same time, by placing her mother in front of the viewers and by, in a manner violating her wish of not speaking, the daughter/director also can be regarded as not properly respecting the (m)other but appropriating her experience to fit her artistic needs.

In the book Memories Denied, the framing process of the narrative takes off from partially similar grounds but via a different contextualization. The episode of the nightmare is repeated but is accompanied by the author’s explanation of the motivation for making the film as a material entity that would “create a new sense of continuity” (Paju 2007: 15) of her mother’s life, a continuity that entails the filmmaker herself, her mother and the viewer. Furthermore, the author takes up the motif of the dream to contemplate on the nature of her film on a more general level. She views her documentary itself as dreamlike in essence, as a symbolic expression of her mother’s nightmares. Such explantion can, in principle, be interpreted as objectivization of the (m)other, as a very private and painful experience is generalized to form the aesthetic core of the documentary. However, I find such strategy to functioning not in objectifying manner but in full recognition of and respect for the alterity of the other. The subject position of the daughter that merged with that of the mother (or took over the mother’s position) in the film, is in the book articulated in clear and self-reflexive manner. Furthermore, it also provides strong evidence on the process of submitting the author’s initial subject positions “to critical testing” that both changes and “in certain ways validate[s] them” (LaCapra 2001: 41).

The dynamics of subject positionings both in Paju’s documentary and in her book both in relation to her mother as well as to other people and events considered unfolds in the two narratives in extremely complex manner and my brief analysis of the framing of the voice in the opening footings of the documentary and its revision in the opening chapter of the book can hardly be viewed as doing justice to it. What I hope to have shown with my analysis, however, is how any project involving a grid of experience “invested with affect and considerations of value” (LaCapra 2001: 18-19) as that relating to trauma inevitably is, is, contrary to what LaCapra claims having solidly established with the help of the concept of empathic unsettlement,9 always laden with ethical liabilities that are extremely difficult to completely avoid.


This article has been written with the support of ETF grant 7354. I would also like to thank the author of Memories Denied, Imbi Paju, for several long conversations on her work and my Estonian and Swiss colleagues for their useful comments on my work on Memories Denied at the Haunted Narratives II seminar at the University of Berne in May 2008.




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1 In the Baltic countries, information about the repressions of the Soviet regime circulated privately to varied degree of openness within familial contexts, hidden from the Soviet authorities. The public emergence of personal narratives testifying to the inhuman and totalitarian nature of the Soviet regime is related to the reawakening movement that started in the three Baltic States in late 1980s when the three Baltic States were moving toward the regaining of independence. Several large-scale life-story projects were initiated in all three Baltic States starting with that period and continuing into the 1990’s. The role and impact of the life stories was manifold: bearing witness to various repressions of the Soviet regime, rehabilitating and commemorating the victims, initiating processes of revisioning of the past and consolidating the Baltic people along the lines of national identity. In Baltic émigré communities, such narratives started emerging several decades earlier. Today extensive collections and archives concerning the repressions of the Soviet regime exist in all three Baltic States.

2 The need for similar emphasis has been articulated also by Tiina Kirss, who argues for the need for a gendered differentiation in the investigation of Estonian deportation-stories for the sake of “perfection of history” (Kirss 1999: 25; see also Kirss 2004: 18) I have addressed the issue of trauma and traumatic memory and its traces in the deportation stories of Baltic women in a presentation at the research seminar “Haunted Narratives” (a joint research project between The University of Tartu and University of Bern) in Tartu in May 2006, article forthcoming.

3 From now on referred to in the text as Memories Denied. For a consideration of Agate Nesaule’s attempts of voicing women’s traumatic experience of WW II, in particular war-time sexual violence suffered by women and their national identification see Kurvet-Käosaar 2003: 313-331

4 The reference here is to F. Dosse’s understanding of Michel de Certeau (Tamm 2006: 7).

5 Eesti rahva elulood. I-II: sajandi sada elulugu kahes osas. (Tallinn: Tänapäev, 2000), Eesti rahva elulood. III osa, Elu Eesti NSV-s. (Tallinn: Tänapäev, 2003), compiled and edited by Rutt Hinrikus.

6 On Merle Karusoo’s memory theatre and The Pirgu Developmental Centre, see Monaco and Kurvet-Käosaar 2002: 290-304.

7 Such conditions and events may include, for example, violent and sudden separation of families, execution of family members and/or their death in labor camps and areas of deportation as a result of poor living conditions, extremely hard work load and fatigue issuing from it as well as from malnutrition and poor or non-existent medical assistance, prolonged presence of fear, terror and insecurity in the lives of the deportees.

8 LaCapra relies here on Kaja Silverman’s notion of heteropathic identification that Silverman has elaborated in his The Threshold of the Visible World (New York. Routledge, 1996).

9 It is, however, important to keep in mind that although not exclusive, LaCapra’s central concern in conceptualizaing empathy as a desirable strategy for writing trauma, is historiography and neither Imbi Paju’s documentary, nor her book fit into that category.


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