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'Disappeared David' -- Trauma and Dissociation

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I was helping my mother clean closets. The closets in my parents' bedroom had built in cabinets, way, way up high for long-term storage. For some reason there was a box on the bed from that high up place. I was looking through, and I found bundled up letters addressed to my father from someone I had never heard of. There was something strange about them, and the tone was intimate, but I didn't recognize the sender. Maybe I noted an honorific but didn't recognize what it was. I asked my mother who this was, this stranger who seemed to have an important if undefined relationship with my father. Her answer was deeply unsatisfying and familiar: "I'll tell you when you're older." I was probably 8 or 9 at the time. "Older" came 9 or 10 years later and was pretty much an accident.

On the way west to my first year at college in Ohio, we stopped in Chicago to visit cousins, cousins never before mentioned to me or my siblings, never mentioned or seen afterwards. To this day I'm not sure how we are related to each other. Sitting around a large table with these newly discovered cousins our very warm genial cousin-host asked my father if he ever heard from his brother David.

Who? What? There was another sibling in the U.S., someone I had never heard of? It never occurred to our cousin that my father's children would not know about David.

There were eight children in my father's family. I had assumed all but one, my Auntie Mary, had perished back in Russia.

The picture of that box on the bed briefly (literally) out of the closet, were letters from David. As we sat at the table, the story emerged. My father had an older brother who had come to the U.S. long before he did, renounced his religion, his Jewish origins and became a Protestant minister. The story was muddled at the time and is still somewhat muddled in my mind. He changed his last name, and I never was able to learn much more about him.

I think now about this and so many other family unknowns and I understand a little more about why I understood so readily the idea of the dissociation and sequestered part-selves, the legacy of trauma.

I almost instinctively understood what was going on with patients who employed a high degree of dissociation to make their way in the world. They too put things in a box, hid them deep in a dark closet, way up high out of sight and out of mind. What they put in boxes, though, were parts of themselves: selves that held stories of horrendous childhood trauma. And unlike my father they did not have access to this long term storage without intensive treatment.

The story of "disappeared David" popped up in my memory recently as I listened to the elegant memoir of a colleague, searching for lost family history. I hadn't thought about this incident in Chicago and the lost uncle in decades. The re-emergence of this David -- memory sent me back to a rough memoir that my father had written in 1987; he was around 80 years old. Although there were some early memories of David, the story or his conversion and separation from the family was missing.

What I did encounter were fragmentary tales of the horrendous trauma that my father had experienced as a child. He recounts repeated dislocations within Russia, the country of his birth, the early death of an older brother and his revered father from typhoid. The years of the Russian revolution are filled with extreme violence, starvation, and barely acknowledged fear. Neither I nor my siblings had ever heard reference to incidents like the ones below:

One couple with their young daughter, probably 10 or 12 years old, were dragged out of their apartment building into the street and shot right there. Blood was oozing out from their bodies. The young girl was left alive. For a moment she looked calm and still, almost frozen in place. Then she fell to the ground on the top of their bodies with an almost inhuman shriek ... The girl went berserk. She tore off her clothes and ran. Where to? I left the window, which was my observation point, and related the incident to the rest of the family. My mother yelled at me. I was told to stay away from the window or I would get killed. End of that incident. The next morning I forgot all about it(!). (Emphasis mine.)

There are more disturbing, and partially dissociated events that he witnessed but notes that he has "forgotten" about them until writing this history.

One night there was a knock at the door. Two uniformed red guards arrested our boarder. We never saw him again. No one ever claimed his belongings. One more bloodied occurrence. Whatever I related now is the way I saw it with the eyes of a young boy, who by now is immune to the most horrible sights. A similar hardened immunity was the armor that probably helped some of the Jews in the concentration camps to survive where mass executions were part of a horrible daily routine.

It was on one of the rare occasions when I was allowed to play in the street that a caravan of military trucks were rolling by. Soldiers in the leading truck were shooting in the air, aim(ing) to disperse the crowd. People ran to hide in doorways, patios, away from the shooting. But a stupid kid, like me stood there curiously trying to see what this was all about. Yes, I did see. I saw dead bodies piled up in (the) open truck, maybe 20 or 30 with heads and limbs swinging from the motion of the truck.

Looking through the window of time and observing the young boy watching the caravan of death roll by, detached, satisfying his curiosity of the event, void of other emotions. Probably a little scared.

Disappeared David was but the tip of an iceberg concealing significant early trauma. I knew nothing, nothing about the details of my father's childhood. This was not discussed in our home.

The memoir is strikingly haphazard. It took me the better part of an afternoon to compose a rough chronology of his early years. The lack of coherence is meaningful. Trauma disrupts memory. Some memories (the traumatic ones) are engraved in laser-like detail, but sequencing is patchy.

The most striking and almost incomprehensible instance of disrupted memory are two directly contradictory narratives of how my father came to the U.S. In narrative #1 he comes in legally through Canada during the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration. In narrative #2 he comes, I suppose illegally, on a boat smuggled in by "some Arabs" during a treacherous voyage across the straits of Florida, conveyed by car North and deposited in the Bronx with some reluctant relatives: They had no idea that he was coming. Oh, and this was before FDR became president.

A few months before re-reading this "autobiography," as my father termed it, I attended a lecture in which audience members were asked if they had lost close relatives in the Holocaust. I raised my hand. Then I stared at it. I really had no reason to think I had. My upraised hand was obviously lying. My father's family died at the hands of Stalin in Russia. That was always my understanding. Turns out my hand knew something I didn't. Amidst the confusing chronicle of my father's childhood, lies this startling sentence fragment:

(If it) wouldn't have been for that decision (to go to Cuba at age 15), my sister and I would now lay in a common grave with my mother and my older sister Pearl and the rest of the relatives, all liquidated by the Nazis.

Having moved back to Pinsk, which was now Poland, my grandmother and aunt (what happened to the other children?) were in position to be killed by the Germans when they invaded Poland in 1939. I never heard any mention, any reference to this tragedy so near to all of us. Never.

It turns out the David was not the only one to have disappeared.