An Interview with Diane Wyshogrod

Q: You’re a trained clinical psychologist, and an author.  How were you able to use the tools of your own trade to write HIDING PLACES?

You ask about the writing, but I have to tell you:  before you ever get to the writing, you have to do a lot of listening.

Listening to someone, deeply, completely, is one of the most precious gifts you can ever give that person. It’s not the special province of only psychologists or other healing professionals; many people have the ability to listen deeply and fully to others. It is, however, one of the skills that you practice as a psychologist.

So what does “listening deeply” mean?

First, the most obvious:  eliminating all external distractions: Not multitasking. Letting the answering machine field your calls. Turning off your mobile phone (not just putting it on “vibrate”) or the iPod. Inviting yourself to focus fully on the person in front of you.

Second, distractions don’t only arise from outside, they arise from within:  our roving minds scamper like monkeys across vast terrains, remembering things we have to do later, rehashing past events, scampering from association to association just as monkeys swing from branch to branch. This kind of internal agitation is perfectly normal, it’s part of being human, so it’s nothing we need to criticize ourselves for. At the same time, it requires that we train our minds to settle down, to become quieter, to become still, so that, sitting together, I can hear you talking to me, without all that internal noise. It’s like getting a clear radio transmission with no static.

And it’s not only thoughts and mental processes that get activated. Our feelings get stimulated too. We don’t only listen to people; we often listen with them, becoming empathically involved with their story. They start crying, and our own eyes fill with tears. Sometimes that helps us relate to them. At other times, it makes us so uncomfortable we just want to get out of there, and we do – checking out either physically, or mentally.

As a therapist, as an interviewer, you have to be able and willing to observe this, to allow it all to occur without getting swept away by it entirely, so that, ultimately, you can use it, judiciously, sensitively, and wisely. It’s like being a buoy in the middle of the ocean. The waves can be washing over you, ferociously at times, pounding you, yanking you this way and that. You have to be willing to stay there, spluttering and sloshing, trusting – knowing – that you are still anchored to solid ground, and that, even if you do get soaked or even washed out to sea every once in a while, you will find your way back.

Lots of stuff washed over me as I worked on this book through these many years, both as I listened, and as I wrote. What helped me hang in there were many factors, including my professional training and mindfulness experience. Equally important were my determination – you could even call it stubbornness – to tell this story, and lots of support from good friends and mentors. And finally, the challenge is accompanied by a deep sense of awe and satisfaction at being a witness to someone else’s life, a process that, at times, can even facilitate healing.

I hope that my book will resonate with readers wishing to connect with their own often challenging pasts, and maybe even inspire them to explore writing about them as well.

Q: The subject is your mother. The book addresses the issue of what it is like, how hard it can be, to piece together a parent’s narrative. Why is this kind of writing so hard?

The challenge in listening to someone else talk to you – about anything – is to stay focused and present and to bring your attention back when it wanders. We speak of this as giving someone our undivided attention. Our minds can wander because we’re preoccupied with something in our own lives, or because the subject being described is too painful for us to listen to. It’s hard enough listening to a stranger talk about difficult experiences. It’s so much harder when the person you’re interviewing is your own mother. Or father. What if she gets emotional?  What if he starts crying?

Do parents usually cry? Mine didn’t. And on the few occasions when my mother did break down while I was interviewing her, it was heart-wrenching, and I use the word deliberately: I could feel the tension in my body, the tightening up around my heart, in my stomach, and through the shoulders. In the book, I write about how hard it was to stay put and pay attention to what she was describing and how she was reacting, and to notice my reactions, including the discomfort of not knowing what the “right” response was.

Our impressions of our parents are laid down from even before we have conscious memory, including our need that they be there for us, strong and invincible. And we carry those early patterns and expectations throughout our lives. So when we see our parents cry, our most deep-seated needs and patterns get reactivated, challenging our most basic sense of security and safety; it’s like seeing the Rock of Gibraltar totter.

Besides fearing for our own safety, we also often fear for our parents. We want to protect them. This is particularly true in the case of children of survivors who so often become, consciously or unconsciously, their parents’ protectors, trying to make up for all the hurt and pain that they went through in their lives. The last thing you want to do is add to that sadness.

So, many things are occurring simultaneously: hearing someone’s story, observing their reactions to it, observing your own multi-layered reactions, consciously and deliberately not running away from any of it or rushing in to fix it, acknowledging and honoring it all of it.

That’s what I sought to convey to the reader throughout the book: taking the reader inside that process with me.

Q. Your investigation of your mother’s survival of the Shoah, her Christian rescuers, and the life that then ensued in New York is meticulously researched. How were you able to find out so much about what happened ? ? ? ?

It was a slow and deliberate process that unfolded over years. It involved hours and hours of interviewing, transcribing the tapes, reviewing them, and then going back and re-interviewing my mother as needed. She also read various versions of the manuscript, checking for factual or linguistic errors. My mother’s penchant for precision and accuracy came in very handy, and was extremely important to the process, given our commitment to historical accuracy.

The truth is vital. There are too many Holocaust deniers out there saying that the deliberate, premeditated, systematic annihilation of six million Jews did not occur. This book proudly takes its place in the pantheon of other Holocaust testimonies to refute that evil claim, for all time, and stands as testimony to the shining power of faith and love.

In addition, I tuned into my own associative process as a way of exploring my mother’s experiences. This was important because she didn’t always remember some of the things I asked her about, so many years later, and because she tends to process her experiences differently than I do. I wanted to gather as many of the facts as we could glean, plus find a way to penetrate the heart of this mystery of her experience and her life. So I used my own associations the same way divining rods have been used for centuries to indicate where some precious resource was concealed under the surface of the earth. I paid exquisite attention to my own associations, to the images and stories that wove themselves in my mind in response to the material, and I followed where they led me.

These proved invaluable. They helped me clarify what questions to ask, what directions to pursue. They helped me see things more clearly, get inside the story, and get closer to psychological, emotional truths, sometimes my mother’s, sometimes my own. In some cases, it even brought us, ultimately, to the actual, factual truth. That’s why it was important to me to include some of these associative episodes in the book, to share this process of discovery and evolution with the reader.

The book consists of the braiding together of three strands. Into the factual narrative of my mother’s experiences, I interwove the genres of memoir and creative non-fiction in an attempt to offer the reader the most accurate and visceral way to get to the heart of our shared experience. I chose to present each of these in a different font, so that this braiding process is clear both visually as well as thematically.

Q. How do you pronounce your last name?  

Great question. As opposed to its original Polish pronunciation, it’s pronounced: “WYSH” rhymes with “wish”, and GROD rhymes with “rod” as in lightening rod.  WISH-UH-GROD. The name originally was spelled WYSZOGRÓD, and is the name of a small city outside Warsaw, Poland. It means a high or tall fortress.

Q. When did you know you first wanted to be an author?

It’s fascinating how precise one’s words have to be, and how they resonate differently inside. The idea of “being an author” never occurred to me; the words my dreams expressed themselves in were: “I love to write” and “I want to write a book.” And that dream started way, way back, when I was little. I read the “Betsy-Tacy” series, by Maud Hart Lovelace, and was hooked:  Betsy, with her finely-sharpened pencils, became my heroine. Then it was Jo’s turn to inspire me, tempestuous, creative Jo in Louisa May Alcott’s wonderful “Little Women,” a book I’ve reread hundreds of times since then – in my original copy. And finally, I’m sure I joined thousands of young people the world over who were first moved to entrust their secrets to a diary by none other than Anne Frank.

Q. What influenced you as you were writing this book?

I’ve read lots of books about writing and about the creative process over the years, but the ones that stand out the most for me in terms of influence, at least right now, are (in alphabetical order):  The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and two books by William Zinsser:  Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, which he edited, and On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Non-Fiction.

 Q. Do you have any tips for other authors that are just starting out?

Love to write.

Be stubborn.

Believe in your story. And in yourself. Find a friend or mentor who can remind you about this belief, if your confidence wavers.

If you get off track, don’t despair. Dust yourself off, and get back on.

Don’t let people scare you off by telling you how hard / impractical / impossible / etc. this is. Maybe it is. Do it anyway.

Read great, inspiring books about writing, about memoir.

Read – and reread – memoirs that inspire you.

And write. Write. Rewrite. Rewrite. Again and again. With pen. With crayon. With
computer. Find your own rhythm, find what schedule works best for you, and write.

Get yourself the right kind of support:  a good bunch of friends, people you can trust, people who can relate to what you are doing. At best, they’ll also love to write. They may even be able to relate to your topic. Find a good writing teacher or mentor. Find a writing group you feel comfortable with, people you can trust to tell you the truth about your writing, gently, and with love, who are as committed as you are to shaping it so that it’s the best, the truest, it can be. And, like the song says (more or less): “once you have found [these people], never let [them] go.”

And, once the writing’s over, and the book’s ready to be born:  either love marketing and sales, or find someone who does, who can teach you to enjoy everything necessary to bring your story to the public, where it deserves to be.

Did I say: “Write!”?

 Q. How long did it take you to write this book? 

I started in 1994. And it’s fair to say that I made my very last – absolutely final – “no-more-changes” – revisions when I sent this to the typesetters in late Fall, 2011. Now, it’s done.