Then, Irene began one session saying she was angry at me for not having shared more about my history, since she'd guessed that my own immigrant parents had themselves escaped genocide. I hesitated--in fact I stalled, because she was right, but I didn't know where this might go or whether it would be helpful. I also didn't know whether I was comfortable getting into such a personal matter with someone I was treating.
We sat there with Irene staring coolly at me until I finally began to tell my story. In 1939, months before the European borders closed, my parents were still living there in my mother's parents' house. The Nazis had begun to round up Polish Jews, which meant my father was in mortal danger. One day, the Gestapo appeared at the door and said to my mother: "We know your husband is hiding here. Either you turn him in or we'll take your parents." Then they left.
"What did you do?" I asked, stunned by this revelation.
Telling no one, my mother went down to the Brown House, as Gestapo headquarters was called. She was 26, really not much more than a child. "I stayed at the Gestapo for two days. I wouldn't go until they changed their mind."
"What did you do there?" not sure I wanted to hear.
"I don't really remember," she said. "I don't think I want to remember. I just kept talking to everyone I could, until I met a Nazi official I knew growing up. He finally signed some papers and gave us 48 hours to get out of the country. Even with this, I could barely go. Your father had to drag me away because my parents wouldn't leave with us."
"Why in the world would they stay?""They thought," she told me sighing with a deep resignation, "nothing bad could happen to them--they were always such good citizens. Then in 1942, we received word that my parents had been killed in the camps, along with half of your daddy's family."
"Why didn't you ever tell me this?"
"I don't know, Ronnie. I didn't even think about it until we began to talk."
I told my mother I couldn't believe how brave she'd been. She protested that what she'd done was just a part of "normal" life back then. But she also revealed several other harrowing stories about the things she did to survive those times, again new to me and again revealing my mother as a more heroic person than I'd ever known. My mother and I had never spoken quite like this before, but now we were having the conversation of a lifetime, a gift just before she died, before my children were born. Late as it was, it forever changed the way I understood her and my family's life story, and for the brief time she had remaining, I believe it changed the way my mother saw herself.
After I'd said as much as I could bring myself to, with tears in my eyes--and Irene's, as well--her whole demeanor changed, becoming noticeably warmer. We began a conversation about "the things we carry," with Irene exhibiting a deep empathy I'd rarely seen in her. Over the weeks, the unspoken kindness and inner compassion of this woman, who was also extremely brave, began to emerge toward herself and within her family. There were far fewer fights around the house, less judgment, and a lot less guilt on her part.
You can't predict where the unscripted will take you, and when I planned this article, I didn't imagine including this or ending here. I'd intended to talk about the power of therapeutic conversation. But for all I know, I may have written the entire article just to tell this story of gratitude and appreciation for my mother, one I've never written about before.
I guess this is as it should be. In this fascinating, albeit sometimes grueling, profession, it isn't just about "us" therapists doing something formulaic for or to "them," our patients. It's about the vast possibilities for change in both our clients and ourselves that the small, everyday miracle of conversation can ignite if--with awareness, patience, and a focus on the craft involved in this--we allow it to flow and work its meandering magic.
Ron Taffel, Ph.D., is the chairman of the board of the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in New York. He's the author of eight books, including his latest, Childhood Unbound: Authoritative Parenting for the 21st Century. Contact: rontaffel.com.
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