NDJ:5 Ursula Mahlendorf

Writing Grief

It was at New Directions at my first summer at the Stowe retreat—more precisely, in the upstairs conference room of Stowhof The prompt for the free write had been: “A meal I remember.” My first response, as always, was: What the hell is she thinking of this time! I don’t know what to write. And then, suddenly, I saw her: the fat sausage eater as she shoved a brown-glazed, mustard-dripping sausage into her gaping mouth, the sausage emitting a screech as its skin broke. Fatty juice, mixed with mustard and ketchup ran down her bulging chin; blobs plopped down on her blouse. As I wrote, I grinned to myself and words flowed onto the page, spilled over to the next, when Sue, the instructor, said “Stop.”

I looked up—I had never written like this, easily, laughing to myself with pleasure and delight.

Sue called out: “Who wants to share and read aloud?”

“Me, me,” I responded in my first grade voice.

I began to read, hesitantly at first, but as I speeded up a few people in my audience began to snicker. Amazed, I read on with greater and greater gusto as the laughter grew. When I stopped after two pages, everyone was in stitches.

This is how New Directions introduced me to a new, spontaneous kind of writing, writing from my gut, writing I enjoyed, writing my audience savored. Up to that point in my life (I was in my late sixties then), I had been a labored academic writer, coming to New Directions with the purpose of finishing work on a weighty, academic topic of serious consequence—”Childhood as Nightmare: Representation of Child Abuse In German Literary Works.” Only I had bored my long-term writing group to tears with long, convoluted sentences, endless paragraphs and hundreds upon hundreds of footnotes. From that first summer at Stowe, I knew that I had a spontaneous way of writing open to me, but I hesitated using it for any other writing than free writes.

Several years later, after another few retreats at Stowe, my favorite former student, now my friend and herself a professor at UCLA, died of breast cancer after a painful and long struggle to stay alive. For years and through many academic papers she had been my first reader. Ever ready to discuss the psycho-politics of child abuse, she had helped me clarify my ail-too-torturous thought processes and straightened out my complex sentences. I felt bereft, lost, and angry after her funeral, unable to concentrate, unable to face my demanding topic without my first reader, my critical yet encouraging academic companion. I could not work on my topic, I could not write. I lost faith in my project and moped around for several months.

It was at this point—still sad and angry at my friend for dying on me—that I thought about using my other voice, the primary process writing voice I had discovered several years ago at ND, to sketch some scenes from the end of WWII and from my childhood in Nazi Germany. As I wrote of Ellen’s rape and death (cf. chapter 9), I wept and suddenly realized that writing of my young friend’s death—which I now understood as the death of my younger self—gave me access to the grief over my recently dead friend, and I felt relieved of my depression.

I had always wanted to write my autobiography—some time. And I had always told myself to wait until I had finished the “Childhood as Nightmare” book. Now, fortified by my anger and by my new voice, I started, and it was as if I had opened a flood gate. Memories tumbled out, ordered themselves into scenes and characters, led to ever new memories so that I soon wrote as if some other self dictated the words that rushed onto my page.

I began writing with the most dramatic incidents of my early life. After showing how I ran from the suicide group, still savoring my triumph at being alive and having survived, I went back to my beginnings to tell how I, the survivor, was made. I described my early environment and my family, particularly my maternal grandmother whom we called Oma, who had given me the gifts that helped me survive. Next, I told about my early schooling and my Hitler Youth experience from age 10 to age 15. Then I briefly repeated the story of the ending of the war, the drama of my life-saving experience, and my return home to my destroyed hometown. In the second part, I followed my development up to young adulthood and my first university years. Pride and triumph about having survived dominated this first telling of my story, and “Survivor” was the title I gave to my first version.

I completed the first version in about six months. My ND writing group and my instructors, particularly Sharon and Kathie, encouraged me to just keep writing without stopping for checking on facts or giving historical or social contexts. They read what I sent them, they listened to me and cleared the way to keep the flow going.

When I read this first version critically after its completion, I was satisfied with its easy and spontaneous flow of emotion. But on second thought I realized that by privileging the end of war survival and by giving away the most dramatic experience so early, I had made everything else in my life anticlimactic. Repeating the Russian invasion and the suicide episode—now in greater detail—in mid-flow was awkward. Was it really necessary to remind the reader what had happened at the beginning of my account? Moreover, the second part of my narrative, the crucial changes in my outlook, I felt, dealt with much more important subjects than mere survival, with painful losses and tenacious efforts, with crucial personal insights and educational quests. I knew then that I needed a new and different narrative structure to tell my life.

For a second version, I therefore chose the traditional, old-fashioned convention of memoir writing, following a practice I often adopt in writing dilemmas—when you run into problems, see what the literary convention will do for you. I started with personal beginnings, family history,

34

WRITING GRIEF

 

URSULA MAHLENDORF

birth, childhood, and went on to adolescence, adulthood through to the present of writing. I felt happier with that narrative structure. And I had preserved the spontaneity of the first version—my goal throughout the revisions.

In a third version, I expanded on places and characters as I remembered ever more minute detail of the places of my childhood and youth, of the persons I loved, of those I hated and those I felt conflicted about. As I recalled greater detail of the books I read, the songs we sang, the values we were taught in Hitler Youth, I began to understand at a deeper level than ever in years of therapy how much I had been implicated personally in Nazi ideology. And as I recalled my daily life, particularly its sensuous and spatial dimensions, and drew sketches of our apartment house and maps of our neighborhood and our small town, I felt almost as if I could touch the walls of the old apartment house we lived in and walk through the town again experiencing distances with my four-year or twelve-year-old legs. Descriptions and portraits grew of the woods and the fields surrounding the town, of my brothers at different ages, of my parents and my grandparents, of loved and hated relatives, teachers, and HY leaders.

By this time, with commentary on the meaning of my early experience and with added historical information on the Nazi period, WWII and its aftermath, this third manuscript had grown to some 800 double-spaced pages. It was time to cut, condense, sort out major from minor themes, eliminate some and elaborate or give a sharper profile to others. I used the help of two different, professional editors to accomplish this critical task. I had been aware all through the writing of the third version that, as I brought characters alive, I felt an often almost overpowering sadness. At the same time, I relished my power of giving them reality even as I felt gratitude to them, understanding now fully the gifts they had given me. Cutting and condensing scenes, themes, and characters for a fourth version therefore became intensely painful.

I realized then that writing and revising became ever more a process of mourning, of working through, of understanding what I had not seen before, and of making truly my own those whom I valued, and regarding those with empathy and compassion whom I had come to reject.

While I had named the third version “Work of Mourning” as I mourned the lost childhood world, the fourth version reinforced that sense of loss as I had to cut or eliminate altogether some of my favorite friends or personal episodes. I could eliminate some only by promising myself that I would use them for a different purpose, maybe for a few short stories, at a later date. Up to this point, I also had left open where exactly I would end my story. At this time of condensing and cutting, I decided that I would end with my emigration to the US and becoming a university teacher.

The hardest version, most painful to think through and write, became the fifth. I had spent years researching Germany during the Nazi period and the Holocaust. I now confronted and made explicit the motivations and meanings of my own and my family’s willing—or in some cases, hesitant—participation in Nazi organizations. In the process of writing this version, I learned that though I believed I had long ago understood the general meaning for my generation of Germans, I had understood it intellectually. I had never fully appreciated what this participation meant to and for me, personally. That is, I never understood it emotionally. Who would I have become if the Allies had advanced more slowly in 1944/45 and the Nazi regime had lasted just one year longer and not fallen apart at the end as quickly as it did? Would I have participated in the killing of the Russian soldier because I thought it right? Or worse, enjoyed giving in to the orderlies’ seductive teasing and gloried in my sense of having power over another life? It is in this fifth version that I concentrated on and brought out the political and psychological meanings of my early life. It became the story of my struggle with searing shame. Hence the final title of my memoir: The Shame of Survival: Working Through a Nazi childhood.

Let me illustrate this process of writing and revision using the example of my maternal grandmother whom we called Oma. Almost from the beginning of writing, I had been aware of a flow of emotions, of feelings of sadness alternating with spurts of anger that she had died so early. As I came to describe how I sought refuge with Oma from my rejecting paternal family, I again saw her brown, soft and wrinkled face, her white, thinned-out hair, her green eyes resting kindly on me as she tucked me in on her guest bed. Every detail of her life grew vivid, the flowers she grew in her garden, the pilgrimage she took me on to the shrine of the Virgin Mary in the Silesian Mountains. I understood belatedly (in my third version) as I recounted the pilgrimage that, though not religious or even a Catholic, she was curious about another way of life—not Protestant, not Nazi—and wanted me to be curious about lives other than ours. Her exertion (it was five months before she died of cancer of the liver), her respectful silence as we mounted up the steep hill to the shrine told me how she wanted me to be: respectful of difference and curious about and attentive to the lives of others. I now fully understood how much of a model she had tried to be.

I remembered the dingy-white, red-rimmed pot-holder I crocheted for her as she lay dying in the hospital. At age nine and with childlike omnipotence, I thought that she would return home to us if I just finished the pot holder. As I wrote on the later versions, I came to understand her as an adult myself, what her actions on our behalf must have meant for her. I celebrated her care for us after we three children lost our father and my mother lost her husband and family bread-winner. Oma shared her small pension with us as my mother struggled to make a living for us. As I wrote of her death, I cried and felt that in writing about her, she was with me again. By the third version I knew that I understood her now and had understood her unconsciously even as an eight-year-old so that I could internalize her as a model. By memorializing her I gave her a permanent life in language.

Of course, celebrating her as I did, the pages I devoted to her grew and grew out of all proportion. My first professional editor cut her down to size, saying, “I realize that she is important to you, but thirty pages alone for the pilgrimage, for instance, are too many. The pilgrimage will have to go.” I agreed reluctantly and with a renewed sense of loss and sadness. Yet in the next, reduced, slimmed down version, the importance of my grandmother appeared more clearly than ever before. She had given me my love and respect for others and for nature. She had encouraged my curiosity. She had provided stability and fostered my desire to be useful as she had been us.

In the fifth revision, in which I worked out the political implications of my early experience, I came to realize that even here Oma (whom I remembered as entirely unpolitical) had played a crucial role. Her untimely death left me confused, depressed, and even apathetic. As I wrote, I remembered coming home from a day care center I hated through the town park as dusk settled. I could barely drag my legs off the ground, weighed down by bleak, melancholy, wordless heaviness. To escape that depression was at least one reason why a year later Hitler Youth with its enthusiastic young leaders, its sports and play activities, its promise of belonging to a community became a temptation I could not resist.

My grandmother is but one of the many I came to understand in continuous revisions transforming my anger, sadness and tears into her celebration through giving her shape in words. Writing my memoir thus became a process of mourning, of understanding the gifts, working through the losses, celebrating those who had shaped my life, and finally making them part of me. The repeated revisions of the manuscript led me to ever deeper understandings of the political, social, psychological meanings of the events I lived through and the persons I interacted with as I developed. These revisions constituted another, important part of the grieving process.

Without knowing it, I had created a sculpted memorial to Oma once before. In my forties in the course of my therapy, I had discovered that sculpting in clay gave me access to the spontaneity I had lost in early adolescence. For that reason, I spent most vacations sculpting. Some fifteen years ago, in the late 1980s, during a workshop in Carrara, Italy, I sculpted a crouched-down woman figure whom I called Leaf-woman. My original inspiration for the figure had been Rodin’s Crouching Old Woman, the very rounded compactness of whose form made visible for me the idea of female integrity. But I also had wanted to express the deep grief Kaethe Kollwitz conveys in her self-portrait Mourning with the grief-shielding arm/hand gesture of her relief sculpture. As I worked on the marble for the better part of a month, the emerging figure’s back with its tilted spine and with its four incisions for thighs/arms began to suggest the central vein and the branching side veins of a leaf to me. Liking the idea of a woman as leaf—that is to say, as nature—I brought out the leaf form clearly and forcefully by flattening the buttocks as well as the entire figure. In back view, the completed figure’s spine formed the central vein of a leaf, with arms and legs creating veins running outward from the spine. Side views show the transition from leaf to woman while the front reveals a woman’s body cradled between her knees, with one arm stretched protectively across breasts and body while the other shields half of the face and head. The protective hand/arm that covered half of the face expressed for me the grieving gesture of the Kollwitz figure, my inspiration.

The studio I worked in that summer was open to the public and as we sculpture students went about our business, tourists, both Italians and various foreigners, wandered through, observed us working, and occasionally asked questions. I was putting the last touches of fine-sanding on Leaf-Woman as an old Italian peasant woman, dressed in black headscarf and long skirt, stopped next to me. She scrutinized Leaf-Woman’s half-averted, anguished face and said questioningly and reverently, “Mater Dolorosa?” I did not hesitate with my answer: “Si, Si!” Our blessed Lady! At this point I suddenly saw it: I had given Leaf-Woman Oma’s face.

Advertisements