I have had another book on my shelf collecting dust for longer than I would like to admit; while I confess that my library has more than once been the hospital for my mind. I keep a small basket of books by my comfortable chair in the living room. Someday when little feet are not so small, I ardently hope I will have an actual library with wood burning fireplace and bundles of beautifully bound books. For now, I settle into the season and lift out the next surgical tool for the psyche, Lawrence Langers, Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory. It will, I am certain, be instrumental in slowly working out the multitude of splinters I find scattered in my soul.
I feel apologetic in saying that the books that most accurately give an authentic voice for the depth of my trauma have been the ones written by, or about, Holocaust survivors. Intellectually I wish to distance myself from inferring a correlation for a multitude of reasons. First, I was’t even alive at the time of the Holocaust. Second, I am not Jewish, nor even European, or as of yet, traveled to that part of the world. Despite my own protests, without reservation, I find that while the context of oppression and annihilation was and is not the same as emotional, physical and sexual abuse – the effect is.
I have started to read the text and must take it painfully slow. It is not that I am obtuse in my understanding. No – it is that the comprehension is actually too hasty, the descriptions to poignant, the voice much too clear. It cuts with dagger-like precision into the desperately deployed dissociation mechanisms I have lifelong employed.
I audibly choke as I read the beginning of chapter one, where survivors of the Holocaust were discussed in well-meaning terms such as the indomitable human spirit of those who managed to somehow ‘survive’ the atrocity of affliction that was thrust upon them through no particular fault of their own. He flatly states that developing accolades for victims is not a suitable strategy in the face of the complexities of their own profound ambivalence towards their lived experience. He goes on to speak of how testimony is its own form of remembering. How disruptive memory can be, and how difficult it is, after trauma to find a new normal, when traumatic memories barge in at the most unwelcome times. Life is truncated by the trauma, defined in chunks of before and after having survived whatever that is supposed to mean – I and others remain breathing perhaps.
My stomach turns at how well this phrase fits, “endeavours to leave it behind now prove as futile as attempts to escape its reality into an imagined future then.” It – the uninvited, the unmanageable, the unspeakable, the inhospitable, the unfathomable – the inexcusable.
Langer uses the words of an Auschwitz survivor Charlotte Delbo to speak of ‘deep’ versus ‘common memory.’ Deep memory she states is the remembering of who you were then” when you were right smack dab in the middle of the trauma, abuse, torture etc. What the visceral physical sensations were, the emotions, the thoughts, the agonies, etc., all that the human senses could take in.
Deep memory holds the messy memory, the I as it were. Common memory attempts to place the trauma in the context of the history of before, and now after, carefully reflecting in a distant, almost observatory fashion what was. Common memory, says Langer, is the sedative that subdues deep memory. The I was has careful control over the I am.
“Common memory (the I was) is the sedative the subdues deep memory (the I am).” – Lewis Langer
Delbo shares that her deep memory does rupture, often in dreams. I could read no further. Deep memory overtakes my common memory and then my common sense.
Memories of you, hidden from me, emerge unexpectedly at moments that I have no governance over. I move in whatever mode of mental ambulation I can manage in an attempt to create space from the now lifeless corpse that you cleverly carved and left for decay. I cannot help but recall how you came steadily closer, carefully convincing me with each thrust of the knife how good this was for me, how divinely appointed I was for you, how compassionate your quest was, as you deftly slid yourself into small, tender, feminine spaces. The stainless steel shards were imperceptible, disguised by your raspy, well-worn voice, smooth sounding seduction; shrouded in truth – marinated in lies.
Deep memory wakes me in the night, like wormwood – when the bitterness you left behind seeps through the unguarded chinks in my mind. Your seed, the one with which you inseminated my soul; is rotting and wriggling like maggots from their parasitic placenta. In my slumber, you and your many faces come to me. You charm, coax, rub, hope, cajole, invite, entice, expect and enter. I avoid, explain away, rationalize, minimize, make excuses for, give in and finally open myself to the decay of you. I panic and wake myself, feeling the movement of imaginary maggots that I am certain must be there.
Last night in an effort to find a new normal, I decided to attend a community Christmas craft show. I reason to myself that you would not be there, given that you are thousands of miles away – I foolishly forget you are everywhere. Advent speaks of the Coming King, ironically the same One you speak of. The words you used, were His words – not yours. Sacred words, sacred songs, sacred speech – smoothly used for sacrilege. Scripture is now a trigger for the traumatic deep memory of you. You who are a purported purveyor of the Truth? I now open the Word of Life and see only death. I look where there should be life, but there is none. You, the large, stole the sacred – from the small.
It occurs to me that I enter Advent, I am dragging with me the maggots, the ruins of my memory and the misery of you to the Manger. I, the captive, crawl to the cradle, curl up and wait. I pull the shroud of shame closer and hum, “O Come O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel. Born in lonely exile here. Until the Son of Man appears.” I will comfort myself with as much common memory as I can muster until the God of all Comfort comes. Thankfully maggots are slow in the cold.