Stasiland (2003) & Acts of Benign Psycho Horror
The inability to discuss these terrifying experiences with your loved ones lest someone is listening in or might inform—that invisible cage of silence around your life—is enough to drive you insane.
Anna Funder’s Stasiland was not the book I had originally intended to buy. Yet, that nagging feeling in my gut persisted with such intensity after that I returned back to the feminist bookstore I got it from and exchanged it. I’m embarrassed to say that it was the cover that first grabbed my attention. The 2021 edition from Granta Books features a photograph, taken by Ute Mahler in 1984, of a girl getting ready at a table that’s sparsely cluttered with makeup, cups, cigarettes, and a lone beer bottle. Her hair tumbles down her back in loose curls, her face is partially obscured as she holds a mirror up to put on lipstick. A portrait of a man—GDR leader Erich Honecker—hangs behind her shoulder in sharp contrast with the space’s patterned wallpaper, watching both us and her through the dark punctuation of his eyeglass frames.
I have been haunted by this book since I finished reading it 30,000 miles above the Atlantic Ocean on my flight home. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I was haunted at each step of reading Funder’s collected stories, spending my mornings in a disorienting stupor that feels like waking right before your alarm goes off.
After I reach the last page, take a final breath that feels like a loosened weight, and put the bag back in the tote bag splayed open under my seat, I think about the fact that my boyfriend and I ended up staying in a hostel in a former East Berlin neighborhood. It was pure coincidence, a location chosen solely for good reviews and the price. The ghosts Funder encountered as she visited the former GDR to speak with the people who lived through it have faded considerably in the past two decades. The neighborhood is now more known for its techno clubs and rapid gentrification. Walking around, we pass vintage clothing stores, coffee shops, and a skatepark punctuated with graffiti. Near the train station, a remnant of the Berlin Wall has become an outdoor gallery of murals that tourists take pictures in front of. When we go to the nearest U-Bahn station, we walk along a street lined with 1950s-era apartment buildings, massive and blocky and homogenous with intact socialist realist ornamentation and friezes meant to signal a national optimism of post-war reconstruction. Like I said, the ghosts aren’t entirely gone.
When Funder visits the former Stasi headquarters in Berlin, it’s been only about six years since the space was overtaken by protestors and its secretive bureaucracy exposed to the public. Compared to the self-guided Stasi Museum I’d eventually wander through, Funder encounters this building in the process of its own future preservation. A tour guide takes her and a group of West Berliners (who observe with a morbid curiosity how the other half of Berlin lived) up the building’s zig-zagging stairwell to the offices of the Stasi’s senior leadership to talk about the secret labyrinth of rooms protestors found when they occupied the space (a hair salon, a private bedroom and bathroom for Stasi leader Erich Mielke, a supermarket stocked with hard-to-find produce, an island of small luxuries kept from the public). The rooms’ simple mid-century furnishings are no longer covered by the administrative clutter of paperwork—files that weren’t completely destroyed by the Stasi as the collapse of the GDR drew closer were meticulously collected by activists and continue to be pieced back together to this day—and items used by the Stasi for their meticulous surveillance have been placed behind glass in a series of galleries that trace the organization’s growth and demise. Funder and I both take notice of a thermos with a camera hidden inside, a part of a car door that’s been dismantled to show the radar system inside, even a petrol can with a recording device inside. I notice a camera disguised as a button. It’s an absurd object with a bulky metal body and a simple plastic lens cap with four tiny pinholes. I try to imagine what it felt like to wear it, the small weight tapping against your chest as you moved and the shutter release cable snaking through your clothes. Funder’s guide tells her group that Berliners called the Stasi headquarters “the House of One Thousand Eyes.”