The term “Sophie’s Choice” has become part of the language. Sometimes it’s misapplied to difficult decisions. Sometimes to morally complex personal decisions, such as whether or not to save a mother’s life by aborting a fetus, or to separate conjoined twins when there is a high risk that one or both may die. Sophie’s Choice involves more than a trade-off to find the lesser of two evils.
Because she had friends in the Polish resistance, Sophie Zawistowski knew that she and her children were going through a “selection” on the railway platform at Auschwitz. She knew what “selection” meant, and it terrified her. When the Nazi doctor told her to pick one of her children or else he would send them both “over there,” she knew that he could and that he would, and what would happen to them “over there.” She knew but she “could not believe any of this. … Her disbelief was total, deranged.” (Styron  590) Only when Hauptsturmführer Fritz Jemand von Niemand ordered his “gaunt, waxy-skinned young Rottenführer” to “send them both over there, then, nach links,” only then did Sophie push her daughter forward. “Take the baby!” she called out. “Take my little girl!” Sophie made her choice under duress, but “Sophie’s Choice” involves more than forced decision.
Styron’s narrator Stingo mentions more than once Sophie’s “deranged” terror to explain her behavior. On the other hand, Stingo spends three pages (590-593) analyzing van Niemand’s actions.
And what, in the private misery of his heart, I think he most intensely lusted to do was to inflict upon Sophie, or someone like her—some tender and perishable Christian—a totally unpardonable sin.
Van Niemand realized that
the absence of sin and the absence of God were inseparably intertwined. No sin! He had suffered boredom and anxiety, and even revulsion, but no sense of sin from the bestial crimes he had been party to …. Was it not supremely simple, then, to restore his belief in God, and at the same time to affirm his human capacity for evil, by committing the most intolerable sin that he was able to conceive?
For the moment, at least, “bad choice” seems the best term for the kind of choice that van Neimand presented to Sophie. A “bad choice” is a decision forced on you in which not only are all the alternative responses bad, but just considering those alternatives, even just considering whether or not to respond at all, is bad. Just to hear the “bad choice” question makes you feel ashamed, guilty, humiliated, afraid, hurt, baffled, or all of them if you think about it. When faced with a “bad choice,” you have no good options because just facing the choice already makes you dirty, kaka.
Sophie herself describes the impact of “bad choice” when she tells Stingo that she might overcome her sadness if she knew what happened to her son Jan.
It might even save me from the guilt I have felt over Eva. In some way I know I should feel no badness over something I done like that. I see that it was—oh, you know—beyond my control, but it is still so terrible to wake up these many mornings with a memory of that, having to live with it. When you add it to all the other bad things I done, it makes everything unbearable. Just unbearable. (599)
But she continues in the same conversation to say that it would not have made any difference if she’d picked Jan instead of Eva. Pointing “to the center of her bosom,” she says, “Only this has changed, I think. It has been hurt so much, it has turned to stone.”
Having to face a “bad choice” may have been beyond Sophie’s control, but that does not mean she had no role in creating this situation. According to Stingo, Sophie got herself into this predicament because “her terror caused her to behave unwisely.” If she had just kept quiet and pretended that she did not understand van Niemand’s German, if she had not answered his question whether she was a Communist, if she had just “played dumb” in the “press of people,” if “she had not answered in German, he might have let the three of them pass through.” Instead, in perfect German, she told him that she’s Polish, born in Krakow, and then
she blurted helplessly, “I’m not Jewish! Or my children—they’re not Jewish either. They are racially pure. They speak German. I’m a Christian. I’m a devout Catholic.”
Sophie realized her mistake as soon as she made it, but it was too late. Like many terrified people, she resorted to behavior that she thought would help give her some measure of control over the situation. In this case, she appealed to the Nazi’s ideology of racial purity and anti-Semitism.
That Sophie resorts to anti-Semitism in her panic is consistent with her history and her character. Stingo has already noted (266) that when it came to anti-Semitism Sophie was “both victim and accomplice.” We have discussed how she felt guilty about her complicity in her father’s anti-Semitic propaganda. Styron describes the book “as a parable of the devastation of anti-Semitism” in which “a wheel of evil come full circle” crushes the daughter and grand-children of a Jew-hating academic. (Styron 1997)
But these considerations only have to do with the dramatic credibility of Sophie’s actions on the platform. Having pointed to her “terror,” Stingo does not go as deeply into Sophie’s motivations as he does with van Niemand. She herself, however, in the passage just quoted about the impact of her “bad choice” does touch on the key factor that got her into this difficulty: desiring and imagining control.
Sophie found herself on the train to Auschwitz because she had been swept up with Polish partisans
where she was victim less of any specific retributive justice than of a general rage—a kind of berserk lust for complete domination and oppression which seized the Nazis whenever they scored a win over the Resistance …. (Styron  583)
Charlotte Delbo (1997) describes the same kind of random activity that swept up some of the members of Convoi 31000.
Because she thought she knew what was happening, Sophie imagined that she could be in control, that she could save herself and her children by what she did and said. Even her immediate realization that speaking up was a mistake implied the belief that she might have done something (i.e., not speak up) that would have given her some control over the outcome. In the camp and later, Sophie’s obsession with learning the fate of her son also involves this desire for control.
This desire to imagine control in a situation out of control constitutes Sophie’s Fallacy. That fallacy put her in the situation where she was presented with Sophie’s Choice. In that situation Sophie’s Fallacy set her up to think that she had (to make) a choice. After the fact, Sophie’s Fallacy fed the guilt and shame with the illusion that she had made a choice of her own.
“Sophie’s Choice” may have entered the language, but actual instances that present all the characteristics of “bad choice” are, thankfully, much less common than usage of the phrase “Sophie’s Choice” might imply. You may not have heard of “Sophie’s Fallacy” before, but we all seem to desire control over our fate and do things to help us imagine that we can control our lives.
In his chapter on “Illusions of Patterns and Patterns of Illusions,” Leonard Mlodinow describes how we find, create, or impose patterns where there is only random activity. These patterns enable us to imagine that we are in control. He cites Bruno Bettelheim on survival in concentration camps by keeping control over even some part of one’s life, and psychological experiments where people think they are controlling lights flashing randomly. As for the urge for control, Mlodinow describes what happens when rats are experimentally deprived of control over their situation, and what happens to elderly patients in nursing homes.
In her book, Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand describes this urge to imagine control as a need to maintain “dignity” in order to survive. After Louis Zamperini’s plane crashed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, he and his crewmates endured weeks of “the most desperate physical extremity, without food, water or shelter” out on the open sea. When they finally reached land, they found themselves prisoners of the Japanese who subjected them to all sorts of “dehumanizing treatment.” They were forced to perform (dance, sing, whistle, crawl around to pick up grains of rice guards threw on floor) while guards laughed at and mocked them. The guards would laugh at Zamperini’s “helpless contortions” in response to their poking and hitting him with sticks through the window of his cell.
According to Hillenbrand, Louis Zamperini survived years of mistreatment because he maintained a sense of his innate dignity through it all.
Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty.
Zamperini’s survival is nothing short of amazing. If I question Hillenbrand’s interpretation of how he survived, in no way would I question his resilience. It would have been interesting if a Buddhist had interviewed Zamperini and analyzed how he endured through years of Japanese prisons. Perhaps another author might have seen that instead of a “stubborn retention” of a self, instead of maintaining “dignity” through self-control, Zamperini survived because his athletic training and practice taught him how to let go of the moment and its hurt.
Perhaps not. I’m not trying to claim that Zamperini survived through some other means than imagining the innate dignity of his own self. That works for some people, and for some it works to see them through extreme circumstances. I’m just trying to point to the source of Sophie’s Fallacy—imagining a substantive self that can control what happens. William Styron calls his novel “a parable of the devastation of anti-Semitism,” but it is just as much a parable of the devastation of the thirst for a self in control.
For someone like myself with a fear of heights, Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel‘s image “of being suspended on a rock and not seeing any possibilities for moving up or down” scares me more than any abstract discussion of letting go of the thirst (tanha) for a self to hold on to..
Hanging off a rock is an exaggerated experience of facing the unknown. It is exhilarating, scary, and completely vibrant. When we can’t find a foothold, the mind falls into an open stillness— the same brief pause we encounter in any situation where we lose our familiar reference points. If we have the wherewithal to relax, we find our way. If we don’t, we sometimes panic. … No one really knows what will happen from one moment to the next: who will we be, what will we face, and how will we respond to what we encounter? We don’t know, but there’s a good chance we will encounter some rough, unwanted experiences, some surprises beyond our imaginings, and some expected things, too. And we can decide to stay present for all of it.