Sunday, November 19, 2017

I Said, You Said

July 26, 2011 by Jane Ross  
Filed under Blog, Writing Practice

In her research for her new book, Leila Levinson was surprised how the veterans she interviewed often switched to using the second person “you” as they talked of their experiences….

I’ve been reading Gated Grief by fellow Austinite, university English professor and friend Leila Levinson. Ultimately it’s a warmly reassuring read, even as it’s far from being a easy one — the subtitle is “The Daughter of a GI Liberator Faces Her Inheritance of Trauma.”

Leila explores the hidden trauma experienced by the families (including her own) of WWII veterans who liberated the hellish concentration camps of Nazi Germany. In her prologue, Leila imagines what her father must have experienced as one of the liberators of concentration camp survivors near Nordhausen in Germany.  The retelling is made eerier by her skillful use of the second person, “you,” in place of “he” or “I.”

Leila Levinson

Leila Levinson

In her research for the book, Leila noted how the veterans she interviewed often switched to using the second person “you” as they talked of their experiences. Their memories of arriving into the camps, even looking back 60+ years on those events, were still so raw and traumatic that the men seemed to need to find a way to step outside those memories by avoiding speaking of “I.”

“…you don’t know what skin and bones are until you see some of these people.”

“You just couldn’t believe it.”

“You were so affected by this…”

In my earlier post about being in New Zealand during the February 22 earthquake, I tried this way of writing for myself. For the writer, it provides a distance from the events of the story that make it possible to revisit painful memories. The effect for the reader is surprising. As one reads, one has a sense both of being there in the writer’s shoes and at the same time of listening to a story of someone who has had to dissociate themselves from their own experience in order to survive and function in the normal world.

Try this yourself. Begin by writing a piece about a small, perhaps scary incident from your childhood using the second person, “you.” Notice the way you feel as you write. Notice how it sounds to read the story aloud. As you gain confidence, try this way of writing about other more difficult periods of your life. You may find that using the second person frees you from the anxiety that often accompanies writing about difficult times.

I hope to interview Leila over the coming months to find out more about how her journey to understand her own family’s story led to deep healing and how the healing process can work for other survivors and children of survivors.

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