Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankel Discussed at the Working Titles Book Club

The Working Titles Book Club, a group of graduate alumnae from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) held our second meeting on March 29, 2017.  Our discussion, on Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl was moderated by Sarahbeth Spasojevich. She also had sent out some prompts to the group to help prepare us for the meeting, which are included below. In addition, comments on the book after the discussion are offered below by WT member, Murray Ellison, who participated by phone conference due to his recent hip replacement surgery.

Viktor Frankl and Man’s Search for Meaning – Reflections by Sarahbeth Spasojevich

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. Frankel’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.

At the time of Frankl’s death in 1997, Man’s Search for Meaning had sold more than 10 million copies in twenty-four languages. A 1991 reader survey for the Library of Congress that asked readers to name a “book that made a difference in your life” found Man’s Search for Meaning among the ten most influential books in America.”

According to Frankl, “We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” and that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

I’m reading another book about concentrations camps (Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau), and there’s a section that gives a bit more detail about the “capos” that Frankl mentioned — the head prisoners who abused other prisoners. Nothing dramatically new or fascinating, but a bit more insight into their motivation to be monsters. Some quotes of interest to me:

“Facts will be significant only as far as they are part of man’s experience” (p 6).
“Textbooks tell lies” (p 17).
“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe.  No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place.  His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burdens” (p 78).
It likely goes without saying, there aren’t right answers to these quotes.   And there are plenty more in the book; they’re simply ones I wanted to unpack for my own reading, and could pull value from “group think.”
 Here are some excerpts from Frankl’s autobiography, Recollections, published in 2000.
“‘Almost all the ‘head prisoners’ are communists,’ a veteran camp inmate informs me. ‘That’s because they were the first group the Nazis arrested en masse.  Some of them have been in the camp for more than five years, and they can hardly be considered normal human beings anymore.  For that very reason, and because they’ve completely internalized the camp discipline, the SS leadership thinks they are the right instruments to carry out their policy.
‘The head prisoners get more food, they’re allowed to use the camp shop more often, don’t have to join work details, and are real little kings in the camp.  So they do everything they can to keep their jobs and outdo one another in abusing their fellow prisoners.  On the other hand, if a room or a barrack attracts attention for sloppy marching or singing, for instance, then the head prisoner is the first to be hanged or flagged – 25 lashes on his bare back with the double bull-whip.'”
Autobiography of Viktor Frankl
Autobiography of Viktor Frankl

Frankl as a Prisoner by Murray Ellison

Several great writers used their most impressionable experiences as backgrounds for their fictional works. Edgar Allan Poe used his career as a journalist as a source for his short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which was based on a court case the writer observed. Mark Twain gathered material for Tom Sawyer as he was growing up in Hannibal, Missouri. Also, his four years as a Mississippi River boat captain helped to give him authentic nautical background, flavor, and tales in his most acclaimed masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn. Ernest Hemingway used his experience driving an ambulance for the Red Cross and being wounded in World War I as a setting for his character, Captain Henry, in one of his most inspired novels, A Farewell to Arms.

Moving forward to the 1930’s, Viktor Frankl was a neurological psychiatrist in Austria specializing in suicide prevention. As he was Jewish, he served many Jewish patients. With the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938, he was forbidden from treating them or any non-Aryan patients. By 1942, Frankl and his wife were both deported to German concentration camps. Despite what Trump spokesman Sean Spicer’s misstated on April 10, 2017, Hitler did gas millions of innocent Jewish men, women, and children citizens because he objected to their religion and culture.

Frankl drew on his  experiences as a prisoner in those death camps as the sole basis for his non-fiction book, Man’s Search for Meaning. The experiences he captured in that book are so vivid and shocking, that they read more like a work of fiction than a memoir.  I was interested in this book for several reasons. I grew up with a partial background living with a Jewish father and Jewish grandparents on my father’s side. As a child, I was often told about the atrocities of the Nazis during the holocaust. Because of the horrific tales they told me, I avoided reading Frankl’s book until it was offered in March as the choice for our VCU-based, Working Titles Book Club.

The other connection that I have with his book is that I worked for over twenty years as an administrator for state correctional centers throughout Virginia.  As I got engrossed in reading the book, I started noting that the ways that Frankl experienced incarceration resembled and differed from the experiences of prisoners in settings I had experienced. To begin with, Frankl’s need to serve in concentration camps differed significantly from most inmates. As the German’s started rounding up Jews for the camps, Frankl, as a prominent psychiatrist, had the opportunity and means to escape to America. Instead he chose to visit and honor his aging father, and stay in Austria. Both Viktor and his wife were captured and separated in 1942 shortly after the parental visit, and they lost contact with each as they were placed in separate camps for men and women. Although there is no mention of it in Man’s Search for Meaning, we learn from Frankl’s autobiography, that his wife and brother died in the camps. Like many inmates, Frankl used the loving memory of his wife as one of the prime inspirations to keep him motivated to survive during his three years on incarceration at Auschwitz and other camps. What was different about his experience from that of today’s inmates is that the Germans prohibited letter writing or any other contact between the prisoners. Consequently, Frankl had to resort to talking to his wife in soul to soul conversations, and not getting letters.

Frankl emphasizes the theme that a captive needs reasons to exist and hope after their incarceration to survive an experience as trying as the concentration camps. As he was first sent to a camp, he was not as concerned that several of the inmates were being gassed, as he was in hiding preserving his notes documenting his experiences of the holocaust. Although those original notes were confiscated by the Nazis, he was ultimately able to reconstruct and keep a journal about those experiences, and ultimately to write about them in the book that became the defining accomplishment of his life. His previous experience as a mental health worker framed the way that he experienced incarceration, and thus, made his view of the situation much different from the other inmates. Also, different from what I have typically observed from prisoners, Frankl did not see himself as the victim of incarceration. He accepted his fate and wrote about his harsh conditions in a very matter of fact way. While most inmates, then and now, complain about the conditions of their confinement, he does not dwell on the atrocities he endured; instead, he takes painstaking, but detached care, to describe them. Even when he was required to sleep on a hardwood bunk with 16 men sharing two blankets, or ordered to dig ditches in sub-zero temperatures with improper shoes and flimsy outerwear, Frankl seems to support Dostoevsky’s claim that “A man can get used to anything.”  In one situation, Frankl submitted to the harsh beating of a German guard, to make a point to the guard, that he was a doctor who tried to help people before he was incarcerated. He emphasized that he was not, as the guard accused, “a pig” who made money from others’ misfortunes. I noted that the same noble action or claim could not be made by many of the maximum-security inmates I visited in Virginia’s prisons. While Frankl was incarcerated, he constantly internalized and learned to adapt to the experience so he might be able to see his family again and write his book after he was released. It appears as if Frankl endured the harshness and cruelty of the  camps by identifying himself as a journalist and psychiatrist embedded in the camps for the experience, rather than experiencing it the way that most inmates suffered through their imprisonment.

 Frankl noted that after a relatively short adjustment to incarceration period, most of the surviving inmates quickly moved to a period of “relative apathy.” He writes, “Disgust, horror and pity are emotions that our spectator could not feel anymore. The sufferers, the dying, and the dead became such commonplace sights to him after a few weeks of camp life that they could not move him anymore.” Notice how Frankl serves up those shocking experiences in a third person narrative, as if he was observing someone outside of himself. Many inmates, then and now, endure incarceration by being assigned work tasks that help them pass their time. However, as Frankl got more adjusted and trusted by the Nazi camp guards, he was assigned to be a counselor who was allowed to move relatively freely to the different enclaves of the camp. His role, afterwards, was to counsel prisoners who were on the verge of giving up hope. He noted that the Germans did not allow anyone to actively stop anyone who was trying to commit suicide. He was allowed to talk with people who were contemplating suicide, and he tried to refocus their attention on imagining the positive lives they might live after being released from the camps. It would be highly unlikely that modern prison officials would let an inmate to move from cell to cell to counsel other incarnated people who needed help. Frankl, however, was so dedicated to his prison job that he declined several opportunities to escape near the end of the war. However, others in the camps did take the opportunity to escape. I believe that many inmates who are in death-row situations or who are sentenced to life in prison without the hope of parole, might jump at the chance to escape if they had the same opportunities that Frankl had. After all, what would they have to lose?

After his release, Dr. Viktor Frankl continued to work as a psychiatrist and subsequently created a new treatment system, he called logotherapy, based on his concentration camp experiences. The fundamentals of logotherapy are explained, as well as some of the successful experiences he had with patients in some editions of Frankel’s, Man Search for Meaning, including in the 2006 Beacon Press edition I read. Although those details are interesting, I would have liked to have seen more narrative in Man’s Search on how Frankl adjusted to normal life after his concentration camp experiences. The period after one is released from prison has always been the most challenging adjustment for most inmates. Few have been as dramatically successful in their adjustment as Frankl. In the absence of such a narrative, I guess that he was more successful than most inmates in concentration camps because he never identified himself as a prisoner; instead, was driven by a much nobler purpose. His book has often been considered  one of the most valuable works of the twentieth century. It has inspired millions of people around the world, and  can still provide valuable insights to those who are struggling to find a sense of purpose for their lives.


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2 Thoughts to “Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankel Discussed at the Working Titles Book Club”

  1. I have a question, Murray – do you recommend “Man’s Search for Meaning” for those who are currently incarcerated? At what point in the experience of incarceration do you think it would be most useful – in the shocked early days of first arrival, in the middle of one’s sentence or later, after the sentence has been served? Sadly, a friend’s child has just started this journey. I’ld appreciate your expert insights into when Frankl’s message is likely to be most useful. Thanks.

    1. I think the book would be useful for an adult to re read and re-read it throughout their incarceration. Are they a juvenile or an adult? It might give him/her insight into accepting the incarceration in the early stages. In the middle stage, it might hep him to develop a reason to live. In the final and release stage, it might help this person to focus on finding positive reasons and methods to reintroduce him/herback to society in a positive way.

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