The hidden tragedy of 'The Reader'

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In "The Reader," Hanna, the former concentration camp guard, is portrayed as an illiterate who seduces a 15-year-old boy, who is scarred for life by the experience. She is not a very sympathetic character, given her Nazi past and apparent amorality. Reviewers and moviegoers ask: Why didn't she just learn to read and get a life? But she is more victim than villain. Hanna is not just illiterate. She is dyslexic.

If you teach dyslexics to read, as I have done as a volunteer tutor for 16 years, you learn that from childhood on, they are often stigmatized as stupid or lazy. The truth is the opposite. They are usually quite intelligent and motivated. They just suffer from, in effect, crossed wires in the brain that make it difficult — but usually not impossible — to read and write.

That is why Hanna is so receptive when Michael ("kid," as she calls him) reads to her. He's not just reading comic books or murder mysteries. He's reading Kant, Hegel "War and Peace" and literary heavyweights such as Schiller and Eichendorff. She laps it up. She can't get enough of these complex tomes.

In Bernhard Schlink's 1995 novel and the current film based on it, the word dyslexic is never used. It wouldn't be. In the immediate postwar period, during which the story takes place, the disability was little recognized.

But the narration is full of clues, which my students instantly picked up on — and found tremendously moving — without any coaching from me. The first big clue comes when Hanna and Michael go on a bicycle trip into the country.

While Hanna sleeps, the doting Michael goes out to bring back breakfast and a rose for her. He leaves a note telling her what he is doing. When he returns, the note is missing and Hanna is "trembling with rage and white-faced." She thinks he has abandoned her. She has obviously hidden the note or thrown it away.

"How could you go just like that?" she rages in the book. She hits him across the face with her leather belt, splitting his lip. In almost the next instant, she becomes contrite and says, "Read me something, kid."

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One of the characteristics of dyslexics is often a pent-up rage from the years of frustration. The frustration comes from not just the inability to handle everyday tasks, but also from treatment as a dolt who just won't make the effort. Hanna's rage stems from a lifetime of shame and concealment.

Even stronger evidence emerges at the trial. Hanna and her fellow women guards from the SS are accused of causing the death of a group of women prisoners during a forced march from Auschwitz. They have taken temporary refuge in a country church, which burns down around them during an air attack.

Hanna joined the SS only to avoid revealing her illiteracy when offered a promotion to foreman at a wartime electronics factory. She is no more or less guilty than the other defendants.

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Sensing her uncertainty about the proceedings, the others gang up to accuse her of having written the report to the SS implicating them in the incident. When Hanna denies it, the court discusses giving her a handwriting test.

"My handwriting?" she cries in confusion and alarm. "You want my handwriting? . . ."

It's an impossibility that Hanna cannot bring herself to admit.

"You don't have to call an expert," she abruptly says. "I admit I wrote the report."

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Sentenced to life in prison, Hanna spends her days teaching herself to read and write, using audio tapes Michael sends her. On the day before her release on parole, when Michael will return to take her to the apartment and opportunities he has arranged for her, she hangs herself.

If you understand that Hanna is concealing not a Nazi past but a lifelong shame about her disability, her end becomes tragic rather than pointless or deserved. A life has been wasted.

"I always had the feeling that no one understood me anyway, that no one knew who I was and what made me do this or that," she tells Michael in prison. "And you know, when no one understands you, then no one can call you to account."

Only the dead can call her to account, she goes on. And, having been complicit in the death of innocent women, she chooses to join them. She too becomes a victim of the Nazis.

None of this, of course, excuses concentration camps or murder. But Hanna's behavior is not that of a simple illiterate. It fits into a pattern little known in the 1950s and '60s and still not always understood today for what it is: dyslexia.

That's why my students, who are women, were so deeply moved by Hanna's story. There is help for people like them now. Berkshire literacy groups, such as the Literacy Network of South Berkshire, for which I volunteer, offer tutoring to help dyslexics overcome this disability and trauma.

We're more enlightened about these things. Just not in a movie.


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