Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Sophie in “Sophie’s Choice”

Meryl Streep plays the role of Sophie in an adaptation of William Styron's novel, "Sophie's Choice."

Sophie’s Choice (1982) was a movie adaptation of a novel with the same title. It talked of Sophie – the main character, in the perspectives of a confidant and observer – her friend Stingo. Sophie was a Polish survivor from the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War – and her traumatic experiences, including the choices that she had to take brought her in the throes of a passionate love-hate relationship with an equally unstable “biologist,” whom she regarded as her “savior.” Sophie had post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxiety disorder which had resulted from her sufferings and moral failings, which she perceived as the cause of the atrocities that she had witnessed, perpetrated to the people that she most loved. Her most prominent symptom was that of avoidance; she had repressed all her painful memories in the past, not only in an effort to survive, but more importantly, in a struggle to get over from the guilt that she was experiencing. She tried to numb herself, through a physically dependent and masochistic relationship with her partner, who has been revealed in the latter part of the movie to be a paranoid-schizophrenic.

Sophie did not see herself as a victim of the events that transpired in the camp. Rather, she attributed all her misfortunes to her faulty decisions in life – her refusal to translate Gestapo documents in an effort to save her children, yet was not so, her failure to steal the radio that the Resistance badly needed, and ultimately, her decision of allowing her daughter to be exterminated by the Nazi soldiers in an effort to save her son. Sophie did not recognize the aggression of the larger system which led her into such violent crossroads with both losing ends. She bore all the guilt and the fact the she had been unable to see her only surviving child after the war seemed to her – a testament to the “follies” on her decisions.

Sophie was aware of her problem. She was in fact actively forgetting her guilt through the lies that she concocted. Her lies about her father and her struggle to mask her pains by engaging in a violent relationship proved of her self-reproach. She was aware that years after the war, she was still suffering the agony of the terror of the time when she was led to make a choice. Yet, she did not have the violent enmity that other people would have directed towards the Nazis. She just felt that all of her misfortunes were very much deserved. She received no psychological treatment, only empathetic listening from her friend, Stingo – who was at that time also coping with his own emotional battles.

The Holocaust is a grim period in the history of nations. I believe that Sophie’s character and the movie in itself depicted it appropriately. The Nazis were undeniably guilty of several atrocities to the Jews and to the people who, at the very least were suspected of betraying them. Though filled with complexities and strange turn of events, I believe that Sophie’s character successfully depicted the struggles of one with post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly in the given period. Her final choice – of going back to her partner Nathan and their consequent suicide attempt reflected her final effort of self-recrimination. She did not “atone” in this sense, for in her anxious thoughts, she knew that no action from her was necessary to bring back everything that she had lost. Rather, she punished herself, precisely for this powerlessness, and for a guilt that was so massive, kept on streaming on the surface of her consciousness, in spite of efforts to submerge them through the lies that she had made.

References

Pakula, Alan (Director and Producer). (1982). Sophie’s Choice. (DVD). Lions Gate

Wilson, John P. (2001). “An Overview of Clinical Considerations and Principles in the Treatment of PTSD.” Treating Psychological Trauma and PTSD. New York: The GuilfordPress

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