A narrative exploration of the healing impact of writing my biographical memoir, Whisperings in the Blood

Inherited trauma is passed down through generations in a variety of ways. My biographical memoir, Whisperings in the Blood (2016), demonstrates through practice-led research how turning life into art and using metaphor as the vehicle to transmit emotional truth can result in emotional healing across generations. Using a fiction writer’s techniques, I explore the idea of employing intergenerational motifs as extended metaphor in order to grapple with the concept that ancestral wounds can be passed down as ‘whisperings in the blood’, or what I call ‘soul dispositions’. The effect of this practice-led research, which required that I had in-depth discussions with my dying father, my uncle and my dying great-uncle, resulted in the emotional healing of some of these relationships, as well as prompting a new level of empathy and understanding of my relatives, their stories, their parents’ stories. This led to profound insights on the role of shared nonfiction narratives in connecting a writer of memoir to both living and deceased ancestors and effecting degrees of emotional healing across the generations.

Keywords: Memoir — transgenerational trauma — narrative enquiry — Ashkenazi Jews — practice-led research — transgenerational memory — intergenerational metaphor

 

Everything. Everything is story. Lakota Elder

 

In 2012, I inherited a box of letters that had once belonged to my grandmother on my father’s side, Bertha Frank (1916–2001) and, soon after, I received copies of her diaries from 1938 to 1941. The letters were sent to me by my father because I had told him I wanted to write a novel based on the very interesting life of his mother and the little I knew of her. Her diary was sent to me by my uncle, my dad’s younger brother, who wanted to share the words she had written in the hope that I would do them justice. My novel-writing fantasy quickly faded as I read hundreds of letters addressed to her from 1936 until her death in 2001, and as I read the diaries written in her hard-to-read excited scrawl. I made discoveries that took my breath away, and that became the driving force behind my biographical memoir Whisperings in the Blood (2016). In the end, the truth was more compelling than any fiction I could have constructed.

In this paper, I will explore the emotional healing and sense of connectedness that resulted for me, for my father, and perhaps to a degree, for my great-uncle. This, the result of writing a narrative that arced back through the generations, connecting me to my dead relatives, but also re-connecting me with my ailing father and my dying great-uncle. Had I waited any longer, none of the conversations could have happened. In 2013 Uncle Mike died and my dad, Bob, passed away in 2014.

Here is the story of my family, in a nutshell: my great-grandfather Jacob Frank fled the horror of the pogroms and his life as a wig maker in Lithuania in 1913, and arrived in the USA some time late that year. There he met and married Ethel Yalowitz and they had two children, Bertha (in 1916) and Meyer (in 1919). Ethel died in 1926. Bertha was ten, and Meyer was seven, and both were sent to the Jewish Orphan Home in Ohio because Jacob was too poor to care for them. In 1938, when Bertha was a young woman, she went out to Africa to marry a man she’d never met: my grandfather, Phil Davidow. When I opened the box of letters to Bertha Frank, they contained, among many others, all the love letters written by Phil Davidow — including his proposal to her, and his elated response to her acceptance to take such a courageous step as to leave her home and beloved brother Meyer (my great-uncle Mike) forever. It seemed to me, on reading these letters and looking at the way they had been so carefully kept (they remained in perfect condition from 1938 until 2012), that Bertha perhaps wished one day they might be found.

My plans to write a novel expanded into a plan to write a biography. But then I made a stunning discovery: I realised that my own life journey mirrored in exact reverse my grandmother Bertha’s journey. In 1938, aged 22, Bertha left the Midwest on a ship, went to England and then to Africa and married a man ten years her senior. In 1992 at age 22, I married a man ten years my senior and I left Africa, went to England, and then to the Midwest, landing in Milwaukee on the banks of Lake Michigan, a five-hour drive from the Jewish Orphan Home in Ohio — also near Lake Michigan.

In this paper, I pose the question: is it possible that deeply ingrained behaviours and even ‘soul dispositions’ could be the result of a ‘whispering in the blood’, a trail of dreams, fears and hopes that follow us through time, and can be explored as metaphors in our own lived narratives? In my own life, the question came after the answer: there were themes and metaphors in my story that I thought were uniquely mine but, I quickly discovered, belonged to other members of my family too. I wondered, in the process of writing, whether I was healing some of my own ‘soul wounds’. In the process of writing and collecting information, I reconnected to my father with whom I’d had very little contact over the years, and formed a bond we’d lost when I was small. I did not know that he would die eighteen months later. I re-established a warm relationship with my 92-year-old great-uncle, and he sent me his memoirs and writings which I read and responded to; his past came to light again as he happily told me stories of his youth some eighty years before. I also felt connected through empathy and shared metaphors to my dead predecessors (my grandmother and great-grandmother) in ways that healed and changed me. I explore whether the process of writing about these inherited ‘whisperings’ can result in intergenerational healing as we make sense of our interwoven stories — the transformational power of finding the story, the thread, the inter-connecting narrative.

At this point I want to share something that may at first seem jarring at this place in this paper: from the moment I can remember, I feared losing my mother. As a baby, I clung to her. When she tried to creep out of the room, I held onto her. I dreamt of losing her. In my early teens, I had a terrifying and vivid dream: my mother had died, she was being buried in our back garden, and I stood by her grave, my heart breaking, until I woke myself sobbing into my pillow. This experience could be dismissed as the primal fear of any child newly aware of mortality, and could be filed away along with a host of other childhood fears and anxieties. However, as will become evident, the fear of ‘motherloss’, that theme in my life, was in fact, an overriding theme in my grandmother Bertha’s life — which I did not explicitly know when I was young. She lost her mother, Ethel, to pneumonia. One day my ten-year-old grandmother had a loving mother, and the next she was being sent off to an orphanage. Did that shock and loss live in my blood? This could have potentially been an ‘inherited’ fear – whether encoded in secret pockets of my inherited DNA or written as a secret story of soul and family, most likely undetectable in any physiological sense, but hidden in my heart.

Recent research into the intergenerational effects of severe trauma has shown that epigenetic changes that happen as a result extreme stress in early life lead to altered DNA that gets passed down through generations (Roth 2013). Researchers have yet to establish how these changes transpire, but the effects of this are well-documented, both in rodent and human studies. Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky and colleagues, for example, have written extensively on how prolonged and extreme stress alters genes, which are then passed on to future generations (Sapolsky, Romero & Munck 2000: 100).

As I wrote Whisperings in the Blood, I felt it was unimportant whether or not my fear of ‘motherloss’ could have been directly attributed to altered DNA that impacted my behaviour: I shared, at the most profoundly empathetic level, an experience of losing a mother. My nightmare tied me to my grandmother’s story. In discovering that connection and then learning about subsequent less tangible but equally potent gossamer webs of intergenerational metaphors and symbols that connected me to my ancestors, I grew into lives, hopes, dreams and heartbreaks not my own, yet carried by me, and I wondered and still wonder whether using metaphor healed what I call ‘dissonant transgenerational memories’ in me and others in my family.

The idea of transgenerational memory is not a new one. But how to explore it? The beauty of practice-led research is that while I was writing, I was in process. I did not know my destination. I followed threads. Eventually, through reading and writing, themes emerged. The motif of a narrative, a whispering in the blood, a story passed down through five generations of Ashkenazi Jews was not just my story, but my family’s story. And not just my family’s story, but a human story with broader themes, well-known — fleeing danger and oppression, losing parents, losing children.

Memory is a complex concept and, broadly speaking, can include experiences from previous generations. The discussion of how the transmission of trauma from parents to children transpires is highlighted in findings by Dekel and Goldblatt (2008), who discuss the impact of trauma on the sons of war veterans, and demonstrate both that the more severe the exposure to unspeakable events, the greater the impact on a child, and that parental behaviour and society’s handling of current and post-war events can significantly impact the next generation. Marianne Hirsch discusses the transmission of traumatic Holocaust memories from survivors to younger generations, which often happens indirectly through photographs, stories, and even the silence of the affected generation, so that the generation post-Holocaust, she says, can carry a ‘postmemory’, a phenomenon worthy of exploration:

And yet postmemory is not a movement, method, or idea; I see it, rather, as a structure of inter- and trans-generational transmission of traumatic knowledge and experience. It is a consequence of traumatic recall but (unlike post- traumatic stress disorder) at a generational remove. (Hirsch 2008: 3)

Just as extreme trauma can and does alter genes that are then passed down to future generations, dispositions too have a heritable factor: talents in music, mathematics, languages, or the arts are known to run in families, and although this has been the subject of controversial discussion, it seems to be that talent has a bio-physiological (neurological) aspect to it that is not easily refutable (Howe, Davidson & Sloboda 1998).

But I was chasing subtler dispositions in my search for connection and healing. I am still fascinated by the links through generations in ‘soul’ dispositions, like having a soft heart, or not having much luck with money despite one’s best efforts, or feeling emotionally connected to a foreign language and then being able to speak that foreign language fluently despite having no obvious immediate experience of the language. I am interested in, for example, my experience of the world that seems to belong to someone else in my family, despite the fact that there is no explicit connection. And if there is a continuous narrative through generations of repeated motifs or themes, what does it mean to illuminate that story?

The impact of intergenerational memory in Whisperings in the Blood can be found at first in real events in Bertha’s life and in my own childhood dream. Bertha Frank lost her mother when she was ten and a half. She woke up one November morning and her mother was dead. And she must have gone to the funeral. She must have stood there in shock, staring at her mother’s grave. Was that loss somehow encoded in my blood? Looking back on my dream of my mother dying, I felt this was so.

So, in 1926, all of a sudden, Bertha’s life changed forever. She lost her mother, her father, her home, her life as she knew it. She was sent to the orphanage. Her 10-year-old self stared up at the austere façade of a building that was her new home. I will never be able to know what that did to her. But I know that in October 1938, eleven years after her mother died, living then in South Africa and newly married, she wrote that she ‘had a terrible dream about my late mother last night’.

I did not know about this, of course, until I read Bertha’s diary in 2012. But when I read those words I remembered my own nightmare of my mother’s death, of feeling absolute terror and disbelief that she lay there, gone, dead. Waking up to find this had been a dream was like being given my mother back. The loss had felt as emotionally real as if it were true. Was I living Bertha’s memory in my dream? When I read about Bertha having a terrible dream about her late mother, I wanted to force back time, run into her arms and tell her that I loved her, that I knew her heart, her loss, as if it were my own. ‘Had a terrible dream’ allowed me to let go of my own fear — I was grown up, after all. My mother was still alive and well. The pain I was feeling was not for myself for, regardless of inherited trauma, I understood completely the heart of another little girl, back in time and across continents — my grandmother, Bertha Frank. I no longer felt haunted by my fear.

I traced, in the writing of Whisperings in the Blood, a story with deep connective tissue profoundly linking family members and generations. According to my research, for the past hundred years at least, my family on my father’s side has been on the move, prompted by persecution, poverty, and the need to escape a country or a continent for one reason or another. From the pogroms in Eastern Europe, to the Great Depression in America, to Apartheid South Africa, my great-grandfather, grandmother, father and I have been attempting to outrun danger. As I read through all the letters and diaries in my possession, I became aware of some kind of repetitive factor playing itself out over generations, and this awareness may be rooted in the simple fact that I am a writer and thus perhaps more prone than others to viewing the world and events through a focused, connected, narrative lens. There is no doubt that narratives help readers and writers contextualise and elucidate the lived experience (Baumeister & Newman 1994). Writers are prime examples of this, as explicit story-makers, and I do acknowledge that at our most fundamental social and psychological levels human beings are finetuned to make meaning even out of meaningless things.

Being a creative writer, not a geneticist or historian, the only way I imagined I might properly explore this ‘whispering’ was through metaphor. I discovered many things about metaphor through the act of writing and researching. Practice led me to research, and research then informed my practice. I did not know, for example, at the very beginning of writing the book why the violin I was putting in my great-grandfather’s hands as a young man fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe was significant. It emerged as a motif without me consciously constructing it. It crept in while I was musing on Jacob and what he might have carried with him on his person when he escaped Lithuania.

His jacket is threadbare and the cold creeps in tightening around him. He holds a worn leather bag in which he keeps small parts of his soul, and the memories of people left behind. Across his back he carries a gift from someone loved and lost: the violin given to him by his father. All that is musical within him is held together in the case wrapped with string so that it doesn’t fall apart. (Davidow 2016: 6)

But later, in conversations with my father, he reminded me that my first violin had been given to me by him and my grandmother Bertha, and that this violin was indeed the one his grandfather Jacob had bought for him when he was a young boy; and that Jacob was in fact, a violinist. That memory must have been buried very deeply, because when I wrote it, I felt like I was inventing things.

I discovered (in 2013) as I went through the letters, the Jewish Confirmation program for my grandmother. I read, in a review my great-uncle Mike wrote for a newsletter years ago, that the organist at the Jewish Orphan Home had played Handel’s Largo for Bertha’s graduation in the early 1930s (when she was 16), at the exact moment my 15-year-old son Tim (an organist) was learning the Largo at school in Australia. I did not know until 2012 that Jacob, my great-grandfather spoke only Yiddish, which is essentially a German dialect. I went to Germany at age 15 and learned German fluently and without an accent in three months. I could even read and understand Old High German, which to most young German speakers would be as removed as a foreign language, much as old English looks to the youth of today. Bertha forgot Yiddish when she went to the orphanage, and she was disturbed by my love of German, which she viewed as a horrible reminder of the Holocaust, even though the root of the language was buried in her blood.

One of the most confounding revelations came towards the end of writing the book. I was contemplating how, when I had first arrived in Milwaukee, trying to escape a violent South Africa, I had immediately contracted asthmatic bronchitis. It was then 2014 and I was writing about this time in Milwaukee; and as I wrote, I thought about Bertha’s mother Ethel, who had died of pneumonia not far from Milwaukee, in Hammond, Indiana. I wondered why, when I had first walked through the town of Milwaukee, I hated the buildings, especially the university where my husband had enrolled to do a doctorate. How could architecture make me feel like I was suffocating? I had said repeatedly to my husband Paul, ‘I feel like I died here.’

In 2012, when I put the picture of the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee next to the picture of the Jewish Orphan Home, I found something astonishing:

 

Davidow_Fig1.jpg

Fig 1. Milwaukee-Downer Quad, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:UWM-0904-downer-quad.jpg (accessed 28 December 2017)

 

Davidow_Fig2.jpg

Fig 2. Jewish Orphan Asylum ca 1900 Cleveland Press Collection, http://www.clevelandjewishhistory.net/ins/bellefaire.htm (accessed 28 December 2017)

 

The two buildings are 435 miles apart (a single road, the I-90, will take you almost from one doorstep to the next in five or six hours depending on traffic) around the bottom of two of the Great Lakes. No doubt there are variations in each of the buildings, but essentially, there is a sameness, a theme. There was absolutely no identifiable reason back then in 1992, when I first saw the university building, why it should have had such a distressing impact on me. I had never seen a building quite like it before. And yet, every time I arrived at the university, I felt my chest constrict and I had to fight physically to breathe. I was soon diagnosed with sudden asthmatic bronchitis, but to me, the not-being-able-to-breathe-situation seemed entirely related to place. It took me a year to learn how to see the building without feeling suffocated.

Creating Whisperings in the Blood was the construction of a generational memory, an emotional truth; a 100-year-old story connected by motif. When I discovered the connection between the two buildings, it was as if my own traumatic memory of Milwaukee and not being able to breathe left me. I think of my grandmother’s wounds: the emotional trauma of losing her mother; the trauma of being a poor Jew in America. In the act of writing about her, in the act of re-creating her wounds, I understood my own fears and they began to recede.

In terms of memory and the transmission of trauma, there is an interesting traditional belief in some parts of Southern Africa — the belief that the spirit of a departed ancestor who has not worked things out properly in the world can attach itself to a living descendant and live vicariously, trying to right an old wrong or find peace when there was none. And although this belief may sound far-fetched to the western reader, to me it seems to echo discoveries in science and biology, and is a powerful metaphor for a subtle transgenerational ‘whispering in the blood’. An African Sangoma (healer) might say that perhaps when I’d first arrived in Wisconsin and seen the university building, I was seeing it through the eyes of my grandmother Bertha (feeling the loss of her own mother as she looked at the building of her new home), and also through the eyes of Ethel, her mother’s ghost, watching her daughter having to make her motherless way in a cold world. The attached ancestor was a metaphor that had great resonance for my own understanding of my inability to breathe in Wisconsin.

I had thought I was living my own life. But I realised, in writing Whisperings in the Blood, that I was part of a larger narrative. I like the metaphor of a fugue:

Fugue, in music, a compositional procedure characterized by the systematic imitation of a principal theme (called the subject) in simultaneously sounding melodic lines (counterpoint). (DeVoto 2012)

As a creative artist, I had the good fortune of being able to explore the nature of memory through narrative and metaphor and to look at how repeated metaphors through the generations could be part of a beautiful composition that spanned generations and that included (metaphorically) both major and happy events, both minor and heartbreaking events. This perception lifted me out of my own story. But it did something else.

My mother and father divorced when I was three. My grandmother Bertha was devastated. She feared losing me and my brother. She and my dad’s younger brother would visit us on weekends for years, until we moved away. Over the years, I thus had sporadic contact with my father, my uncle and Bertha. I last saw Bertha four years before her death, when my son was born in 1997. Our connections had frayed, due to time and distance. None of us were part of each other’s lives on a regular basis.

The minute my father sent me Bertha’s letters, we began to talk as we had never talked before. I phoned him every week. He loved that her story was being told, but even more, he said, he loved our conversations. He told me stories of his childhood I’d never heard. I held him in my heart in a new way. And we became, again, as close as we had once been when I was very small. The pain of separation, though I was in Australia and he in South Africa, dissolved for the first time, and we realised we had both healed our wounds of emotional distance and disconnect. I sent him the first pages of the story, but he never got to read the whole book. I also had warm and ongoing conversations with his brother, my uncle, about Bertha’s diaries, her life and her dreams. We once more found a way into each other’s lives as we had done when I was tiny. We were all thrilled to be connected through our history, our shared narrative.

I did not know then, between 2012 and 2014, that my dad was already gravely ill. The conversations drew us close — made him and his life feel valued, heard, he told me. We both looked forward to talking to each other. He said his mother would have loved to have known that her life mattered to someone beyond her death. If, as my black African friends believed, our ancestors were healed by the actions of their descendants, was this some kind of healing?

My uncle and I re-established our relationship and found we had much in common — not least of which was a love of words, writing and genealogy. My research also led me to have several telephone conversations with my great-uncle Mike (Bertha’s brother, still alive in Oregon in 2012), who was happy to talk about the orphanage, his beloved sister, and things that mattered to him then. At over 90, he was still lucid and funny and we had three long and wonderful conversations. I thanked him for the honour, for sharing his stories. I sent him some of my books, he sent me a harmonica CD he had made. As an old man, he said, he had busked on the sidewalk in Oregon in the USA, had his CDs for sale and told me he put up a sign that said something like ‘I’m not homeless but any donations will go to those who are.’

At the end of 2013, six weeks after our last conversation, Uncle Mike passed away. Six months later, my dad followed. This book could only have been written then. My own healing came from finding the ‘whisperings’ that connected me to those who had gone before and to those with whom I’d lost connection. It is a powerful thing to understand some of the nightmares and fears in context of the lived experiences of ancestors. I felt that if there was an attached (metaphorical) ancestor, the writing of Whisperings in the Blood was a release not only for me, but also for my ancestors. I no longer feel sad about the struggles and heartbreaks of my forebears. I feel gratitude for having found them in the letters and stories, in the photographs and my own memories — a fine weaving of past with present, of metaphor and memory.

Perhaps one of our most fundamental fears as human beings is our own vanishing. Healing is a making whole, a matter of re-connection. Whisperings in the Blood is made up of metaphorical threads that connect to a wide, brilliant web of other lives, other stories; and if those who come after us shine their light on those threads, we might have the gift of emerging again one day, as part of their stories.

 

Works cited: 

 

Baumeister, RF and LS Newman 1994 ‘How stories make sense of personal experiences: Motives that shape autobiographical narratives’, Personality and social psychology bulletin 20.6: 676–90

Davidow, S 2016 Whisperings in the blood, Brisbane: University of Queensland Press

Davidow, B 1938 Personal diary entry, South Africa

Dekel, R and H Goldblatt 2008 ‘Is there intergenerational transmission of trauma? The case of combat veterans’ children’, American journal of orthopsychiatry 78.3: 281

DeVoto, M 2012 ‘Fugue: Music’, Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/art/fugue, accessed 12 May 2018

Hirsch, M 2008 ‘The generation of postmemory’, Poetics today 29.1: 103–28

Howe, MJ, JWDavidson and JA Sloboda 1998 ‘Innate talents: Reality or myth?’, Behavioral and brain sciences 21.3: 399–407

Roth, TL 2013 ‘Epigenetic mechanisms in the development of behavior: Advances, challenges, and future promises of a new field’, Development and psychopathology 25.4-2: 1279–91

Sapolsky, RM, LM Romero and AU Munck 2000 ‘How do glucocorticoids influence stress responses? Integrating permissive, suppressive, stimulatory, and preparative actions 1’, Endocrine reviews 21.1: 55–89