Mauriac’s Ear

Case Study in the Healing Voices Series on Alice Miller: Icon & Ideas

A quick snapshot from history offers clear ideas about what Alice Miller meant when she coined the phrase “enlightened listeners” in the 1980s. Miller’s experience as a Jew during Nazi-occupied Poland is a first step in seeing what wisdom prompted her to perceive failures in contemporary practices of psychotherapy and to identify a more healing course. There are other examples for how “enlightened listeners” have changed history as champions of the stories they helped to make heard.

Let’s consider how an “enlightened listener” was the catalyst for the work of the world’s leading Holocaust witness and human-rights advocate, Elie Wiesel. The Catholic Francois Mauriac played a pivotal role bringing Wiesel’s story (see Maybe Talk About It). For those offering pastoral care, having such a trained ear may seem like an elusive skill–because it is. It is not something found or even learned within the typical paradigms of expertise to which the Church has traditionally turned to help solve the crisis of sexual abuse within the institution. And, by “Church” I am not referring simply to bishops and hierarchy; this is a pointed comment for all Catholics expecting the “higher up’s” to be sufficient to fix the problem.

The question is not just what made Mauriac able to hear and respond to Wiesel’s first hint at the great swell of suffering he had endured. The deeper challenge is to understand what made Mauriac safe for Wiesel to let slip even the first hint to anyone at all after a decade of seeming to finally be “free” of danger. It begs the question now whether the Church is safe. This is about bishops and clergy, not not only them. Are parishes safe places for wounded people? Are you safe? You might be surprised if you think so.

How does a listener become wise? How does a Christian become a witness to suffering and trauma in person and not in the safely depersonalized abstract? From where do Christian witnesses draw sufficient courage to welcome the victim’s story of suffering within one’s own beloved Church? If the Church can grapple with this in terms of survivors of abuse, she will renew her own discipleship in a suffering and traumatized world.

Teresa Pitt Green

The interview of Mauriac by Wiesel, who blurted out the first hint of his pain in response to Mauriac’s comments on hope, occurred in 1954. By that time, the highly visible Catholic Francois Mauriac (1885-1970) had become the friend of generals and resistance fighters. Together they were tasked with rebuilding a nation after the devastation of World War II. They and he stood in the ruins with the elation of victors, tired but vindicated. Mauriac also stood a giant in France with many decades of grief and interior agonies on which to draw when begging Wiesel’s forgiveness that day in 1954.

Mary C. Boys refers to how in “A Jew Today (1978), Elie Wiesel wrote about their initial meeting. Mauriac was ‘famous, old [70] and rich, covered with honors, comfortably ensconced in his Catholic faith,’ whereas he was ‘young [27], poor, riddled with doubts, a solitary stateless person, unknown and Jewish.’”* Given social decorum even in the ruins of post-war Europe, Wiesel’s candor was incongruous–but it was not, really, for any survivor of trauma or abuse.

Most of us will recount how people, unaware of our own pain, have found an unexpected sense of safety and solace with us which they explain they have felt at no other time. Survivors understand how survivors feel. Many of us can remember times in our own journeys when we responded to that person who, for no other reason than a second sense, we knew would be able to hear us. We sensed they were familiar with something about the pain within.

Mauriac would have had that familiarity with pain and suffering, and in particular with aspects of all the forces that had so terribly wounded the young writer sitting in his office in 1954.


First, Mauriac had been a Resistance fighter in France since 1941. He had witnessed Nazi atrocities first hand and would be well-informed through its underground stories of battles across the continent. He would have shared the shudder to hear news of baffling new weapons from the Nazis that only added unimaginably gruesome new possibilities to the timeless horror of muddy, diseased, and ugly battle man-to-man on nearby roads and fields. He would have ridden the roller-coaster of hope to hear the Allies were innovating, too.

Resistance fighting was a clandestine lifestyle rife with daily terror and anxiety. Mauriac would have some sense of the concentration camps, both as further motivation to fight and greater reason to count the risk he was taking in the Resistance. Mauriac’s was a life of trauma year after year, including one of the deepest cuts in trauma–that awareness of one person’s seeming powerlessness in a world where all trusted structures and institutions were crumbling and where a rabid evil seemed ascendant.

Mauriac’s trauma would not have been limited to those years. They would have been been trauma enough for one man to reckon with, but they were for Mauriac and many of his contemporaries heaped upon other memories from other horrors of prior decade, when a harrowing war had been fought in vain to avoid war with the Nazis.


The importance of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) for Francois Mauriac, France, and all of Europe is hard to overstate. Historians refer to it as a prelude to World War II. World leaders, including those in France, were already on edge as circumstances globally inched toward massive war. They saw the civil war in Spain as the spark likely to launch Europe into full-scale war. So, they hastened to take sides and force an unambiguous victory.

Spain was a country with roughly 195,000 square miles of territory into which all the great political ideologies from around the world arrived by proxies to fight in cities and in almost feudal towns and on rustic hillsides. The clash involved democracy, monarchy, feudal order, fascists, menchasheviks, bolsheviks, and the Church. In three years, over a half a million people would die, most of them noncombatants or nominal combatants seeking to protect their region. In the just first year of the war in Spain, almost seven thousand priests and religious would be murdered, often brutally so.

The emotional tumult of that bloody era for Mauriac seems particularly painful. He had sided with the rebels, who surprised even their own ranks by their ghoulish atrocities against the Church. The rebels faced a gruesome end when the Republic’s forces of Francisco Franco won. For the many stakeholders in this proxy war, Franco’s victory was seen, among other things, as a Nazi win, a crush of bolsheviks, and a narrow vindication for the Church whose defender was both an anti-democrat and a Nazi friend. Half a million Spaniards were able to escape Spain before Franco closed the border, and they landed in refugee camps in southern France with stories to tell of great atrocities. A devout Catholic and French patriot, Mauriac would have had a time reconciling these turns of events in a way I will leave to scholars to detail. It’s not hard to imagine the painful quandary and grief, perhaps even regret, he would have carried into the Nazi decade.

Mauriac’s response to Wiesel’s sharing of the story of the Nazi camps included a dedication to ensure the story was published. This was in keeping with what he understood of writers and artists in war. He would have seen what is now understood to be a whole generation of writers, particularly poets and artists, killed within the first year of World War I, and others who emerged from the war shell-shocked and incapacitated. The war in Spain also struck a blow to the European creative community. Many writers and artists joined the staggering numbers of foreign fighters to die there. Others, like George Orwell and W.H. Auden, emerged with ominous views of the future and mostly darkened views even of human potential. Mauriac would have seen the paucity of storytellers left to create a lived history that is so important to the endurance of the lessons of war–particularly of the incredible atrocities that could be easily forgotten if not written by those who had endured them.

Buried Grandeur

Mauriac’s personal strain and trauma did not begin in Spain. His middle-age adult life had been marked by the conflict of great ideological and political movements across a continent. Warfare, destruction, economic tumult, and social upheaval had been commonplace before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand mobilized most European powers in 1914. Mauriac, at 29 (if not sooner), experienced what survivors of trauma understand as that event with such crushing impact that nothing is ever the same again.

By the time Wiesel and Mauriac met, it would have been reasonable for Mauriac to miss what Wiesel had to say as an example of how men, finally wise from the struggles of life, become detached strangers to new men and women breaking into the world, which remains a short while longer still in their care. Mauriac would doubtless have had wistful memories of the gentile France of his childhood. He had been born the same year Victor Hugo died, after making the grand traditions of equality and fraternity live on in the written word. ,Mauriac had seen related French traditions and institutions damaged or corrupt, hardly remembered by many in the rush to rebuild a secure life in the ruins.

By the time they met in 1954, Mauriac had shared a lived experience of the madness in that time of history with Elie Wiesel, even though he was neither Jew nor direct combatant nor young. Schooled and accomplished as he was, Mauriac would be receptive to Wiesel because of his own suffering. There would be no abstracts. Mauriac would not respond, as too many in the 20th century Church have responded to victims of trauma, “get over it, forgive, and get on with your life.”

Carpe Diem

This is an argument for those who can affect the timing when the stories of survivors of abuse by clergy and all others are invited, told, heard, shared. It’s important we do not wait for future generations to understand. The gift they have is a less passionate and a far less comprehending distance. That is also their lack. As a footnote in history the scandal of abuse, like wars and social upheavals, may seem resolved and over. It is not. The impact of abuse passes through generations, as does the loss of faith. Pain heals best that pain which it knows, person to person and heart to heart. And that’s why the Church needs survivors of clergy abuse to share stories. Now.

Difficult as it may be, now is the time when we, who have been wounded by abuse, are called to heal others, and, in healing others, continue in a sincere and self-aware healing of ourselves–as individuals, families, and as a Church.

Sources/Footnotes: Portions of this article were checked and/or drawn from:

  • Thomas, Hugh. The Spanish Civil War. (1977. Harper & Row, New York, NY. For legal, free download, click here.)

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