ILLUMINATE interviews Jerry Burger

Historic photo of Armenian woman kneeling in a battllefield with two daughters.

The Scars of Generational Trauma

How long is the shadow of genocide? It’s the question Jerry Burger grapples with in his new novel, The Shadows of 1915 (Golden Antelope Press, 2019), referring to the Armenian Genocide in which 1.5 million Armenians were systemically murdered by the Turkish rulers in the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923. The Emeritus professor, who retired from SCU’s Department of Psychology Department last April after 34 years, sets his story a generation after the genocide, in 1953, in his hometown of Fresno, California. A large population of the Armenian diaspora began settling there before World War I and after the genocide due to Fresno’s bountiful farmland.  

The story centers on the Saropian family: Matriach Tarvez, who survived the genocide but whose infant daughter was killed during a death march, and her now-adult American-born sons. A hostile encounter between the sons and several Turkish college students forces the characters to choose between family loyalty and what’s morally, and legally, right.

Growing up in Fresno, Burger says he was struck by how stories of the atrocities committed during the 1915 genocide were central to the Armenian-American community’s story. Despite being born well after the events, the offspring of survivors were (and continue to be) forced to contend with the trauma endured by their ancestors. Here, Burger reflects on his experience writing about that inherited trauma.

Why did you focus on the generation after genocide?
While growing up in Fresno and interacting with Armenian friends and their families, I was struck by two things: First, every family had a story about loved ones lost in the genocide, and these stories were an important part of their community identity; second, every member of the Armenian community I encountered had strong feelings about Turks. Hate might be the appropriate word. Certainly there was anger. At some point it occurred to me that this situation would provide an excellent opportunity to explore in fiction a number of concepts that interest me—family, community, culture, overcoming trauma, and justice. Questions about justice are raised throughout the book. Most importantly, how can members of the Armenian community reach a sense of justice when the genocide perpetrators not only go unpunished but deny that the genocide happened? As one of my characters says, “Hate is not a solution. But neither is forgetting.”

Much of the plot deals with Tarvez’s now-adult sons, Mihran and Arak, who are on diverging paths. Mihran is more future-thinking and embracing of the American way of life. Arak runs the family farm, upholds values from “the old country,” and harbors rage against the new Turkish immigrants in town. How did you plot this difference between first-generation brothers?
One reason I selected 1953 was that it was about the time that the tightly knit Armenian community concentrated in one area of Fresno called Armenian Town began the process of integrating into the larger Fresno community. There were many reasons for this, but key was a 1948 Supreme Court ruling outlawing what were known as restrictive covenants. As I explain in the book, before the ruling, clauses were included in real estate deeds that prevented Armenians from buying a house outside of Armenian Town. But the ruling also contributed to existing tensions within the Armenian community, pitting tradition against change. The desire to hold onto tradition and the old culture versus the need to become part of the new culture. It’s an issue faced by any group of people assimilating into the larger culture.

Your story deals with how the psychological fallout of genocide affects not just survivors but their offspring. In what ways do humans see inherited trauma play out in their lives? Are there parallels you can identify in today’s world?
I’m hesitant to draw parallels between the events in my novel and events in the news, although I certainly would like people who read my book to see some of these connections. However, I believe the novel should raise questions about the ongoing tensions between Armenians and Turks and, more generally, about reconciliation between groups that were once in conflict. I have a German surname, but I have never sensed any hatred from Jewish people because of it. Yet more than a century after the genocide, the Armenians’ dislike of Turks remains intense. Why? Certainly part of the answer is Turkey’s continuing denial of the genocide. In Germany today, it is against the law to deny the Nazi Holocaust. In Turkey today, it is against the law to refer to the 1915 events as genocide. Efforts by members of the United States Congress to simply acknowledge the Armenian genocide have been thwarted by Turkey’s threats to not allow access to military bases, air space, etc. if such an acknowledgement is made official. I imagine the pain and feelings of loss for Armenians is exacerbated by Turkey’s claim that the genocide never happened.

Why is the concept of justice such a motif in your story? Why is justice so central to humans, particularly if they themselves were not the direct victims of trauma?
Psychologists find that believing in a just world may be critical for our sense of well-being, at least in Western cultures. We know things are not always fair, but we need to believe that in general the world is a just place—that people get what they deserve and they deserve what they get. This is part of why people often have a difficult time overcoming trauma; that is, if these types of things just happen, then there’s nothing to keep them from happening again. This is also why injustice on such a grand scale as genocide is unacceptable. But your question touches on another theme I raise in the book, a notion sometimes referred to as "the sins of the father." I can understand why Armenians feel anger over the lack of justice related to the genocide—I feel it, even though I am not Armenian. But why turn that anger on the next generation of Turks? Are they to pay for the sins of their fathers? Is that justice?

In reading the book, I was struck by how some of the Armenian-American characters behaved towards other ethnic groups—e.g. wary of their men marrying non-Armenian women; mistreatment of migrant farm hands from Mexico. Psychologically speaking, where does this mistrust come from?
I have always been fascinated by the way people who have been the victims of prejudice and discrimination often express prejudice and discrimination against other groups. Many of the Armenian-Americans in the novel are guilty of this. For me, it’s one more aspect of the justice theme: Are these characters motivated by a sense of justice or are they simply looking out for their own people? And could one argue that looking out for your own community is a type of justice?


More articles by this author

Advance Reviews for John Young's WHEN THE COIN IS IN THE AIR

“I appreciated reading this book because it took me deeply into Jason’s personal history and psychology. …I found much there that was relatable, simply because it was deeply human. I’m grateful John Young wrote this book. When the Coin is in the Air is a novel that will stay with you, remind you of a version of the Midwest that might be fading, and bring to mind key pivotal moments in your own life, moments that led you to flip a coin to decide which road to take—and to determine which way you really wanted to go.”

See full review.

Kelly Blewett

NPR affiliate WVXU


“It is a rare coming-of-age-novel that strikes an elegiac tone—the trembling anticipation of youth, a decidedly modern hero’s journey, in combination with a grief-struck plunge into conscience—but John Young pulls it off. This novel, like its main character, makes its way from early promise to settled accomplishment, from a staggering opening to a quiet self-acceptance that seems wholly earned—and leaves a reader grateful.”

James Carroll

National Book Award Winner and author of The Cloister


“An abusive father keeps his son—and the reader—in suspense in When the Coin is in the Air, a well-told coming -of age tale.”

Dan Wakefield

author of Going All The Way and New York in the Fifties


When the Coin is in the Air follows Jason Blake from early promise to settled accomplishment, with dramatic adventures, tough decisions and heart-stopping risks along the way. “It is fiction, John explains, “but the bones came from my life.”

The story is sometimes sweet, often poignant, and frequently funny. You find yourself rooting for Jason, hoping his choices will work out. The heroes and villains are all satisfyingly complex and multi-dimensional.

See full review.

Cynthia Smith

Wyoming Living Magazine


“I loved John Young’s wise and moving novel. A young man is forced to navigate the difficult choices of early adulthood while protecting his own life and his mother’s from a violent, abusive father. Reminiscent of the novels of Pat Conroy, When the Coin is in the Air explores the complexities of the pull between duty and self-determination, tempered by love.”

Susan Neville

author of Invention of Flight and The House of Blue Lights


When the Coin is in the Air is a riveting story of adversity, destruction and transcendence. John Young weaves a gritty but ultimately uplifting tale, sure to speak to anyone who has wrestled with demons. From the start, Young’s debut novel will grab you, and it won’t let you go.”

Don Tassone

author of Drive

Mark Guerin's YOU CAN SEE MORE FROM UP HERE Reviewed by Dr. Holly Fling

As Mark Guerin shows in YOU CAN SEE MORE FROM UP HERE (Golden Antelope Press, 2019), our past—the secrets we keep, the lies we tell, the hurtful words that escape our mouths during moments of anger, and our social behavior—has the power to haunt us in the present, even when the present takes place decades later. This effect can especially affect our relationships with family and friends. Indeed, Guerin seamlessly weaves past (most of which takes place during the summer of 1974) and present (2004) into a moving narrative about one man’s perceptions of his relationships with his family, best friend, co-workers, and the girl he loved and lost.

Walker Maguire, an experienced journalist in 2004, recreates one week from the past on his laptop while he sits by his dying father’s hospital bed. As he writes about his first week working a summer job at an automotive plant in Belford, Illinois, he begins to perceive the past in a different light. Physically moving about the hospital—to the maternity ward, where he bumps into a woman from his past, and to the emergency room, where a critical encounter had occurred thirty years before—and talking with his sister and his best friend, who are now married as a result of the relationship they formed that same summer, helps Walker to understand that he was only one of many actors during that week. Though the effects of his actions continue to reverberate through time, so do the other characters’ past actions. Walker finally begins to heal with his awareness of these other actions that took place outside of his knowledge and control.

Of course, Walker is not the only character whose control tactics go awry. His father, in pushing him into a blue-collar summer job, is confident that the experience will encourage Walker to work harder in his college science courses. He is confounded, then, when Walker not only fails to perceive himself as above his co-workers but also comes to care deeply about one of these co-worker’s struggle to support a family.

A good read about coming to terms with the past, YOU CAN SEE MORE FROM UP HERE is an exploration of how the past is always present in the present. I was able to relate to the characters and the situations in this novel, because it is not only a narrative of an individual’s experiences. It is a collective story—a story about community, family, and love. It is a story about all of us.


By Kelly Blewett for NPR affiliate WVXU –


John Young’s novel coming-of-age novel follows Jason Blake from adolescence through adulthood. The title of the book, When the Coin is in the Air, is about how people make life decisions. A college professor advises Jason to choose between two good options by tossing a coin in the air. How he wants the coin to fall, once it is in the air, will reveal which route to take. The novel presents many of Jason’s “coin in the air” moments. He decides which teaching job to take. He decides whether to join his brother in business. He decides whether to remain in Indiana or to leave. And along the way, he comes to terms with a deep-seeded aggression and competitive nature that bubbles below his genial surface.

The story is told with a first-person perspective. There are few descriptions; instead, it’s more of a straightforward narration of one young person’s development and the various influences that shaped him. There is clarity about who the characters are, especially Jason’s nuclear family, which includes his charismatic and successful older brother, his abrasive father, and his artistic, quiet mother. As Jason tries to find his place in the family and the world, he finds pieces of each of his family members within himself.

The book is also a page-turner. I found myself grabbing it to read a few chapters here and there, laughing at the characterization of the Indiana Teacher’s Conferences during the nineties, nodding my head in recognition at the long hours Jason put into preparing lessons and grading papers. Maybe I should mention that I teach writing for a living? I also appreciated the vividness of certain details, some of which helped me better understand my own family.

My grandfather, like Jason’s father, was an auto-mechanic in Pennsylvania, and often would scour junkyards for parts from wrecks. I recounted some of the gruesome details about the way Jason described the wrecks to my father—for instance, shoes flung asunder in the violence of a crash—and my father just nodded knowingly. I also shared that the young Jason digs around the broken-down cars for green stamps. I didn’t know what they were. My parents laughed and told me they furnished their apartment in graduate school on green stamps.

In all, this novel provides an atmospheric look into a particular corner of the rural Midwest that will resonate with many Cincinnatians. It tells a story not only about one young man’s journey to adulthood, but also about how traditional values like achievement and loyalty play out in one family over time.

“I appreciated reading this book because it took me deeply into Jason’s personal history and psychology. …I found much there that was relatable, simply because it was deeply human. I’m grateful John Young wrote this book. When the Coin is in the Air is a novel that will stay with you, remind you of a version of the Midwest that might be fading, and bring to mind key pivotal moments in your own life, moments that led you to flip a coin to decide which road to take—and to determine which way you really wanted to go.”

The love/hate relationship that Jason has with both his father and his brother is inevitable, I think, because they are his deepest models for himself. These men attract and repel him. “Where would I be without my brother?” he wonders in the middle of the novel. He can’t even fathom the thought. I appreciated reading this book because it took me deeply into Jason’s personal history and psychology. While I don’t have a brother and wasn’t raised in rural Indiana, I found much there that was relatable, simply because it was deeply human. I’m grateful John Young wrote this book. When the Coin is in the Air is a novel that will stay with you, remind you of a version of the Midwest that might be fading, and bring to mind key pivotal moments in your own life, moments that led you to flip a coin to decide which road to take—and to determine which way you really wanted to go. More information on this title can be found on our website,

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Armenian Mirror Spectator Review of Burger's SHADOWS of 1915

Jerry M. Burger’s New Novel The Shadows of 1915


FRESNO, Calif. — Fresno is one of the oldest and most identifiable Armenian-American communities and consequently it has been the setting for the literary efforts of a number of works dealing with Armenian-American life, most famously including the writings of William Saroyan and more recently the novels of Aris Janigian. Dr. Jerry M. Burger, a psychologist who retired last year after some four decades of teaching at Santa Clara University and prolific publishing in his field, has thrown his hat in the ring with his novel The Shadows of 1915, published by Golden Antelope Press this May (

Set in 1953, it examines how the legacy of the Armenian Genocide poisons the life of the descendants of the survivors. The hero, Mihran Saropian, however, unlike his brother Arak, manages to struggle to overcome the memories of the past to find grounds for common humanity with contemporary Turks. Burger combines this theme with a love story between an Armenian and a non-Armenian, raising issues of identity and gender roles. There are also questions of the roles of immigrants, as the Saropian family, themselves refugees from another country, run a farm which employs largely Mexican labor, and many moral dilemmas.

Jerry Burger

While initially slow-moving, the interest of patient readers is rewarded in the latter part of the novel, as events move toward their climax. There are a few minor errors an Armenian speaker could have corrected, such as using “myrut” for mother (“mayr/myr”), and using phrases pronounced in Eastern Armenian when in 1953 probably most of the Armenians in Fresno were Western-Armenian speakers.

Burger grew up in Fresno, which provided him some first-hand knowledge for writing the novel. He did not grow up on a farm, but as a teenager, he would make some money by picking grapes at the end of the summer, and even scarred his left hand through a careless accident with a knife once. He also knocked almonds off trees.

Like everyone else growing up in Fresno at that time, he had a Saroyan encounter. Burger said, “He was kind of a local hero when I was growing up. When I was about 10-years-old, I was at a kite flying event. There was a very large kite — everybody made their own kites and they went out to this event — that a smaller kite had gotten tangled up with, so the small kite was being carried around by this larger kite. I was standing next to this man looking at this and the man started talking to me. He started giving human characteristics to the kite, how the large kite had these attributes and was thinking this and the small kite was… I thought the man was kind of crazy, so I went up to my mother later and said, you know, the man up there is kind of crazy and she said, no, no, he is not crazy, he is a writer.” Later, Burger’s cousin worked for Saroyan as a gardener. Burger collected many of Saroyan’s books, and now has around 50 of them.

Burger had many Armenian friends as a boy. There were two things about them that really stood out to him. He said, “The first was that every family, it seems, had a story, a story which of course tied back to the Armenian Genocide, and slowly I would find out that they all had lost relatives and loved ones. I found that fascinating. … The second thing that I learned was that the feelings toward Turks that all of my Armenian friends and every Armenian I encountered had were intense. … That it was a very strong emotional, I don’t know if hatred is the word, but it was in that realm. That fascinated me.”


He found the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide to be a compelling topic through which he could explore issues related to family and justice. He said, “I would also add to that—to my way of thinking there is not nearly enough fiction related to the Armenian Genocide. When I tell people about the book, many people I know who are well educated, well informed—they read the newspaper daily, knew nothing about it. … I think this is something that needs more presentation.”

Though Burger is a prolific writer in his own field, this is his first novel. He has written some short stories. He said, “Fiction writing is something that I have always wanted to have the time to do. There probably is a connection to my interests as a psychologist. I went into social psychology because I was always interested in questions of justice and those sorts of things. A lot of my research was focused on why otherwise good people sometimes do very, very horrible things.” He reexamined, for example, Milgram’s research, which was motivated by Milgram’s interest in understanding the Holocaust. However, he has not directly worked on the broader aspects of genocide.

To prepare for writing the novel, Burger did some interviews with Fresno Armenians to get the context right. He said that he avoided modeling characters after specific individuals so that he would not be limited. However, the one exception was a true personal story he attributed to one character in the book. Burger said that his wife was a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News in 1985 and interviewed survivors from the Armenian Genocide for an article. One woman told a story that parallels a lot of what happens in his book, particularly the anecdote about her daughter being ripped from her arms and thrown into a river. Burger said, “It was so haunting that I used that. I thanked her in the acknowledgments in the book, an anonymous individual whom I never met, but my wife taped the interview and I heard it and it was chilling.”

Burger plans to give book talks both on the West and East Coasts, including in Fresno, Glendale and other areas with large Armenian populations.