How did your family experience concerning the portrait become the subject of an essay? What compelled this particular story to be told?
I am a plant scientist by training. Seven years ago, I took a class on creative nonfiction writing because I wanted to write about plants in a way that would reach beyond my research publications and beyond my usual audience of fellow botanists. But no matter whether I wrote about nettles, golden rain trees, currant bushes, or lupines, every piece turned itself into a story about the experiences of my family during World War II. I eventually decided to let the words go where they wanted to take me. Many of the essays I have written since then grew from anecdotes I heard from my grandmother when I was a child.
When I tried to talk to my mother about the stories I was writing, I discovered that she knew few of them. I then learned that many Germans who were children during the war had never spoken with their parents about those years. A substantial body of literary and scholarly works on this “silence between generations” has appeared in Germany over the past decade, but few of these texts are available in English. When I heard my mother speak about fishing the plaster portrait of Hitler from the pond and having her mother destroy it with a hammer, the images in my mind were so vivid that I knew I had to let them pour into words. As the story unfolded through draft after draft, I realized that it might provide an entry point for readers from non-German cultures into the complex emotional entanglements that World War II created in German families.
What were some challenges (or surprises) in the construction of this essay?
From the beginning, the essay insisted on being told from two points of view: the central anecdote, told from the limited third-person perspective of my mother as a child, and a traditional first-person reflection on this anecdote that invites the reader into the author’s head. Asking the reader to inhabit both my mother’s early childhood experience and also my own thoughts felt like a tall order; it took many rounds of revisions to arrive at a structure that I thought a reader might be willing to follow. Initially, I resisted writing from two different points of view, because I tried to make myself abide by rules of good essay writing that demand unity of form and perspective. But the emotional “juice” that drove the writing flowed from crawling into my mother’s skin. Each time I tried to abandon or circumvent her internal experience, my words turned wooden and distant. And each time I tried to remain entirely within it, I lost the echoes of her story across generations that also demanded to be heard. Giving myself permission to write part of the essay from my mother’s point-of-view taught me what questions I needed to ask her, what information I needed to hunt down in other sources and, in the end, brought me up gasping as I recognized myself as performing the eerie repetition of a child dredging up the past and holding it up for her mother’s inspection and response.
Read Catharina’s essay “Saving Adolf.”
Catharina Coenen is a plant biologist and first-generation German immigrant to Northwestern Pennsylvania, where she teaches biology at Allegheny College. Her creative nonfiction pieces are forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere.