Vanya survived, just barely, as did his legs, the gangrene beaten by naked will and last-ditch medical help. But had his spirit? The man I was now "dating"—it was more like going under a huge Atlantic wave—was guarded and bitter, overprotective, capable of sudden rage that scared me to death. Yet I was touched by glimpses of his imagination—he told me he'd been a great reader as a kid, and the adventure stories in his memory had helped him stay sane in the prison camp. And I sensed an ocean of sadness dammed up behind his formidable facade. Two or three times a week he'd jolt awake from nightmares so real it took him many minutes to believe he wasn't back in Russia.
True survivors, whether they are dragged from home by war or violated by a more intimate enemy, know that merely staying alive isn't enough. They must brave the journey back through the treacherous tunnels and sealed-off horror chambers the mind has constructed for its defense. To recover, therapists say, a survivor must do three things: open up to at least one other person; bear witness—tell the world what happened; and, if possible, return to confront the source of trauma.
Of these three, the most difficult and essential is to expose the psychic wounds to someone else. It's hard because all survivors, however innocent, hide deep feelings of shame and guilt: shame at their degradation (Jacques, a boy from a better than good home, arrived in the West homeless and filthy, begged for food, and got spat on); guilt not only for what they may have had to do to survive but also because to be guilty at least makes sense of their suffering. It's too frightening to live in a random universe where you can be arrested at gunpoint on your way to school just because you look like you could do a day's work; where you survive while your older sister, captured days later and taken to a different camp, does not.
Writing his own "adventure" story—Donbas was published in 1968—had been Jacques's first stab at testimony. But now Donbas was out of print, and he felt almost as unheard as before. If survivors find it easiest to confide in those who share their experience, I was a lousy choice. While he escaped in an open coal car, struggling not to fall asleep and freeze to death, I had been warm in my crib in Chicago, 9 months old. Yet he had a hunch I could be trusted, a compliment I struggled to deserve. I was so far out of my depth that at times all that kept me from fleeing was my sense of his loneliness.
In 1975 Jacques came down with a frightening illness: terrible back pain, fever. After two months of searching for cancer, his doctors diagnosed a spinal infection, most likely from germs trapped in his body ever since a Russian guard shot him through the chest for target practice. The toxins of the past, physical as well as emotional, were surfacing now that he had someone to care for him. Seeing him through sickness bonded us powerfully, and yet, like him—or a pale shadow of him—I sometimes wondered, Why me? Why had I been chosen to share the weight of someone else's suffering when my contemporaries were living carefree lives of self-discovery? I was young and didn't know yet that there's no such thing as a carefree life—and no surer way to discover yourself than through cares and caring.
After recovering from surgery, Jacques entered a period of vitality that was a joy to share. His nightmares faded. We visited his mother every year in Transylvania (his father had died in 1961, before it was safe for him to go), and I got to know Omar, who had slaved beside Jacques and saved his life. Jacques and I wrote to senators, who helped friends and relatives get out of communist Romania, for it was important to him to be the rescuer he'd never had. On the lighter side, he began to have an acting career, playing cameo roles in Moscow on the Hudson and Trading Places.
There was just one sore point: Jacques didn't want children.
For some survivors, having kids is the ultimate life-affirming act. For Jacques it was the ultimate vulnerability. His worst fear was to be in his father's shoes—unable to protect his children. I think, too, that he knew his own healing was all he could handle. For me, it was as all-consuming as motherhood—and, I consoled myself, as life-giving. I could bring a child into life, or I could love this man back to life, not both. So his cats and mine had kittens. He cooked. We laughed. We delighted in our friends. He introduced me to karate and we worked out together. He seemed almost free from the grip of trauma. I didn't realize that he was gathering strength to look it right in the face.
We Hear You!