The Long Tail of Genocide

Professor Jerry Burger’s new book deals with the truth of genocide and justice.

In The Shadows of 1915, Emeritus psychology professor Jerry Burger writes about a Fresno-based family of survivors. All but one—an infant daughter—made it out of the Ottman Empire as Turkish rulers systematically murdered 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1923. Thousands of miles away and a generation later, the family struggles with the aftermath of genocide.

Burger sets his new book in 1953 in the Central Valley, where rich farmland drew some of the Armenian diaspora. The story of the Saropian family—matriach Tarvez and her sons—turns on a hostile encounter between the sons and several Turkish college students.

Why did you focus on the generation after genocide?

Growing up in Fresno and interacting with Armenian friends and their families, I was struck by two things: First, every family had a story about loved ones lost in the genocide, and these stories were an

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important part of community identity; second, every member of the Armenian community I encountered had strong feelings about Turks. Hate might be the appropriate word. Certainly, there was anger. It occurred to me that this is an opportunity to explore in fiction a number of interesting concepts—family, culture, trauma, and justice. Questions about justice are raised throughout the book. Most importantly, how can members of the Armenian community reach a  sense of justice when the genocide perpetrators not only go unpunished but deny that the genocide happened? As one of my characters says, “Hate is not a solution. But neither is forgetting.”

Why is justice so central to the human condition?

Psychologists find that believing in a just world may be critical for our sense of well-being, at least in Western cultures. We know things are not always fair, but we need to believe that in general the world is a just place—that people get what they deserve and they deserve what they get. This is part of why people often have a difficult time overcoming trauma; that is, if these types of things just happen, then there’s nothing to keep them from happening again. This is also why injustice on such a grand scale as genocide is unacceptable. But your question touches on another theme I raise in the book, a notion sometimes referred to as “the sins of the father.” I can understand why Armenians feel anger over the lack of justice related to the genocide—I feel it, even though I am not Armenian. But why turn that anger on the next generation of Turks? Are they to pay for the sins of their fathers? Is that justice?

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