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By Dawn E.

Dr. Dawn E. Langley is the author of 29 books and hundreds of articles in regional, national and international publications. She has been nominated twice for a Pushcart, has won a Fulbright scholar award to Pakistan, and is the Dean of General Education at Piedmont Community College in North Carolina. Her PhD is in Interdisciplinary Studies with an emphasis on Humanities and Culture.

Spiegelman, Baldwin and Rich: Memoirs of Horror

Well-known American writers James Baldwin, Adrienne Rich and Art Spiegelman share something in common with me: we have all written memoirs about our interactions with fathers who had survived horrendous suffering due to racism and/or war. We also share a major difference: each of us is from a radically different culture. Baldwins background is African-American, Rich has an upper-class Eurocentric background, Spiegelman is the son of Polish-Jewish refugees, and I am the progeny of lower middle-class white Americans. Yet all of us have been affected by a disorder only recently recognized as intergenerational: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD). In order to cope with and understand the PTSD experienced by our fathers, each writer explores the emotions created by those traumatic experiences and builds a memoir: a repository of thoughts and memories of the secondhand information and pain the father suffered. By considering our own feelings while unearthing the traumatic moments experienced by a parent, each writer tests the boundaries of family connections in a way that can be both therapeutic and destructive. Though memoirs encourage us to give some shape and structure to our lives, they also give us the freedom to shape the puzzle that is our lives. When that puzzle, that familial structure, is disrupted by the PTSD one of the nuclear family suffers, it is often difficult for the next generation to correctly fit the puzzle together again. For the authors mentioned, the memoir becomes the tool by which they resolve to understand their own role in their parents traumatic events. Recent studies conducted by Ken OBrien of Queensland University of Technology explore the phenomena of Australian children and

No matter how austere and reverent the tone, no matter how traditional the format, any representation of the Holocaust attracts a special measure of critical scrutiny and, if judged lacking, earns a severe measure of opprobrium (Doherty 71).


grandchildren of VietNam veterans, attempting to prove that the experiences the vets had during their time in the military conflicts in VietNam predisposed their children to the posttraumatic stress disorder condition. OBriens review of literature created by both Australian researchers, as well as those studying the phenomenon throughout other cultures, results in strong data that the PTSD experienced by those directly affected by military experience leads children/grandchildren to predisposed conditions that may cause these children to be more likely to commit suicide and also leaves them genetically susceptible to illnesses such as leukemia, cancer, and congenital abnormalities (4). Though there appear to be many reasons for this tendency to PTSD (i.e., the psychological implications upon the family when a parent/head of household responds to PTSD experiences or the likelihood of the veteran becoming alcoholic or addictive and the possibility of environmental and familial crises), the fact that it is likely that traumatic events experienced by a parent and the resultant damage can be passed along (either genetically or environmentally) to a child builds a strong argument for the previously-mentioned writers need to explore the experiences of their fathers via the creative avenue of the memoir. All three of these well-known writers are frustrated by the fact that they cannot possibly know exactly what happened with/to their fathers, though the impact of those events and their cultural background has trickled down to impact the authors as well. Each of them speaks about the struggle to discuss their fathers memories, not only because the memory was something painful for the father to reveal, but also because the very act of convincing the father to divulge the memory was traumatic for both parent and child. In each of these memoirs, we hear the authors frustration about the blanks in their fathers cultural stories, the parts they can never know, as well as their suppositions about the pieces that must be left out or left unexplained.

In Maus II, Spiegelman states that perhaps he ought to forget the whole thing. Theres so much Ill never be able to understand or to visualize. . . . So much has to be left out or distorted (13). That feeling of not knowing is echoed by Baldwin at the end of his essay, after he stumbles through memories and tries to understand his own social identity by unraveling his fathers. With a sadness that echoes an orphans bereft state when a parent dies, Baldwin wishes his father had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now (604). Rich, writing about her split identity and her search for her Jewish heritage (she was raised a Christian though her fathers family was Jewish), claims that to find it, she must break her fathers silence, his taboos; in order to claim him I have in a sense to expose him (640). In my own case, my father alluded to horrible acts of violence he had to experience as an Army sergeant in the Korean War, but it took many years of painful arguments with him before he finally revealed to me stories of seeing his best friend blown to pieces in front of him. What it took to break my own fathers silence was his admittance to a psychiatric ward for treatment of his middle-of-the-night PTSD episodes, violent moments that endangered not only my mothers life but the lives of us children, as well. When I worked on my own memoir and reconstructed my memories of the conversations with my mother many years later about my fathers hospitalization, I realized that I had shadowy, imagined memories of his hospital room, the room we children had never actually been allowed to visit. I also realized that my parents had hidden that whole chapter of our lives from us. Though I know why it was hidden, as an adult I couldnt help but feel that the whole story might have illuminated some of the issues I have struggled with throughout my entire life. As a battered young wife, I felt stymied about my own predilection to violent men. Perhaps if I had been able to understand


what happened between my parents, I would have been able to control my tendency to believe that I deserved the abuse my husband heaped on me. But living with a father who had been exposed to horrible violence and with a mother who was so on edge because of his lack of control over that violence, I developed certain learned behaviors toward loud sounds and unexpected beatings. What I found out later about my fathers visit to the psychiatric ward was that he had awoken from a deep sleep and found himself straddling my mother, his hands around her throat, her life in his hands. We never talked about that period of time, but it had left an indelible impression on me, the oldest child, and ultimately determined the course my life would take, particularly with regard to my relationships with men. Shirley Geok-Lin Lim says that writing a memoir does preserve memory; but, like canning, the process of preservation changes the original materially. The analogy lies not in the difference between fresh and canned fruit but between fruit borne fresh and green on a living treethe tree of an individual consciousness and the same fruit plucked, preserved, and sold on the shelves of mega-bookstores (443). All three of these memoirists do tend to believe that they are preserving their fathers and their cultural heritage by writing the stories of how their fathers experiences shape their own lives, but when is the memory of the memory valid? Does the adult childs version of the parents life (or memory of that life) become a valid way of preserving the parents life or memory? Each of the authors appears to struggle with this question at one point or another in their iteration of the memories of their father. I cannot speak for their struggle other than to quote their words, but I can speak of my own. When writing my memories of my fathers stories, I must rely on my own imaginative ability to see the old Korean man heading down the dusty road, a grenade in his hand, toward my father, and in constructing that scene, I worry that my own description of the moment might

not be accurate though I attempt to simply repeat what my father has told me. One cannot help but insert the compassion one feels for a parent when writing a memoir of this type, thus in writing this re-memory, my role as daughter and my own experiences growing up with a man drastically changed by his familiarity with death and dismemberment and wartime violence affects my inability to report the events in a disconnected manner. The gravelly, uncomfortable way Spiegelman and his father uncover the horrible memories of the Holocaust and Spiegelmans inclination to think of himself as a survivor as well, defines the entwined story he tells. Both father and son are affected by the brutality the father endured. Both father and son struggle with bringing the memory up whole and sharing it, yet both must do so, no matter how painful the act. Spiegelman has little patience, at times, for the way in which his fathers fragmented story comes together. In fact, when his father is hospitalized, and the doctor tells Art he can take his father home with him, the fact that the time together would be perfect for the interviews Art needs to conduct does not seem to be a consideration. Instead, Art is dismayed to know he will have his father alone. He is much more comfortable interviewing his father at Vladeks home in Florida, a place that is his fathers alone. Art resists his father on almost every level, even when he is most actively pursuing his fathers story. Their push-me/pull-you existence reveals more about their relationship than the memories about the concentration camps reveals about Vladeks holocaust experience. By revealing the tension between them, Art also reveals the difficulty in writing the memoir in a manner that will not only tell his fathers story, but also his own, and will weave the two together to create the indelible imprint left by survivors of the Holocaust. That same physical distancing is evident in Baldwins comments about often despising his father because he had no way of knowing that he was facing in that living room a wholly


unprecedented and frightening situation (591). Baldwins father experienced a different type of PTSD caused by a different type of war: the pain of living with a mental illness some think may have been the result of extreme racism. Baldwin failed to understand his father, and his father did little to help the matter, maintaining a cold and distant relationship with his children right up to the end of his life. Determined to protect his children the only way he knew how, he warned James of white people, yet James ignored his fathers advice until it became clear that his fathers rage was the result of the way he had been treated and until James experienced the same type of treatment, a treatment which produced a pounding in the skull and fire in the bowels. He could not realize why . . . [T]here is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his bloodone has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it (592). Only when he recognized that connection could he also admit that, this fever has recurred in me, and does, and will until the day I die (592). That statement is one voiced by many of the children /grandchildren OBrien interviewed who are victims of intergenerational post-traumatic stress disorder. Baldwins experience of the same discrimination and racism his father felt and his exposure to his fathers resultant anger, madness and obvious PTSD redoubles the symptoms of the disease. Instead of being genetically predisposed to the fight or flight syndrome that OBrien mentions is common to most victims of intergenerational PTSD, Baldwin is also victim to the environmental causes of the PTSD, inflicted both by his fathers anxieties, as well as by the social actions to which Baldwin was both witness and victim. Though he was finally able to understand his father, James Baldwin still could not manufacture the memories his father had since the man had seldom shared his innermost feelings with those closest to him. Again, this reaction is typical of all children /grandchildren affected by intergenerational PTSD. Baldwins memoir served as the only way he

could work through those issuesagain, acting as a type of therapy. Adrienne Richs experience with a silent father echoes Baldwins. She grew up in a Christian, middle-class world, where her father never mentioned the word Jew nor told her of the Warsaw Ghetto, a story he most certainly knew though chose not to share. She resents that he did not give me the choice to be a Jew (643). Like Baldwin and Spiegelman, Richs identity was constructed by the cultural, social, political, and sexual connotations that were a result of her parental background, and like her fellow memoirists, she had little choice in the matter. When she demands her father give her the reason he never told her he was a Jew and that, ultimately, so was she he answers, There are Jews I admire and others whom I despise. I am a person, not simply a Jew (646). One can imagine that both Baldwins and Spiegelmans fathers would have replied in a similar manner had they been asked that question. And like Spiegelman and Baldwin, Rich mourns her fathers passing for more than one reason. She states she had been mourning for a long time for an early, primary, and intense relationship, by no means always benign, but in which I had been ceaselessly made to feel that what I did with my life, the choices I made, the attitudes I held, were of the utmost consequence (651). Like the other writers, her work on her memoir is both her way of providing closure for herself, as well as her way of moving through the mourning process. The therapeutic method of rebuilding her fathers story and her part in that story through memoir becomes both insightful, as well as healing. Michael Steinberg states that personal essays and memoirs need to include your story (405) and that authors should go beyond or probe beneath the literal story (406). Each of these authors did that and then some. For all three (as well as myself), the costs at stake are incredible. Each writer seeks the answers to constructing self identity, as well as some solace in the face of the consuming suffer-


ing presented by post-traumatic stress, and all of these authors (as well as myself) struggle with an understanding of parental history. The surface story (of a relationship with ones father) reveals the deeper human connection or larger meaning in his/her personal experience (407), and in doing so, uncovers the persecution that impacted the fathers identities and trickled down to their children (the authors). Writing as a form of therapy or as way to heal has been a subject of discussion among therapists, as well as the proponents of art as therapy and those who explore the alternative medicines which may be scoffed at by the majority of clinicians. Dozens of books are published every year that promise to help one overcome grief or to deal with lifes upheavals simply by writing down ones feelings. The field of expressive emotions therapy espouses writing as a means of therapy and some believe it is particularly effective when treating PTSD since the symptoms are often triggered by images. Because memoirs are constructed to circle around a particular theme, writers who are affected by PTSD can examine their own symptoms, write about the triggers of those symptoms, and explore the various elements that work together to disturb the writer. The very act of writing is a type of purge, but when an author works to craft a memoir told from a certain perspective or designed to explain a relationship, the act of writing becomes a reworking of memory and that work becomes therapeutic. Personal essays/memoirs are to be analyzed in layers, like an onion that stings and makes you cry. Each layer reveals more, each layer arouses emotions (sometimes tears, sometimes horror, sometimes the realization that there are others like you in the world, others who struggle with the same issues or contentious feelings), and each layer builds upon the process of growth itself. The memory, hidden under those layers, struggles to be one that is shared with others, one that is recognized by others as a piece of the fabric that makes up their lives as well as the writers; the memory

then becomes more important than those that are housed in a journal, never to be seen by others. Memoirs are crafted and become works of art, at once used to voice the pain of the writer as well as to help others recover from a similar pain, as the memoirs written by the authors mentioned in this essay. If a personal essay is to be successful, it must not only deal with the surface story to which Steinberg refers, but it must also reach to the personal, then spread its tentacles into the hearts of those who read it, leaving them with the feeling that all the rocks have been overturned and under each lies a nugget of meaning that can be cobbled together to create a crystal ball into which the reader can look to find the answer to a question about his or her own existence. Though the answers they found might have been more painful than anything they could have imagined, Spiegelman, Baldwin and Rich did, indeed, uncover pieces of themselves through their memoirs about their fathers, and those pieces fit together to create the understanding of identity that we all long for throughout our lives. Toward the end of my fathers life, he began revealing more and more about his painful years in Korea, and after my mother passed away, we became closer, spending long hours on the telephone. He shared that he wanted to go back to the Orient, talked about contacting some of the guys he had known in the Army, planned a trip to Japan with one of them who was also a widower. Though nearly 50 years had passed since his years in the jungles of Korea, he could still describe in explicit detail how it felt to be loaded with the equivalent of his own body weight in grenades, guns, rounds of ammunition, knives, tin ration cans, and clothing and carrying that weightsoaking weightfor three or four days through the summer humidity, through muddy creeks, past poisonous snakes, dead bodies and villages that may have been populated with bomb-throwing Koreans. At the time, I was teaching English and one of my favorite essays was by Tim OBrien,


The Things They Carried. It resonated with me even more after hearing my fathers version of the previous generations war. OBrien wrote about Vietnam, while my father spoke of Korea, but their responses to the trauma of war was the same. The only difference was that OBrien could write his own story while I had to write my fathers. My father told me more during those two brief years between the time my mother died and the time he passed than I had heard in the whole time I lived under his roof. My active writers mind filled in the images he described with his words, and because he had never forgotten the way a bullet sounded as it zipped by his head or the heart-pounding fear of meeting a child in the middle of the road who had been convinced to head for the Yanks with a live grenade in his chubby hand, I also never forgot that he had been holding those memories captive in his mind throughout my entire life.

Together, we wrote down some of those images, and together, we realized that the arguments we had over the kitchen table when my friends were fighting and dying in Vietnam (and I protested against that conflict) were ones that dug deep into both of us. He took me back to a corner of his memory that throbbed with intensity, and because I was a generation removed from that memory, I was able to record some of it for him, as did Spiegelman, Rich, and Baldwin, yet that didnt meant any of us werent touched by the trauma that affected our parents. These are all memoirs of horror, spurred by PTSD and intergenerational PTSD. As William Zinsser points out in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, the writer of a memoir must become the editor of his own life (24), but when a child writes the memoir of a parents experiences, s/he edits history and, hopefully, captures and cancels some of the horror which may reach one generation further.

Works Cited
Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son in ed. Philip Lopate, The Art of the Personal Essay. New York: Random House, 1995: 587-603. Doherty, Thomas. Art Spiegelmans Maus: Graphic Art and the Holocaust. American Literature. 68.1 (1996): 69-84. Geok-Lin Lim, Shirley. Embodied Memory and Memoir. Biography. 26.3 (2003): 442-444. OBrien, Ken. The intergenerational transference of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder amongst children and grandchildren of Vietnam veterans in Australia: An argument for a genetic origin. Centre for Social Change Research Queensland University of Technology. 29 October 2004. 9 Jan 2011. Web. Rich, Adrienne. Split at the Root in ed. Philip Lopate, The Art of the Personal Essay. New York: Random House, 1995: 640-745. Spiegelman, Art. MAUS II: A Survivors Tale. New York: Pantheon, l991. Steinberg, Michael. Finding the Inner Story in Memoirs and Personal Essays in Robert Root, Jr. and Michael Steinberg, eds. Fourth Genre. New York: Longman, 2005: 405-408.