by Lev Raphael (Okemos, MI)
My demanding and charismatic mother has been dead for eleven years but I
still often think about her, wishing she were alive. There’ll be a question I want to ask her about her past, or an event in my current life I’d love to be sharing with her, and sometimes a regret for something I did or said as a child will crop up. I know she would probably dismiss bringing up the past like that as “Quatsch,” the German word that’s so much more dismissive than “Nonsense.” She loved to use it as magisterially as if she were in fact a judge pounding her gavel and rendering a verdict. But it doesn’t stop me from imagining the scene anyway.
There are times, though, that I’m glad she’s not alive. As whenever I read about the conditions at Gitmo, or the Orwellian-named policy of “extraordinary rendition,” or the American use of waterboarding, which has been re-branded in the American media to cover up its illegality. I feel sure she would be outraged and even sick to her stomach. I certainly am.
In the late 1940s, not long after she was liberated from her slave labor camp in Germany and met my father, she spent a few weeks in London and among the souvenirs I still have from that trip are tiny photos she took at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. As a child, she said that the medieval tortures–like a witch in the Chamber of Horrors having water poured through a funnel down her throat–reminded her of things she had seen during the Holocaust. I didn’t ask what those “things” were, I was stunned enough by descriptions of the waxworks cruelty, and by her oft-repeated “Homo homini lupus est”: Man is a wolf to other men. This was the voice of dark experience speaking, the voice of history, though I think she took some comfort in summing it all up with the Latin she had learned to read and declaim in school in Poland, situating herself in her own pre-war past and that of Ancient Rome. My mother liked to take the long view when she could, and I’m sure the museum helped her by siting cruelty many hundreds of years ago.
But I’ve always known that torture for her was no mere exhibit, it was a reality, however hazily defined it might be for me. It became disturbingly clearer when photos from Abu Ghraib were released on the Internet, and when accounts of torture there and elsewhere in the American gulag were published in magazines like The New Yorker. Yet it was still always at arm’s length–until I had an hour and a half of it myself, not as a media stunt like some reporter on CNN having himself tasered, but, unexpectedly, while undergoing a medical procedure.
Trying to track down a persistent throat problem I’d been having, an otolaryngologyst had referred me to a neurologist so as to start ruling various possibilities out. The cheerful neurologist found I had no signs of Parkinson’s whatsoever, but wanted to be sure there wasn’t some neuropathy she was missing in her personal exam. She described the procedure she wanted me to have as “they’ll stick some needles into you.” “You mean like acupuncture? Will it hurt?” Her reply: “There’ll be some discomfort.” That didn’t sound so bad to me, and because I was so busy, I didn’t bother to explore on my own exactly what the test, an electromyogram, would entail. I wish I had.
A few weeks later I lay in a hospital gown in a cramped, overly bright, featureless little room waiting for the test after some small talk and a brief physical examination. The doctor was assisted by an Austrian intern and because I’m studying German, this gave the whole experience a surprisingly relaxed feel. She and I chatted a bit in German, but pretty soon, after an initial examination, the human side of the interaction was completely over, and I was reduced to an object.
What exactly is an electromyogram? By inserting electrodes into muscle tissue, doctors can test the electrical activity of muscles at rest and during contraction to see if there’s nerve or muscle damage. So for about an hour, I had needle electrodes stuck into various places on my legs while a nurse or I moved my limbs as instructed. Information was gathered and the machine that I never got a good look at crackled like a Geiger counter. At first I felt almost nothing, then it was like a nasty pin prick, then each successive jolt was more and more painful, sometimes so much so that I gasped or groaned “Jesus!” or “Wow!” At more than one point my leg shot in the air because the current was so strong.
This went on and on in a kind of nightmarish rhythm: first fear, then pain, then relief the pain was over, then fear of more pain coming, then the pain which kept getting worse. As the cycle continued, my consciousness shriveled until the world was reduced to a series of sensations and noises, both those that came out of my mouth and those being made by the machine. When the doctor finally told me that the next part of the test didn’t involve electric current, I thought I was over the agony, but it actually got worse. He stuck needles of some kind in my hand at the joint of my index finger and thumb, in my arm, in my shoulder, and each time I had to move my hand or arm in certain ways to to provide the information they were looking for. Not only did this part of the test hurt more, I had soreness in my hand and arm for weeks afterward, and large bruises.
I don’t remember well the short consultation that followed, but I do remember feeling exhausted and humiliated when everyone filed out: neurologist, test administrator, Austrian resident, nurse. I was so stunned by what had happened to me that I didn’t even check out, just wandered the halls till a nurse pointed me to an exit. I managed to drive myself home, glad that I hadn’t started crying during the test, even though the pain had been so intense I almost did so twice.
What seemed like the greatest violation of my dignity, of my selfhood, was that I had come to this hospital for healing, or at least a diagnostic exam that would lead to healing, but had found something very different instead. The people administering the test didn’t intend to torture me, they weren’t evil, they weren’t remotely like my mother’s tormentors, but they had left me feeling crushed and shattered just the same. I’d been mugged once in New York, but that was a pat on the back compared to this assault, to suddenly no longer feeling safe in the world, as if my personal boundaries were meaningless and anything could happen to me.
I told a dancer friend of mine about the test and she said she had walked out of a similar one. “You can’t do this to me,” she said to the doctor, “I’m not a criminal.” And when she described the scene, I felt like an idiot. Why hadn’t I stopped the test? Why hadn’t I told the doctor to turn the fucking machine off and let me go?
I couldn’t. I was paralyzed and not thinking straight, barely thinking at all.
The morning after the test, I woke up at 4:30 AM, shaking. My bed had turned into that hospital table and though the room was dark, I felt bright lights beating down on me. I knew I had to flee that scene somehow. I got up quietly so as not to wake my partner or the dogs, grabbed a Valium in the bathroom, and headed to my study to escape into the morning’s news. Over the following days, whenever I answered somebody’s email about how I was feeling and the test flitted through my mind, or if I even mentioned it, I could feel the terror and pain coming back. Anyone who’s been in a violent accident, or victim of a gross physical assault, will probably know what I mean.
After talking about the test with my therapist, I knew that writing about what happened was essential to getting over it. He made the connection for me between my experience and my mother’s in the war, something that amazingly hadn’t crossed my mind until he said it. Yes, it was only an hour and a half of agony, not years, months, or even days–but it linked us in the most unexpected way. I had entered a prolonged situation of helplessness — or that’s how it felt to me.
I realized that I had to write to the neurologist who was in charge and share my experience, not to apportion blame, but so he could help future patients. I had never had a test like this before; it had never occurred to me that I could stop it. But the administering physician should have offered me the choice before the test even started. What added to the nightmare was the wall that suddenly shot up between me and everyone in the room as soon as the test began. I was a source of data and they weren’t people, either: just soulless technicians who never responded to my obvious distress.
It’s not melodramatic to realize that if the test had gone on longer without hope of release, and had they been after any secrets I held, I would have told them anything to make it stop. Now I understand something of what happens in places like Abu Ghraib, and I was only tortured for an hour and a half. But at least it ended, and I’m free.
I’ve been able to seek relief in writing. Once, decades ago, I suggested that my mother write about her past because the world needed to know what happened to her, but that made her furious, “I don’t owe the world anything!” How could I argue with that? But writing about her is something I have to do, and each year I discover new ways.
I’m on a Second Generation listserv and recently we’ve all been discussing our middle-aged health issues, and after I described what happened to me, one member told me that this same test was being recommended for her 89-year old father. Hopefully my story will spare him pain, or at least inform him that he can make the pain stop. I’m not remotely happy to have had this ordeal, but it gave me a strange gift: brief, visceral understanding of what my mother experienced during the war, being trapped and victimized. It made me marvel at her courage to go on, to rebuild her life, even while it fills me with sorrow to know that her story can never be fully told.
Lev Raphael, a prize-winning pioneer in American-Jewish literature, has been publishing fiction and nonfiction about the Second Generation since 1978. The author of nineteen books which have been translated into almost a dozen languages, he has spoken about his work in hundreds of venues on three continents. His fiction and creative non-fiction are widely taught at American colleges and universities. A former public radio book show host, academic, and columnist, he can be found on the web at http://www.levraphael.com.
You can check out his latest book, the memoir, My Germany: A Jewish Writer Returns to the World His Parents Escaped, at http://www.levraphael.com/mygermany.html.
And you can view a YouTube excerpt from one of his talks at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFhrajH-6AE