I can’t cope with my mother’s traumatic wartime memories | Annalisa Barbieri

My parents are from eastern Europe and experienced great trauma as teenagers. In 1941, the German army invaded my father’s home; his father was taken from their house and shot in the street by the Nazis. My father was 16. Two years later, he was conscripted into an SS division and fought on the eastern front.

He is now dead, but I kept in touch with him throughout his life, despite his horrible behaviour towards me. I always felt this wasn’t really who he was, but something the war had made him. None of my other siblings made much effort to see him. In the final years of his life, I saw a lot of him. It was extremely traumatic, as he told me about some of the horrors he had been through.

My mother grew up in Nazi Germany. She was two years old when Hitler came to power and 14 when the war ended. I am very close to her and she has told me certain things about her experiences of the war. She is now 88.

Recently, my mother has hinted at and made references to really dark stuff. I dread what else she might tell me. I don’t know how to respond and I don’t know how to cope with it. I know that what she went through was worse than my experience of listening to it, but part of the problem is that the few people I have told about my parents’ experiences seem to have no idea of the horror, or what an impact it has had on me.

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For various reasons, I have had several different types of counselling. Some of it has been really helpful. But when this topic has come up, I just feel that the counsellors don’t get the full trauma and horror.

Your original letter was very long, full of detail, and muddled in places. You write that you have had lots of therapy, yet it was as if you were coming to this situation anew – which is not unusual for unprocessed traumatic memories.

I was left with the sense that your family’s history is a giant, disturbing jigsaw puzzle and that you don’t know how all the pieces fit together – perhaps because you fear what you might find.

I discussed your problem with Jonathan Sklar, a psychoanalyst and the author of 2018’s Dark Times: Psychoanalytic Perspectives On Politics, History and Mourning. Although you asked me not to concentrate on your siblings, as they didn’t want to engage, we couldn’t help but wonder why that was, and why they have disassociated themselves from the legacy of your parents’ wartime experiences.

How should you deal with what your mother might be about to tell you? The simple answer is that you don’t have to listen to anything you don’t want to. I know that what she went through was so bad that you feel the least you can do is listen to her. But it is clear that the prospect of this has genuinely disturbed you and continues to do so. It is OK to say you don’t want to hear it and that it upsets you, to say “enough”.

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“Sometimes old people want to get rid of things – they want to expiate themselves,” Sklar said. “It’s like they’re carrying something radioactive [and want to pass it on to others].”

Your mother could find her own therapist, because it sounds as if she wants to tell someone – but it doesn’t have to be you. Listening to her is causing you pain. Also, you have children: you owe it to them to process this trauma properly and not merely hand it on to the next generation in the way you are experiencing. You don’t have to act as a conduit.

Sklar pointed out that the letter doesn’t go into what your parents may have done during the war (as opposed to what happened to them). Trauma specialists say that, when it comes to very troubling memories, it can help to look at the whole picture, to contextualise them. This may be more important than you realise.

You ended your original letter by saying you felt you had never had someone say how awful this is. It seems you need someone to bear witness to you, as you have borne witness to your parents. I wonder if any of the therapists you have seen are trauma specialists. Even if a specialist doesn’t get “the full trauma and horror”, they are highly skilled at helping people with the impact it has had on them.

But it will take time. For now, do what you have to to protect yourself. You don’t have to sit there as your mother pours her memories into you.

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