Lobotomizing Anne Frank: Scripting Holocaust Memory as an American Horror Story

Project Overview

An academic paper that uses Anne Frank’s appearance in American Horror Story to examine her availability as a vehicle for national traumas.

Identifying the Problem

From the publication of Diary of a Young Girl to the creation of Broadway and Hollywood depictions of The Diary of Anne Frank, America has played a leading role in the construction and maintenance of Anne Frank as a Holocaust martyr, symbol for hope and international icon. After spending much of his time in Amsterdam in and around the Anne Frank House, Samuel felt as though he began to see Frank everywhere – in film, music, paintings and television. He grew interested in how she was made to enact in pop-culture materials, and sought to expand the available scholarship on Anne.

Samuel was particularly fascinated by Anne’s appearance in American Horror Story: Asylum, a 2012-13 serial drama for primetime television. In Asylum, a woman claiming to be Anne Frank is committed to an asylum and lobotomized in 1964 New England. Samuel believed that by considering how the portrayal and performance of Anne Frank is managed in Asylum, the artistic choices structuring the “I Am Anne Frank” episodes allow us to more freely consider what role Anne is made to enact – as a historical figure, as a character and as an everywoman – for contemporary audiences. Anne’s historical weight, affective impact, literary work and multi-media presence has generated what religious and media scholars call the “Anne Frank Phenomenon,” an object lesson in sanctification through contemporary civil religion.

Thus, the historical and cultural problem surrounding Anne becomes, What is the appropriate way of representing her? For Americans, this is also a problem of collective subject formation: How does our approach to, and use of, Anne’s story transform our relationship to the Holocaust? Samuel wanted to unpack the arrival of American Horror Story: Asylum’s two-part Halloween episode, “I Am Anne Frank,” which he saw as marking a new cultural availability of Anne Frank’s body in entertainment culture and the use of Anne as a proxy for trauma in a post-9/11 entertainment culture.

Creating A Solution

By incorporating critical theory from a range of disciplines, Samuel’s paper thinks through how Asylum demonstrates American popular culture’s change in focus from Anne’s life to Anne’s death. He believes that this shift helps us construct an alternative understanding of how the Anne Frank narrative functions today, explicitly in relationship to post-War memory and narrative. Samuel’s concern here is not so much with parsing out the multiplicity of religious politics of the Catholic asylum, which are dense and underpin larger questions concerning the function of Jewishness in contemporary America, nor does he necessarily insist upon a diagnostic reading of Anne's psychiatric condition. Instead, Samuel is interested in demonstrating the under-examined change of attitude towards portraying violence against or harm to Anne’s body in mass media before and after 2001. He looks to Asylum as the latest iteration of the interpretive puzzle Anne presents in American Anne Frank filmography.

Samuel developed his paper over the course of many months and multiple drafts. When it was finalized, he presented it to high school students and faculty peers at the West Virginia Governor's Honors Academy. He is currently re-working a version of the paper to present at a conference.

Lessons Learned

Independent research is always difficult, especially when the object is new (or new enough) to you. There was little written on Anne’s appearance in Asylum, which proved to be both a blessing and a curse. The lack of existing scholarship gave Samuel little to use in the way of indexing Anne’s reception, but allowed for a more theoretical engagement with her cultural circulation. 

Samuel advises all scholars, especially Humanity in Action Fellows who will be returning to college after their Fellowships, to think of their scholarship as activism. “The work in the classroom is not (and indeed, cannot be) politically divorced from the world outside of it,” he says. “Find ways to think and write that acknowledge, react to and redress the world around you.”

Funding

No funding was required for this project, as Samuel’s resources were largely personal labor and libraries. He is grateful for the immeasurable help he received from his peers at George Washington University – specifically Professors Jenna Weissman-Joselit and Tom Guglielmo – in developing his thoughts through conversations, questions, engagements and edits.

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About This Project

HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2013

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