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How to Survive When Exposed to Cyanide
Reflections on “the believers in deadness and believers in life,” thoughts on how “their hateful system of punishment” will shape our society, and how or if it is possible to change it?
The fight is an unequal one, for the haters control education, religion, the law, the armies and the vile prisons. Only a handful of educators strive to allow the good in all children to grow in freedom. The vast majority of children are being molded by anti-life supporters with their hateful system of punishments.
It is a race between the believers in deadness and the believers in life. And no man dare to remain neutral: that will mean death. we must be one side or the other. The death side gives us the problem child; the life side will give us the healthy child.
–A.S. Neill1

For quite a while, I have really had a suspicion whether the system we are living in– and that we are preparing our children to live in– is suffocating us. And as I think more about it, the more I find evidence to convince myself that this system does not serve for life but death. Just like being exposed to cyanide, without being realized, maybe just with a slightly bitter almond smell, gradually poisoning all of us and leaving no place to survive. So I call it a system of cyanide, a system interwoven through thousands of threads, which we are exposed to starting from childhood, preparing us to be dead people or at best to close our eyes and ears to the things around us and just to stay silent. And when it comes to parenting, schooling or conventional education, they make up most of these deadly threads...

I would like to note that, the analogy which I am about to draw may seem absurd, unrealistic or even nonsense to some readers. I may agree with the exaggeration at some points, yet I have to say that I cannot simply ignore the similarities. These stories which I am about to tell are true stories. And as I keep on replaying these stories over and over again, in my head, I oftentimes smell bitter almond and hardly breath...

Does having lack of community mean having lack of hope?

A few months ago, as I was reading the morning news, and I came across the news that four siblings committed suicide in İstanbul. Leaving a note on the door saying “Cyanide inside – call the police”, they were found lying hand in hand on their beds. At first sight, it was difficult for many of us to understand why these siblings aged 48, 54, 56 and 60 decided to commit suicide together. Soon it is revealed that these people had inherited many debts from their parents, two of them were chronically ill, the only wage was garnished, drowning in an ocean of debt and execution, they were not able to afford the rent, the bills– even bread. The day they were found dead, the power was cut off by the administration – due to their debt of about $100. Having no one but themselves, they decided to stop trying. Oya, Cüneyt, Kamuran, and Yaşar, were all about to be buried in a cemetery of the nameless; in the end, an old friend managed to have them buried with their names.

As tragic as it may be, the incident was discussed a lot for a week or so... The government was criticized because of the economic conditions, even some actions were held... But was that enough to blame the economic conditions? Or would it be different if they had a supporting community, both financially and socially? Would they give up hope, if there were people around them who were supportive, encouraging, or collaborating instead of an apathetic mass of individuals? That remains unknown.

When is it harmless to decide instead of somebody else?

After this incident, I happened to hear the death of another family with cyanide. A father, a mother and their 9 and 5-year-old children. The father left a note saying that they decided to commit suicide, but the scene was different this time. The father was holding the hands of his children but the mother was in another room, laundering. Does anyone who decided to commit suicide do laundry?

Though the father left a note saying that “they are ending their lives”- it was obvious he was the one who decided to end the lives of the others. This was a planned murder that inspired some others, and a few weeks later there was another cyanide suicide on the news in which the mother was found on the threshold while trying to escape...

In all of these cases, the financial difficulties and depression became the main topic to discuss– as if it is “normal” to decide to end the life of someone else. Actually, the fathers, justifying their superiority over the mothers and the children decided that the rest cannot survive when he dies...I am afraid that, in a society where women and children cannot decide for themselves while living, no one will ask them their own decisions about “committing suicide.” And we live in a society where it is widely accepted and even encouraged “to think that they know what is best for another person.” Besides, unsurprisingly, all these men were mentioned as “good and kind” people but where lies the evil then?

“Oh dear, it is for your own sake”

“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” –Hannah Arendt2

Goebbels’ children’s story is probably one of the most dreadful stories about the murders with cyanide. On the evening of May 1st, 1945, six children of the Nazi Propaganda Minister, after being knocked out with morphine by a Nazi doctor, were poisoned with cyanide capsules being crushed between their teeth. Six of them were found by Soviet troops two days later, lying on their bunk beds, in nightclothes, with ribbons tied in the girl’s hair. Magda Goebbels, herself combed their hair just before getting them poisoned with cyanide, what a dreadfully romantic scene for a mom– preparing her own children to be found “beautifully” dead by Soviet troops! A perfectly planned “farewell”– morphine to sedate, cyanide to kill, nightgowns and ribbons to make it look nicer!

It is clear that Joseph Goebbels was one of the century’s foremost instigators, being the Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany, he obviously performed his job “successfully.” But even his wife and he too were sure that their children would be growing up, hearing their father’s dishonorable and non-virtuous actions. So they were to decide what is best for their children too, as they used to do for the masses. That was for their own sake, rather than living shamefully, dying beautifully. It is no surprise that once one legitimizes the control over the lives of the others “for they are weak or inferior”, it will inevitably spread to a larger area.

A Nazi Propaganda Minister may be an exaggerated example, but let’s not focus on the “Nazi” but on the “Propaganda”. Thinking of this as a starting point, how deep can we follow the roots of this totalitarianism? What if this example would not be a racist one but an inclusive one or a depiction of a utopia where people would live equally as brothers and sisters?

“Oh please, you don’t need to question, you just need to believe”

18th November 1978, was the day when more than 900 people died of cyanide poisoning, more than 300 of them were children. It was The People’s Temple, which was fighting for humanitarian reasons and good intentions, yet it turned out to be one of the largest mass murderings in U.S. history.

All these people were either convinced or forced to kill their own children and themselves. This cult, living in a colony among the jungles of Guyana, was completely isolated from the outer world, all the information was controlled and had no communication except the radio speaker system on which the leader Jim Jones’ preachings were constantly playing. And these everyday-nonstop preachings were aggrandizing the obedience to cult while criticism or quitting was considered as a betrayal. Does this seem dystopic?

As an extreme example of mind control, Jonestown Massacre has been examined and discussed for more than 40 years now. But is it really a unique or an extreme example? Or are we living in a system which is based on control of information, manipulation, constant mind control, and aggrandizing obedience, self sacrifice, and so on? Knowing that all the sources of information are controlled by the ones who have the power, we can only see or hear about the chosen news or propaganda. Nobody ever learns about the Kurdish children bombed and scattered in Tel Rifat, nobody hears about the siblings who died while playing with an explosive, the murder of the natives in rainforests or the murder of the activists in Chile and many many others left secret...

When I was about 13, I remember reading one of my homework assignments in writing class. It was about a murder of a journalist whose assassination still remained secret. As soon as I finished reading, regardless of what I was writing, the teacher started preaching, advising us to be wary, and not to question that much– which was quite shocking to me at that time– and yet, now it makes perfect sense.

As a conventionally schooled child I have seen many scenes in which I or my fellows were warned or threatened or punished when we were not obedient or when we just talked. Besides we were many many times given questions to be answered correctly (it is said as “correctly” but actually what is meant is “expected”) and yet hardly ever encouraged to question. I would prefer to take these experiences personally, but unfortunately, many children, in many countries still have been experiencing this every single day, for many many years. That is a perfect method to create an obedient society isn’t it?

Yet maybe that is not obedience poisoning us all but another form of ignorance– ignorance of “self”. Hannah Arendt sounds right, when she says “The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any.”

What to do with ourselves now?

As I am about to finish my ramblings I want to go back to the beginning, to the words of Neill, saying “... children are being molded by anti-life supporters with their hateful system of punishments.” As a grown up in this system, I have come across with certain kinds of blockages in my life and in the lives of the ones I happened to witness in a way. As I became obsessed with the destruction of schooling on human beings, I realised that these blockages are somehow very similar to each other regardless of how different our lives are. Here are some of my arguments or questions about these blockages:

Just like it is not easy to learn to question things while you are being questioned all the time, it is not easy to know about your personal interests, your needs while you are supposed to spend your time on the issues which are deliberately chosen by the authority and while you are supposed to ignore all your interests for the sake of someone else (a parent, a teacher, a leader...)

It is not easy to decide or to be sure about something when someone else is constantly deciding instead for you. Or it becomes impossible to organise or plan your own time when the external obligations or motivations are always driving you to a certain point.

And isn’t it impossible to cooperate and show empathy for one another or just to be at peace with yourself, when you are constantly forced to be “better than the others” and endlessly being evaluated or graded?

Helplessly crippled starting from childhood we become the lack of an authentic self, the lack of self-discipline or self-actualisation or the lack of self-respect, self-peace, or self-love. Remembering Neill’s definition, an ill society, made up of troubled adults who are unhappy constantly at war with themselves or one another. Isn’t this poisonous for us all? We are made to believe that this is normal, and there is no other way, yet as we let our authentic selves be buried, we are content with the rest of us, if there is anything left?

A photo of succulent plants
Original photo by Scott Webb

How to survive?

Considering all of the stories above, it is obvious that the dominant system (it can be called capitalism, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, parliamentary democracy or whatever...) is molded by the believers in deadness. We are living in this crazy era in human history, with deepening crisis of economy, social justice, and climate... After talking about many things I have to confess that I don’t know the exact answer to how to survive when exposed to the cyanide system? But I have questions which will bring some more questions.

Are we brave enough to love the world and assume responsibility for it?

Are we able to let our lives be governed by “the wellsprings of our lives” such as empathy or love?

Are we ready to question and search for answers together?

Are we ready to cooperate and collaborate? To live as a community working for a common interest?

Are we going to forget the old corrupted morals and embrace the renewal?

Are we going to let the new and the young ones take over?

Leaving these questions here and thinking about more, as I finish, I have to agree with Wilhelm Reich in his book Children of Future:

We cannot tell our children what kind of a world they will or should build. But we can equip them with the kind of character structure and biological vigor which will enable them to make their own decisions to find their own ways to build their own future and that of their children in a rational manner.3


[1] Neill, Alexander S., çev. Nilgün Şarman, Özgürlük Okulu, Payel Yayınları, 2000. sf 131
[2] Arendt, Hannah. The life of the Mind : One/Thinking, Two/Willing. Hartcourt, 1981.
[3] Reich et al. Children of the Future : On the Prevention of Sexual Pathology. Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984.

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