I want to talk about an idea that had been incubating for some years and has become increasingly relevant to me in my work as an existential psychotherapist.
Some several years ago, I was at gathering at my local Liberal synagogue. We had hosted a charming, elderly woman of Ukrainian Jewish extraction who had been born in a Displaced Persons Camp in France after WWII. She had come to tell her story to the few of us gathered in the small meeting room. Towards the end of her account and the ensuing discussion, it was mooted that one cannot extrapolate any good from the horrific event of the Holocaust. I believed this to be absolutely the case. Someone present, a confident woman with some authority, contradicted by asserting that redemption was an outcome of the Holocaust.
Writing this now, I can see that the fact of this fantastic elderly Holocaust survivor sitting in our midst was indeed a testament to survival. She had a wisdom, a quality of being and reflexivity that was impressive and which is rare. At the time, however, I was appalled and somewhat confused by what I believed to be an almost sacrilegious, disrespectful interpretation of redemption and even a betrayal of the memory to the vast numbers murdered, most as part of a genocide to deracinate the world of Jews. My focus was on the 6 million dead Jews and the 5 million others who had perished at the hands of the Nazis.
Yet, somehow the notion of redemption stuck with me, a bit taunting, pervasive, popping up from time to time without yielding or offering any plasticity. Stubbornly this impasse hovered, waiting for me to engage differently. On the occasions when I contemplated this affecting exchange, I didn’t see how I would shift in my perspective, but I sensed the potential of an opening, though I didn’t know how it would feel or what it would look like.
About seven years after that small gathering had taken place, I was working with a client in my consulting room. As with many clients, she had come to speak with me about current difficulties with living. To give these life challenges a context we revisited her history. We found ourselves immersed in telling the story again about her growing up.
Her father had been a very disturbed man who was quick to berate and criticise the children. He had no tolerance for a child-like being. They were always in trouble for just being children, about not knowing how to do things well or for being playful or for being too noisy or too difficult just by the fact of their mere existence. My client lived in fear of her father. She tried to please him, but he was implacable. The atmosphere at home was strained and uncomfortable. My client’s mother was miserable and withdrawn, not unloving towards the children, but not demonstrative either. No expressions of affection were evident between the mother and father. Mealtimes were the worst and conducted in silence and in fear of the father’s volatility. Punishment was seeing his rageful face glaring at theirs, accompanied by his shouting, destructive words. Occasionally there was corporal punishment. She remembers her father throwing her little brother across the room, then seeing him sobbing in the corner. Did the mother intervene? She cannot remember. The father was more lenient with her, the only daughter, but especially could not countenance the boys and the fact of their existence.
The constricting and suffocating environment was pervasive to the extent that she dreaded school holidays as she would inevitably spend more time at home. She feared Christmas. She didn’t want to go on holidays as there was more exposure to Dad time and therefore more chance that she or one of her siblings would incur his displeasure.
One Saturday, when she was about 15, she woke up at home and was shocked to find herself alone in the house with her siblings, but with no adults around. Something was wrong. A neighbour came round to tell them that Dad was in hospital. He took them to the ward where her father lay and she recalls her mother in a heap in the corner of the room, like a sack, weeping. Her father had already died of an overdose.
On returning home, and thereonafter, her mother did not allude to the suicide, it was never discussed, nor even mentioned. All his photos were taken down the same day. No trace was left. Life carried on in the presence of his silent absence.
When I had first met my client and she reported her father had taken his own life, she said that she was “fine” with it and felt she had nothing to say, that there was no emotion around it, that it had been dealt with somehow, tidily parked away. Besides it had been a long time ago, 20 years was a long time. A lot had happened since then.
The upbringing by a mother who was emotionally absent and a father who was rageful and disapproving had inevitably influenced my client. When she initially came to me it was because she was fearful and anxious and saw the world as being fraught with danger. She believed things would never work out well for her, in work, in relationships and that she was doomed. Her humorous, good-natured manner was anomalous with this belief system, as was the fact that she worked very successfully in an organisation that mentored young people. She was slim and agreeable and attracted friends and romantic partners, but her moment by moment existence was often imbued with fear and angst. Gradually in our conversations, she gained confidence and began to shift her narrative. After a few years of working together, she had turned her life around and was able to be in a healthy trusting communicative relationship and take on responsibilities in her job and feel proud of her achievements. Her partner was grounded and loving and demonstrative and this buoyed her as she developed a greater sense of her own self-worth.
Not long after our work ended, they married and had three children and she was happy with her lot, a bit more resolved to her family and her mother with whom she had a good-enough relationship.
Recently, she contacted me out of the blue asking for a few sessions. She told me everything was going so well. She had a role that suited her at work which gave her a strong sense of meaning and purpose. She was still very in love with her partner and finding motherhood to be a joy. But she was disturbed by the fact, that at times of stress, her responses when in conflict with her partner were frightening and involuntary as if she were possessed– she would experience a terrible rage as if she were under extreme threat, even though the arguments they had were few and about relatively minor disagreements.
She wanted to think this through with me and her partner was very supportive of our brief reengagement.
I was very grateful for this reconnection for I found my client to be more reflective and readier to explore and engage with more her earlier origins of growing up at home. She had not until now been receptive to going back into this traumatic time. The feelings that arose in arguments with her husband had the same quality as when she felt impinged upon by her father and closed down. She shared more stories with about growing up. I reminded her that she had told me she used to look up to her Dad in the sky after he had died and say “Look at me Dad”, wanting his approval. She confided that she still did that from time to time.
Since we were only planning on meeting for a few sessions, I suggested that she wrote a letter to her father expressing all that was going on. I said I was willing to read the letter to her to see how it sounded being voiced by another and to see if it allowed a greater connection to her emotions. That was the plan. She emailed my a copy of the letter the next day. At our next session, we talked about the process of writing the letter and she was surprised at how easily it flowed and how potent certain elements were. She was happy for me to read the letter to her. We were both moved strongly by the force of feeling and the sadness.
“We were just children.”
“How could you have done to us what your father did to you that had been so damaging?”
“Why didn’t even say goodbye or that you loved us in your suicide note?”
The following session we reflected further on the letter she had written and she read it to me. The potency lay still in those lines.
We spoke more about the father and his self-lothing. We spoke more about the terrible abuse he had suffered at the hands of his violent father and the ensuing psychiatric suffering he endured through his life. We speculated what it was like to be in a marriage with a woman who feared and loathed him. I suggested that at the time of his suicide his self-hatred was so great that he could not bear himself at all and was so full of shame and guilt that taking his own life was his only option. I surmised that had he been able to make a statement of love in his suicide note, then perhaps he would not have opted for suicide. His shame was too great. He had not the privilege to proclaim his love as he had so badly failed them as a father. The confrontation of his abject failure as a father and a human being, as he saw them, in real life or even in that note, was harder for him, than enacting the ultimate avoidance which was to end his life.
Plunged in empathy towards her father, thinking of his despair and torture, the visceral sense of his mood left us quietened and profoundly sad.
I looked at my client , her head down, looking at her hand resting in her lap. I thought about the pain and abuse she had suffered, her sense of loss at having lost a father whom had never been the father either of them wanted him to been. I thought about her father and how the agonising thread from his childhood through to his death was left unbroken and fateful. My client’s life, however was full of love and openheartedness and she celebrated her happy, safe and healthy children. She had defied her history and claimed her life.
And I realized that redemption, claiming freedom and self-determinism in spite of and not in denial of adversity was a legitimate resurrection. Her father had perpetuated misery and she had not. She’d broken the chain and freed herself.