'Fragments of insanity: shattered lives after the Armenian genocide'

Suzan Meryem Rosita Kalayci (University of Oxford)


My new book project ‘Fragments of Insanity’ explores the relations between history, madness, and trauma within the broader context of the Armenian genocide and its aftermath. My project follows a shift of paradigm in the field of history, and in the broader context of medical humanities, linking histories of violence to individual narratives of madness and trauma.

The project is largely inspired by the life story of Alexander Cosac. I found his testimony in The Columbia Armenian Oral History Project. I was preparing the project’s collection for digitization when by sheer accident I found some interview notes in a folder with otherwise inconsequential paraphernalia. They read: “The life of Alexander Cosac remains a mystery, perhaps even to himself. He cannot be expected to give very coherent answers for our oral history interview because of his years in isolation in various mental institutions and his damaged skull. Nor is Alex a typical survivor. Nevertheless, I feel strongly for some reason that the life of this ‘wayward Armenian’ is still a valuable record. It not only deserves our attention; it somehow demands it.”

I am fascinated by what the interviewer had to say about Alexander Cosac’s testimony, all of which seemed a bit outdated and crude, but equally so raised many questions about what we mean by the notion of testimony.

I am at the very beginning of this project (two months in!), and would like to take the opportunity of this lecture to explore some of my initial questions together with you.

(I am leading on a digitization and transcription project with the Oral History Archives at Columbia University (OHAC). In the past months, we have digitized and are now in the process of transcribing an important, widely unknown, collection of 147 testimonies of child survivors of the Armenian genocide, located at Butler library. You can read about our collaboration here.)

The seminar in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology is convened by Alex Aylward (University of Oxford), Erica Charters (Wolfson College), Mark Harrison (University of Oxford), Catherine Jackson (Harris Manchester College), and Sloan Mahone (University of Oxford)