When I began writing a blog I promised to include chapters from my memoir, FOUR ROOMS, UPSTAIRS.
I’ll be doing so today as a result of having recently read about war atrocities suffered by innocent civilians (women and children, in particular). The images they conjured up were vivid reminders of the suffering endured by my grandmother, my mother, and her siblings as they survived the ravages of WWI in Russia.
Their stories heightened my awareness of the relationship between early imprinting and memory and how each remains with us throughout our lives. With war as a menacing backdrop, tragedies occurring in early childhood create fertile ground for the imprinting and intensification of further trauma, shaping world views and impacting negatively on personal choices.
What I find to be truly criminal is the irreparable harm done to the hearts and souls of children and families caught up in and witnessing the horrors of war. What happens to the psyches of those who hold onto the vivid memories of loss and devastation? What allows the majority of world leaders to care so little about the preservation of the lives of their citizens or the preservation of innocence that should be a natural part of childhood? What happens to the meaning of love and loyalty when hatred and greed supersede, destroying nearly everything and everyone in its path? Isn’t one life of suffering one life too many?
My mother and her family had their lives shattered by war. With her story and how it impacted on my life, I try to illustrate the power of memory, one of the most wonderful and at the same time painful parts of what makes us human. When children are caught up in the insanity of war, we must ask ourselves at what cost?
My mother’s deepest scars, her worst memories, contributed greatly to the chronic nature of her illness, crowding the days and nights of her adult life and affecting all of us in our four rooms.
The subtitle of my book implies that it’s possible to move beyond trauma. I have devoted my life’s work to helping others do just that and have found the help I needed to heal myself, as well. Yet, my trauma was a second generational one. My war was living with the emotional after-shocks of the toll that my mother’s earliest years took on her life. She did not have – as many children throughout the world still don’t have – the luxury of modern day therapy or medication.
That is the imprinting and those are the memories to which I refer in selecting the following excerpt from my memoir: FOUR ROOMS, UPSTAIRS: A Psychotherapist’s Journey Into and Beyond Her Mother’s Mental Illness.
From chapter 2:
When we were still young, there was one story Mother told to my brother and me, never protecting us from its horrific details. She was twelve. During lunch time or after school each day she would visit her mother who was recovering from routine surgery in a hospital on the same grounds as her school.
On one particular visit, as she skipped down the corridor of her mother’s room, she was stopped abruptly and callously told that her mother had died moments earlier.
‘How could I understand what was happening?’ She’d say, each time she told that story.
‘I was shaking. Hysterical. I had to go home to tell the family. So, I ran. My head was cracking with what I was just told, and I thought if only I got there sooner, maybe I could have seen Mama, even saved her. I was running. I was running so fast I fell into a pond, which in the morning it was frozen. It wasn’t deep but there were pebbles and pieces of ice. I hurt my knees. I was soaked. It was awful. By the time I got home, I was in tears. My dress was torn, I was all wet, my knees scraped and bloody, and my grandmother didn’t even let me open my mouth before she started scolding me, calling me a reckless tomboy. Even when I told her about Mama, she didn’t comfort me. Didn’t try to comfort me. Nothing! So, with no more mama, no tateh [father] to hold me, what did I have? Blackness! Tsuris! Troubles and more troubles! That’s what I had.’
At its core, it remained a story about a frightened twelve-year old child running through a forest, alone, in shock, in a country already torn apart by war.
Each version of that story – every time she told it – was a piece of personal history glued to a part of her brain that compelled her to share it, if only to gain witness.
The worst part of the story was its ending. After describing her mother’s death, she’d tell us that only weeks later the family received news that their father – who had left for America just before the start of the war and who had finally arranged for them all to be reunited – had died in America from pneumonia during a flu epidemic. Since they had already received the necessary papers to facilitate their immigration, they were warned not to let the government know he had died.
Months later, she was on Ellis Island, Mother and her brothers and sisters. Each one an orphan.
The turmoil of Mother’s internal world was later hidden behind what appeared to be a stubborn reluctance and lack of desire to see more, to visit new places. Early imprinting, which had adhered trauma to change, had also kept her wary of travel, even when she could do so in comfort years later. Staying with what was familiar, she remained confined, a prisoner in her four rooms, living in a tiny slit of space she assumed to be her only choice.
With a shrug of her shoulders, offering no apology, she’d say, If you’ve seen one city, you’ve seen them all.’ Venturing out was not an option. There was no going beyond where fear had paralyzed her on that pond and memory still held her in its grip.
Yes, it’s true that children’s brains understand their world differently than we do in adulthood. But, it is also true that they are deeply affected by all that they sense, all that they see and feel in ways for which we seldom give them enough credit. Only when it is too late and their wounded souls disable them from living full emotional lives – free from nightly terrors and dreams deferred – do we appreciate or give credence to the damage done, the crimes committed.
If we wish to reduce or lessen the power of early imprinting and devastating memories, then we must do so for the collective memories that affect us all.
With the devastation of land and property and the deaths of innocent civilians, whether in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Israel, to name only a few countries plagued by conflict, the question remains as to the life-time effects that are likely to adhere trauma to the lives of today’s survivors, children and adults alike.
That’s all the more reason why, if we are going to be able to maintain hope, we must remain devoted to the principles of peace. To do anything less will leave us with imprinting and memories devoid of joy, with leaders unworthy of their position or their power.