Encountering Perpetrators in White Terror Literature: Exploring Traumatic History and the Grey Zone

Written by Chih-hen Chang.

In May 2018, Taiwan founded the Transitional Justice Commission to address the historical trauma of the White Terror, which refers to the massive suppression of political dissidents from 1949 to 1987 in the name of safeguarding the nation against communist intrusion. Moving beyond a victim-oriented transitional justice approach, the commission plans to facilitate the engagement of perpetrators in the transitional process by encouraging them to give anonymous confessions. They anticipate that a more nuanced appreciation of the historical trauma and persecution system enabled by perpetrator testimony can help the society work towards reconciliation and undo “a binary mode of thinking,” which is considered a detrimental legacy of authoritarianism. While the new transitional justice agenda indicates a belated attempt to deal with historical trauma through engagement with perpetrators, cultural artefacts such as literature and film have demonstrated a persistent interest in perpetrator figures and have mobilized them as critical entry points into the dire past of the White Terror. Salient examples include Lee Qiao’s “The Informant” (1982), Chen Ying-zhen’s “Night Fog” (2000), and Shawna Yang Ryan’s recently-published novel, Green Island (2016), which will be the focus of my analysis. While the perpetrator text is not a homogenous category in terms of how perpetrators are portrayed, the body of texts share certain tropes and features pertaining to the way in which they address historical trauma:

  • Perpetrator texts adopt a “from-below” approach to history that encourages a situational understanding. Figures of the low- or middle-grade perpetrator—such as informants, secret agents, or military bureaucrats—function as the primary narrator or focalizer in the narrative. This reflects a concern with the position of “the cog” in the persecution machinery (i.e. coercive apparatus such as the secret police force).
  • Perpetrator texts seldom yield to a demonizing or dehumanizing characterization of perpetrators as sadistic, evil monsters, as is usually the case in the popular imagination. They prefer a humanizing and empathy-induced representation of perpetrators which reveals their ethical dilemmas and psychological vulnerabilities.
  • Perpetrator texts tend to portray perpetrators as traumatized. This indicates a distinct approach to historical trauma through the trauma of perpetrators. The wounds of perpetrators provide critical insights into the traumatizing impact of the authoritarian regime, which inflicts both psychological and moral injuries on not only victims but bystanders and perpetrators.

Perpetrator texts create trauma narratives that complicate and go beyond dominant narratives of victimhood. Such narratives characterize two existing schemas used to frame the events of political violence in Taiwan’s modern history: human rights discourse and “nationalistic approaches to history” (民族主義史觀). These schematic narratives code the White Terror in terms of victimization or victimhood and may reify the binary oppositions between the perpetrators and victims, good and evil, which can impede a nuanced understanding of the historical trauma.

Green Island serves as a case which beautifully demonstrates how perpetrator texts problematize the victim-perpetrator dichotomy by humanizing perpetrators and addressing the trauma of perpetrators with compromised agency. I introduce two notions that will guide my reading of the novel: first, Primo Levi’s notion of “the grey zone” in The Drowned and the Saved, an essay collection on his life in a concentration camp and, second, “perpetrator trauma,” a relatively new subject in trauma studies.

The grey zone contemplates the very undecidability of the positions of perpetrators and victims in the liminal space of the concentration camp. The concept describes a conceptual zone of complicity and collaboration where the distinction between the perpetrator and victim is blurred since some victims are implicated in persecution and experience moral degradation in their attempt to gain privileges. The notion captures certain aspects of the White Terror regime characterized by a “structure of complicity” (共犯結構), within which individuals are potential inhabitants of the grey zone.

Levi’s emphasis on moral compromise and deterioration requires a more complicated account of the psychology and trauma of perpetrators/victims situated in the grey zone. Perpetrator trauma is relevant in this context not only because it stresses that individuals can be traumatized due to their acts of perpetrating. Bringing together the psychological and the ethical, perpetrator trauma suggests that trauma can involve “moral injuries” resulting from transgressions against one’s moral beliefs. The idea also highlights the formative role of moral emotions like guilt, shame, and ethical conflict in trauma. The grey zone and perpetrator trauma together serve as an entry point into perpetrator texts, especially Green Island, where issues of trauma and complicity intersect and which suggests psychological and moral wounds together define the historical trauma.

Green Island is a family history narrative in which the unnamed female narrator and her family struggle to survive the February 28th Incident of 1947 and the ensuing White Terror. Departing from the conventional narrative of victimhood, Yang Ryan presents a story of survival contaminated by guilt by focusing on the life histories of two grey zone inhabitants: the narrator and her father. As a released political prisoner, the father is threatened by the secret police to become a collaborator to preserve his family, and for the same reason, the narrator, manipulated by a secret agent, is indirectly involved in the assassination of a democracy activist called Jiabao and responsible for the destruction of Jiabao’s testimony to White Terror atrocities. By providing a situational account highlighting the compromised agency of the involuntary collaborators in the face of the state’s coercive practices, Ryan invites a difficult empathy for their choices and ethical dilemmas that defines their human condition.

The depiction of perpetrator trauma constitutes another humanizing drive in the story. Referred to by others as a “broken man,” the father’s “brokenness” points to not only his psychological trauma as a victim but his moral injury from the betrayal of his friend. His moral and psychological trauma is later re-enacted by his daughter when she is coerced to be implicated in persecution. As a defining feature of their trauma, the haunting sense of guilt does not paralyze them yet enables them to assume ethical accountability by making amends: the father through apologies and the daughter by publishing Jiabao’s testimony. Their atonement functions as a comment on the importance of the accountable engagement of perpetrators in working through traumatic history. Ryan thus provides a progressive narrative of trauma which attends to not only victim trauma but also the moral wounds of grey zone inhabitants and its ethical potential.

This inclusive trauma narrative powerfully contests the perpetrator-victim dichotomy that characterizes the victimhood narrative and its variants. The narrator laments the absence of a “memorial for those who had survived by selling their souls”. The statement is self-referential commentary on the novel itself, which serves as an artistic memorial for grey zone persons. On the other hand, this hints at a critique of the valorizing narrative of martyred heroism, which clings to an idea of sacrificial victimhood and a clear-cut distinction between good and evil, glossing over the inglorious and the ambiguous—that is, the suffering of those who opt for ethical compromise.

In conclusion, Green Island shows how perpetrator texts construct trauma narratives that attend to the trauma of figures troubled by their own guilt while rejecting the dichotomy between innocent, righteous victims and evil, antagonistic perpetrators. This inclusive gesture signals an approach to historical trauma that shifts the focus from the issue of victimhood to complicity/collaboration—which is an important yet often-ignored aspect that characterizes the history of the White Terror and whose psychological and ethical legacies still require adequate treatment in the transitional settings of today.

Chih-hen Chang is a graduate student in RMA Comparative Literary Studies at Utrecht University. Chih-hen explores questions relating to trauma, memory, and female representation in contemporary Taiwanese and Chinese literature. Image credit: CC by Wikimedia Commons

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