NEARLY 30 YEARS AGO, WHEN I WAS BEGINNING WORK AS A child psychologist, one of my first patients was Shirley, a shy, 8-year-old girl who was brought to my office by her worried parents because she refused to take showers and hated the very sight and smell of bar soap. While she consented to bathe, she began to cry and shake whenever her parents tried to get her to take a shower, fighting them off and running to hide in a closet, where she huddled and whimpered until they gave up. Her parents had already consulted a number of mental health experts, who made various guesses about the cause of her problem (mostly having to do with unresolved oedipal conflicts), but were unable to explain the intensity or oddness of the phobia.
In the assessment interview, I asked Shirley to draw a picture, something I typically do with young clients, and she drew buildings and chimneys big, square, featureless buildings with lots of wide chimneys. She took special pains with the smoke issuing from the chimneys, furiously blackening in great, dark plumes. When I showed her some T.A.T. cards and asked her to make up stories about each, she repeatedly spoke of people going into a house to take a showerand never coming out again. I was not at all surprised to learn that Shirley's parents were Jews who had migrated to Australia (where they saw me) from Europe in 1946. And yet, not one of the mental health professionals they had consulted had thought it necessary to speak to the parents at all, let alone ask them what now seem to be very obvious questions about their wartime experiences and how these might have influenced Shirley.
Indeed, I soon found out that both parents were Holocaust survivors. Both had been in concentration camps and had lost most of their families. In order to understand Shirley's problem, it was important to remember that the Holocaust remained a constant, living presence in their lives. Unlike many survivors who keep a rigid, unbreakable silence about these experiences, Shirley's parents hardly talked of anything else; they were preoccupied with what had happened and obsessed by their memories and the need to give them voice. Their daughter's life had been saturated from birth in this sea of words, and she had been spared no terrible detail. To Shirley, "showers" meant betrayal and death people went in and never came out and "soap" was the greasy substance into which her own grandparents had been rendered.
The Holocaust experience of Shirley's parents dominated their life; the present was only a shadowy reality. Nothing would ever explain or make comprehensible what they had endured, and the terrible weight of this insoluble human tragedy had the effect on their daughter of imbuing ordinary events with ambiguous, confusing and ominous double meanings. At the same time, they were not aware of the effect their conversations were having on Shirley. In large part, therapy with this family consisted of helping them see the connection between their constant talk and Shirley's condition. Her phobia cleared up relatively quickly once I explained to her, in the presence of her parents and with their full agreement, that soap and showers had other, entirely different, benign meanings than the ones she had attached to them. I concentrated on salvaging for the little girl the innocuous meaning of everyday realities helping her understand that in her life, a shower was nothing more than the warm pressure of water, a bar of soap only a nice-smelling agent for cleaning the body. Things were what they seemed, without the terrifying shadowy meanings her parents had inadvertently given them.
BUT HOW AND WHEN CAN parents "appropriately" explain the unspeakable to a child, explain that their parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles were tortured or murdered, that they themselves could not do anything about it and, indeed, were almost murdered themselves? "Auschwitz was another planet," Holocaust survivor Primo Levi wrote. …