Throughout the last few weeks on our Facebook page, we’ve been talking about the effect PTSD has on families. Our Veterans’ PTSD Project story this week comes from Leila Levinson, a gifted writer who speaks about this issue with compassion since she has lived it herself. Leila founded the online community veteranschildren.com where Veterans and their children share their stories. Leila just launched the e-book version of her award winning book, Gated Grief, on February 16. It is one of the most poignant accounts I have ever read about WWII liberators, PTSD, and families. The e-book will be available to download on Amazon for $1.99 until February 23. I believe that you will be as moved and inspired as I was by this Veterans’ PTSD Project story. -Virginia
My Father’s War Cursed Me Before It Became My Blessing
by Leila Levinson
Until I was five, I knew the silence of a mother who sat at the kitchen table smoking endless cigarettes and drinking bottomless glasses of wine. Then, one day while she and I were shopping, policemen appeared and arrested her for shoplifting. On the way to the station, my mother clutched my arm and pleaded, “Don’t leave me. If you let them take you, I’ll never see you again.” At the station they did take me from her. And I never saw her again.
Silence became my family’s language as well as its atmosphere.
For weeks I begged to know when my mother would return. My father looked over my head, my words inaudible. The word “mother” disappeared from our home. I entered the silence of forbidden grief, a silence whose external frame of melancholy encased my two brothers and me. Instead of conversation at dinner, my father played records on a stereo, the voices of Barbara Streisand or the Yale Whiffenpoofs occupying the space. The one song I remember is “A Motherless Child;” its refrain “sometimes I feel like a motherless child a long way from home” repeated over and over like a mechanized needle driving into my brain. Yet no one else at the table seemed to hear the words.
I became the perfect daughter—the star pupil in school, the well-behaved child at home, never having a problem, an issue, an upset—until the middle of my first semester of law school when the nightmare began to visit, when depression and anxiety sucked me down under the water.
I flew back to New Jersey determined to learn from my father what had happened to my mother. We sat at the linoleum-topped table in the small kitchen of his office, the only place he might open up and talk. “Do well in law school,” he urged. “Because no matter what else happens in your life, you always have your work.” He kept a lock on my eyes until I nodded assent.
We took our dishes to the sink, and as I rinsed them, I took a deep breath. “Dad, I need to tell you something.”
“What? Tell me. I’m listening.”
“I’ve been seeing a therapist—at school. I had a hard time this past January, having nightmares, being depressed. It all seemed to catch up with me. We’ve acted as if nothing bad happened to us, as if everything that went wrong didn’t affect us, but it did, and I’m trying to figure out how it did.”
He turned his face away from me..
“So, Dad, I really need to know what happened to her—to my mother.”
“Can you tell me, Dad, please?”
Tears ran down my father’s face—tears falling onto his beautifully pressed light blue Brooks Brothers shirt.
“I can’t talk about it—not yet,” he said in a voice so soft I leaned over to hear him. “Maybe someday…”
I wrapped my arms around him, his arms by his side, as my own tears spotted his shirt. He pulled away. “We can’t cry. We have to be strong. We can’t stop now, after all this time.”
When my father died several years after I graduated from law school, I thought I’d never know the story of my life. But then in the basement of his medical office I found his WWII Army trunk. Inside was a shoe box full of photographs he had taken as an Army doctor in the European Theatre.
Most brought to mind the little he had told us about the war: crossing the English Channel on June 2, 1944. Prelude to the invasion at Utah Beach.” Photos of GIs lying on the ground, covered in white bandages. “The Clearing Station on Utah Beach, Mountains of rubble next to the remains of churches and homes. Fields of snow, of tanks and bodies covered in snow. “The Ardennes.”
I flipped through the photos, repetitive with war’s destruction until, at the bottom of the box, blurred stripes seized my eyes. Rows and rows of stripes that cascaded into a wave. A foot emerged from the chaos, a leg. Many legs. Grotesque, frozen faces. My fingers pinched the top corner and turned over the photo. “Nordhausen, Germany. April 12, 1945.”
Nordhausen. What in God’s name was Nordhausen? Another, more focused: a long canal-shaped ditch filled with bodies. Body after body. In a row. An endless row of bodies. “The burial of the concentration camps victims. April 15, 1945.”
It took me twelve years, major episodes of depression, and teaching a course on the Holocaust before I became ready to understand what these photographs were showing me. I went to my aunt, my father’s only surviving sibling.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Your father’s medical battalion liberated that camp. It’s where the Nazis forced prisoners to make the V-1 bombs that hurled fire onto London. After more than two weeks of trying to keeps its survivors alive, your father had a nervous breakdown.”
My father? A nervous breakdown? Impossible. He had always scorned psychologists and therapists; the mere mention of the word depression aroused ire. “I didn’t raise you to be a princess,” he had said, when in law school I had confessed my crippling depression to him. “We pick ourselves up by our bootstraps. We keep the flag flying.” But I remembered that in one of my father’s photographs, he was sitting on a beach, barely dressed, his face bleached with despair. On the back his handwriting noted “Cannes, May 1945.”
Over the next year I located and interviewed more than seventy World War II veterans who had also liberated Nazi concentration camps. “I was never the same, never,” one man told me. Another said, “The shock was complete. My mind froze.” “I’ve never told anyone,” a Veteran Army surgeon said. “Words cannot convey… .” “I’m still not prepared for Mauthausen,” an 86-year-old veteran whispered.
Sixty-five years later, these men and women remain traumatized. Yet very few have spoken about it with their spouses, and even fewer have shared their memories with their children, though their children—like me—know on a deep nonverbal level what their fathers and mothers have witnessed, because, like me, they absorbed the repressed grief in their silent childhood homes.
A few months ago I was lucky enough to attend a listening circle for Veterans and their families in Atlanta. When my turn came, I described how my father exiled grief from our home and was unable to see the consequences of his silent rules. A veteran of Vietnam began crying and said that as he heard my words, he saw that he had also banned grief from his home. “I was terrified,” he said, “that if my children grieved, I would have to feel my grief.”
The grief is so vast, the memories so horrific, that—as one veteran told me after I had packed away my tape recorder—“I was certain they would destroy me.”
In discovering my father’s trauma, I discovered my own. For years my therapist had suggested I had been traumatized. No, not me, I insisted. Not me. But as I met these Veterans, I came to see that what we call PTSD takes different forms. The media shows PTSD as rage that leads to alcoholism, abuse, suicide. I observed none of those in the Veterans I met. I saw profound melancholy along side a deep abiding drive to do good. I saw repressed grief, a resistance to looking back at the moment of the trauma. Because looking instantly transported them back to that moment, the horror happening again, never having stopped happening. I saw disassociation from the person who witnessed the unthinkable, a sudden switch to speaking of themselves in the second person—“you” rather than “I.” Rather than rage, I saw anger and resentment that the rest of us have no idea and don’t want to have any idea.
Many of these attributes are my own. I absorbed and reflect my father’s trauma.
PTSD is more than a disorder of the brain. It is a wound to the soul from witnessing and participating in killing.
We know we are more than capable of killing. Are we as capable of healing?
I can say yes, because I now live free of nightmares and– except for fleeting days– of depression and anxiety. Writing has played an enormous role in my healing. For fifteen years now, I have written and rewritten my memories, recreating the scenes, recovering the details, opening up the empty spaces between memories. At first, my intent was to recover; I did not realize that my giving words to my trauma also defused the power of the trauma. My words took the memories out of me, exposed them to air and light, and there, the terror shriveled.
Writing– and therapy and yoga– have given me not only a way to quell my fears but the means of recreating my future.
Over the last several years I have met many other children of Veterans and found how much we shared, how in all those years of living within suffocating silence, I was not alone. Children absorb and manifest their parents’ unresolved trauma.
Now I work with Veterans and their family members, sharing what I know about writing and how it can become a tool for healing. As I help others heal, I continue to heal myself. Now I see my heritage as a blessing, because it gives me work that can help others. This past January I published a book about what my father’s photographs revealed to me. The most satisfying moments the book has brought me are when people tell me how I have opened a window for them to understanding and having compassion for their Veteran parent. I have helped them to find peace.
Healing is a journey. I’m not sure if we ever arrive at the place where we can say, “I am healed.” I see life as a spiral, not a straight line, but if we maintain our practices, whatever ones we find that bring us light and peace, we will keep moving forward.
About the Author:
The daughter of a Nazi concentration camp liberator and army surgeon, Leila Levinson is the author of Gated Grief: The Daughter of a GI Concentration Camp Liberator Discovers a Legacy of Trauma which won the President’s Award from the Military Writers Society of America. A graduate of Vassar College, Indiana University at Bloomington and the University of Texas School of Law, she has appeared on CNN, is a regular contributing blogger for Huffington Post, on veterans’ issues and has written for the Washington Post, the Austin American Statesman, the Texas Observer, WWII Quarterly, and War, Literature, and Art. Levinson found the online community veteranschildren.com where veterans and their children share their stories, and is now organizing a network of services for veterans and their family members in Austin, Texas, where she lives.