Open Letter: From Me to Me
Yesterday, Israel stood still for two minutes to remember the victims, and the survivors who suffered, during the Holocaust. Six million Jews lost. You know more facts about those years, from 1938 to 1945, than most, more than you even realize you know. And you are always conscious that the survivors, though they did in fact survive, also lost. Lost families. Lost security. Lost identities. Lost hope. Lost trust. Lost sleep. Lost innocence. And maybe, even though we can’t relate to their circumstances, it’s part of what makes you feel connected to them—because of the oh-so-much you lost. Lost families. Lost identities. Lost trust. Lost sleep. Lost innocence.
You were in high school when I first showed up, but you were able to ignore me pretty well until your Freshman year of college. You were alone in the dorm and the phone rang. When you picked up, some college age jerk asked what you were wearing. You hung up the phone, but you felt watched, again. Out of the blue, you could see me, sitting in the corner of the darkened room in your mind. Still, you cried and then moved on.
Until a few weeks later you decided that you’d like to volunteer as a phone counselor at the Rape and Sexual Abuse Center in Nashville. you made the calls, signed up for the training and walked in utterly unprepared for what that training was going to detail.
I wasn’t ready for it either.
We walked out of the training, went to the car and I was so scared that my presence couldn’t be ignored that time. You thought, at first, that I was a character. But writing didn’t calm my shaking, it didn’t make me go away. And then the Kid dreams started. By the time the last one in the series played, with Kid dying while you were supposed to protect him, you were a mess. I was a mess. Only you didn’t realize who I was yet; you didn’t understand. The only thing you did know was that it was your job to protect me.
You started when you were sixteen. When he was arrested that last time and Mama told you that it would be for a long time this time, seven years, hope filled your heart. You got a job, you wrote like crazy and you sang. And you made me a promise.
You promised that you wouldn’t let anyone hurt me like that again, not ever.
By the time you wrote The Character, you knew who I am. You don’t communicate with me, and I never speak, but I’m always visible to you. A reminder of what was lost. Because that’s what you are scared of: that you’ll cost yourself more by taking any risk.
How much guilt do you own?
That first time, when it was just touching? Did we know how to stop it then? Did we even know it was wrong? Or was it the first time the touching turned to rape, was that when guilt started clinging to us? I don’t know the answers to these questions, what I do know is that you think I hold you guilty. You think I blame you for not getting out of that, you’re afraid that I think that if you’d spoken out, we wouldn’t have lost so much.
What wouldn’t we have lost?
Innocence? Trust? Sleep? Families? These things were lost the very first time. And, also, they weren’t lost, actually, they were stolen. Whether you spoke out or not, they were gone. You feel guilty because, as an adult, you stayed in a place where intimacy didn’t feel safe. You feel guilty because even though there were so many tears you think you kept me in a place that was emotionally unsafe. In a way, then, you feel you broke the promise.
The burden is really heavy. I sit in my corner, always silent, with the light out and you live Day in and day out, terrified of doing anything or saying anything. The coat of shame grows heavier every year with new layers.
Here’s the thing, though, Tiffini
I didn’t show up because I blame you. I didn’t show up to keep you trapped. I didn’t show up to shame you or to remind you that an act is an act is an act. I didn’t show up to make sure you don’t forget every act of terror that left us fantastically traumatized. I’m not sitting in this darkened room, visible to you, waiting on you to fix anything (as a sidenote: you can’t fix it, just like you can’t fix everything for everybody). I’m not silently sitting here to help you write anything (you don’t need help with that and never have). I’m also not stuck.
Picasso Days. Elephant in the Jungle. Trampoline camp outs. Homemade baking. Cheese farms and every museum in and around the city. Teaching the church kids, homeschooling. Working. Hang gliding. Chatter Chats. Trips to places like the MLP fair and the ocean. Monthly letters to the girls. You think these are abberations, oddities, flukes. You think these are things you did because of the girls, because you were trying to teach them really important lessons about living life. Writing a hand written, personalized letter to every person employeed at the same place you are for Christmas because you wanted everyone to know that they were seen, that they mattered? You think that’s just because we’re sentimental and you think that’s a flaw because you think it adds a burden to others. Speaking when you can in public about what happened, because you believe someone might need to hear it. A piece of you hopes it matters to someone, even if you never know who it is.
Do you remember making up stories to tell to Mandi to help her go to sleep? Do you remember fourth grade, Mrs. Krutsinger? You were 10 years old and you were bold and, in the middle of being hurt, asked her if you could read the Mickey book to the class. Sixth grade, 12 years old, Mrs. Haymer, you made the same request and ended up reading aloud every day to your classmates. Ninth grade was really hard. It was the only year you were actively and aggressively bullied; yet, in the midst of that, you convinced the principal to let you leave French class early every Friday so that you could walk to the elementary school and teach a class of 3rd graders, whose teacher you also convinced to let you do this. You designed and implemented the program. At the end of it, you hand wrote each of the twenty two students a letter and a unique, individualized short story. Age 18 saw you taking the initiative to volunteer as a mentor for a troubled young boy, and every weekend you took him on play dates in Murfreesboro. That was also when you signed up to be a Junior Achievement volunteer teacher and went to various schools. You wrote your own program about the Holocaust and contacted individual teachers until you found those that let you teach the program to their classes.
See, you think I’m here because I blame you for not getting me out of the really, really hurtful things. When you cry for no reason, sometimes it’s because of me, because something triggered something. But sometimes it’s just because your heart is still so tender. I know, you don’t think it is. But I know differently. You still put others first, you still dream of making a difference. And sometimes, when you think you’ve failed, it hurts —because your heart is still tender.
I am here because I am proud of you. I am here because I don’t want you to forget how astoundingly strong you are—if you weren’t, you would have given up years ago. I am here because, as the little girl inside, I don’t want you to forget that, like the Jew inside the terror camp who used butter and thread to make a candle so they could observe Shabbat, you’ve also always risen above what happened to you. Seven years ago and writing, you did it. How does a child of ten or eleven know to actively pursue and use something as constructive as writing and storytelling to escape the pain of being held down and raped?
You tend to see me as the scared you—and, yes, you were terrified. Life was a tightrope and you tried so hard to be good because guilt was so easy a coat to put on. Yes, sometimes, the memories still are scary and all the lies you accepted a truth are painful. But the thing is… the little girl inside, me, I still remember all the times you were brave, all the times that you fought for our survival , using the only weapons you had: Music and writing.
I don’t blame you. In fact, if it weren’t for how hard you fought, how hard you tried every day to keep the bad away, we wouldn’t be here. And I’m not here to keep you caged, to make sure you don’t make a promise I never asked you to make. A lot has been lost (stolen). And I can’t bring it back, no one can. But you have not lost me. You think you have, you think that the little girl inside vanished when the innocence was stolen.
But I didn’t.
The dreams you had before we were hurt. The sweet girl who used to get excited about writing has grown into the woman who gets excited about writing; the girl who used to practice her autograph has given her autograph to lots of readers. The little girl who loved giving things grew into the woman who, despite everything, still gives and gives. The little girl who played with dolls and pretended she was a mother has grown into the woman whose entire world starts and ends with her own two girls. The little girl who held her hand out, asking God to hold it and believing He would has grown to the woman who currently is super excited that the second episode of The Chosen is releasing on Tuesday and is currently reading her way through the Bible again because she wants to learn more about His heart. See, the little girl you so desperately miss? She still shines in all the things into which you put your heart.
I’m not going anywhere. You worry about that sometimes, about me disappearing. I’m not going to because I’m a part of you. You have worked so hard to teach the girls not to be afraid of life ; don’t be afraid of life. At various times in your life you’ve downplayed what happened and yet allowed it to cost you things, and relationships, you deeply treasured. You are afraid that if you let go, if you do something you really want to do without first consulting me, if you embrace, truly embrace the joy surrounding you, that it’ll be like saying that it’s over, that it didn’t hurt you, that it didn’t matter.
I wouldn’t be here if it didn’t matter or if it wasn’t traumatizing.
The Holocaust survivor married, laughed and danced, went on trips and told jokes. Does that make what she went through any less terrifying or terrible? No. It makes her the woman you admire and the man you respect. It displays their strength, that they were able to find and embrace life and joy after seeing the very worst in people. Your strength is in how you teach optimism and your message is one of hope and unity even though the heartbreak still steals your sleep and your breath sometimes. You are proud of the survivors because they didn’t give up. I am proud of you because you haven’t given up.
Oh. And this broken fear hanging around, the one that says you aren’t as worthy as other women because you aren’t as pretty or as whole or because you’ve had one too many surgeries…. that’s the shame and the guilt you’ve carried for so long, it’s not true.
The greatest thing you can teach the girls, other than the Gospel, is to be kind—not only to others, but to themselves. And that’s not a lesson you can design; it’s a lesson you have to model.