Why A Replacement Child
Must Face His Brother’s Death

Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2016 Oscar-nominated documentary, The Look Of Silence, is a riveting exploration of the Indonesian genocide’s complicated psychological aftermath. In 1965-1967, the military dictatorship killed over a million assumed Communists opposed to their rule. In the film, we follow the Rukun family, centered on 44-year-old Adi, all unable to grieve the brutal murder of son and brother, Ramli. This loss has destroyed their lives. Adi, an optometrist, approaches the killers on the pretext of examining their eyes, trying to make sense of his brother’s death. Facing the past is the only way to break free of a very particular burden Adi’s carried his entire life – being a replacement child.

A Replacement Child  

Adi was born to take the place of his dead brother. This is his burden. He was brought into the world to save his mother after his brother Ramli was killed in the Snake River Massacre. As the film unfolds, his elderly mother tells this story about his birth: “I’d pray. Please replace my son.  If you hadn’t been born, I would have gone crazy. I thought my life was over.” Not being wanted for himself is devastating for any child. In The Look Of Silence, we see the weight Adi carries. See it in his serious face. In the stillness of his gaze as he faces his brother’s killers. We see it in the dark shroud of loss that surrounds the lives of Adi and his parents.

Psychoanalyst Arnold D. Richards says the following in his 2000 paper, written with L. Anisfeld, on “The Replacement Child” (Psychoanalytic Study Of The Child, 55:301-318): “if to be a replacement child involves a sense of not having been chosen, it also involves a sense of burden.”(p. 310) His quote from Cain and Cain’s 1964 paper illustrates this burden. Replacement children must “be like their dead siblings … and [can] never be really as good.” (p. 313) The killers stole Ramli’s life, but they also stole Adi’s.

In The Shadow Of Grief

Adi lives in the shadow of his parent’s grief. The film begins with his father singing: ”Why am I singing? It’s to relieve my broken heart. Why should I remember – if remembering only breaks my heart?” Indeed, all bereaved families in Adi’s Indonesian village live next door to the killers. And, they all live in terror and in hiding.The killers exist free from consequence. Oppenheimer says about this fear: “It divides neighbours from neighbours and even relatives from relatives in an abyss of trauma.” 

The trauma of these families is the trauma of losing a loved one. And, it’s also the trauma of helplessness in being unable to bring the murderers to justice. Adi’s trauma is the same, but also different. His is compounded by the fact that his life is not his own. Constant reminders of his dead brother, Ramli, eclipse the limited life he has. Truly, Adi cannot have his own identity.

“The child who has been put in the place of someone else will necessarily have only a “pseudo-identity.”” (Richards, p. 313, citing Cain and Cain (1964) Adi’s identity is devoted to saving his mother. He and his mother may walk away from Ramli’s grave hand in hand. Yet, they never leave his death. As Joshua Oppenheimer’s camera follows Adi in The Look Of Silence, Adi is the one who finally speaks out. And, with Oppenheimer’s help, he begins to shake the fear and guilt that have kept him hidden.

A Survivor’s Guilt

Guilt is an ever-present unconscious reality for any replacement child. Even more so, in Adi’s case, because he lives and Ramli does not. That leaves a baby who replaces a dead brother with irrational guilt about surviving. Richards says it well: “If someone else had to die so that I could live, I must have caused that person’s death, and I will then be haunted by the ghost of the rival I have slain.”(p. 314)

All siblings are rivals for their mother’s love. And, each child wants to be the only one. But a dead brother layers this so-called victory with guilt and suffering. Plus, Adi can never steal his mother’s heart. It’s not only that Ramli was firstborn. In his tragic death, he will always come first. This is a painful reality.

Above all, Adi can’t come close to the power that Ramli’s ghost holds in his mother’s mind. And, any child who can’t get enough of his mother’s love carries deep unconscious hatred towards those who are in the way. Hence, now, it’s Ramli’s ghost that has pushed Adi aside and ruined his life.

Yet resenting a brother so brutally killed puts Adi, or any a replacement child, in terrible conflict and creates additional guilt. It’s no easy task to break free. Confronting his brother’s killers may be overtly to save his family. But it also gives Adi a chance to ease his guilt and, just maybe, have a life of his own. If he doesn’t speak out and place the guilt where it rightfully belongs, he will continue to exist only as a witness to his parent’s tragedy and loss.

The Right To A Life

Working out the effects of past trauma is the only way to reclaim a life. So, Adi must face the past against considerable opposition. More than once in The Look Of Silence the killers, a survivor, and Adi’s own mother repeat the belief: “The past is the past. Just leave it. Why open it up?” As any psychoanalyst knows, the wounds of the past endure in various symptoms if you don’t. And, specifically, in The Look Of Silence, these wounds live in Adi’s guilt and the unresolved bitterness of his mother.

Covering it up does not heal. It just evades. Trauma lives on until there is someone to help it slowly be spoken and faced. Just as Joshua Oppenheimer helps Adi or a psychoanalyst helps a traumatized patient. With Oppenheimer’s camera and encouragement, Adi bravely talks to his brother’s killers. Talking heals.

Adi repeats the story of his family’s loss to all those responsible for Ramli’s murder. As he confronts the killers, Adi faces the most chilling part of the film: the killers’ gruesome avoidances of any sense of remorse. We watch, with Adi, killers who proudly re-enact graphic portrayals of murders for the camera. And, we hear their merciless laughter at the torture and brutality with which they killed.

We listen as they tell us how they drank their victims’ blood to be superstitiously safeguarded against going crazy (from what they don’t know is their guilt). Adi, with his quiet directness, confronts them one by one: “Every killer I meet, none of [you] feel responsible … you’re trying to wash your hands of it.” He does not let any off the hook.

Apologies & Empathy Heal

After one of Ramli’s killers dies, Adi visits his home. He shows his family a book the killer wrote and illustrated, graphically depicting Ramli’s murder in the Snake River Massacre. The family claims they knew nothing of the husband and father’s involvement. The wife is deeply troubled and finally gives Adi the expression of regret he’s looking for: “Adi, we apologize. We feel the same way you do.” Yet, their regret is not what Adi needs to heal and go on with his life.

Breaking free of trauma and guilt requires someone seeing through his eyes, as the killer’s wife and Oppenheimer do in The Look Of Silence. When the wife says: “We feel the same way,” she, like Oppenheimer, empathically enters into Adi’s experience. They know it. With such understanding, Adi can grieve his losses, realize he’s not the guilty one, and finally put Ramli’s ghost to rest.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.