Susan Griffin

A Chorus of Stones

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A Chorus of Stones Summary

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In her feminist psychology book A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War (1992), Susan Griffin describes how every one of us is part of a larger narrative, and how none of us can escape the moral dilemmas of our time. The book was nominated for various awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, and critics praise it for presenting complex, high-level moral concepts in an accessible manner. A distinguished feminist and award-winning writer, Griffin is also a published essayist and playwright. She is best known for A Chorus of Stones.

In A Chorus of Stones, Griffin considers her own life experiences and how they are linked to the wider human condition. There are clear connections, she says, between our personal histories and the most brutal conflicts of our time. She believes that we all play a part in shaping the world’s worst atrocities because we all have one trait in common—denial.

Griffin’s central thesis is that we are all guilty of denying our past hurts. Pretending that bad things haven’t happened, we don’t encourage others to share their feelings. We silence each other, promoting a culture of forced stoicism. This collective silence, Griffin explains, is most evident when we consider gender biases.

One of Griffin’s major propositions is that the gender biases active in our society force men to behave in violent and ruthless ways. The men responsible for war, conflicts, and fascism all have one thing in common—they grow from normal young boys into hardened, vicious men. Their stories may be different, but they are all expected to conform to society’s perception of masculinity. Men are encouraged to dissociate themselves from their true identities.

Griffin uses her family’s stories to illustrate her point about denial. For example, it is likely that her grandmother sexually abused her father when he was a child. However, he was encouraged to forget that it ever happened and to set a good example for his younger brother. If no one spoke about his mother, then he could forget about her. The whole family could pretend that she never existed in the first place. This means lying to each other about a fundamental part of their family’s history.

Griffin reminds us that no matter how badly we want to forget something, the pain is still there. Loss haunts us. We may suppress our feelings and block out memories, but the echoes of the pain live on. This is an unhealthy way to live, and yet we are all guilty of perpetuating it. The moment we deliberately deny things, and the moment we search for false truths, the closer we get to collective amnesia.

Griffin explores how the histories of individual families are inextricably linked to the history of nations and continents. For example, everyone who grew up as a German in Nazi Germany grew up in a society that exterminated millions. It doesn’t matter how they felt about the Nazi atrocities, or what their families did personally—their personal identities are tied to their national heritage.

We forget that we don’t live in an echo chamber; this is dangerous. One physical location might be the site of numerous atrocities over the centuries. The echoes of these horrible events, like the ripple effect of a stone on water, live on whether we acknowledge them or not. It is our duty as humans to acknowledge these hurts, using this knowledge to create a better future, Griffin argues.

The most significant chapter in A Chorus of Stones is “Our Secret,” which examines our hidden shame and how repressing our feelings leads to grievous consequences. Heinrich Himmler, for example, suffered childhood abuse and grew up to become a prime mover in the Holocaust. Women endured painful treatment from fathers, brothers, and husbands, who were either complicit in the genocide or grew frustrated because there was nothing they could do. These individuals go on to have families of their own, and the pain is still present many generations later. The less families talk about these personal traumas, the deeper the pain scars, and the more people the trauma effects.

Griffin tells us that truth has the power to free us all. One of humanity’s most potent forces, it is one we suppress all too often. Griffin explains how everyone, from parents to national leaders, encourages the people around them to conceal painful truths. Griffin returns to the example of her father, observing that making him pretend the abuse didn’t happen was more harmful than acknowledging it. At the heart of A Chorus of Stones is the idea that humanity keeps secrets from itself.

Griffin encourages us all to remember a time before opinions and concealed truths made us who we are. She reminds us that lying about anything, however trivial, means lying to ourselves about who we are. When we become strangers to ourselves, it’s easier to commit violence and start wars. Honesty is the only way we will build a more peaceful, morally upright society.