… man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes – within the limits of endowment and environment – he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example….we watched … some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions...
Viktor E. Frankl, page 133, Beacon Press, 2006 edition with a forward by Harold S. Kushner
Viktor E. Frankl was a Viennese psychiatrist interned in the vast network of concentration and extermination camps scattered across German-occupied Europe during the Second World War. While he lived to see the liberation of the camps by Allied troops, his parents, his brother and his pregnant wife did not.
Man’s Search for Meaning is part autobiography (Frankl’s account of his experiences in the camps) and part psychological treatise (Frankl’s theory that life is oriented by a search for purpose and meaning, rather than pleasure or power).
His account is unique with respect to the breadth of his psychological observations of both the staff and the prisoners, including the capos (inmates, often selected for their sadistic cruelty, who collaborated with the Nazis in administering the camps in exchange for privileges). The criminal practitioner will be all too familiar with the tendency of some individuals, when placed under pressure, to “use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves” (page 5).
Frankl postulates that having a purpose or a specific meaning is useful for confronting suffering and for making better choices that will ultimately define an individual’s life.
His work is grounded in a strong sense of personal responsibility for one’s actions, even under stressful circumstances.
His work is also infused with a deep respect for the inherent dignity and worth of the individual and the sanctity of all human life.
At its core, his work is defined by a sense of hope. He makes it clear that the quest for a purpose-filled life remains open to those who seek to overcome their guilt by accepting responsibility for their actions and forging a different path.
His book belongs in the library of counsel and in correctional facilities across the country.