How Not to Speak Polish: On Language, Pain and (Not) Writing Memoir

Finding relief, and oneself, after trauma

Clipped off by infinity. Poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky is describing the ends of a bridge arching over the Canal Grande on a night trip around Venice. On my reading of Brodsky’s words to Janina, she speaks of her father: she is the bridge with no ends and her father is infinity.

Two Poles walk into a café. One is Janina, a second-generation Australian; I am an immigrant who occasionally struggles with the peculiarities of speaking English in this country. I want to write about Janina’s life, so we sit in the café on Acland Street in St Kilda and Janina tells me she is scared of her father. She is middle-aged — at her last birthday she turned forty-eight — but she remains scared of a man she hasn’t seen for many years. The fear sticks to her guts and it is the same size as it was when she was eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen years old.

I want to write about Janina’s life, so we sit in the café on Acland Street in St Kilda and Janina tells me she is scared of her father.

Here is one meaning of fear: when a thought of someone or something arrives unwelcomed in your mind and begins a tug-of-war between your heart muscle with its needy hurt and every other muscle fibre in your body, rigid with adrenaline.

To unknot this sensation, the thought requires shaking loose. To shake loose means its opposite here: it is to sit still with a thought and the emotion fed by that thought. In her hands, Janina holds a filthy, folded piece of paper. She unwraps it and reveals a handwritten list of ‘Dos’ and ‘Don’ts’ for the times in the day when her heart, mind and body separate and compete for attention. Do sit with the discomfort, which will roll over you like a wave (but mostly like a tsunami, Janina says). Do name the emotion. Don’t resist it. Don’t chase the thought or the feeling. Do accept the pain, and that what you are feeling right at this moment is your hurting heart, and that it will pass. Do this repeatedly, for as long as it takes until the suffering ends.

Janina speaks of her father in a whisper using his given name and even this is a reluctant utterance. She was born in Australia but carries his European past in her blood, skin and muscle. For four decades Janina has not spoken about what happened to her as a child. Some mornings she is surprised to be alive, surprised that she can see out another day. She is sensitised to the intensities of daily life, and recites to me lines from a poem (by a poet whose name she cannot recall) that reminds her of this vulnerability: ‘With disbelief I touch the cold marble, / with disbelief I touch my own hand.’

It is Czeslaw Milosz. This, I can understand. Milosz writes poems only in Polish, refusing to write for English speakers: ‘Let them accommodate; why should I accommodate to them?’ he said.

Janina says: I can only know this Polish man through translation by another.

Janina talks to me about a professor of literature, Elaine Scarry, whose book The Body in Pain explores pain as being not ‘of’ or ‘for’ something. We have a fear of something (terrorism, something happening to our children) and we hold a love for someone or something (a tiny wounded bird in our hands), but pain has no object in the external world. Pain is not of or for anything: it can only ever be itself. And pain itself has the ability to destroy a sufferer’s language.

Pain is not of or for anything: it can only ever be itself. And pain itself has the ability to destroy a sufferer’s language.

The experience of suffering great pain and watching others in pain can unmake humans in different ways, Janina says. Although the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia is ongoing, and although the media is saturated with commentary on how damaging this form of abuse can be, she says the inability to understand or empathise with another’s pain is why some human beings can listen to adult victims of child abuse and say: It happened decades ago. Can’t you move past it? Why didn’t you speak up sooner?

Janina knows these questions well; she regularly asks them of herself.

Vivian Gornick writes: “the way life feels is inevitably the way life is lived.” Janina says she struggles with her shattered identity — her sense of ‘I ’ — and now and again life feels too painful for her to continue. She says she cannot help feeling this way. She wants it to be otherwise, but she cannot find the words to make it so.

And what of the Commissioners and County Court Judges exposed to accounts of institutional sexual violence against children or sexual abuse within the social institution of the family, Janina asks. Imagine the pain of hearing another’s agony so intricately described and watching the faces of those reliving relentless memories from long ago.

Imagine the pain of hearing another’s agony so intricately described and watching the faces of those reliving relentless memories from long ago.

The Commissioners overseeing the Royal Commission have access to counselling and peer support, I say. A County Court of Victoria worker told me the Court offers a similar program to help Judges, Associates and Tipstaves with the vicarious trauma that can result from listening, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, to testimonies of sexual violence.

Does all that witnessing silence them, Janina asks.

Sometimes, I say. The County Court worker said one strategy Associates and Tipstaves use to offer each other relief is to make inappropriate jokes and remarks that they would never say outside of the Court environment. It helps lift the mood.

What’s brown and sticky, Janina asks.

I laugh. A stick, I say.

It is the only joke I know, she says.

I cannot escape myself or my past, says Janina.

She still accepts every portion of blame for what happened to her as a child. But how can an eight-year-old be responsible for the actions of an adult? What happened to you could not possibly be your fault, I say. The moral obligation for protection lies with the adult. She says two things she does know are the power to change the self-blame sits in her open palms, and the responsibility for staying alive is her work to do because there can be no reprieve from herself.

Some things only reveal themselves with time.

Janina met an Australian man a few years ago who was identical in manner to her father: infested with paranoid, vain arrogance and a pathological need for perfection and, thus, for control. With this man she replicated her father-daughter relationship. He told Janina he felt dead inside. Twice he told her this, once when drunk, once sober. At the time she knew anxiety and joy and living in confusion with these two emotions as well as the occasional desire to kill herself, but not the acute sensation of dying or death. After entertaining for a short time this man’s past (as complicated as hers) and his determined but probably unconscious desire to destroy her, Janina recognised inside herself an empty, discarded loneliness that came close to what the man described as dead inside. She says it took one year of not talking, not writing, not reading, not listening to music, being visited with Father Flashbacks every night, four nervous breakdowns, time in a psychiatric hospital and a recovery centre before something resembling relief re-entered her life. Janina calls this year-long trudge through punishing pain and unconscious self-excoriation survival.

She says it took one year of not talking, not writing, not reading, not listening to music, being visited with Father Flashbacks every night, four nervous breakdowns, time in a psychiatric hospital and a recovery centre before something resembling relief re-entered her life.

Janina says every human being on this planet has a complex personhood, and to sociologist Avery Gordon this means people ‘remember and forget, are beset by contradiction, and recognize and misrecognize themselves and others.’ We also suffer both ‘graciously and selfishly’, get stuck in our troubles, yet have the remarkable ability to transform ourselves. And to survive.

But Janina will not use the words ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ to describe herself. She fears they will seep inside, smother her permanently, boxing her into how she should be. While her days continue to contain miniature ripples of joy alongside oceans of despair, she will not carry around those words like lead. She wants a rarer and better thing: To be unlabelled. Unmarked.

After she explains to me her injurious relationship with the Australian man, I tell Janina this is what I see: she was a victim of what Freud called repetition compulsion ­– a drive to repeat an original trauma in her life in order to overcome the constant anxiety stemming from that trauma. Although she was worn down by her need to attend to the mastery of this anxiety by having an affair with identical-Father, somewhere along the way she made a conscious decision to slough away the exterior and internal threats of self-annihilation through persistence and sheer guts so she could succeed at the basics of what a life requires — that is, to survive each day.

She laughs at me. She tells me I am full of Shit ‘n’ Freud.

In Ghostly Matters, her masterful book on the cultural experience of haunting, Avery Gordon quotes legal scholar Patricia Williams: “that life is complicated is a fact of great analytic importance.”

Analyzing the complexity of her emotions and memories is the only way Janina can understand her father.

“When I Grow Up I want to be Remembered.” Performance #1. Slide projections of family snapshots, paper, knife. 1991. ANU School of Art. Janine Mikosza

When he calls her on the phone from the other side of Australia to ask how she is, this happens: she is suspicious; she doesn’t believe him; and she doesn’t trust him. Why would a man who harmed her so deeply and who remains taut-mouthed on the past want to ask after her health? Does he do it for forgiveness? Is it forgetfulness? Janina listens to him ramble and is patient when he wants to talk about his grandson, her son who has not known one shred of vileness, and when she hangs up the phone she murders each day on her calendar with a violet pen until the next call.

Janina says some people she’s met who have had stable, loving, unviolent childhoods have difficulty understanding the need to run towards something and away from it at the same time; it is beyond the exactness of personal experience. To them it is like dodging cars on a busy road, putting yourself at risk of certain harm. She says there is no point explaining that you live haunted by things that happened to you decades ago and there are pictures and sounds in your head constantly playing like an endless looping GIF, and apart from a temporary reprieve by detaching from reality nothing you can do or say will make them disappear.

The best you can do is to learn how to manage your emotions and lower your immediate distress.

The ones among us who have the ability and opportunity to corral their thoughts, memories, experiences and opinions within the tidy boundaries of a story and who can disclose their trauma publicly in this way are the ones we are attuned to, the ones we want to hear. Of course they are: their voices are less messy, more sane, more contained than voices like Janina’s. When I say to Janina I will write her story because my role is to make certain the forgettable ones are never forgotten and she displays great bravery for her survival, she says you don’t understand.

When I say to Janina I will write her story because my role is to make certain the forgettable ones are never forgotten and she displays great bravery for her survival, she says you don’t understand.

Although I am now proficient in English, it will always remain my secondhand language, and sometimes, as the novelist Maaza Mengiste writes, “I have fallen between its cracks trying to trudge my way toward comprehension.” But this fight to write and speak English words is also why I can face Janina and say: My struggle for le mot juste makes me work harder to understand what you say and mean and feel, and to know your trauma, vicariously.

Speak out, they say. Write what you fear and throw it out into the world, they say. It will be cathartic, they say. As a writer, Janina has met too many of these they people. Janina does not want to write her life story. Memoir; personal essays: she chokes on these words. The exposure of the confessional ‘I.’ Even though she knows the ‘I ’ is a construction (often a confection, says Janina), it creeps through many forms of non-fiction, foregrounding the author/narrator as subject. The topic revolves around the narrator’s perfectly flawed centre and everyone outside this self is collateral damage to the author’s journey of discovering themselves.

Janina does not want to write her life story. Memoir; personal essays: she chokes on these words.

(Done well, this writing contains evocative ideas and wiry muscle words, I say.)

(Yes, but mostly it is not well done, says Janina.)

Of course, while the narrator critiques others, they may also speak poorly of themselves (“please note my lack of education and/or lack of sophistication and/or dysfunction of some type”). Janina agrees with Maggie Nelson, who, in The Art of Cruelty, labels the principle of memoirists and personal essayists that claims you can say anything about other people as long as you make yourself look just as bad as a “sham, a chicanery, one with its roots planted firmly in narcissism.”

Essayist David Rakoff wrote that he researched subjects in the hope he would find out more about himself. He called his research “me-search.” At least he was honest, says Janina.

Maggie Nelson also wrote, “Writing can hurt people; self-exposure or self-flagellation offers no insurance against the pain.” Janina says this is another reason why she has no desire to write memoir or personal essays, or to deliberately write autobiography into her fiction, or to speak of what happened to her except in a general way. She has no need to injure those who hurt her. In exposing them, she harms herself: for me, this is not justice, she says.

Due to her aversion to writing personal narrative, but with a need to know where the roots of her family’s violence took shape, Janina asks her father to write and send her his life story. She wants to know more about his childhood during the war and to find in his tale a reason or reasons for why he did what he did to her, and in the process discover more about herself (this is her “me-search”). But she does not want to be in his presence. She uses her young son as cover (my fear is despicable, she says), and asks her father to write his life for her son so he will know where he came from.

Janina says to me: I can only know my Polish father through my son.

She asks her father to write as well as he can in English. Her son doesn’t speak Polish.

I ask: Why doesn’t he speak Polish?

She says: Because I don’t speak it and never will, and children are given what their parents are able to give them, and nothing more.

While Janina’s father hurt her body he spoke to her only in Polish. When he called her useless, hopeless, stupid in front of others he said it in English so she would feel the precise articulation of his words.

When he called her useless, hopeless, stupid in front of others he said it in English so she would feel the precise articulation of his words.

When he argued with Janina’s grandmother, aunt and uncles he did so in Polish.

When Janina’s mother called her one of those girls on the street corner, and when she told her husband you spend more time with your daughter than you do with me, she said it in English in front of Janina so her daughter would understand every word.

She shares her grandmother’s name. She pronounces it with a ‘J’ — Jar-neena — and I wince at its harshness. Janina with a soft ‘J’, like a ‘Y’: this is how you pronounce it, I say. But she cringes whenever it is spoken this way. My name can never be gentle, she says, and I call myself by my Australian name — Janine with a hard ‘J’ and no ending in ‘a’.

Janine knows “yes” in Polish (tak), but she can’t remember “no.”

Is it net? she asks. Or ne, or nein?

It is simple, I say. It is ‘nie’.

Janine says nie, and with her Australian accent it sounds like a “yeah.”

I cannot escape myself or my past, says Janine.

But she has no need to write violent details of her childhood. As Susan Sontag once wrote, “there’s nothing wrong with standing back and thinking.” Some things can remain your own and don’t have to be released to the world. If she did reveal in print the crimes against her, she could (potentially) have a sniff of temporary freedom from her suffering, and readers would congratulate her on her courage and the redemptive brutality of her self-exposure. And she could add to the literature on family violence piling up like dead bodies in bookstores. But then what? What comes afterwards? Would this revealment sustain her? Would it be effective in offering her some sense the suffering would end? She would return to the daily struggles of her life with the additional pressure of being labelled a memoirist.

But then what? She would return to the daily struggles of her life with the additional pressure of being labelled a memoirist.

There are some things broken that can never be unbroken. Pain has the ability to destroy a sufferer’s language, so Janine says: I will find other ways to describe the experience and aftermath of violence, how I feel it, taste it, hear and smell it, and write my stories not detailing explicit violence but clearly borne from it. I need to write about states of uncontainment, says Janine. To make the pain of and for something.

I am not sure what this would look like, but I will not write Janine’s life story. I can attend to what she says and doesn’t say without locking it up into words. It is her right to argue against public disclosure, to not write of her past, and to live with ambivalence and uncertainty and contradiction. For now, we sit in this café and I paraphrase Brodsky’s words — what makes a narrative breathe is not the story itself but what follows what. And what follows what, I say, is both the summation of our lives, and for each of us to decide.

Janine looks at me in my eyes, smiles and says: Nie. You know nothing.

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