Last night I watched the new PBS production of The Diary of Anne Frank. I had not planned to watch it and I kept thinking that it would be too much and that I should pull away.
I sat drawn in by the beauty and intensity of the story, and it felt to me that I was an inadvertent and unwilling witness to the horrible thing that befell so very many people and would to this beautiful young girl– a writer– and that the burden of witnessing is too much. The movie resonated, as I suspect it has and will for many other people, to my own girlhood.
Watching Anne’s character interact with her Mother and Father I relived my own parents’ falling into illness and slow drowning, how for many years I was a hostage to their suffering, believing it should be the subject of my poetry– I too was driven to journal, tell the truth, my truth and thus I became the keeper of the family story, heiress absolute of my own and everyone else’s pain, lugging it through the years like a knapsack full of stones, trying to make it into something else, i.e. poems that locked the travesty of our family life into place. I still fall prey to the idea that it is my job to preserve all of this “truth” and I have written memoir here that forces a reliving that returns me to darkness and does not bring me up to breathe oxygen.
.At one point as I watched, seeing how Anne’s love for those around her rendered her vulnerable, I had the returning memory of a day when my dog was hit on the road; I witnessed this and had to drag him by the paws to a sand pit behind our house and try to bury him. I was five.
That child that I was, who is the one whose sad stories I have told in three books of poetry, wants to be saved. She does not want to have to keep digging up the carcasses of her losses in order to claim loss as her “truth”. The very thought of having to remain a coroner, an undertaker, a forensic scientist DNA testing grief, makes her think that self-immolation, Joan of Arc or not, would be a better fate.
I should have protected that child last night by turning away from the story that makes her remember and relive trauma.
It is my job to redeem the broken child and pulls her back from the edge and help her with her sadness.
Years ago, in therapy, at someone’s urging I bought a doll that looked like me and asked it to tell me its secrets. I wrote as that young self in a journal and something came back to me that made me take the doll out into the moonlight in a rose garden and lift it into the air and ask God to heal it because healing a thing like that was too big a job.
She– I– would like to think that there is a God to give the stones of grief to. We are not sure. We therefore sing, as in write, to confirm that we have survived, curing the past with new stories. I– we– are changing the story by erasing some of its harshness. Art can make things better. Sometimes I must sing out my sorrows and longings and I do that in my poetry, in the lyric and the poetic line. But I have martyred myself to “truth” long enough. Perhaps it may be said that “truth” is over-valued. Perhaps it is time for some self-assuaging lies, the reinvention of the past. Our imaginations help us transcend and dwell in art, which counters the awful.
I reach down into the water where I have been in labor with stillborn grief and deliver it from me and I do this every day because I deserve to be free.