My wife and I went to see “Cabaret” tonight. The show is fun, sexy, dynamic, and interactive. It’s set up like you’re in an actual night club. As it opens, you’re excited and everyone’s laughing and it’s a blast. But then, as it progresses, you realize that these characters’ lives represent so much more than a simple story. “Cabaret” ultimately reflects the state of the world leading up to WWII. Although it takes place in Berlin, Germany, the characters individually represent the people and environmental conditions that allowed Hitler and the Nazi Party to exterminate over six million people.
I bring this up on this particular blog because WWII, particularly the Holocaust, has always resonated very deeply and powerfully within me. I don’t remember when I first learned about Hitler or the mass genocide he orchestrated, but I do remember when I began to understand the complexities of how such an atrocity could occur. And that was something I found very relatable. I certainly do not mean to minimize or be insulting, but I want to be clear that yes – I am drawing a comparison between my own traumatic childhood and the heinous acts committed against the Jewish (among other) people. Why, or even how, could I do such a thing? Because the very same elements that allowed the Holocaust to occur allowed my abuse to occur.
Adolf Hitler was an exceptional orator who used fear and charisma to convince ordinary people that Jews were the enemy of Germans and would result in their inevitable downfall. As a teenager, I used to refer to my biological mother as “Hitler of the household” because I felt that she led her very own dictatorship within those walls. She was extraordinary in her ability to spin tales and gaslight the people around her into believing things were just as she said they were. It was very easy to to lose yourself amidst her lies and manipulations.
Since the people surrounding my biological parents found their façade so compelling and believable, they were somehow able to overlook what I know was obvious to them. But they found ways to deny it. I once read a book that interviewed Germans who witnessed Jews being marched through their towns and put on cattle trains to their deaths. When asked what, exactly, they imagined was going to happen to those Jews, the people stated that they believed what they were told: that the Jews were being segregated and moved to separate areas for housing and employment. They knew – somewhere inside themselves – that this was likely not true, but most chose to ignore the dissonance and accept the lies funneled to them through political parties. I do not blame them. It would have taken incredible courage to go up against the Nazi Party during such a time.
Similarly, when I asked my Aunt why she (and everyone else) did nothing to intervene when she must have known awful things were happening to my biological siblings and I, she first admitted that she did know (or suspect). But she further explained that my Grandmother, ever the matriarch, suggested it would be best to just let things be. She didn’t want to rock the boat and upset my volatile mother because she feared my mother would react irrationally and never allow the family to see us children ever again. So they pretended it wasn’t happening and pushed it out of their minds. To them, it did not exist.
By the time I ended up in the offices of therapists and psychiatrists, my parents had painted this masterful picture of me as an unstable, unpredictable, attention-seeking, compulsive liar. Even when I told the truth – when I finally found a way to use my voice and speak about what was happening to me – I was shut down immediately. First by my mother, who came to visit me at the hospital to threaten that if I “carried on with my lies”, Child Protective Services would take custody of my child brother and horrible things would happen to him in foster care. I did not want that for him. So I rescinded my story and from that moment on, it was always just that….a story.
I spent the next couple years in and out of psychiatric facilities and no one could figure out what was wrong with me. I was self-injuring regularly and at dangerous levels. I was chronically depressed and actively suicidal. I was experiencing “seizure-like episodes” and “what looked like traumatic flashbacks.” I have since read my medical records from that time. The treatment teams agreed that I showed significant signs and symptoms of PTSD, yet they still held onto the image my parents had molded of me as a pathological liar. So although I presented as classic case of someone being abused, they decided that I had an organic mental illness (Bipolar II disorder) and a personality disorder (Borderline). For them, it was easier to put a neat and tidy label on my behavior, rather than questioning why I was self-destructing with such determination. Not once did a single treatment provider ask me why I was suicidal or why I was self-harming. They just assumed it was the illness. And so they wrote script after script, poisoning my body with chemicals that could not possibly repair the damage inflicted from years of severe and persistent trauma.
Perhaps saddest of all is that until very recently, I bought into this propaganda as well. I believed I had an inherent physiological malfunction that caused me to want to harm or kill myself. I believed these magical little pills were the only thing that could control my strange behaviors and excruciating emotions. And I believed that I was exactly who my parents said I was: a crazy, manipulative liar. Their gifted ability to weave a web of lies reached so far into my own understanding of reality that I accepted it as truth, even when I was living a reality that was dramatically different, and even when it came at the expense of my own integrity, safety, and sanity.
I am one person, sharing a planet with billions of others. There are atrocious things happening all over the world as I write this, some not too different from the very Holocaust I’m referencing. But I believe there is an underlying commonality to it that can help survivors, clinicians, and allies better understand how such an awful thing could happen. From the outside, my family is the very definition of ordinary. Yet here I am, a grown woman with a personality spliced into pieces. What horrible acts could cause such a thing to happen? And HOW could no one notice???
Well, my dear readers, this is the entire point. People did notice. They knew. But they denied it. They were swept away by intricate and deliberately placed lies that were much safer to believe than the terrible truth staring them in the face. So THAT is how a child was repeatedly and severely abused for decades while the adults around her did nothing. And THAT is how six million people were exterminated while the entire world did nothing.