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How Instagram turned a Holocaust memoir into a self-help manifesto

Inspo from Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl’s iconic book, can be found on wellness accounts, on Pinterest, and as merch. But what gets lost in the appropriation?

A collage of Viktor Frankl’s face and the title of his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Christina Animashaun/Vox

In June 2019, the wellness platform All In — the brainchild of a former Real Housewife named Teddi Mellencamp — shared a quote from the late psychiatrist Viktor Frankl on Instagram. The line comes from his landmark book Man’s Search for Meaning and is perhaps its most reproduced sentence. You might know it: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” It is standard-issue advice for people who want to keep up a Pilates habit. Except Man’s Search for Meaning isn’t set in an Equinox. It describes survival in a Nazi labor camp.

“Delete this,” someone commented beneath the All In post. But then someone else tagged a friend and wrote: “so true. needed to see this right now!”

It feels inevitable that one of the most popular self-help texts of all time — written as part memoir, part treatise on Frankl’s preferred therapeutic techniques — would find an audience with a new generation of influencers. (The quote is available as a framed print for the reasonable price of $15.00, while the e-commerce site Redbubble sells a version of it as a laptop sticker decal.) But on the internet, a quote stripped of its context can travel faster and further than it could in the analog age. Man’s Search for Meaning has been so misappropriated that it now seems to have sprung from the mind of a Peloton executive.

Viktor Frankl was born in Vienna in 1905 and grew up in Leopoldstadt, the Jewish district. He studied medicine, graduating in 1930. It was not the best time for a Jewish physician to launch his career, but Frankl practiced. He saw patients. He broke with Sigmund Freud, with whom he had once corresponded, and developed his own theories about how to heal the despondent people in his care. In 1938, the Anschluss — the German annexation of Austria — put all that on pause. Frankl was marginalized in Vienna and restricted in his work. Jews had been cast out of larger society, and he was made to become a Judenbehandler — a caretaker of Jews — at the Rothschild hospital. And though he was granted a visa to the United States, he let it lapse in 1941. His parents were trapped and he could not bear to leave them behind.

In 1942, Frankl was deported with his father, mother, and wife to Theresienstadt, in what’s now the Czech Republic — the so-called model ghetto that the Nazis used as a transport hub until its residents could be sent to death camps further east. Frankl’s father died there. Scholars assume the cause was starvation. Because he had been a doctor in Vienna, Frankl was tasked with administering to the sick. He later described sneaking a shot of morphine to his father to ease his suffering as he died. Frankl called it “the most wonderful feeling.” That was the kind of minuscule reprieve that Theresienstadt turned into delight.

In 1944, Frankl was sent on one of the dreaded trains east, to Auschwitz in German-occupied Poland. He arrived in “Mexico” — Auschwitz’s unfinished depot — and was spared an immediate selection for the gas chamber. Man’s Search for Meaning has left millions of readers with the impression its events happened in Auschwitz, but Frankl was then sent to a labor camp in Bavaria. For seven months, he did backbreaking work on a diet of weak broth and morsels of bread. Around him, people got sick and died.

Grey haired man wearing large square eyeglasses, a grey suit and navy tie, looks directly into the camera.
Viktor Frankl, pictured in 1990, turned his experiences in a labor camp into a treatise on therapeutic technique, eventually called Man’s Search for Meaning. It has been published in more than 50 languages.
kpa/United Archives via Getty Images

Man’s Search for Meaning is meant to be a hopeful book — so much so that Holocaust scholars have criticized it for its ahistorical, mind-over-matter approach to living in a labor camp. But the book does not spare descriptions of frostbite and edema, of illness, inescapable filth, and human waste. Near the middle of the book, Frankl recalls hesitating before waking someone up from a screaming nightmare. Whatever horrors filled the man’s dreams, Frankl knew his real and waking morning would be worse. Frankl let him keep shrieking.

In 1945, Frankl was liberated. He would learn that his mother had been murdered in Auschwitz. His wife died in the Bergen-Belsen camp. Frankl wrote his famous book soon after. It took him less than two weeks to finish. Its title at the time was Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager, or A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp. Credit to the person who rechristened it when Beacon Press released its English translation a decade later; Man’s Search for Meaning is a much likelier-sounding bestseller.

The book was an instant hit. It intersperses Frankl’s memories of the Holocaust with sections that expound on logotherapy, the school of psychotherapy that he founded. Frankl’s approach posits that the driving force in people’s lives is not the pursuit of power or pleasure, but their own personal search for meaning. His narrative of survival became his best evidence. Even in the hell of the Holocaust, he insisted on finding purpose — not so much a reason for his suffering, but a reason to go on. He writes that he and his fellow prisoners had to undergo a “fundamental change in our attitude toward life.”

“We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men,” he writes, “that it did not matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.” In a labor camp, he experimented with his theories, and he writes that he found himself proven right. “[O]n this testing ground, we watched and witnessed 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 but not on conditions.”

The response to the book was and remains rhapsodic. It has sold over 16 million copies, been printed in 52 languages, and is read even in countries with no significant Jewish population. It has been translated not only into Chinese and French and Italian but also Afrikaans and Kazakh.

But the recent social media proliferation of Frankl-mania is distinct from what preceded it: It operates and spreads without encouraging real awareness of, or interest in, what Frankl endured, let alone in the Holocaust as a historical event. Lines from the book show up on Pinterest and Instagram like free-floating credos. Quotes are reposted. Websites aggregate them.

It is no simple feat to make memories of incarceration sound like hollow mottos of hustle culture, but here we are: the recollections of a Holocaust survivor whose experiences have been sold for literal parts on the internet. Frankl’s horrors have been sanded down and repurposed as double-tappable #inspo. Given the dismal trends surrounding Holocaust awareness, it stands to reason that for at least some portion of his fans, the genocide of the Holocaust exists more as a metaphor than as a historical event. It is a hardship to be overcome.

In an interview for New York magazine’s the Strategist, the tennis star Maria Sharapova put Man’s Search for Meaning on her list of personal essentials, sandwiching it between a $160 face mask and a pair of shearling slippers. She said that she admired its no-excuses conviction. It had forced her to ask herself: “What gets you going?” Frankl was identified as a Holocaust survivor in an editorial note. Sharapova had made no mention of it.

In the New York Times, a reporter consulted a therapist for advice about how to treat quarantine-induced ennui. The writer had not described feeling terrified or isolated, just unmotivated. She was having trouble completing household tasks like organizing her closet and wiping down her fridge. The therapist invoked Frankl: “Face what’s happening,” he advised, drawing on Man’s Search for Meaning and a new translation of a lecture series Frankl once delivered, titled Yes to Life. “What does it mean to me?”

Last spring, the podcast host and researcher Brené Brown uploaded a selfie to Instagram to announce a social media hiatus. Brown led her caption with none other than a Frankl quote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” Scholars have debated whether it was Frankl who said the line, as Brown notes. But the New York Times has also credited it to him in a piece about how to ... shop less.

The expression does sound just like Frankl. Man’s Search for Meaning brims with tales of stimuli and responses. Frankl recounts, in one anecdote, choosing how to react to an officer who beat him while he was being forced to dig frozen topsoil in freezing temperatures without a real jacket. Therein lies his growth and freedom. Brown wants growth and freedom, too. On Instagram, she referred to her sabbatical as her “boldest move” ever.

What makes Frankl so prone to misappropriation? The scholar Omer Bartov, who teaches Holocaust and genocide studies at Brown University, tells me that people have been reading Frankl as self-help since the book debuted. There are a number of Holocaust writers who might inspire awe and respect, but their texts have not been used to boost diet culture.

Like it or not — and most Holocaust historians do not — part of what has made Frankl so popular is that he sanctioned the reading of his book as a manifesto. It is a kind of marketing material. The book contends that all suffering is meaningful and that a person who has purpose can persevere under even the most horrendous circumstances. That is the basis of the therapeutic model Frankl set out to advance. Frankl must have been devastated, traumatized, and heartbroken after the war. He also had his own approach to patient healing that he wanted to see canonized.

Frankl would have known the risks when he wrote a text that invited readers to consider his convictions in the context of their own lives: People would use his incarceration to make sense of not just illness and loss, but also breakups and career setbacks. Frankl does not rank categories of anguish; to him, suffering is absolute.

The cover of Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, in three languages.
Frankl’s seminal memoir has been translated into dozens of languages, including Tamil (left), English (center), and Turkish.
Beacon Press

There are Holocaust memoirs that resist redemptive narratives, emphasizing the kind of evil of which normal men are capable. There are others that indict the wider world for its inaction. Man’s Search for Meaning levies no such accusations. It does not dwell on the nature of the perpetrators or question what enabled them.

The book is thus the ultimate in that most accessible class of Holocaust narratives — the ones that dispense with the politics and the centuries of antisemitism to zoom in on stories that celebrate the universal triumph of the “human spirit.” Anne Frank has been so used and misused to that effect that a writer once chronicled all of the productions and adaptations of her life in an article titled “Men explain Anne Frank to me.”

The film Life Is Beautiful, which won an Oscar for its depiction of humor and love in the camps, is another example. One critic called it “the first feel-good Holocaust weepie.” When its director and star Roberto Benigni accepted the prize, he dedicated it to the “subjects of the movie” whom he declared “gave their life in order that we can say life is beautiful.”

It makes sense to me that I never encountered Man’s Search for Meaning in over a decade of formal Jewish education. (I read it in college.) It was never going to be the preferred text of people whose relatives, like mine, were murdered — and not for a lack of meaning in their lives.

I reread Frankl earlier this summer in between coming across the Sharapova interview and catching a Frankl reference in an installment of Modern Love in the New York Times, learning that it inspired an entire episode of The Patient on Hulu, and hearing a Fox News contributor suggest that the school shooter responsible for the Uvalde massacre should have read Man’s Search for Meaning. (Man’s Search for Meaning is also in development as a feature film. The life coach and author Tony Robbins, whose core and controversial conviction is that trauma and pain can be mastered, is spearheading the production.)

I returned to the book with low expectations. I am not interested in stories about what the Holocaust can “do” for people. But I ended up having more compassion for Frankl than I thought I would. He survived something terrible. His world shattered. He tried to put it back together.

Gary Weissman, who teaches at the University of Cincinnati and has lectured about Holocaust literature, is critical of Man’s Search for Meaning. But he understands what might have driven Frankl to write it. Weissman sees Frankl as part of a generation of Holocaust survivors who “ended up constructing their postwar identities through writing,” he wrote in an email. Their histories and their families and their communities and their sense of self had all been obliterated. So Frankl clung to his theories. What else did he have?

Beacon Press associate publisher Sanj Kharbanda tells me that sales of Frankl took off as coronavirus case counts rose in April 2020. It was a brutal month in a brutal season. Readers flocked to Frankl. The book finds audiences in war zones. It reaches people who have more recent experience with the kind of torment it chronicles. Kharbanda received a recent email from a Uyghur Muslim who had just read the book and loved it. He hoped to share copies with Uyghurs around the world.

Historians and avowed Frankl critics might wish it were not so, but Frankl is one of the representatives of the Holocaust that people know best. He is, in all likelihood, the sole survivor that millions of people will ever hear of. Most Holocaust memoirs do not get translated into Mongolian.

That is what makes the uses and misuses of his seminal work — even if he would have sanctioned it — so depressing. There are a dwindling number of living Holocaust survivors; Frankl died in 1997. When his words are thrown around like spin-class affirmations, the Holocaust is reduced to a matter of personal struggle. Teddi Mellencamp has 1 million Instagram followers. What portion of them has heard of Theresienstadt?

Bartov has his own reservations about Frankl, but he thinks his newfound resonance on the internet has less to do with the flattening of Frankl and more to do with a culture that is desperate for shortcutted access to meaning. Motivational podcasts piece together bits of wisdom. Instagram accounts trade crisp insights for likes and affiliate revenue. “You can bring in Buddhism. You can bring in Frankl,” Bartov tells me. “You don’t have to bother reading it or knowing the context. It’s all self-help — a kind of cheapening.”

The writer Primo Levi, whose memoir Survival in Auschwitz is far too bitter to ever be positioned near a photo of a smoothie bowl, published his last book, The Drowned and the Saved, just before he died. Levi spent his life grappling with how to describe what had happened to him during the Holocaust and agonizing over whether such a description was even possible. He wanted to document his experience but resisted its use as some kind of fable or moral instruction.

Bartov once taught the book in a course at Rutgers. One of Bartov’s students came to him and said that the book had had a real effect on her. She told him that she felt at last, in reading it, she had come to understand what the Holocaust was about.

“I said, ‘You show that you do not understand at all,’” he recalls. Levi offers no neat conclusions.

Frankl is much more accommodating. Man’s Search for Meaning lets the Holocaust become a source of gravitas in service of individual revelation. It does not make other demands.

In his book, Viktor Frankl’s Search for Meaning, the historian Timothy Pytell produces an intellectual and biographical sketch of the man behind the juggernaut.

He also punctures a bit of Frankl lore. In the course of his research, Pytell interviewed a man named Ernst Seinfeld, a prisoner who had been held with Frankl in Dachau, one of the Bavarian labor camps in which Frankl was imprisoned. Seinfeld said that Frankl was “not preaching heroic survival” when he met him in the camp. Frankl was instead lamenting that he had not left Vienna when he had the chance.

Pytell has moved on from some of the harsher critiques of Frankl. He has come to feel that Frankl relied on his training “to create a heroic version of survival” — something he could live with. He used the tools available to him to recast his own victimization. That reclamation became his famous book. No wonder it is so liked on social media. What else does Instagram reward as much as reinvention?


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